Upfront, right away, Wendy Rieger wants you to know: this "newsbabe" stuff has gotten old. "Of course it's flattering, who wouldn't be flattered to be called a 'babe' at age 47?" said Rieger, anchor of WRC's 5 p.m. newscast, and the newsbabe in question. "But really, it's gone on too long. I hope people like me for my essence, for the work that I am doing, not just because I'm a blonde on television.'
Those who focus only on Rieger's looks and style are underestimating her talent, according to co-anchor Susan Kidd. "I'm sure she's tired of that newsbabe stuff," Kidd said. "Wendy's not all caught up in the clothes, the makeup-she breaks the stereotype in that way. People may feel, wrongly, that she is flighty but Wendy is very serious about what she does, and cares about the stories she covers. A lot of TV people get caught up in their own hype. Not Wendy.'
Rieger, a Norfolk native and graduate of American University, is that rarity in local television news, a business rife with nomads: she's spent her entire professional career in the Washington market. Between attending college and working at NPR, WTOP, CNN and since 1988, WRC, "yes, I've been here the whole time," said Rieger. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.'
Her path to the anchor desk was not the most traditional for an aspiring young journalist. "I was an actress, doing dinner theater," she said. "In high school, I just fell in love with theater. I directed our senior play, 'Don't Drink the Water.' Then this local dinner theater had auditions, so I tried out and started doing comedies. "
Rieger continued acting during her first year at Old Dominion University, where she was a psychology major. "Psychology appealed to me, it's a way of unlocking who people are," she said. "But I knew I really wanted to go into acting, so after a year, I dropped out to just do dinner theater. My parents weren't happy-my mother was a teacher-but they supported my decision.' Rieger soon realized the dinner theater stage in Norfolk was a long way from the Great White Way.
"I was in 'Play It Again Sam' with Bob Denver," she said. "You know, Gilligan from 'Gilligan's Island.' And I thought, I'm in this show with Gilligan-he was old even then-and I said, well, Norfolk's NOT a launch pad to Broadway. So where am I going?' She also was working as a secretary in an advertising agency. "Whenever they needed a voice-over, they'd use me because they knew I was in theater." At the same time, Rieger was in a play with a woman who worked in radio. "She said the FM side was looking for a news reader, for early Saturday and Sundays only. She said I just needed to SOUND like a news person," Rieger said. "You know, serious. Like Walter Cronkite."
Rieger got the job, which paid $100. By reading 10-minute newscasts repeatedly, absorbing the details of the big stories of the day, "I fell in love with news," said Rieger. "The idea that we were telling the story, the whole process.' She longed to do more work at the radio station, but "the news director told me since I didn't have a degree and wasn't even going to school, no way."
Rieger returned to Old Dominion to get the basics, then transferred to American University for its broadcast journalism program.
Working primarily in radio, Rieger became a familiar voice around town. She joined WRC as a general assignment reporter, began anchoring weekends in 1996 and moved to the 5 p.m. weekday newscast in 2001.
Rieger was inspired in the news business, she says, by its women broadcast "pioneers', including the late Jessica Savitch of NBC, and CBS's Susan Spencer and Deborah Potter.
'For me it was never about wanting to be Jane Pauley," then anchoring "The Today Show," she said. "I'd see Susan Spencer reporting from Capitol Hill, and listen to Susan Stamberg on NPR, and those were the role models I looked to.
'I loved working in radio, and wish more stations today did news, sent people out to do stories," she said. "You don't have much of that anymore. I remember at NPR, Cokie Roberts would be filing reports at 2 a.m. [ABC's] Judy Muller, who was at CBS then, did great work."
For Rieger, the only downside of daily anchoring is that she misses being out in the field. "For me, reporting is a finely tuned muscle, and you just have to keep it strong," she said. "In some ways I'd like them to send me out and let me report for a week, just so I know I can still do it.' Rieger, who has won three local Emmys, including one for a report on Vietnam 20 years after the war, worries about the direction broadcast news is taking.
'It used to be, we reported what you needed to know," she said. "Now too often the thinking is, what do viewers want. Thankfully, because we're local, we cover what's happening here. We're telling you about your town, what is going on, in this community. But that isn't always the case."
That's one reason Rieger has never sought to move to the network level. "No one can predict where this business is going," she said. "So much has changed and is changing. You, the viewer, have so many more choices. You still have Charlie Rose and Jim Lehrer, and I know not everyone is watching Bill O'Reilly. But I don't know where it's headed and I feel more committed to local news.' Kidd offers an example that illustrates Rieger's point. "I was once so taken with the way she did a story that I sent out a memo saying everyone should look at the story. It's the way we ought to be doing things," she said.
The piece, on the demolition of the old Capital Centre, also known as U.S. Air Arena, included Robin Ficker, the local politician and longtime spectator/ heckler at the building. "That told you this was not just someone who dropped in to do a story, this was a reporter with community roots who knows the territory. People think in television, you're writing for idiots. But no one can stop and say, you lost me, what was that again. This story was extremely well-written, well-rounded," said Kidd.
'I've always felt I don't have to like the people I work with, but they must be competent. Wendy's not only likable, she also does a great job.' Rieger, self-effacing, opinionated and humorous by turns, said her on-air persona is just who she is. "You have to be yourself on the air, you can't go in there and project some fake personality, some front and expect people to believe it," she said. "Eventually the real you comes through and it better be comfortable for you, since that's what people see on the other side of the camera.' Viewers may not realize Rieger doesn't have a bevy of beauty professionals preparing her for air.
'They think going on camera is like being at a spa," she said, laughing. "Like it's Hollywood, with makeup artists brushing, powdering, hair stylists fixing, and some wardrobe person picking out our clothes. Hey, we all do our own makeup and hair, and we don't get a clothing allowance, the clothes we wear are all our own.' And the leather vest she favors that some fans find so fetching? "Yes it's real leather," she said. "I've stopped eating dead animals but I haven't stopped wearing them yet.' Rieger described herself as "an open, friendly person, that's just how I am." The friendliness translates into an engaging personality that appeals widely to viewers, who eagerly approach her when she's off the air. She insisted she is not bothered by the attention. "I'm flattered, I've spent years trying to build a relationship with these people," she said. "Sometimes they're so cute, they'll come up to me and apologize for saying hello. But of course I don't mind. They're the people I've made a connection with.' Rieger does draw the line when she's out with friends and a man sends over a drink. "I'll say thanks, but buying me a drink does not buy you a seat at my table," she said. "A guy thinks he can just join us. I let them know, politely, if I'm out with friends, we're out together. I am not and never have been cruising to get picked up. Ever. " And fan mail from those obsessed with her leather vests?
'We all get some crazy letters, and occasionally the station will have to send the police to tell the person to stop writing. And once in a while you'll see the security guards walking somebody to their car and you know they've gotten some kind of wacky mail," she said. "But for me it's never been a problem. No bodyguards.' Divorced, Rieger shares her Maryland home with a pair of five-year-old Maine coon cats, Buddy and Rudy. "I've had them since they were rescued as two-week-old orphan kittens and they are the love of my life," she said.
She stays fit by cycling, which she took up after becoming a regular participant in the DC AIDS Ride. Rieger also has a kayak, and shares a 19-foot boat with a WRC colleague.
A few years ago, while shooting a story in Annapolis, Rieger felt a sudden slap of cold salt air in her face. "It was an epiphany, and you have to be ready to take the epiphany when it presents itself. At that instant, I knew I had to get back to living near the water. It had been 20 years and that was something I missed." She sold her Bethesda house and moved to the Annapolis area.
'People said I was crazy, it's an hour commute . . . but the feeling I get when I look out at the water, the stillness, the peace. It's calming and energizing all at once.' Rieger's brother has a weekend home nearby, giving her time with her only niece. Her father, a retired pilot, lives in Charlottesville. "He has a great perspective on the news business," she said. "He says, 'the news is all the same, so I might as well get it from a good-lookin' gal.' But he can only get Channel 9 down there, so he doesn't see me Instead, he's always raving about J.C. Hayward."
Rieger's mother died on Sept. 10, 2001, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. "Because of September 11, I've always felt I didn't get to really mourn her," said Rieger. "People will say, 'oh were you reporting from the Pentagon that day,' and I say 'no, we were making funeral plans for my mom.' " With her waterside home and anchor chair niche, Rieger called her life "blessed" by good fortune. But she made one small admission: "Oh yes, I do miss theater. I miss being in character. I'd love to do musicals now. You haven't heard me sing.'
Wendy's House of Tea Is Always Brewing
'It's our answer to Starbucks," said Susan Kidd, referring to an in-house tradition at Channel 4 known as "Wendy's House of Tea," a practice begun by Rieger several years ago. "It's just a table on the other side of her desk with all kinds of tea, and usually some kind of cake or pastry.'
'I'm a big tea aficionado, and I always had tea of some kind on my desk," said Rieger, whose favorite flavor is Constant Comment. "People would come by and get it, especially in winter. So I decided to make a bigger deal out of it and set up this little thing with different teas. And it's grown, like a shrine to tea. Now it's got a serenity fountain too.'
The cake supplementing the tea assortment is provided by Rieger for special occasions, or for no reason at all.
'Certain holidays, like Christmas, or the beginning or end of the [ratings] book, the solstice. I'm big on the solstice," said Rieger. "Recently I covered the place in tall sunflowers. Our new general manager walked by and said he felt like he should be participating in some kind of pagan ritual.'