The atrium at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta used to be a wide-open space—until Teya Ryan came along.
In the early 1990s, Ryan, then a documentary executive producer at CNN, had a vision for an interactive talk show, complete with live audience, that would originate from the CNN lobby.
She dragged her boss V.R. "Bob" Furnard into the atrium and announced: "I want you to dig me a hole here because I want to do a show," recalls Ryan, now EVP and general manager for CNN U.S. "He looked at me like I was out of my mind."
That hole became the set for TalkBack Live, which launched in August 1994 and is still an afternoon staple on CNN. She executive-produced the show for three years, launching her rapid rise through the ranks of CNN.
As befits an executive who changed the headquarters environment, Ryan arrived at CNN in 1990 as executive producer of the network's environmental unit. But her association with the cable news net dated back to her time at PBS, where she had worked for several years creating long-form programming on topics ranging from health to art. The daughter of a San Francisco newspaperman and a playwright, she found that documentaries satisfied her leanings toward both the arts and journalism.
One of her documentaries—on the environment—ended up at CNN. Before long, Ryan was working for both PBS and CNN, managing staffs at both networks and creating two orders of long-form shows.
"It was a wild ride," she said of her days juggling work at the new networks. She produced two versions of the same weekly magazine program, tailoring one for PBS and another for CNN. In 1994, her team made a documentary on the Mississippi floods, which won a National News Emmy.
Ultimately, Ryan says, "CNN chose me." The network took on more and more of her projects, satisfying her love for journalism and news. When she proposed TalkBack Live, her shift to CNN was complete.
When former CNN boss Rick Kaplan started to overhaul CNN's prime time to magazine shows, he tapped Ryan to produce business show CNN/Fortune. Business news was a new arena for her. After a year and a half, Kaplan was out, and the magazine shows were out of favor, but Ryan had proved adept at business news. New CNN chief Tom Johnson dispatched her to New York to run CNNfn.
"I knew just enough [about business news] to be dangerous," she quips. "But it was still TV and I knew how to do television, and it was still journalism and I knew good journalism."
In January 2001, Ryan summoned those skills once again for her next challenge: remaking CNN Headline News. As executive vice president and general manager for Headline News, Ryan and her staff redesigned the network's multi-element screen, recruited younger talent and plotted ways to lure younger viewers. And, if that weren't enough of a challenge, shortly before its August 2001 relaunch, Ryan's daughter was born.
Of her dual roles as news executive and mother, Ryan says, "The 24/7 news business makes it a particular challenge, and 14-month-olds are equally demanding."
An even bigger challenge beckoned in early 2002, when CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson elevated Ryan to head the CNN mothership. Now in her biggest management role yet, she marvels at the scope of the operation she oversees.
"We produce out of three cities each day, out of numerous foreign cities and with hundreds of reporters and anchors," she says. "Nothing moves as fast as CNN."