In an industry notorious for "talent turnover," Debby Knox is an anomaly – she's been anchoring newscasts at WISH-TV in Indianapolis for 33 years. Knox has announced she's ending that career at the end of next month when she retires from broadcast journalism.
A Michigan native, Knox came to Indy after stints in Elkhart and South Bend in 1980, initially helming the noon report before WISH handed her duties on the station's evening newscasts. She eventually became the second-longest tenured anchor in Central Indiana; the record for staying power belongs to her former co-anchor, Mike Ahern.
Her last broadcast is slated for Nov. 26. Knox spoke with NUVO about her career with WISH.
NUVO: Thirty-three years – that's a feat not just in broadcasting, but in any gig in modern America. How did you do this in television of all things?
Debby Knox: Oh, jeez. I wish I knew. A lot of it is going into it knowing that you're going to have to work pretty damn hard and just never saying no to an assignment early on. Doing radio, which is where I started up in Ann Arbor, you work six days a week or whatever you gotta do. You work your tail off and then they know that and you become basically so valuable they don't want to get rid of you.
Early on I could edit film ... and I produced a newscast. I produced some of the news when I came down to WISH years and years ago. You learn everything you can and make yourself valuable.
NUVO: We take it for granted that there are women behind the anchor desk now. I suspect that was not quite the case when you started at WISH, was it?
Knox: No – you know the woman who was there before me was, of course, Jane Pauley. It was an incredible story ... Jane bouncing from IU to Indy to Chicago to New York for The Today Show ... it was like, "Gosh, maybe everybody does that!" Then you learn quickly that ain't so.
I watched Barbara Walters when I was in college and wrote her letters and dreamed about it. They were all women who were getting some pub, but locally you didn't see it as much. It was still kind of a double-male-anchor world.
NUVO: With Jane Pauley and others breaking the ice, did you get any resistance from viewers or some of the old guard?
Knox: Not really that I recall. A lot of the big barriers were gone when Barbara Walters tried to anchor the evening news; it was a whole new world. Morning stuff was working for women. It wasn't like, "Oh my God, she's the first woman we've seen."
NUVO: What made you want to tackle television news, of all things?
Knox: I have always loved current events. I started a little current events club when I was in high school. I lived in a small town and the most exciting thing there was watching the paint dry.
I craved it. I craved trying to understand the world from the small community where I lived. I always was interested in it. I was always watching news and trying to figure out what was going on.
NUVO: We've seen this cliché for years: this stereotype of TV news people, from Ted Knight right up to Ron Burgundy, as the bubble-headed teleprompter reader. Does that make you cringe when you see that kind of thing portrayed, or do you find it amusing?
Knox: It does make you cringe. On some level it sort of makes you sad, but you know that's comedy. Early on, especially as a female, you don't want to be this bimbo ... you're trying to be credible. You know that's kind of the first line there that you have to cross, is just convincing people by the way you handle yourself that you've got a couple of brains.
I watch that stuff. I love Will Ferrell. I laugh at him all the time, but there is a part of me that goes "Ew."
NUVO: This brings me to a question that our news editor, Rebecca Townsend, wanted me to ask you: Did you experience any of those moments similar to what Lesley Stahl described in her autobiography – wearing heels all the time even though she had to cross gravel roads and so on. Did the demands of TV news fashion ever get in the way of you doing your job?
Knox: I totally identify with that. I remember when I was pregnant, I think it was my daughter, and here I was in heels – and I was a big girl – and I was carrying a tripod too. I was thinking, "Why don't I have varicose veins coming out of my head? This is crazy."
You've got to keep up the image, but if you know it's going to be a snowy day, forget the freaking heels and put on something that's comfortable.
NUVO: Of all the stories you covered, of all the moments you had in that 33-year career, is there one that stands out as something you want to be remembered for?
Knox: Yeah, I've gotten to interview some pretty cool people over the years. President Obama, I've had a quick word with President Clinton and I've met Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright ... .
But I did a story on a young man named Rick Mader a number of years ago. He came down with a form of leukemia. The insurance policy that he had didn't cover a treatment that he needed ... .
I followed Rick for six months as he took on insurance companies; his parents took on insurance companies. I watched this guy die. It was part of my story. I'll never forget Rick Mader and the Mader family and watching what they went through and it made a huge dent in my perception of what that world is like – especially when you're sick. I will be forever grateful to the Mader family for opening up to me and letting me follow Rick because he fought the battle and the doctors had their hands tied and it was just the way it was.
Now, when I see all these battles over healthcare, I think, man, if you'd see this young man who put himself through college ... he was one of 10 members of the family, lived on the Southside, went to Sacred Heart, a real good Joe who'd done the right thing his whole life and then just couldn't get the help he needed.
NUVO: Worst day on the air?
Knox: Worst day on the air... worst mistake, one of the stupidest mistakes?
NUVO: We can go with that, sure.
Knox: This is a kind of semi-painful. Might as well just say it: I was anchoring with Mike Ahern, early on, thinking I was just all that and more. I was reading an intro to a package. It went something like this, "Everybody's got a shrewberry, and in fact you may have several shrewberries in your yard, here's Ruthanne Gordon with more on what you can do about any problem with your shrewberry."
We went to the tape and Mike looked at me and he said, '"Shrewberry? The word is shrubbery."
I was like, "Ah, let me die now." It was one of the moments you just want to dip down below the desk.
NUVO: Tell me about what it's like to sit next to Mr. Ahern.
Knox: He's a great guy. He's so smart. A funny, funny person. He's a great writer, good heart; he has taken care of his family. He just had such respect in the community and people loved him and he carried himself so well. It made the station very proud of him.
He was just a wonderful guy to learn from, watching the battles he would choose to take on and the battles he didn't. He was smart enough to know the difference.
NUVO: How about Mark Patrick's famous line, "Debbie Knox, you make the call!" (Editor's note: former WISH sportscaster Patrick used this line when he wanted Knox to weigh in on a call made by an umpire or referee during a highlight reel.)
Knox: You know what is really funny about that is, that is I am probably known as much for that as just about anything! I'll be in a parade now and people will yell that out at me and we haven't done that for 20 years.
NUVO: Why did you pick this time to hang it up?
Knox: The stars are aligned. My husband has been retired for several years and he's holding down the fort here by himself. The kids are off and running. My son is in his second year of law school up at Chicago at Northwestern and my daughter is finished up at Butler.
I'm young enough. I want to do some other things. I don't see retirement as "I'm going to sit in the rocking chair here." To be quite frank, I think it's a good time for WISH-TV to change some things around and freshen things up. It felt good, it felt right and I'm leaving on a high note.