“Hey, there goes the news lady!”
In the five years since she began broadcasting area news and community events with little more than a cell phone and Facebook Live, BeeTV Network owner April Ross has become accustomed to being recognized. Little wonder. Like the buzzing bee in the station logo, Ross and BeeTV are everywhere.
From festivals to football games, political forums to holiday parades, even a sixth grade boat ride aboard the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s floating classroom, BeeTV believes in being there.
“We film as many community events as possible, and we are sometimes the first on the scene at news events,” said Ross, who once left a wedding to do an interview that wouldn’t wait.
Instantly recognizable in her yellow and black attire, with a wide range of “bee” accessories, Ross also hosts her own show and coordinates other programs that film in BeeTV’s one-room studio on Main Street. When the camera lights up, so does Ross. “This is April Ross, broadcasting live from the Bee Hive,” she proclaims, a sparkling smile on her face.
Ross explains, with a laugh, that she surprised even herself when she bought the local TV station, WJCN, (Channel 22 on Spectrum cable) in 2021. Her father, Charlie Hand, had been yard man for former station owner Peter Mallory and, back in the 1990s, asked Mallory to give Ross an internship while she was studying journalism at Alabama State.
“My father was his yard man, I was an intern, and now I own the station,” Ross said, wonder in her voice. She changed the station call letters to WCAC to honor her father and late mother, Cora Hand.
“We wanted something with a B or BEE, but that wasn’t available, so WCAC is for Charlie and Cora,” she said.
After college graduation, Ross got a behind-the-camera job at Columbus station WRBL, where she was mentored by longtime anchorwoman Teresa Whitaker. Ross’s goal was an on-camera role, and when she was passed her over for a reporting job at the station, she described herself as “ bent, but not broken.” She moved on and landed occasional media jobs, primarily in Atlanta, but nothing like what she was looking for.
What became her “big break” came in January, 2017, when she happened to be in the tax office in West Point when a Troup sheriff’s deputy was shot nearby. A friend who knew Ross was on Facebook called and encouraged her to go to the scene to tell the community what was happening.
“I thought to myself, ‘I may look crazy, but I’m going to do it,’” Ross recalls.
Summoning her journalism training, she went live on Facebook for about 40 minutes and stayed on the scene with updates for six hours.
“BeeTV was birthed right then,” she said.
Operating on a shoestring, with just social media as her outlet, Ross quickly gained both viewers and credibility. Community members began calling in leads.
“They would say, ‘Hey, it’s a fire or ‘the police are over here.’”
Over time, Ross said, she opted to stop going live at some scenes, like accidents, out of concern for how it might affect relatives or friends of people involved.
“I’m not just thinking about the story. I’m thinking about the community, asking myself, ‘Is this the content we want?’”
She gained respect and appreciation for her role in bringing the community together last May following a tragic accident that claimed the lives of Troup County resident Rico Dunn, 24, and LaGrange College baseball players Stephen Bartolotta and Jacob Brown, both 19. The accident occurred just hours after the LC team won a conference championship, and the initial reaction focused mainly on the players, who were both white, hurting and angering friends and family of Dunn, who was Black.
“The town was in an uproar,” Ross recalls. “It could have gotten really ugly. But we’re LaGrange; we don’t tear down, we heal. I felt we needed to show people we are together.”
Ross talked with longtime friend, Pastor Michael Jackson of Confidence Baptist Church, who agreed that the community needed to come together.
The result was a vigil on Lafayette Square, organized by the church in partnership with LaGrange College. Hundreds gathered in a much-needed display of unified grief, remembering and honoring, as LC President Susanna Baxter put it, “three beautiful young lives.”
BeeTV and other media streamed the event to the broader community. Ross said she was grateful for the chance to be part of it.
“My goal is to inspire, to make a difference, and I have a platform to do it,” she said.
Televising community-based programming remains her priority.
“If it’s important to LaGrange, it’s important to BeeTV,” Ross said. And to Lanett, Valley, Heard County and other locales within the network’s 11-county Spectrum coverage area.
That commitment to community coverage is vitally important, said Tripp Penn, president of the Callaway Foundation Inc.
“Local journalism is a critical piece of having an engaged community and a civil society. We are fortunate to have April Ross covering important events across the region. I see her everywhere I go,” Penn said.
Almost six years and hundreds of events since her first impromptu broadcast in West Point, Ross has BeeTV on a roll. The business has grown – from a one-woman show to a 24-hour network with six employees, plus several program hosts, paid programming and advertisements — and BeeTV has gained impressive recognition.
Last summer, the station was among seven recipients of significant grants from the Pivot Foundation, a venture philanthropy organization dedicated to investing in independent community news sources led by Blacks and other people of color. Ross did not apply for the grant, rather Pivot surveyed Georgia communities to find what news sources they used and trusted.
“In LaGrange, BeeTV is cited by both Black and white residents as their go-to information source, unifying the demographically divided city around a common set of facts,” said Pivot founder Tracie Powell in announcing the grant.
The funding allowed Ross to hire veteran sports reporter Kevin Eckleberry to greatly expand the station’s sports coverage. It also provides access to consulting support and other business support services essential to the station’s progress.
Ross emphasizes that, while proud to be a woman of color with strong ties in the Black community, she’s not running a minority station.
“BeeTV is not a black station; it’s not a white station; it’s a people station on God’s network,” she said.
Two other big honors came in September, the first when the Urban League of Greater Columbus honored BeeTV at its 50th anniversary dinner at Green Island Country Club.
“BeeTV has distinguished itself in entrepreneurship, selfless service and community engagement,” the award citation said.
Additionally, Pivot Foundation flew Ross to California to share her story to more than 1,400 attendees at a national conference. Both proud and terrified, Ross packed her bright yellow suitcase and made the most of it..
“The knowledge, ideas and networking were major for BeeTV,” she said.
Ross is quick to credit her husband, Corey Ross, with encouraging her to pursue her dream and helping out as the first sales director for the station. She had been filling in on-air for then-owner Cary Carroll when she learned WJCN was for sale. Corey Ross, recognizing that his wife had built a following in Troup and Chambers counties, suggested she buy the TV station.
April Ross’s reaction? “I said, ‘Excuse me? Are you kidding?’”
Her father agreed she should pursue the opportunity. “He said, ‘You were born to do this,’” Ross said.
It took nearly two years to get the deal done, partly due to Covid delays and also to extensive paperwork and licensing requirements. The delay was frustrating but fortuitous.
“God’s timing is perfect,” April Ross said.
In addition to her husband, BeeTV also employs Ross’s son, Jacari Brooks, a journalism graduate of Kennesaw State, who is production assistant and is learning sportscasting under Eckleberry’s tutelage. Other key employees include Asia McCullough, an Alabama State graduate who handles most of the technical aspects, set up, camera work and some editing and veteran news reporter Jennifer Shrader.
In addition to Spectrum, with a potential 600,000 viewers from Peachtree City to Selma, BeeTV is now available through Roku, Apple and Amazon FireStick
Looking to the future, Ross said her goal is to continue growing and serving.
“I believe God has shown me my purpose,” she said. “We’re gonna keep on buzzin’.”
And she wants to continue being “the news lady.”
“I respect the fact that I am keeping people informed, and that’s it’s my responsibility to get all the facts, present all sides and be credible,” she said.
On a recent drive, Ross recalls, she looked up to see the tower with the BeeTV antenna on top.
“MY antenna,” she said, her voice rising. “I own that antenna. Sometimes I can’t believe it. Then I get back to work.”