By Thad Mumau
WRAL News has a large viewing audience, not only because of the content, but also because of the newscasters. One of the station’s most popular news anchors is Debra Morgan, a vivacious, six-time Emmy winner.
The Florida native, who is a magna cum laude graduate from the University of Miami, is an Alzheimers North Carolina board member as well as being involved in several other worthy causes. It is apparent that her heart is in her professional and volunteer work. Morgan loves her job, people and community that span over the many North Carolina counties she covers.
ONC: How and why did you become a news anchor?
DM: Even as a child, I was curious, loved to write, talk with everyone and ask a ton of questions. I’d see smoke in the sky or a gathering of people, and I’d ask my mom if we could go see what was happening. Luckily for me, she would usually comply with my request to go see “breaking news!”
I absolutely loved the atmosphere of a television newsroom! Every day was new and the process of gathering stories, meeting deadlines and working in the community was addictive. My first “real” job as a reporter was in Toledo, Ohio. I’ll never forget standing and shivering on a frozen Lake Erie doing a story about ice fishing and thinking, “What am I doing?!” followed quickly by “Boy, this is the best!” From there, I went to Jacksonville, Florida, and in 1993, was hired at WRAL.
ONC: What is the best thing about your job?
DM: I’m not sure I could choose just one thing. I enjoy the people I work with and meet along the way; the opportunity it affords to be of service, especially in times of crisis such as a hurricane; and learning something new every day. I’m honestly excited to wake up and go work. I’m so fortunate to have a job I love at a TV station with such a passion for serving the community.
ONC: What is the worst part of your job?
DM: I wouldn’t qualify any part of my job as the “worst” but perhaps the most challenging are the work hours. We all have odd shifts in this business, which can make it difficult on family life. My day starts at about 2 p.m. at the TV station, and I’m often there well after midnight. As with everyone, I find we just don’t have enough hours in the day!
Outside of work, I’m honored to be asked to speak to civic groups, to read to children in our schools or to participate in a number of local charities. I absolutely love this part of my life. I try to work in an event either before I go into the station, between newscasts during my dinner break, or on the weekends. This makes for long days but it’s all so worth it when I get to be a part of these events and see the amazing work being done by students and organizations that help make our area even better.
ONC: Everyone has bad days of all sorts. How do you deal with them when you have to be smiling at a huge audience?
DM: Yikes! So true. We all have our days, for sure. Dealing with illness or a bad hair day is one thing but the tragic stories we have to report are the most difficult. Sept. 11th was one of those days. Not only was I overcome with emotion and trying to comprehend simply as an American what had happened, I was on the air that day trying to help everyone else find some of those answers, too. I couldn’t help but cry on TV. What helps me on these days is focusing on what a privilege it is to serve our viewers and how people trust us to get through it together, however big or small the issue.
ONC: What are your hobbies and/or interests?
DM: Right now, my “hobby” is building my house, literally! My husband and I have been spending all our free time, with our own hands, clearing the lot and building our house. We do a lot of experimenting until we get it just right. Hopefully, early this year we will be able to move in!
My other interests and a true passion of mine is my work with charities. I serve on the boards of Alzheimers North Carolina and Caring Community Foundation. I’ve been very active with the ALS Association (yes, I did the ice bucket challenge!), Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Special Olympics and several others. We have some amazing organizations providing such important services to help our neighbors.
ONC: If you had not landed in this career, what do you think you might have done?
DM: What an interesting question. I’ve always had a job that is somewhat related to what I do now – I was a photographer’s assistant, I worked at newspapers doing the layout of the pages, I even was an assistant for a summer at a cable company! I did consider law school at one time, but I think I was born for this career. Of course, with the building of our house, I found out I’m pretty good with a paint brush. So who knows?!!
ONC: Is most of your news in front of you? I know sometimes things get out of order. Is ad-libbing the news a tough task?
DM: Yes, most of what we deliver is in front of us. However, rarely does the newscast go exactly as planned. We are constantly updating and adding new information. It really evolves as we go. In most breaking-news cases, ad-libbing is not difficult. Our producers will feed us a few bullet points in our IFB (the earpiece we wear), and we take it from there. Should we have a mistake or technical difficulties, we acknowledge, apologize and keep going. It’s amazing to me some days to see how we can take an absolutely crazy behind-the-scenes situation and make it look smooth on the air. You should hear what I hear in my ear sometimes! Then again, maybe it’s good you don’t …
ONC: Do you have some strong feelings and/or issues you would like to share?
DM: It’s hard for me to hear when people say they don’t watch the news because it’s depressing. Some of that “bad” news is important and responsible to share. Most of our stories are uplifting or at least just interesting. We always encourage people to let us know what they would like to see on the news. We cover 23 counties and try our best to give our audience relevant information no matter where they live.
ONC: Are there people who have made a huge difference in your life? (personally and/or professionally)
DM: Here at WRAL, my biggest influence is no doubt Charlie Gaddy. He was an incredible leader in our newsroom, always full of integrity and enthusiasm, and he had a passion for accuracy. I have tried to mirror my career with those principles. My husband has also made a huge difference in my life. We were high school sweethearts and he’s still my best friend. He’s been my strength and gives me courage when I need it most.
ONC: Are you happy where you are, and even if so, do you hope to move to a network some day?
DM: After 22 years at WRAL, it’s difficult to think of me working anywhere else. My friends Bret Baier and Jim Axelrod have done so well at the networks! For me, I love the feeling of community that comes with local news.
I’ve been so blessed that people have welcomed me into their homes for 22 years. What more could I ask for?
What was the “aha” moment that made you want to be a part of Alzheimers North Carolina?
More than 10 years ago, I was fortunate to be in an audience for an awards presentation. Part of the program included a discussion about the support Alzheimers North Carolina provides to the patients and families living with this terrible disease. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance to join the board. I’m proud to say we have the most experienced, caring and knowledgeable staff. And our training techniques are used across America as THE way to provide this specialized care.
Has Alzheimer’s affected anyone you know?
Unfortunately, too many people. Experiencing the heartbreaking diagnosis and progression of the disease with friends and their families is very painful. When I was younger, my grandmother had dementia and she would frequently wander. It can be a frightening and confusing time for a family, not knowing where to turn to for help. Over the past couple of decades, thanks to organizations such as Alzheimers North Carolina, we have a better understanding of how to care for patients and their families.
What is the greatest gift you received by doing volunteer work/giving back?
Without a doubt, seeing how the efforts of our neighbors can change lives. Obviously, a lot of pain surrounds some of my charities. For example, I’m elated so many people became aware of ALS this past year with the fun of the Ice Bucket Challenge. The reality of this disease is absolutely horrifying. I’ve been saddened by the loss of friends and feel the frustration of not yet finding a cure for any number of the issues. However, the successes are plentiful. The relief of family members of an Alzheimer’s patient when they find the appropriate support system, the alleviation of a financial burden for people battling cancer so they can focus on their treatment, or a hug from young adults I’ve known since they were little children now leading full and active lives with juvenile diabetes are the best gifts I can receive.