Sasha-Ann Simons is a voice for the people. Recently the public media journalist’s reporter instincts led her from her Canadian hometown Toronto, ON to Rochester, NY, where she transitioned from commercial to public broadcasting two years ago. While she relishes memories of the early days in her career, like breaking the Rob Ford crack scandal and live producing the Toronto Argos championship story, her true passion is telling the black American story accurately, in depth and conscientiously. Sasha is curious, focused and driven; she is always excited to see what assignment will hit her desk next and she jumps at opportunities to fill in on a morning or afternoon cast. Covering heavy content over the last 10 years has taught Sasha the importance of keeping herself at an arm’s length from her work, sometimes by having laughs with co-workers between takes. She’s also learned that ensuring a balanced home-work life is paramount. Her daughters are “studio kids” who know their way around the newsroom, thanks to the continuous support of her employers, co-workers and family as she navigates her career as a journalist and dedicates herself to telling stories that matter.
I spend my days asking people questions
My life as a basketball mom
I don't drink coffee,
Messages from my mentor
Jesus Calling: 365 Day Devotional
I'm in awe of the independent, responsible little beings they are becoming.
A good pair of heels
My other half
What excites you about your work?
One of the big things is working for public radio versus working for a commercial station like your typical NBC, CBS or ABC; we don’t chase the day-to-day happenings like a shooting, a fire or an accident. Public radio looks at getting to the root of more in-depth issues, so it affords me the time to dig deeper, look at incidents, coincidences and trends, and put them into the context of a larger story for the audience. The freedom to tell the stories that matter and not just ‘this happened today’ is exciting, because I prefer being able to explain why it happened or how we can stop it from happening.
Is there anything you’d like to see more of in public radio?
I’d love to see more people of colour telling stories that reflect their culture, their communities and their heritage. As great as public radio is, it’s not very diverse; our general core audience for public media stations across the U.S. is typically middle-aged and caucasian. That’s reflected in the people you hear and see on air, so there definitely needs to be more diversification. People like me should be telling stories of interest to both people who look like me and to people who don’t. That’s what I’d love to see change; we’re slowly getting there but it’s taking some time.
Are you telling the story that you feel you need to be?
Yes, that’s what I strive to do every day. In the public radio world I’m assigned certain stories but I do have the freedom to pitch. Depending on the support system you have in the newsroom and the type of news director you work for, you get the go ahead if your idea is interesting enough. Every chance that I get I try and pursue stories on things that matter to me.
Could you give an example?
Last summer the turmoil between police officers and black males with the back-to-back shootings across America got me thinking. We’re a black household, and I have two daughters who are under the age of 10; they’re very savvy with electronics and they watch TV, so I knew I’d have to address what was going on. I felt it was important for me to give them some perspective on something that may be a very real problem in their lives, especially as they get older, so I sat my little girls down to talk about violence and proper conduct with police. This is something that a lot of my colleagues don’t have to experience, or even have to think about much, but for me, it was a bit different – I thought ‘Oh my God, my daughters are going to have boyfriends and husbands and have to deal with these kinds of interactions.’ I talked to sources in the African American community about how many times they’d been pulled over by police, including one man in his 50s who’d been pulled over more than 100 times, which I verified; people were blown away by that. I got massive feedback on that story; it started a lot of conversations. Getting people to realize the person next to them could have such different experiences is key to getting people to try to learn about one another and have empathy.
How do you keep yourself out of the story when reporting on things that matter so much to you personally?
In that particular story, I got special permission to insert myself into it; at the very beginning I discussed how my conversation with my daughters went, then I branched off to interviewing other people: other parents, experts, educators. As a journalist, however, I still have to abide by core ethics and so I keep myself out of most stories. There’s a fine line – I can be knowledgeable about a certain thing without necessarily putting my opinion in there. Knowing more about the inner workings of something just because of my race, because of my gender, or because of my education might make me think something like ‘oh this would be an interesting story from a female perspective,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical to include my stance; I’m still very much a traditional journalist.
Let’s step back for a moment - how did you get into broadcasting?
After trying my hand at a couple of things, including psychology, I decided to go with something I actually enjoyed. I always knew that I’d end up in TV or media in some way. As a kid I imitated newscasts and was always presenting things to people; I remember lining up stuffed animals in front of a chalkboard to pretend I was on television or was a teacher talking to them. I was also really interested, even as a young child, in keeping up with current affairs; my mom and I would get dinner ready for 6 o’clock so we could sit down and watch the news together. To make my perfect job actually happen, I enrolled in Ryerson University’s journalism program and I made sure that I set up internships all throughout the four-year program. I did one internship per year and landed my first full time job during the last semester of my fourth year; I literally had to book a vacation day to go graduate – it was awesome! My first job was as a videographer at the Rogers Television Durham Region station in Oshawa, Ontario. I was reporting on air on the 6 o’clock news every night and it was the most amazing thing ever because I had literally just stepped out of school – it was the dream. Achieving that made me feel like the sky was the limit for sure!
What happened next?
After that I went to CityTV, where I wrote and produced full time. Next I landed a producer job at Global News – that was my last broadcast job in Canada – where I produced a 6 and 11 PM newscast on the weekends and I was a full time writer during the week. That was the first time I got a taste of control, of being one of the people who actually make the decisions, which was cool. However, I didn’t have any sort of work-life balance with that schedule, so I jumped into communications working for the government of Ontario for a little while, which was sort of the other side of the press release. I did that for about a year and a half before I really started itching to jump back into newsroom broadcast. With news breaking on CP24, the 24-hour news channel – like the second part of the Rob Ford crack scandal (where he finally admitted that he had been smoking crack) – I was dying in the office; I was hungry to be in a newsroom right then! I was actually involved in reporting the first part of that scandal, when he was lying about the original video, so I thought I should be there chasing it now that he was admitting it. I ended up taking a break for a little while before starting to look for work south of the border.
Was moving to the U.S. for work an easy decision for you?
In January 2015, I took the biggest leap of faith I’d ever taken in my life after landing an awesome job at my current station in Rochester, New York. I packed up my kids and I closed my eyes and went for it. I’m a very spiritual person and I believe I was pointed in this direction for a reason. I had the support of my family and my children were excited, and here we are two years later; it worked out to be the most amazing decision I’ve ever made, but it was definitely scary at the time.
You talked about the hunger for the chase; you’ve been in broadcasting for 10 years now, do you still feel that?
I do, and I think public radio has helped me keep that hunger alive. I’m naturally curious about things. Because I don’t necessarily take what I read or what see or hear at face value, I enjoy diving deeper into something, bringing it to my boss and saying, ‘Hey, here’s what’s happening right now and I feel like I want to do something about it. I feel like this may be an issue in our city; do you mind if I take some time to see if there is a particular trend here? I think this is worth exploring.’ Having a boss that gives me the freedom to investigate feeds my hunger for sure.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a piece about mental health in Rochester’s black community. A lot of people don’t realize there’s an even greater stigma when it comes to mental health and people of colour. A lot of the old philosophies and psychological things we think we know are very Eurocentric in terms of treating patients, so I’m trying to research Afrocentric views and mindsets and treatments. The current situation is fuelling my fire to help my audience learn and to also learn something myself.
Speaking of the current situation, and as a black woman journalist, what’s it been like covering American politics lately?
Literally, because it’s such a circus, I try to avoid politics as much as I can. Let’s just say I’ve never been more proud of my Canadian citizenship, nor have I ever clutched my passport harder. All jokes aside, it’s an interesting circus to follow, whether it be from a Canadian perspective, a black female perspective, or an expatriate perspective. Everything going on in the nation’s capital right now affects Canadians as well as Americans. I know a lot of Canadians that were kind of laughing during the election process, thinking the outcome wouldn’t affect them and that America might be in trouble. In terms of my work, I’m able to tell stories that resonate on a national scale, which is rewarding, but at the same time it puts a lot more pressure on me.
Is part of that pressure the difficulty of separating yourself from the content?
Journalists have to refrain from putting feelings and opinions in there, but reporting on election night in particular was extremely difficult. Because of where I stand personally, reporting on very real issues that affect me, my children and my family was hard. For example, I was reporting live from the Republican headquarters and I had to keep it strictly professional and talk to these people as though I was interested in what they had to say. I was seeing Donald push ahead of Hillary and was devastated inside but still managed to say ‘wow this is exciting, how are you guys feeling right now?’ Putting my feelings aside to report the facts during that was one of the biggest challenges of my career.
Do you have any rituals you perform before you do radio or TV? Or are there certain things you do while broadcasting?
In my current job, one of the live radio broadcasts I do is hosting the morning edition from 5 to 10 AM; I definitely like to get a cup of tea if I can before than, even though it’s super early. I also like to talk to myself; like if there are certain things I know I want to say I’ll sort of just mumble to myself or rehearse in my head. I’m very easygoing and I’m often joking around between takes. When we tape my arts and culture show, I literally have the crew in stitches – like they’re dying of laughter – because I’m being silly. In the newsroom my colleagues often look to me as a source of comic relief, especially when things get too crazy or serious in the world. We take a second to just hit pause and go get some donuts next door or whatever.
Is being silly and providing comic relief your way of coping or helping other people cope?
Over time in the business – 10 years now – I’ve just learned to not take things too seriously. At the end of the day, this is what I’m passionate about and this is my career, but it’s not as important as my children or my husband. It can come or go at any point, so I treat it that way – and I’m damn sure going to have fun while doing it. I’m not going to stress myself out by taking life too seriously overall; I want to enjoy it while it’s happening because tomorrow is literally not promised.
Has the business changed much in the past 10 years you’ve been involved?
Definitely. The news was always something that was immediate but the immediacy has evolved times 100. People also consume news in different ways; there are far less people who first see the day’s news by tuning into the evening newscast. That structured format – like I had with my mom, where every day we’d watch the news, then watch Star Trek after – just isn’t what’s in place today. Now I pick up my phone and get little news hits at any point throughout the day at my fingertips. Sometimes when my alarm goes off the first thing I do is hit Twitter, then I’m already seeing five or six headlines and I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet. Yesterday I got off a plane from Paris and as soon as I landed I turned on my phone and saw updates on the attack at parliament square in London.
How has that immediacy changed the way news is packaged today?
When we carry our newscast throughout the day, we have to operate differently – we have to go to the people instead of expecting them to come to us. Digital media is huge right now, and every newsroom you step into is digital first. We have to follow the trends and we do that in a number of ways, like mid-day Facebook live updates, posting on Twitter or creating a hashtag for a particular story to get people to follow along.
The race to beat the other guys in reporting a story has also sped up, and it’s resulted in some inaccuracies being reported. Could you speak to your feelings on that?
That is a very valid statement and it’s definitely something that I’ve witnessed. Commercial stations and 24-hour news need to be fast to be first. For me, now that I work in public media, it’s like night and day; the rush is just non-existent. Being first would be nice, but it’s not what we strive to do; if it takes another day to come up with a full in-depth story that includes maybe video and audio and written text or charts and graphics to really give our audience a wider perspective on what’s happening, we do it.
What are some of the favourite stories you’ve covered or some highlights from over the course of your career?
As I said before, breaking the Rob Ford crack scandal while I was working in the commercial world in Toronto was a big moment, as was the Eaton Centre Mall shooting years ago, which I covered while working for CityTV. When the Toronto Argos won the CFL Championship and I went live right after the game at 11 PM on a Sunday night was great; I was producing and my anchor and I were on the streets with a ton of thrilled screaming fans. Those huge live moments are ones I’ll forever cherish. Since transitioning, I have other big stories I treasure too – mostly around highlighting African American people working as leaders or even little guys who are up-and-comers in the communities that I’m working in now. I’m striving to be the voice of people you might not find on the news otherwise.
Who or what inspires you?
I have professional mentors, but honestly, my day-to-day inspiration comes from my parents – both my mom and my dad. The example they set for me and how vocal they’ve been about the things they wished they’d done or the dreams they wished they’d pursued really resonate with me; it’s inspired me on behalf of my children, too. My mom often talks about how ambitious I am; she says she’ll sometimes procrastinate but I’m the total opposite. Hearing her talk about that, and telling me how proud she is of me, really inspires me – and I know that no matter what, she has my back.
How hard was it for you to pursue such a full on career while also being a mom?
When I started off in journalism, my children were very young, and I was lucky to have the most awesome support system: my parents are the best grandparents in the world. Everyone knew my mission and my goals; they knew I wasn’t out clubbing or doing anything illegal, I was simply trying to get my education and start my career, and so everyone jumped on the bandwagon and supported me. One of the grandparents would pick up the kids from daycare at 3 o’clock to bridge the gap since I wrapped up work at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. I had bosses that believed in my dream and were flexible; they’d let me leave, pick up my daughters and bring them back to the station for a couple hours so I could wrap up something I was working on.
You know how Facebook has those memories that pop up randomly? I had one come up recently from a night I particularly remember. It was about six years ago, my daughters were maybe 3 and 4, and I was hosting an evening show at Rogers Television in Durham; the picture is of my two co-workers, also reporters, playing dolls and having McDonald’s with my daughters in the newsroom while I was in the studio recording a one-hour show. That attitude, that ‘hey, let’s roll up our sleeves, it’s babysitting time’ was invaluable to me. Without my support system, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
So it sounds like your daughters have grown up as a part of your life at work as well as at home?
I’m proud and thankful that my daughters have been able to watch me achieve my dream from the start. They were there as my guests for my graduation from Ryerson, they’ve been to my workplaces, and now they’ve seen me now take this huge leap in leaving Canada, leaving my comfort zone where I was raised and lived for 20-plus years, to move to a city in America that I’d never been to for more than five minutes before. As my right and left hands throughout the entire journey they’ve watched it up close. I’m showing them not to let people, statistics, the odds or anything stop them from going after what they’re trying to achieve. If they believe enough and are willing to put in the hard work – those long nights and early mornings – it can happen. It’s what put that food on the table and the roof over their heads. Going back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Speaking of looking back, would you have guessed this is where you’d be today?
I believe everything happens for a reason. Spiritually I was led in this direction and ended up meeting the man of my dreams and inheriting two more children, so our family has expanded, and the kids are all thriving. We’re engaged to be married next year. Things weren’t always rainbows and lollipops, but when things looked dim during hard days and difficult nights, I kept working and kept believing and here we are.
Do you find time to escape the grind?
Being a full time mom and journalist doesn’t really leave much room for play, but I’m one determined lady and so I try to mix in a social life as best as I can. We’ll escape and find things to do with friends, and we definitely try to travel as often as we can. We’re both transplants – we both live in a city that we’re not from – so it gives us automatic excuses to go visit family in other places, like Toronto, Ohio or Atlanta. I can’t let the newsroom run me ragged, and it gets heavy sometimes, so getting away and making a point to breathe and have a work-life balance has become more and more important to me the older I get and the longer I’m in this business.
What’s next for you?
I want to keep growing; I want to keep learning from people out in the community. I want to advance my degree – I’m going to enroll into graduate studies and get my masters – and I just want to keep pushing myself to the next limit.