The politics of opinion, TV and saucy songs: An interview with (and a new song from) Pam Saulsby | Music

The politics of opinion, TV and saucy songs: An interview with (and a new song from) Pam Saulsby


Last July, longtime Triangle news anchor Pam Saulsby purged her home of all televisions. At the time, she was still employed as the co-anchor of WNCN’s evening and nightly newscasts, but two months later, Saulsby announced via Instagram that she had been fired from WNCN after having been there for only two years, following a 20-year run at the station’s competitor, WRAL.

Around that time, another announcement concerning another African-American broadcast journalist named Pam—Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver—came to light: After 20 years on the gridiron sideline, she was to be replaced by the younger Erin Andrews. What these two share other than a first name is that they seem to be victims of a shifting broadcast industry, where media companies are opting to put younger (and sometimes lighter-skinned) reporters on the air.

What they don’t share, however, is employment status: Oliver simply moved to Fox’s secondary sports channel, while Saulsby left the industry altogether. But the ever-resilient Saulsby isn’t sulking about any of it. Now, she has time put her efforts into other endeavors, like advocating for military families and, most important, recording music. “Brand New Day” is Saulsby’s latest single; it shifts her subtler jazz leanings into jook-joint sassiness and badass blues retribution.

This Thursday, she and collaborator Nick Driver perform that song and more in front an intimate crowd at Raleigh’s Saints & Scholars. Saulsby spoke to the INDY about collaborating, life after TV and J. Cole versus Idris Elba.

INDY: Was this song recorded as a way to address you leaving WNCN?
PAM SAULSBY: The song was recorded in December. I left WNCN in August. It’s not like it’s a really long song, but there’s enough in there to let me be true to who I really am. There was a lot of freedom in that. When you’re in corporate broadcast journalism, there’s a certain line that you have to walk. You have to be neutral in all things and not really have an opinion. You leave it up to the people who are watching to form their own opinions. It was definitely born out of leaving my last job, but the feel of it has always been there. I just had to keep it deep down inside.

This song, by nature, is a very uplifting and inspirational tune, but there’s something badass about it, too.
Oh yes. [Laughs.] My friends are sick of me talking about how the struggle is real. They just roll their eyes now because they’ve become immune to the impact of having real empathy for me. I’m saying that a little tongue-in-cheek, because, if I didn’t have my immediate family in this thing with me, I’d be in a world of trouble, a world of hurt, a world of pain. They are the rocks.

But they do hear me talking a lot about the struggle. But I’m going through the struggle and talking about it, and I’m a grown woman. I’m gonna do this, or I’m gonna say that. Even though I didn’t write the song, the songwriter had heard enough of me going on a rant.

Who wrote the song?
Nick Driver, who is a Johnston County/Raleigh/Triangle singer-songwriter. He’s been at it for years. He’s evolved over time. It’s been real heavy rock and then it can get acoustic indie. It runs the gamut, which I like, not just for Nick, but for myself—to be genre-bending. I would hate for people to say, “Oh, she’s the jazz singer.” No, I did jazz songs because I do love jazz, but I don’t want that one genre to define me.

“Brand New Day” is taking me out of the box and taking me out of my comfort zone. I recorded and released two albums, but the songs were really pretty songs. Nothing was risky or on the line. I feel good about “Brand New Day” because I’m being true to myself. There’s something real powerful about that. I’ve come to that late in life. I was in local television news for 30 years, but now I’m at a place where I can take some chances, call the shots, have fun.

Are the song’s opening lyrics—“I made my name on a TV show/Some people change, some stay the same”—directed at anyone or any entity in particular?
It’s not directed at a person. It’s directed more at corporations and media conglomerates. I was at a really, really big station, then I went to a smaller station and had an opportunity to get more of a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. I saw an evolution of things moving in a direction that I did not agree with. I understand that TV, news, radio and media is a business. But then it becomes a question of “At what cost?” What’s happening now is that there’s too much emphasis put on giving people what they want and less on giving people what they really need. It surprises me that what’s trending or how many clicks or likes something gets becomes a driving influence in what is presented on the air.

Time is key, and you do 15–20 seconds and then you move on to the next thing. When you try to push back against that, then you’re not a team player. I had a different point of view, so I was the one who changed. I needed to change because I was not in a space or a place where I felt like I was doing my best work. There were many days when I felt like I let down a lot of people who trusted me and respected me for what I was bringing to the anchor desk. I told them three sentences about a story, and I would find myself trying to sneak in some word of perspective or context. That could come back to bite you.

I am finding ways to continue to be a journalist and research and articulate and make sure that the things I care about and other people care about get heard. But I haven’t been able to make it a priority because I don’t have a steady job. I’m doing all kinds of stuff. I’m busy, but nothing steady in terms of a paycheck. I’m all good with that. 

The scrutiny you might get from both releasing your music and creating your own journalistic web content is much different from working in broadcast television, right?
I was told, “Yeah, we know how you can be opinionated and how you articulate things when you feel strongly about them. We know that that happened, but moving forward we don’t want you to do that.” So, I said, “OK, I won’t do that anymore.” But it’s hard to dial it back when people can Google you and see what you said about a prisoner of war, being vegan, a certain law or amendment, a certain political group in this country, about black leaders and why there are only three of them who speak for the black race. That stuff is there, but they said not to do any new stuff. It’s time for me to do and say something else.

When you’re in the business of being a journalist and documenting huge things that shape the world, you really have to give all of yourself to it. You can’t half-step. After 30 years, I wanted my life. I truly did not have my own life. It paid so well, and it allowed access that other people did not have. But at the end of the day, you’re so drained. Now, I’m living in a world where I can really... I’m able to treat my friends in a way that I’ve never been able to treat them before. I’ve missed so many milestones in my own life—weddings, funerals, recitals, things that shape a family. There comes a point where you start evaluating and weighing all that shit out, like honoring your parents as they age. I missed so many things. If the cost is not having a house or a high-paying job—and I don’t mean to sound corny—the love that we share as a family is more important to me.

Even if you have to deal with people being mean-spirited toward you about your creative foray, just like they’ve been doing to your ex-colleague, Penn Holderness?
I didn’t get to know Penn as well as I wish that I could have, but in what we do, we got dragged and criticized all day. Sometimes it’s not even the people who watch and listen; it’s getting cut down by your bosses about how you look and how you present yourself. Through social media, people have always had a way of ridiculing or saying things that aren’t true. Over time, you just build up armor for yourself and let that stuff bounce off of you.

I’ve just written, and I’ll soon be publishing, a children’s book about military kids and post-traumatic stress. Even before I left my last job in the corporate news industry, I had a heart for the military.

Were you raised as a military child?
I was born in Fort Benning, Georgia. My dad was in the Army. I really came of age during the Vietnam War era. It was a time that was so different in terms of the way the war was covered. In some ways, I was traumatized by what was coming in our homes every night on the television. I couldn’t understand or process what I was seeing on television, and I was too shy to ask my mom and dad what I was seeing. I saw guys in my neighborhood leave to fight, and they came back really different. I couldn’t understand why.

I’ve always had some unresolved things about the military and war. I just have a heart for that, so I want to help support military families. Whether it’s through music or writing or speaking, I know that’s going to be a constant. I’m trying to cobble all of these things together in order to have a living. Everything led to this. This is the stuff that lights me up. Maybe that’s why I cry so much more than I used to. 

You also say in the song that everywhere you go, people know your name. Do you ever find local notoriety a little draining?
I wish I could say no. But it can be. I live with it in a way now that I didn’t when I was a reporter, on the street, covering everything. Back then, I felt like if I wasn’t working and I was at a restaurant with my child or husband, then people shouldn’t come up to me when I got food in my mouth. Now, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am if the people weren’t engaged. But it can be draining because the worst thing is to have someone walk away disappointed with who you are when you’re not on television. You’re still a human who feels things, but your job requires you to not show the things that happened that humbled you, or hurt your, or angered you, or touched you. 

The last time you talked with INDY Week, you talked about competing with younger people in the broadcasting job market. Do you feel similar competition in music?
I haven’t. I’ve been absorbed with the fun of it all. It disappoints when you don’t get the turnout you wanted or a project didn’t get the revenue you were hoping it would receive. But none of the actual work—creating and performing—is disappointing. I must be doing this. Plus, in music today, everyone is genre-bending. Lady Gaga recently did songs that you never imagine her to be a part of. There’s a lot of freedom there.

Pam Saulsby - "A Brand New Day To Be Alive" - Photo Shoot Behind-the-scenes Video from Rob Underhill on Vimeo.

Back to the whole idea of “badass being an apt description of the Pam Saulsby behind “Brand New Day”: In the behind-the-scenes video for the song, it looks like you’re trying to show more skin than you normally would.
Right? So, there was skin showing, but the actual artwork for that single is nothing like what was in the behind-the-scenes video. That was kind of out there, but I still felt protected and grounded. It wasn’t enough skin to bother me. But the artwork for the song required more swag. I think the last time I showed my stomach was when my 29-year-old was a very young child. I know some people are probably saying, “That’s too much. What has happened to that woman?” And I know that there are people that say something completely opposite. But I felt like a song like that requires a certain look. It’s representative of the new parts of me. I am transforming on so many different levels. I want people to know me more than what they did before. Like Johnnie Walker Black. That’s my drink!

On the rocks or neat?
Oh, neat. Don’t mess with it. Ain’t got time for that.

You talk a lot about J. Cole on social media. What draws you to him?
Oh my gosh, I can not stop playing his new stuff. The first thing that caught me was that he’s from The Ville [Fayetteville]. So, I’m loving that someone local has made it so far. His star is rising and continues to rise. The things that he speaks about are his life. He’s very real about the things that have happened to him and the things that he’s trying to do. People might look at me and not see hip-hop, but J. Cole speaks to me, too.

Who speaks to you more, J. Cole or Idris Elba?
Oh, oh, oh! You know what? I was sitting down, and now I have to stand up because you’ve put something out there. First of all, I have evolved from everything being about Denzel. Idris Elba can breathe life into his fans just be walking and saying a few words. He’s had an evolution from The Wire to Luther. I think that if ... nevermind. [Laughs.]

As you said in the song, “Ain’t got no time for boys, but I’ll make time for a man.”

Add a comment