Ryan Baker


Ryan Baker '91 JOURN, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and has admitted, “One of the greatest thrills for me was being able to come back to my hometown where my grandparents could see me on the news every night.” Ryan still has family all around Chicago. Returning has been something of a dream come true.

Media has always had an influence on Ryan, especially the images portrayed. As a child he wanted to be an architect like Mike Brady, sitting at the drafting board in his big office. “It seemed like a good profession — had the nice house and the big family … Alice and Sam,” laughed Ryan. After seeing drafting in practice through a job shadow program, Ryan realized the idea tapped into his creative side.

In seventh grade Ryan got closer to his current profession during a persuasive speech contest. His speech was a commercial for prayer cloths done in the vein of Reverend Ike. Public speaking wasn’t a challenge, and he won the contest. Later he wanted to write for Sports Illustrated — most likely the influence of a sports town like Chicago.

When he reflected on the influence of media at that time in his life Ryan said, “I think subconsciously I was drawn to it. That was the day and age when as a family you watched the news. There was no cable; there was 2, 5 & 7. Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson were an institution. It was part of the daily routine. It’s mind blowing that you fast forward and I’m working with them.”

Jim Rose and Warner Saunders were also important role models. As a teenager, Ryan talked to Rose once in a restaurant. Rose was one of the first black sports anchors in Chicago, and he talked to the young Ryan in an honest and straightforward manner, something Ryan has tried to emulate with young people. For a college project Ryan interviewed Warner Saunders — who was also very honest and straightforward — a trailblazer who broke down barriers in the Chicago market. Ryan recalled, “Seeing someone who looks like you, who came from where you came from, resonates and makes things more real. At each juncture I learned to have a plan, to act on that plan, to persevere, to take advantage of opportunities, always focused on short-term and long-term goals.“

A college education was talked about and encouraged in his family. “Without an education it would be difficult to advance, to progress, to do what you need to do. Advancement for black folks was foreign. It was another world.” Ryan knew that education was the key to that. “A degree gives you credibility … allows you to get in the game.”

Illinois had always been on his radar, but was not his first choice for college. Syracuse — where Bob Costas and Dick Enberg went — was his first choice. He received a special brochure from the journalism school with endorsements from many heavy hitters. Then he saw the out-of-state tuition and he thought, “hell no.”

Growing up in Chicago, a basketball hotbed, every kid wanted to go downstate to play in the tournament. It made an impression and Ryan admits, “I still get a thrill walking into ‘The Hall’.” He also attended Illinois Summer Youth Music Camp, staying in Allen Hall close to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. “You get an emotional attachment and feeling that this is a special place, that I have a connection here.”

Ryan was a President’s Scholar and that helped with tuition. And today he says that attending Illinois was the best decision he ever made. “I chose Illinois and Illinois chose me. It was the correct connection … a game changer and the foundation of my success professionally.”

“When you go to college and are in the dorm with people from different backgrounds and environments, different religious and races … it really opens your mind and you begin to understand that there is more than just the perspective from where I am now. It was really motivating.”

Ryan was a student basketball manager at Illinois so he could be around the people who did what he wanted to do. He was able to establish and build relationships with writers and sportscasters — people in the business of what he wanted to do, people such as Dan Roan, WGN sports anchor, who proved to be an instrumental relationship and mentor. Those connections paid dividends. They led to his first job in Champaign as a photographer and cameraman with WICD. After becoming an on-air reporter with WICD, he was hired by WCIA as a news reporter and fill-in sports anchor. Ryan also worked in San Diego, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., before returning to Chicago.

“I’ve always tried to put myself in a position to succeed. I felt if I did that, held up my end of the deal, was prepared, worked extremely hard, everything would fall into place and it really has." Being in broadcasting forces you to be on your game. It keeps your mind moving. “There are no do-overs in live TV.”

While at Illinois, Ryan learned about the importance of telling a story in an engaging and compelling way and about understanding and having respect for the fundamentals of journalism. “Always keep in mind that you’re a storyteller. Even as a sportscaster. It’s a hands-on business and while visual, writing is still the most important skill — driving home your point in a limited amount of time.”

Ryan truly did work his way up through the ranks. “I wouldn’t trade any of it. When you focus and concentrate on the work, honing your craft, being as professional and committed to your profession as you can … that’s when time flies. Opportunities open up and you’re prepared for it.”

While technology has dramatically changed the accessibility of information, Ryan believes there will always be a need for a storyteller. And while television and broadcasting will look different in the future, we’ll still have to be able to distinguish fact from fiction; information from opinion. “It’s harder now to navigate what’s real and what’s not.”

His advice to today’s students is simple: stay committed to the profession. Regardless of medium, you have to stay committed to the passion of being a storyteller. “Your role is to seek the truth in whatever story you’re telling.”

Ryan and his wife, Jessa, are generous supporters of the University of Illinois and recently established the Ryan Baker Endowed Fund in Journalism, which will provide support for journalism students in the College of Media. Ryan also currently serves on the Illini Leadership Council, lending his time and professional expertise toward the University’s new strategic initiatives and outreach in the Chicagoland area.

If you have questions or would like to discuss donation options, please contact:

  • Marlah Bonner McDuffie
    Associate Dean for Advancement
    College of Media