In Depth

Telling Story of All Americans

Oklahoma City’s Ballard Puts Her Talents to Good Use

It was April 19, 1995, and KOCO-TV reporter Cherokee Ballard thought she would get a manicure before heading to work at the ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City. She saw black smoke rising from the downtown area, and her phone began ringing. Without even looking to see who it was, she answered, “I’ll be right there.”

As the shocking news broke of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, Ms. Ballard got on the air and stayed on for the next 22 hours, the beginning of a week of nonstop, commercial-free coverage for most of the stations in Oklahoma City.

Six years later, convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., and Ms. Ballard was there to cover the story. She has been witness to eight executions, the most recent just last month. The inmate had specifically requested she interview him four days before his death sentence was carried out for the murder of a young student in a bombing.

With more than 25 years of broadcast journalism experience and a shelf full of awards, Ms. Ballard, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is a fixture in Oklahoma City TV and one of the few Native American anchor/ reporters in the U.S.—a number she estimates at fewer than a dozen.

“Native Americans are storytellers, and I’ve always liked to write and dig for the truth and tell people stories,” said Ms. Ballard, a former board member and mentor with the Native American Journalists Association. “Journalism sent me in that direction.”

She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in Norman as a radio, television and film major in the journalism department, and got an internship in the consumer unit of KFOR-TV, the NBC affiliate, where she later got a paying job, starting at the minimum rate of $3.35 an hour. After several years as an associate producer of “In Your Corner,” she began a brief reporting stint at a station in the small town of Ada, Okla., while also reporting on weekends at ABC affiliate KOCO-TV, Channel 5, where she was based for the next 16 years.

Nine years ago, Ms. Ballard was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While undergoing successful treatment, she did a weekly series of reports on cancer, which aired every Wednesday night for nine months. “I took viewers through what people go through, from surgeries to chemo, and what it felt like on my 34th birthday to have my hair falling out, and to be shaved,” she said. “For a Native American woman, to be bald is traumatic. Hair is so much part of your identity. You feel so vulnerable, so naked.”

She is active in charity fundraising, and in March was named woman of the year by the Oklahoma Leukemia & Lymphoma Society after raising nearly $25,000 for the group. This month Ms. Ballard, a dancer since age 3 who was on ballroom dance teams in junior high and high school, took part in a celebrity dance contest to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network to benefit hospitalized kids in Oklahoma.

In 2005 she returned to KFOR. Since its inception last year she has co-anchored the 9 p.m. newscast with Ernie Paulson at its sister station, KAUT-TV, Channel 43, in addition to reporting for the early newscasts and the 10 p.m. broadcast on KFOR, NewsChannel 4.

“Cherokee is a tremendous example of the true Oklahoma spirit—courageous, hard-working and honest,” said Mary Ann Eckstein, senior VP and news director of KFOR-TV.

“I always thought I would end up there,” Ms. Ballard said of KFOR. “This is my TV home. This is where I’m supposed to be. It’s been a great experience.”

“There’s a Dakota saying, ‘We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.’ Cherokee’s tracks are very strong and deep, and what a variety,” Ms. Eckstein said. “Not only is she a reputable anchor and reporter, she’s a great newsroom resource and leader. Cherokee is deeply committed to quality journalism and does her best to mentor our student interns and new employees.”

Ms. Ballard was honored by the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters for her stories on 2½-year-old Kelsey Briggs, who was beaten to death. The girl’s mother and stepfather were imprisoned on child-abuse charges, and the case motivated the passage of “Kelsey’s Law,” which changed the way judges are held accountable in child-abuse cases and gave the state the ability to hire more caseworkers.

Ms. Ballard is writing a book about the case.

And she’ll soon be bidding adieu to her TV colleagues and audience, but they will still see her on the air in her new job, as public information officer and legislative liaison for the Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office.

“As a journalist, I’ll be able to get the full story, and can help bridge a gap between a press release and coverage, bring a better understanding, and be a voice for the dead. I can provide insight into different crimes that the media are interested in.”

So while the Oklahoma City market will lose a highly regarded broadcast journalist in the anchor chair, the state will gain someone with a wealth of experience who is excited to begin a new chapter in her career.