Wjz Anchor Sally Thorner Ends 25 Years On Local Tv

December 19, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Sitting in her empty office off the WJZ newsroom shortly before going to the set for her last broadcast after more than a quarter of a century on Baltimore TV, Sally Thorner said she felt focused and strong.

"I'm actually good today," the 54-year-old said. "There was a certain point where I was drained by all of this, but not now - now that it's actually here. I'm not promising I won't break up tonight, but I'm really feeling strong. And I have to be strong and focused on air. I really don't want to go out sloppy. I need to stay on track."

Few careers in local television have been as successfully on-track as Sally Thorner's. Competitors, colleagues and analysts say Baltimore viewers are not likely to see a "franchise" anchor like Thorner again - a woman who can switch stations in the same market and take an audience with her.

The Long Island native came to Baltimore in 1983 only three years out of Smith College, and after a successful run as weekend anchor at WMAR, she helped take that perennial ratings doormat from worst to first in the 5 p.m. nightly ratings. By 1992, she and her then-partner, Stan Stovall, were so dominant at 5 p.m., that competitor WJZ deemed her worth a quarter of a million dollars a year to help launch its own 5 p.m. newscast.

WJZ wanted her so much that the station paid her the first year's salary even though she had to stay off the air because of a no-compete clause in her WMAR contract. But once she got back on the air, Thorner again proved to be a ratings success at her new station at 5 p.m. WJZ would use her appeal with Baltimore viewers one more time - in 2002 - to launch another daily newscast at 4 p.m.

"No doubt about it, Sally Thorner was a franchise anchor - one of the few anywhere in the country," says Mark Miller, the longtime news director at WBAL radio. "She is a very good journalist who is very involved in the community, and she was at the right place at the right time in her career. She built a following at a time when TV news was expanding into other parts of the day, and she proved she could change stations and take a core group of viewers with her. While many broadcasters aspire to do that, very few ever actually do."

Gail Bending, the veteran news director at WJZ, is the person who recruited Thorner to the station in 1992. The two had worked together in their 20s on the weekend shift at WMAR and had bonded, Bending recalled.

"When WJZ launched its 5 p.m. news, we knew Sally was the perfect person to anchor our new broadcast," Bending said. "She had dominated the time period for many years, and her viewers were very loyal. What started as a great 'what if ...' became a reality that lasted more than 15 years."

No one spent more time at her side during those years than Kai Jackson, her co-anchor for the past 11 of them.

"Sally's approach to journalism is human as opposed to robotic. She's very concerned with accuracy and getting it right, just like I am," Jackson says. "At the same time, she wants to relate what we report to people, to answer the question: 'Why is this important to me?' "

After cataloging the many experiences they have shared both on-air at WJZ and off-air with their families during the past decade, Jackson offered one of the day's most powerful and succinct of the many tributes to Thorner: "She's my sister. I love her, respect her and will miss her tremendously."

Stovall, her co-anchor from the 1990s who now anchors at WBAL, said, "Sally has stood the test of time. You don't work in this town as long as she has without having a great deal of acceptance from the public and building credibility to the point where they want to watch you."

While many stations around the country are trying to shed their biggest anchor salaries, WJZ General Manager Jay Newman said Thorner's decision to retire was her own. She was in the middle of a long-term contract.

"Sally came to us and told us she wanted to retire, and we will miss her greatly," Newman said.

WJZ presented viewers with a touching interview and montage of Thorner through the years during the 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. newscasts Friday. At the end of the 6 p.m. news, Jackson gave Thorner 16 roses, one for each year at the station, as she sat with him, Denise Koch, Vic Carter, Mark Viviano and Bob Turk at the anchor desk one last time.

The images in the montage showed her anchoring, leading parades, throwing out baseballs. But as befits a farewell to someone who always held herself to the highest standards of broadcast news, the tributes mainly focused on serious rather than silly moments or bloopers - as other TV newsroom-produced video farewell packages often do.

"That's OK with me," Thorner said. "One thing I don't feel today is silly. Hey, there's big news - big snow on the way. This is nice - this 'Goodbye, Sally. Now, back to the news.' That's the way it should be."

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