While most of New Orleans is sleeping, Sally-Ann Roberts is waking up – 2 a.m., to be exact. As the co-anchor of WWL-TV/Channel 4 “Eyewitness Morning News” since 1991, Roberts, along with longtime morning partner Eric Paulsen, have been the two people that New Orleanians wake up with – well, other than their family. (Roberts and Paulsen arrived at WWL-TV the same week with Paulsen joking he has one day seniority. He joined March 31, ’77; Roberts, April 1, ’77.)
Roberts’ early start means that she’s busy prepping for the day: she turns on the rerun of the 10 p.m. news to see what she may have missed; then tunes into CBS News and national news. Next, she goes over her notes for the day’s stories, with her a.m. home routine ending with makeup – “a lot of makeup!” she says. Roberts is in the studio around 4 to 4:30 a.m.
Roberts joined WWL-TV as a City Hall reporter, working her way to becoming the anchor for the “Early Edition” at 5 a.m. She moved to Weekend Anchor for 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, then landed where she is today with Paulsen, who has always been her co-anchor for the “Morning News.”
Her day doesn’t end when the show goes off at 9 a.m., however. Roberts stays at the station until 12:30 or so, working on future stories, as well as her “Quiet Hero” series.
Roberts is also the older sister to “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who now has MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome), a rare form of bone marrow cancer, which she recently got after being treated for breast cancer five years earlier. Robin Roberts needs a bone marrow transplant, and it just so happens that Sally-Ann Roberts is a perfect match, which is rare, as most donors aren’t related. To bring awareness to the importance of bone marrow transplants – and the need for people to get on the National Bone Marrow Donor Program (marrow.org) – Roberts and WWL-TV started Perfect Match (wwwltv.com), which helps explain bone marrow donation via Be the Match (BeTheMatch.com), as well as organ donation, Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (lopa.org). The site also showcases stories about people who have had donated bone marrow and those who have benefited from the donation of marrow and organs.
It is hard – OK, let’s say impossible – to not be moved by Roberts’ passion about informing people about becoming a bone marrow donor and the lives it can save. As of press time, her sister’s bone marrow transplant will have taken place. Through the many media facets available today to spread the word – or the gospel, so to speak – Roberts is sure to affect many more lives. And, of course, greet us in the morning with Paulsen, to let us know how New Orleans is doing.
What challenges do traditional media, such as TV, face today with the rise of social media? The reality is that we have to jump on board and keep up with the technology.
People are getting their news in a different way now, such as Twitter and Facebook. We are inviting people to be included; we want them to send in their photos, videos and stories. We are living in the 21st century and we need to embrace it or become obsolete.
What do you think makes reporting news in New Orleans different than anywhere else? There’s so much news here – due to our geographical location and our rich culture. New Orleans is a small town, but a big city at the same time. The friendliness, the outgoing people and the community.
But I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. I know the problems with violence. I have friends who have lost their children to violence. There is tremendous sadness juxtaposed with the joy of living here.
But, I believe better days are ahead. People are moving here, and it’s going to make New Orleans a boomtown – the city is ripe for growth.
What community groups are you involved in? I like to call what I do M&M: Mentoring and Marrow. I’m a mentor at Success Preparatory Academy, and on the board for Each One Save One.
And I’m working with Perfect Match.
What is the test for getting on the bone marrow transplant registry? Just a cheek swab.
How are bone marrow transplants done? There are two ways to help; it depends on the disease.
For 70 percent of the cases, the process is much like kidney dialysis: a needle in each arm attached to circulation machines to get the stem cells. You have to lay still for four hours, which can be uncomfortable, but not painful.
The second way – which has to be done 30 percent of the time – is that the bone marrow or stem cells have to be obtained via the hip by a needle while you’re under general anesthesia. There is some pain, but it depends on the person. I’ve interviewed a person who didn’t feel anything after the process, while another said it felt like he had been kicked by a mule. But at no time did anyone say that the discomfort they experienced wasn’t worth it, as you’re giving someone a new lease on life.
What does having a bone marrow transplant do for a person with cancer? I’ve spoken to a woman who received a bone marrow transplant via her brother 12 years ago – and she’s cancer-free. Before the transplant, she had breast cancer and three types of lymphoma and was in and out of hospitals.
Part of your awareness campaign is to get people – particularly minorities – to be tested for the national registry. Bone marrow for stem cells needs to be the same as that person’s genetic makeup for it to work. There are about 10 million donors on the national bone marrow registry, but only seven percent of them are African-American. The registry also needs Asians and Native Americans.
Most people will not find a match with a family member – only 30 percent do, while 70 percent need to turn to the registry.
What story have you worked on – other than Perfect Match and bone marrow registry awareness – that has been most important to you? It was a feature story from 20 years ago: A call came in on the radio about police activity, and when we got there I saw a policeman fighting back tears. There were children in the house that hadn’t been cared for, and the neighbors had been calling the police about the neglect. The children were wearing clothes that were dirty and didn’t fit; the house reeked of urine. And yet, the only time the children cried was when they were separated from their mother.
Out of that came the series “Who’s Watching the Children.” It also stirred in me a need to adopt, as I had wanted to adopt since I was younger. It was always in the back of my mind, so Willie and I adopted our son, who’s now studying Shakespeare – and his dad is cheering him on from above!
True confession: As much as I like watching shows like “Chopped” and I live in a city that is a top food destination, I cannot cook. Fortunately, I’m married to a man who can and does.
At a Glance
Profession: Co-anchor of WWL-TV/Channel 4 “Eyewitness Morning News” Age: 59 Resides: New Orleans East Family: Husband, Ron Nabonne (married in 2007); three children with her first husband, Willie Craft (of whom she was a widow): Judith, Kelly and Jeremiah. Born/raised: Born Chandler, Ariz., while father was stationed at Williams Air Force Base. As he rose through the ranks of the Air Force, the family subsequently lived in Sioux City, Iowa; Tuskegee, Ala.; Akron, Ohio; McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey (Near Trenton); Izmir, Turkey; then as a junior in high school, they moved to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. Education: Bachelor of Arts in Spanish (“But don’t expect me to say anything more than olé,” says Roberts); Masters degree in Communications – both from University of Southern Mississippi. Favorite book: The Bible, of course. Devotionals, including: Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman and God is Calling, edited by A.J. Russell. I like biographies, such as Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and memoirs, Coming Back Stronger by Drew Brees with Chris Fabry. Favorite movie: It’s a Wonderful Life Favorite TV show: “Chopped” or anything food competition-related such as “Top Chef” and “MasterClass.” Favorite food: I eat salmon at least two times a week – I’m trying to eat healthier. Favorite restaurants: Dooky Chase and Irene’s Favorite music/musicians: Gospel music. For musicians, Yolanda Adams and Irma Thomas.
hobby: Crossword puzzles and Scrabble Favorite vacation spot: Cozumel, Mexico – I like beaches.