Radio and TV Talk

Rodney Ho covers TV and radio, from Atlanta’s stations to the hottest “American Idol" news.
Caption

Jocelyn Dorsey: Groundbreaking TV anchor turned public affairs guru at WSB-TV

She retires August 3 after 45 years at the news station

Originally posted Monday, July 23, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

In 1991, AID Atlanta executive director Sandra Thurman approached WSB-TV’s Jocelyn Dorsey, asking the station to be a primary media sponsor for the new AIDS Walk, set to be held at Grant Park.

Dorsey, as public affairs director, was intrigued. She had a neighbor in the West End who had died of AIDS and was horribly mistreated. The disease was still badly stigmatized nearly a decade after it was discovered. She felt this was an important cause for WSB-TV to embrace. But she urged Thurman to move the walk to a much larger venue: Piedmont Park.

Why? Because WSB-TV was willing to provide regular PSAs on the station and a platform on its public affairs show “People 2 People.” This would drive enough traffic to the event, Dorsey argued, to merit Piedmont Park.

Dorsey was right. Long before social media, WSB — using PSAs featuring part-time Atlantan Elton John — provided the juice that helped bring 22,000 people to the event and raise more than $500,000. The walk is now in its 28th year.

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 Companies use 1851 law to deny liability in duck boat tragedy that kil
  2. 2 Atlanta paid Reed’s former law firm millions for vague flat-fee
  3. 3 Robert DeNiro visits Atlanta for Nobu groundbreaking at Phipps Plaza
Jocelyn Dorsey, Atlanta's first African American news anchor, sits at her desk at WSB on Monday, July 23, 2018. She plans to retire on August 3, 2018. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com (Jenna Eason/Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com)

Over 35 years, Dorsey has been a kingmaker in terms of promoting and pushing non-profit causes in Atlanta, using WSB’s muscle and her deep-seated desire to make a difference. But at age 68, Dorsey is finally turning in her employee badge Aug. 3, retiring from the station after 45 years.

A decade before she moved to management and redefined the role of community liaison for the TV station, Dorsey was a ground-breaker of a different sort: She became the first African-American to regularly anchor an Atlanta newscast. She was just 23 years old, fresh from a brief run at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, where she said her boss was impressed by “my command of the English language,” a back-handed compliment at best.

In 1973, WSB-TV’s Channel 2 Action News was fishing around for talented black journalists. Don Dunkel, executive producer at the time, knew Dorsey’s assignment editor at WKRC who recommended her, although she had been at the station for just eight months. For Dorsey, coming to Atlanta to work at such a prestigious station was a golden opportunity.

Jocelyn Dorsey in the 1970s as noon anchor for (WSB-TV).  (WSB-TV)

But life in Georgia in the early 1970s was a major culture shock after her time growing up in Ohio. “Racism was in your face back then,” she said.

She recalled covering an environmental protection hearing at a gymnasium in Twiggs County in South Georgia. She approached a white government official who refused to acknowledge her, much less talk to her. Her photographer told her, “Jocelyn, they aren’t going to talk to you. Not in this public arena.” She was angry but able to salvage the story when an EPA official was willing to talk to her.

When J.B. Stoner, a known white supremacist, ran for lieutenant governor in 1974, he held a news conference at the Biltmore in Midtown. 

“I should have known something was wrong,” she recalled. “There were state patrol everywhere. There were 200 of his supporters. Banners everywhere saying ‘N**** go home!’ I’m the only black person there. People began yelling. “Get out of here! We’re going to get sickle cell!’ I started laughing. They got furious. This woman spat in my direction… A white photographer from Channel 5 got up and yelled at that woman and called her stupid. They had to bodily carry him out.”

She stayed for the conference but didn’t ask a question. “I was scared to death!” she said. She said she became friends with that photographer. “That meant a lot to me,” she said.

Though she kept her views to herself on air, behind the scenes, “I was pretty militant,” she admitted. “I was young. I had just come off the college campuses of the 1960s. I was very outspoken. I never bit my tongue for anything.”

For a time while noon anchor, she grew her afro out, which didn’t please her bosses and some viewers. “I got a lot of backlash,” she said. But she persevered.

News director Skip Haley said he was not politically aligned at all with Dorsey, but he loved her as an employee. “She was a gem,” he said. “She gave me the least amount of trouble of all the anchors.” He recalled fending off a superior at a news meeting pressuring him to move Dorsey off the noon show, telling the man, “If you want to run the news department, why don’t you take my office?”

Three years after Dorsey arrived, Monica Pearson (then known as Monica Kaufman) came to WSB as the first black evening anchor in Atlanta, a spot she kept until she retired in 2012. “Everyone tried to compare us,” Dorsey said. “We didn’t let that happen. There were too few of us at the time.” Though some of her fans griped that she should have gotten the job, Dorsey said she never had a desire for Pearson’s gig, preferring a job that enabled her to regularly get out and report stories.

In 1983, the news director at the time pushed Dorsey out as anchor and offered for her to stay as a reporter — with a 54 percent pay cut. Dorsey said she was incensed and ready to walk.

Coretta Scott King in 2001 at the Winnie Mandela Humanitarian Award ceremony where Jocelyn Dorsey received an award as well. This photo hung for years in her WSB-TV office. 

Then a miracle of sorts happened: Coretta Scott King, along with other civil rights leaders including Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery, actively lobbied Cox Broadcasting to keep her on air, Dorsey said. Young confirmed that this indeed happened. “Jocelyn has always been involved in the community,” he said.

But she decided to take advantage of this surprising development to go a different direction: management. “I wanted a seat at the table,” she said. Cox management offered her the public affairs director job, which she took with enthusiasm and relief.

“She turned something horrible into something good,” Dorsey’s sister Robin said. She credits Dorsey’s drive to their father Bob Dorsey, one of the first black aeronautics engineers at General Electric in Ohio.

Jocelyn Dorsey in the 1990s.  (WSB-TV)

Soon after Dorsey got the new job, Andy Fisher came in as general manager and “taught me the basics of management and protocol and nuances,” she said.

Fisher also gave her an opportunity to write editorials for him to share on air. He trusted her journalistic instincts, embraced her work ethic and authenticity. “She never postured,” he said. “She was always looking for the best outcome as opposed to the best reflection on her.”

One of Dorsey’s favorite campaigns was writing editorials promoting mandatory seat belt use in vehicles in Georgia. Fisher had gotten into a nasty car accident and Dorsey filmed him in front of the mashed-up vehicle talking about how the seat belt saved him. But the bill faced major resistance at the time. 

House Speaker Tom Murphy was adamantly against it. “We were banging it every time we could to the point he called me into his office,” Dorsey said. “He was more powerful than the Governor at that point.” WSB ran public service announcements where the station acronym temporarily became “Wear Seat Belts.” The law passed in 1988. And the editorial won an Emmy.

In 2000, Dorsey was upset to learn sex trafficking minors was only a misdemeanor in Georgia. She did a story in the public affairs department about a victim that caught the attention of Atlanta Women’s Foundation and other women’s groups. WSB did more stories, PSAs and editorials on the subject, spearheaded by Dorsey. In 2001, the legislature made prostitution of a minor a felony.

Jocelyn Dorsey purchased this West End home in 1979, a 1919 Craftsman, for $5,000 and spent another $120,000 to renovate it. She said she has been only robbed once and now has Jake, a Great Dane, who provides her companionship and security.
Jocelyn Dorsey shows some of her artwork she collected from years of travel overseas in the hallway of her West End home on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. (RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com)

Over the years, Dorsey’s roots in Atlanta grew deep. She purchased and renovated a dilapidated 1919 Craftsman home in the West End in 1979. She married an Ethiopian native and had two sons with him. But her older son Tewodros Gebre-Hiwet struggled to find his place in life. In 2003, at age 21, he was shot and killed in Old Fourth Ward over $50.

As shell-shocked as Dorsey was, she found her job a safe haven while also working hard to ensure the two men responsible were indicted for the crime. But in the end, neither were found guilty. She was left saddled with guilt and pain that remains a part of her 15 years later.

She said she eventually had to forgive herself, finding solace that he had gone back to school and was on a better path before his death. “There was nothing I could have done,” she told a group of crime victims in 2005. “It was out of my control. Stop blaming yourself.”

She also took comfort in her friends and colleagues who went out of their way to help her out, from funeral arrangements to emotional support. Dorsey ended up raising her late son’s daughter and admits she still spoils her other son, Robert Fassil, 38: “I always want him to know he’s loved and I care about him.”

Another place that has kept her mind at even keel: the open road. She has owned motorcycles for many years and is on her third Harley, a 2014 Street Glide. Long divorced and currently single, she plans to ride a lot more in retirement.

Over the years, Dorsey could have moved on to other jobs at WSB, but she chose to stay in public affairs because it provided her daily sustenance. Plus, she found fresh challenges every time a new general manager showed up.

Jocelyn Dorsey emceed the Children's Restoration Network charity event at the Hotel at Avalon on July 14, 2018. For more than two decades, she has supported the charity which provides supplies to children in homeless shelters and group homes. (RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com)

Dr. Rogsbert Phillips, Dorsey’s long-time confidante who runs the breast cancer awareness non-profit Sisters By Choice, said her longevity at WSB has everything to do with her character. Phillips herself uses Dorsey as her sounding board for virtually anything important in her life or that of her organization. “She will never embarrass or belittle you,” she said.

She said she’s leaving WSB’s public affairs department in good hands: veteran WSB radio personality and executive Condace Pressley. The public affairs department works with 170 non-profit organizations annually and produces at least 150 PSAs a year as well as the weekly “People 2 People” program, which features 15 stories a week.

“We do a lot of good,” Dorsey said, adding with a chuckle, “It’s kind of cool to get paid to do good.”

She is wearing her work clothes only because I asked her to pose on her 2014 Harley Street Glide special during lunch hour. She is usually dressed with much more street panache when she is actually riding. (RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com)
Jocelyn Dorsey biked from Fairbanks, Ala. to Key West, Fla. with 40 other bikers in 2007 for the Special Olympics, raising more than $250,000. In Alaska, she flipped off her bike on rough terrain but managed to survive with just minor injuries. She also scared off a bear in Alaska with her super loud pipes.  (AJC file photo)

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

More from AJC