May-Lily Lee is the senior producer and host of the Virginia Currents magazine-format television program on the Community Idea Stations (WCVE in Richmond). The show aired its 500th episode in March and is moving into its 19th season.
Lee grew up near Washington, D.C., where she first appeared on children's TV programs at the age of 14. She studied journalism at the University of Maryland, graduating when she was 19.
In 1985, at age 21, she started in Richmond television on WTVR Channel 6 and began with Central Virginia PBS in 1989.
Virginia Currents has garnered a dozen regional Emmys, among other awards, and is seen throughout Central Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. In November, Lee is launching a new show for a national audience.
Q: Television personalities seem to exist only in the television for some people. But you had parents and everything.
A: I do. My folks were the No. 1 fans of Virginia Currents. My mother Lu Lee passed away in '99; my father, H.K. Lee Sr. faithfully watches the show from Greenbelt, Md. To my father, nothing I do isn't golden. And likewise, I revere him. I don't have the right words to describe how much I love that man. I have a big brother, and he is also a big fan. He's 18 years apart from me.
Dad was in charge of plant operations for the Goddard Space Center. My mother was the consummate communicator in the family, which is where I picked up the skills. She was a natural-born writer and communicator. She dabbled in a number of areas in her career. She was the social secretary for [Marjorie] Merriweather Post, worked with the development of the ZIP Code and became a real-estate broker.
Q: How is it that you've been on television since 14?
A: You know how it happens: A girl gets sick. In 1977, I was up for the lead in a show with a Star Wars theme about a girl going through space and time and learning about people's prejudices. It was shot in a studio with storm troopers and blue-screen special effects. The producers contacted me saying the lead got sick or injured and asked, would I step in? I was pretty bad as the lead and felt bad for them. But this is how May-Lily started landing gigs around D.C., with huge support from my parents, who did all the driving. After my first taping, I knew this is what I wanted to do. There is a high when doing television work that is unlike any other feeling.
Q: What was Newsbag, and is there surviving tape?
A: Yes, on BetaMax, remember those? [Laughs.] This was my first TV series I worked on in 1978 to '79. You would read off an actual typed-on piece of paper. You typed out your script. These were local news clips pertinent to children that ran on WTTG, which is now a Fox station.
Q: And what exactly was Bumblebunkers?
A: It was a kid's show on WJZ-TV, which aired in Baltimore. That was a show for preschoolers, with a variety of segments geared toward that age — I was hired to perform magic regularly on the show. It was during that show that I met Oprah Winfrey. She was working there, and I remember her patting me on the head. She was a star in Baltimore on a show called People Are Talking.
Q: You're a singer-songwriter, too, and music is a part of your life, but television seems to have won out.
A: I think there was a certain point [in my life when] I had to decide how serious I'd be about music. I decided that making music all the time would take away from the magic of it.
Q: How did Virginia Currents come about?
A: The show was co-created by [producer and videographer] John G. Warner — he and I have been working together since the very beginning. The other co-creator was Scott Mason, who's since moved to North Carolina. Over the years, John and I have gone through the loss of parents together and other hardships, and come out of it like siblings.
One of the things we're proud of is that we've retained the same style of storytelling. And it's something hopefully viewers recognize even if they turn it on the middle of the story.
There is a sense of pseudo-amazement every year when the show is renewed, and has been renewed for the 19th season starting in October. Because most television shows have the life of a fruit fly.
Q: How is the show put together?
A: We both enterprise stories, shoot and edit them, and bring them to the table. Like a card game: I've got this, you've got that. That's how we stack shows.
We rarely have to talk about it. We both know where we're going with the overarching feel of each show. There's never any effort to establish a thematic quality.
One of the keys to our storytelling is the first-person narrative. Don't just stick the reporter into the middle of the story with a microphone. Let's just listen to what the person said.
Q: When you hosted Battle of the Brains, did you have reactions inside to those questions? Like: "C'mon kid, even I know this one."
A: [Laughs] The host always gets the answers right up front. No, I was constantly impressed by these kids. And that show was such fun to work on. I still run into the kids, more than their parents. One of the brightest on the show, Zachary Lash, from Lloyd C. Bird High School, is actually a sea captain now.
Q: What's Helium: Uplifting Pursuits?
A: In November, we're rolling out a new series. WCVE has agreed to be the presenting station, and the idea is to take the storytelling idea of Virginia Currents to a national audience as a syndicated half hour that focuses on uplifting pursuits and people. And I'll continue to work on Virginia Currents. This new project is the product of years of story ideas from across the country and the world. We've been planning it for a long time.
Q: You've interviewed many public officials. Who was the most surprising?
A: I was working in the legislative studio. And former Virginia Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III — who works in the optometry field — was listening to my questions with such intensity, so impressive and locked in so deeply to my questions. At the end he says to me, "May-Lily did you know you have an in-grown eyelash?" [Laughs] When L. Douglas Wilder was governor he came to the legislative studios. Afterwards, I was feeling kind of nerdy, and I pulled out a magic trick, a rope trick. It's where ropes of three different lengths turn into three of equal length. He said, "I need to learn this trick." Well, this created a quandary, because, as a magician, you take an oath that you do not reveal your secrets. Luckily, he didn't have enough time to learn magic.