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South Florida's Best and Brightest
Originally published: Sunday, May 1, 2011 (12:02:03 a.m. ET)

Jennifer Santiago
Miami-based Plum TV anchor and reporter Jennifer Santiago. (Photo courtesy of Joao Carlos).
Jennifer Santiago
She became familiar to South Floridians during seven-plus years behind the anchor desk at WFOR, the local market's CBS affiliate, collecting an impressive seven Emmy Award nominations along the way. From there, she moved on to reporting positions with HD News, which in 2004 became America's first national TV news network produced entirely in high definition, and then with the Travel Channel. Those gigs afforded Jennifer Santiago the chance to travel the world, more than three dozen countries in all, including: Brazil, Cambodia, China, Haiti, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Santiago, who did her undergraduate work at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., before earning a law degree from Villanova University, has been back in Miami for the better part of the last year, working for Plum TV, an entertainment and lifestyle network accessible on the World Wide Web. Her packages have appeared on CNN, The Weather Channel, Sky News, and the CBS Evening News.

Q: What advice would you give youngsters who want to embark on a career in your industry?
A: I always say not to major in journalism because you can learn everything you need to know on the job. I'd recommend getting a degree in something you love, enjoy the college experience, and let life take you where it will. I've changed my career several times. I was pre-med in college and worked for a forensic pathologist. Then I went to law school and worked in the Philadelphia district attorney's office. Then I produced an independent film and then I became a journalist. So I would say to be flexible enough to allow life to take you where it will. Happiness, first. Then the money will come.

Q: Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
A: Winning a couple of Emmys was very exciting. But the best thing I've ever done was helping a man get pardoned by then-Governor Charlie Crist because of my reporting while at CBS4. His name was Richard Paey and he was serving a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence under our very Draconian drug-sentencing laws. He actually never sold a single drug. He had this debilitating back pain that kept him in a wheelchair. He needed pain medication and because of the way the laws were written and because of the amount of pain medication in his possession, even though there was never proof of any intent to sell, he was sentenced to a 25-year term that was mandatory. So even the rapists and the murderers who he was in jail with could get out before him. I sent my story to Charlie Crist and I hounded him every moment I could about it. Eventually, he pardoned him and Crist said it was because of my reporting. Richard Paey and his family were very grateful. To me, that was the most rewarding experience of my life.

Q: What's the most challenging part about your work?
A: Wearing a lot of hats at once is very challenging. I host and I report. But I also produce and write and book guests. I even edited a piece today. And I think that says a lot about where television is today, on the local level, at least. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades. That's challenging. You really have to know how to multi-task if you want to do this and do it well.

Q: What did you envision doing for a living when you were growing up?
A: Jewish parents have a tendency to want doctors in the house. So I think my parents probably whispered medical terms in my head while I was sleeping growing up. Somehow, that filtered into my brain and I decided I wanted to be a doctor. My mother is a nurse, so I'm sure that had some influence. And I did volunteer work in a hospital when I was in high school. But that 8 a.m. bio lab on Mondays when I was a freshman in college changed that all very quickly. That's why I went to law school.

Q: In ten years' time, I will be _________________.
A: Hopefully, working as a Foreign Service officer in the [U.S.] State Department in some exotic country, spreading democracy and women's lib all over the world. I definitely want that to be my next career-move after I've had enough of television. Or after it's had enough of me.

Q: Who are/were your professional role models and why?
A: Anderson Cooper is such a dedicated and caring journalist. I was so impressed with his early work, before he became a household name. He was only about 26 years old when he flew to Rwanda himself to cover the genocide there. He was the first reporter who was brave enough during [Hurricane] Katrina to question why these people who were being neglected were primarily African-American. He wasn't afraid to discuss the issue of race on-air. I really respect him for that.

Q: If you could do anything else in the world for a living, what would it be?
A: If I didn't actually have to pay bills, I would be a backpacking yogi-slash-writer. And I'd travel from Third World country to Third World country, practicing yoga and writing about my experiences in really exotic places.

Q: What's the best part about your job?
A: Getting to do a little bit of everything. And the phenomenal perks. Restaurants all over South Florida invite me to come sample their menus and I get invited to every single amazing party on the Beach. I interview fascinating celebrities. Just in the last few months alone, I've interviewed Donna Karan, Idris Elba, and John Malkovich. I get to meet with some of the most successful and interesting people around, and that's always inspiring.

Q: What's the worst part about your job?
A: Hair and make-up. I hate sitting in the chair at salons, and I hate wearing 10 tons of make-up on TV. A lot of women would actually like that part, but I'm not really a girly-girl, so I don't like being pampered.

Q: What's the one most important thing that experience has taught you?
A: That karma is a bitch and that good people generally are rewarded. I've learned to be honest with myself and to be honest with others. Life will reward you for your honesty and eventually reward you with happiness.

Q: What's the best career advice anyone has imparted on you?
A: When I was working at CBS4, I had been on-air for just a few months and was getting attention and interviews from all over the country, including a Chicago station that wanted to make me its main anchor. I literally had no experience. And I thought about it because the money would have been great. It was the No. 3 market. I would have been seen by millions. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity. Bryan Norcross, our chief meteorologist, told me that Miami was the place for me because I was so green. He told me that if I'm going to make mistakes, I'm better off making them in a place where I'm loved and nurtured. He advised me not to jump ship and I stayed at CBS for the next seven years. It was the right decision. I really grew at CBS and got seven Emmy nominations and two Awards. I was able to travel all over the world and was given responsibility I probably wouldn't have gotten had I been married to an anchor desk in Chicago.

Q: What one thing would you do different/better if you could start it all over again?
A: I lived in Paris for a month between my jobs at the Travel Channel and HD News, and it was the most glorious month of my life. To be in a foreign country and live like a local. If I could do it all over again, I'd take a full year off between college and law school because that was a very expensive degree. I could have used a break to think about what my next step would be instead of rushing to do something for the sake of getting another degree.

Q: What's your favorite South Florida charity?
A: Friends of the Orphans. They have orphanages all over Central America and the Caribbean. I love their work; they really take care of their kids. I have adopted an orphan in Nicaragua, and they give you an opportunity to visit your orphan. So it's very hands-on. You know exactly where your money is going, you get updates from the kids all the time. Because I've traveled to Haiti and Central America several times, I know there is such a need for children there to be taken care of. And if I can plug a national organization, it would be the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is in Kenya. I've adopted an elephant through them. They have orphans, too, just the four-legged kind. They do amazing work. I traveled to Kenya to document them for CBS4 and it's amazing how elephants are so humanlike. They are incredibly intelligent animals and incredibly emotional animals. They are fascinating to watch.
Archive: 20 Good Questions
Best & Brightest: June 2011