America’s first Hmong anchorman reflects on historic year at Local 5
As dusk met daylight, “Good Morning Iowa” anchor Chenue Her read the mid-September headlines off a scrolling teleprompter flanked by co-hosts at Local 5’s boxy West Des Moines-based studio.
During bite-sized commercial breaks, dressed in a navy-blue suit jacket, the local ABC station’s morning show host joked with on-set production members and straightened a pink tie adorned with traditional Hmong patterns.
A small nod to a life and career spent carrying the weight of generations close to his chest. After several news directors had asked him to change his Hmong name, for a chance at the anchor desk, before his time at Local 5.
Her delivered the day’s biggest stories to the Des Moines metro area: Sexual assault allegations leveled at Adm. Mike Franken, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, by a former campaign staffer. A website launched to help lower rising rates of opioid addiction in Iowa. More mental health funding for K-12 schools.
Her is one of one.
The 31-year-old, who made history and national headlines last October when he was hired by Local 5 to co-host the morning newscast, is America’s first and only Hmong anchorman.
Following a historic year spent shattering the glass anchor desk for the Hmong community, Her reflected on past career roadblocks that led him to a dream come true in Des Moines and a breakout season that has defined his lifework.
“They took a chance and put me on the anchor desk, and it was noticed,” Her said. “I think that just kind of speaks to the fact that here in Des Moines, there is a community that looks like me that was waiting for this to happen.”
Her’s family escaped Laos during the Vietnam War
Away from the sight of viewers is a man who spent an American boyhood struggling to write his own life story as the son of immigrants before he told the life stories of others.
Before Her’s parents met and married in Minnesota, his mom Yia and dad Seng fled communist troops during the Vietnam War in Laos and swam across the Mekong River before reaching a refugee camp in Thailand in the early 1970s.
Her was raised by the refugees in a two-bedroom shoebox-style apartment on the east side of St. Paul. Growing up, the family’s second-oldest son guided his parents through challenging language barriers.
The Her family upgraded to a duplex, shared with an aunt, and then a small house before moving to a home in nearby Mahtomedi. The small folksy suburb, about 30 minutes north of St. Paul, provided more educational opportunities for the family’s five children.
“When you grow up like I did, you have to get yourself in a place mentally where you have to succeed,” the 2009 graduate of Mahtomedi High School said.
A longtime friendship through life’s ‘ages and stages’
Former Channel 13 “Today in Iowa” morning anchor Jodi Long first met Her during their freshman year together at the University of Northwestern ― St. Paul. The private Christian university in Roseville, Minnesota, was then known as Northwestern College.
Long and Her became fast friends with a shared love of broadcast news. The pair would pack up their cars in a Northwestern College campus parking lot, with a dozen outfits in tow, and drive around the Twin Cities shooting practice “stand-ups,” a TV news term that refers to a reporter physically standing up during a pre-recorded portion of a story.
They worked together in an on-campus admissions office and folded clothes with one another at Hollister in the Maplewood Mall, a large-scale shopping center in a charming Twin Cities suburb.
Long, who is Black, said that as students at Northwestern College, the best friends never planned to break barriers or make history in the metro because they simply wanted a job in broadcast news.
Her’s historic rise, which made waves in the TV news industry, will have ripple effects, she said.
“This is going to open up doors for so many others like him,” Long said. “It’s just so cool to be on the sidelines of his success.”
Her first gained an appreciation for the Des Moines metro area during a visit for Long’s wedding in May 2018.
In a Sept. 28 edition of “Today in Iowa,” Long announced her departure from the TV news industry but said her decade-long friendship with Her will last through the “ages and stages” of life.
The first year at Local 5
Her graduated from Northwestern College in 2013 and was hired as a reporter in Eugene, Oregon. The now-veteran journalist did a two-and-a-half-year stint in the hyper-athletic Pacific Northwest city before moving to Norfolk, Virginia.
After a four-year turn in Virginia, Her made it to the bright-lit TV big leagues in Atlanta at the city’s NBC news station 11Alive. In Atlanta, Her was assigned meatier stories: more crime-filled, political-driven longform and less fluffy features.
Her covered COVID-19’s surge in Georgia, the state’s controversial 2020 elections, citywide protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the Atlanta spa mass shootings that targeted Asian American women.
“I took my biggest leaps as a journalist in Atlanta because you have to,” Her said.
Local 5 News Director Perry Pace said Her’s vast reporting resume in Atlanta brought a fresh perspective to the station and challenges staff members to approach stories in creative ways.
‘He is a rock star’
Her is one of the only Hmong anchors in American history.
Bao Vang, a former anchor at WSAW Newschannel 7 in Wausau, Wisconsin, became one of the first Hmong women in the nation to anchor a newscast in a full-time role when she was hired at the city’s local CBS station in 2006.
Four years later, on a Monday in early October 2010, Vang logged into her Gmail account and found a short note sitting in her inbox from a college sophomore attending the University of Northwestern ― St. Paul.
It read, in part: “As a Hmong student in this field, I was aware that there aren’t many Hmong students who have an interest in this field. While looking around to see if there are any Hmong news reporters, anchors, or producers, I stumbled across your name at WSAW. Thanks for the inspiration and keep up the good work.”
The student was Chenue Her.
Vang, who left TV news in 2015 after nearly three years in Green Bay, said Hmong broadcasters face complex nuances that require cultural understanding.
Hmong people are modest by nature, she said, while broadcast news requires a big ego, tough skin, and constant self-assurance. This can lead to an occupation opposing a person’s identity, she added.
In 1961, the CIA led a secret war in Laos, beneath the shadow and scrutiny of the Vietnam War, that depended on thousands of Hmong soldiers to fight against communism for the U.S. government. Vang said the Hmong community’s contributions with the conflict have been untold, under-told, or forgotten in American history books. Vang expressed that Her’s on-air representation is powerful for the Hmong community and his lived experiences are much-needed on the airwaves in central Iowa.
“From experience, I understand carrying the burden of being a representative of a very forgotten community,” Vang said. “Forgotten is an understatement for the Hmong contributions during the secret war in Laos.”
Vang said she hopes Her will return to the Twin Cities, which includes their hometown of St. Paul, to work at a TV news station sometime in the near future.
“He is a rock star. Chenue Her is a rock star,” Vang said.
On Oct. 4, 2021, exactly 12 years to the day after Bao Vang first read the email note, Her etched himself into history and sat in the swiveling Local 5 anchor chair for his first-ever broadcast on “Good Morning Iowa.”
He was fully seen after generations were forgotten. He said his own name given at birth, Chenue, which he refused to abandon as industry insiders had asked. He sat in a chair attained by his parents who swam across winding rivers and walked through dark woods during wartime.
Each morning, Chenue Her shuffles through Spotify and selects songs by rap artists like Kanye West and Drake on a handspun playlist. He adjusts his tie, puts on a suit jacket, and skims over scripts. Then, he reads living history.
“Good morning, Iowa! Thank you for waking up with us. I’m Chenue Her.”