Get on up! Atlanta’s Fred Blankenship is hip-hop’s favorite morning newsman
‘Do you know how amazing it is to have Big Boi wish you happy birthday?’
Whatever you do, don’t debate Fred Blankenship about the greatest-of-all-time credentials of Will Smith. “I will fight someone if they tell me he’s not a top 5 rapper,” says the gregarious morning co-anchor of Atlanta WSB-TV’s Channel 2 Action News. “Show me somebody with more longevity! Who could turn ‘Summertime’ into an anthem. Tell me you still don’t know the words to ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand.’ ” Fred loves his hip-hop. Like, loves it.
For 11 years the award-winning Blankenship has been a huge local favorite in Atlanta, delivering his perpetually upbeat take on the news. But it was in March 2016 when the Los Angeles native went viral after he and fellow anchor Mark Arum paid homage to the late Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest by cleverly integrating his lyrics into the station’s traffic report. “Are you on point, Mark?” Blankenship asked during a segment, a nod to the classic “Check The Rhime.” “Oh, we’re on point, Fred, absolutely,” Arum flipped back. It was a heartfelt celebration of the genius of hip-hop.
Since then, Blankenship has conceived on-air tributes to such rap icons as Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. “I’m in the greatest city around,” the married father of three says lovingly of the city that people are calling the new capital of Black America — the city set to host Super Bowl LIII in February 2019.
“There are a lot of people … who feel like they have to change themselves to make it. Truthfully, I didn’t really start enjoying myself in this business until I said, ‘This is me … this is who I am. You may get it or you may not get it, but this is me.’ ” That’s evident in Blankenship’s Instagram thread, which shakes up the world every weekday morning with his deep love of rap and rhythm and blues — and his desire for people to get their days started in the most positive of ways. Here, he shares his inspirations and more.
You started your career chasing storms at Kansas’ KAKE TV. What is the scariest weather situation you ever experienced?
You have to realize … I grew up in Los Angeles and went to college in San Francisco. My first job, I was lucky enough for it to have been in Wichita, Kansas, and every other night there was a twister. I had never seen weather like that. I was like, ‘There is no way you are expecting me to go outside in this, right? I mean, it’s happening now, so we can’t go outside.’
And this is coming from a black dude from the West Coast …
Right! (Laughs.) And we were chasing tornadoes overhead. I remember after a tornado hit one night we went back out to the neighborhood. It wasn’t just that a couple of houses were gone. Four or five blocks of houses were completely gone … down to the foundation. You survive the night itself chasing these storms. You get out there and you meet the people who have lost everything. At that point it became more than just a story. It became really about the people who stayed … and had to rebuild their lives.
Did the bosses at WSB know you were going to slip in your tribute to Phife?
The short answer is no. (Laughs.) I have a partner in crime, Mark Arum, who does traffic. We kind of flow off of each other from time to time, and when Phife passed away, I knew Mark was A Tribe Called Quest head just like I was. I remember in 1991 I played The Low End Theory for a straight year and a half, and I still play it today. We threw … in between weather and traffic … about 12 A Tribe Called Quest references. And they all had to tie into the newscast. That was the rule.
And you got away with it?
Yeah, but here’s the funny part. As I was walking out of the building a member of the web team comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Fred. Did you by chance mention a rapper on the news today?’ And I remember I turned around and said, ‘It depends on why you are asking.’ And they told me, ‘Oh, because we want to put it together for a compilation for social media.’ It blew up! Since then we have done Biggie, Ice Cube, Tupac, Craig Mack, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Prodigy. Everyone that is part of the culture. I’ll drop a ‘Rain drop, drop top … not today, it’s raining outside.’ And people automatically know it’s the Migos. I have people hitting me on Twitter telling me, ‘Oh, I saw what you did there.’ Rappers have reached out to thank me for the shout-outs. I’m just being me. I believe we’re doing the audience a disservice thinking that they won’t get it or that they won’t appreciate it.
What are three hip-hop albums you would save from a burning building?
OK, I’m sitting down for this one. One was previously mentioned … The Low End Theory. That was a great album because it wasn’t just Tribe, it was Native Tongues. Even before that I was playing De La Soul’s ‘Buddy,’ which was everybody on the same track, from the Jungle Brothers, Q-Tip and Phife to Monie Love and Queen Latifah. Album No. 2? Again, I’m from the West Coast, so Ice Cube would have to be there.
So are we talking AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted or Death Certificate?
(Laughs.) Sometimes Cube smoothed it out a little on Death Certificate, which was a powerful album as well. But I’ll probably go with AmeriKKKa’s Most, which was just hard. And when you get into the third one … do I want to go for true lyricism like Eric B. & Rakim’s first album [1987’s Paid In Full]? See … now I’m cheating because I want to pick Big Daddy Kane’s [1988’s Long Live the Kane]. But then I want to choose The Fugees’ The Score … Lauryn Hill was incredible on that album. So I’m going to cheat and save all of those albums.
You’ve been very public about the strong bond you had with your dad, Fred Blankenship Jr., who passed away a few years ago.
My father died at 57 years old, and I consider that to be a young man. The last 14 years of his life were physically painful with amputations and diabetes. Yet my father was still a believer in me and a believer in people. He had these great friends that would do anything for him, and he would do the same in kind. So I channel my dad every single morning before we come on air at 4:30 in the morning. I record a Good Morning video, and I have one rule for it: It has to be positive, and it has to be energetic. I am living for both me and my dad.
You’re on television in a state that could elect its first African-American governor, and it’s arguably the current mecca for hip-hop and entertainment. Describe the reaction you get from folks in Atlanta when they recognize you as the morning news guy.
I always hear, ‘Fred, I feel like you’re part of my family.’ There are no handshakes or polite nods — there’s always hugs. You know how black folks do. (Laughs.) And that’s how I want everyone to feel … like we are all family.
What trick do you use to get your three kids to bed?
I’ve been doing the morning shift for 11 years. Now my oldest son is 10, so all of their lives my children have been putting me to bed. (Laughs.) That’s a true story. The other day my 5-year-old said, ‘OK, Daddy. Time for bed now.’ I have the most amazing wife and kids.
What was your go-to dance move back in the day?
Oh … that’s easy. Kid ’n Play. Anything they would do in their videos I would do. I was the ultimate Kid ’n Play kick-step dude. I would also steal the moves from New Edition’s ‘If It Isn’t Love.’ I had no shame.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on television?
At my very first live shot in Wichita, Kansas, I was covering a big-time basketball tournament where I was set to interview a retiring coach. So the thinking was, well, at least the kid can probably talk about basketball. So I’m doing the live shot and I forget what I was going to say! I’m holding a basketball not saying a word, and I just started spinning the ball. And an anchor who today is a wonderful friend of mine, she says, ‘That was very good. You can be a Harlem Globetrotter.’ I just knew my career would end with a Globetrotters reference!
What’s it like being the most recognized newscaster in ATL who gets birthday shout-outs from Big Boi?
Have you been talking to my mama? (Laughs.) But seriously, do you know how amazing it is to have Big Boi from Outkast wish you happy birthday? I just think back to when I was 12 years old. I was watching TV in L.A. and saw a brother that looked just like me. He told this story that was really insightful, and I remember saying to myself, ‘How do I get inside the TV?’ I knew I wanted to be a reporter. I’m still that same 12-year-old kid who just wants to tell stories.