For more than a decade, Hillary Howard—a fixture on local news outlets for years and currently a reporter with WTOP radio—has hosted the high-school quiz show It’s Academic, which moved from Channel 4 to WETA for its 62nd season this past fall.
Howard grew up watching the New York version of the show, hosted by Art James, with her dad. (He’d scream the answers at the TV, always pleased when he was right.) She periodically tuned in as a adult before taking over the original, Washington broadcast from Mac McGarry, who stepped back after leading the beloved program from its start in 1961. For her first season, Howard was the de facto host and then, in late 2011, officially succeeded McGarry. (He died in 2013.)
Here, Howard recalls her debut hosting It’s Academic—and what the mother in her thinks of all those teens competing under pressure.
“I was hired [at first] to fill in for Mac McGarry—he didn’t feel in full voice and didn’t want to go on the air feeling less than himself. So I met with the producers, we went over questions once, and I arrived at the old studio at NBC4. I’d never been in the studio before, I didn’t know where the cameras were—I did the show cold. [Laughs.] I had no rehearsal, I hadn’t met anybody other than the producers, there was no prompter, so I had to do it off a script.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Okay, Hill, just take it one section at a time—that’s all you’ve got to worry about.’ It wasn’t too bad! At first, I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like this.’ Then it was over and I was like, ‘Thank God.’ But they shot it live, so any mistakes I made were captured for eternity.
“I am always in awe at the ability of these students to retrieve information correctly and quickly. I can get to correctly, but I can’t do it quickly. There have been moments where it’s a really tight game, then one team makes a mistake, and they know it as soon as they make it, and they lose the game. To see the disappointment on their faces kills me. The mom in me wants to see everyone come out a winner [laughs], and it’s difficult to know they’ll be hard on themselves, because they are—and they shouldn’t be, because they’ve accomplished so much.”
This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Washingtonian.