By Diane Ballard
A high-beam smile and the complexion of a 20-something fashion model are the first things you notice about Anne Holt. She reaches out to hug you, and her dark eyes telegraph warmth. This Nashville icon has looked her audience in the eye for 30 years from behind the anchor desk of WKRN news, so she’s quite good at focusing directly on you. You’re powerless to dislike her.
The beautiful exterior is the outer shell of a determined woman. She’s no ingénue TV newsreader fresh out of j-school. She’s worked her way from the cotton fields of West Tennessee, through UT Knoxville, and through the TV news ranks. Her persistence is hidden deep, like a tendon that flexes but holds steadfast.
“As I look back over my journey, my work ethic stemmed from having very little,” she muses.
The daughter of sharecroppers in Lauderdale County, Holt learned important lessons early: hard work, consisting of 2 days a week in the cotton fields, 3 days in school (“My father would build a fire for me to warm my hands when we were picking in ice and snow”); responsibility (she was the oldest girl among 13 children); and resilience (“Our parents never let us feel sorry for ourselves”).
Ready for Anything
“When I got to UT, I was ready for anything!” she laughs.
Holt graduated from segregated Lauderdale County High School in 1969. She still remembers her teachers’ nurturing. “I think they saw potential in me. But most important, they showed faith in us—they made us believe in ourselves.” Holt and one of her sisters came to UT Knoxville; three siblings went to UT Martin. College was her ticket to a better life.
“I knew there was something out there for me, and I was going to get it,” she says. She chose UT Knoxville because it offered the best financial aid package. She enrolled as a speech and theater major, but that lasted only a few months.
“I saw there weren’t any job prospects,” Holt recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do better than this. I’ve done the poor side of life.’ ” Blessed with a talent for public speaking, she transferred to the broadcasting curriculum. The faculty, particularly her advisor, Darrell Holt, and longtime professor Herb Howard, gave her support and guidance.
“I would ask for help if I needed it because I didn’t have time to repeat courses,” she says. She worked several part-time jobs and began work at Knoxville TV station WATE while she was still in school. She graduated in 1973 and moved to Nashville and to WKRN (then WNGE) in 1976, starting as a reporter and weekend anchor. She and Nashville began to get to know each other, and they both liked what they saw.
“This job has brought me into contact with so many people,” Holt says. She reads to schoolchildren. She serves on boards of nonprofits. She speaks to civic clubs. She raises money for good causes. For 25 years, she has helped in the fight against hunger by working with Second Harvest Food Bank. “What more basic can you give than food?” she asks. Though she grew up poor, Holt says she never knew hunger. “We always had food because we grew our own.” A sorting room at the Nashville Second Harvest is named in her honor.
All the time she spends out and about in Nashville solidifies Holt’s reputation as a trusted news source.
“People can see that I care and have compassion. I think my connection with viewers is because I show them who I am—that I’m believable and caring.”
A Sea Change in News
But all the belief and caring in the world can’t change the fact that local newscasts, once a go-to source for information, are now just one of many outlets audiences can select for news. Holt is well aware of the sea change.
“There’s a whole new generation of viewers and so many other options for news now,” she says. “All we have is what’s in our backyard”—events of strictly local interest.
“The challenge is to embrace change but always be accurate, fair, and relevant and to still inform and educate,” Holt says. She says it’s important for her to be familiar with the news she’s delivering. “I try to research stories on my own and feel comfortable with the information. We live in a time of uncertainty, which makes it really important for viewers to feel like we’re shooting straight with them.”
Apparently Holt gets high marks as a straight shooter; few anchors survive three decades in one market. When she goes out, she’s instantly recognizable.
“Being recognized is a kind of measure of how well you’re doing professionally. I’m used to the stares and whispers.” The public isn’t shy about giving her feedback either. “People will tell me what they think—and it’s not always good!”
Holt and her husband, Kenny Blackburn, are quite a power couple. He is vice-president of external affairs at AT&T and serves on the Nashville Chamber board and in the leadership of many other civic organizations. Holt says each supports the other’s career.
“My husband is so supportive. And the street runs both ways. I think he’s very good at what he does.”
Holt’s son, Kyle, chose television journalism as his career too and also graduated from the College of Communication and Information of UT Knoxville. Now embarked on his first job at a Knoxville station, Kyle picks his mom’s brain by phone and discusses stories he’s covered.
Holt was proud to speak at the spring 2008 College of Communication and Information commencement ceremony when Kyle graduated. Among her many honors is the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
Others include four Emmys, the Jerry Thompson Communicator’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters. She was the first woman, the first African American, and the first news anchor to receive the latter.
Serving the University
A different kind of honor came her way in 2006 when Governor Phil Bredesen appointed her to the UT Board of Trustees.
“It was a huge cramming process” to get up to speed on university background and issues. “But I’m really enjoying it. We face tremendous challenges to provide education and serve the citizens, and I will give my best.”
She’s especially interested in making a UT education accessible and affordable to as many qualified students as possible. “And once we have those students, it’s crucial to provide them quality programs and faculty.”
Holt is no stranger to UT boards. She’s previously served on the Athletic Board, the board of visitors of the College of Communication and Information, and the UT Alumni Association board of governors.
At WKRN, Holt says she’s still working as hard as ever. “I haven’t scaled back on work. I have to wait until my son’s [professional] legs are steady. So I’ll see where the journey leads. I want to write a memoir, but I’m not ready yet.”