If anyone can be called the face of a TV station in Baltimore, it is Rhea Feikin at Maryland Public Television. After more than four decades of doing live pledge drives and hosting such MPT productions as “Artworks” and “Chesapeake Collectibles,” the 84-year-old Feikin will sign off for the last time on Sunday with a prime-time pledge drive during breaks in “Call the Midwife” and “Masterpiece: Poldark” from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The station promises an on-air sendoff for Feikin during the evening.
On the eve of her final telecast, Feikin looked back at her career on Baltimore television. She went deep in talking about some of the sexism she encountered in her early years in the business. She went light and wry as she talked about her dislike for “Dr. Who” and how she used that attitude one night when she was feeling a little cranky to raise some big money for MPT. And she went all the way back to the ancient Greeks in explaining how she’s navigating her rite of passage into retirement these days.
SUN: What are you feeling as you approach your last time on camera after all these years in front of the lens?
FEIKIN: I feel excited. I have so loved working at MPT for all these years. And this was not something I worried about a lot in my mind and wondered when am I going to retire. It just came upon me that it was time to do this. I guess part of it was just I really didn’t want to wait until they wanted me to leave. I wanted to leave before that. And so, I think the timing for me is good. I feel good about it. I know I’ll miss it. But we all miss things in life, and I don’t think I’ll miss it so that I’ll be unhappy.
SUN: How do you feel you have have changed over the years at MPT?
FEIKIN: Well, I’ve gotten more and more secure and comfortable being on the air. I feel like I can make mistakes and forget a word or say it wrong, and I feel like I’ve made enough audience friends that it will be excused ... You know, being older gives you a lot of liberty. I can sort of say what I want to say and not worry about how it’s going to sound. I can tease a little bit and get away with it. I can be more myself as the years have gone on.
They have given me such freedom and such an opportunity to learn at MPT. I had never done interviews until I started working at MPT. They definitely can never be accused of age discrimination or sex discrimination, because I had as much on-air time as any man who ever worked there.
SUN: But that wasn’t given to your generation and the generation of baby boomer women, was it? You had to fight for it in incremental gains.
FEIKIN: My daughter once said to me ― this is a long time ago ― but she said, “You’ve got to be proud, mom. If you’ve done one thing you’ve changed the look of women on local television." And I think that maybe sounds a little bit true, because when I was young, if you got to be 40 and were on commercial television, your days were limited. And I don’t think that’s true any more. I mean, when you look at PBS today and you look at the “NewsHour,” Judy Woodruff is the main anchor there ― a woman, a very talented woman, I think.
SUN: That’s quite a legacy.
FEIKIN: I did a lot freelancing, a lot of TV and corporate videos and things like that. I did them a long time ago. And when I got into the business, whenever it was a corporate video and they would have casting, the women got a chance to be the mother, the secretary, the nurse, period. The men had all the other parts and were always the host of the program.
And I would say when I went to these auditions, “Why can’t a woman be the host?” And they’d say, “Well, a woman doesn’t have the authority.” And I would say, “What about your mother? What about a teacher? What about Golda Meir? I mean, women are in positions of authority.”
So this went on, and finally I would go to auditions, and I would say, “Look, I know that your client is going to choose a man. But let me just read the part, be the host, and include that as possibility. And maybe after a while, they’ll see the possibility that a woman could host the program.”
And eventually, I did start getting some of those jobs, and so did some other women. It was never as many as the men, I can assure you. But we did get those jobs.
SUN: Where do you go from here? What are you going to be doing?
FEIKIN: As little as possible. I mean that. I absolutely mean that. I have no plans. My daughter (Jennifer, who is a lawyer) lives in California. My son (Daniel, who is a medical doctor) lives in Switzerland. So, I have good places to visit. Sometimes in the last couple of years when I go to visit the Switzerland family, we’ll take little trips. I’ve gone to Portugal. So, I’ll do maybe a little more of that.
But, basically, and I’m not just saying this, it’s the truth, I am basically a lazy person. I do try to spend all day Sunday reading. I love to read all day long. And I can watch movies. And I go to yoga classes. I just don’t want the responsibility for doing anything all the time at a special time.
SUN: Before we go, I have to ask about your adventures in fund raising, the live pledge drives like the four hours you will be doing Sunday on your final night on MPT.
FEIKIN: Let me tell you one story. A long time ago, we used to work late into the night until 1 o’clock sometimes. And on Saturday nights, they had this program that I never watched, “Dr. Who.” I disliked the program, never watched it, so they never asked me to pledge it, and I never worked on Saturday nights.
But one time they had an emergency, and they asked me to please work on a Saturday night, and I did. And, of course. we had to pledge “Dr. Who.” So, I go out for the first break and do whatever I do and say whatever I say with whomever I was working with that night, and the phones are really dead. And there is nothing more miserable than to have no phones ringing.
So, you go back to the green room and wait for the second break. And I go out, it’s the same thing. It’s painful. So then, the third break comes and I’m tired now and annoyed that I have to be there, and again the phones aren’t ringing. And, finally, I just say, "You know what? I have to tell you, I’m going to really level with you, I don’t like this show. In fact, I never watch this show. And I don’t care if they take this show off the air. I really don’t. But if you like it, then you have to do something to keep it on the air. And you know what that is. You have to call in, you have to make a pledge.
Well, the phones went crazy. We got so much money in one break, it was just wonderful. Now, I never did do it again, I will say. Of course, when you get the book on how you’re supposed to do pledge, you’re never ever supposed to that.
SUN: You seem like you are in great health and have terrific energy.
FEIKIN: I am. I am very, very lucky. I am in great health. I do have a lot of energy. I don’t have any more than the normal stiffness in the morning and aches and pains, you know, from time to time.
But you know what? When I was in college, I took a course in Greek literature, and there was a play that we read called “Ajax.” And even then, at 18 years old, when I got to the end and the line was that no man can foresee his destiny, I remember just gasping and thinking, “Oh, my God, that’s probably true.”
As I’ve gotten older, I know it’s true. I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived through it. I had a husband who got ill and died. So, I know it’s true. And I think about that. I think none of us knows what tomorrow brings. So, I just want to have as good a life as I can for as long as I can.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.