The Producer

1999

Making It Work, Behind the Camera

Jenelle Shriner wears the label “nerd” as a badge of honor. She found herself adrift in middle school. Her parents were newly divorced, her father had remarried and her own identification as a lesbian was burgeoning, as she knew she was different from her peers but unable to verbalize what that meant. All these factors left her feeling isolated and the end result was that her grades suffered. However, in high school, she dove into her studies, taking a range of advanced placement classes and pursuing the Latin language with vigor because ultimately she wanted to prove to herself, and to her family, that she could achive anything.

When the rest of Austin is sitting down to dinner, coming home from work or getting ready to paint the town, at 6 or 7 p.m., Shriner is getting ready for bed or, more likely, already asleep. As the executive producer for KVUE’s morning and midday newscasts, she wakes up at 1:30 every morning, reads up on the day’s news and gets to work an hour later. The earliest morning local newscasts used to be at 6 or 6:30, while KVUE’s is at 4:30. Believe it or not, a lot of people are watching at that pre-daylight hour, including gym goers, corporate types and many parents getting their children ready for school. Shriner gets in, checks the day’s rundown, which contains the names of all the stories that are scheduled, to make sure all is in order. Using iNews, the Associated Press wire, a partnership with the Austin American-Statesman and the diligent work of her colleagues, Shriner plugs in elements as needed for interviews, prepares scripts and connects with the morning anchors. For the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. newscasts, the process repeats itself, with Shriner also sending and receiving 300 to 400 emails throughout the day. After a 9 a.m. editorial meeting, everyone is getting ready for the 11 a.m. show. Shriner’s been on this atypical shift for 8 years, so she’s used to it.

3-1“Ever since I was in college, I wanted to make the world a better place through journalism,” she said. “I strive to change people’s minds about the news. It’s not just reporting the bad in the world, it’s reporting all of the good as well. I love being a part of history in Austin every single day.”

Shriner had some big shoes to fill, replacing a woman who had more than 10 years of experience with the company and a reputation for community service and compassion. She had been sick and the situation was in limbo for a bit, but Shriner handled it with typical aplomb, earning the respect of her new colleagues at KVUE by proceeding with utmost sensitivity and care, building upon her predecessor’s successes and injecting new life into the morning newscasts.

“I love the power of television,” Shriner said. “The stories we report affect people. They make people sad, make people happy, make people inspired, make people aware, and they can make people reach out to help those in need.”

Shriner is still in the honeymoon phase of her time here, having moved to Austin in September, and she said it’s the best place she’s lived thus far. Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, she studied journalism and mass communications at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, worked as a producer at WTVD in Raleigh, KOMO in Seattle, and at WINK in Fort Myers, Florida, prior to taking the job at KVUE.

For this self-confessed nerd, the rewards of adhering to the early morning schedule are plentiful: plaudits from viewers in the form of positive feedback via email or nonprofit organizations telling her that a KVUE broadcast brought more attendees to their fundraiser. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, allowing people to see the good things that folks in the community are doing.”

When Shriner started at KVUE, people came up to her and said things like, ‘Good to see you again, when are you hitting the streets?’ Shriner, having no idea what they were talking about, was a little befuddled. Finally, some said, ‘You’re Erin, right?’ Turns out that her colleagues had her confused with Erin Coker, a photojournalist at KVUE, also gay, who started a few weeks after Shriner. “So when she got there, that’s how we broke the ice,” Shriner said, laughing, ‘Oh, it’s my twin!’ ” Both new residents of Austin, they connected on exploring the city’s offerings together. “We were instant friends and have had a blast together,” said Coker. “She’s one of the funniest people I have ever met and I’m lucky to have someone like her in my life.”

“Erin and I instantly bonded and have become best friends,” Shriner added. “More than likely, if you see me out and about, she’s right there with me.”

Shriner and her team always strive to strike a balance between local, national and international news, while also utilizing the tools of new journalism, including Facebook and Twitter. “I’ve produced the news through crippling floods, ice storms, the 9/11 terror attacks and now the death of Osama Bin Laden,” she said. “I never know what will happen when I go to work. It gives me an adrenaline rush and a desire to come back every single day.”

While she was a UNC, Shriner fell in love with writing and the nuts and bolts of being the person who oversees everything from behind the scenes. Although news is a serious business, Shriner said lighter moments or the occasional bloopers provide comic relief. “We laugh, all morning, even with serious situations. I watch what the anchors say to each other and it makes me laugh.”

At a previous job, her colleague was reading from the teleprompter and someone didn’t fix her name in the script. “So they said, ‘I’m ‘the wrong name’ and it was a man’s name and they were a woman,” Shriner said, smiling at the memory. “On live television, but people don’t get upset about them happening.” With all of the chaos of a regular day at work and all of the possible outcomes, Shriner is relieved that viewers give them a reprieve when human error inevitably happens.

When she’s not working, Shriner spends afternoons exploring different neighborhoods, walking her two dogs, Cheeky, a white Chihuahua, and Saki, a black and tan min-pin, or reading (she loves true crime, mysteries and is a big Harry Potter fan). She’s also a voracious music lover, with tastes ranging from country music to Roy Orbison and David Bowie, and everything in between. Emo’s and Stubb’s are two of her favorite venues. She loves music, and she loves playing the guitar at home–for an audience of one.

As she settles into her life here, Shriner wants to get more personally involved with different nonprofits in town. Through KVUE, she’s met people affiliated with the March of Dimes, Hill Country Ride for AIDS, and SafePlace, adding that it’s a core goal of hers to help them. “I want the news to reflect all of the wonderful people and organizations working to make life better.”

Middle school was hard for Shriner. With everything that was going on in her personal and family life, her grades at that point weren’t so good; she found herself acting out. When she got to high school, by sheer force of will, she turned things around and plunged head first into her studies and many other scholarly, proudly dorky pursuits. She was in the Latin Club for four years in high school and fell in love with the language, the history, the mythology and the art of ancient Rome. “I realized that when I work hard, I can do anything,” she said. “And I got addicted to that feeling.” A dedicated student, she graduated in three years, at the age of 20, because she’d taken advanced placement English, art history, Latin, and biology. Although her parents divorced when she was 10, Shriner said they were supportive in every way, even when she came out at as a teenager.

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She wrote poetry, kept a journal growing up, and while she had heard her peers use the word “lesbian,” she didn’t know what it meant. When she was 13, Shriner told her mom she thought she was different. Her mother, like many, already had an inkling. “My mom was hilarious, every time I would go out on a date, she’d print out a compatibility report, based on astrology, and give it to us. And be like, ‘Okay, everything’s looking pretty good except you may fight over money.’ ”

During her freshman year in high school, she was hanging out with her good friend and fellow science nerd, Miriam, and she made her a crossword puzzle containing words like ‘rainbow,’ ‘women,’ and ‘closet.’ “She figured it out after circling the first word,” she said, giggling at the recollection.

Shriner said she wouldn’t have achieved everything she has were it not for the consistent love and support from her mother. “She’s my best friend,” she added. “There is nothing she wouldn’t do for me. Knowing you have support and love like that makes you feel like you can conquer the world.”

Her father, charismatic and funny, is a CPA in Asheville and has had his own firm for two decades. A military brat, he spent part of his childhood growing up in San Antonio with his parents. Her mom is retired and is fixing up a foreclosed house she recently bought in Florida. Shriner’s brother is 24 and studying at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He continues a longstanding family tradition. Frederick Shriner, Jenelle’s grandfather, entered the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1942, flew combat missions in Europe, won numerous commendations during his three tours of duty in Vietnam, and was the base commander of Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. Although Shriner was concerned for her brother’s safety because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, her thinking came around.

“I saw an amazing change in my brother,” she added. “He matured. He started taking great pride in himself. I truly think the military gave him a new respect for the world and for himself. He’s already accomplished so much and we’re all very proud of him.”

When she’s in editorial meetings with colleagues, Shriner takes a broad view of her role at the table–as a woman in a field dominated by men, as someone who’s relatively young for her professional achievements (she’s 30), and as a gay woman.

“We talk about stories that impact people,” she said. “I can speak up and say, ‘this impacts a large group of people because I find this story to be disturbing or moving in some way. We do have a powerful responsibility to people.”

Case in point: the shooting deaths in Southeast Austin of a lesbian, Norma Hurtado, 24, and her mother, at the hands of Jose Alfonso Aviles–the father of Norma’s girlfriend–were shocking to Shriner. “What I heard was, ‘this doesn’t happen in Austin.’ It doesn’t really matter if it does or does not, it’s still so disturbing that we can come so far and take steps back,” she said. “This case was particularly sad because police say that Norma and her mother were killed because Norma was in a lesbian relationship. Despite the tragedy, it was incredibly moving that the community came together and held a vigil, rally and march in the Hurtados’ honor. One of the most memorable moments was seeing Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo marching with them.”

4Shriner has never felt professionally hindered by her gender or her sexuality, but her age is more of a factor in how she’s perceived by her peers. “I am only 30, but I have worked a long time producing and traveling and going out in markets and experiencing so many other things,” Shriner, who has almost 11 years of experience, said. “Most people, when they get to know me at work, they realize I know what I’m talking about.”

This adopted Texan–she and her father wear cowboy boots for every occasion–sees herself putting down roots in Austin, continuing to work toward improving the world around her and hopefully, when the time is right, finding a woman to share her life with. She summarized what could be called her core philosophy this way: “Living your life in a way that helps others and being a good person is my duty and I try to do that.”

In February, KVUE’s Daybreak newscast won both hours, ratings wise, for the first time a few years, so Shriner must be doing something right. During the snowstorm in February, Shriner’s team stayed on the air until 9 a.m., updating viewers on treacherous road conditions on a day when hundreds of car crashes and fender benders were reported. “Later that day, I thought to myself, ‘We may have saved lives today,’ ” Shriner said. “If even one person turned on the TV and didn’t get in their car and drive in those conditions because they heard our warnings and saw our reports–we did our job. That’s what makes me come to work every day.”

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