Wendy Full Circle | Wendy Tokuda talks about life on and off the small screen.
With the advent of on-demand news complete with streaming video on the Internet, do people still wait around for the 5 o’clock TV news to see what’s happening? Actually, people do—they just might not have nose rings and work as video-game testers. Far from being an anachronism, KPIX’s latest anchorperson, Oakland resident Wendy Tokuda, is more like Bay Area TV news royalty. Her recent return to KPIX (now known as CBS5) is a homecoming of sorts. While still in her 20s, in the late ’70s, she teamed up with Dave McElhatton to co-anchor the station’s newscasts. Before she broke up the team to move to Los Angeles in the late ’80s, “Mac and Wendy” were the longest-running local TV news team in the country. Tokuda came back to reality 14 years ago to KRON where she anchored and continued to develop her series, “Students Rising Above,” about disadvantaged children overcoming obstacles to further their education. But KRON, once a mighty NBC affiliate, is now a struggling independent and its newscast suffered. Tokuda left KRON, recently for the glamour of co-anchoring CBS5’s 5 o’clock news. Between bites of a salad at a lunch stand near CBS5’s North Beach digs, she weighed in on the current state of TV news.
Paul Kilduff: You seemed like you were in a pretty comfortable groove at Channel 4. Why come back to the daily grind of doing a five-day-a-week TV newscast?
Wendy Tokuda: I’m on the clock four hours a day. It’s a great opportunity. I had this great thing going at KRON. They were really good to me, but they were becoming the Ultimate Fight Network. I do stories on low-income kids who want to go to college and it just didn’t feel as though it was going to be a good fit in the future. I had a real moral obligation to that program. It’s become this nonprofit that needs to be attached to a television outlet.
PK: And you felt that that station probably shouldn’t be known for showing people beating the living crap out of each other. Makes sense.
WT: It didn’t seem to me like an audience that would donate money to a scholarship fund. Nothing against those people—I’m just talking business.
PK: When you first left Channel 5 you and Dave McElhatton were the longest-running local TV news team in the country.
PK: You didn’t know that?
WT: Nope. I’d forgotten that.
PK: Why did you break up that beloved team to move to Los Angeles?
WT: It made sense from a bunch of different standpoints. We had family. Richard [former husband Richard Hall, the son of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal Monte Hall] grew up there. My sister’s there. My aunt’s there. We ended up getting divorced and he went back to LA. But besides family, it was ambition. At that time, KPIX was laying off people like crazy. It was the beginning of that challenge from cable. Today we’re talking about the challenge from the Internet. All of a sudden we were losing viewers to ESPN and A&E and all these channels that were coming up. So revenues were dropping. They canceled Evening Magazine. People Are Talking got canceled.
PK: I still haven’t gotten over that.
WT: I saw 100 people leave in one year. I used to count ’em. It was just devastating because I had such a sense of ownership at that station. Such a sense of belonging and it was the beginning of that change. And very hard for me. I get really attached to the people I work with. And we had the most incredible operation.
PK: Did you want to get out of there before somebody made the change for you?
WT: Well, who knew what was going to happen? I was mad a lot. And at KRON, I watched a lot of people leave, too.
PK: You’ve been in this business a long time. You’ve watched a lot people come and go.
WT: You see all kinds of stuff. When I talk about business I do it with a sense of detachment now because I understand that these are businesses. Things happen and you gotta roll with it.
PK: Earlier today you were interviewed by Ronn Owens on KGO and you told the story about a little kid who turns to his dad and says, “What’s an anchorman?” Now that I can get whatever news I want in couple of mouse clicks, what’s the future of the TV newscast? Will it have to be on demand?
WT: It’s all moving [toward] on demand. There’s going to be a marriage of television and the Internet.
PK: It’s already happening.
WT: So how is that going to happen? That is the question that smart people in the business are trying to anticipate so they can adjust to it. Move with it. And if you don’t, you’ll be the dinosaur.
PK: I’m not calling you a dinosaur.
WT: I didn’t take it that way. The ability to survive and adjust and to not be a dinosaur has a lot to do with whether you take those things personally or whether you understand that these things are happening—can you move with it or not? But you can’t waste emotional energy wishing or weeping. I’m not saying I don’t have core values that I live with, but in terms of this industry, it is an intensely dynamic product.
PK: ABC network news is doing quite well in the ratings with an “old-school, tell us the boring stories we don’t hear” approach. The anchor, Charles Gibson, made the point recently that if they did stories on what got the most hits on the Internet they’d be doing stories about Anna Nicole Smith every night.
WT: And it’s not news.
PK: Exactly. How important is it to pander to a certain demographic?
WT: If you’re going to pander, you’re going to get out-pandered. Our product needs to be solid news. And we have to make intelligent, responsible decisions about what that is. That is going to become a really important product because all of this other garbage is out there. People need to have news so they can make smart decisions in a democracy. It’s a real responsibility for someone to report that stuff and it’s becoming more important as all this other garbage is out there. So rather than all of us going to niche programming, let’s choose hard news. Let’s choose news because the rest of it, believe me, someone else is going to do a better job with garbage, right? That’s what I think.
PK: I get a sense now that a lot of people think that the real, unbiased skinny is to be had on somebody’s blog and/or podcast.
WT: And how can you tell that person’s not the next Virginia Tech shooter? But with news, yeah, some of the next great journalists are going to be bloggers. . . . I think the traditional news providers have a real advantage because they have a history of doing this job. We’re already branded so we’ve got that advantage.
PK: Why’d you come back from sweltering Los Angeles? Is that old news?
WT: No, it’s not old news. It’s interesting. I really ended up not liking it down there. I made the decision to go down there. Nobody did anything to me. I did it to myself. It was kind of like, you want a larger market? Here’s your larger market. I worried all the time about whether I had a job. I worried all the time about I had to work really hard. Nothing you did one day counted the next day. It was just not a good fit for me, the whole culture in that market of being that close to Hollywood. It’s not my style. It’s been called the most competitive market in the country. I think that’s true. They Xeroxed off copies of the ratings and they had it on the assignment desk every morning. The first thing everybody did was grab the ratings, copy the ratings and figure out at what point in the newscast did the ratings drop? Which story was that? Why did they turn the channel? Don’t do that story again. And I’m just not geared that way. At KPIX I didn’t know about the ratings. I mean they told me about them. “We’re doing well; we’re not doing well.” Believe me, I’m not saying we didn’t pay attention to it; we definitely paid attention to it. But I didn’t pick up a copy of the ratings every day before I started my day. I didn’t walk into the newsroom and make a beeline for the assignment desk to see the ratings.
PK: Were there other factors in causing you leave Los Angeles?
WT: John, my fiancé, and I flew into the Ontario airport because my daughter was graduating from college and two weekends ago was her big art show. We descended into this brown cloud and the plan was to go out and have dinner with Dave McElhatton because he lives out in the desert. He ended up having to cancel, but we had a reservation out in the desert. I get into the car and the worst air pollution in the Los Angeles area is there in the Pomona area. And 10 minutes away from the airport, I literally turned to John and I said (because Mac couldn’t have dinner), “Do you want to just go home tomorrow morning after the art exhibit?” It was like freeway, brown air, mall after mall. It was concrete. And actually the air pollution was so bad, the next day I tried to take pictures of it with his camera. I said to [John], “It’s a real measure of where I was 14 years ago that I wanted live here.” I would say that when I went to LA, I was at one extreme, this driving ambition had carried me through. And I was a pit bull of a worker. And then all of a sudden I hit this wall and went, “This is what you wanted? This is what you got. Now is this really what you want?” And that was when I started to do those stories about those kids and this transition started.
Age: 56 | Birthplace: Seattle