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Jocelyn Dorsey: How a broadcast news pioneer became an indispensable community leader

Atlantans have been tuning in to Jocelyn Dorsey for more than 40 years. A familiar presence in many Atlanta living rooms, the broadcast news anchor has also become a familiar face in nonprofit circles. Through the Family 2 Family program she runs, she’s showcased the work of hundreds of nonprofit organizations on the nightly news and, more recently, in her weekly public affairs program People 2 People. Active as a nonprofit board member, advisor, and on-air champion, and the recipient of numerous awards for her broadcast and humanitarian work, Dorsey recently spoke with GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor about her pioneering work and her evolving role in the community.

Karen Beavor: Today, you’re a leader not just in your field, but in the Atlanta community as well. But what many people may not remember is that, in 1973, you became the first African-American news anchor in the Atlanta market. Tell me what it was like to first take on that pioneering role.

Jocelyn Dorsey: I was confident. I knew I had presence because of my upbringing. I had always been in circles where I was in public, and had to deal with people, so it was not uncomfortable for me. But the audience did not take to me at first. There were moments where people were just trying to figure out, “Where did this person come from? She doesn’t sound like a Southerner.”

And we were catching it from both sides. The African-American community wasn’t sure who I was because I didn’t go to a historically black college. I wasn’t from the AU Center, I was from The Ohio State University, so what did I know about the Southern experience?

There was a lot going on at that time, but ultimately I was accepted, and accepted in a big way. I really have to give credit to Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who embraced me very early on and became like a surrogate mother to me. She’s the reason that I am doing what I’m doing now.

Beavor: Behind any successful woman there is often a corps of women supporting her. I’ve got my own group of these. Mrs. King was a special, special woman.

"[Mrs. King] would be in Washington, working on trying to make the King holiday a national holiday, and would call me at night to advise me on my career path."

 

Dorsey:  And a lot of people don’t give her enough credit, because she never wanted the credit. I asked her permission to tell these stories about her, because I really wanted people to know what an incredible woman she was, and the impact she made on people’s lives behind the scenes. She worked tirelessly to help put me in the position that I am in now. She would be in Washington, working on trying to make the King holiday a national holiday, and would call me at night to advise me on my career path.

Beavor: You’ve been personally involved for decades in the evolution of WSB-TV’s relationship to the community. As director of public affairs, how do you do it?

Dorsey: Well, first of all, it’s a company philosophy. I fell into a culture that not many people fall into. And I didn’t even realize this corporate culture was so different until other people came in and said, “You have no idea where you’re working.”

"It’s nice to be able to get the credit for our community impact, but it really speaks to the leadership at the top, and I mean that." 

I have also been fortunate that our parent company, Cox Enterprises, is headquartered here, and early on in my career—also because of Mrs. King—I came to be friends with Jim and Sarah Kennedy, the owners. What happened was that, as they came to know me, they saw that we had similar values.

The Kennedys are an amazing family— they give back to the community in more ways than many people know. So, what started happening was that Mrs. Kennedy started inviting me on boards that she was rolling off of. And I thought, “Oh my God, I have to make sure that I dot my I’s and cross my T’s, because what she’s asked me to do is an honor.” Many of the organizations that I have been become involved with began as her organizations. And the same is true of Mr. Kennedy.

It’s nice to be able to get the credit for our community impact, but it really speaks to the leadership at the top, and I mean that.

Beavor: It sounds like a great marriage of aligned values. Talk to me about the Family 2 Family project and your show People 2 People. Tell us how that came about.

Dorsey: You want the truth?

Beavor: I want the truth.

Dorsey: It was a skillful plan from one of our general managers, Andy Fisher. Believe it or not, there was a time at WSB when we were not in favor. Our ratings were slipping, but it was interesting because you really got to see leadership at work. It was a tremendous lesson for me.

We were no. 3 at the time, and we were losing ground. So a new general manager, Andy Fisher, came in and wanted to figure out how to get WSB back to its former glory. There was this [rainmaking community service] project coming out of a station in Boston, and they were pitching us on it. They wanted exorbitant amounts of money to produce it, syndicate it, and give it to us so we could put our stamp on it and say we did community service. Andy took a look at it and said, “Why not do it in-house, make it local, and brand it ourselves?”

"I’m fortunate enough to say that this has been probably the longest public service campaign in history—over 30 years."

But we also knew that if we didn’t buy it, someone else was going to. And because it was going to market in six months, we had six months to come out with our own thing. So Andy put us in a room and said, “We know the elements we’ve got to include. What are we going to call it, how are we going to brand it? You all figure it out.” We brainstormed with a bunch of managers, and came up with a brand that we thought would be broad enough to cover all our public service efforts.

That was Family 2 Family: an alliance of the station and our business partners to highlight community service efforts from nonprofits and others. People don’t always realize that this is a private partnership with commercial entities, and that there were five underwriters who put up big chunks of money to be part of it. What that gave us was something most public service departments don’t have: a budget.

Since we had this pool to draw from, we could begin to do community outreach immediately. We were fortunate to carve out time in the newscast to promote the campaign, which was unheard of in public service at the time. I think what drives a lot of this is the fact that Family 2 Family is in your face every other day. So everything just kind of accelerated. We kept talking to the underwriters to see what they wanted, and I’m fortunate enough to say that this has been probably the longest public service campaign in history— over 30 years

Beavor: It’s just a great platform and a great service. A huge reason why Georgia Gives Day is not just some curiosity, but really an event that’s embraced by the community, is because of the exposure Cox Media Group stations and WSB gave it. You’ve helped raise the visibility of a lot of small groups that real- ly can’t get out there to the media otherwise.

Dorsey: We are thrilled to be able to use our audience, the eyes that we have, to be able to turn that into these terrific, positive things in the community. But it’s not just for you. It’s for us as well.

Like another general manager, Bill Hoffman, said, “All the stations do great stuff. And everybody does news. So what’s going to distinguish us from everybody else?” Clearly, it’s our public service. So he’s begun a campaign internally to make us the “dominant community station.” He has all kinds of acronyms, too: We always called it “DCS,” because we didn’t want everybody to know what we were talking about. So, everything was, “Where’s the DCS strategy on this?”

All the studies have shown that people are more loyal to those [stations] that they feel care about them. So, while we realized that we were doing good, we also realized that it was helping us. It was very deliberate as a business move, and a lot of businesses don’t get that. But look around at great businesses, like the ones we partner with for Family 2 Family, and you’ll see the same thing.

Let me tell you a funny story about one of our underwriters, American Signature Furniture. When they first came into the Atlanta market, they were trying to figure out what would set them apart. They decided that being involved with the community would do that, and that the easiest way to get involved was through Family 2 Family—because we could advise them. Now, two of their Atlanta stores are in the top five of all stores across the country. And [at corporate] they were all scratching their heads going, “Well, what’s different in Atlanta?” And in Atlanta, they just said, “Duh, it’s Family 2 Family.” That is really a testament to how it works. What community service does is keep fueling that synergy. And when you start that synergy rolling, it’s very difficult to stop. We love it.

"I’ve taken some hard knocks, and not all of it was glorious, but to come out at the far end of your journey in career heaven, it’s not a bad place to be."

Beavor: You’ve got to tell that community story to compete, and Family 2 Family is a great platform to do that in so many ways.

Dorsey: People talk about making good business decisions by giving back and being good corporate citizens, but if you do it right, you definitely see the reward. It feels great to be able to get paid to do this. There’s not a much better job than getting paid to do good. And then to get the credit for it on top of that!

I will say that it’s taken many years. I’ve taken some hard knocks, and not all of it was glorious, but to come out at the far end of your journey in career heaven, it’s not a bad place to be.

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