Having A Voice in the Industry

Broadcaster Joe Washington used his many gifts to become a respected newsman and spokesperson

by Carolyn Shea

Joe Washington outside in the yard

Master Gardener Joe Washington, the
original host of HGTV’s “Ground Breakers.”
Photo courtesy of Joe Washington

As a teenager growing up in Port Orchard, Wash., Joe Washington ’75 was frequently referred to by adults as “The Voice.” Now a nationally known television personality, Washington and his commanding baritone have been in the public eye for nearly four decades.

He enjoyed a long run in local television news and sportscasting, was the original host of “Ground Breakers,” HGTV’s hit landscaping show, and even played a reporter and anchorman—as well as other roles—in numerous series and movies, including the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump. He has won three Emmys and has been honored by the Associate Press and the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.

Washington’s first brush with professional interest in his vocal talent occurred in the early 1970s in Southern California, where he and another Greener had traveled to pitch in on a voter registration campaign. “We went to a radio station in Pasadena to do publicity for the campaign, and the news director heard me speak and said, ‘Wow, I like your voice!’” Washington recalls. “I felt like I had gone to Hollywood and been discovered!” While he was there, Washington actually did an audition, but being young and callow, he says, “I botched it.” Nevertheless, he thought to himself, “You’ve got this tool and you need to explore it.”

Although he was contemplating a career in politics and law, Washington listened to that advice. When he returned to Evergreen, he secured the guidance of early science faculty member Bob Barnard, who had experience in media. “He took me under his wing,” says Washington. Barnard assisted him in doing voiceover and camera work using the college’s new equipment, giving the sophomore experience that soon came in handy when he landed a paid internship with KOMO-TV in Seattle. There, he was encouraged in his budding endeavors by several staffers, including the station’s weekend news anchor Rod Chandler (later a state and U.S. representative). 

“I was going out with reporters on stories and if there was leftover film, they let me do stand-ups,” says Washington, “and when we get back to the station, if we had a short piece to write they let me write it.” By the end of that summer, the 19-year-old was not only a news reporter in the country’s 17th largest market; he was also getting college credit for it. 

It wasn’t long before the “kid at KOMO” was offered a job as an evening anchor by a CBS-affiliate station in Dallas. “Here I am, absolutely clueless, and I’m getting an opportunity to move to Dallas. They’re rolling out the red carpet for me and when I told them I hadn’t finished college, they offered to help me finish up
at Southern Methodist University,” he says. “I turned it down and returned to Evergreen.”

He continued getting on-the-job newsroom experience at KOMO, commuting down to Olympia every two weeks. He worked with Barnard on a project investigating the news media’s effect on the Watergate investigation, which was happening at the time and would eventually bring down President Richard Nixon.

“I graduated from Evergreen with a full-time job and roughly two-and-a-half years’ experience,” says Washington. “That couldn’t have happened anyplace else. I was in the right place at the right time.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he continued working at KOMO for a few more months before moving on to Denver. “If you want to go someplace in broadcasting, you need to go someplace else,” he says. In Denver, he worked as a reporter for KMGH-TV, but it wasn’t long before he was again recruited, this time by a station in Atlanta. “I had no idea what Atlanta was about. All I knew was what I read in an Ebony magazine,” he says. He was 23, employed as a reporter and weekend anchor in a large and growing broadcast market. “That was 1976,” says Washington, who stills lives in the Atlanta metro area. “I’ve watched this city grow up. It’s gone through a lot of transitions and it’s been fun to be part of that.”

Washington is now a familiar face in the city. Atlantans watched him on local TV for more than two decades, first at WXIA-TV, where he spent 11 of those years as a newscaster and anchorman and another nine as a reporter and primetime sports anchor. During his time at the station he garnered three Southeast Regional Emmy awards, including two for his coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Joe's LandThat same year, he was tapped to host the WTBS Superstation show “interact.atlanta,” a television news magazine that ran for six years and won a number of prizes, including the National Broadcasting Association’s “Best Public Affairs Show” in 1997.

By this time, Washington had stopped working full-time in news broadcasting and had branched off into other areas, including movie appearances and voiceover work. Television news was changing, he says, with programming being controlled more by businesspeople than news people. “I wasn’t having fun anymore,” he says. He made his decision to go part-time when he learned that his mother was sick. “I remember it so vividly. I found out my mother had lung cancer. I realized life was too short and that I needed to go for the gusto. That was my signal to move on. When I got back from her funeral, I put together some demo tapes.
I approached management and they were shocked, but I told them I had some things to explore and they
let me go part-time.”

For the next few years he covered high school athletics, something the father of two boys really enjoyed because he said, “I was making a difference. It was the most fun I had in my entire career.” Washington also started accruing a long list of clients, including The Home Depot, The U.S. Postal Service, IBM, the Southern Company utility and many others, who enlisted him—and his voice—to do everything from live narrations and corporate presentations to employee training videos and commercials. One of his educational videos for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is even in the Smithsonian.

Washington’s first acting role was in the 1991 comedy, “Livin’ Large!” in which he played the newscaster/idol of the main character, who dreams of breaking into the world of TV news. His screen credits include more than a dozen films and TV-series appearances. He is particularly proud of having been part of the 1994 smash hit Forrest Gump—he played a news reporter—because it was recently chosen to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which signifies its “enduring significance to American culture.” 

In 1999, HGTV producers asked him to host “Ground Breakers,” the cable channel’s new program on residential landscaping. For seven years, he showed audiences around America the transformations of ordinary yards into “magnificent outdoor living spaces.” Shot documentary-style, each episode featured Washington giving a guided tour of a landscaping project that took four to six months to complete. He became a Master Gardener after he started doing the show and is now on the Southeastern Horticultural Society board of directors. 

Washington often speaks at home and gardening shows and events like the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. And he remains active in commercial work and acting, ensuring that “The Voice” he developed at Evergreen continues to be heard.