Flexibility has been Gloria Penner's hallmark since she taught biology in an all-girls' high school in Brooklyn. Armed with a master's degree in English at Syracuse University, she’d fully expected to teach English — but there were no openings in that department. “I ‘taught’ biology,” she says, laughing, “but I never saw anything through that microscope except my own eyelashes!”
Ultimately, Penner did teach English, along with a class in radio production. “I was hooked.” In the 1950s, she says, “I moved to San Francisco, got a job in radio, and began of my love affair with broadcasting.”
In 2009, Penner celebrated her 40th year at KPBS TV/FM. General Manager Tom Karlo, who’s known Gloria since his own arrival at the station 36 years ago, considers her a source and an ally — “the organization's most formidable and enduring personality.
“For example,” says Karlo, “we’re talking airport expansion again? Gloria reported on that during Mayor Pete Wilson’s reign! She definitely sees the trends in our town!”
Today Penner hosts Editors' Roundtable, moderates Envision San Diego and, says Karlo, is the “face of the station and our official political correspondent, reporter and civic representative.” She began at KPBS as community-relations director. “My roles have kept changing,” she says, “and the best part is, the changes continue to compel me, and keep my interest!
“In the early ’90s, I was a producer; I'd been in management for nine years. And then, the GM at the time eliminated my entire department except me. But I was determined to stay in public broadcasting, where you can wear several hats, alternate them as your abilities dictate, as the opportunities arise--or as the wind blows. In commercial broadcasting, you're pigeonholed; you're either a 'this' or a 'that.' At KPBS, by then I’d developed the ability to step in when decisions were made and someone was needed to step up.”
Over the years, Penner’s honed the interviewing skills that have earned her seven Emmys, five Golden Mikes, two Gracies, The San Diego Press Club's Harold Keen Award for Excellence in Journalism, the John Swett Award from the California Teachers Association, and numerous honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the San Diego Bar Association. In 2003, the League of Women Voters established an annual Gloria Penner Award for Civic Service. She, of course, was the first recipient.
Nobody has worked harder to earn the honors.
“It took plenty of trial and error before I figured out the essentials of good interviewing,” she says. “The first essential is to be prepared. In my early years, I was over-prepared, spewing lengthy introductions and questions. TMI!”
The second essential: “Ask no questions that can be answered with a yes a no,” she says. “And have no fear. I'm never in awe of my guests, be they governors, mayors or city attorneys.
“In 1986, I interviewed [then-mayor] Roger Hedgecock during his indictment [in connection with the J. David Dominelli Ponzi scheme scandal]. His PR guy said, “We agreed not to ask about the indictment.’ No way. I asked, and Roger said, ‘I can't talk about it at this time,’ so I switched to, ‘Okay, but how are you handling this emotionally? And he spilled his whole story.”
Penner was the first in her family to attend college. Growing up an only child of a single, strong mother — who recently died at 102 — Penner was nurtured by her extended family, largely Russian-Jewish immigrants.
“My mother wanted me to have Shirley Temple curls,” Penner says. “That wasn't going to happen, though Lord knows she tried. She soaked my hair in sugar water, wrapped it in rags for stiffening, and when done, it lasted about five minutes. Years ago, I was sending a video segment to the network for a story from San Diego Bay. A storm blew in, and I was literally clinging to the masts trying to stand up. Mother was my biggest fan — but obsessed! All she could say was, ‘Your hair was a mess!’”
By now, Gloria expertly manages her hair — and her life. Entering the profession during the Erica Jong era, she was described as “a toughie” by colleagues. “In the ’70s,” she concedes, “I was a vigorous believer that women needed better representation in business and society. And I worked hard to make that happen. I doubt my demeanor resembled the TV-film stereoptype of the obedient, dutiful babe in the background.”
It earned her a reputation as something of a bulldog in the profession. Has she mellowed?
“I think,” she says, pausing. “I think life’s taught me it’s not always necessary to struggle against the riptide. Often, going with that scary current has taken me to a safer and better place.”
And she doesn't worry about her own future. Penner, who lives in La Jolla with her husband, Bill Snyder, keeps in close contact with her two sons and two grandchildren. As for work, she’s still flexible. “I don't plan to retire,” she says. “And I can't worry about age. I'm just waiting for the next four- or five-year assignment.”