For the past several years, Chicago journalist Whitney Reynolds has had the same big-picture goal: for her uplifting talk show to reach a broader audience.
And in a tumultuous year — during which just about everyone could use some good news — she got it.
Not only was the news a welcome surprise for Reynolds — who said she’s been told “no” about national distribution for her Emmy-nominated, half-hour show for the past five years — but she also thinks it’s an opportune time for the show to reach homes across the country.
Since 2013, the 34-year-old journalist has sought to make an impact, urging her guests that their stories matter and never shying from sensitive topics.
This May, the show earned a bronze at the Telly Awards for its coverage of racism in America.
“This is really my life’s calling, and I think it’s really special,” she said.
Season 11 of “The Whitney Reynolds Show” began to air in October on PBS locally and regionally and on Amazon Prime TV.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the show faced a rigorous schedule following nearly six months of pushed tapings. When mitigations eased, Reynolds’ team filmed up to 10 interviews in one day. The swifter-than-usual production process, though demanding, had one perk: The show’s topics are especially timely.
Episode 1 of the new season includes the story of Michael Scholl, a father of three and the director of clinical services at the Josselyn Center, who was given a 20 percent chance to live after coming down with COVID-19 in March. Scholl, who recovered, shares his journey, which went from immediate care for a low-grade fever to the emergency room, where he recorded videos for his loved ones to tell them how much they mean to him.
The season also featured another memorable guest in Cassandra Tanner-Miller, whose estranged husband beat her, then shot and killed her 18-month-old son, Colton Michael Miller, before killing himself.
The Joliet woman went on to found a group called Colton’s Legacy, seeking to help victims of domestic violence.
“Not only can you move forward past the tragedy, but you also can change the tragedy,” Reynolds said of Tanner-Miller’s harrowing journey.
The season finale highlights the Black Lives Matter movement, a topic close to the heart of Reynolds, who has two Black adoptive brothers.
“If we stay silent, we are part of the issue,” Reynolds said in her introductory remarks for the episode.
The segment features the Rev. Jesse Jackson as well as LaToya Howell, the mother of Justus Howell, a 17-year-old who was shot to death by a Zion police officer in 2015.
It’s thoughtful discussions of such important topics that Reynolds believes viewers, including her adopted brothers in Oklahoma, need right now. And these very episodes are among the content that will eventually reair nationally.
From ‘a dream’ to ‘a mission’
While national syndication has been top of mind for several years, Reynolds’ desire to become a talk show host began long ago.
“I knew at a very young age that this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “As a little girl it was a dream, but then in my 20s it became more of a mission.”
Reynolds said she had a “challenging childhood,” and while other little girls were playing with Barbies and princesses, she was donning her mother’s big, red glasses and pretending to be talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael.
It was more meaningful than just playing dress up, though. It still is.
“I want to be what I needed as a kid,” Reynolds said. “I want to be the show that my family needed, and that really founded the mission, ‘Your story matters.’”
Reynolds attended Baylor University in Texas, graduating in three years. At 21 years old, she served as a morning anchor in her native Oklahoma as well as Texas. Then, it was on to New York, where she interned for “Good Morning America.” Once in the Windy City, she immersed herself in the city’s culture while hosting “Weekends with Whitney” on NBC.
“Coming from the South, it really helped me get to know Chicago,” Reynolds said.
For the past seven years she has also hosted “Whitney’s Women” on iHeartRadio, a segment that is dedicated to highlighting women who give back in Chicago.
Reynolds herself can be counted among those local do-gooders. Currently, she serves on the board of the nonprofit Dress for Success, which offers support, professional attire and more to help women succeed professionally and personally. Reynolds also is heavily involved with her longtime church, Soul City Church in the West Loop.
A turning point
A particularly profound chapter of Reynolds’ life unfolded around the time she pivoted to PBS.
The night before she pitched her current show, she went on her first date with her husband, David Heiner.
Today, the couple has 4-year-old twins, Marlowe and Acher, as well as a 17-year-old shih tzu named Puffy Doo-Little, and they are in the process of buying their dream home in Roscoe Village.
Reynolds’ priorities shifted once she became a mom.
“Work-life balance is something that I’m literally learning every day,” she said, noting that she couldn’t do what she does without David by her side.
“The Whitney Reynolds Show” is currently filmed in the family’s Lakeview living room, allowing added time with her kids.
“After I had the twins, I knew that something had to give in order for me to be a really great mom and also be a really great talk show host,” Reynolds said.
Though the home set has presented its share of challenges, Reynolds said it has been beautiful to open her home to her guests, kind of “like Mr. Rogers.” But along with her show’s national expansion are plans for a new Chicago studio space, set to be built next year.
While the new year looks to promise plenty of positive change for Reynolds and her career, her initial goal for the show remains intact.
“I want people to know they’re not alone, and we can find hope in the struggle,” Reynolds said.
Past episodes of “The Whitney Reynolds Show” are currently available on Amazon Prime TV. She also regularly shares inspiring snippets from the show on her Instagram, @whitney_reynolds.