If Lori Waldon is wearing red shoes, something big could be about to happen.
Waldon, president and general manager of KOAT-TV, first earned her reputation for footwear in a Wisconsin newsroom.
“We noticed that whenever I wore those red shoes, big, breaking news stories would happen,” Waldon says. “Not small stories, big stories. My husband will say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re wearing the red shoes. What’s going to happen?’ ”
Red shoes or not, a lot has happened since Waldon replaced her longtime predecessor, Mary Lynn Roper, in 2018.
For one, the young woman who started out glued to the police scanner in a Los Angeles newsroom and went on to rise through management ranks now has had to learn the ins and outs of “sales, engineering … a little bit about everything in terms of running a station,” she says.
Beyond journalist, she also must be a businesswoman and a “pillar of the community.”
It’s her dream come true, after a “long, long road,” Waldon says. “I totally dig it.”
The dream began when Waldon lost her job at a Charlotte, North Carolina, station after the company was sold, and she was left trying to get other reporting jobs.
“And I got really mad, and I said, ‘You know, I never want to be at the mercy of anybody again. I want to be in charge. I want to be at the head of the table.’ So I reinvented myself.”
She and her new husband went back to her hometown of Berkeley, California, where she started “at the bottom” at a San Francisco TV station. Her subsequent career included stops around the country, at places where she racked up a number of firsts: first Black news director in Wisconsin, first Black female news director at a Sacramento, California, station and now, the extremely rare Black woman who has risen to general manager.
“So I’m one of three” in the nation,” Waldon says. “That kind of surprises me.”
Where are you taking KOAT?
“I stepped into big shoes. She (Mary Lynn Roper) had been here for years and years and years. This is a station that’s a legacy, it’s a tradition. What I want to do is build on that tradition, but also evolve. I’m proud of a couple of things we’ve done. We’re partnering on news projects. … We are televising Zozobra. We have some new people who I’m proud of. I think we’re diverse, but I’m really proud that we are building a stronger base of diversity in front of the camera and behind the camera.”
Is there a memorable story you have worked on as a TV journalist?
“I was in Mobile (Alabama), and Mobile has a Mardi Gras. What I didn’t realize is that the Mardi Gras, while it was very festive like it was in New Orleans, it was very segregated. And so the parties in the ballrooms and the hotels, they were white and they were Black. What do I know? So I’m just going around, and the photographer stopped me and said, ‘You can’t go in there, Lori. No offense, but it’s just the way it is.’ I had never been kept out of anyplace. I had never been told, ‘You can’t go in there because of the color of your skin.’ I may have avoided a neighborhood because I may have heard something, but never had I been told, ‘you can’t go there.’ … So all the things I remember hearing about, all the things I remember my parents watching on TV about the South and the bulldogs and the protests. That was smack in my face.”
What were you like as a kid?
“I didn’t like dolls. I didn’t like girly things at all. I loved books. I liked games. I loved television. I would watch cartoons, but what I remember as a kid – I loved this – is that Saturday night was always a special night because my mom and dad and sister and I would eat dinner and then we’d settle in. We’d watch ‘All in the Family,’ and I forget the show that was on after that, and then my favorite show to this day is with Mary Tyler Moore.”
Who are your role models?
“I would say, honestly, my mom and dad. My dad passed away in 2017; my mom is still living in Berkeley. She’s 89. They were part of the Great Migration that came from Texas; my dad came from Kansas City. They had challenges in their life. What I’ve learned from them – they instilled in me that you’re just as good. So when you start to doubt yourself, as you’re coming up and you think, ‘Can I do this, or is this going to be hard?’ I hear their voices in my head. I have some bosses that I worked with in the past who saw in me things that I didn’t even see in myself. I would stretch, but they would stretch further and put me in positions where I would say, ‘Am I ready for this?’ And they would say, ‘Yes, you are.’ So I was lucky in that way.”
What’s a splurge for you?
“I love accessories. The UPS guy and I are on really good terms. I love beautiful handbags. I love beautiful fragrances, and I wear perfume like I do clothing. We will splurge on some meals that when we get the bill – ‘Oh, my God, why did we do that?’ (It will be) some great restaurant that we’ve always read about and wanted to go to in New York or the French Laundry in Napa. Those things when we did them – we weren’t rich. We were poor, but we wanted to do it, and they are things that I still remember.”
Was it difficult being the first Black woman in various jobs you’ve held?
“It’s difficult, but I’m used to it. We were the first Black family on our block. I was often one of a handful or maybe just one Black kid in my class. I went to a private school so I’m used to that, but the higher up I go, the fewer like me I see. There are people who aren’t used to seeing somebody of color in charge, and I know that and I get that. … You know, it’s the old adage your parents tell you when you’re a kid of color: ‘You have to be three times as good to get half as much.’ So I always, always felt like I needed to be the biggest bad ass – excuse my language – in the room. I had to be. My mom and dad always told me that your price of admission is excellence. So that’s why I work hard to get the good (TV) ratings. Because you can’t argue with success, and you can’t argue with excellence, so that was always my armor.”
What makes you happy?
“Especially during COVID, there were things I liked to binge watch, TV shows that I gravitate toward. They take me to a happy place. So, yeah, it’s sunny outside, and I should be outside doing all kinds of things and I will, but sometimes I just like comfort things. I like driving in my car on a Friday afternoon leaving work, and I have a playlist and I put it in and I crank it up and that’s my drive home.”