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Veteran Journalist James: Yes, You Must Make Choices, But Choices Aren't Limitations

Courtesy of KING Broadcasting

Editor’s Note: “Senior Thesis” is a special week-long series that brings together venerable veterans in various fields with university students hoping to forge a career in the same field.

The college senior sat across from the retired anchorman. She'd brought a list of questions, but only looked at it once. She knew what to ask; she’d been thinking about it for the last four years.

“Do you feel like your career got in the way of other things?” she said.

“Oh, sure,” the anchorman said.

“I’m scared of that,” she said. “I don’t want to end up with a great career, but still have regrets of things I didn’t do.”

“Life is about choices,” he replied with reassurance, not admonition. Yes, you have to make choices, he said, so why not choose a little of everything?

‘You Can Transcend Your Own Perspective’

The broadcasting world Mike James knew is quite different from the one Olivia Ash will likely enter. 

His stories were shot on actual film and edited with a razor blade. By contrast, her work is saved to a small chip, then molded on a computer. His research took him to the library. Hers involves her smartphone. He reported from the field using a truckload of equipment. She could do it using a computer no bigger than a copy of Time magazine.

Credit Courtesy of Mike James.

James joked that a friend’s comment about his booming voice had led him to pursue broadcast journalism. In truth, his curiosity had been the driving force. He wanted to know how things worked and why people thought what they did. He wanted to ask everyone about everything.

For Ash, it was a love of music that led her to LASR, the Internet-based student radio station at Pacific Lutheran University. Her time at LASR, plus media classes at PLU, got Ash thinking she wants to work in nonprofit or community radio.

“Music is a passion of mine,” she said. “But more and more, I’ve been getting into news and seeing the value of that. I think broadcasting is a really interesting platform. You have a lot of opportunity to share stories and connect with people.”

There are similarities, said James.

Credit Courtesy of Olivia Ash.

“The essential part of what we do — what you’re about to do and what I did for a period of time — is to give people an intelligent, useful and wide view of what’s happening in the community around them,” James told Ash. “You can do it with music, too.”

The idea resonated with Ash. Music is a great way to communicate with people, she said, and broadcasting is a powerful way to do it.

“You can transcend your own perspective,” she said, “and understand someone’s viewpoint through their eyes. That’s really exciting.”

James’ face lit up.

“Write that down and put it on the wall,” he said. “‘Transcend your perspective.’ That’s a terrific way of putting it.”

The Best Of Both Worlds

About eight years into his career, James and his wife decided they needed to, as Ash put it, transcend their perspectives. So they quit their jobs and traveled in Europe for a whole year. 

“It’s an unforgettable experience to have that sense of the world beyond your own. You said ‘transcend your own perspective,’ and that was invaluable," he said.

Ash said James’s words helped her realize she has a lot of options.

“There’s always this question about how, when you’re young, you want to go and see the world and travel, or you can go and get a career started,” Ash said. “It was comforting to hear that maybe I can do both, and that even someone who’s a seasoned veteran in the field thinks that’s maybe not such a bad idea.”

'I Don't Want To Get Into A Career And Be Stagnant'

“Challenge is really exciting,” Ash said. “I don’t want to get into a career and be stagnant. I don’t want just stay in the same place, whether that means the same company or the same mental place. But that also is really scary, because every day you go into work, you’re not just going in to fill a role or sitting at a desk, but you’re trying to push the envelope and change.”

Credit Courtesy of Olivia Ash.

Ash said she’s excited by the idea of starting a career, but also worried it will get in the way of other ambitions like traveling, or maybe teaching English in Spain where she’s spent time studying.

There are choices to make, but choices are not the same as limitations. After pushing back from the KING5 anchor desk in the 1990s, James ran for U.S. Senate. He produced long-form stories for PBS. He came back to a short stint at KIRO-TV. He helped Seattle establish a sister city relationship with Perugia, Italy. He enjoyed life away from the daily grind.

Throughout his career and life, the anchorman explored his options. In doing so, he also became a candidate, a documentarian, a global traveler and a municipal diplomat.

As James recounted his accomplishments and lessons learned, the college senior soaked it in. She has one year before graduation. Conventional wisdom says that’s also how much time she has to decide what she wants to do and who she wants to be.

“There’s so much out there to do,” she said, "so much I want to experience.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.