You may have noticed a new face on Chicago Tonight recently, reporting stories about a 3D chalk artist, a West Side Community music center, a community-oriented bookstore. But while Angel Idowu, the new JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent, may be new to WTTW, she’s definitely not new to Chicago. She grew up in Chatham and Hyde Park, idolizing the news anchor Cheryl Burton on ABC 7, writing for the Chicago Tribune’s The Mash and her school newspaper while attending Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Mount Greenwood, and dancing at the Joffrey Ballet before leaving for college and several journalistic assignments away from her hometown.
“In all this traveling, I love being home the most,” she says. “When I wasn’t living in Chicago, every time I heard someone say Chicago or saw an Illinois license plate I would get excited. Now that I’m back, I still do it, but then realize, ‘Oh wait, that’s everyone,’ ” she says, laughing.
Growing up in the city, Idowu found herself attracted to storytelling and writing. “My grandmother worked in Chicago Public Schools as a child psychologist, so we would always have loads of school supplies, and we would do reading comprehension or journaling,” she recalls. “I think that encouraged me to write. At a really young age I can remember writing random short stories that made no sense, and loving the idea of being a novelist.”
Idowu was always reading as a child, and especially loved coming-of-age stories like those by the author Sarah Dessen. Such books “encouraged me and made me hopeful and made me feel a part of something,” she says. They also revealed the power of storytelling, which led her to journalism.
While majoring in political science and minoring in journalism at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Idowu studied abroad in England and did some writing about fashion there. “I thought, ‘Ooh, fashion journalism!’ ” she says. “But then I realized that, ‘Wow, I really don’t care that these boots are from 1909 and have only been worn once and have a unique stitch pattern.’ It wasn’t for me.” She also spent time in Washington, D.C., writing for a now-defunct outlet focusing on “serious stories with a law or policy angle,” as she describes it.
She received more significant journalistic experience closer to home, while interning at a newspaper in Janesville, Wisconsin, just north of Beloit. There, she bonded with a reporter who worked out of Janesville for a larger television station elsewhere in Wisconsin. “I connected with her: she was also a black woman, and we were both in this very white space of Wisconsin,” Idowu says. “That was a great relationship, and I realized that I was really passionate about storytelling, and I knew I wanted to do it in that capacity as an on-air talent. But it was intimidating, because at that time I was just writing for a newspaper. I was still learning and developing.”
So she decided to get a master’s degree focused on broadcast reporting, studying at Northwestern University’s acclaimed Medill School. From there, she went on to a stint as a digital reporter for Pretoria News in South Africa. “I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” she says. “It’s definitely the proudest I am of myself.” Shooting with just her iPhone, she covered stories ranging from student protests to charity events to a trial relating to a murder committed during the apartheid era (“my best story,” she says).
Working as a reporter in another country with a racially fraught history was difficult. “It was so hard in South Africa to tell very serious and important stories,” she says. “In order to tell stories, you really have to understand the person and what experience they’re sharing. You may not be able to relate to it, but you have to be able to grasp the basics of what they’re trying to convey. In a country that was dealing with apartheid only 25 years ago, there is very clearly some heavy residue in every aspect of people’s lives.”
Bridging a gulf in experience was a challenge she faced in her next job as well, as a producer and eventually reporter for WJTV12, the CBS affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. The American South may not be as distant from Chicago as South Africa, but it still has a different culture and set of beliefs. Still, Jackson “was an incredible first market to be at,” Idowu says. It was a small city but there was so much great, hard local news.” Wanting to be an on-air reporter in addition to a producer, she began working on her off-days, reporting extra stories for the station. “I would work seven days a week to just prove that I was really interested in it,” she says.
Now she is back in Chicago, the home she always missed. “If you think I’m excited to be back, you should see my parents,” she says, laughing. Her grandmother, who inspired her love of stories when she was young, is also grateful to have her back in her home city. “My grandmother loves Chicago,” she says. “I think, like most older black women in Chicago, she will probably never leave.”
Idowu’s grandmother pitches stories to her and eagerly supports her career. “When I told her and my parents when my first story was going to be on, she literally picked up the phone right then and called her friend to tell her when it would air. She saves all of my articles, she has all of her friends watch from different cities. She just literally has done everything she can to be supportive and encouraging.”
Idowu wants to do the same for younger kids. “I want to get kids excited about being artists,” she says. “I want to encourage kids: if this is what you’re passionate in, make it happen for yourself now.” Just like Idowu has done for herself.