There’s a reason why CNN anchor Don Lemon’s coming out–in The New York Times and in his book, Transparent–caused such a media frenzy. Even in 2011, you can still count the number of national, openly gay television anchors on one hand (Rachel Maddow and Thomas Roberts, of MSNBC, are two). All the more reason why the courage of KVUE’s Tyler Sieswerda is commendable. For his part, Sieswerda is modest about his own journey and respectful of where his colleagues are in their own coming-out processes.
“It’s very personal. Someone like Anderson Cooper is dealing with the world on a much different level,” said Sieswerda. “I can understand it, but I don’t want to be that person. I made a conscious decision not to. If somebody does not want to hire me someday because of sitting here talking to you and doing this, then I don’t want to work for them.”
Sieswerda has anchored KVUE’s 5, 6 and 10 o’clock news, Monday through Friday nights, since 2005, and he was working in Atlanta on a freelance basis for WSB, an ABC affiliate, before moving to Austin. A meteorologist friend of his who worked for KVUE told him there was an opening for the anchor position and to call the news director. After a stint out of college in Colorado, Sieswerda worked at KFOX in El Paso and had visited Austin in the late ‘90s, when he first fell in love with the city, even interviewing for the position back then. Second time was the charm, as he was the only person flown in for the job.
This self-proclaimed news junkie and Texas transplant took time out from one of his typically 10-hour-long work days to talk about his passion for storytelling, his late blooming sexuality and what motivates him to share the news with viewers after 16 years in the industry.
“When I started in the business, I never imagined that I could be sitting here talking to you and having this conversation. I had told myself that was not possible. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll be that guy: single, where no one really knows what’s going on.’ ”
Some people seem to know what they’re meant to be doing, in terms of bigger life goals, right from the start. Sieswerda is not one of those people. A business major at first, Sieswerda hated it and didn’t go to class very much. He worked for an insurance underwriting company for a few years, worked as an extra in a few movies in Atlanta and took some classes at a community college. One of those courses, a speech class, helped to spark his interest in broadcast journalism. Even though bashful,” dad still laughs today thinking about how quiet I was and what I do now for a living.”
Sieswerda received his bachelor’s degree in 1995 in mass communications from the State University of West Georgia, a small school near the Alabama border with about 8,000 students. With newfound focus and deep enthusiasm, he made the dean’s list and finished four years later. He also came out…of his shell. “I’ll talk to anybody. I don’t know what happened. I’m not loud, but I’m not afraid to sit down and talk to somebody.”
Exploring the world has been a longtime passion that was nurtured by his mother when he was growing up. His parents divorced when he was eight, but his mother traveled a lot and they would spend weeks visiting various places over each summer. One trip in particular, en route to Seattle by car, stood out in his mind. An argument in the car between his mom and her boyfriend was distracting enough that when they saw a “Welcome to North Dakota” sign, they all simultaneously exclaimed, “North Dakota!?” Their wrong turn eventually took them to South Dakota as well, and they ended up seeing Mt. Rushmore. All these years later, Sieswerda has visited (more than just the airports) every state except Alaska.
Although Sieswerda might not think of himself as going against the grain, the truth is that in today’s environment (many public figures of different backgrounds are not comfortable enough to be openly gay) he is doing just that. His mother, raised in a very traditional Southern family, instilled a sense of independence in him and led by example. “When she was 18, she moved out and married her high school sweetheart. She’s always broken the mold and was always the rebel of the family and an incredibly hard worker,” he said. “She was a great example to my sister and I to never stop trying because if you work hard enough things will get better.”
“Tyler is kind, considerate, courageous, caring and has a great deal of respect for people, animals and the planet,” said Leslie Sieswerda, his mother, who currently works as an interior designer in Austin. “He’s a loving son, brother and uncle and he has a heart bigger than Texas.”
A self-confessed late bloomer, Sieswerda knew he was different back in high school but didn’t have a frame of reference for it, so he convinced himself that he couldn’t be gay and still accomplish his life goals. At the age of 32, a few years after a roommate of his point blank asked him about his sexuality, Sieswerda came out to his family. Although everyone eventually came around in terms of being supportive, Southern background and all, the revelation was not without its awkward moments.
“I have a family member, I won’t say who. He and his wife were visiting, and he made a derogatory comment while watching a movie. Instead of being upset by that or feeling bad, I found great power in it, because I knew I could clear a room if I wanted to.”
Sieswerda’s time in Austin is the longest he’s lived in a place since he started his career more than a decade and a half ago. The magnetic pull of the Capital City has been impossible for his family to resist. About four years ago, his sister divorced and then moved in with Sieswerda and his former partner, giving them a crash course in parenting by bringing her 2-year- old son along. Six months after that, his mother moved in and stayed with him for a year. Now, his sister is in Cedar Park and his mother, who had lost her prior job in the economic downturn, lives in Spicewood.
Now residing in Tarrytown, after living in a high-rise overlooking Lady Bird Lake, Sieswerda seems content and marvels at the city’s culinary, cultural and nightlife offerings. He loves walking his dog, Jake, a 5-year-old miniature pinscher mix, along the lake. Even so, the demands of his high-profile job can leave him with little down time.
Each morning, Sieswerda is devouring news from many different sources (Austin American-Statesman, The New York Times, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Shepard Smith and so on) and looking at the ratings from the previous night. At 2 p.m. he meets with the station’s evening news managers and producers to discuss what stories are being covered and which ones merit more coverage. Next, it’s time to record a few promos and teasers to draw viewers in, then on to writing scripts for each newscast. Before you know it, he’s in the anchor chair and the rest of the night zips by. Throughout this, he’s checking and responding to hundreds of emails from colleagues and viewers. Confessing that he thrives off the adrenaline and chaos of it all, he said his work day is typically 10 hours.
Every news anchor has that one story or moment of deep, personally felt connection that binds him or her not only to the profession but to the people involved in the story and to their humanity. For Sieswerda, it was during his tenure at KFOX in El Paso. He was working in northern New Mexico, about four hours from Denver, on April 20, 1999, the day that two students with guns embarked on a massacre at Columbine High School, killing 12 of their peers and a teacher before committing suicide. The fourth-deadliest school shooting in American history left a deep impression on Sieswerda, who spent a full week reporting live from Columbine.
When Sieswerda and his photographer first arrived, it was so chaotic they didn’t have time to absorb the events right away. On the third day, they were walking around the snow- and-slush-filled streets trying to find people to interview when they came upon a group of four or five students on their knees in a circle, praying and crying. “My photographer wasn’t much older than the students and seeing that touched him,” Sieswerda said. “Tears came down his face. He put down the camera and joined the students. It was at that moment when I felt the raw emotion of what we were all going through.”
Reporters can get attached to people and to stories, and one of the harder parts of the job, according to Sieswerda, is being able to turn off that emotional response when you get home from work. When asked if there are stories that were impossible or harder to turn off, he responded without hesitation: “9/11–it was crazy, you go go go all day long, and when I got home and watched it, I just broke down.”
Although the label of “objectivity” is bandied about often, most people who work in journalism, whether they realize it or not, are bringing their own assumptions and beliefs to the table. The trick, Sieswerda said, is to maintain a fair approach–even when the story prompts a strong personal reaction one way or another. The perfect example is the ongoing debate about same-sex marriage. When he was working at WSB in Atlanta, he was covering the Georgia marriage amendment, later approved by 76% of voters in 2004, which made it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages and civil unions.
“You are gonna have an opinion one way or the other, but that’s one of the reasons why it is so important to me to be fair. You have to consciously tell yourself to step outside of that and look at both sides, Sieswerda said. “I had to sit down and talk to the leader of the [people in favor of the amendment] and be friendly and ask tough questions. Then, I had to go to the gay rights advocates and ask tough questions of them.”
Considering himself lucky in many ways, Sieswerda has given back to many nonprofit organizations in Austin over the years, including the Texas 4000, which is the longest annual charity bike ride in the world, clocking in at 70 days and 4,687 miles from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska.
“I can’t imagine not doing it. If you can’t give money, but you can give some time, that’s helping,” he said. Sieswerda has also served as the emcee at the Austin Human Rights Campaign’s Gala Dinner for several years.
With nothing but praise for his media colleagues and the people who have achieved national recognition and celebrity status–Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams–Sieswerda is consistently engaged (read: not burnt out) by the day-to-day rush of his work. As for future plans, he listed fatherhood as a goal and said his skills were enhanced (or developed) while taking care of his nephew a few years ago. Does he have a dream job or see himself retiring at some point? He wouldn’t mind working long enough to buy a large boat to live on and use for travel– his other love is for water–but that’s a long way off.
Sieswerda, who would run into the kitchen to tell his parents about what was happening on the news that night, loves learning and is still fascinated and moved by all the changes happening in Austin. Working in the news industry can and does harden people, sometimes, or breed a certain amount of cynicism. He shakes that off, too. “For every bad thing that happens, there are millions of great things happening every day.”
“I love the big stories, when big things happen. One of those days when you go in early and you’re there until late,” he said. “KVUE has been nothing but supportive of me in every regard. Since day one, I never felt I had to hide who I was or who I brought to company functions. There’s a climate of inclusiveness here that I hope everyone will experience someday.”