White House correspondent April Ryan looks back over her nearly 20-year career covering three presidents and hopes to make it a fourth in January. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
April Ryan clearly recalls the first time President Bill Clinton called her by name. She laughs about observing George W. Bush "raise the roof" before acknowledging that Barack Obama would succeed him as president. And she treasures the memory of chatting with Obama about her mother, who never lived to see the nation elect its first black president.
For Ryan, a "loud-mouthed kid from Baltimore," each moment was unforgettable, even overwhelming. But they were also part of her job: The 49-year-old White House correspondent and pundit will celebrate two decades on the beat in January, which also marks the swearing-in of the 45th president.
Ryan is chief of American Urban Radio Networks' Washington bureau — the only African-American broadcast bureau in the White House, with a network of more than 300 stations nationwide and nearly 20 million listeners each week.
Ryan has made her mark as the onlyWhite House reporter devoted to issues with particular impact on the African-American community, showing fearlessness and a sense of humor as she delves into topics such as the Affordable Care Act, unemployment and Agriculture Department discrimination against black farmers.
When she covered Hurricane Katrina, "George Bush knew to go to me all the time," she said. "Even when I didn't raise my hand, he'd say, 'April, I know you have a question.'"
She documented much of her experiencein her 2015 book "The Presidency in Black and White: My Up‑Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America." (She even graded them— Clinton and Obama earned B+; Bush, C-.)
The national conversation has evolvedsince then. Obama is more public about his blackness than he was in his first term, she said,and the country has responded to the police-involved deaths of Freddie Gray and several unarmed black men, a topic she discusses in "At Mama's Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White," scheduled for release Dec. 15.
"It used to be a time where I was the only one asking about black issues. … Now it's more mainstream," said Ryan, who talked with Obama, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner in her book about motherhood and parent-child discussions about race.
"You have an African-American who's reached the highest of highs, but still there's the lowest of lows in the African-American community," she said.
Ryan's job description, however, remains the same.
Being a black woman in radio means she always had to fight as hard as, if not harder than, her counterparts to ask questions and get answers, she said, comparing the White House to a "white male-dominated fraternity." She says she has been brushed off and viewed as "militant" because of her focus.
"I soon began to realize that I had to take a bit more of an aggressive role. If I thought certain issues needed to be addressed, I couldn't afford to sit back and wait for the answers because they would never come. I needed to make sure that issues affecting all Americans were being addressed," Ryan writes in "The Presidency in Black and White."
Still, Ryan has built rapport in and out of the White House. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett referred to her as "one of the brightest superstars in the White House press corps" and a role model for young women. Baltimore Democratic mayoral nominee and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who once worked at WEBB-AM radio with Ryan, praised her work ethic.
At a recent White House press briefing, Ryan wryly referred to this year's contentious first presidential debate as "exciting." Fellow journalists laughed, and press secretary Josh Earnest praised her "unique perspective."
"I think that would in part explain your popularity across the country," he said. "Maybe even in this room."
On a recent Wednesday morning, sunglasses on and bags in hand, Ryan bolts to the basement of the White House's James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, just steps away from the Oval Office.
"I have to put my face on," she says in between lively hi's and hello's to other White House reporters.
She sits inside her AURN booth, decorated with baby pictures of her daughters, now 8 and 14, and their colorful drawings. She puts on a layer of makeup in five minutes and is ready to roll.
Her mornings start around 5 with checking emails, watching the news, calling sources, talking with the baby sitter. Then she drives about two hours during rush hour from her Baltimore County home to downtown D.C., a sacrifice she makes to work in Washingtonandreturn towhere her support system, her family, her history remain.
The Morgan State University alumna, once mentored by former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, cut her teeth in radio as a DJ between classes at the college's station, WEAA-FM. She worked for WTOP-FM and the then-WXYV-FM (V-103) where she was a news director, but when AURN thrust her into her position at the White House in 1997, it was like learning a new language, a constant effort to gain a Ph.D. without ever graduating.
"You have to learn a lot in a little bit of time because anything can change at a moment's notice," Ryan said, but "I like finding out things, and I guess the quirkiness that I have has worked over the years. It had to."
Ryan started with a seat in the back of the briefing room. She shoutedher questions to be heard and maneuvered her way closer to the front, sometimes sitting in seats of reporters who never showed.
"Oh, yeah," she said with a nod. "I was strategic."
Eventually, she was assigned a seat "smack-dab in the middle" of the third row, where she sits today.
She's had sit-downs with each president and first lady beginning with Clinton, traveling on missions in Africa with each president. She went to the Gulf Coast aboard Air Force One with George W. and Laura Bush for the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and to Mexico and Trinidad with Obama.
But Ryan still faces a hierarchy in the briefing room.
Questions from the front row, typically the domain of TV broadcast reporters and major news services, are taken first; then, major newspapers and websites, she said. Radio — "the bastard stepchild," Ryan says — comes last.
Ryan — who has never been one to shy away from holding presidents or their staff accountable, according to Earnest — has earned a name for herself, her comments and question delivery sometimes drawing gasps or laughs from her counterparts.
Yet her credibility has been tested, and her relationship with U.S. officials, at times, has been contentious.
In late 2009, Ryan had a public dispute with then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about then-social secretary Desiree Rogers' responsibility for a security breach at a state dinner. Ryan grilled Gibbs about Rogers, even asking if Rogers invited herself to the party. Gibbs snapped back.
Gibbs: April, April, calm down. Just take a deep breath for one second. See? This happens with my son; he does the same thing. [Groans could be heard from fellow reporters.]
Ryan: Don't play with me. I'm being serious. Do not blow it off.
"It was ugly," said Ryan, who saw the moment go viral, replayed on TV networks. Ryan said the two have since mended fences. (The Baltimore Sun could not reach Gibbs for comment.)
Rogers stepped down from her position in February 2010, and Ryan said she believes Rogers blames her and another reporter for the backlash.
Rogers declined to comment when contacted by The Sun but said she wishes Ryan the best.
Today, Ryan is focused on a new chapter, along with the rest of the country.
She let out a big sigh when asked about the looming election. She's begun to reflect on Obama's legacy.
"When he became president, I didn't cry, but I'm starting to feel that way," Ryan said. She believes he will go down as one of the greatest presidents for his emphasis on rights for women and the LGBT and African-American communities.
If he doesn't, Ryan said, she's convinced it will be because of race.
As for what comes after Election Day, Ryan predicted that access would be difficult with a President Trump, who has a "disdain for the press," and would possibly be easier with Clinton, with whom she has rapport.
Whoever wins has the responsibility of reaching out to groups that feel left behind, Ryan said.
"This is not the time and point to exclude. Be it race, religion, be it gender," she said. "I'm a single mom with two little girls, and I can't be excluded from the equation. I know there are a lot of other women out here like me. ... I bring something to the table. I know I do. All of us do."
It's a sunny, fall day at the White House, leaves are changing colors, and January is coming.
Ryan stops and looks past the lawn and trees toward the West Wing. She still gets goose bumps, she says. "This house has seen greatness."
"To cover one president is one thing, but then to cover two and then three and possibly four," she says. "I've made my mark."
Title: Washington bureau chief, White House correspondent and host of "White House Report" for American Urban Radio Networks
Residence: Baltimore County
Birthplace: Northwest Baltimore
Education: Bachelor of science in broadcast journalism, Morgan State University, 1989
Career: WEAA-FM and WEBB-AM in the early '90s; U.S. 101 in Chattanooga, Tenn.,1991; the former WXYV-FM (V-103), 1991-1993; Metro Traffic, 1994-1995; WTOP-FM, 1995-1997; American Urban Radio Networks, 1997-present
Bragging rights: She wrote about covering the presidents in her first book, "The Presidency in Black and White: My Up‑Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America," in 2015. A second book, "At Mama's Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White," will be released Dec. 15. Ryan has also contributed to the Huffington Post and has appeared on MSNBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, TV One and CNN. She is one of three African-Americans to have served on the White House Correspondents' Association board in its 102-year history.
Personal: Divorced with two daughters, ages 8 and 14; enjoys spending downtime with children and friends, cooking, knitting hats, painting pottery, laughing, listening to gospel and hearing a good sermon