TV STARTING TO TUNE IN Gardner proves that hard work has its rewards

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As Gayle Gardner grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1960s, her school, Samuel Tilden High, didn't offer interscholastic girls sports. She says she wonders what her life would have been like if she had been born 10 years later, when schools did offer competitive programs for females.

Instead, her introduction to sports came through listening to New York Giants football games in her cousin's basement and watching every available sporting event on television.

"It was purely through watching television that I became a real sports fan," Gardner said. "And I used to watch everything from the time I was very small."

Today, Gardner, 41, is one of television's most prominent female sportscasters, and she has returned to her first love, pro football, as a features reporter on NBC's NFL coverage, appearing during pre-game shows and at halftime.

Gardner spent three years here as a sportscaster at WJZ-TV in the early 1980s. She said her career and those of other women in sports media are proof that, given the opportunity, a woman can be as competent at broadcasting sports as a man.

But the opportunity is hard to come by.

"What's happened is there's a realization that we can be worked into the operation in a serious sort of way that is not just tokenism, that we can contribute, that we know what we're doing, that we're professionals,that we have a sports background," Gardner said. "My hope is that it will keep coming."

On the network level, the influx of women into sportscasting is increasing.

NBC has added Hannah Storm, formerly of CNN, to join Gardner and give each of the broadcast networks two full-time women. ESPN, the all-sports cable network, has added a second woman, Linda Cohn, who previously worked in Seattle, to join its rotation on "SportsCenter," its three-times-daily sports newscast. ESPN has four women working full time in on-camera jobs.

"It used to be that, in the beginning . . . there weren't a lot to choose from, and the really talented people stuck out," said John A. Walsh, ESPN's executive editor. "Now, there's a lot of talented people to choose from."

Gardner said talented women aren't getting the chance to hone their craft at the local level.

"The reality is that, before I even got to ESPN, I had worked in Baltimore and Detroit and in Boston. I had major-market local experience," said Gardner.

"When I was here [Baltimore] doing the 6 and 11 o'clock news in 1983, I was the only female in the country doing that. Now, how many years later is it? I don't know if there's anyone doing the 6 and 11 o'clock news in a top 20 market."

The Baltimore Sun checked the nation's 50 largest television markets, which have at least three, or, as in Baltimore's case, four nightly newscasts, and found that 17 have women working as sportscasters. None of those women anchors sports on the more widely watched weeknight news broadcasts. They either anchor weekend sportscasts or are reporters.

In Baltimore, where Gardner, and her predecessor, Andrea Kirby, were among the first women sports anchors, there have been no women on camera as regular sportscasters since Gardner left in 1983.

Paying their dues

Gardner said the reason for the absence of women in sports broadcasting is that they faced obstacles that were too large to overcome.

"There was a generation of [female] sportscasters before me . . . trying to move up," Gardner said. "And most of that generation gave up. The battle was too big. It was too stressful to keep trying to make something happen with people who really didn't want to hire you.

"At a point, you say, 'Why am I doing this?' "

Kirby spent the '70s paving the way for Gardner and others. She began her sports broadcasting career at WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Fla., in 1971 as the station's sports director, anchor, reporter and producer for three years before coming to Baltimore in 1974.

At WJZ, Kirby did a little of everything during her three years, serving as commentator on the station's broadcasts of Orioles and Colts games, as well as anchoring and producing sportscasts. She left Baltimore to become ABC Sports' first all-purpose female sportscaster in 1977.

TTC Kirby left the network when ABC didn't give her a chance to do college football play-by-play in 1980. Yet she doesn't accuse ABC of sexism.

"Had I known when I was in high school that I was going to get into that, I would have started working on my play-by-play a long time ago," Kirby said. "Now, when you throw a woman into it, she hasn't been trained for it. I just had no clue that I was going to do this. I would have paid my dues."

After leaving the network, Kirby worked in radio, cable and local television for a few years before creating her own consulting firm -- Sports Media Workshop in Mamaroneck, N.Y. -- in 1985. The company works with athletes and businessmen who want to learn to communicate more easily with the media. She said business is booming with clients from professional baseball, basketball, hockey and tennis and even sports announcers who need their on-air styles polished.

Although she shares Gardner's regret that there aren't more women in the business, Kirby places a good share of the responsibility on women themselves, contending that few are willing to "pay their dues" learning the business.

"A lot of women feel malicious intent, and I just don't believe that," Kirby said. "I figure, 'Why waste your opportunity fighting this? Go out and learn and earn your shot.' The men in this industry are smart enough to hire someone who proves that they're up to the challenge."

Work ethic pays off

Gardner came to Channel 13 in 1980 as a weekend sports anchor. She said the Baltimore audience accepted her almost from the first moment she appeared on camera here.

"It's one of the friendliest places in the whole world, and all people want there is somebody who is competent and works hard," Gardner said. "As soon as they can see any sort of work ethic in somebody, they're going to be behind you."

Gardner left WJZ in October 1983. She waited a year for management to offer her the sports slot on the weeknight 6 and 11 o'clock newscasts after Randy Blair died of a heart attack in 1982. When the offer didn't come, she left.

Jim Simpson, a former sportscaster at NBC and WRC-TV in Washington, had seen Gardner's work. He was working at the then-fledgling cable network called ESPN, and he recommended Gardner to officials at the all-sports operation. She got the job.

There were questions about the national audience's willingness to accept a woman in a role other than the one that had been established by Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy with CBS' "NFL Today" -- an attractive showpiece to the male anchors.

"You can mispronounce the prime minister of China's name, and no one would know the difference," said Chris Berman, one of Gardner's former co-anchors on "SportsCenter."

"But, being a female sportscaster, if you mispronounced the left wing's name on the second line of the Winnipeg Jets, maybe I could get away with it, but, if she did it as a woman, it would be like she didn't know anything. That's a hell of a burden."

It took Gardner about six months to gain her bosses' confidence, but once she did, "I couldn't get them to take me off things."

"You knew right away that she knew her stuff," said Berman, who is still at ESPN. "She was one of the guys, and I mean that as a real compliment. I would say that if she was a female or a male.

"Gayle gives you the impression that she was in the back yard with her father at 7 years old having a catch. All of us [male sportscasters] did that. Not too many women did. It's really hard to give that impression, but she does."

After five years at ESPN, Gardner turned down an offer from CBS to go to NBC in 1988.

Gardner said she's not sure what her long-term future will be, or, for that matter, what will happen to female sportscasters as they grow older.

"When Jim Lampley was hired, nobody called Bob Costas or Dick Enberg and said, 'Do you feel threatened now that Jim Lampley's been hired?' But some people asked me, 'Do you feel threatened with Hannah Storm there?' They would never say that to a man," said Gardner.

"My response is, yes, we have to keep bringing younger generations in, but women of my generation like Lesley and Andrea [Lesley Visser and Andrea Joyce are CBS sportscasters], should we be put out to pasture? Do I look like an Old Mother Hubbard to you?

OC "I've sworn never to age. I'm going to stay like this forever."

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