Pioneering broadcaster describes her difficult path to fame, success

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When broadcast pioneer Eleanor Schano was carrying her third daughter in 1959, she hid the pregnancy, broadcasting the Friday night weather report before entering a hospital Saturday to have her baby.

Knowing she would be fired if television executives found out, the tall and slim Ms. Schano hid her burgeoning belly with boxy Chanel suit jackets. Even her studio crew was unaware, and sent her flowers in the hospital that weekend, believing she was ill. There was no 12-week maternity leave, as is customary today. She used her two-week vacation time to settle the eight-pound baby at home, then returned to work.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Eleanor Schano talks Tuesday with Peters Township High School students about her career as a broadcaster and her recent autobiography at the Peters Township Library.
Click photo for larger image.

Such was the life of Pittsburgh's first female general assignment news reporter and one of the nation's first female television news anchors.

Ms. Schano was on hand Tuesday afternoon at the Peters Township Public Library where she recounted some of her history-making career with Peters Township High School broadcast media and journalism students.

Ms. Schano offered highlights of her autobiography, "Riding the Air Waves, the Life and Televised Times of Eleanor Schano," released in August. After the discussion with students, Ms. Schano held a book signing for library guests.

The 47 high school students were hand-plucked as the highest achievers from among the more than 300 students in the district's media department. It was the first such field trip for the department, teacher Robin Hodgin-Frick said, although the students had hosted visits by television newscasters Wendy Bell and Andrew Stockey.

"They have never had the chance to see a veteran TV icon," said Ms. Hodgin-Frick, who hoped students would take away valuable lessons from the discussion, such as the need to work hard, concentrate on basics, practice and "get it right and keep it short," she said.

Ms. Schano told students about the early days of television, when she and her father watched the first television broadcast in Pittsburgh through a hardware store window in January 1949.

"I was there when television was born," she said.

As a child, Ms. Schano said, she dreamed of being like the comic strip reporter Brenda Starr, leading a life of glamour and mystery. She interviewed neighborhood friends with a yellow flashlight/microphone, but found reality to be stinging.

"Every door I tried to open was slammed in my face," she said.

Although many students in the audience indicated a desire to enter the electronic broadcast field because of its glamorous image, Ms. Schano was quick to set them straight.

"It's not glamorous or exciting," she told students, telling them the story of how she came to first appear on television as a commercial model in 1951.

Because she had some high school experience modeling, Ms. Schano said, she was hired to stand and model clothing on television while a man read copy for the commercial.

Ms. Schano said she was so offended by being forced into silence that she walked into the office of the advertising executive and explained that the ad would work better if she could provide the audio. To her amazement, she said, he agreed.

From there, she said, she worked for years earning promotions an inch at a time while watching less experienced men advance ahead of her. She put off sexual overtures and ridiculous stereotypes and worked to support her husband and two daughters. She was eventually divorced, widowed and remarried.

Ms. Schano became a so-called "weather girl" at WDTV, which later became KDKA-TV, then a reporter at WTAE-TV, then moved to the much-coveted solo anchor chair by the 1970s. Afterward, she worked as a radio newscaster and as a consumer journalist and now hosts LifeQuest on WQED, a television magazine for seniors.

"This is a tough and competitive business," she told the students. "So many people want to get into this profession. You have to get used to rejection."

Ms. Schano told students of the time she elbowed her way into an interview with Bell Telephone Co., which was sponsoring a new "weathercaster" position at WTAE in the 1950s.

The news director told her not to bother trying out, as the company had already lined up 28 men to apply for the position and was firmly decided against a woman for the job. Ms. Schano showed up anyway and ad-libbed her way through the audition. She got the job.

Being one of the first women in the industry also was a plus at times, Ms. Schano said, including the time she interviewed Jackie Kennedy in the ladies room of a Belle Vernon nightclub after Mrs. Kennedy had turned down interviews from all other television outlets.

"There is no such thing as luck in this world," she told students. "Luck is being prepared."

Most of all, Ms. Schano told students they should be prepared to work long hours for little pay in what has become a youth-obsessed industry. With the right internship, though, hard work and confidence, they could break through, she said.

"It's a tough and brutal world out there," she said. "Now is the time to learn as much as possible. If you are passionate, you will succeed."


Janice Crompton can be reached at jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 724-223-0156.


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