Long before Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer made the news, Carolyn Jackson was leading the way for women in broadcasting
Imagine Carolyn Jackson’s surprise, more than 30 years ago, when Larry Hagman, star of I Dream of Jeannie and the more recent Dallas, opened his hotel room door wearing nothing but his underwear. At this point in her career, Carolyn had conducted several celebrity interviews—some she had enjoyed, some she hadn’t—but she had never been greeted by a celebrity in his undershorts. Carolyn, who is rarely speechless, insists that she didn’t know what to say, where to look, or how to react to seeing him dressed, or undressed, as he was. Finally she blurted out, “Where’s your hat?”
It was definitely the right response. Larry Hagman laughed and grabbed his hat (and some clothes), and he and Carolyn headed to their press conference at the Film Commission Convention, hosted that year in San Antonio. During the five days Carolyn spent escorting Larry and his wife around the Alamo City, she learned that the actor was not only a prankster but also “very nice and sensitive, not at all like [his Dallas character,] J. R. Ewing.”
When Carolyn left the University of Texas in 1949 with a broadcasting degree, she had no idea the people she would meet or the paths her future would take. This was a time when women were generally expected to be wives and mothers only. If a woman did have a career, it was usually as a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. “Those didn’t fit me,” Carolyn emphatically states. “That’s not what I wanted.”
Upon graduation, Carolyn immediately found a job in her hometown of Taylor, Texas, with the new radio station KTAE, but she was there for just five months. Carolyn had earlier applied to the prestigious Northwestern NBC School, a summer program taught by NBC personnel. The program accepted only 100 students, and surprise! Carolyn was one of them. So she left Taylor for Chicago where, unsurprisingly, the men in the program outnumbered the women: “There just weren’t that many women going into the field yet.”
Carolyn roomed with two other young women, who became her lifelong friends. After completing the program, the three decided to stay in Chicago and try their luck. This plan didn’t go over well with Carolyn’s mother, who insisted to Carolyn’s father that he tell his daughter to come home. “My dad was so far ahead of his time,” Carolyn says. “He said to Mother, ‘She’s twenty-one years old. She has a degree from the University of Texas. She is not asking us for money. She can do whatever she damn well pleases.’”
Carolyn lived in Chicago for a year working for the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency. She enjoyed her job, but she missed Texas and one young gentleman in particular. Carolyn returned home to marry Navy veteran Charles “Chily” Jackson, another man ahead of his time. Many years later, Chily would be asked, “What’s it like being Mr. Carolyn Jackson?” “Chily never missed a beat,” Carolyn says. “He replied, ‘It’s great! I taught her everything she knows.’”
Carolyn took the long route before arriving at her own TV show. After the birth of her daughters, Carolyn put aside her career until they were old enough to attend school. By then, Carolyn was ready for another challenge, and Chily and girls were ready to support her 100 percent. After a stint substituting at her daughters’ school, Carolyn obtained her teaching degree from Trinity University and began teaching, a career option she had rejected in her younger years. Her teaching degree later gave her an unexpected advantage.
At the time, KLRN (PBS) broadcast supplemental educational programs taught by teachers into local classrooms. Knowing of her dual degrees, Carolyn’s colleagues submitted her name without her knowledge, and KLRN called Carolyn to come in for an audition. Carolyn prepared for the audition, but KLRN was looking for a science teacher. “Fortunately, I didn’t get the job because I didn’t know anything about science. A lot of kids were saved that day,” Carolyn jokes.
She returned to teaching, but she must have made an impression because a short time later, she was asked to return to KLRN to head up the Libraries and Literature series aimed at third- through sixth-grade students. She both planned the curriculum and hosted the TV show.
It was while working at PBS that she received a call, out of the blue, from Cactus Pryor, an Austin broadcasting legend, asking her to audition for Woman’s World, a half-hour noontime show on Austin’s only TV station, KTBC, owned by President and Lady Bird Johnson. Long before TV viewers voted for their favorite contestants on reality TV shows, Austin area viewers chose Carolyn Jackson as their favorite TV host for Woman’s World, which later became known as The Carolyn Jackson Show.
Carolyn and Cactus became great friends. Carolyn says, “Cactus used to love to tell the world, ‘We hired Carolyn not because she was the prettiest or the sexiest but because the viewers liked her the most. They felt comfortable with her, and they felt that she might have been a friend.’” It was a compliment Carolyn was happy to accept. She treated TV guests as though they were guests in her home. Carolyn never wanted to make them upset or uneasy—“That’s not the kind of show I did.”
The Carolyn Jackson Show was a hit, appealing to men, women, and children. Carolyn’s guests were as varied as her interests. She hosted book authors, animal trainers, and professional athletes. After interviewing the owner of a new ice skating rink, Carolyn challenged herself to learn to ice skate. She had the camera crew film her efforts, and her viewers avidly followed her progress.
Later, she traveled on movie junkets to interview many major TV and movie stars of the era, from Richard Pryor and Bill Murray to a young Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford, fresh from the set of Star Wars. But first Carolyn had to convince her station manager that these interviews were a good idea. He didn’t believe her viewers would be interested in anything that didn’t pertain to Austin. Carolyn proved him wrong, but he made her use her vacation time for those interviews.
Carolyn had never been offered a contract for her position. Not only was she on air for 30 minutes every weekday, but she had no staff to help with the show behind the scenes. “I did all the research, I produced it, I decided who was going to be on the show, and then I booked them. I did my own makeup, I did it all.” And she made one-tenth the salary that the male newscasters pulled down. But Carolyn’s not complaining. “I wanted the job, and I was able to do it because my husband was the primary breadwinner. . . . I couldn’t have done the job and financially supported a family. I couldn’t even have supported myself!”
Carolyn did ask for a well-deserved raise, but she was stunned by the station manager’s response. “You don’t need more money,” he said. “You have Chily to take care of you.” Shaking her head, Carolyn says, “These gals that are on TV today, they don’t understand what we had to go through to make it what it is for them today.”
Soon Austin had more than a single TV station, and when an offer came her way with a contract, a raise, and more creative input, Carolyn switched networks. It was an unheard-of move in Austin. Carolyn was also responsible for another Austin first. When Carolyn began working in TV, women weren’t allowed in the studio. “I don’t really know why,” Carolyn says, “except it was a man’s world. I was able to get the first woman on the floor working with the crew. To me, that was a great accomplishment.”
And Carolyn should know a lot about accomplishments. She tackled every goal she set and neatly managed every hurdle in her path. And she did it all as a wife and mother. Carolyn may not be Superwoman, but she’s the next best thing. She’s a pioneer.
“I didn’t know that’s what I was,” she says, “but I was in a man’s world. I took a lot of flak for doing it, but it didn’t matter, I wanted to do it that badly. It was worth all I had to sacrifice, and I’m really so grateful that women have it easier today.”
￼Watch a YouTube video of Carolyn in action: