Friday, March 24, 2006
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Natasha Ryan

WDBJ-7's newest anchor is also the area's youngest

WDBJ's new 11 p.m. anchor Natasha Ryan takes a cue from production specialist Henry Bryant (off camera, hand in air), as she records nightly promos. She came to Roanoke from the Altoona, Pa., television market.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

WDBJ's new 11 p.m. anchor Natasha Ryan takes a cue from production specialist Henry Bryant (off camera, hand in air), as she records nightly promos. She came to Roanoke from the Altoona, Pa., television market.

The lunch crowd at the popular South Roanoke eatery is too busy chowing down to notice as Natasha Ryan, big sunglasses and a smile on her face, makes her way to a dimly lit corner table.

Give them time. The 11 p.m. news anchor at WDBJ (Channel 7) only since earlier this month, Ryan is too new to have attracted the pointing, whispering and staring that will become her lot as a small-city celebrity.

She replaces Shannon Young, who left the station last year.

While she might be new, pretty and young at 26, there's something Ryan wants to make clear: She's no news Barbie.

"I'm not trying to skate through on my looks," Ryan said. "I want to keep a balance."

Behind her TV hair and teeth and her shimmering lip gloss, Ryan is a hard-news woman. She digs into crime stories. She's passionate about her opinions and beliefs. She is everybody's friend and confidant.

"My first impression is that she's a very genuine person," said fellow WDBJ anchor Jean Jadhon, who has been with the station for 13 years. "She's hardworking. She's not just an anchor. She's a good reporter as well. On a personal level, we immediately hit it off. We have a lot of the same interests."

Ryan, with her hair still in rollers, reads through a script on a computer before taking to the air.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Ryan, with her hair still in rollers, reads through a script on a computer before taking to the air.

Ryan studied journalism and political science at Penn State (and quit a sorority while there because it wasn't her lifestyle anymore).

"Sometimes people have a perception that people are just reading the news and not getting their feet wet," said Penn State journalism professor Marea Mannion. "But she's paid her dues. She wasn't a student who walked around and said, 'Oh, I want to be an anchor.' I hate that. You need the basics first."

Against the background hum of TV, pop music and lunchtime chatter at Fork in the Alley, Ryan picks at a Caesar salad and sips a glass of sweet tea.

"There are two different types of journalists," she says. "There are journalists who are about the face time and are in this field because they want to be on TV. And then there are the journalists that care about what they do and they want to make an impression not for how they look, but for the kind of stories they report and the job they do every day."

Ryan's father is a retired fighter pilot, her mother a substitute teacher. The family has lived in Miami; San Antonio and Lubbock, Texas; Mountain Home, Idaho (where Natasha was voted friendliest in her high school); and the Philippines -- to name just a few.

After graduating from Penn State, Ryan took a radio job in State College, Pa., home of the Nittany Lions.

"I was reporting for that station and about, I'd say, two months into it, three months into it, they said, 'Hey, why don't you be our news director?' "

Ryan said yes. At the age of 22, she was supervising five reporters and doing on-air news updates.

"It was really hard to get my foot in the door in [the television] business," she said. But luckily for her, the radio station had a partnership with an NBC TV affiliate that had a State College bureau.

"The bureau chief took a liking to me and said, 'I can help you get a job here,' " Ryan said. "We went into the parking lot and we shot some stand-ups."

That's when Ryan had her Michelle Pfeiffer-as-Tally Atwater moment. In a scene straight out of "Up Close & Personal," the bureau's news director came down hard on Ryan and she left the interview in tears.

"He literally ripped everything apart, my hair, my makeup, my on-air delivery. I thought there was no way I was going to get the job," Ryan said. "I called my mom and I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm never going to get a job in TV.' "

But in that Hollywood way, the journalism stars aligned for her and someone at the bureau quit a month later. Ryan was offered a part-time job and four months later took a full-time position with the station's bureau in the fading blue-collar town of Altoona, Pa.

As she built on-air credibility in Altoona, Ryan learned how to cover killings as well as the fluffy stuff, like bake sales and church luncheons. She eventually became the station's weekend anchor.

"That was my first TV job. I made a lot of mistakes," Ryan said. "I had to earn my credibility as a journalist. I couldn't have picked a better community to do that with."

Ryan regards her time in Altoona as a life-changing experience. On her own, she learned life lessons while making a name for herself and becoming tuned into the community.

Now she has a new city to learn, new sources to make, a new life to figure out.

Her career wasn't the only thing that went well in Altoona. At a meet-and-greet -- a cow-milking contest -- a chance at love came along.

"That's where my fiance first saw me," Ryan said with a big smile on her face.

His name is Josh Bonifay. A 27-year-old baseball player, he's in Florida at spring training. She and Bonifay plan to marry in October 2007.

She has to get to work, Ryan says, ending the interview. The lunchtime crowd is mostly gone from Fork in the Alley. Rising from her seat, Ryan, not a morning person, is finally awake and ready to get on with her day and night at WDBJ.

There's news to report. There are stories to be read and talked about. There's a script to go over, another stint in the anchor chair, and then there are the hours she'll remain awake -- still wired from delivering the news to Southwest Virginia.

And there's hair to put in curlers.

"About 10 or 15 minutes before I go on, I take the rollers out," Ryan said. "I touch up my makeup."

And then, she adds with a bright smile on her face, "... I get it done."

ABOUT NATASHA RYAN

  • Likes shopping, movies, dancing
  • Dislikes outdoor activities
  • Past employers: Walt Disney World and the company that produces "Reading Rainbow" on PBS
  • What she learned from her parents: "You earn what you get through working hard and always doing the right thing."
  • Her work ethic: "You always want to be doing the best job you can. As long as you keep that mentality and you always want to improve, you're always going to get better and you are going to earn the respect of your viewers whether you're pretty or not."
  • On being a journalist: "I don't think I could be happy with myself as a professional if I wasn't in a career that I believed we were doing something to educate people, help people, make people aware. I feel the media contributes to a lot."
  • On being an only child: "You learn to adapt to about any situation. You can either be outgoing and you got the personality, or you shut down as an only child and you don't know how to interact."

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