If you make a date to interview former KNWA reporter Channing Barker, it may go a little like this: She might pick the place, and, if she does, she might pick a new, independent coffee shop in Benton County -- Bolder Coffee -- that she has been frequenting lately. She takes her new job as the communications director for Benton County seriously and is eager to highlight the things that she thinks make the area special. She might bring flowers to the interview, a kind gesture you've never experienced before as an interviewer, and when you're transcribing the recording of the interview, you might be mortified to discover that the first 20 minutes of the conversation were spent talking about yourself. She can't help but pepper new people she meets with questions about themselves -- a holdover from her reporter days, perhaps, but, more likely, just a product of her genuine interest in the human beings around her.
When you leave, after a conversation that stretches past 90 minutes, you might feel dazed but cheerful because Barker has a way of sharing her optimism and hope -- both of which come to her as naturally as breathing -- until it's your optimism and hope.
Through Other’s Eyes
“I remember when she was diagnosed [with MS], thinking, ‘I would do anything in the world to trade places with her.’ To this day I still say that, but she’s handled it with so much grace and a good positive outlook on life. She’s always kind of had that kind of personality — she just has this glow about her.” — Madalyn Wiseman
“I love how she throws her whole heart into everything that she does. She treats everyone the same no matter who they are and that is the mark of a genuine soul. Channing has a great sense of humor and always has a kind word and a smile for anyone and everyone she meets. No matter what is going on in her life, she always makes a point to always care and inquire about what is going on in my life. She makes all of us better people simply by being her friend.” — Lauren Marquette
“She’s lifted up by other people’s strength, and I’m lifted up, and other people are lifted up, by her strength.” —Tyler Clark
“Channing’s love for other people stems from a deep faith she has in her Creator. I think she thinks that her biggest mission in life is to really love other people — and she’s constantly making good on that mission. She is very intentional about looking for the best side of people, in being vulnerable, open and brave about her story.” — Meg Bourne
It's a little like drinking pure, undiluted sunshine out of a vintage Mason jar.
Faith and family
"The best way I can think to describe Channing is a walking ball of joy and energy," says close friend Meg Bourne. "She somehow commands the attention of the room around her while simultaneously making everyone in the room feel included and seen. She's magnetic, authentic, kind, hilarious, brilliant, beautiful and genuine."
Barker grew up in Tulsa. Her parents divorced when she was in kindergarten, and Barker watched as her mother worked hard to support her and her sister as a single parent. This, in addition to her family's efforts to make contributions to the community, made an impression on her.
"Both sides of my family are very service-oriented, and my sister is as well," she says. "It's just the way the women in my family grew up -- whether it was a civic organization, some kind of health care field, a crisis hotline for teen pregnancy. ... Our Catholic faith is very important to us, as well. It's a very important guide in life."
Her father relocated and remarried, a move that added stepsiblings to the mix.
"I've always liked that our family is messy and sticky and wonderful and beautiful at the same time," says Barker. "When my sister got married, we had a 'Barker Girl' dance -- my mom and my stepmom and my sister and me. You don't see that every day; we're all really close. I'm extremely lucky."
The family's deep Catholic faith led to Barker and her sister attending parochial schools.
"I went to school with the same 27 people from kindergarten to eighth grade," she says, laughing.
High school took her to the larger Bishop Kelley High School, where her graduating class was around 220. Barker was always a good student, and her determination to become a journalist hit her when she was a child -- triggered, she says, by a national tragedy.
"I knew I wanted to be a journalist in April of 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing happened," she says. "My mom worked for the Red Cross at the time, and she was gone quite a bit during that time. I vividly remember that day. I wanted to be a part of the group of people getting the story out. I wanted to see this with my own eyes and take it back home, to tell the story of the fireman photographed with the baby. I don't know that I thought of being on television at that moment, but I just wanted to be there and bring that back home."
Barker would land a coveted correspondent position for the Tulsa World's Satellite, a paper written by, for and about high school students. She also honed her writing skills on the editorial page of her school's paper.
"I was really hard core," she says with a smile. "I was pretty opinionated. I wanted my friends to be in the know, to know what was happening in the news. I was talking about things people didn't really want to talk about -- like, the murder on 12th street -- when I was in fifth grade. We didn't have cable. I would come home, watch Oprah -- she came on at 4 -- and the local news came on at 5, national news at 5:30, and local at 6 again. I just wanted to know what was happening."
Diagnosed with MS
In addition to her journalism activities, Barker was a cheerleader -- of course, she was a cheerleader, cheering on peers is a role that comes naturally to her even today -- and it was while her group was working on a stunt that she first noticed some odd health symptoms that gave her pause.
"I said, 'Let me down, I can't feel the right side of my body,'" she recalls. "And later I was on the sidelines, kicking, and all of a sudden I fell back against the wall. I had no stability. So I went to my cheer coach and said, 'Something is wrong. My body is not working.'"
That kicked off a three-month search for answers that saw Barker submitting to MRIs and spinal taps as a parade of doctors struggled to diagnose what was causing her symptoms. They slowly eliminated possible culprits -- a tumor, lupus, a mini-stroke -- until just one remained: Multiple sclerosis. She started treatment in August of her senior year with a shot a day, followed by an infusion of steroids. She had intermittent flare-ups throughout that year, requiring her to check in and out of the hospital repeatedly. Photos from the year show her in a hospital bed, surrounded by supportive friends, and always with a smile on her face. On some days, it was difficult for her to walk, and she frequently needed a cane -- or a wheelchair -- to get around. She went down to a half-day of school but continued to do her required course work so she would stay on track to graduate. She stayed on the cheerleading team, though her cheering was done on the sidelines from that point forward.
It was a sudden, dramatic life change, and it was a lot for a senior in high school to handle.
"I had a teacher named Kathy Pickup," says Barker. "She was a math teacher. She followed me out of the classroom one day -- I was using my cane -- and she said, 'Do you want to talk?' I said, 'I'm just so sad,' and she held me and she said, 'You know, I just want you to know that you have 15 minutes every day where you can be with your feelings and take all of in. You can cry and curse and be mad at God. You can stomp your feet. But after that fifteen minutes is over, you move on.' And that's some of the best advice I've ever gotten. When you're diagnosed with a disease or going through something really crappy, I think you have to own up to the fact that, yeah, you're going to have to live with this, but you also can have that moment to grieve."
Barker says that Pickup wasn't the only supportive member of her school community -- in fact, she recently had a check-in call from one of her counselors, 10 years after she graduated.
"That school is something special," she says. "That compassion will never be forgotten. I had supportive family, friends, loved ones. On this journey, I've never felt alone."
It's a sentiment that Barker expresses frequently. She marvels at how her fellow students in the journalism department at the University of Arkansas and her co-workers at KNWA were "like a family," seemingly oblivious to the fact that the common denominator in these groups is Barker herself -- it seems likely that she might be the catalyst for such a supportive environment.
"I don't know anybody who has more respect than Channing does among our faculty and her student peers," says Professor Larry D. Foley, chairman of the UA journalism department. "She was beloved."
Foley first met Barker during freshman orientation. He was struggling to get through the event as, afterward, he was heading to the funeral of the daughter of a close friend, and her tragic and early death was weighing heavily on his mind.
"Here was Channing, with this bright face, and wearing a peace symbol, looking like a child from the 1960s or 1970s," Foley remembers. "She just lit the room up. And I thought, 'I needed to see her,' because of what I was about to go do for a really, really good friend. And here comes this person -- when I first asked her where she was from, she said, 'I'm from Tulsa, and I have MS,' and I thought, 'This is just a child of God here that I invented to visit with.' And that was the first time I ever met her.
"Most first meetings that you have with students are not going to be that memorable."
Barker wasted no time getting involved on campus. When Foley learned she was interested in television journalism, he encouraged her to seek out opportunities at UATV, the campus television station. She also became a news producer at KNWA while she was still finishing up her degrees in journalism and political science. Though her diagnosis was only a few years in the rear view mirror -- and she was still learning to live with symptoms that were new to her on a daily basis -- she wasn't letting it slow her down. At all.
"[When I first met her,] I asked her typical journalism questions, 'Tell me where you're from, and how you got there,' and the whole thing about MS came up then, but it never came up again," says Foley. "I don't remember her ever missing a class, even to the point of one time, when she was walking down the hall with a rolling IV drip in her arm. She was there, no matter what she was going through. She never used it as a crutch or an excuse. It was a part of her, and she embraced it fully -- she even used it as a motivator."
Barker's determination to control the disease -- rather than letting the disease control her life -- and the fact that she's managed to turn what could have been a devastating diagnosis into a net positive is a common thread in her friends' comments about her.
"I think that her battle with MS from a young age deeply connects her to other people -- it gives her empathy for others' battles they are facing because of the one she faces herself [daily]," says Bourne. "She has used that fight to grow her compassion, which is exceptional because what she goes through could easily fuel anger and bitterness. Instead, she wrangles that for goodness to pour into other people."
That sense of empathy, and the ease of communication it gave her, might be what made Barker such a successful on-air reporter -- a job she quickly moved into after a stint behind the camera as a producer at KNWA. Soon, she had worked her way up to morning anchor. Clips you can find on YouTube serve as evidence of Barker's charming and warm on-air persona. She is concerned and empathetic while reporting on a child abuse case, friendly and chatty while interviewing celebrity Barrett Baber and delightfully quirky when, standing on a roof top, she tosses a cup of warm water into frigid winter air. She squeals as it turns to snow, mid-air, and the studio camera records two news anchors genuinely laughing at her delight.
Working on the morning news meant excruciatingly early morning hours, but Barker says she didn't mind -- of course she is a morning person.
"It was my favorite job in the whole world -- no sleep, and I didn't even care," she says. "One day we're on a mule in the middle of Madison County, the next day -- you never knew. The cool part about television is that you're with these crazy other people who are as crazy as you are. It was so fun. It was truly some of the best times of my life."
But it could also take a toll on her health. Barker never kept her diagnosis secret -- she was an open and enthusiastic advocate for health care issues in general and MS in particular -- but she worked hard not to let the disease affect her on-air performance. During one period when a steroid treatment wasn't having the desired effect, she made a public post to her Facebook page that was vulnerable and brutally honest. It read, in part, "What you don't see behind that desk is my cane, my IV port (I tried to disguise it or not use that arm on TV ... often failed) and my left leg dragging. So, with many diseases like MS, there may not be a 'physical' bandage around my brain, but there are lesions that each of us is working through to make days like yesterday 'normal'." Her KNWA family quickly rallied around her, initiating the hashtag "#CheerForChanning" so that viewers could tweet their messages of support to her.
"KNWA saw me through a lot of things," says Barker. "I was worried about leaving that station. That's the family that made me an adult, ages 22 to 28."
But Barker did leave: In the spring of 2017, she took a job as communications director for Benton County. The position is one of only two such positions in the state; Pulaski County has the other one.
"When I campaigned for this job, it became apparent that a lot of citizens didn't understand the role of county government, and when they tried to communicate with county government, a lot of times, it was frustrating," says Benton County Judge Barry Moehring of his decision to create the position. "So I made the decision that, if I were to win the seat, we needed a better way to communicate with the citizens so that their voice would be heard."
Barker says she saw an opportunity for advocacy and decided to take it.
"I'm drawn to local government," says the fan of Leslie Knope, the sincere and hard-working government administrator made famous by Amy Poehler on the sitcom "Parks and Recreation." "I had been at the station for five years, and I really started thinking -- " she pauses and then quotes poet Mary Oliver, "What do I do with this one, precious life?"
"I wanted to make a bigger impact. I saw all of these ways I wanted to be an advocate of some kind, and I can do that for Benton County. County government is not sexy, and I'm not trying to make it a carnival, but I want to engage people in what their tax dollars are providing."
Barker works with all of the departments that are under Moehring's purview: A county judge serves as the chief executive officer of the county he's elected to. Moehring says Barker hit the ground running and hasn't stopped yet.
"She has really far exceeded the expectations I had for this job, which was to be a liaison to and a facilitator of all types of communication with the citizens of Benton County," he says. "She has done a nice job in opening up that dialogue with our citizens on our social media platform. She's great in representing the county and hearing what the citizens are saying and making sure all of us in the county are hearing what citizens are saying.
"She's just really had a big impact on Benton County in a very short period of time, and we're fortunate that she's come to work with us."
Beyond a job
Barker doesn't limit her advocacy to working hours. There are a host of Northwest Arkansas nonprofits that count her as one of their biggest supporters.
"She's incredibly generous in many ways, but one of the biggest ways is with her time," says Bourne, who is the executive director of the NWA nonprofit Art Feeds. "She started volunteering with Art Feeds in the classroom with the elementary school students we serve, and the students immediately took to her and her spirit. When you're with Channing, she is fully with you. She is like that with the children we serve, too. If she's interested in your cause, she's fully invested in it ... we are lucky to be one of the nonprofits in which she invests her time and love."
"She gives her time and resources away to so many organizations, not only the Single Parent Scholarship Fund -- she's on our leadership council -- but also to the Humane Society, Komen Ozark ... she understands the importance of social service organizations because she's been a beneficiary of that," says Tyler Clark, executive director of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund.
In addition to the organizations already named, Barker has also lent her considerable talent to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Havenwood and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and she was the recipient of the 2016 MS Hope Award.
"My mom and sister, every year, go to D.C.," says sister Madalyn Wiseman of Barker's advocacy on behalf of MS research. "They're up there talking to senators and representatives. Channing is there for Arkansas, and my mom is there for Oklahoma."
She also fostered dogs for years, a volunteer opportunity that delivered her best friend to her -- an adorable terrier she named Benjamin Francis, after the current Pope.
"I think in my next life I'll be a full-time advocate of some kind, because that word has been on my heart for a long time," says Barker. It's almost as though she fails to notice that that's exactly what she has been her entire life -- an advocate for those experiencing the same health issues she is, an advocate for single parents who remind her so much of what her own mother experienced, an advocate for abandoned animals seeking a home -- and now, an advocate for Benton County, a part of the Northwest Arkansas area that she has come to love so much.
"It's funny, when I go to high school reunions or weddings, they say, 'You talk about Northwest Arkansas so much,' and I say, 'Yes, because it's such an amazing place to live,'" muses Barker. "Even saying that doesn't encapsulate everything that makes this place so wonderful."
"If I could be an ambassador for this area, I would. Actually, if I could stand on the corner and give out free hugs, I would. I just feel really lucky about where I am in life."
NAN Profiles on 01/07/2018
Print Headline: Channing Barker