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June 10, 2001

Anchoring in northern Michigan

TV news anchors flow through the region
      JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Deanna Fené loved the summers in northern Michigan. It's just that they just didn't last long enough.
      "Honestly, those winters got to me," said the Atlanta-born Fené, who worked as evening news anchor at Cadillac's TV 9&10 in the mid 1990s. "I remember one Mother's Day in 1996, talking to my mom on the phone and she's describing all her flowers blooming, and I looked out the window of my apartment in Lake City and it was snowing. I said, 'This is it, I've got to get out of here.'"
      So without much hesitation, Fené traded her job in the snowy north for a spot as weekend news anchor at WTLV-TV in Jacksonville. And she's never regretted the move. Since her arrival, she's covered the Summer Olympics, the launch of a space shuttle and at least three hurricanes. ("I love covering hurricanes.") Since January, she's been co-anchor of the station's 7 p.m. evening news show.
      In short, the move has been good for Fené's career. Like many television newspeople, she eventually decided northern Michigan was "getting too small" for her.
      "In this business you've got to keep moving," she said. "You've got to go to a bigger market so you can cover bigger stories and make more money."
      It happens a lot. In the "farm club" system that pervades much of TV news, northern Lower Michigan is a popular place for rising young reporters and anchors to start out. Local viewers sometimes feel they've barely had time to get used to a particular news anchor, sports commentator or meteorologist before they're suddenly gone, moved on to some bigger (and presumably better) place. Just last month, for instance, TV 9&10's morning anchor Chris Williams left for KVVU-TV in Las Vegas.
      "It's simply the nature of the job," said Gaylord native Steve Dunn, who left Traverse City's TV 7&4 after two years as an evening news anchor before bouncing to WILX-TV in Lansing, KGUN-TV in Tucson, Ariz. and finally to his present job at KATU-TV in Portland, Ore. where he's been for the past 13 years. "People are always looking for that big job that might take them to the network."
      Dunn often returns to northern Michigan for family visits. Though he enjoys his Portland job - he hosts a morning live talk show and anchors the evening news - he's gradually decided bigger isn't necessarily better.
      "Don't get me wrong, I've had some spectacular experiences in each of these markets," he said. "But I think if you find a market where you're comfortable, then stay there. Why keep moving around, only to live in cities that aren't desirable? I've been very fortunate in Portland... but my family's not here."
      Some migratory TV personalities don't go more than 100 miles or so. At least, not at first. Former 7&4 police reporter Chris Tye, for instance, left for Grand Rapids last year and now works at WZZM-TV. But that's not the end of his plans, either. He's a Chicago native, and Chicago is where he'd like to eventually work.
      "To do that, you need experience in larger markets, and Grand Rapids afforded me that," he said. "Also Grand Rapids is physically closer to Chicago - a plus."
      In recent years, a fair number of former northern Michigan newspeople have ended up at a single station: WNEM in Saginaw boasts at least seven of them, including two married couples. Morning anchor Terry Camp and reporter Katie O'Mara, now married to each other, are veterans of both 9&10 and 7&4 who held jobs in Oklahoma City before returning to Michigan in 1996. Former 7&4 reporters Janis Utley and Paul Newton are also married and work at WNEM. And the station is home to former reporters Don Chiodo, Diann Sytek and Sonja Smith.
      Many other alumni of the two stations have remained in or around the state. Former 7&4 sports anchor Jack Doles is now sports director at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, while Greg Molzon is weekend sports anchor at WJRT in Flint. Former 7&4 reporter Kevin Dietz is an investigative reporter at WDIV in Detroit, and meteorologist Bill Spencer now forecasts from WNWO-TV in Toledo.
      But others, like Steve Dunn, have put a good many miles between themselves and Michigan. Former 7&4 news director Judy Horan, for example, is now president and general manager of WLBZ-TV in Bangor, Maine. Two 9&10 figures, former reporter Richard Piatt and news anchor Jed Boal, ended up at the same station in Salt Lake City, KSL-TV.
      For Boal, who left Cadillac in 1999, the move west was a sort of homecoming. Although he spent most of his life in Michigan (his father, Dean Boal, was president of the Interlochen Center for the Arts from 1989 to 1994), his family is from Colorado and it was always his dream to live in the mountains. Salt Lake City has more than lived up to his expectations, he said.
      Unlike many of his colleagues, Boal said he wasn't trying to rise higher in the world of TV celebrity by moving. Although he sometimes works as a fill-in anchor, most of his work now is basic meat-and-potatoes reporting. It's less glamorous, but he said he finds it more satisfying.
      "I love being back on the streets reporting every day after anchoring for four years," he said. "Anchoring at 9&10 was an honor and a public trust which I revered, but reporting enables me to feel a deeper bond with the people of the community. It's the difference between a wave and a handshake; there's simply better community contact in reporting."
      Though he misses plenty of things about northern Michigan ("the Cherry Festival, the knock-dead blue sky on a June afternoon, water-skiing on Duck Lake with no other boats in sight as a bald eagle passes overhead") there are any number of things Boal has been glad to leave behind. Driving through blizzards to get home from work, for instance. He's been enthralled with the beauty of the western deserts ever since he arrived, and is fairly sure he'll never leave.
      "I love Salt Lake and Utah," he said. "The towering mountains, the redrock canyons and thundering rivers beg for a lifetime of exploration. I ski, backpack and hunt for new adventures all the time."
      Like many of the news, weather and sports figures who've made their way out of northern Lower Michigan, Boal has tried to balance his professional ambitions with a certain amount of common sense. Often, the shift to a larger, busier and more hectic market can warp a young reporter's sense of reality, he said.
      "A lot of people end up on a bad ride in this TV journalism business," he said. "Many end up bitter at the way things went. The commercial drive for ratings and advertising revenue has sucked the news out of too many newsrooms and chased away too many talented people."
      Whatever their reasons, a good many former television personalities have left the business altogether. Some still live in the area, like former 7&4 anchor Carlene Saints (now Carlene Peregrine) who's now a baker in Northport. Others also work in a variety of fields - sometimes in far-off places. Former anchor Pete Misiak, for example, now works for a Detroit area public relations firm, while news anchor Debra Dorenkamp is an administrator for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor.
      "Certainly, my current job is a switch from TV news," she said. "But I taught school for several years before moving to Traverse City to work at 7&4. Actually, my undergraduate degree is in Education. I also have two master's, one in education and one in telecommunications."
      The teaching profession exerted a particularly strong pull on Dorenkamp after the birth of her son, Ben, in 1989. (Viewers may remember the birth, since it was aired on the 11 p.m. news that night.) She resigned from the station just after Ben's first birthday, and moved downstate to take a job as broadcast media coordinator for University of Michigan's News and Information Services. After a year at Michigan, she moved to her current job, coordinating programs for young students with special needs.
      Former 7&4 sports director Charlie Whinham went even farther afield after he left the business. Whinham is now vice president for communications of Pigskin Inc., which runs three arena football teams in Florida and Louisiana.
      "I got out of broadcasting to have a job with less demanding hours." he said. "I don't think most people are aware of the demands of working in television. When you think about it, these are the folks at work when 'the rest of us' are at home. Whether it's weekends, nights or holidays, I view broadcasters the same way I view people who work in hospitals, airlines or police departments."
      But Whinham does have some fond memories of TV sports, like the late-night "Round Table" meetings he and other 7&4 staff members used to have at Mode's Bum Steer after each night's 11 p.m. show. Or the station's tradition of presenting each departing staffer with a framed aerial shot of Traverse City or Petoskey, signed by the rest of the staff. That way, he said, "no matter where people would go, they always had a piece of northern Michigan close by."