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TV anchors share their own human-interest stories on Schano's show

Saturday, May 06, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The girl talk (and there really is no other way to describe it) was fast and furious. It started in the Green Room, spilled into the hallway and continued onto the set of "AgeWise": Children, clothing, cellulite, hairstyles, hot flashes, early jobs, personal lives, schedules, misperceptions, anchor chemistry, criticism, ambitions and ... age.

You may never see them all together in one room again, and you may never hear them be quite so candid. But last week, host Eleanor Schano and producer Debbi Casini gathered, in alphabetical order, Patrice King Brown, Peggy Finnegan, Sheila Hyland and Sally Wiggin for a taping of "AgeWise."

It was going so well, though, that Casini asked the local anchors if they could stay for a second round. No problem. It was a lazy, sunny Friday and if the anchors were a little later getting to work, what's the harm?

No one realized that outside the confessional confines of Studio A, madness and murder had erupted. The phone rang in the control room midway through the second taping; WPXI was looking for Finnegan. After the cameras quit rolling and she got the message, she and her colleagues beat a hasty retreat. A couple were on the air within the hour.

The first of the two "AgeWise" shows will air today on WQED/WQEX, with the second scheduled for next weekend. Schano's half-hour program runs at 6:30 p.m. Saturdays and repeats at 12:30 p.m. Sundays.

The anchors seemed to be having a great time; it was just like therapy only cheaper, one quipped.

And the laughs were never louder than when WQED played some old footage of Wiggin -- on assignment in Hazelwood in the early '80s -- with layered, permed hair and, shall we say, a less sophisticated fashion sense. "Where did I get that blouse?" wondered Wiggin, attired on taping day in a flattering suit in robin's egg blue.

Clips from King Brown's days as co-host of "Pittsburgh 2Day" showed her vamping, exercising, dancing and swooning in the arms of hunky actor Jack Scalia. Talking about her transition a decade ago to news, the KDKA anchor acknowledged: "It was starting life all over again. It was very intimidating, it was very tough. I loved doing 'Pittsburgh 2Day' ... but it has worked out very, very well."

The audience got a chance to meet her children, a son now playing college football and a daughter in high school. Her current contract allows her to leave the station on weeknights (news and schedules permitting) and go home to check on her daughter's "life and homework" and return Downtown.

Finnegan, the mother of four children under the age of 8, said she seriously considered quitting at one point. She was exhausted all the time. "I was this close to losing my mind. ... I just couldn't handle it." But, a switch to a part-time schedule made the juggling act more manageable.

Another crisis weathered was Finnegan's diagnosis of very early breast cancer in 1994 and subsequent surgery. She was "trying to work, trying to put on a happy face. I was like a robot. It was very hard to function."

Finnegan remembers, "I didn't even want to look in the mirror and face it myself, so I didn't want to talk about it, but I had to," because rumors were circulating and viewers and reporters were calling. Now, she says, "I'm so glad I did."

As a girl growing up in Pittsburgh, King Brown had wanted to be the next Mike Douglas. In her childhood home, Finnegan was struck by how families gathered around the TV in times of crises or celebration, as during the JFK assassination or man walking on the moon.

Hyland was interested in voice and theater and became intrigued by radio while dating a disc jockey in college. Television came calling first with a job offer, though.

Wiggin, however, majored in Asian studies and never aspired to the anchor chair. She wanted to be a veterinarian or a zoologist.

"I still do," she said. "I'm the one here who still would prefer to be something else," although she has no plans of leaving.

The Channel 4 anchor also says, in next week's show, that she never wanted a career outside the home.

"I wanted to be married and have children. I had a not-great marriage and unfortunately we got divorced. I always expected I would get married and have children and work in the home, be a homemaker. ... I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, because I have been blessed to have this job and get to work with children all the time."

Other topics on tap next week: increased competition from the Internet, the immediacy of television and age. Wiggin, for instance, was hired at age 27, when Pittsburgh was still the 11th-largest TV market in the country. Today, the city is the 20th, and Wiggin is a newsroom veteran.

The Channel 4 anchor said she once interviewed at CBS's flagship station in New York but realized, "I never really was ambitious in the business. I was intermittently envious. ... I thought envy is not a really healthy emotion anyway, and not a reason to try to climb the ladder. And Pittsburgh was just so wonderful, and it's so green." Hyland had a similar experience, while talking to WABC and realizing she had no desire to live in Manhattan.

When Schano asks about the women's most embarrassing moments, Hyland remembers a fashion emergency at her first job at a station in the middle of a Nebraska cornfield. She dropped a mascara wand on her blouse and had to borrow a blouse from a co-worker -- but it was see-through. For an hour, she sat with her arms strategically crossed across her chest.

When Wiggin's arm slipped while curling her eyelashes, she ripped out the tiny hairs and tried to compensate with eyeliner. Lots of eyeliner. Finnegan, for her part, once meant to say "presidency," but said "pregnancy" -- a condition that described her, but not then-President Reagan. "I didn't even know I said it."

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