JUST CHILLIN’—WPXI-TV anchor Lisa Sylvester, with executive producer Akemi Harrison.
by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
What’s the key to achieving and maintaining top ratings in local television news, or in any competitive industry?
Ask Akemi Harrison, and she’ll tell you, “It’s all about the people.”
She’s talking about the producers, associate producers, directors, reporters, anchors, videographers and editors she’s worked with on a nightly basis for the past three years as executive producer for WPXI-TV’s 11 p.m. newscast.
“My mom, Murlene Kurtz, she managed a lot of people (in her career), and she gave me a lot of coaching and leadership,” Harrison told the New Pittsburgh Courier, July 26. “I learned a lot about people from her. You’re only as strong as your team, and it’s true.”
It’s Harrison’s job to make sure Channel 11’s nightly newscast is informing, accurate and grabs viewers’ interest. The 20-25 people she leads have seen the entire Harrison managerial style—tough, fair, supportive.
“People will work hard for you if you lift them and support them,” Harrison said.
Janet Hundley, news director for the NBC affiliate in Hartford, Conn., recognized Harrison’s ability to get the most out of her news team, while achieving premium results. Combine that with Harrison’s more than 10 years of experience in television news, a positive attitude and some good timing, and Hundley announced on July 19 that she had officially hired Harrison away from Pittsburgh to become assistant news director of NBC Connecticut (WVIT-TV).
“I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Akemi…to the team,” Hundley wrote in an email to staffers.
Harrison’s final day at WPXI is Aug. 7. She’ll move to the Hartford area and begin working at NBC Connecticut on Aug. 14.
In the local television news business, a news director is the highest-ranking member of a station’s editorial side. The assistant news director is second-in-command, followed by either the managing editor or executive producers.
Harrison’s promotion to assistant news director is welcome news to Harrison—“it’s incredible for the growth of my career,” she said—and to the TV news industry. As Harrison, who is Black, hopes to become a news director one day, it’s a position that is largely held by Caucasians. The Pew Research Center reported that African Americans make up just 6.4 percent of all local TV news directors in the U.S. in 2018, an improvement from the 3.3 percent reported in 2010. In local television newsrooms as a whole, African Americans account for only 11.7 percent of all employees.
“I’m that person that nobody knows that’s actually fighting for the community,” Harrison said about her behind-the-scenes—but very influential—role at WPXI. “Most of my time that I’ve been at WPXI I’ve been the only African American face in the room, and there’s been times that my voice has been powerful because I was telling how to cover certain stories in a certain way, especially after the Antwon Rose II shooting…I can be that voice and give that different perspective in an industry that’s dominated by White men. Editorially when you’re in management, the higher you go, the less of us there are.”
Days after Pittsburgh Police Officer Calvin Hall’s death on July 17, police arrested a “person of interest.” However, police spokespersons did not officially name the person, and although WPXI’s sources obtained the man’s identity, Harrison decided not to name the person or show his picture on Channel 11. She told the Courier she didn’t “feel comfortable putting his name on TV,” a person who wasn’t confirmed by police nor was charged with any crime associated with Officer Hall’s death.
In contrast, local station KDKA-TV (2) decided to place the name and photo of the “person of interest” on its 11 p.m. newscast, July 19. The man wasn’t officially charged with homicide until three days after his name and photo were shown on KDKA.
At NBC Connecticut, Harrison will work closely with all news dayparts, support the news director and general manager, ensure the highest journalistic standards are maintained, and help innovate new ways to cover news across multiple platforms.
Harrison, 36, a native of Jackson, Miss., graduated with a bachelor’s in English and Journalism from Toogaloo College, a historically-Black institution, in 2005. Harrison was a radio personality for a gospel station in Jackson before becoming a TV news producer in Jackson (WAPT-TV) in 2008. She spent time producing TV news in Sacramento and Oakland, Calif., before being hired by WPXI in August 2016.
Harrison and her team were nominated last year for a Mid-Atlantic Regional Emmy for their coverage of New Kensington Police Officer Brian Shaw’s death. Officer Shaw was killed while on-duty in 2017.
In the May 2019 Nielsen ratings sweeps period, Harrison’s 11 p.m. newscast on WPXI was tied for No. 1 in the Pittsburgh market (2.0 rating) in the coveted 25-54 age demographic with KDKA. It was the only news daypart during that sweeps period that WPXI finished in first place (25-54 age category or all households category).
Harrison told the Courier she’s enjoyed her time in the Steel City and its hills, valleys, rivers and regattas. But now it’s time to head further east.
“You have to get out of your comfort zone, push past the fear and just go for it,” Harrison said. “A lot of times we hold ourselves back. You don’t know the difference you can make in people’s lives and in your industry.”
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