Tra'Renee Chambers (right) with author Mitchell S. Jackson.

Portland knows Tra’Renee Chambers’s voice. It’s the afternoon drive time voice that spins hip hop hits on Jam’n 107.5 and, before that, KinkFM and Z100. We also know it from Afternoon Live, the lifestyle television show she’s hosted for years on KATU, covering everything from films to fashion to parenting topics. For some kids, it was the voice of their social worker, from when Chambers was a child welfare worker at Rockwood Child Services. At Self Enhancement Inc people know her voice as their licensed therapist, friend, and even, at one point, the interim director of SEI’s community and family services. Then there are the countless fashion shows, panels, and public interviews she’s done with everyone from Common to US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Now, the mom of three is ready to embark on a new chapter, leaving her television show after four years (and one regional Emmy for Best Host). The future plans are manifold, but begin, again, with her voice: she’s returning in October with a revival of her former public affairs radio show, Situations & Conversations with Tra’Renee, this time as a podcast, bringing together people from all aspects of her life and career to date.

I come from a long line of fearless stock on my father’s side from the backwoods of Louisiana. The reason my father got to the West Coast in the first place is rooted in racist behavior. As told to me, handed down from generations, my grandmother was a domestic worker and they used to have to stand in line to get their paychecks. The story is that a white woman tried to take my grandmother’s money. And my grandmother was a big woman, and she also was a fearless woman. Long story short, there was a little tussle that took place, my grandmother pushed her, and she fell and hit her head on the sidewalk. An accidental death. Back then, there was no video to prove it, just a bunch of other Black maids. Who’s going to believe who? They arrested her and took her to the jail. My family knew that that was going to be dangerous, so they surrounded the jail house. And sure enough, Ku Klux Klan members came and wanted to get in there. They wanted their own justice. Luckily, another white woman came forward and said that she saw what happened and it was indeed an accident, where this woman was assaulting my grandmother and she acted in self-defense. Thank god for her, but the haters weren’t going to let that stand, they were constantly harassing my family. So my grandmother was like, ‘That’s it, we’re leaving here because it’s not safe,’ and that’s how they ended up in California.

Chambers in a Los Angeles radio promo piece.

“I went to the club with a girlfriend of mine, and I didn’t want to go. I had just started my master’s program for social work, and my mind was set on saving the world and being in a community organizing advocating—the furthest thing from a radio career. There was a radio personality working the club who came up to me, and we just connected. Her name is Diana Steele, and I love her to this day. Long story short, she thought that I had a great radio voice [and invited me] to come up to the studio and see how it all works behind the scenes. Now this was the no. 1 radio station in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, 92.3 The Beat. I was like, ‘I don’t want to ever leave this place, I am loving this.’ So I never left. [Eventually] I’m in my master’s program at USC for social work, and I’m getting paid to party. We had everybody coming through [the station], Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Biggie—I mean, you name it. They were having parties. We were at the clubs. We were at the concerts. We were at everything.

[After I qualified as a social worker] my routine was go to my 9-to-5 job at the Department of Children and Family Services. I was an adoptions worker terminating parental rights in a court. Then I would come home, eat something, lay down, get up at about 1 a.m., take a shower, and go to the radio station to be on air from 2 to 6 a.m. Then come back home, eat something, and go to work. It was crazy. Then one day I got up, put my feet on the floor to get off the bed, and I just couldn’t move. My godmother happened to be visiting me at that time and took me to the hospital. The doctor said you basically have exhausted all fluids and nutrients, you’re going to have to choose because you can’t keep this up. I got back home and blinking on my answering machine, no lie, was a job opportunity to go back to my hometown of San Francisco to be on the no. 1 radio station out there to do morning drive time.

Chambers on air.

One station that I was on [in San Francisco] was Black-owned and also owned a station in New York. I wondered if they were looking for anybody—kept on sending my stuff and kept on calling. The program director said, 'Let’s try you in the evenings, 6 to 10 p.m., and weekends.' I get up there and I’m like, 'Who is this person I’m coming on after? She is larger than life.' Well, I didn’t know at the time who she was, but it was [TV host] Wendy Williams.

To me Wendy felt very much like the female Howard Stern. Out there in your face, calling everybody out, just talking trash all the time. At one point she wanted me to fill in for her when she would be out, and so that’s how my name got even more recognition. Because when you fill in for Wendy you got to bring the heat, right. She has such a loyal listening base that all wanted to know who the hell is that filling in for Wendy. It got to the point where she was out more and more because she started doing TV stuff. Then one day, I got a call: ‘You won’t be filling in for Wendy.’ I went to my [New York City] program director and said, ‘I’m just curious how come I don’t fill in for Wendy anymore when she’s not here?’ And he said, ‘Wendy requested that it not be you anymore. I put a guy in there because she didn’t even want another woman in there.’ I’m so naïve, right, because this was only my third radio gig. And then of course my girl, who was his assistant, gave me the lowdown on that. I was getting too big for my britches. Too many callers saying ‘You should have Tra’Renee with you on the show.’

We got to Oregon in January of 2006 [when my husband got a job at Nike]. My first impression of Portland was it is beautiful and it is so white. I was like, wow, where’s any sense of diversity and culture? I mean, I can do this because I grew up in a neighborhood in San Francisco that didn’t have any Black people in it. I know how to maneuver. But where do I go to get a little semblance of home or culture? I just felt really disconnected. But I guess you just make home wherever you make home. You find your people. That was my first impression. And then it was, boy, do they need me out here because I like to start shit up.

There were no radio opportunities [in Portland] at that time. Now I have two kids. I’m off on maternity leave, but I’m not the stay-at-home-mom type. So what do I do? Social work! I’d been here long enough. I knew that they needed people like me to represent these kids of color. I started working there at Rockwood Child Services DHS, as a child welfare worker. I would work with the parents and the kids to try and help keep the home stable and safe, so that we didn’t have to remove the kids. That was my job for years.

 

Not only are there hardly any social workers of color but there are really no therapists. And I said, ‘I’m going to fill this gap and be of service to my community.’ [As part of getting a therapist degree as a licensed clinical social worker] I went to Self Enhancement Inc and said, how can we work together. You need me—I need you. They helped me get my hours and everything I needed to obtain and achieve that. So a couple of years down the line, I’m still doing the radio station, still doing a public affairs show, and now, I’m a domestic violence advocate and therapist doing groups at SEI.

One day, I’m folding laundry and my girl Kristina with a K calls me and says, we need a weekend person on Z100. I wasn’t ready to give up my social work gig, but I could do weekends. I said yes, but I also want to have a public affairs show, because I have something to say beyond introducing songs. I want to talk about what’s going on with what I’m seeing here. They said OK. So I was doing Z100 and then I had this public affairs show that aired weekly—Situations and Conversations with Tra’Renee. I interviewed people from the community, nonprofits, you name it. Once a week, for hundreds of interviews. 

I created Situations and Conversations, so I can take that and now I want to turn it into this podcast. And it’s exactly what it sounds like—real situations, real people talking about situations, and genuine, authentic conversation with the end goal being some sort of empowerment and enlightenment. That has to be there. We can’t just talk to talk. We get enough of that. We need to learn how to listen and pick out nuggets and speak with purpose. Live with purpose and speak with purpose, act with purpose, everything with some kind of purpose in mind. For some people, that sounds boring and it sounds like, oh man, you’re just not having any fun No, my purpose could be to have fun. Whatever your purpose is, stay true to the purpose. Stay true to the game, whatever it is, whatever it is you putting down make sure that’s what people are picking up. Yeah. And that’s hard because you can’t make people get where you're coming from, you can’t make people listen, you can’t make people hear you. But you can do your very best and be as authentic as possible to where people have no choice but to pick up what you’re putting down, and what they do with that is their choice. Right. But I’m going to try and give it to you as real and as authentic as I possibly can.” 

Chambers with her family and rapper/actor Common.

I was watching these [local daytime] shows. I was like, man, they really need some color on these shows. There’s nobody of color doing any of these lifestyle shows. Then in comes this email to see if I’m available to do a promo on KATU Channel 2. I scroll down and see they need me, because they wanted someone of color to speak authentically about the United Negro College Fund for a promo, and I’m the only Black on-air personality, at the time, in all of Portland. And I did the promo with [the program director]. There were no teleprompters, no cue cards. He just told me what he wanted me to say, but it was like 30 seconds, so I’m embellishing because of my radio background. Then one day I get a call from him. ‘Hey Tra’Renee. Are you still interested in being on TV here in Portland? I’d like to talk to you.’

There’s so many things I want to do. [The future] looks like Tra’s going to be writing a book. It looks like Tra’s going to be launching her podcast. It looks like a production company that I already have. It looks like a movie review show. And it looks like telling stories, visually. I have things I want to do right now while people still know who I am. I want to continue to be a vessel to enlighten and empower and educate and inspire. Those are the things that I know for a fact I’m put on this earth to do. If I’m not being the light and at least trying to tell the truth, with light and with love, then I have no purpose here.

 

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