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‘Allison, can you explain what Internet is?’

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In 1994, “Today Show” anchors Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric had a discussion about this new thing called the Internet that became the stuff of legend. Then Couric asked a legendary question: “Allison, can you explain what Internet is?” That moment is the foundation of a fun ad by BMW that debuted during the Super Bowl and has been in heavy rotation ever since. But have you wondered who “Allison” is?

Let me lift the veil of mystery. She is Allison Davis. At the time, she was the set writer/producer for the NBC News morning program. The powerful post meant she knew everything about everything the anchors were saying and doing on the show. She was also a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. I first met Davis during my first internship on the “Today Show” the summer of 1986. She was tough, a journalist who at once scared and awed teenage me as I watched her and others in action on the third floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

What did Davis tell Couric? How does it feel to be a part of an iconic moment in technological history? Who were the early pioneers of broadcast news content on the Internet? What does she think of the Internet 21 years later? Listen to Davis talk about that historic question in 1994. Transcript below.

JC: So, Allison, when Katie asked, “Allison, can you explain what Internet is?,” what did you tell her? Did you know what the Internet was yourself?

Davis: Yes, actually, I had been on the Internet for about nine years before that having started with the original CompuServe [and] original AOL. So, I was very much a geek even back then. And I remember, frankly, not getting a word in edgewise in being able to tell her that day because Bryant kept interrupting me. I love him dearly, but Bryant kept interrupting me. And what’s missing from that commercial is what Bryant said, which was, “Don’t ask her. She can’t say anything in less than 10 seconds.”

JC: Amazing. So that was 21 years ago. How does it feel to be part of an iconic moment in technological history?

Davis: It’s interesting. When I first heard about the fact they were doing this commercial, I asked, “Why?” Having seen the commercial, I think it is funny. But I also wanted to share with you that I had been very much involved in trying to pull NBC along in terms of getting them on board with this new technology, this new digital technology, this new digital frontier. And we had established just a few years later a group of, frankly, minorities who actually created the first, original journalism from a broadcast station on the Internet. So, I am excited that, frankly, that story can be told, that NBC was very much a pioneer in really getting original journalism on the Internet, something that we take for granted now. And, in addition, that it was a team of mostly women and minorities. And that’s a story that I’m so excited about being able to share with others.

JC: You know, that’s a great thing to know. I think it’s certain that most people don’t know that. Now that we all know what the Internet is, what do you love about it and what do you hate about it?

Davis: You know, I love the fact that through the Internet, I have been able to find out information about my family, to be very honest with you. I have read in the past two or three months information that has been, my father’s writings. My father worked for the AFL-CIO and later helped establish the Equal Opportunities Commission and so there’s so much I didn’t know. Through the Internet and through the digitizing of so many papers out there in so many libraries, I hear my father’s voice again. As corny as that may sound, that’s been something I adore about the Internet.

And, yes, I’m on Facebook and I tweet. The most aggravating thing is it’s addictive. I’m finding that I spend far too much time. And it’s a distraction sometimes and that’s not good either.

JC: I was going to ask you what is the biggest time suck for you in terms of social media? Is it Facebook? Is it Twitter? Instagram?

Davis: Oh, I don’t use Instagram as much. But I think it’s Facebook, number one and Twitter, number two. Facebook because I have wonderful friends out there who can keep me informed about everything in the news and I get some, it’s the first thing I read in the morning when I get up. And I want to see what resonates with my community on Facebook and so that’s a lot of fun. Twitter because, um, the same, but I find myself spending more time on Facebook.

JC: I find myself spending a whole lot of time on Facebook scrolling through people’s feeds and laughing at videos and actually being updated on stories I didn’t even know about. So, Allison, last question for you. What have you been up to since Katie’s infamous question?

Davis: Well, a lot. I went on to CBS with Bryant and worked on the syndication unit. I left the business, in terms of television news, in the early 2000s and began work in nonprofits. It’s something that’s always excited me. I worked for many years at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a wonderful, wonderful foundation that gives scholarships to underserved young people. And then I’m now actually running an arts education organization in New York-New Jersey called Arts Horizons that really attempts to put the A in STEM to make STEAM. So to watch art come alive in the classroom and not necessarily in an art classroom, but in a math classroom or art in an English classroom has been very, very satisfying for me. And then I still do some reporting if you will. I love to shoot and I love to edit. And so I do work with nonprofits to try to get their story out in various media, including the Internet. So I still do a lot in terms of geekdom and enjoy it and love it.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj