The Rapidian

On the Record: A Q&A with 24 News 8 investigative reporter Ken Kolker

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A sampling of some of Ken's most compelling stories

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Ken Kolker

Ken Kolker

"Waiting" by Ken Kolker previously garnered top honors at Festival of the Arts

"Waiting" by Ken Kolker previously garnered top honors at Festival of the Arts

"Conkllin Barns" by Ken Kolker

"Conkllin Barns" by Ken Kolker

This periodic feature for The Rapidian will spotlight the media personality behind the byline, camera or mic. 

Like clockwork, every evening at 6:05 Ken Kolker receives a call from his biggest fan – his mother. Monday through Friday, she watches her son’s investigative reports on crime, fraud and homicide on 24 Hour News 8

A former newspaper reporter for 30 years, Ken made the unusual transition from print to broadcast media in 2009, when he joined the news team at WOOD TV 8. Even with nearly two years of experience on camera, live shots are still stressful for the West Michigan native, who felt much more comfortable behind the byline. 

However, he knows there’s at least one person tuning in who never notices an on-air blunder. 

“My hair could be on fire and my mother wouldn’t say anything,” says Ken. “While my mom is my biggest fan, my wife is my biggest supporter. She makes me better at what I'm doing.”  

Ken’s appearances on the evening newscasts have more than just his next of kin taking notice. With his switch to television, Ken has experienced newfound celebrity. He’s often recognized on the street and praised for his Target 8 reports. Last September, his fame soared to new heights when his story on a local transgender teen stripped of his homecoming king title was featured on Perez Hilton’s notorious celebrity gossip website.

By day, Ken is busy working stories and meeting hard deadlines. His nights and weekends are equally as hectic with his wife, Hope, and blended family of five children, ranging in age from 13 to 23 years old. 

Ken says family is extremely important to him, adding that he is grateful for their encouragement both professionally and personally. Last year, he found comfort in their support as he battled colon cancer. For six months he underwent chemotherapy with his family by his side. 

Although he was sidelined with a devastating illness, Ken’s journalistic instincts remained sharp. His treatment even inspired a story on the new medical marijuana law

“It was the perfect opportunity for this type of report,” recalls Ken, who allowed TV 8 to film his chemotherapy treatment at the hospital. 

Recently, Ken went on the record about his “chemo to go,” stealthy start at The Grand Rapids Press, Forensic Files cameos and passion for photography. 

Why did you decide to make the change from print to broadcast media? 

WOOD’s news director contacted me about five years ago. She asked if I had any interest in television. At that time, I didn’t. A few years ago, we started talking again. I knew the buyouts were coming at the Press and I was more interested in the opportunity. I was the first one to take the buyout in the newsroom. I figured you only live once.  

But, it’s so far out of my comfort zone. When I was seven, I had to play in a piano recital. On stage I absolutely froze. It was one of those things you never forget. Being in front of the camera reminds me of that time. 

My first time doing a live shot, my throat was so dry it was horrible. My palms were sweating. Now, I don’t get sweaty palms or a parched throat. But, live shots still make me nervous. If you’re in front of a teleprompter, it can be pretty easy. But, if you’re holding the script, you can lose your place. 

I’m not sure that I’ve overcome that fear. But, you just have to force yourself to do it. 

How did your colleagues at Press react to your decision? 

The Press opened the door for everyone to take the buyout and I did. There were some people who thought I was being a traitor. But, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family. At the station, I still feel like I’m doing good journalism. 

What was the biggest challenge in making the transition?

The language! The words they use. What’s a VOSOT? I had no clue. It means voice over/sound on tape. They’d tell me “we need a VOSOT.” I’d say, “come on, I’m a newspaper guy.” That’s what they call me at the station, the “newspaper guy.”  

Writing for television was also a challenge in the beginning. It’s so much more conversational than writing for the paper. But, it’s made me a better writer. We have to write scripts as well as for the Web. I find my stories online are better if I write the TV script first. 

What do you miss most about the Press? 

The people. Some have left, but there are still a lot of good people there. 

What do you like most about working in television? 

The rush. The deadlines are so different from the Press. At the Press, I was the morning reporter and would be writing stories every hour between 7 and 9 a.m. Then you’re off deadline and could spend the rest of the day writing stories for the next day’s paper. 

At TV 8, you are working all day for the Web and toward the evening newscasts. The deadline is at the end of the day but then you have the added pressure of going on TV. 

What is the most memorable story that you’ve covered? 

While I was working for The Saginaw News I would regularly go through the county jail booking sheet. One day, I noticed that Terry Rogan was jailed for homicide and was released an hour later. Why would they arrest him for murder and then release him shortly after? I found that this man had been arrested repeatedly in Saginaw for a series of murders in Los Angeles, which were actually committed by another man who had stolen Terry’s identity. The cops thought Terry was the killer. 

We received some anonymous tips that the real killer – with six aliases – was in some jail in Alabama. I called every jail throughout the state. I had a FBI wanted poster with the real killer’s thumbprint and finally got a hit on one of the aliases. An expert from the Saginaw Police Department helped me compare the prints with the jail. It was the guy. We got him. It was really cool. 

That’s one of the stories where you slam your fist on the table and feel like you nailed something. 

What do you enjoy most about investigative journalism?

Finding something that people don’t know about, but that they should know about. 

There’s also the competitive part. It’s sort of fun to beat the Press on things. I have no bad feelings – I love the Press and the people, but it’s fun to beat them sometimes. 

What is your greatest aspiration?

I'd love to do the kind of work that wins a Pulitzer Prize or, now that I'm in TV, an Emmy. But, really, I don't think much about long-term goals, other than raising good kids.

On a more personal note, how did you discover that you had colon cancer?

Last year, I was in pain for several days. It wouldn’t go away. But, I refused to go to the doctor until my wife asked her Facebook friends what to do with a stubborn husband who didn’t want to go the hospital. They encouraged her to take me to the ER. 

The doctors found a tumor blocking my colon. I had emergency surgery the next day to remove it. It was stage 2 and had just broken the wall of my colon. My colon was ready to burst. But, they didn’t find it in any lymph nodes. 

I had just turned 50 a few months earlier and hadn’t yet had a colonoscopy. It was only June. 

Following surgery, I underwent two types of chemotherapy at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and at home – I called it “chemo to go.” I’d even be on live TV doing chemo. My photographer just told me to move the pack to my side. 

The chemo started to run me down toward the end and I was out of work for another six weeks. But, I didn’t lose any hair! By Christmas 2009, I was wrapping it up. They had gotten it all. I’ve had tests since and it’s all clear. 

How has surviving cancer changed your life? 

I have a tendency to push things aside and just kind of move along or at least try. I don’t know if it has dramatically changed my life, but you do start thinking about mortality more. 

What are three things many people don’t know about you?

  1. I’m a photographer. Seven years ago my wife bought me a nice Canon for Christmas and I just started shooting.

    I was always interested in photography and learned a lot from photographers at The Grand Rapids Press and The Saginaw News. I’ve even won Festival of the Arts top honors for photography two years in a row. That just blew me away. Today, I pretty much always have a camera with me.

    My work is sold at various galleries from time to time and at Wealthy at Charles gift shop. In February, I’ll be an Artist in Residence at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center. For one month, I’ll have my photography on exhibit and I’ll teach some classes. 
     
  2. I’ve been featured on a few true crime reality shows. Every few years, I’ll get a call from Forensic Files or the Discovery Channel. They find stories about bizarre cases that I’ve written about in the past, like the Alpine Manor Nursing Home murders in 1987, and will contact me for an interview. This past summer, I interviewed with a program on the Discovery Channel about Deanna Gillean, a teenager who was murdered in Grand Rapids in 1992.  
     
  3. I actually started my journalism career when I was 18 at WJPW 810 AM, a radio station in Rockford. My boss would have me rip and read newspaper stories. He got mad at me once when I tried to go out and cover a car accident. He said “just wait until it’s in the newspapers.”

    I started at the Press in 1979 by sneaking in the back door with a half dozen clips from the Collegiate newspaper. A stringer for the Press told me to go to the back door, wait until someone opened it and slide in past the secretary to get to Bob Becker. I gave him my clips and he assigned me a story. 
 

 


 

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Comments

I really enjoyed the depth of this media profile. Interesting to read.

 Thanks, Roberta! Any suggestions for future profiles? 

Love the profiles, Kate. The newspaper guy has a wonderful attitude. It's easy to see why he has many fans.

 Thanks, Clare - I really enjoy writing them. 

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