Media

The Interview: GBH Broadcaster Callie Crossley

From the upcoming mayoral race to racism, the award-winning GBH on-air personality isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.


Photo by Ken Richardson

If you’ve listened to the radio or watched much TV over the past two decades, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Callie Crossley having an impact on the conversation about Boston. The Wellesley College graduate and former 20/20 producer, who’s known for always speaking her mind, is the host of GBH’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley and Basic Black, where she often discusses issues affecting the BIPOC community. An Oscar-nominated broadcaster, Crossley chats about being recognized at Pottery Barn, the importance of good barbecue, and the future of leadership in Boston.

How do you see the Boston mayoral race?

Interesting and transformative, no matter what happens. I actually don’t have a clue what that is, though, but if you believe the latest polls, it seems the women have pulled away from the men. So it looks as though there’s going to be a woman as mayor, and that’s transformative, anyway you cut it. We shall see.

Should acting Mayor Kim Janey be polling higher at this point in the race than she is?

I need to say I am not a political scientist; I interview them, so my comments should therefore be considered informed speculation. I don’t know if Kim Janey should be polling higher, but since most voters say they don’t know any of the candidates, I’m not surprised she is not. Also, her competition is tough. This is a strong group of candidates. Even with her enhanced visibility as acting mayor, this is not easy.

What do you think will be the single most important issue for voters in this race?

Early polling says housing, and that makes sense. The lack of affordable housing is a critical issue.

How do you think former Mayor Marty Walsh left the city?

Messy and hanging in the balance on some critical concerns. In fairness, he didn’t know he was going to leave as quickly as he had to. But he probably should not have made some decisions, like naming the new police commissioner, on his way out of the door. I think he was working hard to be known as a people’s mayor who implemented innovative initiatives to address some entrenched problems. But his reputation is somewhat marred by the police scandals—I’m also including the Patrick Rose case here—following him to DC.

How has the media landscape changed over the past decade?

There are all kinds of platforms, and so much experimentation with how to tell stories, and most important, how to reach an audience and hold an audience’s attention. It’s a space where there’s so much information coming at you, every second, even casually, like when you’re in an elevator. There’s pretty much no space where we’re not accosted by—and I’m using the word advisedly—content. I’m not going to say “news.” Part of the problem for us now is having people fish the news out from the content. People need to spend some energy becoming media literate, because it’s important. And at the same time, our industry is going through a lot of changes. There’s a lot of movement. It’s unsettled. I guess I would rest on the word unsettled.

What originally made you want to be a journalist?

Well, in my household, people read newspapers. My mother was very much a Renaissance woman, but both of my parents made it quite clear that the stories about folks like us, about our real lives, were often nowhere in what we would now call mainstream or traditional media. We always had subscriptions to the Black newspapers, as a way of reflecting what our lives were like, so I had a clear understanding, growing up, that whole parts of these stories were not being reported. And that was intriguing to me, to have an opportunity to tell those stories. But my point is that I very much wanted to know about, and wanted other people to know about, the untold parts of the stories that were important. That’s what drew me to this.

Photo by Ken Richardson

When was the last time you personally experienced racism?

[Chuckles.] When did I leave the house last? The kinds of microaggressions that are just typically part of my life, like lining up to pick up food at a restaurant, and it often happens, although it’s refreshing when it doesn’t: I’m standing at the window at the same time as somebody else. I was there first. And they still serve the other person before me. That’s just one small example.

Do you feel like we’re at a true tipping point right now? Are we going to change as a society?

No, sadly, I do not. I mean, what scares me is that which we don’t know, like what happened in Winthrop [the murder of two people in June, which appeared to be racially motivated]. It’s really at a level of frightening I can’t express, because, by all accounts, it looked like somebody just living his life, doing his thing, and then one day, he gets up and acts out what apparently he had been feeling and thinking about for some time. People in his immediate circle had no sense of that. That’s scary.

Where do you keep all of your awards?

On the second floor of my home. They’re sort of on top of my entertainment center, which still has an analog TV, so you know I’m not looking at that very often. Most of my awards are there, and I have a couple in the office.

Anything you regret in your career?

Oh, yeah. I was working at ABC News, on 20/20. We often did stories that were just a little bit ahead of their time, before people were caught up. In this instance, we did a piece on the quite controversial, at the time, bone-marrow transplant for women with breast cancer. And an actress came out strongly, saying, “This saved my life.” She said to me, “The one thing I would ask, because I’ve heard all the arguments, is please do not make me look like I am some quirky person because I strongly support this. I don’t want to come across that way.” Well, we pretty much had control over our own product, but I had people senior to me, and an executive producer, and as we got down to editing the piece, a lot of context was taken out. I sat with my associate producer, and I said, “I just don’t have a good feeling about this.” So the piece airs on Sunday night. The actress calls me Monday and says, “The one thing I asked you not to do, you did.” And Jonathan, I sobbed on that phone. And I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” And she said, “Listen, I get it. I work in a crazy business, too. I understand that. I just need you to understand that the reason I put myself out there was not to have people left with the thought that only some kind of crazy woman would do this.” I’ve gone over and over it in my mind. You know, could I have fought harder? I thought I fought pretty hard. But there it is.

Who are your personal heroes?

My parents. Let’s start there. Both of my parents grew up in highly segregated circumstances. My father grew up in Mississippi. My mother grew up in rural Louisiana, in a very tiny town. There was a one-room schoolhouse for Black children, and no high school. And my mother was very smart. My grandfather knew that. He was a sharecropper. There was a white county agent who would come by to do whatever they did with sharecroppers, and my grandfather asked, “Is there a town nearby with a Black high school?” And the guy said yes, one town over from where they lived. So, long story short, my grandfather got in touch with a Black family there who were what we would consider well-off, and my mother, at an extremely young age, left home and went to live with them, and went to high school, which is the only way that she could then go to college. Years later, my sister and I went with her to go visit these people. We thought they were snobby. When we got into the car, my mother whirled around from the front seat and laid into us. “How dare you?” she said. “These people changed my life, and therefore, your lives.” Oh, my God, it was horrible. But my mom and my dad sacrificed a lot to get me and my sister where we are, so they’re definitely heroes of mine.

How much harder is it for you to be heard as an African-American woman than me as a white man?

Oh, my God. Like, 10 times harder. At least. And it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. I was just in a diversity, equity, and inclusion session yesterday, and I was shushed by a man. So, first of all, we’ve got the gender thing going on, and then the Black thing on top of it. I had to have a conversation with him about it privately, and say, “You might not even understand what you did, or the context of what that means.” But I’m at the point, now, in those instances, where when I say something, and then 10 minutes later, a guy comes back and repeats what I said? I am perfectly happy and comfortable saying, “It is a great idea, just as it was five minutes ago, when I said it.”

What do you do to just tune it out?

Reading, reading, reading, reading, reading. And, you know, of course, if I’m reading on Martha’s Vineyard, that’s the best. I’m holding Sunny Hostin’s new book and drooling over it. So I like to read and to have long conversations with friends, with exciting adult beverages, or barbecue. It’s barbecue season now, so I have to start getting ready to do some barbecuing for friends, because I am a barbecue master. I make my own sauces.

You had a wine blog, the Crushed Grape Report. What happened to it?

I’m going to come back to it. It just got to be a lot, doing it on a regular basis. But I do a lot of wine stuff on my show. So far, I can’t figure out how to balance my life enough to do it, but there’s so much interesting wine to
talk about.

Do you get recognized at the supermarket or on the street?

I do. And for some while, for some reason, it was always at TSA or Pottery Barn. I had an experience some years ago, walking downtown somewhere. This guy, in a big semitrailer, honked and said, “Hey! I like you!” And then sometimes, somebody will say, “Oh, I recognize your voice.” That’s interesting to me.

How do you not let the news get to you?

Well, that’s a struggle, because I really want to just shut it off. This past year has been very, very tough. The lack of sympathy got to me. The unfairness of it. It gets to me.

Best advice you ever got?

Aside from “Be yourself,” which is a hard one if you’re trying to figure out who you are…certainly right up there was “Find work that aligns with your purpose.” Particularly for folks like myself, who are multi-hyphenates doing a bunch of different things, like volunteering for stuff and outside projects. That, in the end, does not serve you well. It looks good. It’s pretty. There’s nothing wrong with it. But if it’s not aligned with your purpose, you need to decrease the general clutter in your life. It also focuses you in a way that’s
just uplifting.


Who Runs This Town?

Before you vote this fall, you better know the basics.

1926

Last time a Republican, Malcolm Nichols, was elected mayor of Boston.

5

Number of months four-term Mayor James Curley spent in prison while in office.

9

Number of acting mayors in the city’s history.

4

Number of those acting mayors who were subsequently elected mayor.

2

Number of former mayors—Raymond Flynn and Marty Walsh—who are alive today.

0

Number of times a woman or person of color has been elected mayor of Boston.