2008-07-03 / Front Page

TV news reporter recalls how her career took off

OBHS grad became first helicopter reporter to win national Emmy
BY JESSICA SMITH Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE - Though Emmy Award-winning television reporter Shannon Sohn always has a "Plan B" in case things do not go her way, everything seems to have fallen into place quite nicely for her.

"I feel as long as you have a backup plan, you won't need it," Sohn said. "That's the theory I'm going with."

Recently chosen as one of six honorees for the Old Bridge High School Wall of Fame, the 1992 alumna has come a long way.S

ohn excelled in all of her advanced placement courses while in high school, but when it came time to move on to college, she was unsure of what path to take in terms of a career.

"I got a free ride to every school in the state, but I chose Rutgers," Sohn said. "I'm a Jersey girl, through and through."

While attending Rutgers University for journalism and communications, with a minor in advertising, Sohn interned for two years at WCTC News Radio in New Brunswick, a Greater Media station. Though she had the chance to intern for bigger companies like NBC, Sohn's advisers at Rutgers told her she would get more experience with a smaller company.

"I learned so much about gathering news," Sohn said.

She lauded WCTC Program Director Bruce Johnson, saying a number of big names in the industry have blossomed under his tutelage.

"He's the best in the business," Sohn said.

A month before her graduation from Rutgers, Sohn landed a job as weekend news anchor with the station. With only a week left before she was to start the position, WCTC offered her the chance to fill their vacant sky traffic reporter spot.

Though the new position caused her to miss Senior Week, she was happy to have the opportunity.

"I was getting up at 3 o' clock in the morning while everyone was coming home," Sohn said.

Dan Rice, who was leaving the position to go to the Channel 7 helicopter, trained her.

"From the first time I heard his voice, I knew I was going to marry him," Sohn said.

Dan knew too, she said.

The two only communicated via walkie-talkies during Sohn's first couple of days on the job, but on May 13, 1996, the fledgling reporter prepared herself for the big face-to-face meeting.

"It's 4 o' clock in the morning and all my friends are just getting home, and I'm primping, saying, 'I don't know what this guy looks like, but I'm pretty sure I'm in love with him,'" Sohn said.

As love bloomed for the new couple, so did Sohn's career.

"All of a sudden, it gave me this whole new avenue to explore," Sohn said. "If it taught me anything, it was not to limit yourself."

As she learned the ropes of aerial reporting, she also landed gigs doing airplane traffic for WPLJ, WABC and Z100. She became an AP award-winning reporter while at WCTC. The queen of the backup plan earned a broadcast meteorology degree in 2000, through online courses with Mississippi State University. She also took flight lessons.

"I just figured, the more you know, the more valuable you are," Sohn said.

Helicopter reporting was relatively new when she started out, only having been done for about a year, Sohn said.

"We sort of set the standard for what helicopter reporting is," she said.

After some time of balancing a weekday split shift at WCTC with overnight weekend shifts in New York, Sohn decided it was time to part with the station that helped launch her career.

"It broke my heart," she said.

With Sohn a member of the Eyewitness News Team on NewsCopter 7, and Rice manning Chopper 4, the couple had found the jobs into which they would settle. In May 2001, one day before the anniversary of their original meeting, the two settled down together by tying the knot.

Sohn considers them fortunate for both being able to land New York jobs in a business that often has reporters relocating across the country before they earn the chops to work in the Big Apple. Whether it's good fortune or just plain talent, their jobs have allowed them to stay in New Jersey and start a family.

The couple has two children - Zachary, 5, and Mackenzie, 3.

"I will say that flying while pregnant is not ideal," Sohn said. "I threw up every single day that I flew [while pregnant with Zachary]. ... That was the only time I can truly say I didn't enjoy the job."

Sohn was not particularly fond of her first days on the job, either. Overwhelmed by the number of things she needed to learn, and called "useless" by a superior, at times she did not want to ever go back, she said.

"It is mind-boggling, the amount you need to know," Sohn said. "I literally went home crying every day for several weeks."

Soon enough, Sohn honed the skill of balancing listening to two police scanners and a news scanner while reading maps, directing the pilot, and of course, controlling the camera and delivering the news.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Sohn was filling in for a reporter in the studio when the World Trade Center attacks took place. Though it was 10 minutes before the scheduled end of her shift that Tuesday, Sohn was not going anywhere.

"I remember not leaving that chair until Friday," Sohn said.

Unable to communicate with ABC colleagues, Sohn was required to stay for whenever they would get to her for updates. The harrowing days of reporting won her a Peabody Award.

In 2005, she made her mark as the first helicopter reporter in the country to win a National Emmy Award. While pregnant with Mackenzie, Sohn was up in her helicopter when she saw the crash of Chopper 4 in action. Though she knew her husband's shift had ended, she had not heard from him.

"There were about 400 gazillion things I would have rather been doing at that moment," Sohn said.

After winning a local New York Emmy, Sohn went to the national competition. When they played her clip, she heard the gasps of about 1,000 people, some of whom asked her what made her track the falling helicopter on camera.

"My thought was that if I could follow them to the ground [with the camera], I could get their location and get emergency help to them quicker," Sohn said. "The camera is almost an extension of you. To follow them to the ground with the camera is almost second nature."

Sohn's third Emmy came this year for "Best Newscast" in her coverage of the Midtown Manhattan steampipe explosion.

"When it hits the fan, it hits the fan, and I need to be on the ball," Sohn said.

At 34 years old, Sohn said she looks back at the time when she thought her career would always be in radio, and realizes her open mind has been an asset. She shared the wisdom gleaned from her career thus far.

"Do things you don't think you have an interest in, because you never know what opportunities can present themselves because of it," Sohn said.

One teacher at Old Bridge High School, named Teacher of the Year for 2008, helped to plant the seed of her broadcasting career, according to Sohn. Though she did not excel in his curriculum, physics teacher Joel Goodman helped Sohn in other areas.

"I think from day one, he knew I was no Isaac Newton," Sohn said. "He embraced me for what I was. He helped me bring out what I was good at."

In assisting Sohn with a video for a 4- H competition, Goodman guided her toward what would become her livelihood, she said. The video won her third place in the organization's National Public Speaking Contest.

Goodman, who Sohn said does not own a television, has never seen her doing what she does best, but he helped mold her into who she is today.

Once again, Sohn will be a fixture in the halls of the high school, when her face, along with a short biography, is featured on a permanent plaque on the Wall of Fame ."I was sort of amazed by it," Sohn said of the award. "They said they had gotten an overwhelming response for me, and that just floored me. My mother sure didn't nominate me - she was just as surprised as I was."

Though Sohn now lives in Dan's hometown of Long Valley with her family, her mother Alexsandra still lives in Old Bridge. Sohn's father, Richard Sohn, lived in the township until his death over two years ago, she said.

When Sohn heard the news about her nomination, she tried to nominate her sister, Taylor Riall, a pancreatic surgeon, but it was too late. Full of admiration for her sister, Sohn pointed out that Taylor saves lives, while she simply reports the news.

Regardless of how Sohn may downplay her remarkable career, her alma mater holds it, and her, in high regard. Sohn came back to the school earlier in the year for a career day, and said she would like to talk more with students to tell them not to become discouraged if they do not know what career path to pursue.

"It doesn't mean that your future is not bright," Sohn said.

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