By Marcia Reed-Woodard
First there was Oprah, now there’s Val.
In the year since media icon Oprah Winfrey retired her namesake program, Val Warner, co-host of Windy City Live, has captured the limelight and stolen the show.
The exuberant Tinseltown-native is a hit with viewers and guests alike. She’s danced with the Mayor, joked with comedian Kevin Hart, talked baseball with the legendary Ernie Banks, cooked up raw cuisine with Chef Karyn Calabrese, and “sang” with “The Voice” contestant Jesse Campbell.
The versatile reporter covers both pressing news and human interest stories of pop culture and neighborhood happenings on the one-hour broadcast.
“I’m like the gal pal with the ‘4-1-1’ who you always wanted to sit with on the way to school,” says Warner, touting her keen ability to connect with guests, put them at ease, and ask the tough questions that inquiring minds most want answered. “I get the goods,” she teases.
But when compared to her renowned talk show host predecessor who was also known for “getting the goods,” the quick-witted personality quips: “There is only one Oprah, and I’m not her. I believe Chicagoans appreciate me ‘doing me’.”
Blockbuster ratings, raving reviews and a recent Emmy Award-nomination suggest that viewers do appreciate the new princess of daytime television.
Growing up in Hollywood, Warner had early aspirations of becoming an actress. However, a chance encounter with Chicago news veteran Pat Harvey convinced her to pursue broadcast journalism instead.
During her senior year of high school, Warner produced her first news segment, covering Rodney King and the L.A. riots for a class project. Warner had no doubts that she was ready for life in the public eye.
“My parents’ example and upbringing in the church was the best preparation a news anchor could ever have,” states Warner.
She explains that as the younger of two daughters born to Diane Jackson and the late Reverend Bobby A. Jackson, assistant pastor of Park Windsor Baptist Church, she enjoyed a disciplined childhood defined by hard work, determination, and a positive outlook.
“I was speaking in front of audiences before I could hold a microphone,” says Warner, chuckling as she recalls having to balance atop a milk crate behind the pulpit podium to deliver Sunday morning announcements each week.
“Preachers’ kids had to do it all – sing in the choir, recite Easter and Christmas speeches, collect offerings, greet visitors, and clean the church afterwards,” asserts Warner. “And you had better have done it with a smile and a good attitude,” she adds.
Warner points out that as a family of orators, proper diction was also stressed. “My mom was a teacher and cheerleading coach, so growing up in my house, you were either articulate or you were silent,” she explains. “I was way too outspoken to concede to the latter.” Ironically, Warner confesses to using more slang as an adult than she ever did as a teenager.
Driven by an inherited mantra that “opportunities come to those who make them,” Warner refused to settle for a job that didn’t come with a camera and green screen.
“I was determined to be on television, so when I didn’t receive a job offer, I decided that a television internship would have to suffice,” she says.
Merely days after her graduation from University of California-San Diego, Warner packed up her ambitions into her pint-sized auto and headed to New Mexico. She insists that her time in Roswell at KBIM built both her character and her muscles.
“I hauled cameras bigger than me, backpacked beta tapes the size of encyclopedias, and manually constructed the set before every show.” She jokes about the long hours and hard work, but complains that there weren’t any nearby shopping malls.
While in the Land of Enchantment, Warner also served as fill-in anchor and reporter for Albuquerque’s KRQE-TV. She later took a two-year post with KSNT-TV in Topeka, Kansas, before signing on with WEYI-TV in Flint, Michigan as evening anchor and reporter.
During her time in Michigan, Warner spearheaded several community initiatives, including a car seat safety check program, and the station’s monthly breast self-examination campaign.
Then in 2005, despite her inexperience with traffic reporting, lack of familiarity with Chicago roadways, and reluctance to climb aboard a helicopter for the first time, Warner took a job as WGN’s 5 a.m. traffic anchor.
“Reporting Chicago’s traffic is not for the faint of heart,” Warner maintains, recounting her grueling learning curve of frigid, pre-dawn chopper flights, followed by all-day taxi rides around the city in an effort to learn street names, locations, highways and their corresponding exits.
But the year-long, on-the-job crash course paid off when Warner achieved recognition as one of Chicago’s most-viewed morning traffic reporters. Her hard-won success also afforded her opportunities to co-host multiple health specials; interview outstanding Chicago-area teachers for the station’s “Teacher of the Month” program; and cover the two-day breaking news drama of a runaway dog on the Eisenhower Expressway that garnered national attention.
Warner credits the formidable, yet fortuitous decision to follow her “inner teleprompter” and make a career in Chicago with setting her on course to land a job of a lifetime.
Six years into her tenure at WGN, Warner received the call for that job. “I wasn’t eager to leave WGN, but I wasn’t crazy enough to forfeit a shot at the biggest show since Oprah either,” Warner says.
Behind The Scenes
As an avid activist and philanthropist, Warner enjoys the opportunity to engage her guests and viewers in making a positive difference.
“My favorite shows have been those that have championed for the ‘underdogs’ in society or inspired the downtrodden, or offered resources to keep our children safe,” says Warner, referring to episodes featuring a man’s wrongful conviction, a mother’s rags-to-riches story, and discussions about internet safety and school bullying.
“Windy City Live is more than a show, it’s a vehicle,” Warner contends. “And I hope that I’m more than a talk show host; I pray that I’m a vessel to bring about something good in the lives of others in Chicago and beyond.”
Warner’s passion for community and concern for youth influence her work on- and off-air.
Away from the show, but never far from the cameras, she lends her fame and notoriety to scores of community causes and charitable efforts, including DuSable Museum’s “Night of 100 Stars,” Housing Opportunities for Women’s Annual Gala Dinner and Auction, The Salvation Army’s “Donut Day,” the Chicago and Quad-County Urban Leagues, the Youth Job Center’s Annual Benefit and Share Our Strength’s “Holiday Rock and Roll” event.
The media diva also danced away with the championship trophy in 2010 after doing the Hustle to Whitney Houston’s I’m Every Woman to win that year’s “Dancing With Chicago Celebrities” event.