News radio trailblazer Felicia Middlebrooks ‘re-wires’ after 35 years

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FELICIA MIDDLEBROOKS POSES with a vintage radio.

Native Garyite leaves great journalism legacy

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Gary, Indiana, native Felicia Middlebrooks is dropping the mic after 35 years in early morning drive radio. In 1984, Middlebrooks was the first woman and first African American in the nation to co-anchor Morning Drive News for CBS Radio.

Middlebrooks, 62, leaves WBBM-AM780 Newsradio, where she welcomed listeners, reported on news events, and provided news and other valuable information when most people were driving to work. She co-anchored her radio program at WBBM Newsradio alongside Pat Cassidy during the hours of 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

But the affable anchorwoman with a commanding, reassuring voice isn’t retiring, she is merely putting more due diligence into projects at her multi-media production company Saltshaker Productions and pursuing other interests. The company, founded in 1996, specializes in producing documentaries, feature films, audio books and Middlebrooks’ podcast called “She Matters,” which emphasizes female empowerment.

And while media outlets, both print and broadcast, have been slashing payrolls by eliminating employees, Middlebrooks is leaving WBBM on her own accord. She entered the world of journalism when she began as an intern at broadcast station WBBM-Channel 2, while attending Purdue University-Calumet. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications in 1982.

Of course, coming from Gary, it is no surprise that she once worked as a steel laborer at the LTV Steel Company in East Chicago Heights, Indiana. “I will tell you that I came from a family of four girls, and my dad treated us like boys. He told us that he wanted us to be self-sufficient so that if we never marry, we could take care of ourselves,” Middlebrooks said. “I had a very strong work ethic, and LTV never had women working there before, and they were not happy. But my sister and I were not crème puffs, and I learned to use a jackhammer. Our job was to prepare the large coils for transit that you see strapped to semitrailer trucks.”

Middlebrooks added that the job was a means to an end, and that eventually the men respected her work and would switch shifts with her so that she could complete her college studies.

She recalls her first day as a full-time employee at WBBM Newsradio. “I was a street reporter and weekend anchor, and I was literally ‘baptized by fire’ with my first assignment. I was sent to cover a six-alarm fire in a lumber yard on Chicago’s North Side. I was terrified because I had just walked into the newsroom.” She recalled that she had her brand-new briefcase that her mother had given her as a gift. As history would unfold, she persevered on that assignment and hundreds more during her career.

Middlebrooks is recognized among her peers as a hard worker. “Felicia was always very upbeat and cheerful in the newsroom. She was kind to me and always greeted me with a smile and something nice to say. We had a nice working relationship,” said former coworker Catherine Catalane. “She is a woman with a very strong faith and a deep love of the Lord. I didn’t get to see her too often as our schedules were completely different, but I was lucky I was asked to fill in for her at the anchor desk whenever she had some time off. She is a very sweet woman and I wish her the very best with her production company and everything she will be doing going forward.”

ART NORMAN, NBC5 Special Contributor.

Middlebrooks’ expertise and generosity were felt across the journalism spectrum, according to Art Norman, NBC 5 News special contributor. “Felicia Middlebrooks not only ‘talks the talk,’ but she also ‘walks the walk’,” he said. “Several times during her long career at WBBM Newsradio she consistently stepped up to the plate to help young journalism students and new reporters. As the former Chicago NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) President, I would often ask her to mentor students who were preparing to attend their first national convention. My request required her to be one-on-one with students in an effort to review their resumes, portfolios, and go over dress codes before attending the world’s largest job fair. To her credit, Felicia never hesitated, posed an excuse, or passed the buck to someone else.”

Norman invoked another Chicago journalism great, the late NBC anchor Warner Saunders, while further praising Middlebrooks. “Saunders often said that’s how real people stand out from the crowd. It was our job to find mentors for the young. We were so impressed with Middlebrooks, because she was a No. 1 anchor who never forgot her roots of growing up in Gary. She always said, Hey Warner, Hey Art, how can I help?”

A fellow Garyite also remembers Middlebrooks as being a hard worker. “I’d listened to Felicia’s newscasts before I found out that she was a fellow Gary native. It’s one thing to meet someone you admire in the media industry, and it’s another thing when that person is from your hometown,” said freelance journalist and author Lisa DeNeal. “The first time I met her in person was at a ceremony in Gary where she was honored. I covered the event for the Post-Tribune and sat at the table with her and her family. I was thrilled to meet Felicia and she was gracious, funny and a joy to interview.”

DeNeal, who is a co-author along with Carolyn E. Mosby of “Unflappable” and the author of “Extra! Extra! Love!,” also said that she was thrilled to learn that Middlebrooks had childhood dreams of becoming a reporter. “She loves telling people’s stories, and her passion is still strong. I am so excited for Felicia’s continuing journey with her company, Saltshaker Productions, and I can’t wait for the projects that I know will be amazing!”

Middlebrooks graduated from Gary’s West Side High School and earned an MBA in 2014 from Purdue. Her first project for Saltshaker Productions was the documentary film “Somebody’s Child: The Redemption of Rwanda,” which won first place for “Best Documentary Short” in the 2005 New York International Film & Video Festival. As regards to Rwanda and international issues, during her storied career, Middlebrooks served as a consultant to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, as authorities searched for perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide.

She recalls her work on the documentary as a memorable experience. “All of that was a lesson for me. To understand how the genocide originated, when Europeans went into Africa and split it up into 50 nations.” She recalls the conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus and a man whom she interviewed about that conflict in 1994. “He and his wife were both Tutsis, but he changed his identification to say that he was a Hutu in an effort to protect his wife and family. He later found his mom had been beheaded, with her body on one side of the road and her head on the other side. He told me that he later discovered who was responsible and forgave the man—even visiting him in jail.” Middlebrooks said that the man believed there was hope for the imprisoned man to find God. “If this man could suffer such a horrific tragedy and not hold grudges, then that changed my outlook on life, as well,” she said.

As talented as Middlebrooks is, it will be no surprise to Crusader readers that she has also won numerous other awards for leadership and reporting both domestically and globally. These include the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in News, which she earned in 2015, when she journeyed to Cuba a few months ahead of the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy. Her stellar reporting allowed her to bring back “rich stories on that nation’s culture and impending transition.” She has also earned the Associated Press’ “Best Reporter Award” and a 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists/Chicago Headline Club.

FORMER WBBM NEWSRADIO 780 co-anchor Felicia Middlebrooks (back row, center) is shown in an older photo where she helped host the “60-Minute Aerobic Challenge” that the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority held at Chicago’s Daley Plaza. At the time, the event raised funds for the American Heart Association and the Mental Health Association in Illinois.

Among other achievements, Middlebrooks earned a degree in Film in 2017 from Tribeca Flashpoint College in Chicago, which is an arm of Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Institute in New York. She mentioned a love for both film and journalism and how they intertwine—both mediums tell stories. “My ‘maiden voyage’ for Saltshaker Productions was my ‘Hollywood Comes to Chicago’ events that I held beginning in 1999 and 2000.” Middlebrooks used many entertainment contacts to host workshops for people who were pursuing writing careers and wanted to break into the entertainment industry.

“The events grew in number from 10 guest speakers to 24 guest speakers, with a final growing total of 300 participants, and I later heard that many used their learnings to make gains in Hollywood.”

Of course, Middlebrooks had a comment about today’s unrest following the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. “America’s original sin is being laid bare, and the manifestation of all of that is what we are seeing today. We are either on a precipice of its healing or a precipice of its implosion.”

And while listeners will not be able to hear Middlebrooks expound on this subject on morning radio, her work is not done.

As she reminded me, “I’m not retiring, I’m re-wiring. There are still many stories yet to be told.” The Crusader wishes Middlebrooks well on her future endeavors.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, editor91210@yahoo.com.

CORRECTION

In the June 6, 2020, issue of the Chicago Crusader, we inadvertently stated Felicia Middlebrooks graduated from Roosevelt High School when in fact she graduated from West Side High School. Regarding the “Hollywood Comes to Chicago” events, the number of guest speakers grew from 10 to 24 with a final total of 300 participants.

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