This Minnesota native has made herself at home in Rockford, as a longtime personality on WREX and a happy mother. Discover what this talented storyteller loves about covering our region.
When Katie Nilsson moved to Rockford 12 years ago, as a fresh-faced broadcast major from a small town in Minnesota, she didn’t plan to stick around long. In fact, her goal was an eventual return to the Minneapolis area, where she would continue her journalism career.
Life, however, sometimes changes one’s plans. A chance meeting with her future husband, Rockford native Kyle Zimmerman, led Nilsson to stay put. A few years ago, she was in the process of moving to a different Rockford apartment, when a friend offered the use of her brother’s truck. That brother was Zimmerman, a Rockford Park District employee, and the rest is history. In 2008, the couple married; seven months ago, they celebrated the birth of their first child, son Kamden.
“God was definitely listening,” says Nilsson, who experienced difficulties becoming pregnant. “Early in my life, I never thought about becoming a mom. I was always so busy working and thinking about advancing my career. But now, my life has changed for the good. Kam is so cool and he’s getting such a personality. I look forward to coming home every night. I can’t imagine my life without him.”
These days, Nilsson is among the most experienced journalists in the Rockford television market, anchoring 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts with Eric Wilson on 13 WREX. In addition to her on-air duties, Nilsson is the station’s content manager, responsible for making daily story assignments to reporters and photographers.
“Rockford is a great news town,” she says. “There’s so much to cover. The city is great to work with, the schools are always interesting and there is other breaking news to follow. I like to cover heartwarming, emotional stories that no one else in the market is reporting.”
“What you see is what you get with Katie,” says Wilson. “She’s the real deal. She makes things easier for everyone in the news room because of her personality. She’s tolerant, diplomatic and has a lot of skills that she needs for the job she has to do.”
Nilsson grew up in Crosslake, Minn., a small town of 2,000 that’s popular with tourists, especially during community celebrations like Winterfest, St. Patrick’s Day and Celebrate Crosslake Days. “We have plenty of bars and churches, but not too many stop signs,” says Nilsson, whose parents and two siblings still live in that area.
Growing up, her mother tagged Nilsson “Kate Potate,” because of her daughter’s enthusiasm for potatoes, something that has never changed. “Boiled, fried, hash browns, French fries, I could eat potatoes every day,” she says, laughing. “I just don’t like sweet potatoes.”
Nilsson stayed busy during high school, graduating in a class of just 96 students. Among other things, she was a cheerleader. These days, she cheers on the Minnesota Vikings, not always a popular activity in these parts, where Bears and Packers fans thrive.
She also played golf on her high school’s team, but says she was “not very good.” What she was good at, however, was journalism. Nilsson was a member of the yearbook staff and the student newspaper, and liked the taste of this potential career. “I loved it,” she says. “I really enjoyed the story-telling aspect of writing. And my teacher was amazing. She really opened my eyes to how wonderful this field could become for me.”
Nilsson attended Bemidji State University for two years, before switching to St. Cloud State University, where she earned a B.S. in Mass Communications. During high school and college, Nilsson worked part-time as a bartender, waitress and bank teller to help pay for her education.
Following graduation, Nilsson spent a year working for a Minnesota radio station before accepting a job as reporter in 2001 at a Rockford radio station, where veteran radio reporter Fred Speer took her under his wing. In fact, Nilsson covered her first breaking news story – a house explosion – with Speer by her side. “It was so cool to be on a story with Fred,” she says. “He was a great teacher. I learned so much from him.”
A year later, Nilsson got her break in television, when she was hired as a reporter at 13. She did well, moving up to host the morning show before deciding to leave the station in 2008 for a marketing position with a local service business.
After Nilsson had spent 18 months away from broadcasting, reality set in – she longed for the chaos of TV news again. “I had no idea how much I would miss it,” says Nilsson, who returned to WREX in October 2009. “I love helping people tell their stories, and that’s what I missed most about being away from television.”
Coming back to television was like riding a bike for Nilsson, who has noticed one significant change since her return. “The broadcasts are still the main thing, but now there’s an emphasis on getting the news onto the Internet,” she says. “People want their news and they want it now.”
Nilsson describes her on-air style as methodical, not flashy – for a reason. “I want the information to sink in for the viewers,” she says. One local radio broadcaster has described Nilsson’s voice and calming approach as “velvet.” While it’s taken some time to transition back into on-camera life, she’s now more comfortable there than she was in younger days. “I feel more relaxed,” she says. “It’s important to be yourself and be who you are. I come to work, do my job and hope that people like what I do.”
It appears that they do. When Nilsson and former WREX anchor Dani Maxwell were pregnant at the same time, they co-authored a “Baby Blog” on the station’s website, and viewers closely followed their progress. In fact, Nilsson still updates the blog from time to time, sharing insights about her baby’s eating habits, doctor visits and other tender moments. “The comments from viewers have been touching and heartwarming,” she says. “It’s nice to know that they really do care.”
It’s easy to form connections with the news anchors we welcome into our living rooms each evening. Nilsson takes pride not only in her work, but in her role as a mentor to younger reporters who are just starting out in the business.
“Reporters look to her for advice on how to write a story, who to interview, and how to put it all together,” Wilson says. “They come to Katie, because they’re comfortable working with her. It’s a blessing to work with someone like her. Katie’s genuinely a nice person.” ❚