The First Couple of TV news

As married co-anchors, Kelli Saam and Jerry Olenyn have adapted gracefully to being small-town celebrities

Photo by Robert Speer

“Spring is the time when many people turn to yard work.” That was local NBC Action News anchor Jerry Olenyn’s recent on-air lead-in to a video piece about yard-cleanup tips. His co-anchor, Kelli Saam, had something unscripted to add on the subject:

“Yeah, especially you,” she said, jerking a thumb in Olenyn’s direction. “You’re going to mow the lawn this weekend, right?”

They laughed, and I thought I caught Saam winking cutely at the camera. It was one of those rare but charming moments when the couple acknowledges for the world to see the not-so-secret ingredient that helps make their 5 o’clock newscast especially enjoyable: They adore each other.

Since Dave Walker and Lois Hart retired in 2008 after many successful years as the married news co-anchors at KRCA Channel 3 in Sacramento, Saam and Olenyn have been the only married co-anchors in Northern California TV news. It’s a distinction that makes them stand out among regional newscasters, but also brings with it added expectations and responsibilities.

On the day I shadowed them at work, gathering material for this story, they were scheduled to give speeches at the Rally for Life that night. Because of their high visibility and, one suspects, their attractiveness as a couple, they get many requests to participate in such events.

They are, after all, small-town celebrities. It’s a role they seem to carry out comfortably simply by being themselves, a happy couple with two cute kids who enjoy the town in which they’ve made their home.

To some extent that’s how they see themselves, too. But if you sit down with them to talk, as I have done several times in recent weeks, you quickly notice something else about them: They’re deeply passionate about their work. They love telling stories, and they have lots of stories to tell.

Olenyn with Muhammed Ali in 1985

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, Olenyn, Saam and I were sitting at the kitchen table in their pleasant home in a subdivision off Forest Avenue, just east of the Wittmeier auto complex. Their boys, Jeremy, 9, and Ryan, 5, were playing video games in the adjoining family room.

Olenyn suddenly got up, left for a moment, then returned with a small framed photograph. “This is the picture I’m most proud of,” he said, setting it in front of me.

It showed a much younger Olenyn clowning with Muhammed Ali, both of them putting up their dukes and leaning toward each other as if about to deliver uppercuts—though with smiles on their faces.

Olenyn then launched into a tale about the time Ali came to Bakersfield and Olenyn, who began his career as a sports reporter, used a connection in town to contact the boxing great and ask him for an interview. Amazingly, Ali agreed to come into the studio, where Olenyn did a five-minute set with him. Five minutes! In Bakersfield! “It was unbelievable!” Olenyn exclaimed.

Another story: From Bakersfield Olenyn went to Las Vegas, where he reported on, among other things, UNLV basketball, the Final Four, the Davis Cup, the World Series and, of course, boxing, the biggest sport in that sports-crazy town. He covered a lot of fights, including the one in which Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

He also attended Tyson’s 21st-birthday party, held shortly after the boxer and Robin Givens split up. “I’m convinced he really loved her, he really did,” Olenyn said, shaking his head sadly. At one point he and Tyson were huddled in conversation, and he said gently to the boxer, “It happens to everybody, champ,” and the fearsome Tyson gave him a big hug.

He started telling another Tyson story, about how on another occasion he was out with the woman he was dating at the time and they ran into the fighter. He stopped and looked at Saam. “You don’t mind if I tell this one, do you?” he asked, as if just mentioning a former attraction might hurt her feelings. “No, no, go ahead,” she said, smiling at him.

So he and his date happened to run into Mike Tyson. They stopped to talk, but it was immediately clear to Olenyn that the boxer was hitting on his date big-time—not in an unfriendly way, but definitely flirting with her.

Saam backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with country star Vince Gill

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

That, Olenyn was happy to report, was a bout Mike Tyson lost.

Olenyn grew up in Diamond Bar, which when his parents moved there was a brand-new planned city near Pomona, east of Los Angeles. In fact, his family was only the seventh one to move in, and in 1960 he became only the second baby born there. Now, 50 years later, Diamond Bar has 60,000 residents.

Olenyn’s father was an engineer, the kind of man who could fix or build almost anything, and even single-handedly added a room onto the house. Jerry was more like his mother, however, and grew very close to her, especially after his father died. She was the kind of friendly, spirited woman everyone liked, he said, and was his “best buddy.” Her death in 2003 was devastating to him.

He attended local schools, played lots of sports and would have continued doing so except he knew he’d reached his ability limit. “I was a good athlete in high school,” he says, “but not good enough to play at the next level.” He graduated from the University of Southern California and went to work as a sports reporter in Bakersfield.

Las Vegas was next, and from the way Olenyn describes it, being a young, single, highly visible television sports reporter in that town was like having a free pass on the Hedonism Express. He admits it was a lot of fun, but there came a time, after a decade or so, when he began to worry about being “the old guy in the club,” as he put it. He prayed for God’s help in getting serious and finding a partner to share his life with.

Next stop: Nashville, Tenn., and station WKRN, an ABC affiliate, where a young woman with startling blue-green eyes named Kelli Saam happened to be working.

The first thing you notice about Kelli Saam is that she’s much taller and more robust than she appears on camera, where she seems almost delicate—at least until she starts talking with that forceful voice of hers.

The next thing you notice are those big, beautiful eyes.

Olenyn with Mike Tyson.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

She grew up in Yorkville, Ill., a small town about 50 miles west of Chicago. She likes to tell people, half humorously, that Dennis Hastert, who would later become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the school’s wrestling coach.

Her father was a quality-control manager at the big Caterpillar plant in Aurora, Ill., and her mother clerked part-time in a local grocery store. She’s an outgoing woman who loves to chat, Saam said, and knew just about everyone in town. Her parents were extremely supportive of her, and she described her childhood as “ideal.” Mom and Dad are still alive and well and in fact just recently returned from a cruise to the Cayman Islands.

Saam had wanted to be a television journalist for as long as she could remember. As a child, she would read sample scripts into a mirror, practicing. She intended to major in journalism when she entered Michigan State, in Lansing, but a wise person advised her to study something like international relations instead, to develop her understanding of the world. You can learn journalism on the job, he said.

She snagged an internship at WLNS, the CBS affiliate in Lansing, and was so talented she was given stories to do, making her the first intern in station history to go on-air. She covered the State Capitol and the Clinton/Bush/Perot debate in 1992, among many other scenes and events.

One story she mentioned was of the time an American journalism teacher who had been kidnapped in Beirut by Islamist insurgents and held captive for four years was released, in December 1991. When he returned to Michigan, where he lived, she did her very first satellite interview with him, and was so excited she couldn’t help exclaiming, “Live via satellite!” even though she was only 70 miles from the station. She feels silly about it to this day.

The man’s name: Alan Steen. When I told her Steen had been a journalism teacher at Chico State before going to Lebanon, she was stunned: “Wow! Really?” She shook her head in disbelief. “What a small world!” (She has since located Steen on Facebook and invited him to visit her if he ever returns to Chico.)

Lansing was a great town in which to start a career. Besides being the state capital, it was a bustling center of commerce and there were three television stations competing to get the news. Saam says she worked with and learned from some highly skilled and experienced journalists there.

In late 1993, she was given an unusual job: Fly down to Nashville, where WLNS had a sister station, pick up a company car, and drive it back to Lansing. Nashville’s a much larger market than Lansing, so Saam decided to take along a tape of her work on the off chance there was a job opening.

Saam reporting live on the Nashville NFL stadium referendum whose passage allowed the Oilers to move there and become the Titans.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

When she returned to Lansing, her boss there had already heard from Nashville. Pack your bags, he told her.

Immediately after she arrived in Tennessee, a massive ice storm hit the region. For a week or more, Saam was up at 3 a.m. to get live shots for the morning show and working until 9 at night. She was young, single, ambitious and loving it.

She met and interviewed some big players in Nashville: Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Sen. (and actor) Fred Thompson, various governors and country-music stars such as Vince Gill and Garth Brooks. She covered the notorious Westside Middle School massacre in Jonesboro, Ark., and the funeral of Tammy Wynette at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, “the mother church of country music.”

Then, in 1996, a good-looking, fun-loving sports reporter showed up at the station. He was so easy-going he was wearing shorts and didn’t even have a jacket. Saam’s life was about to change dramatically.

When Jerry Olenyn moved to Nashville, Kelli Saam was doing news on weekdays and filling in on sports on weekends. She remembers covering the Houston Oilers’ move to Tennessee as a sports-business story and, on one occasion, tag-teaming with Olenyn on a PGA Tour story.

It wasn’t love at first sight. “We were co-workers, and the love developed from that,” Olenyn said. Over time, they realized they had the same values and fundamental beliefs, and the romance blossomed from there. Before long they were engaged and living together.

In 1999, Olenyn learned that his mother, who lived in Las Vegas, had cancer. He needed to be closer to her so he could help take care of her. Besides, he’d long wanted to leave the Southeast, where he’d never quite felt at home. “I needed to be in the Pacific Time Zone,” he said, adding a sports junkie’s explanation: “I was bugged that the NFL games didn’t start until 1 and 4 [p.m.].”

It was a tough decision for Saam, who’d just interviewed with CNN Sports Illustrated, the cable sports network that started up in December 1996 with much fanfare: Which is more important, she asked herself, career or marriage? She chose marriage—and, ironically, CNN/SI folded three years later.

Saam with the company car, a Ford Festiva, she was asked to drive from Nashville to Lansing—a task that led directly to her going to work in Nashville and there meeting Olenyn.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

In early 2000, the couple moved to Santa Maria, in Santa Barbara County, and took jobs co-anchoring the morning show at KCOY, the CBS affiliate. In April, they married. Saam is Catholic, so they had a church wedding. She reported that, when they met with the priest beforehand, “the only thing Jerry said was, ‘Just bring it in under an hour.’ Which he did.” Jeremy was born the following year.

They loved being in Santa Maria, discovering the beauty of the Central Coast. And it was close enough for Olenyn to be able to visit his mother on a regular basis, something he did for more than three years. Recently he said that, of all the things he’d done in his life, the one he was most proud of was deciding to leave his job in Nashville so he could care for his mother.

But before long KCOY downsized, and he was laid off. He took a job with the Red Cross, but hankered to get back to journalism.

In 2003, after his mother died, Olenyn got a call from a station in Lexington, Ky., offering him a reporter job. Saam got a similar job at a competing station, so they moved back to the Southeast.

Once again they loved their jobs but missed California. As it turned out, Saam’s desk was right next to that of Angelica Schultz, who’d once worked at KHSL-TV, and they became good friends. (By then Schultz had changed her name to the more TV-friendly Angelica St. John.) When Chico came up on the job radar screen, they had access to first-hand testimony about the town, and it was enough to convince them.

They got here in 2005, 4-year-old Jeremy and 5-month-old Ryan in tow. Saam was the first one hired, but the station picked up Olenyn soon after. They have since become an integral part of a team that belies the notion that Chico is merely a stepping stone for young TV journalists. As Action News Director Trisha Coder pointed out during a recent interview, several members have as much experience as Saam and Olenyn.

Chief Meteorologist Kris Kuyper, for example, worked here for several years, left for the Pacific Northwest, then returned to Chico. Sports anchor Geraud Moncuré began his career in Chico as an intern, then went on to stations in Dallas and Los Angeles before returning to be closer to family. Noon news anchor Linda Watkins-Bennett has been with the station for 26 years, and weekend anchor Debbie Cobb for 28. Morning show co-host Rob Blair worked here years ago, did a stint in Las Vegas, and then returned, and Saam’s co-anchor at 6:30 and 11 p.m., Alan Marsden, is a TV news veteran with whom Coder worked in Salinas many years ago.

Like Coder, Saam and Olenyn are always quick to credit the other members of the team, including the many behind-the-scenes production crew members, for making the newscasts as good as they are. They know full well that journalism is a collaborative enterprise.

Olenyn and Saam at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Olenyn and Kelli Saam

The newsroom in the KHSL/KNVR/CW complex on Silverbell Road, off Eaton Road near Highway 99, is a square, windowless room divided into about a dozen cubicles. The assignment editor, Brian Callahan, and the 5 o’clock producer, Geoff Thomas, occupy elevated cubicles on the north side of the room. Olenyn’s and Saam’s desks are next to each other on the west side.

He gets to work first, usually around 9 in the morning. That gives him time to do reporting, and he tries to have at least one story for every newscast. Saam comes in at 3 p.m., and they work together until he goes home at 6. A longtime, dependable babysitter takes care of the boys for the three hours they are both gone.

The producers are the organizers behind the newscasts, relentlessly feeding information into a spreadsheet-like computer program that tracks the elements of a show down to the second. As information flows into his computer—a story script is ready, a video segment edited—Thomas slots it into the program, quickly crafting teasers, editing NBC feeds, deciding which anchors will read which scripts, and generally pulling the program together so that it comes in at exactly the right length.

An hour-long newscast has anywhere from 12 to 16 stories, not counting sports and weather, that occupy a 20-25-minute news hole. TV news stories run short and tight, and there’s a huge emphasis on telling them with visuals, although the script is always what holds a piece together.

It’s sometimes hard to tell complex stories with weak visuals—a City Council hearing on a land-use issue, for example—and some stations simply won’t do stories without visuals. As Saam put it, “They’ll say, ‘That’s a paper story. It’s no good for television.’”

The Action News team doesn’t back off from such stories, she said. That’s because local viewers are unusually interested in such matters. “I’ve never been in an area where people pay so much attention to what is going on in local government,” she explained.

The broadcast I watched from a couch in the studio, on Friday, April 30, went off with only a minor hitch. There were segments about a train car derailment in Redding (nobody hurt), a dentist who was arrested for practicing without a license (he said he was practicing “dentury”), a young Corning man arrested for making pipe bombs, and a feature on Diversity Day at Oroville High School.

The most interesting story was one Olenyn edited, scripted and voiced over using footage shot in Red Bluff. It was about a descendent of the legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat who’d been found emaciated and restored to health at a Red Bluff rescue ranch. Olenyn included some exciting historic footage of the 1973 Belmont Stakes race that Secretariat won by an amazing 32 lengths.

Olenyn and Saam at the Relay for Life event April 30 in Chico. They often are asked to participate in such events and do so whenever possible. This night, Olenyn spoke of caring for his mother as she was dying of cancer, and Saam told of visiting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Center, in Memphis, and holding in her arms a 9-month-old girl with a brain tumor who wasn’t expected to live—but today is a bright-eyed 3-year-old.

Photo By Robert Speer

Like all media, local television stations have been hurt by the recession. In a phone interview, the stations’ general manager, John Stahl, said they’d been hurt most of all by a 38 percent drop in auto advertising, their biggest revenue source. All told, the stations lost about $2 million in annual revenue, he said.

Belts were tightened. In an effort to avoid layoffs, some employees had their hours cut. The 401(k) match was eliminated. Positions were eliminated through attrition.

“But we didn’t slash and burn in the newsroom,” he said. “There were no layoffs, and we kept the same number of reporters, though perhaps a little softer on weekends.”

Coder confirmed that six members of her staff had been furloughed back to 32 hours, but lately revenues had improved—Stahl credited political ads for much of the gain—and she’d been able to return two people to full-time.

I asked Stahl whether, by consolidating three stations’ newscasts and eliminating competition, the quality of the shows had gone down. He didn’t think so. For one, the stations competed in terms of quality with the better-funded Sacramento stations, and, second, they competed to some extent with KRCR Channel 7 in Redding.

Saam and Olenyn largely agree with him, though Saam remembers the competitiveness of her time in Lansing vividly. Ultimately, professional journalists compete against themselves even harder than they do against each other, she said.

If you call Saam and Olenyn’s home and get their answering machine, you’ll hear Saam’s voice telling you that you’ve reached “the Olenyns’ house.” She has kept her maiden name for professional reasons, but the family is very much a unit.

If anything, life in Chico is a bit dull when stacked against some of the adventures they had and big-time stories they did when they were younger, they say. But they’re at the age when they’re happy having “a very dull life,” as Olenyn put it.

As a TV news market, Chico is just fine. One of the things they’ve learned, as Olenyn said, is that “it doesn’t matter what size market you work in.” The work is fun and interesting in any market, he explained, and a smaller market is less demanding and leaves more time for family and friends.

The one part of the job they both hate is the occasional necessity of interviewing someone who has just lost a loved one. “I hate it,” Saam said. “I really hate it.”

The stations’ website has become an important part of their work, she said, especially during emergencies. She recounted being down at the station at 2 a.m. during the fires of 2008, updating the website as fresh information came in.

Both believe the future of local television news is bright. “Unlike national news, we seem to be doing pretty well,” Olenyn said, suggesting that’s because local TV news is unique and irreplaceable in its community.

They’re Christians, and faith is everything for them, so they give thanks to God for the blessings life has brought them. As Olenyn put it, “Kelli and I have been very fortunate.”