News & Politics

NBC4’s Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler Unscripted Moments

The longtime news team talks about memorable moments, bad habits, old friends, and more from 20-plus years together

Doreen Gentzler prefers a normal bike; Jim Vance rides a Harley. On the air, they've been through a lot together. Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler can’t remember what line it was that they both refused to read one night on the 6 o’clock news. She says it was his line, it wasn’t a good one, and he was trying to foist it off on her.

“We got into a contest at the end of a broadcast,” says Gentzler. “We played chicken on the air.”

They sat there, two seasoned newscasters on live television, until a producer yelled into Vance’s ear from the control room: “Somebody say something!”

“She’s incredibly stubborn when she wants to be,” Vance says. “It occurred to me that I might as well give up.”

“I won,” Gentzler reminds him. “And you could not believe it.”

In 22 years together co-anchoring the evening news, there have been lots of unscripted moments. If she mispronounces a word, he’ll ask her to repeat it; if he fumbles a line, you might hear her laughing.

They used to play what they call the dictionary game: Before newscasts, Gentzler would point to a random word and see if she could find a way to use it on the air before Vance did.

Vance, 69, rides a Harley, smokes after newscasts, and takes his 14-year-old grandson to the shooting range. Gentzler, 53, goes to the gym, bikes the Capital Crescent Trail, and doesn’t want her teenage daughter to get her driver’s license. She comes to the news desk with extra notes and wire copy; Vance likes to wing it. He trims his mustache and leaves hair on the makeup-room counter, which drives her crazy.

When Gentzler joined News4 in 1989, she was fresh off the crime beat in Philadelphia, eager to sit next to an anchor she’d watched for years. She had lived in Arlington as a child before moving to South Carolina, and her family came back to the area when she left for college at the University of Georgia.

“You’ve got to come to Washington and work with Jim Vance,” her mother told her.

Vance grew up in suburban Philadelphia and graduated from Cheyney University before going to work as a newspaper reporter. By 1989, he had been at News4 nearly two decades and was known for his on-air antics with sports anchor George Michael. Gentzler, who had grown up with brothers, wasn’t fazed.

“I don’t know that there are too many people who could have come in and dealt with me and George like she did,” says Vance, who was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame four years ago.

A father of three, Vance has been married to former Channel 4 news producer Kathy McCampbell Vance for 24 years and lives in DC’s Spring Valley. He battled a cocaine addiction in the late ’70s and early ’80s, later going public with the ordeal.

Gentzler, also the station’s medical reporter, lives in Chevy Chase with her husband, Bill Miller, a former Washington Post editor who is now a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office. They have a 16-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son.

No local news anchors have been together as long as Vance and Gentzler, who have both won multiple Emmy Awards and whose 6 and 11 o’clock shows are the top-rated local newscasts in their time slots. On a slow news day at their studio on Nebraska Avenue in DC, they talked about what they’ve learned.

Next: Memorable moments from the beginning

Do you remember the day you met?

Vance: We had dinner at La Ferme in Chevy Chase before you took the job. I remember because I saw you in the parking lot and my first thought was: Well, at least they hired a fox.

Gentzler: I knew all about you, but you didn’t know anything about me.

Vance: I’d had a conversation with George [Michael] about you. George knew everybody in the business, and he spoke of Doreen in glowing terms.

Gentzler: There was one broadcast my first week where George and Vance went off on some tangent, as they liked to do, and I think I interrupted them and moved things along.

Vance: Restored order.

Gentzler: I just remember feeling like, okay, I’m in.

Talk about your most memorable moments from your early days.

Gentzler: I remember being here the night [DC mayor] Marion Barry got arrested, and one of our colleagues got the tip before anyone else. I think it was my turn to do the cut-in that night. I remember hearing this in the newsroom, and it was my first year on the job. My eyes were getting bigger and bigger and I’m thinking, holy s—.

LA Law
was on that night, and they wanted me to break in. I said, “You know what? I do not want to be the one who breaks into LA Law. Let’s find Vance.”

Vance: Remember the train wreck in Silver Spring in 1996? It was a commuter-train derailment, and we had to be on the air for several hours—no scripts, and there was a lot of misinformation. Amtrak wouldn’t talk, so it was not the easiest of assignments. What became apparent was two things: Doreen knew how to handle herself, and she didn’t need all the face time.

Doreen comes to the set with lots of papers; you’re more likely to ad-lib. Have you always been like that?

Vance: I’ll tell you when that happened—on that awful day in 1982 with the crash of Air Florida 90, the Metro collision, and the snowstorm. I was on the air all day. It was one of those days when you don’t have scripts, you don’t have rundowns, you don’t have anything except “Let’s do some good television.”

I had a producer named Jim Van Messel, and we were walking to the studio from the newsroom. I said to Jimmy: “What do you wanna do?” And he said: “I don’t know—what do you wanna do?” And we laughed. He said: “You go in the studio and do what you do, I’ll go into the control room and do what I do, and let’s see what comes out.”

Fast-forward to the Emmy Awards: That show won. I looked at Jimmy and we both were like, “I’ll be damned. How’d that happen?”

David Brinkley said to me once, “I like to go on the air knowing enough about what happened in the world today that if a big wind comes and blows my scripts away and a storm comes and knocks out the teleprompter, I can still do a half-hour show.”

Can you think of times where one of you had to save the other?

Gentzler: When I was coming back from maternity leave and was just exhausted, we were coming out of sports and I got startled—I’d drifted away. They came back to me, and I said, “We’ll be right back with sports.” And Vance just said, “Don’t worry, she’ll be all right.”

: Every now and again, you hit a wall. You’re trying to say something and the place or the name just won’t come to you. If I go blank, she’ll pick it up and leave it to the director to figure out how to get the camera onto her. It’s something I just assume—that if I ain’t feeling good, I might not even have to say so because she’ll pick up on it.

: Vance was honored last week in Prince George’s County, and we taped a thing about “What do people not know about Jim Vance?” And after I said some insulting things—

Vance: Several.

Gentzler: —I said that what they may not know is what a good listener he is. It is not unusual for him to say: “Wow, what’s going on with you?” Before you even say a word. He just picks up on the cues.

What were the insulting things?

: Should I repeat the ones I already said on that tape? That was for a much smaller audience. All right, I said you belch all the time.

Vance: “Loudly.” And that I act like it’s no big deal.

Gentzler: He thinks macaroni and cheese is a vegetable.

Vance: Oh, and you said I act like I know stuff.

: He is very good at acting like he knows what he’s talking about when occasionally he does not have the faintest clue.

: It’s a gift.

What do people not know about Doreen?

: I don’t know that people would know just from watching her how incredibly sentimental Doreen is. She feels other people’s pain—way more than I do. She’ll tear up, in joy or deep sorrow, but I can’t think of a time anybody’s ever seen it on television.

She’s tough. And stubborn. Here’s this wonderfully educated, well-spoken suburban mom, apple pie, all-American, but I don’t go near the line with Doreen. I would not want to piss her off. A long time ago when she found out she was pregnant, Doreen pulled me aside, got right up in my face, and said, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t smoke in the studio because I’m getting ready to have a baby.”

Gentzler: I don’t remember asking you to do that.

Vance: You didn’t ask me—you told me.

Next: "Who gives a s— about Snooki, and why should we?"

The anchors on their first newscast together in 1989. Photograph courtesy of NBC4 News Washington

Do you socialize outside of work?

Gentzler: We know each other’s families and invite each other to parties, but no, generally we’re not running in the same circle. I’m hanging around with friends from my kids’ schools, and he’s on his Harley.

Was it strange not being home for dinner when your children were younger?

Gentzler: I go home between broadcasts, so my kids have grown up thinking everyone’s mother goes back to work at 9:30 at night. It used to be go home for bath time and reading. Now it’s go home and see if you can get them off the computer to talk to you for 30 seconds.

How do you deal with reporting so much bad news?

: We make it a point to distance ourselves from “if it bleeds, it leads.” By the same token, you have to report what happened today. What you don’t do is pack it all up in the beginning of the show—three people got shot here, somebody got cut there, somebody else was strangled over here. I’ve always looked at the news I deliver from the point of view of the audience. If I’m thinking, “Why would I want to hear that?,” I’m going to be careful about how it’s delivered.

What happens when there’s a story you have to report that you don’t want to report?

Vance: It doesn’t happen a lot.

What I do is the news. My job is to tell people what happened that day the best way I can, and it’s not for me to decide what I won’t tell them. There are stories that are by their nature abhorrent, and there are others that I think are utterly ridiculous. There are stories I wish I didn’t have to report. But that’s where it stops.

My husband said he saw you reporting on Snooki from Jersey Shore and he could tell you did not want to be talking about her.

Vance: Please tell your husband I said thank you. I don’t mind letting people know: This sucks, and I really don’t want to do this, but it’s my job. I’m glad to know that message is being received. Who gives a s— about Snooki, and why should we?

On my way here, I saw an ad on a bus stop for Bob Ryan and Doug Hill, now working together as meteorologists at WJLA. What was it like for you when Ryan left last year?

: It was really awful. We love Bob. We miss him terribly—not only our relationship with him off the air but what he brought to our family on the set. We very much like Doug Kammerer, his replacement, but we were really sad to see Bob go. I’m not angry. I understand he made the right decision for him. Now I want to beat him—I don’t want him to do well in the ratings over there.

Vance: Kick his butt and then go have a drink with him.

Gentzler: That’s right. And let him buy.

Next: On-air antics

In a Washingtonian interview, George Michael described you both as family. Talk about him and what it was like when he passed away two years ago.

Vance: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss George. He was here 28 years. George was my boy, basically, and there are very few things that have happened in my life that George didn’t know. George and I were, from time to time, just utterly outrageous. He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had and somebody who will never, ever be replaced.

Gentzler: He was the most loyal friend you will ever have. I miss the grand displays he would put on from time to time.

Doreen, what was it like when it was you, Bob, George, and Vance?

Gentzler: I felt like I had landed in TV nirvana. They were willing to let me be an equal member of their team and carry the ball sometimes. It won’t get any better than that for me.

Vance: One little amendment—Doreen wasn’t “allowed” in. Doreen made it clear: I’m here. And it was like, yeah, I guess you are. Doreen was no shrinking violet. Doreen demanded to be in.

Gentzler: The four of us had a lot of fun over the years, just starting trouble with each other: Let’s see if we can make Bob turn red.

Vance: Bob turns really red when he’s embarrassed.

Have you ever gotten in trouble for the antics?

Vance: Yeah, but I ain’t gonna tell you about that. We’ve been called up from time to time. Duly chastened.

: All of us have. It happens.

: We have been blessed to work with management who seem to get us, who’ve understood that we were not really to be boxed in too much. And that every now and again we might push the edge of the envelope a bit.

What kinds of things have viewers said to you that you’ve never forgotten?

: I couldn’t believe the stuff people sent when I had babies—handmade, personalized things. That was really touching. I get a lot of e-mails about my hair.

Vance: When cocaine almost killed me and I left here in 1984 to go to the Betty Ford Center, I got boxes and boxes of letters from people saying little more than “I’m praying for you.” I get e-mails, and every now and again a handwritten note, from people who are clean for a month or just celebrated a first anniversary [of being sober], who ascribe whatever level of attribution to me and the fact that I’ve been clean for 23 years.

People pay attention to us as human beings. They’ll write: “I noticed you weren’t having a good day today—neither was I. Tomorrow will be another day.” Or “I loved those cuff links.” How the hell do they see my cuff links?

In a 1994 Washingtonian cover story, you said you would be moving on in four or five years. That was 17 years ago.

Vance: The answer is really kind of simple: I still like what I do, no matter what I said then. I just turned 69, and in the last four years there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve thought: That’s enough—go get a real job. I had a conversation with my grandfather, who’s my hero—and long dead—who said to me: “Boy, you crazy? Why would you leave something that you love, that pays you well? To do what?” If I’d had a good answer, I would have walked.

Do you miss being out in the field as a reporter?

Vance: Hell, yeah. But the business has changed, and I understand that. There was a time when anchors were all over the place—out in the street, writing, everything.

Tell me about your proudest moments.

Gentzler: The proudest are all breaking news—9/11, the train wreck. As Vance said, that’s what local TV news does best.

: Any big snowstorm. The sniper, too. We were feeling that one like everybody else was: If I’m here, where’s my wife? Where are my kids?

: The thing I feel the most pride in is just being there, five nights a week, working with the same partner. Sometimes we can totally get on each other’s nerves, but it’s right out there. I’m really proud of that—to be invited into people’s homes and kind of be a soundtrack.

Has either of you ever had network aspirations?

Vance: I remember having a conversation with one of my best friends, Ed Bradley [of 60 Minutes], many years ago, and he was like, “This is good for me, but this would not be good for you.” It was mostly the travel part—all the airports and motels. Bradley didn’t have kids. My kids were all at an age when they needed a father. It just seemed to me that a better job for me—and certainly a more challenging job, because believe me, those kids were a challenge—would be to raise my family.

: I got into this to be a TV reporter and was shocked when somebody first let me anchor and shocked again when they moved me from weekend anchor to weekdays. I was covering the police beat and loving it—I never had a dream to be a big media star.

Did you know there’s an I Love Doreen Gentzler Facebook group?

Gentzler: My daughter told me, “Mom, 22 people have signed up for the I Love Doreen Gentzler group, but look what I found for Jim Vance: Jim Vance Is the Man has 27,412 members.”

Jim, there’s a video on YouTube of you reading a story about a fashion model who tripped twice on the runway in Paris. You couldn’t stop laughing. Did you know that clip has 12 million views?

Vance: My daughter brought it up at Thanksgiving because she had a guest with her who didn’t know who I was, and when he saw me he said: “You’re the guy!” After all of these years of trying to be a serious journalist, I’m remembered for losing it.

What does the future hold for local television news?

Gentzler: There’s a lot of tension as we all try to figure this out. The station has not one but two or three different Web sites. We have a digital channel. There are people working on stuff, and we don’t even know what it is anymore. I think people will always have an interest in local news. Will they continue to get it from people like us? I don’t know.

: We have a class Friday about Twitter. I am going to that because I refuse to close my mind. I have no interest whatsoever in tweeting, but I understand how and why that’s important to our survival. In a sense, Doreen and I are dinosaurs. I don’t think local news anchors will matter that much anymore, but I don’t think local broadcast news will go away. It’ll evolve, but I don’t think there’s a time coming that there won’t be TVs in people’s houses anymore.

What have you learned about life?

: It’s really important who you work with, not just what you do or how high you rise or how much you get paid.

: When you get to be my age, you start thinking about the people who aren’t here anymore. There’s a picture in my office of four of us who were on the football team in college: the center, the two ends, and the running back. And I’m the only one left. There are a lot of things I don’t take for granted anymore. Life is too short, and it is so incredibly precious. That’s the bottom line.

This art
icle appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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