Longtime local anchors tell tales of an earlier era of television news

Still classy

John Mahaffey and George Sells can relate to Ron Burgundy. Margaret Lawhon is just as glad she missed that era.

That era — for those who never saw “Anchorman” or its sequel, currently in cinemas — was television news in the 1970s. Or, as the first movie put it, “a time before cable, when the local anchorman reigned supreme. When people believed everything they heard on TV. This was an age when only men were allowed to read the news.”

Having put their TV news careers behind them, Sells, Mahaffey and Lawhon can join the rest of the audience in laughing at comedian Will Ferrell’s depiction of a pompous, popular and not very bright news anchor. Comedy, after all, only works if there is some element of truth involved.

Keeping alcohol under the anchor desk for an occasional nerve-calming shot?

“John Chancellor at NBC News did that,” says Sells, 71, who retired in 2012 after 24 years at WAFB-TV and a career that included network and local slots in Philadelphia, Houston, Denver, Detroit and Nashville, Tenn.

Off-camera co-workers trying to distract the anchor during a broadcast? Lawhon, 56, remembers how WBRZ-TV cameraman Luke Johnson would give her the countdown to go on the air, then throw in a zinger.

“Then he’d look out, ‘Is that the lipstick you meant to put on?’” Lawhon says. “He’s got me, and then I see him laughing, and then I’m barely able to read. He did it to me three or four times.”

Peculiar news judgment? Mahaffey, 75, who retired in 1999 from WBRZ-TV after working for stations in Texas, recalls a station owner in Corpus Christi took the motto “if it bleeds, it leads” to extraordinary extremes.

“He decided one day he wanted to be No. 1 in news, and he gave orders that we are not to run anything but wrecks. Nothing but wrecks,” Mahaffey says. “And he paid little bonuses to whoever got the most gruesome photography of the wreck. A guy name Lupe Duarte got a $25 check — big money then — because he got an intestine hanging off the hood ornament. And we were No. 1, just killed them.”

So to speak.

None of the three say they saw one of the original movie’s themes — male chauvinism toward female anchors — at their stations.

In the mid-1960s in Philadelphia, Sells was noon co-anchor with Marciarose Shestack. They were later moved to the 7 p.m. newscast. Sells says that McCalls magazine credits Shestack as being the first prime-time female news anchor in the country.

“I frankly didn’t notice it,” Mahaffey says. “I don’t recall that at all. The first woman anchor with me was Brenda Hodge (at WAFB), who was fabulous. It was 1976. Even though she could be irate and tough as nails, Margaret and I both would say who would be our first hire anyplace? Hodge.”

Lawhon got a degree in fashion merchandising from Texas Christian University and was in graduate school at LSU when an adviser mentioned she might enjoy a radio production class. It was full, so she signed up for TV production. That led to an internship in Shreveport, and she was hired by WBRZ in 1985. By that time, the local glass ceiling had been broken for women anchors.

“I remember feeling I really had to be tough,” Lawhon says. “I had to be very industrious. I had to bring all my energy. I had to prove myself. I felt that way in Shreveport and I certainly felt that way working for John Spain at WBRZ. Part of the reason was the bar had been set very high by Brenda Hodge.”

All three of them made enough of a local impression that they’re still recognized in public, which amazes Lawhon, who left WBRZ in 1999.

“I still have people say to me, ‘I watch you all the time,’” she says.

Stay classy, Baton Rouge.