When George Mallet left Philadelphia, the fourth largest TV market in the county, for Milwaukee's WTMJ-4, he knew he was making a career move in the right direction. Not only was Milwaukee love at first sight for the anchor / reporter, but the chance to work at a top station in this city -- versus an understaffed FOX affiliate in Philly -- was too good to resist.
Mallet was heavily recruited for the position, and living in Milwaukee affords the East Coast native a chance to pursue his new passion, horseback riding. To that end, Mallet actually leases an appendix quarter horse from a stable in Fredonia and equitation gives him a chance to decompress from a hectic schedule: "On a day that I ride, I swear my heart beats slower all day long," he says.
Mallet, who is currently in the process of getting divorced, is also an accomplished watercolor artist, who paints cards for friends and participated in a show a few years ago in Philadelphia.
"Lately I've been painting a lot of horses," he says.
We caught up with Mallet recently for this latest Milwaukee Talks, in which the 6-foot-4-inch anchor discussed trends in TV news, reporting in Guam and of course, his horse, Jenkins.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us the George Mallet story. You cut your teeth in print, right, in New York City?
George Mallet: I started at the Associated Press, but mostly I made coffee. I did have a job as a news clerk and I wrote one piece, which I didn't get a byline for.
I grew up in Delaware. I was lucky to get in the door (in New York City). I got to meet the people that I idolized, guys whose bylines I knew. We were right across the street from NBC News, and I used to tag along with photographers when they'd go over there to take pictures of Jane Pauley and whoever her big guest was. I was like, "Man, I like this." But the AP helped me get across the street, because my journalism professor from the University of Delaware had been an AP writer. He called (an NBC correspondent) who opened the door for me to make coffee at NBC, as opposed to the AP.
OMC: I read that you worked in Guam. Really?
GM: Yes, I was working at NBC, and there was a foreign editor there who had started his career in Guam. I wanted to be a reporter, and he said, "Go to Guam." He called up the news director, and I talked to him over the phone and sent him a tape.
OMC: How old were you then?
GM: It was 1988, so I was 23. I went to Guam, but I didn't stay there long. TV there was absolutely horrible. I didn't know anything, but I went in the control room one day and the producer and the director were smoking a bong. I wasn't a puritan, but I wasn't going to end up with any useful tape there, so I cut my losses.
OMC: Then you did some time in the South, right?
GM: I did a lot of time in South. I worked down there for 13 years. A couple years in eastern North Carolina, then 10 years in Raleigh-Durham. I loved North Carolina; it's a great place.
OMC: Then you jumped to Philadelphia, which is a much larger market, isn't it?
GM: Yeah, and that's my hometown, too. The TV station was like 35 miles from my parents' house. I got all my other jobs by myself, but when I got to North Carolina, I signed with an agent. Then I made a jump to a major market.
OMC: It would seem to me that doing morning TV in a huge market, in your hometown, is about as good as it can get, professionally. Why did you come to Milwaukee?
OMC: So going to a successful station in a smaller market is better?
GM: This is better. It's better to be at the No. 1 station in this sized market than to be at the No. 4 station in that sized market. There are probably people who feel differently about that, but the pressure to succeed without resources to do so can wear you down after a while. Bottom line is that these guys really made an effort to get me here. When I went back to Philadelphia, they were kind of indifferent. You go where you wanted.
OMC: It's been two years since you came to Milwaukee?
GM: It will be two years on Oct. 1. I like everything here except the weather, but I'm adjusting.
OMC: Do you find that Milwaukee is an unusual market, in that TV people stay here for a long time, and there are lots of locals? I mean, you're coming here in the post-Gousha, post-Taff era. You're not a local, your anchor partner isn't a Milwaukeean. Is that a challenge you have to overcome, or have viewers been receptive to you?
GM: I don't know why viewers have been receptive, but yes, they have. People have been very nice to me. It kind of reminds me of my time in North Carolina where I felt like I was really embraced. But it's also the attitude you have. I fell in love with Milwaukee when I interviewed here -- of course, it was July. The lake looked like the Caribbean.
(In a new city), you have to learn how to (pronounce) everything. You have to learn a little bit of the history. I read a little bit of Milwaukee's Socialist roots. (WTMJ) was smart; they brought me in and dropped me right on the street every night. You start to meet the players, and your education is accelerated that way.
OMC: How does your day shake out between anchoring and reporting?
GM: Every day is crazy, really, because I'm on the set until 5 p.m., then I show up with a car and cover stories.
OMC: Which side of the business do you like more, anchoring or reporting?
GM: I like both things. The reporting gives me more creative satisfaction, but the anchoring satisfies the performer in me.
OMC: I feel like I've seen a trend in local TV news that has moved farther from hard news toward "Dirty Dining," promotional stories, video news releases and feature stuff. As a journalist, but also as someone who wants to have a job, what are your personal philosophies in the direction local news is heading?
GM: I don't think I'd accept the premise that we've moved away from the other stuff. We've added these franchises like "Dirty Dining," which give us something to promote, so that we bring more eyeballs to the set. I'm really proud of the reporters that we have at our place. These young reporters that are just beating the trees every day, scaring up good stories -- we break a lot of news. They come in every day with some little tidbit that I didn't know anything about. With all the news we're doing, we actually have time for all of that.
OMC: So you think that some of the "fluffy" stuff is an addition to your harder news, because you have so many newscasts and news holes to fill right now?
GM: In the early afternoon, you're obviously seeing a lot of stuff that has been seen before on another newscast. I look at some of these franchises as an addition, as opposed to something that's taken away from our daily news coverage.
OMC: So, do you feel good about where local TV news is going?
GM: Well, I'm scared about young people not watching us, so in that sense, no, I'm terrified. But then again, I meet college kids all the time who do watch us in the afternoons. So maybe we're doing all right.
OMC: How's your chemistry with your coworkers?
GM: I love Courtny (Gerrish), she's a sweetheart. Like anything, it takes time to develop that comfort level, but we're pretty good friends away from work, too. She's the only person (from work) who came to my horse show last year.
GM: It started late in life. I was working in Philly, and in 2004, Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby. The bug reawakened in me; I always loved horses as a kid, but never had the wherewithal to ride. My grandfather trained horses, and when Smarty won the Derby, it just lit a spark. I covered the Belmont Stakes that year.
The horse racing people were so accessible compared to other professional athletes. I got to be really good friends with (Smarty's trainer). The very next year in Philadelphia, five guys got $75,000 together and bought a horse called Afleet Alex, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness and blew the field away in the Belmont. It was the second year in a row that Philadelphia had the 3-year-old champion. The next year was Barbaro, another Philadelphia horse. When he broke down at the Preakness, I was there and covered it.
OMC: Was that as sad in person as it was on TV?
GM: It was worse. I just really dig those animals. I got to see his personality and feed him peppermints, and I got to be friends with his owners. It was after Alex and before Barbaro that I took my first riding lesson in January 2006. That summer I started jumping, and I haven't really looked back.
OMC: And now you actually lease a horse?
GM: His name is Jenkins, and he's an appendix quarter horse. He's gigantic. When you look at him, he's not that regal looking, but he's such an automatic horse. You just point him at the jump, and he's always clear to jump.
OMC: Are you getting good at this sport?
GM: We took a ribbon in jumping last year, we took fourth place. I got a ribbon in equitation, too, which is supposed to be judging you, not the horse. Although I swear that Jenkins knew what the judge was asking for.
OMC: Is going to Fredonia to jump on a horse a good stress reliever for you?
GM: On a day that I ride, I swear my heart beats slower all day long. It's nice.
OMC: Are you embracing the Milwaukee culture?
GM: As much as I can. Of course, working nights is limiting, but I get out on weekends. I've got a handful of restaurants that I love; I love going to the Twisted Fork.
OMC: You've got a pretty good gig at Channel 4. Is Milwaukee the kind of town you could imagine staying in for a while, or do you view this job as a stepping stone?
GM: I came here with the intention of staying. They made a significant investment in me, and I did in them. The economic trouble not withstanding, Journal Communications and WTMJ have an outstanding reputation in our business. I knew about them because of the culture of doing things right. I loved it when I got here. This station is better staffed than the station I worked at in the fourth market.
Our people work their asses off all the time, but we have division of labor. We have good engineers working the live trucks, and it makes meeting a deadline just easier, and it allows you to be more creative in what you're doing. My intention when I left the fourth market for the 34th market was to stay put.
OMC: Yeah, and it's not exactly like working in Wausau or Eau Claire, either.
GM: Yeah, I love this neighborhood. I live close to the station, and that's awesome.
OMC: And you're close to Fredonia ... kind of.
GM: Twenty-six miles to the stable.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.