For nearly eight years, I have worked in the same newsroom as an Atlanta TV legend.
But I have only witnessed a fraction of what makes her one.
Brenda Wood has been the foundation of the 11Alive newsroom for two decades; she has been an institution in Atlanta for nearly three. Her last day Wednesday marks the end of a 40-year career in television news – one filled with more honors, distinctions, and trailblazing moments than most of us can hope to accomplish.
Through my much shorter time at 11Alive, I have shared many conversations with Brenda while admiring the command and vision that set an example for so many in our newsroom.
Only recently did I learn the extent of that vision … and how far it goes back.
I was fortunate to interview Brenda for nearly an hour for my Telling the Story podcast. In that time, we covered many topics, and Brenda told some fascinating stories about how she developed into the woman she is today.
Those stories, to me, illuminated what makes her so special.
The whole podcast is worth a listen, but here are five anecdotes that everyone in Atlanta should know about this departing icon:
1. Brenda entered the industry as a barrier-breaker
In 1968 the FCC instituted equal employment opportunity rules that forced TV stations to make systematic efforts to recruit, hire, and promote minorities and women.
Nearly ten years later, as those rules were beginning to gain steam at stations in the South, Brenda Wood busted through into her first job: reporting at WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Ala.
“It was a big deal in the late 70s, just for media entities at large,” she told me. “There was not enough diversity represented at large, so there was this mandate to hire both African-Americans and women. And I was a two-fer!
“It didn’t occur to me that I would be breaking any racial barriers or gender barriers, but I was in fact the only female reporter in the newsroom – that smoke-filled newsroom.”
2. When Brenda faced prejudice from interview subjects, she stood up to it
Being the lone female reporter came with its share of frustrations and challenges.
In more than a decade in TV news, I have interviewed thousands of people. I have never experienced what Brenda says occurred far too frequently early in her career.
“When I would ask [people] questions, they would talk down to me and be very condescending, [saying things like,] ‘Well, sweetie …’ or ‘Well, little honey …’. Sometimes they would not even look me in the eye. When I would be out in the field, they would literally look at the photographer as they answered questions.”
It was annoying, Brenda told me, but never intimidating. And she never backed down.
“Sometimes I would try to block the photographer’s face with my own body to force them to look at me!” she said. “I saw it for what it was. Every day I was faced with this: ‘Here’s a man who doesn’t want to give me respect, but you know what, buddy? You’re going to respect me, because I’m the one asking the questions and I’m the one with the microphone.’”
Nearly four decades later, that determination remains a constant.
3. Brenda gained that determination from her mother
I asked Brenda if she ever asked herself if such constant prejudice was worth it.
She said she never had those doubts. And she knew why: her mother, Alma.
“My mom was a single parent and the strongest woman you would ever meet,” Brenda said. “She didn’t take crap from anybody. She was straight-up and straightforward and very confident in who she was. This was my role model.
“I was never intimidated because my mom, Alma, would never be intimidated. That’s where I came from.”
4. From the start, Brenda knew she wanted to work in Atlanta
She grew up in Washington, DC during the height of the modern civil rights movement. She began her career in small cities in the South. But Brenda always targeted the city which became her home.
“In black households, in the 70s and 80s, Atlanta was considered the black mecca,” she said. “It was where you wanted to be, and it’s where I wanted to be. The chief reason was the history. [But] there were so many African-Americans doing well here: a strong, healthy, robust middle class. And then you have the colleges here that attract so many bright young students.
“So when I got here, it was sort of like, ‘Ahhhhhh … yes, I’m here.’”
Nearly three decades later, Brenda still treasures Atlanta as much as Atlanta treasures her.
“I love this city. I love all of the energy of it, the youth of it, the progressive thought, the brainpower that moves through it. It makes me very, very proud to call myself an Atlantan. It’s where I always wanted to be.”
5. Brenda has always cared for her audience … to the point of brunching with them!
After learning so much about Brenda from stories I had never heard, I decided to share with her a Brenda Wood story of my own.
It is the memory of Brenda, in my comparatively short time in Atlanta, that most makes me smile.
It is the memory I want to leave with you now.
A few years ago, Brenda anchored a 7 PM newscast on which I would frequently appear. The show featured a live chat, and Brenda would constantly drop into the chat to say hello to whoever was watching.
One Friday night, I walked into the studio to appear on the show and, during a commercial break, started chatting with Brenda about our upcoming weekends. I told her my plans and then asked about hers.
And what did she have on the schedule?
“Oh, I’m getting together for lunch with some of the most frequent chatters from the show!”
I was stunned.
I could not believe that Brenda – an anchor who had interviewed dignitaries, celebrities, and both national and international leaders – was planning to take the time to not just respond to her loyal viewers but get a meal with them.
That story has always reminded me of the importance of truly valuing one’s audience. I never take my role and platform for granted, and I always try to follow the example of a woman I have been so lucky to call a co-worker.
Where, by the way, did they get that lunch? In the most Atlanta place possible.
“Waffle House!” Brenda said with a smile. “Some of the people I met up with that day are still regular viewers, and we still communicate on a regular basis.
“And I was my first time going to a Waffle House!”
Classic Brenda. We will miss her dearly.