Once upon a lifetime ago, I worked in local television. It was a real glamorous gig: $20,000 year. A 4 a.m. alarm. Long hours. Unrelenting deadlines. Schlepping bulky cameras and tripods and station cars that make my current kid-mover look spotless.
As a young, female reporter and anchor at a small market TV news station, I covered things like the deer that crashed its way into the local bar one night. The math teacher/coach taking a ragtag team to the state tournament for the first time in school history. The fourth-generation farmer dealing with drought and an early frost. This terrible flu season we’ve been having and the 50th annual zucchini festival coming up next summer.
I did man-on-the-street interviews with locals about gas prices and got their impassioned feelings on the new snow gates on city plows. I wore blazers, a blonde shoulder-length bob, and caked on foundation two shades too dark so the lights wouldn’t wash me out on set. I traded banter with the weatherman about the wind and cross-talk with the sports anchor about “another busy night.”
I was a far cry from the Barbara Walterses of the world.
But gosh, did I love it.
There are thousands of young female journalists out there with stories just like mine. Many of them move thousands of miles away from anything familiar to get a foot in the door of an industry that’s tough but tantalizing. Meeting interesting people, searching out important information, telling good stories—it’s a lifeblood for some and a perplexity to others. What is it that compels some of us into a mostly thankless line of work, especially as women? The reasons are as varied as the people filling the positions, but at the center is always the story. There’s something sacred about sharing the human experience, about being the one entrusted to give it shape and sight and sound.
Barbara Walters understood that—and built a legendary career around it.
Even though it’s been well over a decade since I clipped on a mic and read the news, when I learned she’d died at the age of 93 this week, it tugged at my heart.
In a way, Barbara made it possible for small town girls like me to ever make it on the air and into your living rooms. She blazed the way for women in a male-dominated industry, and she did it with grit and grace.
According to CNN, Barbara Walters started in 1961 (1961!) as a reporter, writer, and panel member for NBC’s “Today” show. Thirteen years later, she was promoted to co-host, then in 1974, she made waves as the first female anchor on a network evening news program when she signed a million-dollar contract with ABC News.
Most of us hear her voice when we read the words “This is 20/20” (you did just now, right?), thanks to her hosting of the newsmagazine show that started in 1984. She was frequently and hilariously parodied on Saturday Night Live; she pioneered “The View,” the panel-style talk show that remains one of ABC’s morning lineup staples; and she interviewed every US president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon.
But Barbara’s real legacy is a lot less glamorous: women like me.
“How do you say goodbye to something like 50 years in television?” she said when she left “The View” in 2014. “How proud when I see all the young women who are making and reporting the news. If I did anything to help make that happen, that is my legacy. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you with whom I have worked and who have watched and been by my side, I can say: ‘Thank you.’“
Watching back the star-studded clip of Barbara’s farewell on “The View” in 2014, it’s easy to see why that legacy will live on. She inspired so many women to take a chance in a tough industry, and no matter where we landed or what stations we worked for, we all owe a little bit of our success to her.
I never became Barbara Walters. I left the industry after my husband I started a family and moved on to other dreams, but that small town TV news girl is still in there, forever thankful for the experience. And Barbara, in her own way, helped make that happen. Rest in peace.