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Home-Grown Talent

May 25, 1988

TV broadcasters’ careers flourish as they return to their roots

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

You’re right, the sports announcer on Channel 2 DOES look a lot like the kid next door.

In fact, KREM sportscaster Eric Johnson was born here, attended East Valley High School and now finds himself reading the scores of teams he once played on.

He’s not the only newscaster who grew up in Spokane, left, then came back.

Julie Humphreys, a Mead High School graduate, recently joined KHQ as weekday news co-anchor.

At KXLY, reporter Karen Kelly, a graduate of Lewis and Clark, will become late-night co-anchor for the station on June 6.

All three graduated from Washington State University. They’re part of a growing trend in the TV business: broadcasters who have decided to work where they grew up.

Steve Johnson, news director at KXLY, says the “get back” broadcast trend is happening around the country. “Ten years ago the attraction for people in cities like Spokane was to aim for networks or bigger markets,” says Johnson (no relation to Eric).

“Some still want to do that, but more and more they’re looking for places to settle down. After the age of 30, the ‘thirtysomething’ phenomenon hits.”

Humphreys, Johnson and Kelly are not the first hometown broadcasters to have gone away and returned. But most career-minded TV journalists usually take off and are seldom seen again.

In addition to the recent three returnees, the only other Spokane-born TV broadcasters are KHQ co-anchor Randy Shaw and reporter Debra Wilde.

But the look-homeward trend will likely continue, says Dean Mell, KHQ news director.

Spokane has become a more competitive market, and that means TV broadcasters won’t interrupt their careers by returning home, he says.

“There’s less motive for a reporter or anchor to leave. They don’t suffer a career setback staying here…If they succeed here, they can succeed anywhere.”

Johnson, Humphreys and Kelly say returning home involved both career and lifestyle choices.

All three still have parents and relatives here and they acknowledge the pull of family in bringing them back.

“For a long time my parents had wanted me to come back,” says Humphreys, 29. She was a reporter and anchor in the Tri-Cities and Greenville, N.C., before being hired by KHQ in March.

“It was a combination of family and the career move. I wouldn’t have returned if it wasn’t a good move for me.”

Kelly, 31, moved to Spokane two months ago after working for stations in Omaha, Neb. and Springfield, Mo. “I’m tired of thinking about my next career move,” she says.

“After a certain point, you realize there’s got to be more to life than working seven days a week in a pressure cooker.”

When Kelly was ready to leave the Midwest, some associates second-guessed her motives. “There’s a snobbishness, especially back East and the Midwest. They consider the Northwest a beaten path.”

She’s found that Spokane offers good professional opportunities. “In comparison to where I’ve been, the size of egos here is smaller. Spokane’s not off the beaten path, if you don’t let it be.”

Johnson, 26, was hired at KREM last spring after working for two stations in Boise.

Returning broadcasters often enjoy a taste of hometown fame, says Johnson.

“The biggest thrill I got was meeting a guy I knew from high school who knew I always wanted to do this. He told me: ‘Hey, it’s nice to see someone whose dreams came true.’”

That public recognition may be a partial reason for returning, says Elaine Murphy, KXLY’s evening co-anchor.

TV broadcasters, like anyone else, feel the urge to strut their stuff in front of their old friends, Murphy says.

“I think all of us grew up with people who lorded it over us when we were young. There’s always someone we’d like to convince that we’re now a successful professional.”

Several years ago, Murphy took a TV job in Portland, her hometown. The return was a mixed blessing. Some old acquaintances treated her coldly, she discovered. “They must have thought I considered myself better than them.”

It helps to find home-grown talent, say Spokane’s TV news directors. But stations don’t go out of their way to hire them.

“If two applicants have the same qualifications, being from here might push one person over the edge,” says Phil Wenstrand, KREM’s news producer.

Both KREM and KHQ quickly capitalized on Johnson’s and Humphreys’ hometown roots. Both stations produced taped promotions with a “hometown kid does good” approach.

Johnson’s promo shows him walking through his boyhood baseball field. He talks about his love for team sports and his commitment to his new team at KREM.

Humphreys’ tape has her talking about her ties to the community as she looks at snapshots of herself as a Mead High School cheerleader and WSU sorority sister.

For sure, it doesn’t hurt the station to hire someone with ties to the area and an audience of interested friends and relatives, says KHQ’s Mell.

The returning broadcaster finds some advantages, too, says KXLY’s Steve Johnson. “They come in and know the priorities and community values here. That’s a plus.”

Kelly says she began remembering contacts she developed from working in the Tri-Cities or from WSU.

“Sometimes people here at the station are looking for a way to get some information and, all of a sudden, a name will pop into my head.”

Last fall, Eric Johnson needed to find a fanatic football fan quickly for a report on the NFL strike. He called a friend of his father’s and included the man’s remarks in KREM’s evening broadcast.

But Wenstrand of KREM says the hometown advantage is a brief one. “Eventually, anyone who’s a good reporter establishes contacts and gets a feeling for the beat. The job here is no different than somewhere else.”

Coming back can lead to some drawbacks, too.

Kelly and Humphreys admit feeling they’re scrutinized more closely because they grew up here.

“I know that I try a lot harder here. I think 10 times harder about not screwing up here, with my family and friends watching,” Kelly says.

Station management and Kelly have agreed she won’t cover trials that come before her father, Spokane Superior Court Judge Marcus Kelly.

Humphreys says she enjoys getting compliments from viewers who remember her. “It’s nice to hear some people tell me I seem polished and professional.

“But they’re assuming I always presented the news that way. What they don’t realize is that I spent a couple of years in other cities working out the bugs. And I know there are more bugs to work out.”

Her mother and other family members pay especially close attention to her work.

“My mom’s my biggest fan. She tells me what I do right and what I don’t do right with grammar and usage; she’s a good writer herself,” says Humphreys.

“She notices my clothes and hair and keeps me on my toes about that end.”

Her parents are glad she’s back but tease her about being too busy to visit: “I’ve been so busy that they say the only time they see me is on the news.”

All three confess they’d leave town for the right job offer. “But I can see myself enjoying working here another 10 years, maybe more,” Johnson says.

Humphreys says she’s given herself a moratorium on next-step considerations. “I’ve thought about going to Seattle, but I’ve also gotten excited about other cities I’ve visited, like Washington, D.C.”

Kelly says she’s content as long as the work challenges her. “I’ll stay as long as there’s a potential for growth here.”

Wednesday, May 25, 1988



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