Robyne's Hood

Other TV news personalities stay planted behind the desk. Then there's Robyne Robinson, who claims the whole Twin Cities for her stage.

Today is December 1, 1998: The Warmest December 1 in Minnesota History. The station's staff of reporters, editors, cameramen, directors, content compressors, and freelance semioticians crowds around the anchor's desk.

"Is this the day?" someone asks. "It might keep getting warmer?"

"The weather service says this day may be the peak," responds a colleague.

Diana Watters

"I think we open with warm-weather news," says Alan Beck, the station's assistant news director. "Birds, bulbs, today is the first day of the snowmobile season and no one can snowmobile."

"And the squirrels," interrupts a reporter. "The Highway Patrol is reporting record numbers of dead squirrels, squirrels in people's garbage cans."

"Yeah," Robyne begins to offer. "I heard--"

"That's a great story!" chirps a woman in a yellow sweater before Robinson can finish her thought. "That is such a great story!" There are people who believe that TV news is evil. That its dim creators are yoked by advertisers who demand that all news stories--be it genocide in Rwanda or the arrival of panda cubs at the Minnesota Zoo--sound as blithe as the interview segment of the Miss America pageant. But the truth is even spookier. The truth is that zoos, squirrels, warm weather, and snowmobiles--"whether or not it's a good idea to put up your Christmas lights"--are what matters.

These are the stories that affect our lives. As one member of the crack news team blurts out at one point: "I want to know what to do with my lilacs!" The discussion that follows on how to cover World AIDS Day is hardly as passionate.

At this point you may want to stop for one second to look at Robyne Robinson. Yes, she's nonchalant. She's there, and yet she's also floating somehow. As she stands at the periphery of the squirrel exchange, she seems apart from it--like she's of a different ilk from the Oxford shirts and creased skirts she works among. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you're in color, but everybody else is in black and white? It's like that. It isn't a beauty thing, or a black thing. It's an I may or may not be here in two years thing.

So when "Buzz" producer Pat Lund observes, "Robyne brings something different to the station," she isn't alluding to stunts like the time Robinson and some female co-workers went around the office placing THIS PROMOTES VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN stickers on anything they felt deserved one.

"We have different lifestyles," says Lund. "I'm a mother of two, she goes to the clubs." Ah yes, The Clubs. They are alluring and mystical places, these clubs.

Robinson is very good at what she does, and she'd like to be doing it in a larger market (or so she says, with the diplomatic caveat that she "still has a lot to learn here.") Her on-air realness--smart ad-libs, the femme-cum-feminist charisma--has been widely acclaimed. "She understands what she's reading," writes columnist Doug Grow of the Star Tribune.

Away from the mic, Robinson tries to find time to respond to every voice mail she gets (one recent day that number was 60), take notes on every CD she receives in the mail, and--until recently--pen a monthly column for the Minnesota Women's Press. She's similarly engaged in local civic life. "Downtown is a police state," she says. "As an African American, I don't feel safe walking alone down there."

I AM NOT A SHOPLIFTER, reads the sticker on the wall of Robyne Robinson's cozy KMSP cubicle. Next to it is a cutout of a work by influential black artist Jacob Lawrence, whom she interviewed in 1994 for a piece that was ultimately rejected by Vibe ("Who's he," they told Robinson). To the left of that is a photo of a Michigan man who locked his three children in an abandoned bus in the dead of winter. Robinson's story on him for a tiny South Bend, Ind., station was picked up by CNN. Soon, Robinson was picked up by an ABC affiliate in Norfolk, and then another in Dallas, where she won her first award, a Texas Broadcasting Association distinction for her news-talk show, Weekend.

The list of awards has grown ever since: An Emmy for her recently canceled interview show Talk with Robyne. "Best Female Anchor" (Minnesota Women's Press and Mpls. St. Paul). The 1996 "Broadcaster of the Year" (Minnesota Broadcasters Association). Minneapolis NAACP Television Industry Award in 1996 for "outstanding contributions to broadcasting." Hubert H. Humphrey Public Policy Fellowship in 1998 from the University of Minnesota; a Minnesota Music Award in 1998, for "Best Local Music Program"; Minneapolis Community and Technical College 1998 "Humanitarian of the Year"; 1998 "Best Celebrity, Skyway News. Robyne Robinson, it can be presumed, is comfortable with the format of the acceptance speech.

That is to say: She's used to the praise. The young Robyne Robinson was a clinically precocious, Salinger- and Siddhartha-reading girl who split her time between decrying social injustice at the dinner table and joining every club she could find in the yearbook. At 16 she saw Carole Simpson anchoring the national ABC weekend news. "She was so poised and well-spoken," Robinson remembers. "And she knew a little about everything. Here was a black woman that wasn't shaking her ass, or singing." At 17 she worked at the famous black paper the Chicago Defender. (At 18, Robinson developed lupus, a chronic immunological disease that remains with her in adulthood.)

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