Tammy Payne joined Ackerman McQueen in 2015 after working in television news and documentary production for over three decades. She is an Emmy Award-winning and -nominated news anchor and nationally recognized investigative reporter, having covered deadly tornadoes and the 1995 Oklahoma City Murrah building bombing.
AM: How did you get started in working in news and live television? What was the news landscape like when you were starting out?
TAMMY: My grandmother told me when I was 14 I should be a “news lady.” At the time, I thought it was because I talked a lot. But maybe she knew that it was what I should do. When I was starting out, experience reigned supreme in television news. I could have never gotten a job reporting in my hometown of Oklahoma City because the market was too big.
So, I took a production assistant job at the local NBC affiliate and went to work on making a reel for me and coffee for the anchors. My friends graduated into accounting and engineering firms. I was running the teleprompter for minimum wage. My foot was in the door! My first reporter job was in tiny Lawton, Oklahoma. You would have thought my U-Haul was headed for L.A.
AM: How has local news and live television changed over the course of your career?
TAMMY: For many years in television, I felt set free. Free to craft a story that moved people. Nothing is more gratifying to me than a good story told well. Sadly, television has changed. For the worse. Budgets were slashed, and documentary units were dismantled. It was a huge loss for me after swinging on the final shooting star of an industry defined by storytelling and documentary work. How blessed was I, after watching local news meet its near demise, to be asked to join the team at Ackerman McQueen? A company so foundationally driven by telling a good story?
AM: One of your first projects at Ackerman McQueen was a long-form video about the 20th anniversary of the Murrah bombing. Describe your journey from when you reported on the bombing for live news in 1995 to making that piece.
TAMMY: Of all the news events I covered, nothing changed or impacted me more than the Oklahoma City bombing. The blast went off at 9:02. I put my mic on at 9:04 and didn’t take it off until 7 that evening. We were wall to wall live for four days.
So, when AM asked me to do a story on the 20th anniversary of the Murrah bombing, I knew immediately what I wanted to do: tell a story of survival. I knew I had one in Nicole Williams, who I met weeks after the bombing when I was a news anchor in 1995.
AM: Describe Nicole Williams’ story.
TAMMY: Nicole Williams survived the bombing, but her husband, Scott, died in the blast. Nicole was also 6-months pregnant with her first baby. I originally covered her husband’s story, and her baby Kylie’s story, in the months after the bombing when I was an anchor.
When I called Nicole about doing a third story for the 20th anniversary, we found each other in a really big hug soon after. I found out that Kylie, due to trauma sustained from surviving the bombing, suffered from severe learning disabilities. That act of terror changed the course of generations. When we talked to Kylie, however, we found that Kylie is one of the most joyful and faithful beings on this earth. It really felt like both of us had come full circle. I was certain I understood the ramifications of terror. I did not. It is a generational price. And Kylie, 20 years after her father died, a father she’s never met, was smiling because, she said, “I can’t wait to go to heaven, so I can meet my daddy.”
News stations don’t tell stories like that anymore. How grateful I am that Ackerman McQueen does.
AM: How do you take that passion for storytelling into the work you do at Ackerman McQueen?
TAMMY: When I joined Ackerman McQueen, I was tasked with bringing in a team of some of the most experienced and talented journalists in the country to create NRATV. The mission: join an already established and successful broadcast and storytelling experience for the largest civil rights organization in the country. After sharing with you the trajectory of television news, suffice to say, when I reached out to those journalists, we had them at hello.
Our job now is to report the facts. To push back the tide of activist and biased reporting in a sea of mainstream media outlets. The NRA has trusted Ackerman McQueen for more than 30 years. Those are big shoes to fill. And when the red light goes on, we know it.