When Barbara Harrison learned that a fur coat purchased by Mayor Marion Barry for his wife Effi had become part of the ongoing probe of Barry's administration, the WRC reporter picked up the phone and asked for an interview.

"Here was a person who had to deal with an awful lot of talk about her but who nobody had heard from," says Harrison. "There were stories about Karen Johnson and all the other people he was supposedly philandering with ... And the talk about {Effi's} gifts and the clothes. I thought certainly she must have something she wants to say about all this. It must be an awful burden to carry around ... "

Harrison was no stranger to Effi Barry; the two had worked together on community projects and on several occasions Harrison had asked if she could do a story on a day in her life. That hadn't happened. But Barry agreed immediately to be interviewed on her reaction to the investigation. "She said, 'I believe you will be fair and tell the story as I tell it to you.' I asked about restrictions and she said, 'You can ask me about anything anyone wants to know. I have nothing to hide. Ask me about Karen Johnson. Ask me about the gifts,' " says Harrison.

The five interviews, aired last month, became their own news. This week Harrison, 39, scored another coup. She got Susan Cooke to discuss incidents in her past, including drug-related charges, and her new life as wife of Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Redskins.

"Prominent people are frightened, legitimately or otherwise, as to whether their side is going to be represented fairly in the news media. There are certain venues that work with people who are controversial. They figure this is the best they are going to get," says Jerry Nachman, the vice president and general manager of Channel 4.

Between editing the Cooke segments, which conclude tonight, doing local news segments for the "Today Show" and making a brief trip to her upper Northwest home to breast-feed her 9-month-old daughter, Harrison talked about her chase for the reluctant headliners.

Her approach includes cajoling her subjects and taking, as she says, a "human being to human being" stance, often talking about herself. To get the Cooke interview, for instance, Harrison first sent messages through mutual friends. When a meeting was set up, Harrison promised that the camera crew wouldn't come in unless Cooke agreed. After about 20 minutes alone with Harrison, Cooke allowed the discussions to be taped. Two other separate interviews followed.

In the interviews Cooke tells about meeting her husband by a pool in Florida, moving to Washington to be near him, her husband's reaction to her pregnancy ("I think he was, ah, a little taken aback"), her brother's death and the stability of her marriage.

The negotiations with Cooke were handled directly with her, aided by some discussions on the drug charges with her attorney, says Harrison. She says Jack Kent Cooke "didn't have anything to do with it at all."

Harrison's directness and empathy have paid off in the past. When Lonise Bias, mother of the University of Maryland basketball star, was turning away the press the day of her son's death, she talked to Harrison. "My thought was to comfort her, not to get a story. Very often the first people people see after a traumatic experience are news reporters. I told her I really felt what she was feeling as a mother. Then she told me about Len Bias as a baby. It was mother to mother, human being to human being, not a victim to reporter," says Harrison.

When Bill Cosby was refusing press requests last year, Harrison staked out the comedian at Capital Centre. "I just waited until he came by," says Harrison. "I don't feel I am fearless but I find a way to ask the questions so people wouldn't be offended." They talked for 35 minutes and the five-part series on Cosby was followed by a behind-the-scenes look at the show in New York and another five-part series.

Born in New York City, Harrison grew up with her five siblings on the campus of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where her father was a professor and director of public relations. Her mother taught elementary school. Harrison began her career as a copywriter for Vogue magazine, then worked as a writer for WNET in New York. She has worked twice in San Francisco, as a disc jockey, a radio talk show host and a television reporter and also as a reporter in Dallas.

Married to an attorney in Washington, she has four children and the birth of the youngest was the subject of an award-winning journal and campaign last year to help reduce the area's infant mortality rate. At Channel 4, she has just completed her second, three-year contract. Though Susan Cooke had requested her to come with a list of questions, Harrison declined. "I thought it would be better as a conversation. In the natural flow of conversation, as you build up the confidence of the person ... you are no longer threatening. I also like to look at people. I like for them to see I am listening."

In the Barry and Cooke cases, the conversations became clean sweeps. "Why not let me help tell her story in an honest way so people would know and there would be no more story to tell? Once you put it all out there and there are no skeletons in the closet ... there is no story," says Harrison.

To develop that confidence, Harrison has a ground rule that the subjects can stop if they -- especially the nonprofessional news makers -- feel themselves getting tangled up in a sentence. "I don't think it is fair {to go on otherwise} because television captures everything. It doesn't allow for mistakes."

"Very often I will say, 'I hope you don't mind my asking,' or 'You can answer this any way you like but I'd really like to know' -- giving them the opportunity to not answer if they don't want to. When people know you have given them that opportunity, they will give you the answer you want," she says. For the first interview with Cooke, Harrison says, her subject took full advantage of that reporting largess.

"There are those of the school who believe the camera should be running at all times when you are in this kind of interview because you will capture a lot of things that people let slip out when they let their guard down. I don't believe in taking advantage of people that way. I don't mean to sound like goody-two-shoes. I want the toughest, hardest story I can get from anybody but I feel it is better for all of us if we both understand what it is that I am looking for and if they agree to give me that story."

In the Effi Barry interview, culled from almost five hours of questioning, the mayor's wife says "the only kind of wrongdoing my husband has admitted to is the fact that he used indiscretion in personal involvements with other women, whatever those involvements might have been. My husband is an honest man. He's an arrogant person. But you would expect him to be because he has a right to be."

From such, Harrison hopes the public learned about Effi Barry's strength. "She is a strong, intelligent person who is just not sitting back enjoying celebrity but is concerned about the problems coming from the mayor's office. She has been silent but not unthinking," says Harrison.

One of the exchanges with Cooke is a question about her happiness. "Are you happy?" asks Harrison. Cooke answers, "I'm going to be having a little girl. I'm very happy." Says Harrison, "But are you happy in your marriage?" Cooke answers, "Everyone has some problems they have to iron out, and I love my husband very much." Harrison asks, "Do you feel that he loves you?" Cooke responds, "I hope he loves me as much as I love him. I think he does."