Parting Thoughts with KHQ’s Patricia McRae
Karina EliasMay 25th, 2023
After a 41-year career in broadcast journalism, Patricia McRae has retired from her role as president of Spokane-based KHQ Inc. and Cowles Montana Media Co.
McRae, 63, a born-and-raised Spokanite, received a degree in communications from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Upon graduating, McRae’s career took her to California, Nevada, and Florida, where she worked in news management roles for over a decade. In 1993, she returned to her hometown and joined Cowles Co. and KHQ-TV as a news director. In 2008, she was promoted to president.
KHQ-TV and Cowles Montana Media serve six television markets in Eastern Washington and Montana and include NBC, ABC, and FOX affiliates. During McRae’s tenure, she also developed a regional sports network serving teams from Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
McRae has served on several broadcast boards including as chair of the FOX Board of Governors; a member of FOX News Advisory Committee; chair of the Washington state Broadcasters Association; and a director of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Over the course of her career, McRae has received seven Emmys from the National Association of Arts and Sciences for Excellence in Journalism and Broadcast News, a National Edward R. Murrow Award for breaking news coverage, and several awards from the Associated Press for Best Newscasts. In 2020, she was awarded the Washington state Silver Circle honor.
McRae now lives in Wenatchee, Washington, with her husband, where they can be close to their daughter and newborn granddaughter. The Journal recently caught up with McRae over the phone to discuss her career, accomplishments, and what she looks forward to in retirement.
What inspired you to go into journalism?
I started out as a biology major. My brother is a microbiologist, and we have a very close relationship. I always thought I would follow in his footsteps. I started those biology classes and was like, what am I doing? I don’t want to look in a microscope the rest of my life. I fell into working at the radio station at WSU, and I just fell in love with it. I thought, I love to write, I love creativity. I got accepted into the TV program and that was it. From there, I had a great mentor, Glenn Johnson. He just hooked me into it.
How did he hook you?
His enthusiasm. His love for storytelling and his love for writing. He was a demanding professor, and I loved that. He really taught you how to tell a story and how you could really impact a community by storytelling. He made you understand that this is a job that can shape people. I was taken with that and thought journalism was my path because I love community, and I love people.
We’ve kept in contact over the years. When I moved back to Spokane, I used to go and talk to his journalism classes every year when he was still a professor. He is now the mayor of Pullman, Washington.
What drew you to the director and producer side, as opposed to reporting?
You know, I started as a reporter in Bakersfield, California. I just wanted more control of the shows. And I saw that when you are a producer, you really get to have the whole show and get to create and write. So that’s what drew me, the whole feeling of being able to control that show and really put it together, and it was just so fun. From there, I fell into a management path. I’ve enjoyed management my entire career. I love people. I love managing people and teaching people.
What have been some of the highlights of your career?
From my journalism career, covering big stories. When I was in Miami, Florida, we were right in the middle of the Iraq War. The technology then was satellite live shots bouncing back from Iraq to Germany to Miami. Covering news in Cuba. Those big stories had a huge impact on me.
Moving out of news and into executive roles, the (highlight) was bringing people together and managing people in teams.
I had my daughter in 1994 when I was still the news director at KHQ, and that totally changed my perspective on how to cover news. You cover these stories, and you go put mics in front of victims’ faces and usually the victims are parents. It made me change the way we approach people. I don’t want to say it softened me, but having a family definitely gave me more empathy toward journalism and how to cover a story. Those are the kinds of things I would teach younger staff in the newsroom. I’m super aggressive and competitive, but it’s OK to be second (to report), because you have to be right first.
I have a saying that I would tell people throughout my career and became something that people would repeat back: Go big or go home. For my going away (party) my colleagues gave a cake that said: ‘Went big, going home.’ It made me cry. It made an impact.
How has journalism changed over the course of your career?
Before, we used to produce for several newscasts throughout the day. Your staff was focused on that, and they could really focus on the storytelling and everything. Now it’s that 24-hour news cycle where nothing is held for the 5 o’clock news anymore.
You get your story, you put it online, or on the app, or your nonstop stream. It’s almost schizophrenic. These poor journalists, they are out there covering stuff, and they’re expected to push it out to so many platforms.
I started really seeing that about five years ago, probably when newspapers started closing and streaming was coming out.
You knew you had to change with it. We’re TV people. We didn’t necessarily know how to do that. We had to learn and self-taught ourselves on the technology and how to do this with the help of researchers and consultants. Everybody was finding their way.
Now I think people have found their way, and it’s kind of settling down. But you still have the same staff as when you were producing a set number of newscasts. Now they’re producing hours of news a day with the same amount of people. That’s hard. Kids coming out of school are like, wow this is hard work, but the pay is not great.
What challenges have you faced?
I feel I’ve been blessed. My first management job was the news director for Miami when I was 26. Some people would say I was very young, and others say being a woman in news management is (difficult), but I never saw it that way. It was a male-driven industry when I first got into it, but I just plowed my way through it. I never saw that as an obstacle. If you are trustworthy, ethical, and work your butt off, it doesn’t matter if you are a man, woman, or what color your skin is. You can succeed, and that’s been my attitude my whole career.
I think I got my management skills from my dad. He was a manger for Boise Cascade. He would come home and talk about how he guided his employees and helped them, as opposed to coming home and saying, these people don’t know how to work. He found the positives. He always said everybody has talents. You just must find out what that person’s talent is and get them in the right position. That’s the advice I have followed my whole career in management.
What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Do it. It’s fun. It’s the most rewarding career. Have a passion for it because it’s not a dying industry. Even though you read in all the industry magazines that broadcast TV is going to be out. Local journalism is needed in every community, and without local journalism, communities don’t know what’s going on. So, it’s definitely going to survive and don’t let anybody tell you that it is not. It might look a lot different, but storytelling is storytelling. It’s still the same industry; it’s just being fed out to different platforms.
What do you look forward to in retirement?
I have a new granddaughter who is almost 2 months old. I look forward to really getting to know my granddaughter. We are excited about traveling and getting out. Our first trip is next year, to Italy. We are hopefully going to stay for a month and take our time. I’ve worked for 41 years and only ever had two weeks of vacation and I don’t think I’ve ever taken two weeks at a time off.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.