Whitney Miller, news anchor, and author/illustrator of “Henry Boyd’s Freedom Bed,” grew up in Houston, Texas, with her mom, dad and younger sister. Her dad was a “computer doctor” who owned his own business, Millertech, and serviced computers for large companies. Her mom worked in insurance and financial services.
“I just remember her smelling really good, coming home from work and going to work,” Whitney says.
Whitney laughs, remembering for years telling everyone about how tight-knit her family was, like the family from “Leave It to Beaver.” And for years, they were. Her grandma, a nurse, lived with them for quite some time and took them to a nondenominational church, Christian Tabernacle, every Wednesday and Sunday.
“I feel like that church was very formative of who I am, who I turned out to be,” Whitney says. “I felt like it was a very non-judgmental-type of church. It was very relaxed. I was always there and always involved.”
Whitney was involved in choir, church plays, was a youth volunteer at church and attended a Christian school during her elementary years.
As a child, Whitney was encouraged by her mom in craft and play; she made sure to keep her girls busy. Every summer her mom would sign Whitney and her sister up for arts and crafts classes, and Whitney almost always chose an acting or drawing class.
“One summer my mom was like, ‘Y’all are not going to be bored this summer,’” Whitney says. “So we go to Hobby Lobby and she bought us this book that had 365 crafts to try, a huge book, and she was like, ‘Figure out what crafts you want to try, I’m going to buy all the materials and I don’t want to ever hear the word bored this whole summer long.’ So for two days we tried as many crafts as we could and then we stopped,” Whitney laughs. “But we always had this book that we could come back to and she was always giving us stuff that we could touch and try and do; I think that’s why I’ve always been curious to try different things.”
Whitney switched from Christian school to public in middle school, and remained active in after-school activities. She enrolled in Leadership Officer Training Corps (LOTC, similar to ROTC). Whitney’s mom had been in the Army and the elective had a description for orienteering. Whitney loved the idea of a treasure hunt – using a map and compass to figure things out on her own. Turns out, the course didn’t actually do orienteering at all but the elective did teach her a lot about leadership. So she stuck with it, continuing with ROTC through high school.
The switch from Christian to public school was, in many ways, relatively easy, Whitney says, in part because her parents instilled the importance of self-esteem in both their daughters. In high school, Whitney’s parents divorced, something she didn’t necessarily see coming as a child. Although the divorce didn’t faze her much as a teenager, it was something she says she eventually faced later on, in college.
On a Hustle, Straight Through Grad School
When Whitney was 16 years old, she got her first job, outside of babysitting, at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
“My mom used to call me the ‘snacker lady’ because they used to have these sandwiches called snackers,” Whitney says. “I got hired because this woman was like, ‘I like your smile – I want to hire you. And then she changed the billboard sign outside of KFC to ‘Hiring Smiles.’ It’s a little strange now to think about it,” she adds, laughing.
“I was a clown once. I was a clown,” Whitney says. “But for no reason at all I just felt like I needed the money. I don’t know what I was buying, but I needed money. Someone said, ‘You just have to dress up like this clown and go to kids’ parties.’ So, I dressed up like a clown and I went to one party. I don’t know how much money I got, maybe $50 or something like that, and I never did that shit again,” Whitney laughs.
“I never did that shit again. These little children – they loved it! But never again! I don’t even know how I got there. Why did my mom let me do that? I was on a hustle. My friends used to say, ‘Oh, you’re a true Jamaican.’ Because I used to have all kinds of jobs.”
It’s a stereotype she says she didn’t mind leaning into because she loved the feeling of being responsible for herself. “I had a lot of jobs. Especially in college – I had multiple jobs when I was going to school. I just liked to work.”
Whitney didn’t grow up wanting to be an author or news anchor. In high school she loved the TV show “CSI”; after learning about DNA in her biology class, she was sure she would be a forensic scientist.
“And then I would tell my friends I also wanted to be the female P. Diddy because I wanted to be a singer but I knew that singers don’t get as much money as the person who owns the record label so I decided I would own a record label and make my own music,” she says. “Obviously, I didn’t do any of that.”
What she did do was get a free ride to The Ohio State University (OSU) thanks to good grades and scholarships. When she got there she was asked what she wanted to major in – she had no clue.
“I hadn’t figured that part out,” she says. “A lot of people I was there with were doing communications and I thought, I like to talk.”
As a communications major she found that only a small number of students could join the journalism program. This inspired her and she got in.
“I was like, OK. I’m going to be a journalist,” she says. “And the minute I figured that out I was on it.”
Whitney interned at all four major news stations in Columbus while an OSU undergrad.
“You were literally not allowed to do that,” she says. “But I would go to my counselors and I would say, ‘You got to figure out a way I can do this one and that one – I want to do all of them. And I did that.”
Whitney shot her résumé tape on campus. It included a video of her and her friends chasing winter storms.
“And when President Obama became president I stood outside and said, ‘This is a historic day.’ The video of me doing that is hilarious because I look a mess,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I was so hungry to be a journalist. I just remember really, really wanting to do it by any means necessary. I later found out that tape was trash because nobody hired me from it.”
After Whitney graduated from OSU she moved to Cleveland, thinking her tape and Ohio connections would help her get a job in journalism. But they did not. So in 2010, she enrolled in a Master of Arts program in broadcast journalism at DePaul University in Chicago.
“And that’s when I got a way better tape – and a way better understanding of broadcasting,” she says. “At Ohio State I was learning print journalism. I had all the journalistic ethics but I did not have the foundation for television in terms of delivery and on-camera presence. I was just winging it.”
Whitney loved DePaul’s hands-on broadcast journalism program. There she took classes on how to put a story together and she took an entire class dedicated to creating a tape she could use to look for future jobs.
Angels Filling in the Gap
Whitney graduated with an M.A. in broadcast journalism from DePaul in 2012. At the time, broadcast journalists simply had to go wherever they could to get a job. So she sent her tape everywhere.
“My professor told me, ‘You just need to show up in these cities and put yourself in front of the news director so they know who they’re talking to and who they’re dealing with,’” Whitney says. “For example, I would call a station in Peoria, Illinois, and I would say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in town visiting family.’ I had no money either. It was Jesus and friends who would send me $50 to get back to Chicago. I would literally just drive everywhere. I’d go in to these stations and they’d look at my tape and say, ‘Thank you for stopping by’ and I would just leave and nothing would come from it. At all. But I wouldn’t give up. I just kept doing it.”
Toledo was the last city Whitney tried this in and although that news director didn’t offer her a job, he did critique her tape.
“He was like, ‘You should move this here, that here, get rid of this,’ and when I got back to Chicago, I fixed my tape and I literally started sending it out again. I got an email immediately because of those changes from a news director in Anchorage Alaska.
After a Skype interview Whitney was offered a job.
“I called my mom and I was like, ‘I’m moving to Alaska,’” Whitney says. “And she was like, ‘Um, what?’ You could tell that she did not really want me to go but I think she knew there was no stopping me. She was happy for me. She was happy that I was finally getting my dream job because I was living on my uncle’s couch at that point, having quit my job at a bank to search for a reporter gig. I didn’t have anything. I sold my car, packed up all my stuff and flew to Anchorage.”
Whitney says she was more excited than nervous.
“When you’ve been searching for a job for a long time, you don’t care,” she says. “You just go and get started.”
Whitney recently watched her old tapes from her time in Anchorage.
“I was terrible then too,” she says, laughing. “Oh, girl, you could just see how green I was and how I think I’m doing what all news people do. I can see that in my face. I was searching for my voice, my identity as a journalist. But now I’m just me. Before I was definitely trying to be someone else.”
Whitney worked in Alaska for two years. While she says she had a good time and made some great connections, she did find it isolating at times, only visiting home once while she lived there.
“And they didn’t have a Chipotle,” she adds, laughing. “They didn’t have a Chipotle! What? I got out of there. When my contract was over I was done.”
And then Whitney moved back to Houston.
“I thought I would get a job immediately because I was so good now!” she says. “I thought I was so good at being a journalist and I did not understand that the Houston market was too large and they would never hire someone on-air with only two years of experience.”
At this point, Whitney was living with her mom in a small apartment in Houston.
“She was getting on my nerves and I was getting on her nerves,” Whitney says. “And I remember I went to Chick-Fil-A, and this is like a month in, and I give them my credit card and they’re like, ‘Um, you don’t have enough money to get this sandwich.’ But they gave it to me anyway because, you know, Chick-Fil-A is like Jesus, they gave me the sandwich and I sat in the car and I just cried and cried and cried. I just wanted a journalism job. It was there I remembered that same person who used to drive to Toledo, who used to drive to all those places. I told myself ‘I just gotta do what I gotta do.’ So I went and got a job at a call center.”
The call center was terrible, Whitney says. She was in training for two weeks. She remembers seeing roaches in the bathroom.
“I would cry on the way to the training class because I was like, This is not my career! I would ask God ‘why do I have to come here?’” she says.
Around this time she walked into a Walgreens. A friend who used to work there encouraged Whitney to talk to the manager. So she did. She told the manager that she no longer wanted to work at the call center and she needed a job. He agreed to an interview and she showed him her news tapes from Alaska.
“And he was like, ‘No. You need to be on the news. You can’t work here.’ I said, ‘No, I literally can’t buy a chicken sandwich,’ Whitney says. ‘I need to work. Please let me work here.’ He doubled down and said, ‘No. You really can’t work here. You need to be on TV and I don’t want you to give that up.’ And I was like, ‘I will literally never give up trying to be on TV. I just need money to live.’”
The manager finally relented. Whitney applied to be an associate but he gave her an assistant manager position.
“I worked there and he would check in with me often, he’d say ‘What’s going on with you? As soon as you get a job with one of these TV stations, you can just go. You can quit,’” Whitney says.
“It has been that way my whole life. I just like to call them angels. These people who have dropped in to stand in whatever gap that occurs in my life. I know I am completely blessed and I don’t take it for granted. I just know.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
Read Part 2 next Sunday (January 22).