October 2006

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Mike McKinney: A Man Determined To Make A Difference


By Steve Braunginn

Mike McKinney

Mike McKinney was not afraid to take on challenging things. Actually, he thrived on doing the unexpected in a community where an African American was not, and has not been since, the weekday anchor of one of the three major network television stations.

WMTV Channel 15 dared to hire him and make him someone people would see two times a night, five days a week. No other major network television station had taken that bold step. And it paid off.


Mike was passionate about doing something about issues he knew all too well through his own childhood in St. Louis and his personal knowledge of how African Americans and those in the gay community were treated in our society. He was driven to make an impact on the continuing and growing number of deaths attributed to AIDS.

Mike participated in the AIDS ride from Madison to Minneapolis and back and then in subsequent bike rides around Wisconsin. Mike enjoyed biking, but this was something altogether different. Not only was he doing something about that pesky weight problem, but he was also using his celebrity position to draw community attention to this disease that is now striking the African American community more heavily than any other.

Mike was sore for days during the ride, but that did not dampen his contagious energy. He would raise his bike high up in the air and declare victory over the intense heat, the long miles, and his painful legs and back. His energy remained contagious, even when he could no longer ride. Mike served as the wind behind the ridersí backs, urging them on. So it was natural that Mike would take on the hardest assignment he ever had: to report on the lives of South African Blacks infected with HIV and stricken with AIDS.

Though already ill, Mike withstood the brutality of such a trip as he went to AIDS-ravaged communities in South Africa with a group from Madison. He did a special report on his findings there following his return to Madison. (Though South Africa is now under majority rule, the government still refuses to recognize the pandemic that has gripped that country. ) When Mike came to town, he brought with him a deep dedication to making a difference in the community. In Madison, African American television reporters and anchors come and go, primarily because they do not feel welcome. Madison is a tough place for young Black or Latino/Latina professionals in the television news industry.

They work nights, usually start out on weekends, and normally cannot find that special someone while doing a news story. But Mikeís needs were met. He found a faith home at SS Morris A.M.E. Church on Madisonís far east side. He purchased a home and decided to set down roots. He drew attention to the plight of individuals and families going hungry in Dane County, which led to the now highly successful annual seasonal food drive and the food-packaging day at Kraft/Oscar Mayer. Mike was unlike many celebrities. Instead of seeking the spotlight for his own benefit, he used his status to shine the spotlight on a troubling issue needing attention.

Thatís the way it was on that cold winter morning in front of Sentry Hilldale, where he took it upon himself to start up a food drive during the holiday season for hungry families and adults. It may have been cold, but the warm hearts emitted a glow that could melt the thickest icicle. One day, Mike and I passed each other at University Hospital and Clinics. You could still see the sparkle in his eyes, eyes filled with hope and a strong desire to live. We each asked how the other was doing with our respective health challenges.

Mike said he thought things were looking up. His cancer-riddled body had lost a tremendous amount of weight, not the weight loss he had been looking for in the days long before that meeting. This was Mikeís standard response when asked about his health. I can see how he could do it and why he would do it. Mike understood the importance of believing that improvement is possible. And because he is a celebrity figure, people want to feel that he is doing well, because they know all too well that their own mortality is also at stake. Mikeís first eight years at WMTV were great. The station was good to him as he and Pam Tauscher, now of WISC-TV 3, became the anchor team to beat in the television ratings. They received best anchor awards, with Mike winning many as the best anchor in Madison. Mike was the competition. Those were the good days.

Then the station was sold to new owners, and change came. The new owners looked the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, failed to see what they had, and broke the team apart. Pam was asked to leave while Mike was told he could stay, leaving Pam without a job and Mike greatly disappointed, deeply hurt, and doubtful of his future. Mike and I had numerous conversations about what he should do. He felt Pam was let go because of her age, because, after all, according to industry standards, a woman over 40 cannot sit in the anchorís seat and expect to draw viewers.

The knowledgeable industry leaders thought people wanted to see young and attractive women anchors. For men, it was a different standard, and Pam was left out in the cold. For Mike, it was all about fairness, equality, and sex discrimination as it collided with age. Making a decision was extremely difficult for him, an African American in a news industry that rarely put a Black man in the anchor desk. But the decision was made for him when he discovered he had colon cancer.

He lost a great deal of weight, struggled to generate the energy required to do the quality job he was accustomed to doing, and knew that he had a long road ahead of him. It wasnít long before he had to take a medical leave of absence following an announcement to viewers who had been wondering about his drastic weight loss and gaunt appearance. Upon learning of his death, I saw Mike in my mindís eye dressed in traditional African attire at UMOJAís 15th anniversary celebration. He walked gingerly, with some assistance but mostly on his own, making his way up the few steps to the dais to receive an award acknowledging his tremendous leadership in our community: not just the Black community, but the entire community.

His sunken face was struck with a smile as he said with brave determination that he was returning to WMTV Channel 15, where he would work on some special projects. What a proud moment it was for him to openly declare that to the village. There wasnít a dry eye in the house. That was last November. Shortly after his announcement, Mike was back at his desk at the television station. He participated in the annual food drive and took phone calls for it. That burst of energy would last only a short time.

The cancer returned, this time with a vengeance. A few months later, Mikeís voice was silenced. We owe it to Mike to not allow his voice to fade. It is our communityís challenge to continue to pursue programs and events that help reduce and end hunger in our highly educated and financially well-off county.

We owe it to Mike to do everything possible to see the HIV/AIDS statistics in the African American community go downward and bottom out at zero. And we owe it to Mike that our area television stations not just talk about diversity, but walk the talk. Give visible commitment to hiring reporters of color, and donít to confine them to the weekends. Put qualified people out front at the anchor desks and on the five oíclock news shows: qualified people, like Mike was. You owe this to Mike.

God bless you, Mike. Iíll miss you. We will all miss you.





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