When journalism students tell me they want to go into TV News, I think of a friend of mine. When I got my first newspaper job, she got her first job as a TV reporter. From there she worked freelance for a station in Los Angeles, then went back to New York and struggled. Finally, after she worked for years for almost no pay, a station in a major market offered her a job as anchor. She turned it down and went to business school.
TV is rough. At the low end you struggle for little pay. You compete for jobs against a zillion people dying to be on air. You schlep heavy equipment and edit your own tape. Don't get me going about the types of inane stories you file day after day. But that's not what drove my friend out of TV. It was the guff she took over her hair.
It wasn't fluffy. That's what her producers cared about, seemingly from station to station, coast to coast. She'd fluff it up and it still wasn't fluffy enough. She'd turn in kick-ass coverage of breaking news, or short investigative reports, or tears-producing profiles, and all they seemed to care about was the flatness of her hair. It finally drove a terrific news reporter out of the business.
I thought about her when I read the letters the Times-Standard has been printing lately about KIEM-TV meteorologist Cecilia Reeves. Some 13 readers so far have weighed in on the quality of her voice, most complaining, some in support. Thirteen letters to the T-S qualifies as a barrage.
There's an old joke that some people have faces for radio. I joke that I have a voice for print. In second grade I got pulled out of class for speech therapy -- I couldn't differentiate my d's and g's, and I still have that trouble. My husband complains that I mumble. (I say, "Old man, get a hearing aid!")
I didn't go into newspapers because of my lousy voice. I went into print because I could write. Now and then I help out radio station KHSU as an interview host for its show Thursday Night Talk. I do that in spite of my voice -- what's important is that I can ask interesting questions that produce interesting answers.
For some reason, we like to make fun of weather people. One of the funniest books I read was Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flag. In it, the main character gets a job as a weather person at a tiny station, but she doesn't know anything about weather. She guesses that the weather report doesn't change much from morning to night, so each afternoon she takes the morning map and moves the sun and clouds a fraction. She gets fired. The morning girl had been doing the same thing. My favorite movie weatherman was Steve Martin in L.A. Story. He gets fired because after years of reporting the exact same sunny weather, he pre-tapes his weather report so he can take off for a week. While he's away, a hurricane hits town.
Why do we make fun of weather people? Maybe out of jealousy. Doesn't it seem like they make a lot of money for an easy job? How hard can it be to read the weather report? And how often are they wrong?
Here is the thing. In New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, a chief meteorologist could make almost a million a year, but in the small markets they are lucky to make $20,000. To get those jobs they have to take all the science classes in college that most people avoid (I slept through high school physics). Most TV meteorologists have master's degrees. As does Reeves.
Reeves had the unlucky fortune to take over from Jim Bernard, who not only was much loved, but who left his longtime position last year because a neurological condition affected his speech. So viewers were already a little too focused on voice quality when Reeves entered the picture.
I empathize with Reeves for another reason. As a financial journalist, there were times when I was the only woman in the newsroom and often the only woman in a conference room of suits. To get equal respect I had to be three times as good, and often I still didn't get equal respect. It is difficult for a young woman to get respect when she takes over a job from an established older man in a male-dominated field.
This is truest in the TV news world, and it isn't because of male audiences. Female audiences seem just as harsh on women newspeople. I've felt there were two really frustrating types of bosses -- men who spout feminism and act in chauvinistic ways and women who act in male chauvinistic ways. Both male and female TV audiences fall into chauvinistic behaviors. We accept bald men in leading roles -- Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis-- and overweight men in leading roles -- Jack Black, Jonah Hill, Kevin James. Personality flaws, not hair loss, are costing Today Show host Matt Lauer his Q rating points (popularity scale for TV people).
Legendary San Francisco news anchor Dave McElhatton, who died last year, was bald and talked like Elmer Fudd. But female stars and news people have to look and sound great.
Bob Dylan sang you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But maybe the weather woman needs the wind to blow her hair around if she wants to keep her job.
So Cecilia, your audience will get used to your voice. But your hair? Better fluff it up.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the journalism department at Humboldt State University. She has never been able to control her hair. And that is the only reason she has never won the Pulitzer Prize.