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A Different Kind of TV Anchorwoman

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Bree Walker, the new KCBS-TV Channel 2 anchor at 5 p.m., is serving notice that she wants to “shake up the status quo.”

And, no, not because she is the first TV personality in this market with a severe physical deformity. “I just don’t think that people care about it that much, frankly,” she says, obviously weary of focusing yet again on being born “differently abled” with fused fingers and toes.

Instead, Walker says she intends to be a truly different kind of TV anchorwoman in Los Angeles. “An anchorwoman who works . And that may anger my peers in this market. If so, fine. Good. It’s time.”

That seems to be why Channel 2 news director Eric Sorenson brought the one-time San Diego broadcaster here last week from WCBS in New York. And why he wants to shove a microphone in her hand and send her out on stories as soon as she gets settled.

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“When people see Bree reporting, writing and producing documentaries for us--something (some) other anchorwomen have never done, and you know who they are in this market without me having to tell you--then that will be one thing that will set her apart much more importantly than her disability,” he says.

Sure, it sounds like yet another KCBS gimmick designed to lift the station out of its No. 3 ratings doldrums. After all, the station is just beginning to show some stability after its disastrous 1986 “news wheel” format.

But Channel 2 seems determined to grab viewers with investigative journalism and not Vanna White’s underwear (as KABC-TV Channel 7 did one “sweeps” month).

“We’re trying to challenge the notion that all this market cares about or responds to is the airhead anchor. I mean, which came first?” asks Sorenson. “Did the public demand airhead anchors? Or did TV give them airhead anchors? I really believe the market would respond to an intelligent alternative.”

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Judging by her looks alone, it’s easy to dismiss Walker as yet another blond news-reading Barbie destined to be paired with a Ken doll--in this case, former sports announcer Jim Lampley. “I’ve been tempted to dye my hair dark because of it,” Walker says. “I sometimes think my biggest handicap is being blond. I’m sensitive about that more than anything.”

Born in Oakland and raised outside Minneapolis, Walker as a child tried to distract attention from her hereditary disorder, syndactylism (also known as the “lobster-claw syndrome”), with humor. She still appreciates a joke, even if it’s at her own expense. For instance, whenever New York radio “shock jock” Howard Stern wanted to make a comparison about something that was tough to do, he would say, “That’s like asking Bree Walker to do a Rubik’s Cube.”

“I laughed when I heard it,” Walker says. “If he’d said that about another anchor, he would have been talking about her lack of intelligence. What he meant with me was that I didn’t have any manual dexterity. He also said that I seemed like I had some smarts.”

Walker credits her family with her early interest in journalism: Her father, a gas station manager, used to lead dinner-table discussions on world issues. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Walker immediately went to work in radio, ripping and reading wire copy as a disc jockey in Kansas City, New York and San Diego, where she was known as Bree (Boogie) Bushaw--her first husband’s name.

“I was a hard-driving rock lady of the night,” Walker says. “I played a lot of Led Zeppelin and made sexual innuendoes about leather on the air.”

She also was determined to break into TV journalism despite her physical deformity, which she shares with her 11-week-old daughter, her mother and a brother.

“I had an agent at William Morris who told me, ‘Forget it. It won’t happen.’ They felt that probably the public wasn’t ready to see someone like me.”

But San Diego’s KGTV decided to hire her in 1981. The first week, she wore prosthetic gloves on the air, then took them off because “they felt like a mask.” Letters of congratulation poured in afterward.

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Her disability has never directly affected her ability to perform her job, she says. So what if she felt “a little funny” when in San Diego she had to demonstrate an unsafe toy for the camera that involved a close-up of her hands? And so what if she has to hire a hair stylist, makes lots of mistakes on the computer keyboard and buys $900 custom-made shoes so walking is less painful (she endured several operations on her feet to help the problem)?

“It’s no big deal,” she says with a shrug.

Still, there has been some insensitivity by co-workers, whether intentional or not. Last year, after Walker reported on prenatal testing, veteran WCBS anchor Jim Jensen asked her on the air whether her parents would have considered abortion had they known she would be deformed.

As an award-winning broadcaster, Walker has made as many waves in the industry for her reporting as for her hereditary disorder.

Yes, she told her story to People magazine, received national recognition for her contributions to disability awareness and sat on the President’s Committee on Employment for the Handicapped.

But she also found that some New York City hospitals were testing pregnant women for AIDS and not telling them about positive results. And she exposed how a purported “energy-saving” device was ripping off California consumers, leading to action by the state attorney general and the closing down of the scam.

Hired in August, 1987, by WCBS, Walker anchored the noon broadcast and reported a nightly news segment known as “A Closer Look.” But she asked to be let out of her contract after only 14 months when her husband, Robert Walker, found it difficult to move his free-lance film and video production business from the West Coast to New York.

Now in Los Angeles--"always one of my places to go after"--Walker says she doesn’t mind going from a No. 1 station to a No. 3 station. “In a market this ripe for taking over, I think No. 3 is a delicious feeling.”

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Still, Walker is realistic enough to know that viewers aren’t ready to completely ignore the way an anchorwoman looks instead of what she says no matter how much she would like them to. She learned that lesson in 1986, when huge storms swept across San Diego and she went on camera drenched to the bone reporting about flooding in the Mission Beach area.

“And the next day I got a call, which was the only time I ever shouted at a viewer over the phone. ‘You looked just terrible,’ the woman caller said. ‘How could you go on TV with no makeup on?’

“And I yelled at her, ‘I can’t believe you’re calling me about this. Is that all you can think about when we were covering the story and keeping you up to date? And, by the way, did you notice also that I had only one earring on?’ ”


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