Two personnel shifts in the WBAL-TV newsroom are raising eyebrows - a noteworthy imminent departure and a noteworthy recent ascension.
First, popular morning and midday news anchor Dina Napoli vanished from the air earlier this month after privately declaring her intention to quit; she was given three weeks paid vacation by the Channel 11 brass to reconsider.
Yesterday, after a reporter's inquiries, WBAL publicly acknowledged that Napoli won't be staying at the station. Instead, she's headed to Italy for culinary school. "If there was a way to keep her, we would," says WBAL news director Princell Hair. "This was truly a personal decision that she came to on her own." Napoli will return on Monday to anchor the morning and noon news shows through the end of the November "sweeps" period, from which advertising rates are derived.
The decision follows the departure of noon co-host Dave Durian, who is concentrating on his radio show on corporate sibling WBAL radio (1090 AM), and morning and afternoon weather forecaster Tony Pann, who left for WCBS in New York City this summer after station managers wouldn't adjust his split-day schedule. Pann was replaced by Neal Estano last month, who was previously with the CBS affiliate in Albany, N.Y.
Napoli, 36, who came to the station in 1995, declined to be interviewed for this article. But she has told associates of her frustration with the station, saying she was interested in pursuing her interest in gourmet cooking or a possible Internet venture that would serve television professionals. Yesterday's announcement of her departure says she will enroll early next year at a cooking institute in Italy.
While her shows have not beaten the personality-driven WJZ (Channel 13) offerings during her time slots, Napoli has been well-regarded at the station and seemed to win a following in the region. She was recently featured as a cover girl - replete with temporary tattoo on her bared shoulder - for a recent issue of Baltimore magazine.
Meanwhile, a new person with an unconventional resume is moving into the producer's chair for the WBAL noontime news program. Starting today, Melinda Chait, a former producer for "The Jerry Springer Show" show and a former writer for the National Enquirer and the Globe weekly tabloid, is filling in as the producer for noon news program. She has regaled some skeptical colleagues with accounts of her previous TV exploits - including arranging one "Springer" show in which a guest appeared to profess his desire to marry his horse.
Chait, 37, says she sought a job in more conventional television to get away from the grueling, pressure-cooker world of "Springer," as controversial a show as there is, often resembling a "Dysfunctional Family Feud" without prizes.
Chait arrived early this year as a junior producer, became a producer on the weekend news shows and now is trying out for the permanent weekday noon producer's job. She says she combines a versatile writing style and an eye for what will entice viewers. "I realize the value of entertaining a person as well as informing them - which is something I'll probably get clobbered for saying, but is true," Chait says.
Years ago, she worked at her school newspapers at Miami-Dade Community College and Florida International University, where she met Hair. Unhappy with a low-paying, low-impact job at a Miami business weekly, she left to sell cell phones and pagers and later responded to an ad for reporters for the National Enquirer. "I entered thinking, `Well, it's not the Washington Post,' which I had always dreamed of, but it is journalism," Chait said.
After a brief stint at the Globe writing about celebrities, she followed a mentor to the "Springer" show in Chicago in late 1997, where she became one of six producers who devised and arranged episodes. In a May 1998 Rolling Stone article, Chait was portrayed eliciting the anger of a future guest whose ex-fiancee was to wed his son by a previous marriage - on the show. Told by the man that he might assault his former love, Chait said, according to the magazine's reporter, "If that's what you're going to do, do it fast, because security will stop you." Chait explicitly noted that she didn't want any slugging, but she emphasized the importance of motion and emotion to the seemingly volatile guest. A brawl broke out.
Syndicated columnist Clarence Page denounced the show, saying "if you have a family problem or other domestic conflict, the message here is to talk, but only after you have screamed and slapped and wrestled somebody to the ground."
To skeptics, Chait and Hair say she recognizes the difference between "Springer" and local news, particularly WBAL and its hard-news format. "To say that there's only one path to being a journalist - whether it's TV or print - is a mistake. You miss out on a lot of things that way," Hair said.