Anchorwomen

Breaking the glass news desk: The first ladies of local news look back at 30-plus years in the biz and what has—and hasn’t—changed.
From left: Carol Williams (WCPO Channel 9); Sheree Paolello (WLWT Channel 5); Tricia Macke (WXIX Fox 19); Cammy Dierking (WKRC Channel 12)

Illustration by GlueKit

“You can go find another job now; we’re not sure this female anchor thing is going to work.”

It was 1985. WLWT Channel 5’s general manager—whose predecessor had taken a gamble and hired Norma Rashid as the city’s first female main anchor—was talking to Rashid about her future at the station. He hadn’t seen much evidence that a woman could boost the 11 o’clock show’s last place ratings, and Rashid hadn’t expected to be looking for a new job so soon. But change happens fast in television.

It happened in 1983 when Rashid left a smaller station in North Carolina for the job at WLWT, then learned that she would be the only woman in Cincinnati co-anchoring an 11 p.m. newscast. It happened when WLWT replaced first one and then another of her male co-anchors, trying to boost the show’s perennially dismal ratings (which at one point fell below even Mork & Mindy reruns). And of course it happened when management—“as nice as they could possibly be,” she says—warned her to start packing her bags.

So when Rashid walked into her boss’s office to tell him she’d found a new job in Chicago, she wasn’t quite prepared when he asked her to stay. WLWT’s 11 o’clock ratings, she was told, were finally “going up,” and “everybody was loving the Jerry Springer/Norma Rashid thing.” Springer, a former mayor-turned-political commentator, was that magic third co-anchor. The self-described green-eyed, black-haired woman of Arabic-Irish descent who hailed from Iowa hadn’t been such a risk after all.

“So they matched the offer from Chicago,” says Rashid, “and I stayed.” She would go on to co-anchor with Springer for eight more years. And the show? It soon became the city’s highest-rated newscast in its timeslot.


 

Turn on the 11 o’clock news today and you take for granted that there will be at least one female anchor, sometimes two. But back in 1983—the same year Motorola received FCC approval to manufacture the first cell phones and fledgling news network CNN celebrated its third birthday—things on Cincinnati airwaves looked a whole lot like they did in the movie Anchorman, pre-Veronica Corningstone.

Al Schottelkotte had pretty much been reading the evening news solo since WCPO Channel 9 started news, circa 1960. WKRC’s 11 p.m. show on Channel 12 was anchored by Nick Clooney and had just become No. 1 in the ratings, beating out WCPO for the first time in 22 years. And WLWT? Before Rashid arrived they’d had not one, but two male co-anchors at 11—Rick Taylor and a young Clyde Gray. Stay classy, Cincinnati.

Fast forward to 2015, and our television market has done something of an about-face. Not only does the city now have numerous female reporters, producers, and anchors in every time slot and on every channel, but in an industry increasingly dominated by youth, a handful of women stayed on our airwaves for multiple decades. They’ve been on so long, in fact, they’ve achieved first-name recognition; a significant portion of the population need only hear their first names—Norma, Carol, Cammy, Betsy, Kit—to know who’s being talked about.

Between them they have clocked more than 100 years of journalistic experience, though that’s not the only reason they stand out. Tally up their firsts and their tenures, and they’re all pioneers of sorts in Cincinnati television. They’ll look at you funny if you call them that—pioneers are old and these women work in an industry that requires agelessness (or the appearance of it, at least). But they have each blazed significant trails, rising to the top in a once male-dominated business, covering everything from political conventions to natural disasters, presidential campaigns, space shuttle launches and the Olympics. And with the exception of Kit Andrews, who left WKRC rather suddenly last year and declined to be interviewed for this story, they’re all still working in television or a closely-related field. Nevertheless, there’s something that doesn’t sit well with some of these women when it comes to that word.

What do you mean, a pioneer?” WKRC anchor Cammy Dierking recalls thinking the first time someone introduced her using that label. “So I’m a woman. Who cares? I’m just doing what I want to do.”

Thirty years on, as the news industry morphs and reinvents itself in the days of the 24/7 news cycle, the pioneers have been joined by a new generation of female anchors. Thanks to technology, the Internet, and especially social media, these younger women must learn to navigate challenges their predecessors never had to face. But some things remain the same: the pressure to look perfect, the strain of balancing work and family, the relentless evolution of the business.

These are but minor speed bumps, in one veteran newswoman’s eyes. “Not an obstacle,” explains Betsy Ross, the first female to co-anchor WCPO’s early evening news with Schottelkotte. “Just a bypass. Just a [thing] to get around.”


 

“One thing I wanted to make clear,” says Carol Williams at the very top of our interview, “I did not replace Al Schottelkotte.” She says this with the conviction of a woman who’s been accused before. “If anybody replaced him,” she quickly adds, “it was Pat Minarcin.” (Bumping people out in this market is a cardinal sin; just ask Nick Clooney about the time he came back from L.A. and booted Randy Little off WKRC’s 11 p.m. show.)

Williams came here in 1986 from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she’d gotten her first television job while pursuing her second master’s degree. She’d always been interested in broadcasting, but went after the master’s in education first because “there were hardly any women on TV, so I thought of it as less possible.” Turns out she was wrong. The station in Lancaster had been sued by an activist group, she says, for not having enough females in the newsroom; Williams was hired along with small wave of other women. In six short months, she rose from doing noon weather to weekend reporting, and eventually anchoring when her predecessor collapsed just before airtime. Timing is everything in this business.

“Williams was hired at 9 as then-anchor Pat Minarcin’s equal,” wrote Mary McCarty in a 1990 cover story for this magazine. This was no doubt a direct response to the then-burgeoning success of Norma and Jerry at WLWT. Williams’s relationship with Minarcin, though, was nothing like that of her competitors’. “‘He was more equal than I was,’” Williams is quoted as saying in that piece. Even in the show’s voice-over intros, she notes today, “everybody had a title but me: ‘Managing Editor, Pat Minarcin, and Carol Williams as: The Girl.’”

WKRC was the last to jump on the co-anchor bandwagon. In 1988, they replaced Nick Clooney with Debra Silberstein and Rob Braun. Silberstein would last just three years before the station replaced her with Kit Andrews. WKRC may have been late to the “girl” party, but it brought two guests instead of one; the same year Silberstein was hired, Channel 12 became the first station in Ohio to hire a female sports anchor. By the time Cammy Dierking—daughter of former Cincinnati Royals and Philadelphia 76ers basketball player Connie Dierking—arrived at WKRC via Nevada (she’d been that state’s first female sports anchor, too), people were used to seeing Rashid and Williams. But a woman behind the sports desk? That was something else entirely.

“Maybe some people didn’t think a woman could do as good of a job [being a sports anchor] as a guy,” says Cammy Dierking. “If anything, that motivated me.”

“Maybe some people didn’t think a woman could do as good of a job as a guy,” says Dierking today. “We would get calls: ‘Why didn’t you lead with Kentucky basketball?’ Or ‘Why did you do this instead of that?’

“If anything, that motivated me,” she says. “I thought: ‘If they’re going to be that critical, I’d better know more than anybody else.’ So I studied harder. I knew my stuff. I didn’t want to be caught looking stupid or getting something incorrect.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity and Federal Communications Commissions had been working together since the 1960s to ensure that women found a place in America’s newsrooms. By 1988, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, and Gayle Gardner, among others, had infiltrated national news. But in smaller markets, the glass ceiling had barely been cracked. “It wasn’t until I was graduating from college and trying to find a job that my Dad said: ‘Honey, this could be a little tricky,’ ” Dierking recalls. “ ‘There aren’t really many, if any, women who do [local sports reporting]. ’ ”

If anyone was qualified, it was Dierking. A dyed-in-the-wool jock, Dierking says that at age 10 she “would take a Sports Illustrated magazine and sit in front of a mirror with a hairbrush as my microphone, and I’d read to that mirror.” Later, she often kept stats for her father in his post-pro-basketball career as a TV color commentator for the UC Bearcats. Her first TV job was at a Cincinnati cable station called Sports Time; she dabbled in radio in Raleigh, North Carolina, but soon found herself working 40 hours a week as a videographer and “another 30 hours a week on my own,” shooting video footage, recording herself doing standups, and editing her own packages, before landing her first reporting job in Raleigh.

Working for next to nothing almost seven days a week is a common theme. Betsy Ross—a Connersville, Indiana, native who eventually went on to become one of ESPN’s first female anchors—worked as a South Bend Tribune copy editor while attending grad school at Notre Dame. When she wasn’t working, she was covering sports, pro-bono, for the paper. She did the same for John Popovich when she started out at WCPO as a way to “get my sports jones fixed.”

“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t go into broadcasting,” she says, sitting in the loft-like Longworth Hall offices of Game Day Communications, the PR firm she owns and runs. (Ross returned to Cincinnati in 2002 to start Game Day, but still freelances for ESPN and Fox19.) “Nobody told me that I couldn’t, or if they did I didn’t listen to them.”

Peers, these women say, have mostly always been supportive. “I never felt like it was a man’s world,” says WKRC’s Deborah Dixon, Cincinnati’s longest-tenured female television reporter, on camera since 1979. “You’re completely judged here by the product you put on air.”

Even so, news directors often initially pushed stereotypical “female” topics on their female anchors and reporters. Fashion, society, health—even women’s rights—were all de rigueur. “If I had to cover one more story on the E.R.A. I was going to shoot myself in the head,” says Rashid. But, she notes, “did I think they were putting me in that position, or was that the only position they knew to put me in? [When] that was pushed my way, I kind of pushed back.”

Soon enough she was covering international earthquakes and political conventions. Just like the men.


 

The number one thing everyone interviewed for this piece wants people to know is that working in television is not as glamorous as it looks, especially when you’re just starting out.

Their first salaries were low, even adjusted for inflation. Dixon made $1.75 an hour, Williams got paid $12,500 a year as Lancaster’s morning cut-in person, and Ross took a $3,000 pay cut—from $12,000 to $9,000 per year—when she left South Bend for WCPO.

The hours are long, too. “I haven’t had lunch since 1982,” deadpans Dixon, who notes that a single two-minute story on the evening newscast requires a full day’s worth of information-gathering and interviews, generated from several locations throughout the city. There is also no official quitting time if news breaks anywhere near 5 p.m. “The reality of television,” says Deb Haas, a WCPO reporter from 1987 to 2011, “is you might leave [your] kids at 7 in the morning and come home at 8 o’clock at night.”

With rare exceptions, they do their own hair and makeup. (Case in point: Williams has always straightened her naturally wavy hair before airtime.) Consultants hired by news directors and general managers occasionally steer them toward a new look. Sometimes this goes bad, as evidenced by WCPO’s 2012 false-eyelash debacle, which resulted in a snarky Enquirer headline (“My, What Big Eyes You Have!”) and an eye infection for Williams. (After that, she dropped the artificial lashes.)

They smile now at memories of chasing down belligerent interview subjects in heels, hiding breast milk stains with suit jackets, accidentally encrusting their shoulder pads with hairspray, and hooking microphones to their bras. But being a female on air, and dressing like one, has at times been challenging.

“I was horrifyingly dressed like a man!” says Rashid. (“Ebullient” is how former Enquirer television critic John Kiesewetter describes her; it is perhaps the perfect word.) Rashid laughs remembering the time when she and Springer both showed up to work wearing suits made of the same material. “I said: ‘You’re going home and changing.’ ” But “in defense of management,” says Rashid, the conservative dress “was a little by my design. In a market that hadn’t seen a lot of female anchors, I did not want to look like the secretary; I wanted to be taken seriously.”

And fitting in was about more than what you wore. “I had never said a four-letter word in my life until I went into a newsroom,” says Rashid.

You also had to be careful, notes Dierking, about how you reacted to adverse situations. “As soon as you get your back up, you’re perceived as this—I hate to say the b-word, but you really can be perceived as not a nice person. People don’t want to work with you, they don’t want to help you. So why would you do that?”

Foul language aside, there were some advantages to being among the first females on the job. “I didn’t mind using anything,” says Rashid, recalling the time when she was “very pregnant with my last child” but still managed to score one-on-one interviews with both Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the pair’s campaign bus tour through Ohio. “It was so hot” during the interview that Gore “kept taking his handkerchief and wiping my brow with it. And I’m thinking: ‘Would you do this to a guy?’ ” Then again, Rashid notes, she was the only local anchor to score those one-on-ones. If being a woman, or even being pregnant, helped her case, so be it.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that sometimes people are going to talk to you because you’re a woman,” says Haas. “If you’re doing your job as a journalist and an interview happens to come your way, I just don’t have a problem with that.”

Dierking takes it one step further. Although she still regrets not being able to fly on the Bengals team plane for out-of-town games (no girls allowed per Paul Brown’s decree), she had no qualms about waiting outside locker rooms for PR people to bring out players. “I was different,” Dierking says, “so they were more apt to say yes when I asked them if they would do an interview. In many ways they were more open with me, because I would ask the kind of questions that maybe the guys wouldn’t.”


 

Male colleagues, hired consultants, and meddling news directors are one thing. But learning how to handle the audience is an education unto itself. Sometimes people will call or write to say nice things. Heck, when Rashid was pregnant, folks knitted her baby clothes. But pregnant or not, viewers never hold back. Especially when what they have to say isn’t nice.

“When I was pregnant I probably got more comments from viewers than any other time,” says Dierking. “They were largely negative, and—get this—they were largely from women: ‘You’re a little too big to be on TV.’ Or: ‘You look terrible now that you’ve got all that weight on you. Your face is too round. You look like you’re wearing a tent.’ I’d like to say it just rolled off my back, but I was really hurt.”

Ross echoes Dierking’s disbelief; whenever she’d fill in for Greg Hoard on Channel 5 (where she did a short stint before joining ESPN), female viewers would complain. “Isn’t that bizarre?” she asks before pausing, dumbfounded. “It wasn’t discouraging, but I still can’t understand it to this day. They just didn’t like the fact that a woman was doing sports.”

Do men get the same pushback from viewers? To a woman, the answer is a resounding “no.” Several point to the story about the Australian male anchor who wore the same suit every day for a year just to prove nobody would notice (nobody did). If men did get the same flak, would they react differently? Maybe not. “We don’t get into this business because we have no ego,” says Haas.

The consensus is that once you start appearing in people’s living rooms every night, they feel comfortable telling you what they really think. It’s part of the job; anchors want viewers to feel comfortable with them. But there is such a thing as being too comfortable.

“One time I was at a store and a woman said: ‘Hey! You’re like a hundred pounds thinner in person,’” says Tanya O’Rourke, who’s been at WCPO since 1992 but started co-anchoring at 11 o’clock with Carol Williams after Clyde Gray retired last year. “A whole hundred. I just smiled and said: ‘Gee, thanks.’”

Ironically, change, especially in appearance, is not welcome by television viewers. Take the time Williams decided to get her “long, Linda Evans hair” cut really short. It was Easter weekend 1993, and the Lucasville prison riots had just broken out. “We needed an anchor to come in,” recalls O’Rourke, who back then was working the assignment desk, “and Carol was the only one who answered her phone. She goes on air, and the phones went berserk. And not one person cared that people were dying in a prison riot. All they cared about was: ‘What the heck did Carol do to her hair?’ ”

As important as appearance is, though, it’s nothing, these women say, without substance. “If you’re not prepared on election night, if you don’t know what happened with the big story, and you’re just going to go out there and try to read words,” says Sheree Paolello, WLWT’s main co-anchor for nearly a decade, “you’re going to get burned. You can still be attractive, but you’d also better be smart and credible.”

The problem for veteran TV journalists, Paolello notes, is that the newsroom is getting “prettier, sexier” and more youthful every year. That’s partially a factor of both cost—younger people can and will do more work for less money—and relaxed dress codes. “As a rookie, I never would have gone on the air with a tank top or even short sleeves; now you see women with spaghetti straps,” she says. “Whether we want to admit it or not, beauty and television go hand in hand.

“When I first started in news there were lots of women in the newsroom who maybe weren’t your stereotypical beautiful woman,” she adds. “And yet they were so smart and so good. Now I often think: ‘Wow. We would probably never hire that person.’ ” Most telling is that Paolello—herself neither unattractive nor old—“constantly wants to make sure I look the best I can. I don’t want to be pushed out by somebody who’s younger and prettier in 10 years.”


Look at WCPO’s current 11 o’clock show—anchored by two female anchors, O’Rourke and Williams—and you could make the case that local news has evolved substantially. OK, O’Rourke is technically just filling in while the station searches for Gray’s replacement. But viewers are supportive, says O’Rourke. And the station, which now also has a female news director, seems “to be in no rush” to find a new co-anchor, says Williams. They aren’t even the first dual-female main co-anchor team in our broadcast history; Paolello and Sandra Ali tackled that milestone back in 2004. “It was very forward-thinking,” says Paolello of the pairing, which lasted until 2008 and eventually spanned all four of the station’s evening newscasts.

Was gender blindness the goal? “I think at some point we wanted it to be gender blind,” says Williams, but “maybe we’ve passed that.”

Norma Rashid—who left WLWT in 2000 amidst heart problems, much controversy, and a lawsuit, and who is now an adjunct professor at UC’s College of Electronic Media—is hopeful that hiring today is driven less by “EEOC requirements” and more by qualifications. “Viewership is used to seeing now a male and female; when I came here they were used to seeing a male,” she says. “Hopefully someday they’ll be used to seeing whoever is on the air that has credibility and provides information. It shouldn’t matter the nationality or the gender.”

Other things have changed in three decades, too. Morning newscasts are often as important as evening shows. Newsrooms are overflowing with computers and personal devices. Technology has replaced bodies; there are robotic cameras in some studios and many up-and-coming reporters are now “video journalists” who do all their own camera work and edits. Not so long ago only three stations competed for news viewers’ eyeballs; today there are four, nevermind the national cable news stations. And broadcast journalism degrees have proliferated. So while there are more opportunities than ever for women to be on the news, there are also more female television journalists than ever vying for a limited number of jobs in a highly competitive industry.

In some ways, the city’s first female anchors have had luxuries that the next generations don’t. Clyde Gray anchored WCPO’s 11 o’clock show solo for five years so that Carol Williams could leave after the 6 p.m. show and spend evenings with her daughter. Could that happen today? “I think about it all the time, the stuff I miss, and I weigh it,” says Tricia Macke, Fox19’s 10 p.m. news anchor since 1999 and a mother of five. In the end, she concedes, “It’s a business. They couldn’t keep [the seat] open; they’d have to find somebody. That’s the sad reality—we’re all replaceable.”

It’s promising to many—herself included—that Williams is still on the air. In that 1990 Cincinnati Magazine story she wondered how long she’d be allowed to stay; today, she’s proud to say “I’ve lasted this long.”

Then again, after 29 years in the business, Kit Andrews was seemingly demoted to dayside newscasts in 2010 (Dierking took her place on the main shows), then left Cincinnati’s airwaves last year with little more than a cryptic goodbye letter in her wake. Technically, she quit, but it’s entirely possible that she was pushed out by station management. (WKRC is staying silent; phone calls to the GM weren’t returned.)

Williams is visibly distraught when I ask her about it. “I’m sorry; I think she’s a nice person,” she tells me. “I don’t know exactly what happened, [but] it seems to me if you’ve gone this far in your career, [stations] should be able to engineer a graceful exit that doesn’t embarrass somebody.”

Unspoken but clearly understood is the fact that the very same thing could happen to her at any moment. When asked if she has any plans to leave, she admits that the 11 o’clock schedule is tough. Later, she e-mails to say that she’s “agreed to stay on the 11 through this year,” though she does anticipate working part-time beginning in 2016.


 

The thing about longevity, of course, is that to last in the TV news business you have to constantly adapt. The rising dominance of social media dictates that reporters and anchors do more at once than ever before. Some stations require anchors to tweet or post a designated number of times per day; some have even added “being first on the web” to their list of competitions, which isn’t always consistent with being a good journalist. “You have to fact-check,” says Haas. “You’ve got to make sure it’s right, and not that it’s first.”

Social media also blurs the line, many anchors say, between their personal and professional lives. “I try to be guarded with my privacy,” says Dierking. “My family is wonderful but they didn’t sign up to be on TV.” Paolello and Macke, however, both regularly post photos of their children, and Macke sometimes even posts personal thoughts. (A Facebook comment she wrote disparaging MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow in 2012 angered LGBT activists; Macke apologized publicly but says she received death threats.)

Despite the periodic uproar, social media, both women say, allows them to show viewers a more genuine version of themselves. “On television you look so perfect, say the right thing, articulate every word properly,” explains Paolello. “If you see me outside of work, I’m running around in sweats and a ball cap and no makeup, getting holiday plates and napkins for my kid’s preschool class. I’m like every other mom out there.”

When Williams, Rashid, Ross, Andrews, and Dierking started in the business, they pretty much just had to read the news. Now, though, says O’Rourke, “you have to be so many different things, sort of like a rainbow. You can’t just be one color or one flavor; you have to be versatile and strong and smart.” Being all those things at once is difficult, no matter who you are. “As a woman I do think you doubt yourself sometimes, even when you’re successful,” says Paolello. “It comes with the territory. If you mess up on something, you don’t want to feel like that’s what you’re going to be remembered for. Like: ‘Oh, that chick didn’t get it right.’ ”

So they press on, full steam ahead. Dixon politely urges me out the door promptly 45 minutes after our interview begins; she’s got a story to cover up in Mason. Williams talks with me about the importance of anchors serving as a station’s “institutional memory,” helping maintain continuity for the “young new people coming in.” Ross tells me about a life-changing conversation with Billie Jean King she once had, and emphasizes the importance of professional females supporting each other. Rashid tells me how she forces her students to watch nightly news broadcasts on TV, and cringes when they tell her that they watch The Colbert Report instead, thinking it’s one and the same. And Dierking? By the end of our interview she concedes that now, when people thank her for paving the way, it actually does make her feel awesome. “I’m like: ‘OK! [If] it helped someone, I was a pioneer!’ Because I didn’t really have anyone like that to look at and say: ‘That’s possible? I could do that?’ ”

She could, and she still does. And she’s not alone.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue.

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