Out & About Today celebrates its first decade
In 2005 only one state, Massachusetts, had marriage equality, and that was tenuous. The world was changing, yes, but it was a world away from today’s climate, especially in Nashville. So when Debbie Turner, president and general manager of WTVF NewsChannel 5, approached O&AN about partnering up for a community-based television show, it was innovative and unexpected. According to Pam Wheeler, who has been one of the show’s hosts from the very beginning, “We were under the impression that this might have been the first local show aired by a major broadcast network affiliate devoted to, and run by, the LGBT community, in the country.”
Jerry Jones, publisher of O&AN, credited Turner with extending a hand to the LGBT community. “NewsChannel 5 was producing an entire menu of community shows. There was an entire array, and we were so excited and honored to be asked to partner with them.”
At the time, Turner told O&AN reporter Griffin Davis that the decision to include an LGBT program was a principled one. “Landmark, WTVF’s parent company, is promoting diversity and inclusiveness throughout the corporation. Within NewsChannel 5, we are focused on building an organization that embraces difference and where everyone feels included. Outside, we embrace numerous communities by providing forums for news specific to them. The GLBT community is important within Nashville and we hope that Out & About Today (O&AT) will be a program that they will find to be thoughtful and enjoyable.”
The decision, however, to stand for diversity came with its own risks for the station. Jones recalled, “The controversy arose shortly after we announced the development of the television program. The Southern Baptists made a big complaint about it, and the station lost several advertisers, at least short term.” No one would have been shocked if the station had dropped the program, but Jones said, “They stuck by it, their whole thing was that this was part of a slate of community programming and this is a community. I have to admire them for sticking by their guns.”
Former O&AN editor Brent Meredith, who along with Wheeler and Jeremy Hatfield was one of the show’s original hosts, echoed that sentiment: “NewsChannel 5 took a lot of flak, from the Southern Baptist Convention—there were even protests I believe—and they not only stood by their decision, they have continued to do so for ten years!”
From the very first show, O&AT attempted to inform local audiences, and from the first show, it has delivered. In June 2005, interviewees included John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, then-new HRC President Joe Solmonese, and Abby Rubenfeld, in addition to business spotlights and Pride segments.
Once the show was renewed, reality set in, and it became clear the show was here to stay, at least for a while. This surprised more than a few people. Meredith laughed recalling that “Out Magazine did a little blurb on O&AT after a year… They were kind of shocked that Nashville had a dedicated program for our community, that Nashville, even ten years ago, was trying to be at all progressive!”
Over the years, the show has tried various formats, answering to different needs. As Wheeler noted, the show began before social media really took off. “We started in 2005,” she said, “pre-Facebook, pre- a lot of stuff actually! We were always covering this event or that—Artrageous or AIDS Walk or something. Now people can get information on events in so many places! So except for Pride we try to focus on features, now, and of course the kind of news that people are talking about.”
Chuck Long joined the show about eight years ago, and that also brought a new focus to the show, which has developed its entertainment coverage significantly. “I started the Entertainment OutLook segment,” Long said, “to spotlight all the national, regional and local entertainment events happening in Nashville.” In recent years, too, Long has developed the show’s relationship with local theatre significantly.
With ten years under their belts, the show’s hosts are taking some time to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going. Even though I chatted with them all separately, they were mostly in agreement on the most memorable guests: Margaret Cho, Leslie Jordan, Angela Johnson, George Takei, and Joyce Dewitt, to name a few. As Meredith put it, “These are the ones that stand out because you always wanted to meet them, and it was really cool!”
“The first time Margaret Cho came on the show in 2008,” Long recalled, “we devoted the entire episode to her. That was the first time we did an entire show around one guest. I loved her. She couldn’t get over the fact that Nashville had a TV show devoted to the LGBT community. She was to no one’s surprise hilarious, and incredibly witty, but what impressed me most, was how open and raw she was in discussing her own sexuality and what it meant to her to be part of the LGBT community.”
Of Leslie Jordan, Long added, “He’s a master storyteller and can hold court for days. He had us all in stitches talking about the different ways he and Megan Mullally would try to one-up each other on Will & Grace. He told me, ‘Nobody has better comic timing than Megan Mullally … except me!’”
Then there are the guests that were memorable to the hosts because of how impactful they were. For Wheeler, Seigenthaler was a highlight. “John Seigenthaler has to be one of the most remembered and one of our most storied and honored guests.” Meredith recalls guests like Azariah Southworth. Who “used to be on the Christian networks and then he came out. There was a big debate, some people supporting him, some people condemning him. We covered him and he was on the show a couple of times, talking about his process of coming out into that world.”
For Long, who also has a show devoted to country music, getting to talk to some of the same people on both shows has given him an interesting perspective. “I’ve interviewed Chely Wright and Ty Herndon many times over the years, but my favorite discussions with them have been on O&AT. When I interviewed them for different country shows over the years, and before any of us had come out, there was an unspoken code between us that said we had to put up a good front and only say certain surface things. But once they came out and then came on O&AT, they blew me away. We got to a whole different level that we had never even begun to approach in the past.”
Recurring guests are also favorites for the hosts. “We joke,” said Meredith, cracking out an old Saturday Night Live reference, “that Chris Sanders is the Steve Martin of O&AT, he’s been on so many times. He and Marisa Richmond have been longtime guests, it’s great to develop this regular working relationship and to move along with them as their groups work. Those have been fun relationships to continue over the years. It’s also been invaluable to have the input of the print editors of O&AN—every editor has provided such unique and important feedback, and it’s wonderful to have that relationship.”
The show has been a great opportunity for its hosts, guests, and the Nashville community to share in the history, news, and culture that impacts LGBT people. But it’s been a lot of work. Jones said, “Well they put a lot of time and effort, and I don’t think people appreciate the effort.” Wheeler too added, “I think it’s important to note that it’s an all-volunteer operation—not just Brent, Chuck and I. We’ve had a lot of people over the years working on the show, and the station has put a lot into it.”
So where does the show go now? With the world changing so rapidly, is there still a need for a dedicated program like O&AT? There are still negative consequences for Tennesseans who come out, trans rights issues are barely heating up in the state, and even in Nashville there are plenty of people struggling. O&AT is an important resource for issues like this. “Over the years, we’ve had a lot of helpful stuff on the show, from social workers addressing LGBT issues, lawyers and doctors and accountants… We inform people of a lot of resources.”
For Wheeler, the show has always had value in giving people access. “When I moved to Nashville,” she said, “there was a little show on cable access related to LGBT issues. I don’t remember what it was called, but I remember zoning in on that show because, you know, I was closeted at the time. It helped me feel connected. And I just thought about that, how we could provide that access to people who aren’t in the know, or aren’t able to be an active participant.”
The people who get the most out of having O&AT aren’t the leaders, the big donors, or the kind of people who appear on the show. “I find the people who have watched the show most,” Wheeler said, “are not the people who are on the inside, the people going to every event or on the boards of all the organizations. No, when I’m out somewhere like Pride and someone comes up to me to talk about the show, its someone who lives out in a place like Springfield and isn’t as involved, and the show really gives them a connection to the community!”
So, Nashville, here’s to another ten years of O&AT!