Janie Johnson: Cowgirl to the Core

The radiant smile beaming into televisions during the 10-day run of the National Finals Rodeo wasn’t only from go-round champions, it was also from 29-year-old Janie Johnson, reporter for The Cowboy Channel. Her infectious energy shined through to viewers at home and to the contestants next to her. And that same enthusiasm carries through in all aspects of her life, whether Johnson is on camera, competing in barrel racing, cheering on her saddle bronc-riding husband, or commentating at Western performance horse events.

Janie Johnson interviewing a rodeo contestant
With her engaging style and bubbly personality—plus a solid knowledge of rodeo life—it’s easy for any contestant to talk to Janie. Photo by Jess Trenner Photography

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to see the other side of the equine industry—not just rodeo—with The Cowboy Channel,” Johnson says. “Just think about how many changes have happened in the last three years that we wouldn’t have necessarily expected, from The Cowboy Channel to Yellowstone, it’s growing so much. And I think that it’s going to become more popular with so many people outside of the industry looking toward our Western industry.”

An interview with horse trainers in the John Justin Arena
Johnson is comfortable interviewing top trainers as well as rodeo contestants. Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

The native Texan always knew she wanted to be in film or television, mainly due to a love of attending the movies with her grandmother, Brenda Michael. Her rodeo family helped shape her into the cowgirl she is today, and her persistent pursuit of her dream landed her a job where she gets to highlight the lifestyle she loves while on camera—or behind it—at The Cowboy Channel.

For Johnson, it isn’t only rodeo that she loves, but the Western equine world. Johnson’s love for horses and the people that are involved in the industry, as well as her desire to shine a light on it, radiates to viewers on all sizes of screens.

Rodeo Raised

For Johnson, saying “rodeo is in her blood” means her father is four-time saddle bronc world champion Clint Johnson, originally from South Dakota. Her mother Mindy’s grandfather was Benny Binnion, owner of the Horseshoe Casino, which brought the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas, Nev.

But when Johnson came along, her parents were settled in Canyon, Texas, running a cattle ranch.

“I was very much in the Western way of life growing up,” she says. “My grandmother and my mom grew up showing cutting horses, so I also showed cutting horses growing up. My dad was a saddle bronc rider, and I also rodeoed a little bit.”

Though she liked to cut, young Johnson really liked to go fast. But the family’s horseflesh was strong in the cutting pen, so off they went to weekend cutting events.

“Looking back, I have so many regrets about not appreciating it to its fullest extent when I was younger,” she recalls. “I was definitely not a talent in the cutting by any means. I just enjoyed it, and horses are always a big part of it, and my mom said I could run barrels if I also cut. Now I can’t really imagine life without horses!”

Her grandmother, Brenda Michael, Binion’s daughter, lived close to an Amarillo movie theater, and the two frequented it all the time. Subsequently, Johnson’s passions turned to a career in film.

“She would always take us to the movies—that was just kind of our activity, and we would even go to multiple movies in one day,” Johnson recalls. “I was always really obsessed with film, movies. It was the storytelling.”

Soon, Johnson was set to pursue a television and film production degree at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, thinking to take a break from the horses. Her mom, however, had other ideas about holding on to the horses through four years of college.

“My mom said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to run barrels or show cutting horses, you’re going to have to sell your horses,’ and there was no way I was doing that!” she says. “I stuck with it, and I rodeoed in college as an independent. I was the lone Longhorn, you could say, because UT didn’t have a rodeo team. I still didn’t think I was going to do anything career-wise with rodeo.”

Opportunity Knocks

While The Cowboy Channel didn’t exist when Johnson graduated, Jeff Medders’ Geronimo Productions was in full swing and working on the NFR at that time. Johnson and her father stopped by Medders’ Tulsa, Okla., office on a road trip, where Johnson unknowingly took a step toward her film future.

“I get bombarded with people that want to be on TV, and you love that people aspire to that, but you’re usually not getting what you’re hoping for,” says Medders. “Janie is one of those people that lights up a room the second she walks in with so much personality and charisma. You can tell she has the ‘it’ factor you need to pop on television; she is loaded with it.”

So Medders offered Johnson an internship at the NFR. When December came around, though, Johnson didn’t have follow-up information. Her father, normally a very laid-back person, told her to pack a bag for Las Vegas, and they would head out there to see if it was just a fun trip or a job opportunity, she recalls.

Turns out, Medders needed a hustler as an assistant.

“She showed up with a great attitude,” says Medders. “You love those people where nothing is beneath them, there was no attitude of ‘I’m too good for this.’ She was a fast study and had good TV skills. She worked with some fantastic shooters and producers in the business, and they enjoyed working with her. I kind of evaluate people, plus I have a core group that has been doing television with me a long time, and if they’re a fan, then I’m an instant fan. [My group] loved Janie from the beginning.”

The first year, in 2015, Johnson was fetching coffee and bringing well-known commentators like Butch Knowles their beverage orders. Year two, though, Medders needed an associate producer, someone to plan and execute the segments. Johnson was up for the challenge.

“A producer is like the planner,” she says. “For example, if you’re planning a wedding, you put all the pieces together—you make the calls, you set up the interviews, you do the interviews off camera. That was the best transition for me to go from being a producer to being on camera. I really feel like I understand how it’s all supposed to fit, because whenever you’re the on-camera talent, you’re a much smaller role, actually. When you understand the bigger picture, it makes it easier because you know what the end goal is supposed to look like.”

Within three years, Johnson was on camera not only at the NFR but also when Medders needed someone with creativity to work the Junior High School Rodeo Finals, interviewing young rodeo contestants. Her unique and entertaining angle on those interviews let Medders know that Johnson was a star in the making, he recalls.

Today, Johnson is a staple on Medders’ Cowboy Channel programming, be it commentating from the NFR, or at any of the 100 Days of Rodeo events, or the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman finals.

“People don’t realize how hard a job it is to do the interviews,” Medders said. “Play-by-play isn’t nearly as hard as interviews. You have to be engaging; you have to come up with great questions. She has a personality that draws you in and makes it so easy to talk to her. Interviewing is an art, and she is pretty much a natural—from rodeo guys to those junior high kids!”

Janie Johnson with top rodeo competitors, including Stetson Wright

Cowboy Connections

The beaming smile Johnson has when interviewing a contestant is pure emotion. She loves her job and what comes with it, the travel and the new people she meets. The art of interviewing is one Johnson learned on the job, and she credits Kadee Coffman Blair with helping her that first NFR and continuing to mentor and encourage her in the industry.

“There are so many qualities that I admire about Janie, but one that continues to stick out to me is her willingness to be a team player,” says Blair. “As she’s grown into the Western star reporter she is, she gives thorough knowledge of the sport, the athletes and the animal athletes to the viewers at home more than I’ve ever seen done in professional rodeo. Her current knowledge is like a Western encyclopedia, and it can’t be duplicated. Given her family roots, she’ll forget more about the Western industry than I’ll ever be able to learn.”

Kadee Coffman Blair and Janie Johnson at the NFR
When Johnson interned at the NFR in 2015, she and on-camera professional Kadee Coffman Blair connected. The two maintain their friendship, reconnecting at the NFR again in 2022. Photo courtesy Janie Johnson

It’s that knowledge that Johnson taps into both in her career and personal life. The young girl that liked to go fast still enjoys barrel racing and holds her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association card. She keeps her horses at her Weatherford, Texas, home, close to The Cowboy Channel headquarters in Fort Worth.

“I can’t live without my horses; I have to have them! I get depressed when I don’t have horses around,” she says. “In the wintertime I’ll go to rodeos and jackpots consistently. In the summertime when the rodeos really pick up, I go work for The Cowboy Channel and I’m on the road. So the horses get kind of a break in the summer, which is the exact opposite of the rodeo season!”

The constant travel of an on-air personality like Johnson and a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association saddle bronc rider like Jake Finlay gave them commonalities. The couple met when Johnson was working for the Professional Bull Riders and Ride TV in 2019. In November, they married on the Johnson family ranch in Canyon.

The Australian-born Finlay finished in the top 35 riders in the 2022 standings. During the rodeo year, Johnson even interviewed him for being the high-scoring ride in his go-round at the Salinas, Calif., PRCA rodeo.

“No one else would be able to do this weird schedule that we do because he’s gone all the time, but it works because I’m also gone all the time,” she says with a laugh. “Because of The Cowboy Channel, I run into him a lot at a lot of the rodeos that we go to. He’s very self-sufficient and just can handle everything. I don’t have to take care of him anymore than he has to take care of me. We just mix well. We want to take care of each other.”

Wide Western World

Looking back, Johnson didn’t envision a career that merged her rodeo roots with a professional pursuit, but now she can’t imagine anything else. For her, it’s the perfect combination of all the things she loves.

Behind-the-scenes of preparing for a Cowboy Channel interview
Photo by Jess Trenner Photography

Whether standing next to a futurity champion or the most recent NFR world champion, Johnson’s positive energy and love of all Western performance events shines like a beacon to viewers.

“Being in TV can be so much fun, but it can also be tiring,” says Blair. “There’s a certain type of charisma that’s needed to present yourself on TV, and you either have it or you don’t. Janie has it, and so much more! Television is subjective, it just is. Viewers at home form opinions of you whether they know you or not—it’s just a part of the business. My advice [to her] is always be yourself! There is no other ‘you,’ so embrace who you are and don’t look back.”

“People from all over the world, people from cities, and people who didn’t grow up in it are all looking toward the Western industry right now—they’re fascinated by horses,” she says. “Rodeo is getting bigger, but it also looks to me like industries outside of rodeo are going to really blow up in a big way, like the cow horse industry. We talk about rodeo a lot, but there’s so much more to the industry than that, from the cutting side and the stock horse side to reined cow horse and all of that. It’s got so much potential.”

And Johnson is eager to be there cheering on the horse world from her place interviewing the latest winner or discussing the next big event.

Rapid Fire Questions with Janie Johnson

Janie Johnson may work in television, but her first film love remains strong for this self-professed movie buff.

Western Life Today: What is your favorite horse movie?
Janie Johnson: I loved Black Beauty growing up!

WLT: Do you have a favorite rodeo film?
JJ: You know, there haven’t been a lot of great rodeo films. Eight Seconds is the only one I can think of.

WLT: Which competitor whom you’ve interviewed reminds you most of a movie star?
JJ: Stetson Wright, for sure. Everybody loves Stetson. He’s such a star, but he’s also just a totally normal person. Kaycee Feild—he’s a movie star. Kaycee is such a character, and he is the nicest guy to absolutely everybody.

WLT: You’re married to an Australian. What is your favorite movie based in Australia?
JJ: A film that was made in Australia that I like is the movie Australia. It’s fantastic!

WLT: If any actress could play you in a movie about your life, who would it be?
JJ: Rachel McAdams. I love her. She’s so cute.

This article about Janie Johnson appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Western Life Today magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Kate Bradley Byars

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