She made it to the newsroom a little later than her usual 3 a.m., according to the digital clocks scrolling away the milliseconds, but she came bearing coffee.
“Did Gayle bring doughnuts to her own party?” a co-worker teased.
As if it were a normal Friday, morning anchor Gayle Guyardo sat at her computer at WFLA News Channel 8, chin in hand, pre-makeup, pre-hot rollers, and tabbed through her scripts. There was a fugitive, a gunfight, a kid who had played robot superhero for a day. There was a new coronavirus trial, a lost-and-found beagle — reunion to come! She sounded out names, added line breaks.
For a moment, her sign-off speech filled the screen. The night before, her early bedtime had come and gone in a nervous fit of writing and revision, an attempt to set down words for the show closer she would normally ad lib.
She closed the window and sighed.
With 45 minutes until the ON AIR light would glow red, she strode past messy desks and ringing phones while co-workers called out, “Good luck, Gayle!” She descended through the cavernous studio, with its web of lights and roving cameras, all still quiet. She dropped her bags in the dusty, familiar dressing room, beside the piles of high heels and curling irons and her stash of honey-lemon lozenges, which didn’t help so much these days.
It hurt to speak at all anymore, and Guyardo’s doctor had given her an ultimatum. Step back at age 53 and heal — or keep powering through 4-and-a-half-hour newscasts and end up without a voice to save. For 26 years, she had been a steady soundtrack at sunrise. Today, that run would end.
On went the hairspray and shine, black pumps, under-eye concealer, drugstore eyeliner, stick-on eyelashes and MAC lipstick in pale pink Please Me. This part, at least, she would not miss. She sipped peppermint tea, checked the time — 17 minutes to go — and steeled herself.
In the studio, she filled her thermos with the day’s first coffee and threaded her mic through her red dress with remarkable grace. She told co-anchor David Espinosa-Hall, “It’s slowly starting to hit me.”
“One minute,” someone called out. “... Thirty. ... Standby.”
“This morning, a dog goes missing...” Guyardo began. Her throat ached, lymph nodes swollen and voice hoarse. She held her smile.
“Good morning and welcome to News Channel 8 today. It’s 4:30 on this Friday morning. I’m Gayle Guyardo.”
The newscast unfolded at its usual tempo, Guyardo and Espinosa-Hall swapping updates, sitting at the clear-topped desk, shuffling to different screens behind them. Production techs gestured at cameras like air traffic control. Teleprompters scrolled as the anchors ran through briefings on the “dangerous fugitive,” the encroaching virus, the endangered bar. Weather came every 10 minutes, “on the 8s,” with traffic to follow. Highways flowed in green ribbons, all quiet before the commute.
“So today is definitely a bittersweet day for me,” Guyardo said, composed on camera but, under the desk, jiggling a high-heeled foot. “I’m just going to savor every minute of this morning with you guys.”
She had thought it was a sore throat when the scratchy pain crept in a decade ago, but it eventually became clear the long mornings were taking their toll. Evening anchors get breaks when they cut to sports or investigations. In the morning, the lulls never last.
Over the years, Guyardo’s voice kept its upbeat tenor, its lilt of amusement, but some of that sweet, round clarity turned into raspiness. Mostly, it hurt.
She tried cough drops, sprays, herbal tea, self-help, raw ginger boiled. But three years ago, when the newscast expanded, the quick fixes lost their power. She tried steroids and allergy treatments. She could barely make it to the fourth hour. Finally, an ear, nose and throat doctor found a nodule in her throat.
It kept her vocal cords from closing all the way, so to talk, she had to pull up extra air. Getting words out meant straining harder. To relieve the stress, a speech pathologist coached her on changing her pitch. It bought her time.
But in recent years, inflammation left her voice at risk. Her doctor, clearly unacquainted with the journalism industry, asked: Could she take a week off per month?
Her boss agreed to reduce her on-air time, then told her, No more reporting. Losing the chance to report her own stories — spotlights from small businesses to human trafficking — felt like getting her oxygen cut off. She pleaded: “Let me do what I love to do, all the way to the finish line.”
Feb. 28 would be it, freeing Guyardo for 90 days of vocal rest under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Ahead of her stretched weeks of total silence, then — she wasn’t sure.
Commercial breaks let her breathe amid the quiet hum of cables. She put on reading glasses and smiled at emoji-laden texts. Then it was back to brisk lows at the Strawberry Festival and a story about a police dog bit by a snake. Her voice grew thin, even halting, but her eyes brightened reading community spotlights, like the Ninja Warrior hopeful whose inspiration was his three-legged dog.
Pre-taped well-wishes from local leaders played on studio TVs, making Guyardo blush.
The minutes were passing quickly, like a fleeting weekend. It was already 5:30.
“Sleep in, kick back and relax,” Sheriff Chad Chronister encouraged her. Clips came in from Hoda Kotb and Al Roker of the Today Show and Vinny Lecavalier from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Oh my God,” Guyardo gushed. “How’d you guys get that?”
In another tribute, co-workers told her to slow down for once. She dabbed at her nose with a shredded paper towel and tried not to cry. “Is it the 8s yet?”
Life on screen had not always come easy to Guyardo. Growing up on Davis Islands, her father a dairy farmer, her mother a career woman in TV and radio, Guyardo became her feisty mom’s biggest project. Etiquette classes at her mother’s South Tampa charm school kicked off a lifelong quest to become somebody other than Shy Gayle.
She pushed herself into stage lights, dancing at Plant High School and on Auburn University’s collegiate team, modeling and acting in plays. In college, she was seduced by broadcast journalism. Her first gig in Montgomery, Ala., paid $11,500, with cow weigh-in stories to boot. Her career failed to launch. Her brother matched her with a career coach, who put it plainly: “I’ll tell you why you’re not getting a job, Gayle. Because you suck.”
The Gayle behind the news desk, she was told, needed to loosen up. In time, Guyardo compiled a better tape, making her way back to Florida by dropping one at every station from Jacksonville to Bonita Springs. A few jobs later, in 1993, Channel 8 came calling.
If there had been exhausting moments in the public eye, times when she didn’t quite want strangers at the gym acting like her best friend, she had rarely shown it. Friends knew her to be the same off-camera, except even funnier, prone to elaborate pranks.
The sendoffs kept playing, along with career-spanning clips featuring a shocking palette of hair colors and shoulderpads, beloved colleagues, state fairs, celebrities, ridiculous assignments.
“God, this has flown by,” Guyardo said, as the 7 o’clock hour approached, and with it, her speech.
Drive times were good, the weather still chilly, and Guyardo slipped out to brush her hair in the dressing room mirror, exhausted from the emotional whiplash. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd offered her a gig as a school crossing guard. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor came by to hand her a proclamation and declare it “Gayle Guyardo Day.”
“I’m a little bit nervous because I’m not good at sitting still,” Guyardo confessed.
In the final hour or two, her voice smoothed out. Sometimes, it was hard to remember why she was leaving at all. She kicked herself: Maybe if she’d seen a speech pathologist earlier. In melancholy moments, she reminded herself of all of the stories she’d witnessed about people with far less luck. And her husband, Mark Pichowski, often reminded her that, by most weekends, she could hardly speak.
In all the buildup to Friday, she hadn’t made much of a plan for what came next. It would be nice to sleep past the 2 a.m. alarm, and her evenings were accounted for with her workout and daughters’ homework and family dinner. It was the midday dead time, when she’d normally be out reporting, that scared her.
She wouldn’t be allowed to work while on leave, but she could volunteer, she thought. She already compiled stories for her Methodist church’s social media. Maybe she could go to charities, write out questions, shoot on her phone and help shape their stories, even without a voice.
And she knew Channel 8 had left the door open for her to come back, someday, in some form.
But there would be no more marathon mornings. Instead, she’d make breakfast, and fly to see her two older daughters. She’d go to happy hours and Lightning games. Maybe she’d drink a late-afternoon latte every now and then.
“So this is it, the final eight, nine, 10 minutes of Gayle Guyardo on News Channel 8 today,” Espinosa-Hall said. Guyardo looked into the camera, wistful and ever professional. It was an emotional day, she said. Thank you, she told the people of Tampa Bay, for the love and the prayers and the chance to do this at all. “I love you.”
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @clairemcneill