Sue Kopen Katcef: Maryland Public Television Multimedia Journalist


Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today we are talking with renowned journalist and college instructor Sue Kopan Katcef. Sue is an award-winning broadcast journalist, now a freelance reporter from Maryland public television, and served as an instructor for two decades at my alma mater, the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Prior to Merrill College, she was a reporter and anchor for WBAL radio in Baltimore, where she continued to freelance for about a decade after joining the Merrill faculty. Hello, Sue, how are you?


Sue Kopen Katcef  00:57

Hi, Angie, I’m doing great. Thanks.


Angela Tuell  01:00

You know, I could go on and on with your bio. But I would rather hear the highlights from you. So why don’t you tell us how you got started in journalism?


Sue Kopen Katcef  01:08

Boy, it’s a crazy and long story. But I’ll try and keep it short. The best part is, I grew up in Maryland, I’ve never had to leave Maryland for my career, which actually got started in the seventh grade when I signed up for a journalism elective. And I ended up with that same teacher/advisor, all the way through my senior year of high school with the exception of the 10th grade, and I became editor in chief in ninth grade. And, in fact, one of the other, I started working in radio, because my advisor, who lived in the next town over I lived in on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in a very small town, and the daytime radio station, and my advisor, was involved with her youth group at her church, she and her husband, husband actually was schoolteacher. But he was an ordained minister. And so they were both very active. And she told me some of her kids that she knew from that youth group, were doing a public affairs program at the local radio station, and would I be interested in joining them and being a panelist, and I went sure why not. It sounds like fun. And then I did, I became a panelist in my junior year I became the producer, and panelist in my senior year. And they let me actually, it was when I say small, it was small. The studio where we recorded, the public affairs show was the station manager owner’s office, the studio was it’s very small, and the studio itself, was literally adjacent to it. And I would go in and just sort of watch him as when we obviously spin records, we would spin records, I asked for the opportunity to try that. So they gave me a chance to just kind of sit and do that. So that was cool. And then I ended up going to the University of Maryland, which quite honestly was the only school I applied to, and became a journalism major there, which led me to the campus radio station, that WMUC  which was at the time I carry occurred. And so I really owe my career, at least in its beginnings to both my journalism advisor who just saw something a spark in the seventh grade and nurtured it and was a partner with me all the way through and my parents who never questioned my career choices, thank goodness,


Angela Tuell  03:31

A lot of them do for journalism.


Sue Kopen Katcef  03:34

Yep. Understandably. Even back then, and, and in my parents, you know, fortunately, you know, just, I was the oldest of the girls in the family, and it’s like whatever she wants to do. Although up until the 11th grade, my junior year. I had frankly planned to be a nurse and had done lots of volunteer work at the local hospital. Yep. I loved helping people. And the opportunity to volunteer was wonderful. But the irony is I spent a summer between my junior and senior years of high school at a hospital in Baltimore Sinai Hospital, which had a special pre-nursing program. We lived in the nurses’ quarters for eight weeks. We were trained, we did nurses’ duties on the floor, and we worked in the newborn nursery, getting babies out of delivery, and getting them ready to go to their moms. I mean, we really had hands-on experience. But the thing was, you know, nurses work, sometimes early morning shifts from seven to three. Now that’s relative given as you know, the kinds of hours that we put in on the journalism side. And I thought those hours were really awful and so it’s ironic because I’ve worked morning drive and radio and early mornings and other positions which had coming in at either 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. or working during blizzards which I never left the station. You sleep on the floor in the station manager’s office so likely find your passion and the hours really don’t matter. So I found truly my passion. Luckily, my senior year I really kind of I, when someone says I’m too busy, I said, Don’t even try it with me. And I said, No, no, I only tell you how my juggle, I’ll tell them I say, look, I had I was business manager, the campus radio station. At that point, although I must admit, my other activities, I was taking 12 hours of standard credit so I could graduate. I was working at Associated Press radio, they just were starting, that’s now the broadcast side. And I was there from five o’clock in the morning until 11 on Tuesdays, I started out. I was a weekend desk assistant at then ABC Radio at the same time. And I was getting internship credit, the rest of the week for shift and then WNAL radio, which was an outstanding news operation at the time, the other four days of my week. So I basically was working seven days a week. And to get ahead, even back then you had to have a resume and put out a job and work ethic and effort that would make you stand out above the other. So that’s what I did. It paid off by April of my senior year, a station in Baltimore had offered me an I’d applied for a weekend position, which became a summer really full-time position. And I went to a news conference. So the local county executive and there was a photographer there from WJC in Baltimore, which was owned by Westinghouse at the time, and is now owned by CBS. And literally, it’s like this crazy story says, are you Sue Kopan. And I said, Yeah, and he goes, you’re so you’re great. You need to be on TV, and I had no desire to go into television. This was just not my medium. And anyway, I ended up getting hired by WJAC as a reporter, a 24, with no TV experience. But I can write and report. I signed, then a five-year contract, which I didn’t think twice about, quite honestly, because I Well, yes, and you’re aware of that I am, too. Now. It’s like an indentured servitude. I didn’t know. What happened was one of my colleagues at the radio station, said to me, he had a friend who was an agent, the area well known. And it was not suggesting that I signed on with him, because I had no intentions of what he just said, simply, he’s offered to just basically look at your contract to see if there’s anything that’s that, you know, jumps out at him. Somehow the station got word of it and got word to me that if I had an agent or any other attorney, look at the contract, they would take the deal off the table. That is just stunning to me. Well, I signed it. You know, and I just, you know, what do you do? You’re 24 without that experience. So I did sign on. And it was it was an experience, it was a good station. And it wasn’t, it was the overwhelming number one station in the market. Jerry Turner, the late Jerry Turner, had ratings, I think a word that was higher than almost any other anchor in the country at the time on a cumulative basis. So I mean, it was a powerhouse station. And I’m a 24-year-old, somewhat successful in radio in a very big market and, and learning the ropes of television. And I enjoy the storytelling. I enjoy the writing. I didn’t like the cosmetics I was you know, I’m very set in my ways at that point, certainly. And so you know, there’s a lot that was they would prefer that I would do like did you remember your to put your lipstick on? I did not. I never got criticism. And in fact, I got great evaluations on my storytelling, but I also was not happy. And to the new director’s credit, he actually offered to let me out of my five-year contract at six months. And I signed an additional contract to get out of that with another non-compete. The station I left had an opening and they were more than happy to take me back. So I went back to the radio at that point. But that was obviously as you know, not the final stop.  Mr. Cloogee turned, what was a very successful news department and music station into a news talk station for a couple of years. And I was started as one of the primary co-anchors in the afternoon. But I really wanted to get back to reporting, which I ultimately ended up doing to cover the legislature and ultimately, Mr. Clooney decided to sell the station and in doing so we had to reposition it in such a way to make it attractive to a buyer, which ultimately led to the dismissal of almost the entire newsroom. I think there was one person who was left.  So we all got canned – that’s the way life is in the industry. I landed for today. He was the only job offer I got because I talked to some folks but the job offer I got was from the Maryland House Speaker Ben Carson, who as you know, now is a US Senator. If he was in his last year, so I went with Ben. And then I joined in in his first year on Capitol Hill when he was elected to succeed Barbara Mikulski, who then went on to the Senate. So I’ve had both inside and outside experience in the statehouse, which has served me well.


Angela Tuell  10:19

How was that jumping into a PR-type role?


Sue Kopen Katcef  10:22

You know, I, I never worried about it. There are folks I would absolutely say no to because I wasn’t going to be sort of their mouthpiece and run the risk of ruining my reputation, which was a Frankly, I only thing I have in this business is my reputation. And, being forthright, never had a problem, because Ben was always straightforward. He had a good relationship with reporters. And so he was great. And I knew that I was never going to have to be, I was never going to be asked to compromise my ethics and principles. And that was the case with him the two years that I was there. So although I did fear, I would not be able to get back into journalism, because you know, once out. Forget about it. Right. But when I was down on the Hill, which was an interesting experience, no question about it. Although I much prefer the state government. And as you know, I’ve ultimately gone back to the current state legislature. An opening became available at Maryland public television, in their Public Affairs Division, I had a thriving operation. It was a competitive position. Luckily, I did get hired. So I was almost I was there for almost five years as a reporter covering the Maryland legislature, doing documentaries, doing a little fill-in anchor, headline, work type thing. And it was a different type of environment. It’s not the drive that’s in a daily news operation. But it was a welcome change of pace. And again, covering legislature, I just love it, there’s an intrigue that goes with it, there’s a service that you provide to the public to try and keep them informed, even though many members of the public really, really don’t care about it, although it affects them greatly. So and you know, going back to TV, it was a relatively easy jump for me to do that. But my original news director became the news director of WBAL radio and Baltimore, which is owned by Hearst. Okay. So he said, Hey, you want to work weekends? Sure, why not? I was married, but I didn’t have any children at the time. And so I ended up working two weekends a week and my colleague ended up working the other two weekends. So that was my foot in the door at BAL. And in 92, they offered me a full-time position there. Wow. Wow. In 1990, I also had the opportunity to start as an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland, teaching the very course I had taken. Oh, which by the way, I’ve gotten to see it. But that’s another whole story.


Angela Tuell  12:44

Really – I didn’t know that you didn’t tell students.


Sue Kopen Katcef  12:48

No, I didn’t know the actor was less than he just was so out of touch with the world. And I just have little patience for people teaching classes that are out of touch.


Angela Tuell  12:56

They are not doing it professionally. Yeah, that they just…right, right.


Sue Kopen Katcef  13:00

He just didn’t. So I was not exactly giving it my all. But I had one enough award that had done enough significant journalism that did not present a problem. So I started as an adjunct teacher maybe once a year or so. And I went to BAL and continue to do that, which was an interesting arrangement, I’d either go and teach an 8 am class, which was a three-hour class once a week, or I teach my class from seven to 10. And I was living in Annapolis. So it was a crazy juggle with three places I had to go in the span of a day, but I loved it, it was great. But when we adopted our son in 1999, we had to try to start a family. I came to the conclusion that this would not be the best situation with my working on a constant, basically a constant call, even though we were union shops, so you know, you do get overtime and that kind of thing.


Angela Tuell  13:55

Yeah, that’s a challenge in journalism.


Sue Kopen Katcef  13:58

It is, you know, you know that only to Well, yeah. And, and we, we were older parents, and I wanted my child to actually know me, right? So lucky for me. The College of Journalism, which became the Merrill College of Journalism, was about to expand its capital news service to include a broadcast element, a television show. So we talked and I got hired in 92. And of course, I stayed there helping to create and then eventually run, yeah, the broadcast arm of the capital news service. For the first 10 years. I also continued to work at WBAL. I was doing the newscast on the weekends and leading up to the Ravens football game. So that’s a pretty big audience there were like elections and that kind of thing. But as you know, my time got chewed up, I finally decided I would do finally have to give that up so I can have a little bit more time. And so, you know, I was in Maryland until 2019 in the spring semester, and it was the best, it was just absolutely the best seeing students like you go on and have a life, and a career and still continuing to do wonderful things and succeed in ways that maybe you all could not have been, maybe have imagined. And we have a little role in that. It’s a tremendous reward. But so anyway, when I retired, well, before MPT asked me if I might be interested in coming back in a freelance capacity. At the time I was still deeply involved with getting our show and our bureau taken care of. So I didn’t talk to them till after everything was wrapped up and signed a contract, which is just basically one of those nice things that say, You’re a freelancer and you’re not a state employee, but they still would like to know that they, you know, you work for them, which I was more than happy to do, and I just signed another one. So I’m good for another two years with MPT. So I’m back to covering the legislature, although I certainly didn’t expect that as none of us did a pandemic to change everything about how we do what we do.


Angela Tuell  16:08

You don’t even know you’re retired. It’s just impossible for you to break away completely though, right?


Sue Kopen Katcef  16:13

I can’t because I enjoy. I truly enjoy what I do. It’s challenging. But you know, I did not expect to become an MMJ at this stage of my life. In my career.


Angela Tuell  16:26

You videotape. And you do it all for their stories, right?


Sue Kopen Katcef  16:29

Yeah. And I shoot with my phone, my iPhone, because that’s, I mean when I was at Maryland, we didn’t have those classes. We had to broadcast classes. It did not include shooting our own material for TV, it was a long story with navigating into but we didn’t learn it and didn’t learn how to edit. And I always worked when I went to JC It was a union shop. So I wasn’t touching anything. Right MPT, we had trained photographers and editors, I didn’t touch anything, I worked with them, and I sat side by side, it’s not the same, though I’m very good at audio. As you know, that was my always. And so I’m very good on hands-on with the audio. So I had to teach myself both how to edit. And frankly, that was a YouTube thing. And for shooting, I just basically applied everything I’ve ever heard from my colleagues and other friends who are professionals has told or I’ve taught our students how to do things, and there are some limitations. But, you know, I’m pretty pleased even one of my stories, got an award from the DC society, professional journalists chapter this year for a piece that I did. So that you know, every now and that, it’s nice to know that you can still turn it out. But a lot of the work has been fun. Again, it is you have to be willing to be flexible, and not afraid of the challenges. And so I’ve tried to tackle them head-on.


Angela Tuell  17:52

You know, what areas or challenges in journalism have been frustrating, or what you wish you could change?


Sue Kopen Katcef  17:59

I’ve dealt with it somewhat. But I know that a lot of my former students who are out in the field deal with this so much more, and that is the challenges they face from a public that has been impacted by some extreme voices that would suggest and sometimes we don’t help ourselves. Everything we do is to be questioned that we are, and I won’t use the term because the folks that we train, and again, you know this well, ethics and research and making certain that you are fair to both sides, doesn’t mean you necessarily have a tit for tat, quote, or soundbite. But you certainly are fair in your presentation, we drive that home. Yeah. And that is essential to good reporting. You have to go to original sources. Don’t take somebody’s word for it. And for heaven’s sake, do not rely on what you find. Through Heaven knows what by surfing the internet, track down the original source. It’s not that hard. And the good reporters, the good columnist, they all do that no columnist again. They tend to confuse those who deal in the world of opinion with those who deal in the world of facts.


Angela Tuell  19:26

I fight that battle all the time trying to explain it because it’s very frustrating to me. I mean, as you that have bet that went through journalism school and went through everything that we’ve taught and, and know so many amazing professional journalists who, who their main goal every single day is to give both sides of the story that it’s very frustrating.


Sue Kopen Katcef  19:47

It is I mean, it’s a balance that you have to strike but again, there are certain issues that they’re they can’t be evenly balanced because some things are just weighted. Either one way or the other, over the overwhelming evidence. Right? Right, you still have to give rise to some of that opposition. So at least the viewer, the reader, the person who is consuming that information can take from whatever it is it you’re presenting it at whatever format, again, is presenting the information in a truly factual manner. And it’s, it is just again, very, very frustrating, particularly with the blur between opinion writers, opinion heads, talking heads, and those who do the reporting. There is a distinction between the two, and it is very important, and I’m not going to go out into specifics.


Angela Tuell  20:45

And the general public doesn’t, it’s really hard for them to see that. When they’re watching, especially on the broadcast. I mean, you know, it’s it, I feel like a lot of the general public, doesn’t understand the difference.


Sue Kopen Katcef  20:57

And it’s because we’ve become, the irony is we have so much information out there, that you basically can stick only with that with what you believe to be true, as opposed to, you know, having to be sort of have a sense of obligation and taking a look at the other side. And I again, I’ve always told my students to know everything about it, one of the best things I ever heard from a friend of mine who was a lobbyist, and because, you know, lobbyists get bad reputations, too, and I think largely unjustifiably, they do have a cause that they represent. However, he said the best lobbyists can argue both sides of the issue because they have to research it to understand both sides of the issue. And the same thing is true for good journalists, you have to understand both sides of the issue, understand where everybody’s coming from and make certain that that representation is there. But that is the reporting side, the talking head side is clearly going to be within the opinion, hopefully, one that is based, in fact, as opposed to conjecture or just, you know, a stream of consciousness. But that is an opinion, that is a whole different world, the world in which I work.


Angela Tuell  22:11

Yeah. Have you seen fewer students wanting to get into journalism?


Sue Kopen Katcef  22:15

No, quite the contrary. Interesting. I understand. Enrollment numbers have gone up again, it’s hard to believe this is the second year I’m not there for the start of the semester. But I am plugged in, thank goodness, and as an alum of the program, you know, as well, right, I stay on the side that stays informed. No, I don’t, there has not been a de munition in students wanting to go into the field. And here’s the thing. It’s not always with the idea that they’re going to go into traditional journalism, there are so many things you can do with the skills you are taught in journalism. The research, the good solid writing, and for multiple platforms, the ability to shoot video and do audio. And now I know our program at Maryland and other good programs around the country are also making certain that students have some basic background, and how to make stories come alive with data visualization, to be able to, you know, do something beyond just words on a paper. Those are skills that can be applied in so many different jobs.


Angela Tuell  23:24

Yes, yes. What is your best advice for up-and-coming journalists?


Sue Kopen Katcef  23:30

So much. Um…


Angela Tuell  23:32

We could go on for a long time, right?


Sue Kopen Katcef  23:34

Be curious. Absolutely. Be curious to get your facts, right. Check your opinions at the newsroom door. But honestly, make certain you check, double-check. And if need be triple-check whatever information you get, you know. Your sources or your sources, but sometimes they will have access to crying too. So you know, just because they say it doesn’t make it so. So you’ve got to double-check your information. Be willing to work hard. And there’s no two ways about it. But there are times when you hit a chord or you can make a difference. And again, it doesn’t have to be the hard news story. It can be an incredible feature story about something that’s going on in your small community that no one knows anything about that is making a difference in the lives of others. And how good a feeling that is to finally see a group or an individual get recognition when they’re operating in the shadows, doing good things, and being challenged. So you know, just know that this is a profession that also doesn’t exactly give compliments right away or if ever. Yeah, you know, if they’re not coming over to say anything to you, that’s probably a good thing. That you’re doing a good job, but when you hear it from somebody else who either read your work or sees your work or hears your work. And they complement you. That means something. I mean, I’m still amazed if anybody knows my name these days, because, you know, that’s not why I do it, I do it because I want to help keep folks informed and tell an interesting story or a good story or one that I know, certainly the legislature, I think the public needs to know and be informed about.


Angela Tuell  25:23

Yeah, it’s definitely your passion and your life’s work. What has been the most rewarding part of it all?


Sue Kopen Katcef  25:30

Honestly, Angie, it’s seeing former students like you do well. And find their place, even if it’s not in journalism, I am fine with that. I believe that life is short. And that you should do that which not only feeds your passion but makes you happy as much as possible. So your successes and my own child’s success, I will add, you want them to just find their place in the world and to do well.


Angela Tuell  25:55

You’ve done so amazing at that. I mean, I will even though I’m in PR now I will always consider myself a journalist. And I mean, it’s just there once you have it and once you’ve been fueled and taught it through amazing teachers like you. So it’s just something that I think you just always have, I think once you’re a journalist, you don’t lose it, or at least I like to think that myself. I still miss it.


Sue Kopen Katcef  26:18

No, no. And that’s where I was, for the two years that I was, you know, on the other side of things, those are skills, or frankly, some of the best folks that I’ve dealt with, in trying to like work stories, are former journalists who’ve gone into communications or public relations. And you know, as well as I do to that field, you know, that area is filled with former journalists, absolutely. You understand what the job that needs to be done and the information that needs to be imparted. And equally so, if it’s a tough story, and you may not be able to give the reporter what they need, you have to be able to provide them with something that will just sort of get the reporter through the story and, and allow you to do your job as efficiently and effectively as possible. It is a that is a very difficult balance to strike because you serve to some degree two masters.


Angela Tuell  27:14

Yes, and I could have never done this if it wasn’t for going through journalism. I even at one point got my APR, which is accredited, and public relations that I didn’t, you know, technically obviously have PR in college. But everything I was taught, I knew, and that was such a great feeling of that all the communication skills, everything just fed, you know, right into it. And it’s also all of the ethics training and all that has really led to being able to work in communications and PR for great companies and great people that as you were doing, you know, with Ben Cardin taking jobs that you wouldn’t hurt, right?


Sue Kopen Katcef  27:50

Yeah, exactly. Because I mean, both sides. credibility is our stock in trade. Yeah, no question about it. And I’ve seen people burned on both ends. And it’s like, why, why do you do that? In fact, it’s, frankly, it’s happened fairly recently with something I’m wanting to get into. But this was, it didn’t happen directly to me, although it impacted me. And this person was just completely off base about something he knew, essentially nothing about. And it was a project I had been deeply involved with. And I mean, I will never trust this person, ever.


Angela Tuell  28:25

Yeah, yeah. And once you burn bridges, you know, with journalists or with PR with communication any way around it. You don’t get that back.


Sue Kopen Katcef  28:33

Absolutely. It’s gone. Forget it. Go find another profession. Yeah, yeah.


Angela Tuell  28:37

Sorry, something we do. Right? You’re exactly right. Something we didn’t talk about a lot yet. But the awards you’ve received throughout your career are truly endless, including the recipient of this year’s capital, the Emmys Board of Governors Award, presented for outstanding achievement and accomplishment over your career. You’ve also been twice named outstanding faculty member by the University of Maryland and there are a lot of faculty members and so many other distinctions in the industry, which are you most proud of?


Sue Kopen Katcef  29:05

You know. And I think you can appreciate this because you were the president of the Student Society of Professional Journalists chapter two, the ones that mean most to me are the outstanding campus advisor for our student Chapter The University of Maryland National Award, and the National Award for outstanding teacher. This year’s award actually and I was also inducted into the Natas Silver Circle truly blew me away because that’s kind of you know, that Life Achievement thing. Really, this is insane. How is this even possible? So I’m just completely blown away by that. But I used my presentation because it was virtual it was given during the Emmy Awards this year, which was last month in July. Okay. I honored both that advisor from my junior high in high school because truly without her I would not be here I would not have taken this course. In my career, and several people from my days, a WMUC, which I mentioned, who really did set the professional bar in such a way that I tried to set my professional course, to try and maintain that high bar as well for again, without them, I don’t think NWMUC I wouldn’t be where I am.


Angela Tuell  30:19

Anything that you do differently in your career, if you had to do it over again?


Sue Kopen Katcef  30:23

Not a one. That’s amazing. Not a one even signing that five-year contract, you know, you learn from it. It was like, you know, I give advice to my students. And it’s like, well, let me tell you that the idiotic thing I did.


Angela Tuell  30:37

And don’t do that. Or here’s another thing my other students did.


Sue Kopen Katcef  30:40

Yeah, don’t do that. I mean, there are some who are not, who suggested a three-year contract. And television is also a little long. But that’s that standard, as you know, in a lot of cases, but no, nothing. There’s nothing. I learned every step of the way. It was not always easy. And you know, life is filled with challenges, but you learn to overcome them as best you can and make the best of it.


Angela Tuell  31:05

What is next for you?


Sue Kopen Katcef  31:07

I wish I knew. I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out that path. You know, that straight line that you have when you leave high school that started to bend when I went to college, and it’s just continued to bend along the way. There are books to be read, there are trips to make, under you know, certain circumstances with a pandemic it does limit what I want to do. Yeah, so I just want to be able to do more of the things that I enjoy doing.


Angela Tuell  31:35

Thank you so much Sue for the conversation, and for shaping my life, my career, and countless others. You’re truly amazing and inspiring.


Sue Kopen Katcef  31:43

Thank you, Angie, you know I am more than happy to help and lend a hand anyway and anytime.


Angela Tuell  31:49

You can connect with Sue on Twitter or Instagram at UMNewsie. That’s all for this episode of media in minutes. A podcast by communications redefined available anywhere you get your podcasts, you can find more at CommunicationsRedefined. com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

Sue shares wisdom from a lifetime in the field of broadcast journalism. After teaching journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland for two decades, Sue’s passion for the industry has her learning new skills as an award-winning multimedia journalist. Listen to her share with Angela what brought her to and keeps her in this field.

Follow our guest