Jon, this is Robyne Robinson. My next Exhibit show is coming up on the 15th. Now is my busiest time, which is great for you if you have the time to stop and observe. If you do have the time and you can get this message before 11 o'clock in the evening, I'm having an Exhibit meeting at my house. Just a bunch of us are going to sit together and have a glass of wine or coffee or something and talk about the show. This is our last meeting before I'm jetting to New York for the weekend. I have a speech to give Friday the 6th at the Marriott in Minnetonka to the Minnesota Student Association. Got a lot of little things I have to do all week in regards to this show, plus I'm working on a series, which is just about done. I wish I'd talked to you today, because I had Lori Barbero and Tina Schlieske out here doing interviews for "The Buzz" and for the series that I'm doing about the Billboard magazine article that's coming out on Minneapolis music by Jon Bream, and I am quoted in it, and I'm searching frantically for a Details magazine article on the hottest places to go out in the Twin Cities scene that I'm quoted in as well. I'm just dog tired, dude, and going crazy. I'm also working on my Web site tonight, late.
This is the story of the 9 o'clock news anchor on the fourth-rated TV station in the 15th largest media market in the country. Don't worry. It's better than that sounds.
Because she's black in a white-bread town. Because she's hip--or at least a hipster. Because she's smart--and, yes, pretty--and every night she steps out from behind her desk and gives you images you've never seen on TV news: the Asian-American DJ who spins records while wearing a bondage mask. The noise band that bangs on sheet metal. The industrial artist who turns unidentifiable found objects into found identity art.
The story is better because she says things like, "I came here in 1990 on a bus after losing my job in Baltimore, and now there's a billboard with my picture on it across from the bus station." It's better because she's talented and righteous and self-righteous and, maybe, good for the universe in a way few TV news people in this town have been.
And it's better because one afternoon, before a speaking engagement at the Downtown Marriott, she says, with face straight as a plumb line: "If I believed all the things people said about me, about Robyne Robinson, the myth would consume me." How many of you have ever worried that the myth might consume you? Thought so.
This is a story of a woman with power, money, and respect. Minnesota has never known a figure like Robyne Robinson. In 1998 she's not only a new kind of talking head, but a new kind of culture industry--her career a shuttle run between the Holidazzle and the hipoisie.
If you're the found-art artist, she's a shot at a big exhibit. If you're the found-art artist's publicist, she's a glimpse at the public life you'll never
have. If your RAV-4 has a "GO APPLE VALLEY EAGLES" sticker on its back bumper, she's the distillation of urban hip. And if you think you're hip and urban, she's the media queen that walks among you but can never, perhaps, be of you.
And if you knock on the door of her spacious townhouse behind the Walker Art Center on a cold autumn evening after trip-hoppers Brother Sun Sister Moon have just played a hugely successful show that she helped publicize, she'll answer in a black suit and black cropped top--she's tall, maybe 5'11", and casually composed--and she'll offer you a glass of wine, and introduce you to every coolster in town.
Look! At the arcane playing-card-size pictures of Jesus she has sitting on the mantel. The rosaries dangling from the CD shelves and end tables. "I think the iconography of Catholicism is very beautiful," she says. Hmmm, interesting. Hmmm, quirky. Hmmm, ironic. But not quite as interesting as her collection of 70-year-old Victrola phonographs, one an Edison original from 1911, with cartridges that look like ink wells, another with a megaphone amplifier that looks like a Venus flytrap.
If you ask, she'll crank one up, and it will be so loud as to nearly send her Siamese cat Oscar (as in jazz pianist Oscar Peterson) out the window. "Oscar, you stink, cat," Robinson remonstrates, then, spraying air freshener from a silver bottle to cover up the smell of her baby's offerings. She does it nonchalantly, because she does everything nonchalantly.
When she oversaw the hanging of paintings for the art show she recently curated through her arts-support organization, Exhibit, she did it nonchalantly. And when she bought a $900 digital camera to shoot the show, she did that nonchalantly, too. Okay, she got a tad flustered when the salesperson couldn't find the right model, but never testy. Always generous, polite, and smooth.
Smooth in dealing with other drivers. ("What's this brother want? Okay, bro', you can go.") Smooth when one of her shoes gets caught in the sidewalk and she very nearly almost half stumbles. Smooth when she's walking into the Metropolitan Learning Alliance, an alternative school for struggling high-schoolers in the bowels of the Mall of America, in order to meet The Kids. The Kids, who see more of themselves in this 37-year-old child of divorced parents who listens to Lauryn Hill and says "dude" with street inflection than they do in Diana Pierce.
Today's speaking engagement should be the usual hit-and-run. Coat comes off. On-screen persona gets demystified. Hands get shaken. And you're back in your shiny silver Benz before the seat goes cold. But that's not Robyne Robinson's agenda. Sitting in a plastic chair with the kind of pert posture that suggests crisp diction and pearly whites, she waits--only a bit nonchalantly now--as a busload's worth of the dwindling hopes and overactive imaginations that public education has never known what to do with spreads out around the classroom. Three feet to her left is a dry-erase board with the phrase "Catch 22" written on it in green marker. Directly in front of her is Kenny Johnson--a jostling, out-of-turn-talking, hormonal time bomb.
"I'm with you, Robyne," he says, almost yanking her up for a hug she doesn't flinch from one bit.
"OK," she responds, laughing. "But you gotta work." And so she works him. For the next hour, Robyne Robinson will make these 17-and 18-year-olds think.
First question comes from a girl in front: What is your racial background?
A: "I am African-American. Black people come in every color of the rainbow. We are the ultimate melting pot. This is my badge, and I wear it with pride."
Next question from a slouching white kid in the back: How do you feel about the way black people are portrayed in the media?
A: "TV news gives you a steady diet of 'be afraid of the person next to you,' when it should be creating a bond. We'll do stories on crime and pull out stock footage of two brothers on their knees in front of a squad car, and when people see that, they think: 'Crime equals black. Crime equals male. Crime equals young.'"
So what can you do about that? we all wonder as she pauses.
"It's hard for me to fight that fight," Robyne Robinson says, "and there's only one of me there to do it."
Hard to imagine Diana Pierce saying that.
Then try to imagine this. The home of Warith Dean Muhammad (son of the late Elijah Muhammad) on the corner of 38th and Woodlawn on the South Side of Chicago, which is no more a home than the Taj Mahal is a truck stop in Tampa. It's a palace.
Cream-colored marble walls and a clear glass dome on top and a courtyard in the center. It's 1975, and Robyne is sitting in the basement with her cousin Layla watching the Thrilla in Manila on closed-circuit TV. Near her on a couch, Khalilah Ali sits in quiet shock as her husband Muhammad gorgeously, spectacularly discombobulates Joe Frazier on the screen across the room. The 15-year-old Robyne is mesmerized, not with the cross between James Brown and Alkibiades halfway across the world, but with his wife 5 feet away. Her presence. Her stature. Like everyone else in the house, she's beautiful, unapproachable, larger than life.
Robyne's uncles by marriage, Warith Dean and Herbert Muhammad, are so enraptured by the fight they hardly notice when Khalilah rises and walks out of the room. But Robyne follows her upstairs, and there the girl sees her Aunt Shirley (Warith Dean's wife) and Khalilah, who is crying.
"He can't win," the queen to the King of the World is saying. "He can't win. If he wins, he'll think he's God." This is astonishing. This is the kind of thing Robyne is not supposed to see. But she can't turn away.
Life at Layla's has never been boring. There's the Fruit of Islam security detail who frisk Robinson at the door. The waterfall in the middle of the house. All very weird, very cool. But this goddess in tears? This is harder to get one's 15-year-old head around.
There will be a moment when Robyne Robinson will look back and her visits to the Nation of Islam's National Compound ("The Big House," they called it) will make sense. A time when the dinners with Louis Farrakhan and the influence of the giants will be an ingrained part of her person. But as Khalilah Ali starts to break down, that moment has not yet arrived.
Tonight will be just another story to bring back to Mom. Mom, I was at the Big House and saw a lion...Mom, Layla asked her dad for the coolest birthday gift in the world. So her dad's gonna get Kool & the Gang to play at her party. Isn't that bad!"
Robyne, mom will respond. What time is it?
"It's, I dunno, 7:30."
Is your English homework done?
And why not?
"Do you understand me?
Yeah, I'll have it by 8:30. Yeah, I'll be home before midnight. Yeah, I'll study harder. Yeah. Yeah. A thousand times Yeah. Yeah to the inner-city summer camp her mother found to serve as a foil to the Morgan Park Academy, a military school where her daughter would be one of the first African Americans to be chosen for homecoming royalty. Yeah to the dates with the most eligible black bachelors in Chicago.
Until Yeah becomes a resounding Yes, as when Winnie Theodore the assistant principal of Morgan Park stops Robyne and her sister Angela in the hall and asks: Do you Robinson girls think you're gonna run this place? "Yes. Of course we are." And when Robyne gets home and repeats the exchange, Mom looks down coolly at her daughter. "That's the right answer."
Barbara Robinson was worried when her daughter decided to pursue broadcast journalism; 20 years ago it was not an "open profession." But she was there in her daughter's mind when Robyne Robinson became separated from her cameraman at a Klan rally. When she was stuck in South Bend covering southeast Michigan during the auto industry exodus of the '80s. When staff cutbacks left her out of a job in Baltimore (her last stop before coming here) in 1990.
And her father? "Robyne, what do Robinsons do?" Mr. Robinson would ask after his day's duties as principal at McCosh Elementary.
"Robinsons neh g'up," the brace-faced 13-year-old mumbles back.
What do Robinsons do?
Robyne, what do Robinsons do?
"Robinsons never give up."
Now, if the square root of 128 is...
Ronald Robinson, who would one day become Chicago City Hall's first black Seargent-at-Arms, and Barbara, a second-grade teacher, split up when Robyne was 9. But Dad ate dinner at the house every night and took part in every decision until the girls were working in the world and old enough to make their own way. Calling on their father to liberate them from mom's home rule would have been a waste of energy.
We might assume that all our bringers of nightly news grew up under firm hands--the profession calls for a certain impulse toward ingratiation--but the people who think they see something different in Robyne Robinson are right. It's safe to bet that the young Don Shelby never had his house spied on by Nation of Islam guards as the Robinsons did each time Shirley escaped the Big House to have a smoke with her sister Barbara. Paul Magers's mom didn't put her son on the coffee table, slap on a Motown record, and say, "OK, do the Pony." And it's unlikely Colleen Needles has every word of the "I Have a Dream" speech committed to memory.
Robyne does. Barbara Robinson made sure of it. Just as she told those Nation soldiers to get off her porch. Just as she used to say, "I heard that click, I know you're tapping this phone, are you enjoying this conversation?" whenever she figured one of J. Edgar Hoover's jackals was listening in on her dinner plans--as they did, according to Robyne, for a short time in the 1970s.
Every Sunday morning Dr. King's words would fill the Robinson apartment, and they'd echo in Robyne's and Angela's heads as they piled into mom's Renault for their weekly trips to the projects. Barbara would take the kids there to sit. To watch people with dead eyes walk out of buildings with blown-out windows. To make the girls understand. They weren't just among the very few black students at Morgan Park. They weren't just the best tennis players, and the most dedicated cheerleaders, and the most voracious readers.
I want you to know why you're here, she would say. You're here so that you don't forget that your father and I worked hard to make a better life for you, and that you are not better than anyone here. You're just lucky. Robyne, don't fidget. So what goes through Robyne Robinson's head when she speaks at a high school, and some snot-nosed cultural-revolutionary-in-training demands: "How can you work in an industry that exploits the poor and minorities?" How can she respond when a white male lawyer approaches her after a speaking engagement, places an arm on her shoulder, and says, "Robyne, you are us."
How can I be them? she asks herself as the Benz blazes down 494 from Eden Prairie to Paisley Park. How do I stay true, how do I keep it real, when real and true are as conditional and as mutable as a Minnesota spring? Does that little punk from Jefferson High School understand the difference between Robinson and her peers--that, as she puts it, "Pat [Miles] will never be pulled over with her boyfriend for driving 40 and have a really awkward moment with a cop"?
Does it bother her to be the squarest hipster in town? The hippest square?
Is she scared by the story of the 60-year-old guy in Chanhassen who repeatedly told his family he was dating Robyne Robinson...that he was going to marry Robyne Robinson...that they should stop laughing, because they would soon see? Does she want to know that somewhere in Uptown there's a guy who has been telling friends that his most urgent fantasy is to sit across the table at Saji-Ya and watch her eat sushi? Not sleep with her. Not date her. Just Robyne and a plate of sushi and a lifetime's worth of memories.
At 1:30 p.m. on December 1, Robyne Robinson drives to Uptown, drops off her boyfriend John Murdoch (who is Prince's keyboard technician), stops by Tobacco Shop on Hennepin, buys a cute little pack of Nat Sherman cigarettes, and zips westward to Eden Prairie. Half an hour later, she's standing in a newsroom that pulses with the white-hot intensity of a General Motors management seminar. This is ground zero: where today's information becomes tonight's infotainment becomes tomorrow's amnesia. Sleeves are being rolled up, news wires are click-clacking. Or not.
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.
"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.)
Robinson was accepted at Dartmouth, where she hoped to study art, but financial considerations kept her close to home. "My parents couldn't weather the idea of spending an exorbitant amount of money. I was in tears. My father sat me down and said, 'Here is the reality of it. If you go, you must have a job, and you can come home once a year.' That was just not acceptable to me at that time. My sister was going to Northern Illinois on a scholarship at the same time. They couldn't afford to have two girls in college and let one make all these sacrifices and get scholarships and pay through the nose for the other one."
She went to Marquette, the Jesuit university in Milwaukee. But the journalism program there lacked hands-on course work, and after a year a frustrated, homesick Robinson transferred to the smaller Loyola University in Chicago. There she divided her time between course work and interning at NBC's Chicago bureau.
"The only reason I went to college was because I wanted to be a journalist," she remembers. "That was my attitude. Being in that newsroom fascinated me. The energy, the characters, stories: It was all at a heightened level of energy that I found infectious. It was exciting to see how the pitch built from midday to evening and then calmed down again.
"I was incredibly eager. I'd be in their face, going, 'Hi, I'm going to be a reporter,' and it was kind of like, 'Yeah yeah, OK, sure.' But they saw that I was doggedly determined, and after a while they started helping me. They saw I was passionate about it. I'd talk to reporters and they'd help me with my script-writing and give me techniques for how to carry myself on the air. Photographers would let me come out on shoots with them, and at the end, they'd start calling me at my desk and say, 'Listen, we're going to be on the Wacker bridge about 3:00. We're only staying 15 minutes, and if you don't show up, we're leaving.'
"I'd get out there in my little suit that I would bring to work so I would be ready in case they had some time to shoot a stand-up for me, and I'd go and do my little stand-up, and then I'd try to get editing time. And they never had time. And I said, 'Listen, if I go and get dinner for you, will you edit this thing for me?' I'd come and bring them a bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne as a way to say thank you."
One of her mentors was Roger Brown, an African-American producer at NBC's Chicago affiliate, WQAM, which was right down the hall from the national bureau's offices. "I could tell she knew what she wanted from the day I met her," Brown recalls. "Some kids will come in here looking like they just got out of English class, but she dressed in a way that was acceptable in an office environment." Brown took Robinson under his wing. He helped her write scripts, facilitated the recording of her first demos, and generally encouraged her.
"I came into the business in 1970 and there was nobody there to take my hand and it made it very difficult for me," he says. "So I kind of vowed that if I ever had a chance to help somebody out, I should be more than happy to. And I think she could relate on a number of levels because of the experience of being black."
A job in NBC's financial department soon led to a gig in South Bend, Ind., covering economically depressed southeastern Michigan, which led to Norfolk, covering military affairs, and later Dallas, where she covered City Hall. In 1990 she was working for a station in Baltimore when it went bankrupt, prompting Robinson to take a gig as a weekend reporter at KMSP. In 1992 she started anchoring, and in 1994 she was asked to be the station's full-time entertainment reporter.
"When I first was asked to do 'The Buzz,' I fought it," she says. "'I have an extensive résumé, I'm not gonna do this fluff reporting.' And they said, 'It won't be. Do it well, and no one will think it's fluff.' So I saw it as a chance to get out from behind the anchor desk and do the best work I could do."
"I can't be pretentious about it," Robinson says later. "I'm not Ted Koppel. This is the local news. But it's an important job."
Initially, the segment was underfunded and difficult to manage, and Robinson often had to fill it without the assistance of camera crews. "I'd call record labels, get publicity stills, and use old interview footage," she says. "I was very resourceful." Soon, "The Buzz" began to gain, well, a buzz, and the Cities' top-secret alternative culture that she'd been assigned to cover began to warm to her presence.
"I think that when she first started coming around, I saw things she would do to fit that made me very aware that she wanted to be perceived as cooler than her media role," remembers Rachel Joyce, a Walker Art Center independent publicist and scenester-at-large.
"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.
And maybe what Robyne Robinson is ultimately best at is being Robyne Robinson. That is, being possibly the most visible black woman in Minnesota--and perhaps, for this reason, also that chick from TV your former girlfriend's ex-roommate, incredibly, swears she saw, like, totally high as shit at a party last weekend. As well as the star who's afraid the myth will consume her.
It's probably worth saying here that the myth of Robyne Robinson is in some ways more real than The Real Robyne Robinson, who is sort of unknowable--and not just in that way we're all unknowable, like deep down inside. Robyne Robinson becomes less poised and more amicable and endearingly geeky as an interview wanders away from her character to the things she loves--the Lauryn Hill record, her days interning at NBC, her mother. And none of a half-dozen Friends of Robyne seems either willing--or able--to decode The Real Robyne Robinson, either.
"It's all about keepin' real and what that real is to you," says F.O.R. Rachel Joyce. "It's stressful for her to be true to herself and make everyone happy at the same time. She's so different from other people in her field--the way she lives, who she hangs out with. And she's very aware of this."
It's an awareness of this role that's at the root of Robinson's worries about, as she puts it, "being perceived as a fake," about "being a stereotype for hip," about "being taken seriously." Because her celebrity is rooted in the illusion of authenticity, of being a human being in a plastic medium, of giving Us an image of Us. Because she nevertheless believes she can form bridges among the people who glare at her between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. five nights a week. Because she desperately wants to be both a persona and a person--and it's hard to have it both ways.
"I represent everybody," she tells me one afternoon. And that is a great responsibility.
Robyne Robinson picks up her fork, stabs a piece of sausage, rubs it in some syrup, and passes it through the most desired pair of lips in local TV news. It's a Sunday morning in late October, and we're having breakfast at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, talking about her Talk with Robyne chat with the Artist last year.
"We were ready to start the interview," she recalls, "and when I asked the first question, he propped up and said, 'Wait. Why are you using that voice?' And I said, 'This is the voice I use on TV. You have a stage persona--when the camera switches on, this is the voice I use.' 'You scared me,' he said."
Five minutes, three sips of tea, and one-and-a-half theories on the dissolution of the New Power Generation later, our check comes (we split it); and two hours later Robyne Robinson is at the Minneapolis airport picking up the boyfriend, John, who has been on tour with Prince. Then she's at the pARTs gallery checking out the exhibit...then at a friend's to pick up a CD...then the Jaycees club...the International Conference on the Status of Women...the Yalta summit...now she's arguing uncertainty with Heisenberg...sitting in with Oscar Peterson on sax...walking all over George Foreman...God, it's beautiful! Look, now she's a bird...wait, now she's a plane...wait!...in the sky! She's Underdog!
Back on earth it's 11 o'clock at night, and she's out for a night of independent research into the practice of hedonism in the Upper Midwest. The shiny silver Benz is sitting outside the Cabooze, or the Front, or some place with big speakers and big men at the door. And the big men nod her in--she's Robyne Robinson, after all--and inside she watches who-knows-which nth-rate bar band recreating some half-remembered "funky" moment from Prince's descent into Artistry.
And, as Robyne has said before, "you can't fake the funk."
She pushes her way through the bustle of bodies--nonchalantly--and meets the half-glances of recognition: Aren't you...? their eyes say, and Robyne's eyes say: Yes. But then there are the chuckleheads, like the man in the leather jacket back at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
"Hey...aren't you Angela Astore?" he said, referring to KSTP's perky blond anchor from a few years back. What's funny about that joke? Robinson asks herself. Is that funny at all?
Robyne Robinson just smiles now, thinking about it, because she's nice like that. And she turns to her man. He nods. Five minutes later and the Benz goes vroom, and in 20 minutes she's standing in the upstairs hallway of her spacious townhouse, smelling the smoke in her hair, thinking about all the phone calls she still hasn't returned tonight, listening to the ringing in her ears, wondering: Why Angela Astore? Why not Jane Pauley, or Connie Chung, or, while we're at it, why not Khalilah Ali? Why not Khalilah Ali? And she laughs out loud and turns to catch herself smiling in the hallway mirror.
Can you tell me what she sees?
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