The struggle: Through trial and travail, newscaster and singer Pam Saulsby enters a second act | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The struggle: Through trial and travail, newscaster and singer Pam Saulsby enters a second act 

In the lights again: television anchor, musician, mother and activist Pam Saulsby

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

In the lights again: television anchor, musician, mother and activist Pam Saulsby

Pam Saulsby sat down with me at a table on Raleigh's bustling Hargett Street and started asking questions. The Emmy-winning reporter and anchor, known across the Triangle for her two conspicuous decades at WRAL, was so disarmingly forthright that I spent a couple of minutes replying before catching myself and deflecting the interview back toward her.

During a two-hour conversation, Saulsby was repeatedly distracted by the voice of an announcer on a PA system: Something was happening down the block, perhaps undocumented, tugging the antenna of her curiosity. When a fire truck howled by, it seemed like she might leap up and chase it, but she settled for a photo and a note to investigate. Passersby flashed smiles of recognition or even approached the table, addressing her as part dignitary and part old friend.

In person, Saulsby, 55, is similar to the anchor you see on television: polished and confident but also effusive, seeming ever on the verge of dishing. She unrolls long narratives in a firm, smooth, abruptly melodious voice, hair and makeup telegenically affixed.

But on-air, you don't see Saulsby's mouth quiver as she talks about what she calls "the struggle," her tumultuous year between leaving WRAL and arriving at NBC affiliate WNCN. You don't see her tearing up as she remembers her brother Harold, who died last December, or the friends who stuck with her as others vanished. You don't see her beaming with relief as she discusses preparing to self-release her second album as a singer, Battle Tested. You don't see the vulnerability that makes her self-possession seem courageous.

"A lot has happened in the span of a year," Saulsby acknowledged, "and a lot of it is musical. But a lot of it is just the maturation of an already-mature woman, Pam Saulsby—me." When she refers to herself in the third person, it seems less like grandiloquence than a compromise with a face and a voice that are no longer just hers, but belong to the whole Triangle.

"Things really started evolving when I lost my job at WRAL," she continued. "There's all kinds of cute ways to say it—'moving on to other opportunities,' 'wish her well in future endeavors'—but I don't have to be cute about it, and the bottom line is, I was fired." Thus did the struggle begin.

Incredible as it sounds, Saulsby claims to be shy. "I am an introvert masquerading as an extrovert," she confided, "as people who really know me will tell you. In family photo albums, I'm always hiding my face behind my mother's skirt."

But this may not be as clear to her friends as she believes. "So comfortable in her skin," appraised Melinda French, a military mom Saulsby befriended during the struggle. "Pam's always great with people, very outgoing," said Ed Binanay, a longtime friend with whom Saulsby worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. "What you see is what you get."

Growing up in Riviera Beach, Fla., Saulsby sang in her Baptist church choir and felt that her calling lay in her voice. After beginning studies in speech pathology at the University of Florida, she decided she lacked the patience and detachment for the work and switched to communications, based on an aptitude test.

After earning a B.A. in broadcast journalism in 1980, Saulsby spent a year at NBC affiliate WPTV in West Palm Beach before transferring to Miami to be a reporter and on-camera anchor for 10 years. "Miami was a great place to be a general field reporter," Saulsby said. "But I noticed that any time the main people would leave, they would bring in somebody who was blonde, or at least not of color, and I kept getting passed over."

Saulsby knew almost nothing about Raleigh when her agent called about a job opening at WRAL. She felt secure in Miami and she liked the beach. But at WPTV, she said, "I was just tried and true. Sometimes, in order to grow, you have to go." She moved to Raleigh in 1991 and, over the next 20 years at WRAL, became one of local broadcasting's best-known personalities.

"It got to the point where I love this place and the people here so much," she said, "that it makes it hard during contract negotiations—when they know you love it."

When anchor Ann Curry was messily ousted from NBC's The Today Show in 2012, the story resonated with Saulsby. "I posted on Facebook, tongue-in-cheek, 'Hey Ann, if you want to talk, I'd be glad to listen!'" she said. "I feel it wasn't handled correctly, and I feel the way I left [WRAL] was not handled correctly. It got whiter and younger, and I'm neither of those things."

When Saulsby was fired from WRAL in 2011, she was caught off-guard because she had just finished a 9/11 anniversary special that she thought had gone well. But she admitted that she had been through a "rough patch," resisting changes in the station's presentation. For example, she clashed with a consultant over a mandatory new hairstyle she hated. "It was like, 'Pam is not playing well with others,'" she said.

Saulsby eventually tried to get on board with the new direction. "I went in and told them, 'Guys, I know I went through this little phase, but I'm back now,'" she said. "I went to Haiti and brought back some really good stories. I even called the consultant and apologized. I thought things were smoothed over."

Then she was called upstairs and told that she didn't fit with the station's new direction and could leave immediately if she chose. She stayed for about three more months before stepping aside for Debra Morgan.

On Saulsby's last day, her brother Harold flew in from Jacksonville. "I didn't want to walk out alone," she said. "It was awkward as hell. Everywhere I went that day, [Harold] sat with me. That meant the world to me, and he said it meant the world to him, because I chose him. I wonder if he was in pain even then."

Saulsby's brother was there at the beginning of the struggle, but he passed away from complications of heart disease in its midst. As his health deteriorated, Saulsby was able to visit him frequently in Jacksonville. "For that," she said, "I appreciated not working."

But such silver linings weren't abundant. "I became one of the people I used to report about every night," she said. "This job I had expected to retire from was pulled out from under me. I lost a sizable income, and different people who had been in my life no longer were, as if what I had was catching. My circle of friends got smaller, tighter and more real."

Saulsby met Melinda French when she walked into the bank where French works and saw a sign on her desk that said "Marine Mom." "She's a pretty recognizable individual," French said, "and she just came over and started a conversation with me. She wanted to know how my son was doing, but also how I felt as a mother. We talked about the struggles I had when he first decided to enlist, when he went to Afghanistan."

The pair began meeting for lunch. "She was dealing with a lot of issues," French said. "Her daughter was away [at college]. She was doing what she could to get along, but she was frustrated. Her heart was in the news and she didn't want to leave Raleigh."

Saulsby pressed her connections to find work in teaching, public relations, journalism—anywhere she could use her knowledge of the Triangle. "Every day I got up and dressed like I had someplace to go," she said, "and finding a job became my job. I was competing against younger people who would definitely be cheaper to hire."

French sympathized with Saulsby's plight. "Being a woman, being black, a little older—it's pretty hard," she observed. "You get replaced by a shinier model. Women our age really have to reinvent themselves. I was amazed at how she kept moving. She's very persistent and good at what she does. You turn on the news and it feels like you're talking to your best friend."

Finding nothing permanent, Saulsby went through most of her savings. She volunteered on Linda Coleman's unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor, and the chance to express herself politically inspired a new passion for making YouTube videos where she could be more opinionated than in her professional reporting. She had already been shooting her own stories with what she thought of as her "Pam Cam" on WRAL, though the station wouldn't allow her to brand it that way.

On her YouTube channel, Saulsby did a funny story demanding high heels as comfortable as Ugg boots. She spoke in favor of gay marriage via an impassioned defense of her daughter's right to happiness. (Ashley Gibson—Saulsby and her father are divorced—has a wife and lives in Chicago.) She called on the media to find people other than Jesse Jackson to represent the black community. "Heck," she said, "if push comes to shove, they can call me!"

Saulsby's reporting often focuses on individuals at the ground level of public events. Her time in professional exile sharpened this perspective. "I began to see people differently," she said, "and the things that I thought were important—being in this private club—changed. I became more humble. I got real about my circumstances, how I was going to come out of it, and who I wanted to be on the other side."

The other side appeared when Saulsby shot a promo for a local public-affairs talk show at the WNCN studio. Nothing came of it, but it put her on the station's radar. When talks began about hiring her as an anchor/reporter, Saulsby said, "I was beyond excited and hopeful." WNCN installed her as co-anchor of its evening news, with Penn Holderness, in 2012. Not only did they give her an HD camera to shoot her own stories, which she does voluntarily, they created a special "Pam Cam" logo for it, as she'd always wanted WRAL to do.

When French's son came home from Afghanistan, the celebrity anchor insisted on attending the welcome-home party. "She brought her Pam Cam," French remembered, laughing. "She walks into the house with her TV/radio voice on, and I'm going, 'Pam ... Pam ... turn it down a little bit!'" Saulsby broadcast a story about the family on WNCN. "It was pretty special for her to be there," French said, "to care that much about showing the real face of what these men and women do every day."

WNCN broadcasts news at 7 and 11 p.m., partly, Saulsby said, to avoid challenging WRAL at 6. "It's hard to compete with the big dogs," she admitted. "But I really like where I am. My co-workers always say, 'You have the best attitude,' and I tell them—because they could all be my children too—'Have y'all ever been in the struggle? You're damn right I'm happy to have this job, every day.'"

Saulsby still uses her YouTube channel to cover her causes. Lately she's been following a monthly gathering of Vietnam veterans at the state Capitol. It's part of the military advocacy that plays a large role in her burgeoning musical persona—which also emerged transformed through the struggle.

Saulsby had brushed up on her private love of singing with some vocal lessons in 2005. Her first album, 2010's The Full Measure of a Woman, featured jazz standards over licensed backing tracks. It was essentially karaoke she could sing to veterans at VA hospitals. She was at work on her second album when the struggle began, and it ground to a halt.

"Music is a balm for me," Saulsby said. "But getting a musical project off the ground takes money I didn't have." She returned to the album around March 2012 and recently completed it. Now she's getting CDs made and hoping to release them around a military holiday this year.

Battle Tested features hired musicians playing an eclectic variety of covers and even a couple of originals, all dedicated to military members and their families.

"When a war is no longer in the headlines, people don't seem to care," said Saulsby, whose father served in the Army. "The reality is that men, women and children are dying every day, and families are changed forever. So many people are coming back with lost limbs and post-traumatic stress that you don't see. Every song was selected with the intention to let them know that I'm thinking about them, all the time."

The lightly funky ballad "Welcome Back," partially written by Saulsby, addresses the small comforts that remind soldiers of home. The bouncy new wave of "I'm Holding it Down While You're Gone" is a surprising Saulsby original. She covers fellow North Carolinian Chris Daughtry's "I'm Going Home" and includes a rap song called "Guardian Solider," written and rapped by Johnston County's Chris Harlan.

"There's no way to label the genre," Saulsby said of the album, which she hopes to perform at military installations with Reel Deep, a band that backed her at the recent OutRaleigh festival. "Is it R&B, hip-hop, neo-soul, jazz? I even included [Jefferson Airplane's] 'White Rabbit,' which was playing a lot during the Vietnam War. That's the war I saw in my house every day at 6 o'clock. My older sister's friends went, and when they came back, they were different. The images I saw did something to me that didn't go away."

Much of Battle Tested was recorded by producer Chip Shearin, who also tapped many of the musicians. One that Saulsby recruited herself was violinist David Binanay, who has a nonprofit called Music Over Mind. "He excelled all through school," Saulsby explained, "but when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s, he was no longer able to work in a conventional way. So he began to pour everything into that instrument."

David is the son of Ed Binanay, who used to be on the board of Family Health Ministries, a Durham nonprofit that was building a clinic in Haiti. He invited Saulsby, whom he had known for a decade, to visit earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, and she reported on it for WRAL.

"The thing about Pam is that while she's a, quote, 'celebrity,' there's nothing pretentious about her," Binanay said. "And she had a vast knowledge about Haiti and the need for redevelopment. That's Pam right there, looking out for the people who are really in need, from Haiti to mental illness to breast cancer [with Susan G. Komen for the Cure] to veterans."

"I'm going to visit your house if you write bad things about her, OK?" Binanay added, with a friendly but unnerving cackle.

On June 13, two days after our meeting on Hargett Street, I sat in on an editorial meeting at the WNCN studio, where Saulsby strode briskly through a warren of cubicles and into a glassy central conference room. Producers, reporters and anchors dashed in, buttoning news garb and slinging around banter.

A spreadsheet on a monitor matched timeslots to story slugs. In Fayetteville, a car had crashed into a deli. In Greenville, a golf course arsonist had caught on fire—"decent video," a producer remarked. In Roxboro, a farmer had won a $1 million lottery. Goats in Western N.C. were eating kudzu.

All was cast into uncertainty by the severe thunderstorm that was bearing down on North Carolina. There was debate over how to divide up live production units among the Lumineers concert at Koka Booth Amphitheatre and other locations of probable mayhem. "You know how oak trees fall!" Saulsby shouted into the hubbub.

She wondered if there was anyone who had been affected by storms that could be interviewed, already searching for the people at the bottom of the story. The room cleared as if at a secret signal, and Saulsby went back to her leads. She was trying to get an interview about Moral Monday with the governor's office, and she wanted to shadow a soldier at Walter Reed who had lost both legs. That evening, the storm hit hard but passed quickly. Saulsby worked through it, at ease in her chaotic element.

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