One of the longest relationships in Kathy Fountain's life began with a phone call to a woman in Miami she had never met.
Fountain was a self-described "young 'un" back then. A Lakeland girl made good, she was nearing 40 and five years into a high-profile gig hosting a talk show while anchoring the Channel 13 news at Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT.
But the news director, a blunt, energetic guy named Bob Franklin, wanted to pair Fountain with an up-and-coming anchor from Miami named Denise White at 5 p.m.
The Magic City may have had female anchors teamed already, but in the male-dominated world of Tampa television news, this was a first. In some sort of symbolic synchronicity, Fountain and White's partnership would send longtime news patriarch Hugh Smith to the noon news and a commentary gig, the ultimate case of new gender diversity dislodging the old boys' network.
But before Franklin cemented the partnership, he wanted them to get to know each other. So he handed Fountain a phone number for the 34-year-old White with a suggestion. Call her.
Nearly 20 years later, as Fountain faces a Dec. 30 retirement from WTVT, the two are about to conclude the longest-running current anchor partnership in the Tampa Bay TV market. And in doing so, they are changing one of the closest friendships of their lives.
"I remember we stayed on the phone for the longest time, just chat-chat-chatting," White said, a rueful smile creasing her anchor-ready makeup as she answered questions after a newscast. "We bonded right there, sight unseen. There was just something there that let me know: This is a great person."
"It'll be 20 years in May; that's longer than I've been married," marveled Fountain, who wed now-retired WTVT anchor Frank Robertson five years after she met White. It had been White who nudged Robertson to ask Fountain on their first date. "Every day, five days a week for almost 20 years. When you think about it, it's amazing."
Watch them together these days, and the aura of sisterhood is palpable. Without thinking, they finish each other's sentences, like an old married couple.
They have helped each other through divorces, then set each other up with the men they married next. They have seen each other through children born, relatives dying and job changes. When a 1996 police shooting touched off racial tensions and disturbances in St. Petersburg, they gave talks on how their cross-racial friendship enriched their lives.
"I went to a segregated high school," said Fountain, "(so) to have a close friend (of color) where I could actually ask questions safely and know I wouldn't sound stupid or judged . . . It's been an important life lesson."
Lots of TV anchors who work together claim to be close friends but aren't. Spend a few moments with White and Fountain and it's obvious they're not in that category. Indeed, their personalities often compliment each other, with White's directness softened by Fountain's more diplomatic approach.
As explanation, White recalled a story from Chicago about an insensitive anchor who announced a breaking news story by delivering most of the facts himself before turning to his partner, who had nothing left to say.
"That's setting somebody up to fail . . . making yourself look better in the eyes of the viewer, because you're not really a team player," White said. "The thing with Kathy is, she's someone who I know always has my back."
For years, they joked about retiring together. Then Fountain's husband retired in June, leading the anchor to start thinking seriously about her own second act. She had a master's degree in mental health counseling for nearly 10 years and therapy clients outside work.
But how do you tell your closest friend that you're ready to leave the job that helped build your relationship?
Like all juicy moments involving news anchors, this conversation came in their most intimate space: the cramped confines of their makeup room. "I closed the door, and right away, she asks, 'What?' " said Fountain, laughing.
"It was like somebody let the air out of a balloon," White added of her reaction. "That was a cryfest."
Fountain still occasionally finds herself crying. And not just for the job or co-workers she's leaving after 24 years.
"I still have . . . moments where I think, 'Do I really want to do this?' " Fountain said. "Yeah, I'm really going to miss this."
An easy camaraderie
It is a tiny pedal, about the size of the accelerator in one of those video arcade car racing games. But it caused Fountain no small bit of trouble during a recent newscast, and White can't stop laughing.
The pedal controls the TelePrompTer, a scrolling text display of their scripts on the camera so they can look at viewers and read stories. Thanks to downsizing and automation, technicians don't advance the text, so anchors must use the pedal to scroll through their own scripts, or ask someone to do it for them.
When Fountain tried it for sports anchor Chip Carter a while ago, the pedal stuck on reverse and his script flew backward. Now Fountain's still skittish about the whole deal, planting a tall boot gingerly on the pedal while trying to forward past unneeded text.
"I feel like Fred Flintstone, trying to stop a car with my feet. Yabba-dabba- doo," White cracks during a commercial break, sending Fountain into giggles she can barely suppress before the newscast resumes.
It's this camaraderie others say seeps through their newscasts, giving viewers a feeling they're hanging with friends. "Any successful anchor team has that," said Robertson, who worked with White in Richmond, Va., and Miami before the two landed at WTVT. "You understand what you both bring to the table and use it."
There have been rough patches. In 1998, station officials announced plans to install a new anchor team at 5:30 p.m., cutting the duties of White, then the station's only black anchor (by chance, the change also was scheduled on Martin Luther King's birthday). After protests from community leaders, the station placed White on the noon news to ensure that her on-screen time didn't diminish.
Even now, few local TV stations have two female anchors as a regular team, though the audience for early evening newscasts is heavily female and daytime entertainment shows such as The View regularly feature all-women host teams.
"(The) thinking has been if you have a male and female anchor together, your odds of appealing to a larger audience is greater," said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN who now runs Newslab.org, a nonprofit research and training organization.
"But if a dual anchor team of women regularly gets along and they appear to be friends, that would (mirror) the appeal of some of the entertainment shows on during the day," Potter added. "I think viewers can tell the difference between people who are playing the game on air and people who have a genuinely friendly relationship."
More change coming
While the anchors' friendship has grown, the industry has contracted. Robotic cameras and automated graphics programs have replaced some people; layoffs claimed others.
Even Fountain's signature talk show, which began as an hourlong Oprah-style program with a live audience and half a dozen producers, was canceled in 1995 and returned in 1997 as a 35-minute segment within the noon newscast dubbed "Your Turn." When morning anchor Russell Rhodes takes over the segment Dec. 31, it will be just 15 minutes long.
And there's more change coming.
White's husband, Keith Woods, who first asked her out more than 10 years ago after some encouragement from Fountain, will leave his job in February as dean of the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times.
He's heading to a new position directing diversity efforts at National Public Radio, commuting between Tampa and NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters. "We will have a commuter marriage," said White last week.
Station officials also announced last week that 11 p.m. anchor Mark Wilson would join White at 5 p.m., marking the first time in 19 years that WTVT's regular on-air team doesn't feature two women.
"Our concern is supplying our viewers with the best possible product," said WTVT general manager Bill Schneider. "We felt Mark and Denise would make a great team and further our ability to communicate with the market effectively."
Fountain noted a different change. "When I got into the business, a woman hitting 35 or 40 was considered almost over the hill, and now they allow women to grow with their audience," she said.
"Like men . . . who have always done that," White chimed in.
"Yeah . . . like they do for men," Fountain agreed before sounding a typical note of diplomacy. "I consider myself very blessed to have had this career."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521.