Sunday, June 29, 2003

Sheila Gray brightens mornings


The co-anchor of Channel 19's early news show adheres to a seriously tough routine - with a smile

By John Kiesewetter / The Cincinnati Enquirer

At precisely 4:30 p.m., Sheila Gray gets up from her kitchen chair and steps over to the refrigerator, while continuing her conversation with a guest.

PHOTO GALLERY

Sheila Gray at home and on the job
"We always eat at 5 o'clock at my house," explains Gray, co-anchor of WXIX-TV's Fox 19 Morning News, as she grabs ears of corn from the refrigerator.

To be energetic at 3:30 a.m., when she arrives at work, and alert on TV from 5:30 to 9 a.m., Gray adheres to a very strict schedule.

"I watch the local news at 6 p.m., and I'm in bed at 6:30 p.m.," says Gray, 38, who lives in Crestview Hills with her husband, Ric Robinson, and daughter, Katie, 9. "Katie tucks me in, and Ric tucks her in."

Getting nearly eight hours of sleep at night keeps the smile on Gray's face all morning at Channel 19, a smile that helps to attract thousands of loyal viewers to the station's four-hour local newscast.

"She's always smiling, and people like that," says co-worker Bill Kelly, Channel 19's morning meteorologist.

"At 3:30 a.m., or 9:30 a.m., the smile is always the same," says co-anchor Rob Williams, who has been paired with Gray since she was hired four years ago from WSAZ-TV in Charleston, W.Va.

Williams, who stays up later at night and catnaps after the newscast, has a theory on why Gray always looks so vigorous: "She gets her full eight hours of sleep every night. I don't think anyone else here does."

As she shucks corn in her kitchen, Gray repeats the question she has heard often in grocery stores and public appearances around town:

"How do you get to sleep at 6:30 p.m.? If you get up at 2:30 a.m. enough days in a row, and it's very easy to go to bed at 6:30."

• • •      • • •      • • •

True story: When Gray first met actress Jennifer Garner in Hollywood, on a Fox fall TV interview junket, the future Alias star was thrilled to meet her.

GRAY'S VITALS
Born: Sheila Slyh on Feb. 15, 1965, in Sidney, Ohio.
Family: Husband, Ric Robinson, a Beechwood Schools substitute teacher and retired West Virginia State Police officer; daughter, Katie, 9; stepdaughters, Kasey, 25, and Kari, 19, of Carlinville, Ill.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Ohio University, 1986.
Experience: Reporter, WCAW-AM and WVAF-FM, Charleston, W.Va. (1986-87); weekend producer and reporter, WOWK-TV, Huntington, W.Va. (1987-88); reporter, WSAZ-TV, Charleston, W.Va. (1988-89); 11 p.m. anchor, WSAZ-TV (1989-99); morning co-anchor, WXIX-TV (since 1999).
FACE TO FACE
Sheila Gray's favorite interviews on the Fox 19 Morning News:

1. George Clooney
2. John Glenn
3. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York
4. Sparky Anderson
5. (tie) Johnny Bench, Pete Rose ("Not together! Ha ha! I couldn't list one, but not the other. Love 'em both!")

Because of her 6:30 p.m. bedtime, Sheila Gray tapes new episodes of these five prime-time TV shows every week to enjoy at her convenience:

NYPD Blue
Will & Grace
American Idol
Frasier
The Practice

"Hey, you're on TV in Charleston! That's where I grew up!" said Garner, who was on Fox's short-lived Time of Your Life two years ago.

Before coming to Cincinnati in 1999, Gray was a big deal in Charleston. She co-anchored the top-rated 11 p.m. news for 10 years on WSAZ-TV. She had been promoted to late-news anchor in 1989 at age 24, after only 18 months with the station.

She worked longer in a smaller market than she had planned because she had a deal with her husband, then the spokesman for the West Virginia State Police.

"I promised to stay there until he could retire (after 20 years), if he moved to wherever I wanted to after he retired," says Gray, who grew up in Sidney, Ohio, 90 miles north up Interstate 75.

"I just always loved Cincinnati. I had these great memories of going down to Reds games. This is where I wanted to go. So we moved here one week to the day after he retired."

"To think back on it now, she must have really loved me, because she wanted to move up to a major market," says Ric, 51, who's working now as a substitute teacher at Beechwood Schools in nearby Fort Mitchell. He's also written a book, Cop: The Truth Behind the Badge (1st Books Library; $12.50 paperback), which has resulted in appearances on radio and cable news programs.

Gray - born Sheila Slyh - had sought TV jobs across Ohio, and in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, to be closer to her family in Sidney. She sent tapes to all four Cincinnati TV newsrooms with the goal of landing a 5:30 p.m. weekday anchor position.

Scott Diener, former WCPO-TV (Channel 9) news director, remembers Gray as "bright articulate and genuine. I very well would have hired her, if we had an opening at the time," says Diener, news director for Louisville's WHAS-TV.

At the time, Channel 19 was about to move Tricia Macke from mornings to the 10 O'Clock News. So Gray was hired to work with Williams and weatherman Pat Barry.

Williams admits he was more than a little concerned about being teamed with "someone I barely knew" for three hours every morning. (The show expanded to four hours in November 2001.)

"She's very easy to get to know. We had great chemistry in like two weeks," says Williams about Gray, now one of his best friends. "We talk a lot throughout the day."

Working for Channel 19 provides an extra bonus for her parents and childhood friends. Parts of Sidney can receive Channel 19's signal.

"At the clubhouse where my parents play golf, they can get Channel 19 over the air," Gray says. "They've actually gone to the golf course a couple of times to watch me!"

• • •      • • •      • • •

No wonder Sheila and Rob stay so trim. They spend all morning running back and forth from their newsroom desks, about 100 feet from the Fox 19 Morning News set.

"It's easy to keep up your energy because so much is going on," says Gray, who also works out in a Northern Kentucky health club frequented by Channel 9's Clyde Gray and Pete Delkus.

Gray wakes up at 2:30 a.m. and monitors CNN Headline News in her modest two-story brown brick home. She listens to local headlines on WLW-AM on the 10-minute drive in her Lexus to the TV station in Queensgate.

From 3:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m., she rewrites news copy and prepares for segments later in the morning. Much of what she reads from the teleprompter has been prepared by the news staff. It takes about 20 people - producers, photographers, directors, floor manager, graphics editor, etc. - to put the four-hour newscast on the air.

"I usually like to massage my copy. I just feel more comfortable reading my own stuff," says Gray, who sneaks bites of a peanut butter Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bar off camera.

She's a quick study. She can catch a couple of American Idol and Joe Millionaire clips, and fake her way through a TV conversation with Williams about Fox's hottest prime-time shows she missed because of her ridiculously early bedtime.

"I can see enough highlights to wing it for two minutes. It's not like we're talking about it for a half hour," she says.

Often she rolls into work with story suggestions from things she has heard or read for Jonathan Mitchell, morning executive producer.

"She's a great team player internally," says General Manager John Long, who has managed stations in Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.

Says Mitchell: "She's always 'on,' always thinking - and you don't always get that with anchors. She's the only one who comes in wide awake. We're all half asleep, and she's smiling and full of energy."

Perky?

"She's too mature to be perky," Mitchell says. "Sheila has a presence. She just fills the screen. And she's a good reporter and good writer. What more could you ask for in a morning anchor?"

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, a frequent Fox 19 Morning News guest, also marvels at her vitality. "I've been interviewed by her numerous times, and she's never been in a bad mood - and at this hour!" says Allen after a recent 7 a.m. visit to the show.

Tristate residents have noticed, too. Ratings for the morning news have increased since her arrival. The 7-9 a.m. portion in May, against Today, Good Morning America and Channel 12's mostly local news, was No. 1 here in the key demographics: women and men ages 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54. (Channel 12 tied with women 25-54.)

"She's personal, always happy, brings a parent's view to some stories and just generally makes it easier to work out (while watching) in the morning," says Karen Weintraub, a regular viewer from Loveland.

Like most TV anchors, Gray is greeted by loyal viewers who think they know her personally because she's seen in their homes daily.

"They'll say anything to you like, 'Your thighs look so big on TV!' " she says with a laugh. "Being recognized really is wonderful, because it means they're watching - and I get to keep my job!"

• • •      • • •      • • •

From the living room, Gray produces a photo album to show off a snapshot of her with Sparky Anderson, the former Reds manager, from her Opening Day broadcast at Great American Ball Park.

The visitor was doubly impressed - by the photo, and the fact that she already has photos taken in April in an album.

"She's the most organized person I know," says her husband. Pat Casey, Channel 19 news director, says the same thing in an interview the next day.

In addition to her 31/2 hours of live TV each day, Gray also hosts the syndicated Life Moments show noon weekdays on Channel 19. Every Tuesday she tapes a week's worth of introductions to the show that profiles successful women.

Her days at Ohio University were so well planned that she graduated in three years in 1986. ("I was out of my mind. I wanted to get out of there and work!")

She started as a radio reporter for $13,000 a year at Charleston's WCAW-AM and WVAF-FM, where the news director ordered her to change her name. ("He told me no one would trust a news reporter named 'Slyh.' He gave me the name Gray, which he picked out of a phone book.")

A year later, she broke into TV as weekend news producer and part-time reporter for Huntington's WOWK-TV. ("I took a $1,000 pay cut from radio to get that job. Isn't that crazy? But they hired me because I knew the area. I'm sure I was horrible!")

She still keeps in touch with friends from West Virginia and grade school. This summer she's also helping organize her 20-year high school reunion.

"If you're friends with her," Ric says, "you're her friend for life."

• • •      • • •      • • •

After supper dishes have been cleared away, Gray heads into shut-down mode. The upstairs phones are turned off, and she grazes through the three local 6 p.m. newscasts.

Even if best friends call, Gray won't touch the phone after 6:15.

"Most people still don't realize that it's 11 o'clock at night for me at that hour," she says.

In the summer, Gray often spends most of the day with Katie and Ric. During the school year, she spends afternoons helping Katie with homework.

"When we moved here, Katie was entering kindergarten ... and I was really concerned about working nights. I thought: If I go in to work at 2 p.m., I'll never see her."

She admits having some qualms about the early shift, after spending most of her career in late nights. "I wasn't sure how I'd feel about that, but I don't mind it at all," she says.

When Sheila heads upstairs to bed, Ric becomes her "Commando of Quiet," tracking down owners of nearby barking dogs. Considerate neighbors don't mow their yards at night, she says.

"I'm a real big believer in things happening the way they're supposed to happen," she says. "This is the way it worked out, and I love it."

E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com




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