April Ryan on her Instagram show, Donald Trump and lockdown as a "creative space"

April Ryan has covered four presidents — now she's at home hosting a therapeutic lockdown show on Instagram

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 23, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

April Ryan (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)
April Ryan (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

What do celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Richardson, Suze Orman, Valerie Jarret and Iyanla Vanzant have in common? Well, they're stuck at home like the rest of us, and they've all been featured on April Ryan's new Instagram Live show, "Covid Conversations." Many know Ryan from her work as a CNN political analyst and her role as a White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks. While she's stuck at home and unable to go to the White House, she started her own show Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on her Instagram. No lights and no stage — just Ryan at her desk with her phone.

Ryan has covered presidents for more than 20 years and is the realest interviewer I've ever met. Other than celebrities, Ryan has also had a number of politicians on "Covid Conversations," including Rep. Karen Bass and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. From finance and relationship advice to the time Kim Fields met Michael Jackson and Prince, Ryan's show offers rich, honest reflection that we need to make it through these dangerous times. 

Ryan and I discussed her show, her assessment of President Trump and his response to the coronavirus pandemic, and how physical distancing has given her a new perspective on covering the news. Watch my "Salon Talks" with April Ryan here, or read our conversation below.

People who have homes and who have the luxury of staying home have been stressed out during quarantine. They can't handle it. But I feel like we're from Baltimore, so we're wired a little differently.

D. Watkins, you are right. We're wired differently. Bishop Walter Scott Thomas from Baltimore said to me, "Baltimoreans are not like any other resident of any other city because this is the only city where you have the word failure built into your existence." I said, "Wow, that's so true." To stop from failing, it's about surviving and trying to get out. My thing is, we have seen the bottom, we've seen rock bottom, and we know how to deal at rock bottom.

All of us are struggling. People who had the privilege before have lost paychecks or have had their paychecks cut, and what was privilege before coronavirus — the new BC — is now a different privilege. Those who are the hourly workers are yearning to go back to work, to pay their rent, to pay for food, to pay for doctors for their kids, versus people who are still getting a check and their companies are saying, "Oh, work from home right now." We're considered the ones who are privileged.

If you work at a market or if you deliver packages for Amazon, you are on the front lines right now. When I check in with my family and the people who I have to take care of and send money to, the stories are different than when I talked to some of my artist friends who are like, "Oh, I can't create in this space." I'm like, "You're not in jail, you're not homeless, you should be thankful."

This is the time, this is the creative space. This is the time. I'm using it. First of all, I thank God for everyone. I thank God for those on the front lines, the doctors, the nurses, ambulance drivers, those who take care of people. I thank God for those who are working at Amazon. I'm not taking my dog to the groomer, I'm not taking my dog to the vet, I'm not taking my children to the hairdresser, I'm buying all kinds of shampoos. I got the dog a nail grinder. I've been ordering. I'm trying not to go out. I've been ordering from Instacart. Thank God for them. 

They have to work and I thank God for all of them. To be quite frank, we cannot be so high that we don't understand what's going on and understand the plight of everyone. I told my kids, I said, "Look, if mommy loses her paycheck, mommy's going to Amazon. If mommy loses her paycheck, she's going to be going to Instacart or something." And that's the reality of life. Things have changed. It's like that book, "Who Moved My Cheese?" You cannot stay and die, you have got to live and survive. This is a time to be creative and to really take the emotion out of it and look at what is. This is fighting time, survival. D, we've been through it. We live it in Baltimore.

As the great Toni Morrison says, "This is the time when artists go to work."

Right, exactly. So, what are my strengths? What are my strengths? What am I doing? Not only my strengths to do something else or to create, but also to preserve my mind. Because if you keep watching the news, if you're innocent and if you're watching the president vacillate or give misinformation and you're like, "What more?" You got to be able to learn how to pull away and find yourself.

I joke about this, running from 'rona, I'm finding myself, or running to myself, finding out who I am. You've got to laugh to keep from crying. I wake up in the morning in panic sometimes and I can't go there, and that's happened at least twice to me. I've had terrible dreams and I cannot go there. I am the head of my household with two daughters. And you know as a parent yourself, if you are out of line, everyone else is out of line.


You've got to keep the morale up and you've got to keep it going. So, what am I doing? I am working every day from home, because I'm one of those people, like millions of people globally, who have underlying issues. I'm not going to the White House right now questioning the president, but I am talking to the people who talk to the president, who are in his ear, my sources. He doesn't know who I'm talking to, but I'm talking to people and still getting the stories out in real time.

I'm talking to Susan Rice, former national security adviser, I'm talking to Jeh Johnson, former head of Homeland Security, who says, "We are in a national security crisis." This is not just national emergency, this is a national security crisis. I've talked to the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, who says that there is still a need for testing kits, masks and ventilators in Detroit, as the president is talking about opening up the nation. 

Since you bring up Michigan, have you been seeing these crazy anti-social-distancing rallies in Michigan and other places? What's going on with that?

The president wants to open it up because it will look like a victory for him. We haven't hit the numbers that were anticipated and now we're opening it up and it looks like a victory. But you can't say it's a victory when people are still being infected and there's a chance of more people dying. And you see, when China reopened, more people were infected again, and some people were re-infected. So, this is something you've never seen before. People want to do this anti-distancing — and I don't call it social distancing, we're socially connected, but we're physically distant. We need to say "physical distancing," to be correct. But, at the end of the day, we have to stop. This is not about President Trump, this is not about Joe Biden, this is about people and their lives. This is not a political thing. The economics does play into it and I get it, but you cannot open up full societies, particularly societies that are being hit.

Michigan has been hit hard and Michigan is a very blue-collar state. You've got a lot of auto industry there, you've got so much there. And I get it, but we have to be very cautious in our steps forward, and the question is, is the psyche going to allow us to be like we used to be?

You've covered a couple of White Houses. Is this your fifth president? Fourth president?

Fourth president. I started with Bill Clinton. I was there for Monica Lewinsky. I'm older than I look, D. But here's the thing, this president — let's start by saying he wanted to drain the swamp and he wanted to bring new faces into Washington. That's red flag No. 1, scarlet red flag No. 1. You need people at a time such as this, when there's that hidden variable that can come and upset the apple cart, who know what to do. He destroyed his national intelligence security team. He was warned about this and he called it the Democratic hoax. Yes, he may have shut down travel from China, but he kept calling it a hoax. He didn't take it seriously enough and he kept saying it's nothing but the flu, and now 100 percent of the nation is shut down, stay-at-home orders because of this. 

This president, he believes that he knows everything. At one point, he was almost to the point where he was an MD, and I'm like hmm. So the bottom line is this president wants the world to get back to normal — well, all of us do. He's listening to Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx about keeping it shut down, but the question is, did it have to be the way it is now? Listening to the former national security adviser and former UN ambassador, Susan Rice, she said this could have been prevented. It would not have been this bad if they would have dealt with it. Not only that, they shut down the offices that they set up for pandemics. They disregarded the advice of Susan Rice and others. Her counterpart, she says she met with him for 12 hours on various occasions, Michael Flynn, and Michael Flynn didn't say anything. They dismantled the office that would handle this, and they don't have a crisis management team right now.

How long do you think this is going to last?

Dr. Fauci and many of the infectious disease officers are saying that it's a work in progress with the antibodies. They thought the antibodies from those who had this were show up really well for the vaccination, but now they're saying it's a work in progress. It didn't pan out the way they thought. So, understand that they're looking for a vaccine and the vaccine will take at least a year to a year and a half, and then once you get the vaccine you have to mass market it. Once you mass market it, you still have to go through the process of immunizing not just the nation, but the world. This is going to be an ebb and flow for at least two years.

Do you think we're going to be home for two years?

I don't know what we're going to be, but this is going to be an ebb and flow for two years. And I don't believe the stuff about the summer, because I'm going to tell you about the summer. New Orleans is warm and they still have it. Louisiana was hit hard. California has it, and that's a warm state. So, I don't believe the warm weather thing.

One of the things that a lot of us have found joy in during the pandemic is your new Instagram Live show. You are having real, serious and moving conversations with everyone from Suze Orman to Kim Fields, Iyanla Vanzant and Samuel L. Jackson.

We've had a lot of great guests. And we're going to get someone who deals with skin and hair because I'm going to tell you something, as a black woman who's never done her hair, I'm going to have someone talk about natural hair and  skin in the midst of this, because we're not able to go to the store like we used to. This show is my first attempt to heal because I didn't understand it. I knew if I was hurting, I knew other people were hurting. I wanted to give information, I wanted to uplift and inform. We are so bogged down with bad news.

It hurt me when I started seeing the reports that people were fighting in the house. Domestic violence has risen, child abuse is on the rise. It is bothering me to hear those things as my children and I — the first couple of days we were like, "Look, the best way for us to get along is come together and give each other space." We have been doing very well. I've discovered my children think that they are chefs, they are making anything. My daughter made some kind of lemon-zest mashed potatoes with garlic in it. I was like, "Oh, yes." Then she fried steak. She said, "Mommy, I need some white wine." I said, "I'm not giving you my white wine," and I was looking on Instacart to see if I had any white cooking wine, they didn't have it. I said, "Here, take this moscato." I don't drink anyway, so I said, "Here, take this moscato." It was the best steak I've ever had. It was restaurant style, it was better than Ruth's Chris. I didn't need to put any white sauce on it.

I love it.

We're finding ways to come together. I knew a lot of my friends were hurting and I said, if I'm hurting, if they're hurting, let me do something. That's when I got Iyanla on. Before that, Sabrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, asked me, "Could we do something together?" She wanted to do something with me, Iyanla and Bishop Vashti McKenzie, and I said, "Yeah, let's do it," and we did it and it was such an outpouring. I said, "Wait a minute, there's something here. People are hurt."

How do you select your guests?

It's people that cross my path that I like, or they like me. D, we're blessed to be in this business and we come across some fascinating individuals and fascinating stories. We talk real stuff because we are in such a hard time. It's not only hitting our health, our family, but it's hitting our pocketbook, and I want to inform. That's the nature of what I do and who I am. Mine is about information, giving you something that you can use, but if there's a laugh along the way to ease the pain, let's do that. I want to uplift, inform, and give you a how-to. I want you to be able to come through this, and it's my therapy. I'm human like everyone else. I have opened my eyes in panic at least two nights, and last night I had a terrible dream, a terrible dream. It is my therapy.

We're going to have a love counselor, once again because you think your home is your palace. But for some, it's become their prison because their safe space is not their home but their school or their workplace. Because at home, they could be dealing with an abusive spouse or someone who's drinking or it's just not safe. That really has bothered me, because my mother, growing up in Baltimore, no matter what happened, my home was my castle. I've tried to make that for my children as well, and it hurts me to hear that. We are hurting right now as people in the midst of this, and it hurts my heart to hear that people don't have the tools to get along.

I don't know how long we're going to be in this thing. I got to teach my children how to cook and I got to learn how to do their hair. It's tough not to be at the White House every day, because I have underlying issues. I'm still working, but it's tough because that is in my blood. I let that go about a week into it. I said, "OK, you got this." I'm watching the briefings, but it's tough.

We're happy you're healthy.

I had to run from death threats, and now I've got to run from 'rona. People are like, "Why aren't you in the briefing room?" I'm like, "Look, No. 1, I got underlying issues, and 'rona exacerbates those things, and will kill you." If I ran from death threats and had a bodyguard, do you think I'm going to sit there and let 'rona kill me? No, I'm a runner.

Is there going to be an April Ryan talk show after this? I think we need it. You're covering the survival skills and the coping mechanisms, and the fun stuff, and the steak recipes.

From your mouth to God's ear. I've always wanted a TV show and if that's for me, God bless. I thank God that I'm able to do my hair and do my own makeup. I sat there and watched in the makeup chair at CNN, watched all the great makeup artists. So, if they want to put a camera here, I'm ready to go, let's do it.

I'm a kid from Baltimore who just happened upon this. I feel like the black female Forrest Gump. I happened upon this and if people like it, I'm like, "Wow, OK." Next I'm having Jonathan McReynolds, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, the head of the Democratic Caucus, and also the back part of that half hour is the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congresswoman Karen Bass. Then, I'm going to have the hair doctor, Dr. Kendrick, and then Valerie Jarrett.

We've got some big names that we reached out to, we're going to see. We've got a lot of how-tos. This is a time of creativity we're trying to foster. We want to be there for you. So, I'm just honored that you would think of me and that you're watching. 

Let me tell you something, you find out who you are in the midst of this trying time. My daughter, my youngest daughter, will pop the chain off every bike that's in this house. I wound up figuring out how to undo the chain and put it back on right. Normally I'm like, "Let's go to the bike shop," and I said, "I can do this," and so I'm figuring stuff out. I got a snake. If we have a clogged toilet I can do that too, because I'm not calling people in here. I think this is the time that we find out our strengths and our limitations.

Since I was a little kid, I ate from carry-outs, the corner store. Now I cook breakfast.

What do you cook for breakfast?

French toast. Sometimes I make egg sandwiches.

Wait a minute, you make your own French toast? You make homemade French toast?

I dip the bread in the egg and a little cinnamon, a little nutmeg, a little bit of vanilla.

Yes! Yes, you are. I'm proud of you.

These days are short, they're not long. I break away and do a little bit of writing, or we do our interviews. It's just blessed, I'm just taking it one day at a time.

My kids are doing online work, and I'm working during the day. I normally don't do this during the day because I'm still working during the day. The president's on at 5:30, and I watch that until it's time for me to do my IG Live. But I make sure the girls are doing their work and then we come together, we play around, I sit with them and fix lunch for them. Then we have dinner in the evenings or they'll make dinner themselves, and it's been such a blessed time of talking with them and being with them, and they're so funny. If you can find the little pieces of joy in this, look for them, because it's so easy to be negative. But find the little pieces of joy because you're going to fall back on them. This is a moment that you're going to say, "We got through that together." This is a time of creativity for everyone.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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