Stewart, other pioneers to be recognized by area journalist

Starting with Debates: Meet Genevieve Stewart, pioneer

“For some reason, I was drawn to radio,” said Genevieve Stewart, Baton Rouge’s first Black female in talk radio who will be recognized as a journalism pioneer by the Baton Rouge Area Association of Black Journalists, Thursday, April 23, at noon.

With no journalism degree or experience, she would take a career path through institutional fundraising and motherhood before landing her first job in television-then came her passion: radio. A fearless and skilled debater in college, Stewart won awards for spontaneous and extemporaneous speaking at Lorraine Community College, beating Case Western and Oberlin before winning second in national championships. “I had those skills, those interests of current events, (beginning) when I was old enough to read,” she said. “My dad made us read Time magazine every week and discuss it at the dinner table. It was requisite.”

After attending Lorraine, Stewart went on to complete a degree in political science at Fisk before marrying and moving to Louisiana. Turned away from a NBC-affiliate for a broadcasting job in Nashville (she was told to come back after she removed her braces), Stewart began working in fundraising as a Ford Foundation Fellow in Development at Fisk, then Vanderbilt and Dillard universities. She and husband, Luther, moved to Baton Rouge to start and work in his anesthesiology practice. She was invited to participate in the annual LPB telethon. That led to her later being asked to be a co-producer and host of LPB’s “Folks” show, a one-hour weekly broadcast of state news. “I said ‘I can’t do that!” she said. “I can stand up and ask for money but I can’t do that.” But she did do the show and did it well for nearly five years. “I did enjoy TV. I enjoyed being able to tell as story in pictures. And to be able to go around the state and interview people who I felt had something to contribute to the critical masses to getting a message out,” she said.

A lover of history, Stewart said she found the stories of Louisianans fascinating, including the history of the Freed People of Color, sociology of Patwah, creole language and dialects of French-speaking people. She left LPB to pursue a master’s degree in communications at Southern University. While there, she produced short documentaries and an instructional series for LPB on Louisiana Black history called “North Star”.

Even with the vibrant stories and the imagery television and video offered, Stewart said she was still hooked to radio. Her entrance into radio came after she was vocal at lunch hosted by the Baton Rouge Chamber that included an audience of mostly Black leaders. “I was tired of being placated and being talked down to,” she said. “And I stood up and said so.” Unknowing to her, an owner of Citadel Broadcasting who owned three radio stations at that time, was listening. Peter Moncrieff called Stewart and invited her to the station to host Hank Spann’s “Question of the Day” morning show. She took the job and within weeks she was number one in the morning drive and her show had national and local advertisements. The ad rates doubled in the first year and sold out three months in advance. “Guy Brody was on 94.1FM and was number 1 in the 18-25 market and I was number 2 in that market.” she said. In her demographics, 25-55 year-old listeners, she was consistently number one.

“We had the morning drive!” even with the competition of nationally syndicate radio show broadcasting on the station. She said she saw herself as an advocate and a journalist which was easier for her in talk radio than in television. “I was an advocate who could follow the rules of journalism,” she said. There were issues, however, that she would find herself distinctly in the role of advocate. For example, she was one of eight plaintiffs in the Glasper Civil Right Suit that called for the metro council to bail out the city’s bus system. She knew from studying history that her advocacy, especially through media, was dangerous. “I knew about the coercion that can take place,” she said. As a result, she very carefully handled sources’ privacy and anonymity when necessary.

She registered as an independent voter and cleared any financial debts. “I wanted to be free to tackle any topics without anyone pulling my strings,” she said. “The Question of The Day with Genevieve Stewart” became a powerful voice for Blacks in the city. “The spontaneity of it; the immediacy of the moment; the fact that you could tackle more controversial issues; and The fact that you are on the air five to seven hours a week,” she said were reasons why she was hooked and why, unfortunately, she literally worked herself “in the ground”. In May 1999, moments after her live show, she began feeling symptoms of heart problems. Her husband sent an ambulance for her at the station and waited her arrival at the hospital; she had suffered a mild stroke and was now off the air indefinitely. Shauna Sanford, who had begun co-hosting the “Question of the Day with Genevieve Stewart”, took over the show for years before leaving for a job in television.

Stewart said it is as important for Black journalists today to make a very conscious decision to distinguish themselves as “Black journalists” or “journalist” only. Now that she has recovered, Stewart said she is looking at opportunities to return to advocacy. “There’s a lot to be done,” she said.

During the BRAABJ luncheon, Stewart will be honored along with fellow pioneers: John Williams, the first Black photographer at The Advocate (posthumously); Jean West, former WAFB Channel 9 anchor and the first Black anchor in Baton Rouge; and the Rev. Ivory Payne, publisher of The Baton Rouge Weekly Press newspaper which has served the Black readers more than 40 years. The luncheon will be held at 11:30 a.m. at Boudreaux’s , 2647 Government Street in Baton Rouge. Tickets are $25. Proceeds from the event will provide scholarships to Southern and LSU journalism students. Since 2012, the luncheon has raised nearly $30,000 and provided scholarships to six students. Visit: http://www.brareabj.org/ for tickets.

Read more at Yahoo!Voices at Baton Rouge Pioneers: Black Women Break into Newsrooms by Candace J. Semien, contributing writer.

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