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.

"I think the general consensus was 'Why is she here?' When I started working with Brother Sun Sister Moon and I sent out promo tapes, she called me back and she started hanging out at the Hakatak studios where they recorded. I like to hang out in studios, to feel what's been done there and what could be done. She's very into that as well, and we bonded over that." Today, that initiation period when Robinson pledged the club scene is only a memory.

In fact, maybe it never happened. Just check out Robinson's Star Tribune profile, from March 26 of this year. "When she hits the clubs after work," entertainment writer Neal Justin enthuses, "she hugs and kisses her way from one to the next as if she's auditioning for homecoming queen."

But, in truth, she doesn't need to be auditioning; she's already on the stage wearing the tiara. Since 1996 "The Buzz" and Robinson have given Channel 9 its best ratings ever. Station manager Stu Schwartz credits his "great team" (Robinson and co-anchor Jeff Passolt) with a 20 percent increase in the station's overall Nielsen ratings share, including a 28 percent increase with viewers 18-49; the station beats out one of the three network affiliates one out of every eight to 10 nights. And so what began as an entr'acte has turned into the main attraction.

 

In the spring of 1997, Cigar magazine put Robyne Robinson on its cover with the headline "TV's Urban Girl." But then "urban" is probably a slippery concept to grasp for the humidor crowd. Look at the national hip-hop magazine Blaze instead, which named her Minneapolis's "Ghetto Superstar," asking, "How many other local news anchors show up at local hip-hop shows and remember the MCs' names?"

The most interesting coverage on Robinson, though, might have come in Mpls. St.Paul. The magazine named her "Best Female Anchor" in its October "TV News" issue, noting that, "she gives you the feeling she thinks for herself." In the issue's blurb-length profiles of TV talking heads, readers learned that Robinson's 9 p.m. co-anchor Jeff Passolt recently "quit his late-night hockey league because he was getting home too late," and that WCCO's Amelia Santaniello "loves disco." On the matter of Robinson, readers were informed, "She has been told, 'You're a tool of the white man, you're a sellout,' from kids on the street."

This She's Black/She's Young/She's Hip/She Thinks/She's Ours treatment speaks to a media trend among TV stations--especially third- and fourth-rated stations--nationwide. When KMSP decided to change its focus from Rod "My Life Is a Crusade Against Fun" Grams to Robyne "I'll See You at Paisley Park" Robinson, it was like passing a torch from Colonel Klink to Erykah Badu.

"Channel 9 used to be atrocious, and I'm not ashamed to say it," Robinson says. "Watching it was like waiting for an air bubble to rise to your heart and kill you, because that's how slow it was. It was plodding and it catered to a very mature audience. And one day we decided we were going to get in the game. We were going to be competitors, and that meant sacrificing a large part of that mature audience.

"A lot of stations were trying different things. There was more balls-out live-all-the-time-from-wherever type stuff. We took a lot...from those stations. Not the salacious part, but the fact that they were in your face, moving fast, constant graphics, constant change. We knew we had to appeal to a faster-moving target audience. So we went with those ideas.

"It was more natural for me to focus on things geared toward a younger, hipper audience. That was the mantra for three years: younger, hipper audience, younger, hipper audience, younger, hipper audience. And...that's what I had to do."

By 1996, local hipsters could turn on the TV and see Robyne Robinson begin a story with the phrase, "If you remember your rock history, Brian Eno left Roxy Music to start a solo career..." Hard to imagine Ted Koppel doing that.

"A lot of the newer, smaller networks smell an opportunity to break into the business," says Paul Klite, director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based think tank. "Television is struggling to attract younger viewers with disposable income. Screenwriters over 35 can't get jobs. We have a youth fascination, and obviously TV news does not look like 'America.'"

Stations around the country have inaugurated arts-and-entertainment segments called "The Buzz," says Klite, while adding that he knows of none that, like Robinson's, cover local events. So, too, Klite describes myriad other "alternative" formats: news of the weird, gossip reportage--anything cooler than squirrels and less real than global warming.

So if this nouveau news is getting increasingly hot, why haven't any of the local network affiliates tried to snatch Robinson up? "Our identities are just different," says Channel 5 news director Scott Libin. "We're not as into 'The Buzz' as our friends at Channel 9. Our audience tells us with consistency that it wants solid hard news coverage and breaking news."

That Robinson does hard news, too, and has for most of her career, seemingly hasn't made an impression.

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