ABC News’ groundbreaking Soul of a Nation special, which premiered in March 2021 aimed to meet America where they were, in the months following a national reckoning of equity and understanding for Black people, lives and issues.
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Since then, the network ordered 11 additional special reports under the Soul of a Nation franchise. All of which were unprecedented one-hour, multi-part, documentary-style features airing in network primetime, the first of its kind on network television. While the early editions focused on in-depth reports exploring and profiling historically overlooked and under-valued Black experiences, in early 2022, ABC News began reimagining the primetime spot and audience to expand conversations around more backgrounds, heritages and identities that all wove into the makeup of what they characterized to be the souls of American culture and experience, through a highly produced and journalistic lens.
ABC News’ Soul of a Nation edition of Pride | To Be Seen, which aired on June 9th, 2022, documented the LGBTQ experience and examined what it meant to be seen as a member of the community. That special was the winner of a 34th GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Journalism in the Longform category.
— Soul of a Nation (@SoulofaNation) May 15, 2023
Now, the ABC News team is back with a second installment of their pride edition out of the Soul of a Nation franchise, debuting with Pride | Freedom to Exist Tuesday night, June 6th. GLAAD sat down with one of the show’s executive producers, Robert Zepeda, to get an in-depth look at what goes into a historically GLAAD Award-winning production about queer visibility and representation prepared and produced for a network primetime audience.
“We aim to focus and celebrate the beauty and joy of being trans today, despite the negativity that is surrounding the LGBTQ+ community,” Zepeda told GLAAD.
“My co-executive producer Catherine McKenzie and I felt it our mission to introduce our viewers to trans stories and people with the dignity and respect they deserve, so that maybe just maybe someone will walk away with a level of understanding for a community that has not been seen before. As journalists, we’re often the only window people have into unknown and untold spaces, we also have the responsibility to report on the truth. We’ve invited families and teens to share their own inspirational stories. We’re taking the opportunity to also educate our viewers on the history of trans existence in the world through voices of influential trans experts, leaders and artists like Angelica Ross, Sasha Colby, Sandra Caldwell, Laith Ashely, Raquel Willis and ND Stevenson. We’re also honored Elliot Page chose our show to share his story on broadcast television with a preview to his upcoming book, PAGEBOY: A Memoir,” he said.
Zepeda, who is an ABC News producer of over 10 years and an out LGBTQ journalist added, “As journalists, we are inherently storytellers and I believe you get the best story by a wide range of views and perspectives based on experiences and that is achieved with diversity in all corners. That’s what’s special about the Soul of a Nation series: we’re able to bring in producers and production teams who identify with the topic we’re reporting on, but we’re also able to include allies from diverse backgrounds. That blend of creators has allowed for some special conversations and allows space to have those conversations in ways that may not otherwise take place in the newsroom. This lays the foundation for crafting any diverse stories including queer and trans, the rest falls into place.”
Zepeda also broke down this year’s show title, Freedom To Exist, and how their team landed on that theme: ”This year while we were conducting interviews with leaders and voices in the trans community the word ‘exist’ and ‘existence’ began to surface. It was clear that with the uptick of anti-LGBTQ+, specifically anti-trans legislation, we are in a time where trans people’s existence is at stake. Existence is a freedom that many of us take for granted, and for this community, it’s at the center of many debates happening around the country.”
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A co-lead of ABC’s PRIDE employee resource group for LGBTQ journalists across the network and its stations, Zepeda also sees the network special as a top-down commitment by the Disney-owned TV news network to tell stories that reflect the world we all live and do business in. In a nod to the Broadway production of Hamilton, Zepeda said, “I’m honored that I get to be a voice in the newsroom and to be in the ‘room where it happens,’ to bring rich and diverse content to our network. The commitment by executives at our network like our president Kim Godwin who has expanded the Soul of a Nation franchise, a series that focuses on diverse stories throughout the year, has been fulfilling for so many both inside the newsroom and those who we report on. As the co-lead of our business employee resource group, PRIDE @ ABC News + OTV, I’ve also been able to lead a group of LGBTQ+ employees and allies in the effort to support the culture of queer and trans colleagues at ABC News.” Zepeda has also overseen the production of LGBTQ storylines and franchises across the ABC News portfolio, including launching the GLAAD Media Award-nominated podcast, Life Out Loud with LZ Granderson, which was the network’s first LGBTQ-focused podcast created by a full team of LGBTQ journalists behind the scenes.
GMA3 and Soul of a Nation co-executive producer, Cat McKenzie, who is no stranger to being an LGBTQ ally in storytelling, agrees with the network’s commitment to bringing rich and diverse content to life. With close to three decades of experience in TV news, McKenzie herself has been an instrumental voice at the highest levels of ABC News, who’s brought together multiple parts of the network and its owned stations together for unique programming that appeals to the intersectionality and dimensions of identities of their audiences.
Working alongside Zepeda for Freedom to Exist, Mckenzie said, “Robert’s leadership and passion at ABC News, in how we cover cultural issues, has been instrumental to the network’s success. While serving as a senior producer during the inaugural Soul of a Nation series, he showed allyship by immersing himself into Black culture and exploring all the ways to cover the Black experience. To be able to work with Robert on our last two Pride specials has been rewarding and educational. His work as an executive producer on these hours has allowed ABC News to lead in this space. He is an inspiration to staff across the news division.”
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On reporting on LGBTQ issues as an LGBTQ person himself, Zepeda told GLAAD, “I think many journalists are still learning how to report on this community with the sensitivities and language that is respectful of the trans experience. And that was the case here – but we left no page unturned in our mission to report on this community. Whether it’s reference guides from places like GLAAD, NLGJA and the Associated Press, sparking conversations with trans colleagues and interviewing trans experts in this space like ACLU attorney Chase Strangio and author/ professor, Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson. At the end of the day, all of this helps in not only making our reporting stronger but helping to educate and inform our viewers.”
“I hope this special accomplishes three things: My number one goal was to report on true stories that brought dignity and humanity back to the conversation. I think you’ll find that we are all more alike than we are different and we’re showcasing that. I hope viewers watching who, ‘just don’t get it,’ walk away connecting on a human level with the community in a way they have previously thought impossible. And I hope the trans community walks away knowing they are seen; they are loved and there’s a whole lot of people out there that support them,” Zepeda said.