Jinah Kim-Perek: Queen of the Live Shot
By Stephanie Forshee
“On 9/11, my first thought wasn’t ‘Oh my God, you know, I better watch TV.’ My thought was, ‘I’d better freaking get dressed so that I can get to work.’” – Jinah Kim-Perek
Jinah Kim knew early on in her career that being in the right place at the right time would be the critical theme that played into her ongoing professional success.
It’s what landed Jinah her first full-time job at KTLA-5’s assignment desk right after graduating from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It’s also that same luck that placed her on the scene in more morbid times later in her career ⎯ like when she happened to be the only live anchor in NBC’s Los Angeles bureau when Whitney Houston was found dead in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton.
“My God, I was live for five hours straight,” Jinah recalls, thankful for her extensive experience as a live reporter for all of these years. “If something breaks, you’ve got to stay and cover it, and you literally become Brian Williams if it’s big enough. And that’s kind of what happened with Whitney Houston.”
On the night of Whitney Houston’s death, Jinah was broadcasting for NBC News Channel, the service that sends out national stories to any or all of its affiliates.
“You name it, I was doing live shots for everybody, but primarily MSNBC, until about midnight,” she says, including NBC’s networks. “After Whitney, I was on for about an entire week doing nothing but Whitney.”
That wasn’t the only time Jinah’s fortune landed her in the perfect place when critical news needed to be pushed out. She was the first on the scene in Colorado with K-USA Denver when Aron Ralston amputated his own arm to escape death back on April 26, 2003. So in less than 15 minutes, Jinah reported on a story that would instantly make national headlines and later become the basis for the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours, starring James Franco.
“I was live with the first report about this guy that had just been airlifted, and because we hadn’t even had any time to get any footage yet, they literally just took me live for the first bit,” Jinah says. Then from the newsroom, the anchors would periodically return to Jinah once the cameraman was able to gather and piece in some B-roll.
Another memorable first-on-the-scene experience for Jinah was a few years earlier with her coverage that landed Jinah her first regional Emmy nomination (she was nominated twice that year in the one of only two years she ever submitted her package for the honor).
Jinah went live during the 2001 shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California in San Diego County.
“I think that was one of the first times when I truly realized I was meant to be a live reporter,” she says. “That was my first time continuously doing live shots. We were doing nonstop coverage for about three to five hours, and I was just able to say these words that kept coming out of my mouth. And there wasn’t too much ‘um, uh,’ and that’s when I realized ‘okay, I think I’m good at live shots.’”
The first few days of coverage were adrenaline-filled for Jinah as a live reporter covering a school shooting in the days before it was an almost weekly occurrence. But the horrific truth was that Charles “Andy” Williams killed two of his fellow students and wounded 11 others at Santana High School. And the locals weren’t taking it lightly.
“After a while, the news got really abused. That community was saying, ‘Get out of here! We don’t want live trucks parked on the corner of Santana High School again.’”
Jinah remembers all sorts of things being thrown at her and her crew: eggs, watermelons. They were even spat on while covering the aftermath from the tragedy. It got to the point, she says, “we were fearful for our lives.”
“The good thing about that was we weren’t the only ones. All the news outlets were out there. So then what we decided to do is all stick together. We’d all find each other and park in the same spot, so they couldn’t assault us at each of our cars if we were in different locations.”
Naturally, with the traumatized community members taking their hostility from the devastation out on reporters, Jinah and her crew struggled to make connections with sources who would be willing to speak. Eventually, more and more locals were fearful to be interviewed out in public. “We did a lot of inside-the-home interviews in unmarked cars so that their neighbors wouldn’t know that we had been there.”
Jinah is familiar with controversy, especially since she had previously covered another grieving individual, when she was reporting on a separate somber instance. A local Colorado teen who had been drinking died in a car crash and Jinah was assigned to cover it.
A little while later, Jinah was sitting in the station van with her cameraman as she prepared for her live shot at the memorial site of the teen’s crash. She recalls moving into the driver’s seat of the parked van with her back against the door as she furiously wrote her story.
“All of a sudden the driver’s side door opens on our live van, somebody pulls me by my hair and grabs me outside, and fortunately my head didn’t hit the ground or anything. I just sort of stumbled and righted myself, and it was the father of the teenager who had died, and he told me to, ‘Get the f*** out of here!’”
Luckily, Jinah’s live truck partner was “a big guy” and strong enough to protect her. Plus, the Sheriff’s Department quickly arrived to break up the scene. As distracted as Jinah was, she still had to cover the news, because despite the Colorado father’s attempts to keep his son’s death off of the air, Jinah’s producers ultimately deemed that this teen’s death was newsworthy.
“People have a right to know when a teenage life in a community dies, because that is unusual and people want to know why. Why did this teenager die? It’s a very legitimate story,” she explains now.
The team then had to decide if it would mention the assault during the newscast. “It would have been interpreted by probably half the people in the viewing audience as we are the bad guys,” Jinah reasons. “There would be too much sympathy on his side, and that would have clouded the purpose of the story, which is that a life had been lost. So we just decided to stick with the story and not the peripheral; that would have been a distraction to the story.
“There are some dangerous aspects to this job. I have never been sent to Afghanistan or Iraq or anything like that. That would be truly frightening. But I would say that reporters in TV news, because we are so recognizable, we are probably more of a target than the print side.”
The old days
Coincidentally, being recognizable has been Jinah’s goal from the get go. She remembers wanting to make a splash with her producers at her very first job, and she said her bosses eventually acknowledged her tenacity.
She took an internship with KTLA-5 when she was a junior at UCLA, and she worked her way up to the assignment desk and later to a writing position by the time she was 23.
On the last day of her internship at KTLA, Jinah walked into the news director’s office and said, “You don’t know me, but I am Jinah, the intern, and I had an amazing time here. Thank you so much for the opportunity.”
“He liked my gumption, and he said, ‘Oh yeah. I’ve seen you around. Who are you? What have you been doing?'”
He soon told Jinah he’d be back, and he had her wait in his office. Ten minutes later, when he returned, he asked, “Do you want to work here…for pay?”
“Of course,” Jinah agreed.
So the rest of her junior year until she graduated college, Jinah worked the assignment desk on weekends. And it wasn’t long before, yet again, the then newest news director Craig Hume took notice of her work. He offered her a full-time position on the assignment desk.
As thankful as she was for the opportunity, it was only a matter of months before Jinah was itching to actually report. “I decided to come in and ask the weekend producer if I could come in and write for him for free, and he said, ‘Sure.’ Who’s going to turn down free help, right? Especially someone already full-time and didn’t require any clearances.”
Her first writing gig, and somehow within two weeks she was asked to come on board as a paid writer. The catch was: she’d be working six to seven days a week.
“That got me some enemies, because people felt threatened that this girl who was six months out of college was writing already. And the other desk assistants were wondering: ‘Who does she think she is?’
“Don’t worry about those people. Embrace and absorb opportunities like a sponge,” Jinah advises.
“When you’re young, so many opportunities are just given to you by the virtue of the fact that people want to help young people… We’re just not that cute when we get older,” she jokes.
Jinah eventually accepted the fact that even as far as she’d come, KTLA was never going to hire someone so young as a full-time staff reporter. So she and her agent got to work and sent out tapes across the country.
But as confident as she was with her potential, she knew her limits. In 1995, she attended an Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) convention, the club of which she would later become president (2007 to 2011), and met a senior producer from Good Morning America who stayed in touch and offered her a job at the show as a writer. But at the end of the day, Jinah couldn’t accept. She felt a tad ahead of herself, because she still hadn’t gotten her opportunity to report.
“It was just happening a little too fast,” so she told him outright, “I feel like I would disappoint you greatly if I went over there (to New York) and tried to write for Diane Sawyer or Joan Lunden.”
A second job offer from a smaller news organization softened the blow for Jinah. A producing position with NBC in Salinas, Calif. opened up. And for a $25,000 annual salary, Jinah took it, based on the fact she was told she “might have an opportunity to report.”
In a twist of fate, though, Jinah fell in love with the producing side. “I probably could be a producer for the rest of my life. I loved it,” she says.
The 11 o’clock quickly became Jinah’s “baby,” but she was still looking to report. So right before Christmas, she approached her boss.
“’I bet nobody wants to work on Christmas,’” she said with a grin.
“And he said, ‘Why?’
‘Because I want to report for you.’
He said, ‘I mean, you’ll still have to do the 11,’
And I said, ‘That’s fine.’”
That deal was one that extended well beyond the holiday. “I was just working myself to the bone, so I could report during the day, finish the 6 o’clock and turn around to do the 11 o’clock.”
Then the day came when the whole news crew was called in for an impromptu meeting at 4:30 p.m. one grim afternoon. The general manager came into the newsroom and said, “Hey we’ve got an emergency meeting.”
Jinah recalls everyone filing downstairs except for the 5 o’clock producer who didn’t leave her chair. She was furiously prepping for her newscast. “That girl was like, ‘You have got to be f***ing kidding me. I don’t have time for this shit.’ I remember her. She was such a firecracker.”
She remembers how aggravated the employees were about the disruptive meeting in the studio. And then the general manager and news director broke the real news: “There is no newscast today. There is no newscast for a while. We are being sold to Ackerley, and we are going to merge with the FOX station in Salinas. So we will now be moving our news over there. But as of today, all of you are fired and you will have to vie for new positions at the new LMA (license management agreement) with the FOX/CBS duopoly.”
Jinah can still feel the complete shock that silenced an entire newsroom. And she’ll never forget the look on the face of that 5 o’clock producer whose script was so diligently prepared but would never make it on the air.
In the end, though, Jinah says she learned a lesson. “We all think the news is the end-all, be-all. ‘Oh, if I’m not ready at the top of the 5, I’m screwed.’ In the day-to-day scheme of things, you are. But in the big scheme of things, you can apparently cancel a 5 o’clock newscast with 30 minutes notice and put ‘Married with Children’ in its place.”
Ready to Roll
But for the instances when the news didn’t find her, she’d go after it on her own. These payoffs of exclusives and first-on-the-scene interviews come with hard work. There’s a lot to love about the job. But as thrilling as it is to break news, there’s something to be said for the reporters who ever get to that level. That’s why Jinah always takes it personally when she sees others, who are supposedly aspiring to make it in the field, slacking.
“You don’t get into news thinking you’re going to do anything nine to five,” she says.
“It always comes down to this: You have to be passionate about telling stories and representing a voice that you feel is not there. And you have to be the person who, when shit hits the fan, like on 9/11, my first thought wasn’t ‘Oh my God, you know, I better watch TV.’ My thought was, ‘I’d better freaking get dressed so that I can get to work.’”
It’s one thing that Jinah thrives off of that spot coverage, but it’s quite another that she can be “on air” ready in a moment’s notice. Not many would argue with the fact looking good comes naturally for Jinah: This is the woman who gets to hit the red carpet at least once a year for NBC News on either the night of the Golden Globes or the Oscars. But on the occasion she’s not all glammed up, her advice is, “you always have to have a ‘go bag.’”
In Jinah’s ‘go bag,’ you can find her cheap makeup (in case she doesn’t have her regular makeup bag on hand), hairspray, suit, underwear and socks. But also tucked in there for emergencies she has fireproof clothing, rugged wear and the not necessarily flattering Nomex, that yellow suit for when she covers fires, a situation she can’t escape, especially covering news on the West Coast.
Looking presentable for the camera goes beyond simply brushing out the tangles in your hair or changing out of a wrinkled shirt. “How you look absolutely matters in this industry. I can’t get above a certain weight. Otherwise, it literally will affect the number of jobs I’m up for,” Jinah says.
Even though it’s not explicitly written in her contract, it’s understood in the industry, especially a market like Los Angeles, that staying slim and stylish are industry musts. “If you are super amazingly good, they’ll work with you. They’ll bring in style consultants to work with you.”
As understanding as Jinah is about the demands for appearance, there’s one aspect she can’t quite shake. And that’s when stations make hiring decisions based on race. She’s always had great luck, but she definitely had to swallow countless friendly reminders from her agent before a job interview that, “They really like you, but keep in mind, they already have two Asian women.”
As frustrating as the broadcast scene can be for Jinah, she can’t seem to let it go. Although in 2008 she started her own video production company, World Wise Productions, Jinah continues to work as a correspondent for NBC Network News and NBC News Channel.