On a sunny afternoon, overlooking the Chicago river—on the 12th floor in a hotel suite, former White House correspondent April D. Ryan prepares for a non-stop day of media interviews with Chicago journalists. She’s now on the other side of the couch as she answers questions, rather than asking them, as a political analyst for CNN.
For the past 20 years, Ryan has worked for the American Urban Radio Networks, a syndicated radio company that services over 400 radio stations around the world; she has worked as a journalist for 30 years overall.
Working out of a small, obscure office in the press area of the White House, Ryan has earned a prime seat in the lion’s den as the press secretary briefs reporters daily.
Her hard-hitting style of journalism and ongoing reputation as one of the leading White House correspondents set her apart from the pack.
“One of the reasons CNN asked me to come over is because I am who I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am. I do what I do. I think that’s what makes me unique from the others because I can talk to a Congressman James Clyburn. I can talk to Rep. Kendrick Meek or a Congressman Cedric Richmond,” said Ryan. “I can talk to the mayor of Flint, Michigan, easily when others can’t necessarily. Before all of this, I was very unassuming and someone people could trust. I believe in building bridges, not burning them.”
Ryan grew up in Baltimore, about 40 miles north of the nation’s capital. It’s the city where protestors made their voice heard and riots broke out over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. It’s also her beloved hometown where many of her values were shaped.
“In high school, I started feeling the bug. I wanted to be in radio. I wanted to be in broadcasting. I remember my father saying he didn’t want me to do it because he thought I was going into Black media where I wasn’t going to make any money. Well, guess what? I’m in Black media and I’m doing okay,” she quietly laughs, finding comfort in her early memories.
An HBCU alum, Ryan graduated from Morgan State University majoring in Journalism. She went on to work at WVEE, a National Public Radio affiliate which is licensed and owned by the school. Over the years, she’s worked at several radio and television stations around the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. region including WXYV-FM. Working at predominately Black media outlets, along with mainstream ones, has strengthened her belief in the importance of having a genuine voice for the African-American community.
“I’ve been at Black media but I really have a passion for American Urban Radio Networks. It sounds weird, but I do. The work that they do—informing the public, just like the Chicago Defender and all of the Black media. African-Americans have the highest numbers in negatives in almost every category,” she explains. “You don’t find out about negatives in mainstream news unless there’s a crescendo moment. So, asking those questions to inform a community that is not hearing it—it’s really humbling to be able to do that. Questions can sometimes shape policy and change the direction of the way something is going. It’s about the First Amendment. It’s about freedom of the press because it’s all about the people. We ask questions and it helps the people.”
She adds, “It’s not about me, it’s not about you. It’s not about any of us. It’s about the task at hand to inform the American public.”
Being one of a handful of Black journalists over the last two decades who have interviewed several U.S. presidents, including President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama along with First Lady Michelle Obama, First Lady Laura Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton, her international travels have led her to accompany these same U.S. leaders abroad to Africa, Mexico and Trinidad. Ryan also covered Hurricane Katrina.
An esteemed member of the National Press Club, Ryan has graced several television news programs including MSNBC, Fox, NBC and frequently joins News One Host Roland Martin as a commentator on News One.
Maintaining Her Integrity
A brief exchange with Press Secretary Sean Spicer when she asked about President Trump’s position with Russia, lead to Spicer’s accusation of unfair media bias. When the veteran reporter quietly shook her head, Spicer’s reprimanding her saying, “stop shaking your head” drew national attention and backlash from critics including former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Despite President Trump’s low poll numbers with the public, Ryan is still very interested in interviewing him.
“I want to know where his head is when he talks about the budget acts, cutting programs when it comes to Trumpcare. I want to find out about Jeff Sessions and his efforts with revamping the criminal justice system the way that they want. I want to talk with him about HBCUs and the civil war comment. I want to talk to him about if he should continue tweeting. I want to talk with him about so many things,” she said. “People want to know these things. Even though they may or may not like them, they want to know what the administration is thinking. As a reporter, the information goes to the American people.”
The author of two books, Ryan penned “The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America” in 2015, and her most recent book, “At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White” in late 2016.
The 49-year-old mother of two says there were several components that played a vital role in writing her latest book.
“I drew from Baltimore, the city that I love. I drew from my children. I drew from my motherhood. I drew from the quarry of trying to tell my children who I still look at as ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’. The quarry of telling them the harsh realities of life—it’s in our backyard. I wanted to make sure that I was doing the right thing.”
She asked some iconic leaders what they did when it came to raising their own children and what their mothers taught them when it came to race.
“They really helped me understand that I did the right thing. I talked to them but I also gave them hope. We can’t give up. We have to see it for what it is. The reality is not always not going to be the reality—everyone doesn’t feel that way. Things are very different when it comes to talking to my children now, particularly when it comes to matters of race.”
Understanding the changing climate in media, Ryan advises students pursuing a career in journalism not to take it as a major in college.
“It’s a lot more to this job than holding up your phone and typing something and posting it—scaring everybody. I would say minor in it, but major in law, civics and political science because you’ll fall back on this.”
At the end of the day, between interviewing world leaders and common citizens—Ryan says her day is complete when she is at home with her two daughters.
“My balance is being home with my kids. Being in my space. Loving my children, watching a movie or being asleep in the house with them and the dog is running around. What level of crazy are we going to be in today—that’s going to always be there. What’s real to me is in another town, outside of Baltimore is my children—that’s my balance.”
Side note: April Ryan has been selected as the 2017 Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists; the award will be given to her on August 12 at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel. The annual award recognizes a black journalist who has a distinguished body of work that has extraordinary depth, scope and significance to people of the African Diaspora.