Milwaukee Talks: WTMJ-4 special projects producer Stephanie Graham
You may not know Stephanie Graham's name, but you might know her work. As a special projects producer at Channel 4, she's creating the human interest and consumer investigative stories that her station so heavily promotes.
But the Cleveland native also works weekends as an anchor on the radio side at 620 WTMJ, and recently, began preparing to direct her first play, which opens this weekend.
In this latest Milwaukee Talks, we caught up with Graham to talk business, but also her love of karaoke and her commitment to service. With her busy schedule, it's easy to see why she considers her Downtown apartment as just a "crash pad."
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me the Stephanie Graham story.
Stephanie Graham: I grew up in Cleveland, which I get made fun of a lot for. The river catching on fire in the '70s, the sports teams being horrible. What else? Have you seen those Cleveland tourist videos?
OMC: What brought you to Milwaukee?
SG: I went to Ohio University. I was a broadcast journalism major. Ever since I worked at the high school TV station I thought that was something I'd want to do. After graduating, I started in North Carolina as a morning show producer.
OMC: Did you want to be behind the camera back then?
SG: No. I wanted to be a reporter. Then I became a general assignment reporter in North Carolina on TV. I moved from producing into that. I was there for about three and a half years, and it was great – on the streets doing the daily reporting – but I wanted to get back to the Midwest and make more money. I was making small market money.
SG: It was kind of hard to find reporter jobs, but then I saw this special projects producer position at WTMJ-4.
OMC: When did you arrive here?
SG: I came to Milwaukee seven years ago. I'd been here one other time when I thought I was going to go to Marquette and major in physical therapy. I was like, "Eh. It's nice. Cheese."
OMC: What is a special projects producer?
SG: I'm not the one who's going out covering the car crash or the fire or the murder. It's more long-term promotable stories, human interest and consumer investigative reporting. Long-form stories that take a little more research, more time.
OMC: You're also on the radio.
SG: That's different, though. That's on the side. That happened like six months after I was here, I was playing volleyball with one of the guys in radio, and he's like, "Dang. We don't really have that many women on the radio side."
OMC: What do you like more?
SG: The special projects. When I really get to tell a good human interest story about someone who's making a difference or doing something cool. That's what really gets me going.
OMC: Tell me what that job is like. Are you generating the ideas for the stories or are you coordinating with the reporters?
SG: We all brainstorm and throw out ideas to out our boss. I'm constantly keeping a file of pitches from people, my contacts in town. "Hey, look at this thing online. This seems like a cool idea. Maybe we could bring it here." Or tip calls. We get a lot of tip calls that generate stories. All kinds of ways.
OMC: Then what happens?
SG: Once I have a story idea, then I'm like, "OK. How am I going to do this? How am I going to make it visual? How am I going to make it interesting?"
OMC: I think people maybe don't understand the difference between what the reporter does and what the producer does.
SG: Your general assignment reporter is basically their own producer. They do their own story during the day, but with me it's the more long-form stories. I'll basically do everything a reporter does. I'll do the interviews. I'll do the research. I'll write the story. Then someone else fronts it.
OMC: Is it tough to be the behind-the-scenes person who doesn't get that credit?
SG: People ask me that especially coming from being a reporter, doing live shots, being the face. It was a little hard at first, and I especially missed going live. I don't really mind because I'm still the one making the relationships with the people, and they know I did it. My bosses know I did it. My coworkers. My family. My friends. I've gotten over it.
OMC: On Twitter and Facebook you seem like you're the most fun person in Milwaukee.
SG: People say that. I call my apartment my crash pad.
OMC: Don't spend a lot of time there?
SG: I don't spend a lot of time there. I don't have any TV shows series that I watch or anything regularly. Well, "Parenthood." Milwaukee is such a great town. There's so much to do. It was a pretty easy transition growing up in Cleveland to come here. People like their sports. They like their beer. They like their food. I love all that stuff.
OMC: What kind of stuff do you like to do? Where do you like to go?
SG: Any of the sporting events. Brewers, Bucks. I mean, I'm still by far a die-hard Cleveland fan of all sports, but it's hard to be a fan of Cleveland sports, but I am.
OMC: You're directing a play, right?
SG: It's my directorial debut. That's the other side of Steph, I like to say. Because my job can be pretty stressful and crazy, so this kind of my release. I've been doing theater since high school, also. In college I kind of took a break, and I mostly did news, but I still took some theater classes. Then in North Carolina I got involved in community theater and ever since I've been trying to do at least three plays a year. Mostly acting.
OMC: What is this play?
SG: I work with Solstice. I'm a Board Member at Large there. It's Woody Allen's "God." I'll admit I don't really know his stuff that well, but I'm like, "Sure. I've heard he's good." I read it. Hilarious. Couldn't put it down. I'm like, "Yes. Let's try this." I was a little bit scared because the cast list was like 33 people.
OMC: Didn't your real job sort of prepare you for this a little bit?
SG: It did. As a producer it's the same kind of idea. Having that vision and then making it happen. We open Jan. 24 for three weeks.
OMC: Is this something you want to do more of?
SG: Definitely. It's definitely something that needs to be at the right time though because it is time consuming. To have a full-time plus job like I have and then do this on the side, you got to be able to commit to it all. I would be interested again, but it's got to be the right time, and the right play.
OMC: What else going on in your life? Sounds like there's not much time for anything else?
SG: The other big thing is my volunteering type stuff that I do. I'm part of a group called Rotaract, which is a sect of Rotary. I like to call it the young professional version of Rotary. We meet every few weeks, and we do local service. We do international projects, networking. I've been doing that for about two years. I'm the secretary for that. The big thing with that is that in October we did an international trip to Quito, Ecuador.
OMC: Did you go?
SG: Yeah. We helped kids at a daycare there. I also volunteer for Best Buddies. That is a group that helps people with cognitive disabilities. Specifically, they have a new program called the Citizens Program.
OMC: And you have a radio voice.
SG: Yeah. And I have the special radio voice.
OMC: I can't be the first person who's said that to you, right?
SG: No. Most people say that, and I'm like, "Really?" because I don't feel like I do.
OMC: So you don't go on the radio and turn on your radio voice?
SG: No. I think it just happens. You have to have a sort of authority, but also be conversational.
OMC: And you are a fan of karaoke.
SG: Right. I am a fan of karaoke, so outside of all that other stuff, I just love to get out and do karaoke, live band, regular karaoke, summer festivals. I live Downtown. I think everyone should try living Downtown in Milwaukee at least for a few years because you can walk everywhere and just experience it completely. I love Milwaukee. What can I say?
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