B.A., Broadcast Journalism, University of Nebraska
M.A. Communications Theory, Indiana University
Penny LeGate puts the real in real-ity. As an Emmy Award-winning journalist who champions causes often ignored by the mainstream media, she’s made her mark in a male-dominated industry. Whether swimming with sharks, summiting mountains or living among the homeless, she has earned a reputation as a daring storyteller with heart.
A passionate soul, Penny is an advocate for issues facing developing nations, including education for girls, the need for clean water, environmental conservation and improved literacy and maternal health. Over the past decade this 5-time Paul Harris Fellow Rotarian has traveled with Rotary to places including Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Uganda and Vietnam. A veteran reporter, anchor and documentary producer with her own production company, she delivers speeches around the world and produces videos, sharing the story of Rotary’s polio eradication work.
It’s rewarding to know I can give others a kick in the pants, and excite and inspire them.
How did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
I actually really wanted to be a marine biologist. Growing up in Nebraska, I was raised away from oceans but I was still intrigued by them. I thought I’d get an undergraduate degree in zoology and then pursue a master’s degree in a related area. While in school, I met with my advisor and he told me I couldn’t make a living doing that. It was the same time as the oil embargo, and so there was no money going into national science research. He told me all the money was instead in energy. I trusted his opinion, but I knew I’d succeed no matter what.
I ended up going through the arts section in my college course catalog while I was looking for different degree opportunities. I found the journalism section and thought, “Maybe that could work.” There were starter courses in broadcast journalism, and I thought that would be fun, so I switched my major. I then went on to obtain a master’s degree in Indiana.
After grad school I worked in a corporate television department in Indiana but was itching to get into a newsroom. I moved to Pittsburgh and got a job as a writer. I worked my way up to associate producer, then producer and then I became a producer/reporter at another station. After about five years in Pittsburg, I got a call to join a daily live talk show in Wichita, Kansas. This job was an incredible experience and was great training for my eventual anchor days.
While in Kansas, I got a call from a headhunter. Someone in the Pacific Northwest was starting a magazine show, and I was hired to do a brand new evening magazine at KING in Seattle. I hosted that show for nearly 10 years. From there I went to KIRO, a CBS affiliate and became a morning news anchor and worked my way up.
How do you organize your day?
I’m a freelancer now, so I’m only as good as my last paycheck and I’m always on the hunt for work. I prioritize what I need to do each day and try to get as much off my list every day as I can. I’m successful with that about 10 percent of the time! The tough thing about freelancing is that you live in your office, and there are a million distractions easy to succumb to at any minute.
What made you decide to break out on your own?
I was forcibly retired, which is something I want to mention because it’s a common problem for women my age in broadcast journalism. Just before I hit age 55, my bosses started talking about how they weren’t going to renew my contract, even though I’d won multiple awards for the station. Women of my generation were some of the first to do things on the air, yet now that we’re in our 60s, we can’t hang onto jobs because producers want pretty, young faces without wrinkles. But it doesn’t go both ways. Men of our age remain on air, and as women, we are highly discriminated against. This industry is very precarious and subjective. Fortunately, I had a production company I’d started back in the ‘80s, and I was already doing a lot of freelance work on the side. That’s how I discovered Rotary, too. Before I left the station, I was doing stories on the side for them.
Let’s talk more about your trips with Rotary. What are those like?
Almost all of my Rotary trips have focused exclusively on polio eradication. I went on my first trip with this message in 2002, and I’ve traveled on the same mission almost every year since then. When I travel I work with an Ethiopian native who takes teams of Rotarians from across the United States on trips back to the country to immunize children. When I’m with his team, my job is to follow the immunization teams into the countryside to interview both those receiving – and giving – the immunizations. I craft these stories and produce videos for Rotary. Because of these experiences, I have become a speaker on polio who is pretty well known on the Rotary circuit.
Is there a particular experience that sticks out?
I don’t know if there’s one thing in particular that stands out, but there’s a two-pronged outreach from my heart when I speak. First, when I speak to Rotarians, I feel that with my words, stories and images I can reboot others interest in polio. Rotary has been at the forefront of eradicating the disease for years, and they want – and need – to finish the job. It takes a lot of time, energy and will. People get charity fatigue, and so when I go and speak with others, I like to re-energize them. I often find people I speak to come up after my presentation with tears in their eyes and say, “I’m going to finish the job.” It’s rewarding to know I can give others a kick in the pants, and excite and inspire them. Members get the chance to see the faces of the people doing the immunization work and can hear from them and see how dedicated they are through these presentations. It then inspires them to re-up on their contribution to the fight for another year.
Another part of what I do is educate people of the world – and of this rich country we live in, in particular – about other people, where they live and the challenges they face. We’ve been polio-free since the ‘70s here in the States, but not everyone is. Kids are still suffering from the disease. There is so much I’ve learned on the road, and there is so much people here don’t know. We can become so insulated in our own worlds and our own jobs, and we don’t always remember or realize that there are so many people out there living these really tough lives. The good news is we can have a really big impact on those challenges.
What are some of the rules you live by?
I think the key word in my life right now is authenticity. That means authenticity in work, in relationships and in the choices that I make on a daily basis.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
I would say, “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Stay open to opportunities, but be careful about the people who aren’t authentic. Protect yourself. Every choice you make, try not to make with so much emotion, but instead intellect.” Some of the emotional choices that I’ve made have not always turned out the best for me, so that would be a bit of advice for younger women. Be true to who you are. When I first started making the transition from behind the camera to in front of it, I had (mostly) male managers tell me, “You look too young. You sound too young. You need to change your voice, pull your hair back and wear horn-rimmed glasses to look smart.” I tried it, but it wasn’t me. But what I decided along the way as I was trying these things, is that wasn’t authentic to me, and I was either going to sink or swim by who I really am. If I have big fluffy blonde hair and a young sounding voice, that’s who I am. I can sound smart, take tough issues and simplify them for an audience – no matter how I work. Never succeed at being phony. Everyone from audiences to your friends will see right through it. There’s that authenticity word again. It started early in my career.
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