Guided by little more than a desire to learn sign language and perhaps some divine intervention, longtime Atlanta television news personality Karen Graham, BA’87, has launched a digital news network for the deaf community. With plans to broadcast two online newscasts a day, the CNN-affiliated Sign1News will be the first of its kind, the only network to cater exclusively to deaf people in American Sign Language. No voiceovers. No music. No closed-captioning.
Here, Graham chats with Vanderbilt Magazine about her work in the deaf community and the leap of faith she took in developing Sign1News.
How did you become involved with American Sign Language (ASL) and the deaf community?
That is a mystery—one I’d love to know the answer to! I will say the initial steps started probably just like everybody else, when you learn a couple of signs while in school. But I didn’t get really serious until 10 or 11 years ago when I settled back here in my hometown of Atlanta. I took some classes at Georgia Perimeter College, now part of Georgia State. I told myself, “OK, let me get serious. Let me take some classes.” The teachers are all deaf, so you’re immersed in the culture almost immediately.
At that very first class, I understood everything the teacher was signing. I have no explanation as to why. Being the good Christian girl I am, I said, “OK, God, I took a class. I’m good now. Thank you. I’m out.” But that one class turned into the entire program. I figured I was done at that point, but I wasn’t. I went on to become the leader of the deaf ministry at my church, which I’ve been for the past three years.
Have you always been interested in languages?
I have been. Someone told me the reason I picked up ASL so easily was because I may have an affinity for foreign languages. When I lived in Tampa, Florida, I kind of picked up Spanish through osmosis. I must have a gift that I had no idea I had. Maybe that includes the manual languages as well.
How did you get the idea of starting a digital television network in American Sign Language?
The idea for Sign1News started six years ago when my mother planted the seed. She knew I loved it, that it was something that came naturally for me. And I left it at that. Wrote it in my journal. But the idea really kept marinating as I realized nothing similar to Sign1News existed, where you’re getting news and information just like you do when you turn on your television to watch the news. That same platform was not being offered for the deaf and hard of hearing in their native language, which is American Sign Language.
What is the new network’s affiliation with CNN?
We’re using CNN’s resources—all their video, all their archives. Anything CNN has is at our disposal. We’re not doing CNN news; we’re just using CNN’s information to build our own newscast. I shopped the idea around to all the networks—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox. And when we pitched to CNN, my former news director happened to be the contact. What are the odds? It was divine intervention.
Was it a hard decision to leave your role as an anchor for Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta to pursue Sign1News?
About two years ago when I signed my last contract, I said to myself, “Karen, you’re either going to sign another contract and be locked in for another three to six years—or you’re going to step out on faith and do this thing.” The answer came back: You’re going to step out on faith and do this thing. So the last year of my contract was when I decided I was done. There was no plan B or C; Sign1News was going to happen. Period.
And you spend a lot of time in the deaf community now, right?
Oh yes, every day. I’m still the leader of my church ministry. I attend deaf poetry slams, and I go to deaf educational workshops to make sure my skills are sharp and that I’m updated and current on changes in the culture, in the language. I’ve studied to become a certified interpreter, and I’m still going to do that. I’m taking the NIC, the national interpreters certification.
Do you feel like Vanderbilt contributed to your career journey?
One hundred percent. When I left high school, I had taken AP courses for engineering, chemistry and science, so I picked chemical engineering as my major at Vanderbilt. My first semester, I got two D’s and an F on my report card. Those were the first bad grades of my life. I asked myself very quickly, “Karen, what do you like to do?” I like to write, and I like being on TV. Second semester, I changed my major to communications. If I had not changed my major to communications, which I excelled in, I wouldn’t be doing this today. My failure set up my greatest success!
Karen Graham was interviewed by Shayla Byrd, BA’05, a writer living in New York City.