By DOUGLAS IMBROGNO
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Beth Vorhees is usually the one asking the questions.
It’s safe to say she has asked a whole lot of them in her 33 years at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as she has hosted and produced almost every major show WVPB has launched for more than three decades.
So Vorhees had a lot to reflect on as she stepped back from the microphone Friday on her last day as a full-time broadcaster.
Vorhees, 60, is perhaps best known for anchoring “The Legislature Today” program. The show is essential viewing for anyone needing to know what the state Legislature is into, or what’s going down — or up for passage — in the chaotic final hours that cap each year’s legislative session.
“That show is a tough one to produce and host,” said Vorhees, who passed on the anchor torch for the show to one of her millennial hires, Ashton Marra.
“What motivates you to work that hard is because the show is really watched and really used by a lot of citizens in our state to find out what the Legislature is doing,” she said.
“That’s the motivation for it, that’s where you get your adrenalin,” she said. “The lawmakers watch that show. The lobbyists watch the show. The lawmakers’ spouses and kids watch the show. Citizens watch the show, and they learn from it. And it has value. Even though it is really a load to bear, it is really rewarding work.”
Speaking of her tenure, WVPB Executive Director Scott Finn — another of the staff Vorhees trained and schooled — summed up Vorhees’ career.
“She’s just the face of West Virginia Public Broadcasting,” Finn said. “The thing a lot of people don’t know about her is she’s been a mentor to so many reporters that have come through here, including me. When I first came over here from the Charleston Gazette, she taught me everything I know about TV and radio.”
Vorhees, a native of Vermont, first came to West Virginia at age 25 after she met her future husband, Wheeling native Rick Vorhees, now a Wells Fargo financial adviser.
Except for an initial American Cancer Society job and a brief foray from 1991 to 1993 as a public relations officer for the state Department of Education — “I found it really wasn’t my cup of tea,” she said — Vorhees has spent her career doing what she always wanted to do.
And while she is retiring, she isn’t going anywhere.
“I don’t intend to leave the state,” she said.
In an edited interview, she talked about who she has most enjoyed interviewing, why the current Legislature recalls some dark days in the Arch Moore administration in West Virginia, the differing relationship with podcasts she and her daughter have — hint: there’s a simple reason Vorhees can’t tell you what her favorite podcast is — and much more.
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Q: How did you end up in public broadcasting after you moved to Charleston?
A: My actual first job was with the American Cancer Society. But I was looking for a broadcaster job because I had worked in radio and TV.
I answered an ad in the Charleston Gazette. A radio station was looking for a new host for their news broadcast in the afternoon, and it was West Virginia Public Radio.
I was hired March 21, 1984, to read a program called “Dateline West Virginia,” which was at 4:45 p.m. every weekly afternoon. I was hired full-time later that year. I just wanted to be on the radio, and I wanted to be on the TV. I just wanted to be a broadcaster and read the news.
Q: What are the shows you’ve been a part of at WVPB?
A: I started out, of course, hosting “Dateline West Virginia.” Then we changed from an afternoon newscast to a morning newscast. Then, I started “West Virginia Morning.”
On the TV side, of course, there’s “The Legislature Today” that I joined for the 1994 season and hosted and produced that.
I also had a show called “In the Public Interest.” Then, that show became “West Virginia Journal,” which I hosted. And that show became “Outlook,” and I hosted that.
“Outlook” became “This Week in West Virginia,” and I hosted that. On radio, I hosted “Inside Appalachia” for a few years. I think that’s the list.
Q: Can you describe what an average workday has looked like for you at the station?
A: The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. I’m there by 5:30. My first newscast is at 6:04 a.m.
I just work throughout the morning on getting the next newscast prepared and then our show, “West Virginia Morning,” getting that prepared, working with Theresa Wills, our “Morning Edition” board operator, coordinating the whole broadcast with her, making sure we’re all on the same page.
Q: So, it sounds like you’ll be able to sleep in now?
A: I’ve always been an early-to-bed and early-to-rise New England Puritan. So I don’t know how that’s going to play out.
Q: What have you enjoyed covering the most over your career?
A: I really like covering the Legislature. It’s really interesting, and you know you’re really covering history being made.
Covering the West Virginia Legislature has just made my career. So that’s something I’m drawn to. But I also like interviews with really interesting people.
Q: Such as?
A: I always liked interviewing Sen. Jay Rockefeller. He was always very giving and comfortable in an interview.
You felt like you could talk to him about anything. He was always knowledgeable and gracious. I did one of the first interviews Homer Hickham ever did when “Rocket Boys” first came out, and it was before the movie came out, “October Sky.”
He is a very gracious man. He so loves West Virginia and wants to promote West Virginia. He has such a good heart and sincerity about him.
Q: Scott Finn credits you with hiring and training a lot of the young talent now at WVPB. What have you looked for in new hires?
A: Ashton Marra, Dave Mistich, Glynis Board, Roxy Todd, Liz McCormick: all my hires.
A real passion for public broadcasting and journalism and storytelling, and a desire to work for a public broadcasting station — when you get young people who want to work for public broadcasting, who find it exciting and challenging, that’s where the good stuff is.
Q: Technology has brought a lot of change to modern-day media. Traditional radio has had to contend with the rise of the podcast. How do you feel about podcasts and the change of pace in media?
A: I guess this is where technology is beyond me because I still like to listen to the radio. I still like to watch TV. I haven’t gotten into the whole podcasting thing.
My daughter, Diana, is all about the podcasts. She has a whole list of podcasts she listens to. I couldn’t get her to listen to public radio at all when she was a kid or a teenager.
I remember when the Charleston Gazette and then the Charleston Daily Mail were starting to do video stories and I was like, “Holy moley! Newspapers are doing video stories, and we don’t have a website that’ll even do that yet!”
I was so jealous you guys were moving forward. Of course, now we can. That was a real wake-up call when newspapers started putting video on their websites that they produced and shot and edited themselves. Public broadcasting had to step up its game.
Q: You’ve covered state politics for a long time. How has the Legislature changed over the course of your career?
A: It went from being a solidly Democratic Legislature to solidly Republican leadership. That’s the biggest change.
But, you know, even when the Democrats were in charge, they didn’t always agree on the issue or direction or what they should be doing or what bills to pass. Certainly the Republicans don’t either. There’s still a tug of war between the House and Senate.
Q: A lot of people sound pretty pessimistic about getting things done in West Virginia. Are you pessimistic, optimistic, somewhere in between?
A: I don’t want to get too editorial here. The time we are in now reminds me a lot of the mid-1980s, when Arch Moore was governor.
There was animosity between the governor’s office and the Legislature. There were budget problems. I remember in those dark days just wondering, “How is West Virginia ever going to get back on its feet again?”
And I feel that way now. It’s like, “Wow, here we are again.” It’s a complete circle. We talk about these problems and talk about the solutions, and we try various things — and yet here we are again.
If anything, it’s kind of frustrating. We think we’ve fixed something, and then it’s not fixed. It’s broken again.
I walk away proud of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. That’s my main thing. I walk away very proud of the support we’ve been given by our viewers and listeners.
As for the other stuff, we’ll just have to have the faith everything will work out in some way, and we’ll find a way back to good times again.
Q: Public broadcasting has had many existential threats to its funding over the years. This year was especially bad, even though there are now attempts to restore the larger part of WVPB’s funding.
A: I don’t recall there being this kind of pressure on our state funding as there was during this past legislative session.
Sure, we’ve been cut just like other state agencies have been cut, and our appropriation from the Legislature had remained pretty stagnant. But I don’t recall ever a governor zeroing out West Virginia Public Broadcasting in the budget. So this is the first time in my recollection that has ever happened.
As for the federal level, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been threatened many times. But Congress has always saved it — maybe not at the same dollar level, but they’ve always saved it.
Republicans and Democrats have come forward and saved it. Fortunately, we have that in the state, as well. We have Republicans and Democrats who believe in the value of public broadcasting. It is bipartisan.
Q: How do you define the value of public broadcasting?
A: It is, first of all, a commercial-free safe place. It provides education and entertainment without an agenda, with no argument. With no people screaming over the anchor trying to be heard.
In the landscape of media, the value is that it’s high-level. It’s higher level thinking. It isn’t junk food, it’s brain food.
Q: Last question: what is must-watch public broadcasting for you?
A: “Morning Edition,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is brilliant, “This American Life,” “All Things Considered,” classical music. That’s it for me. Must-watch TV shows are “Antique Road Show,” “American Experience.” Those are my faves.
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