As managing editor of WFLA-Ch. 8's morning show, anchor Bill Ratliff knows there are a few moments coming this morning where he will, however briefly, become the news.
It's his last broadcast today as an anchor at WFLA, capping 27 years at Tampa's NBC affiliate and 40 years in broadcasting.
"It's going to be nice to not get up at 1 in the morning, anymore," said Ratliff, who plans to take many months adjusting to a normal sleep schedule and spending time with his wife of 34 years, Linda. "I think it's going to be a straightforward broadcast, but with (co-anchor) Gayle (Guyardo) heading up this thing, you never know."
It's a bittersweet time for Ratliff, 60, who finds himself leaving a journalism world he no longer recognizes — retiring instead of accepting reduced work hours for reduced pay in a newsroom that has had a half-dozen rounds of layoffs since the beginning of 2008.
When he started at WFLA in 1982, Ratliff was fresh off anchoring jobs in Detroit and Dallas. But a stint in 1984 co-anchoring with the guy who would eventually get that job, now-retired anchor Bob Hite, didn't work out and led to a 12-month reassignment: covering the 1986 race for U.S. Senate between Bob Graham and Paula Hawkins.
Most would have seen it as a demotion, covering one story where you might go days without appearing on camera. But Ratliff enjoyed a luxury that was rare even then in TV news, working one political contest so hard, that even Graham grew irritated with him by the election's end.
"In 1988, they did research and found that one of the areas of least interest among viewers was political coverage," said Ratliff. "Now, we just ramp up coverage when an election gets near."
By 1997, he was working the morning shift and five years later, he teamed with Guyardo. Already, many of his contemporaries in local news have retired or been downsized —from Hite and longtime WFLA reporter Rod Challenger to WTVT-Ch. 13 anchors Bill Murphy and Frank Robertson. Ratliff's departure makes the end of the well-paid, mid-level TV anchor in this market nearly official.
"I think he wants to leave the way he's always remembered things ... he wants to go out on top," said Guyardo, who went to Ratliff's house and documented his fastidious habit of planning his wardrobe so his suits don't repeat for at least 50 days for a jokey farewell story today.
Guyardo will lead an all-female team in mornings that includes meteorologist Jennifer Hill and traffic reporter Alicia Roberts, making the bubbly anchor the newscast's centerpiece in a highly competitive time slot. "I worry about a three-way female show — you don't want to come across like The View," said Guyardo. "The weight does fall on me, and I am a little bit scared."
Ratliff only knows that for the first time in years, when Friday comes, he won't have to head into work while the rest of the world sleeps, and maybe that's enough for right now. "I don't know what will come next," he said. "I just hope, through the grace of God, something comes to me."