Long-time Arizonans know Mary Jo West as the first primetime television news anchorwoman in the Valley, shattering a broadcast news glass ceiling – but not without plenty of challenges.
West was a former beauty queen turned journalist who had the dubious honor of being paired with legendary Phoenix newsman Bill Close at the Phoenix CBS affiliate KOOL-TV.
It was the mid 1970’s, Close was not shy about being a sexist, and the TV audience was hostile about seeing a woman on the set.
The 2004 movie Anchorman, while a comedy, got it about right regarding the reaction of women entering broadcast news in the 70’s.
It was a time when, it was believed, only booming male voices held any credibility.
So it is within this environment that Mary Jo, along with Patty Weiss at KVOA in Tucson, would make history, opening the way for a generation of female broadcast journalists to take their rightful place in news.
West worked at KOOL TV from 1976 to 1982, before a short stint in New York at CBS News.
She returned to Phoenix and anchored at Channel 3 from 1983 to 1986, before retiring from broadcast TV.
Recently JimHeath.TV had a chance to ask West about her remarkable and historic career and we share her answers here in our 10/10.
Jim Heath: Mary Jo, you’re a young woman in college in the late 60’s, playing Daisy Mae in local theaters, you become Miss Atlanta. At what point did broadcast journalism spur your interest?
Mary Jo West: When I was chosen “Miss Atlanta,” my mind opened up in a new way after traveling not just around Georgia, but around the country. I found myself in Washington D.C. several times and learned that I had an insatiable curiosity about people and their actions. Instead of returning to Florida State University, where I had won a voice scholarship in music, I chose instead to transfer to the University of Georgia which had an excellent journalism department. The timing of this decision was crucial, just like many things in life. When I graduated in 1973, the TV stations around the country started hiring women and other minorities thanks to the FCC. Before then, mostly white men were in the news profession.
Heath: Did you start thinking, “I’m going make history and head to Arizona to be the first woman in Phoenix to anchor a television newscast?”
West: I never thought I would make history and move to Arizona, but I did know that I found the major that I loved. I was determined to have a career as a broadcast journalist despite the many mistakes I made when I first started out. I worked in the markets of Thomasville, Ga./Tallahassee, Florida for three years and did weather, sports on Friday nights and news for the CBS affiliate and the PBS station in Tallahassee. I eventually hosted my own daily program called “Woman’s Way.”
Heath: So you’re hired as a writer at the Phoenix PBS station. Tell us this amazing story about how a congressional candidate helped you land on KOOL TV’s radar.
West: Her name was Pat Fullenwider and she decided to run against an Arizona icon for Congress, Republican John Rhodes. When Channel 10 did a story on Congressman Rhodes as the election season was just getting started, Pat demanded equal time. KOOL TV gave her a half-hour special which would air at midnight. A producer at KAET PBS where I worked helped Pat put the program together similar to a Phil Donahue format. Jay Parker asked if I would host the show and I jumped at the chance. When we taped the program at Channel 10, the production manager, Maurie Helle told me was impressed at how I handled the audience and the hosting duties. He passed my name to the management at Channel 10 because they were in the process of choosing the first female prime time anchor for their news programs.
Heath: You got the audition, but it didn’t go well?
West: I auditioned with both Bill Close and the 10 pm anchor, Dave Nichols. Midway through my audition with Dave, he walked out saying he would not co-anchor with a woman.
Heath: I remember Dave Nichols, that’s just incredible. How did Close handle it?
West: Bill did not walk out, but was not thrilled to say the least that a woman half his age would share his billing.
Heath: Amazingly, Barbara Walters was having the exact same issue with Harry Reasoner at the network level. He hated the idea of co-anchoring with a woman. But times were changing and you were in the right place at the right time.
West: Timing was everything, as well as my working very hard leading up to that moment. I was also a bit fearless, and not afraid to fail. I got the job!
Heath: Were you warned what to expect? Not just your male coworkers, but the audience that can be so unforgiving. This is before Twitter and social media, so viewers actually had to write these nasty comments and mail them in.
West: It was never discussed, but I knew it was a risk. However, Channel 10 did everything possible to make it work going into our first news program. They took out full page newspaper ads, flooded the airwaves with the news of the change and newspaper stories were written about the “bold” move of adding a woman to a newscast that was at the time far and away the leader in the ratings. Close followed Cronkite who had a huge following. One of the full page ads had a picture of the four members of our new team. However, my face was blacked out, but they showed the rest of my body. I always thought that was strange, but it certainly made people tune in to the station.
Heath: At any time after you were first hired at KOOL TV did you think about walking?
West: Two years into my six years there, I was offered a job in Minneapolis. It was an attractive offer, but I decided to stay with the station that gave me such a great opportunity. Early on, it was difficult because Bill was not happy I was there. This was also a time where the anchors were reporting from the street daily. Since there was no shoe for me to fill, I created a shoe that was too big. I said yes to every request.
Heath: You were doing small market multi tasking in a big market with the pressure of ratings and, frankly, all women on your shoulders.
West: Yes, my day might start by speaking at a 6:00 a.m. Kiwanis Club in Sun City, a school at 9:00, a Rotary Club at noon, then pick up my assignment for a story that afternoon. I co-anchored the 5:00 and 6:00 and sometimes would go back out out night and do another story before co-anchoring the 10:00 newscast. Four times a year there would be the all important sweeps and I started the unhealthy habit of doing 5 part series during that time that I would produce myself. This resulted in my spending the night at the station during those rating periods to get the series done in time. Needless to say, I had an inflated sense of self-importance of not wanting to let down the women in our business so I tried to do it all. My marriage died and so did my mental health. I never learned to say no. But, I was not going to give up.
Heath: You sacrificed a lot, but there was so much at stake for so many others if you failed. For young women today who may find it unbelievable, explain the daily sexual harassment you were putting up with every single day.
West: Let me say that when Bill passed away a few years ago, I was invited to both speak and sing at his funeral. He hand picked the song which was all about forgiveness. I learned so much from Bill. He was a stickler when it came to using correct grammar, he knew Arizona politics like the back of his hand, he made me get rid of my Southern accent, he encouraged me to have hobbies like he did. We went through so much together when it came to covering major stories in Arizona like the floods, the murder of reporter Don Bolles, and on and on and on. However, the verbal sexual harassment was non-stop on and off the set. He did it with most women. During my job interview, he asked me my bra size. It was a very difficult time. I will say that the younger men in the newsroom were very supportive as well as some of the older ones. I was so young at the time and today I would have spoken up more and done things differently. The important thing is that we must continue to work to not allow sexual harassment or bullying of any kind in the workplace. It is still happening in 2019!
WATCH: KOOL News Open & Credits:
Heath: Did you see Bill Close much after you left KOOL?
West: Years later he asked me to lunch when he wrote his book. He was complimentary of me in his biography. On the other hand, he never changed. He was of that generation that just saw things differently when it came to women. I am not defending him. I just think he was also in a lot of physical pain over the years. When he was 16, he was run over by a train and lost his legs. Maybe I was a threat to him. I just know after working with Bill, any other difficult person I had to deal with was “downhill.” He toughened me up. But, I see myself as a steel magnolia and I was not going to give up. Now that I am 70, I know the importance of forgiveness. I will also say that my last night on the air with Bill before I moved to CBS News in New York, he said to the viewers that I was the hardest worker that he ever met. Bottom line, I earned his respect.
Heath: I was an intern at channel 10 a few years after you left, and I wish I could say Bill offered words of encouragement to college students, but I remember him telling me there was no future in broadcast journalism. Hardly words of inspiration. At that point he was detached from the newsroom and was clearly unhappy. He did toughen everyone up and get us ready for disappointments I suppose.
Heath: You paved the way for the next woman anchor in the Phoenix market, Linda Alvarez. I remember switching back and forth and watching these four titans – you and Close versus Kent Dana and Alvarez – and man it was good for news junkies! You inspired a whole generation of us to get into broadcast journalism. Linda would later head to LA for a long career there. Have you two ever compared notes about those early days, and did she ever slip you a quick “thank you” for shattering that glass ceiling in a big market like Phoenix?
West: Linda is one of the most gracious women I have ever met. I was able to speak at her going away party when she moved to the LA market and I remember that one word I used in my speech to describe her, she is filled with grace. Linda and I were tough competitors, but always respected one another. Yes, she thanked me by her actions.
Heath: Alright, let’s talk New York. All of us in the news business when we’re young dream of going to the network. You did! You had a big sendoff and you start your new gig at CBS News in the Big Apple. You co-anchored CBS’s pioneer all night news show Nightwatch with Christopher Glenn and others. What happened?
West: My shift was from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. My body never got used to the “graveyard shift.” Also, I was still in my “not being able to say no mode.” I moved right across from CBS News on W. 57th Street. When the producers would call me to see if I would run over during the daytime to do an interview with someone who did not want to come on the show in the middle of the night, I always said yes. So, I just wasn’t sleeping that much and felt very alone. I had just divorced and those who have had that experience know the pain that can bring.
Heath: It’s like discovering the “dream job” is actually suffocating the life out of you.
West: Yes, and I was suffering from the debilitating illness of severe clinical depression. Back then, no one talked about it, much less admitting they had it. Years later, I went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and told my story, and so glad I did. Since then, I have spoken all over the country and to this day, meet one-on-one with people to let them know they can have the lights come back on again. I call it my special ministry.
Heath: I know you’ve received some well-deserved awards for all you do on mental health issues, so thank you for that. Okay, back in New York, what was the reaction of your agent Ralph Mann when you decided to return to Phoenix to anchor at KTVK? I mean, you were cutting ties with CBS, leaving the network, and back in those days, TV 3 was no ratings winner.
West: When channel 3 offered me an opportunity to return to Phoenix as the chief anchor, I said yes. Ralph, who represented Jane Pauley among others, was wonderful but my heart wasn’t in it. I remarried and had the opportunity to be part of a team that did a documentary on Mother Teresa. At the end of our time together, Mother Teresa gave me a baby to adopt from her orphanage in Honduras. Had I turned left instead of right. or walked forward instead of backwards, I would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime of being Molly’s mother.
Heath: That is a really incredible story, you were doing a documentary with Mother Teresa, and before it’s over you end up with a daughter.
West: We were singing with the nuns and then for me, a miracle happened. All of a sudden, I said to Mother Teresa, ‘Do you ever allow Americans to adopt children from your orphanages?’ At first she said, ‘No,’ and turned away. Then she turned back to me and said, ‘Because you love the poor and the Virgin Mary so much, I am going to give you a baby.’ A few weeks later, I was in Honduras, meeting my four-month-old daughter for the first time.
Heath: That’s just wonderful, and leaving the network put all of that into motion. It’s hard to believe but you left KTVK over 30 years ago. Do you ever miss chasing the big story?
West: Through the years I have always had a hand in some form of TV production. What a gift! Two years ago I traveled to remote villages in Kenya with Global Hope Network International to help get the word out about the countless orphans there with HIV among other issues. There are too many projects to talk about that I have worked on since my days of anchoring daily newscasts. The power of the medium can be so effective to change lives for the better when done right. I have had those opportunities and know there will be more in the future.
Heath: You bet there will be! Before we go, some longtime Arizonans are doing a double-take when they see you working at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. I can’t think of anyone better suited to welcome tourists to this state. Is it still fun to be recognized and honored for all you did to help women establish a serious role in broadcast journalism?
West: After retiring five years ago, I decided to go back to work part-time for just three or four days a week. How fun it is to stand behind the information counters. I get to tell people where to go! Seriously, it is so rewarding to help calm people down and get them on the right track when they are so harried. I do get recognized and use humor and warmth to thank them. I tell them that I am a lot older and wider, but they certainly made my day! The other days of the week I get to “hang” with my three grandchildren and I can honestly say that I have never been this happy.
Heath: Mary Jo, you’re just a really special person and I am so honored to know you.
West: Thank you Jim for the opportunity to answer your great questions!
Mary Jo West was the first anchorwoman to be inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters Hall of Fame. She was also recently inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.