On The Record: Jewish Media Stars in Our Midst

Originally published on Jmoreliving.com on September 29, 2017.

What makes a successful media professional? At Jmore, in honor of our media company’s one-year anniversary, we talked with five of Charm City’s leading Jewish media personalities to find out. Interestingly, several common themes emerged. For starters, many of the media folks we interviewed are proud natives of Baltimore. And even when given the opportunity to tackle their respective professions in bigger, more high-profile markets, they chose to either return to Baltimore or to eschew the offers to leave altogether.

Almost unequivocally, they credit their parents for providing unconditional support and role modeling that allowed them eventually to thrive in the careers of their choice. Also, regardless of how skilled they are today, these seasoned media professionals reported doing whatever it took — from accepting jobs in off-the-beaten-path markets to working less-than-desirable shifts to completing lengthy or multiple internships — before landing the jobs they’re doing today.

What really makes this core group shine is their seemingly innate desire and ability to connect with their audiences, whether in TV or print, on the radio or online. In turn, these respected media professionals possess equally loyal local audiences that look to them for information, inspiration and, at times, humor regarding all the things about Baltimore that matter most.

Deborah Weiner, ‘You Really Have To Be Empathetic’

On television, Deborah Weiner warms viewers with her larger-than-life smile and compassionate demeanor that turns serious whenever the subject matter does.

Off-camera, her smile remains wide and genuine, and she can easily strike a compassionate tone. But there’s more to Weiner that might surprise her longtime viewers.

“I am funny,” she says. And it’s true. Growing up, Weiner wanted to be a comedian. “I was obsessed with Carol Burnett,” she says.

Perhaps the closest the 53-year-old Homeland resident came to following that dream was playing the comic role of Ruth, a maid or as Weiner puts it, “an old hag,” in the Park School production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

After studying journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and earning a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, Weiner landed her first television job at WYFF-TV, in Greenville, S.C. Asked if it was a shock for a Jewish girl from Baltimore to start her career working in the heart of the south, Weiner deadpans, “For them, terribly. For me, it was a switch.”

Elaborating, Weiner says, “I loved it. It turned my world upside down. Everything I knew, either from Baltimore or Chicago, did not exist in Greenville.” But she says she learned a lot, especially from a “Lou Grant-type boss,” after a few years before returning to her hometown, where she worked as a reporter at local TV station WBFF-TV. Then, it was off to the big time.

In 1994, Weiner took a job as a correspondent for ABC News, which she calls “the biggest leap in my entire life.” She describes the experience as akin to a fellowship, in which she worked with the best and brightest in the broadcasting industry.

“You learn to think pretty quickly,” she says of the opportunity. But again, she was pulled back to Charm City, this time as WBFF’s main anchor. After taking a brief hiatus when her second child was born, Weiner returned to television, this time for WBAL-TV 11’s special projects unit and investigative news team. She’s been there ever since.

“I worked part-time for 13 years here,” Weiner says, noting it was quite uncommon in television at the time.

Now, she’s full-time at WBAL, working a late shift that runs until 11:30 p.m. and has turned her from a morning person into a night owl. She notes that the schedule works for her family now that her two children, ages 16 and 19, are older.

While it’s clear that Weiner makes her family a priority — she’ll sometimes even dash home to have dinner with her teenage son before appearing on the evening news — she also shows a deep respect for families in Baltimore on whom she reports.

A prime example is the documentary she and her colleagues produced in 2012. “Rebounding from Loss” followed a local high school basketball team after one of its team members was fatally shot. Weiner opens the documentary by describing the late Marcus Harvell as a player “who could block every shot, except the one that took his life.”

While making the documentary, Weiner, who admits she’s not a sports fan, says she watched more basketball than she ever had in her life. She also cemented her perspective as a journalist working in Baltimore City.

“We have to remember the humanity behind the violence in the city,” Weiner says, her mile-wide smile fading as her eyes widened. “You really have to be empathetic to be in this business to make a difference. You have to care about the news.”

Jerry Coleman, ‘Serving the Fans’

Not everyone can play with the great athletes of our time. Jerry Coleman figured that out at a pretty young age.

Nevertheless, he found a way to stay in sports by keeping close tabs on the Ravens and Orioles, and even spending time with basketball great Michael Jordan and the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

The local sports reporter and analyst is a familiar voice on sports radio 105.7 The Fan. He also co-hosts a podcast, B-More Opinionated (Bmoshow.com), with CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora.

Well-known to most local sports junkies, Coleman delivers timely, candid and opinionated commentary. Apparently, he’s never been afraid to speak his mind.

Born and raised in Atlanta until he was 7, Coleman earned the nickname “Mouth of the South” from his father. His family later moved to Baltimore and, as a student at Pikesville High School, Coleman got his first taste of public speaking. The school didn’t have a radio station, but it did have a public address system.

“I was the PA announcer,” Coleman recalls. “The gym would be full all the time during games. I’d reel off the names with some enthusiasm and inflection.”

He hasn’t stopped talking at or about sporting events since.

Coleman studied TV/Radio at Ithaca College, jumping at opportunities to hone his professional broadcasting skills, like interning during summers at CNN for the late sports anchor, Nick Charles, whom he still considers an inspiring mentor.

“He took me under his wing, taught me how to write,” Coleman says.

After graduating college, Coleman is quick to note that he paid his dues before becoming a local household voice of sports radio. He sold advertising at a radio station to get his foot in the door. He worked at small market radio stations.

He eschewed working for the family liquor business. “I could have been making a whole lot of money. But it didn’t interest me. Sports did,” Coleman says.

Many years and sporting events later, Coleman — who has covered the Ravens Super Bowl XXXV win, Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking consecutive game streak, and other exciting career highs — says he’s happy he stuck it out.

“I get paid to watch sporting events and talk about it on the radio,” Coleman says. But he adds, “I work my butt off.”

For instance, Coleman says he puts in two hours of prep work for every one hour segment he’s on the air. And when he interviews athletes, he never shies away from tough questions. In fact, he prides himself on it.

“I’m serving the fans. They know I’m not going to cheap shot them,” says Coleman, who had the opportunity to ask Barry Bonds about using steroids — and took it.

“I rarely ask irrelevant questions,” he says. “I know what the fans want.”

Ron Matz, ‘Crazy, Wonderful Ride’

Watching Emmy Award-winning reporter Ron Matz on WJZ-TV is like listening to your favorite uncle share the news of the day. But there was a time when he wanted no part of being on TV.

When Matz was a 13-year-old kid living just off Liberty Heights Avenue, his mother submitted a postcard on his behalf to the local TV game show, “It’s In The Name.” He didn’t find out until the show chose him as a contestant.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go on television,” says Matz, who describes his teenage self as overweight with glasses and little confidence. Looking back, he credits his mother with introducing him to the world of TV that immediately fascinated him 50-some years ago.

“I had great parents. They always said to me, ‘You do what you want to do,’” Matz says.

And so he did.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, Matz got a part-time job at a radio station as a news writer and on-air reporter. His first big break came, he says, when local newspaper pressmen went on strike. TV and radio stations saw the strike as an opportunity to expand their news coverage. Subsequently, Matz’s hours at the station increased to full-time. Matz calls it sheer luck.

But sheer luck doesn’t lead to a successful television career covering some of the biggest local news stories of the time, like Pope John Paul II’s visit to Baltimore in October 1995 and Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. Matz covered these big events, and many more. And while he refers to his proximity to the pope as “a thrill,” he seems to take equal delight in coverage about regular people.

He’s had plenty of opportunity to do that, especially as the host of “Manic Monday,” a live shoot that takes place in Fells Point every Monday at 6 a.m. in which everyday folks sing, karaoke-style, “Manic Monday,” the popular ‘80s pop ditty by The Bangles.

Matz says he never expected the segment, brainchild of his long-term colleague Marty Bass, to amount to much. But it’s taken off.

“We’ve had a cross-section of people from the state of Maryland, from Ocean City to Cumberland,” says Matz. “I see people having a good time. We certainly need that more than ever.”

Matz enjoys witnessing the camaraderie of others, and engaging in it himself. He professes his profuse gratitude to WJZ News Director Gail Bending who, by hiring him when he had very little television experience, allowed him to be a reporter in his hometown. Now in his 25th year at WJZ, he says, “I work with so many great people at the station. It does become family.”

Matz credits the station’s management for fostering this collegial environment. “They’ve been very kind to me,” he says. “I’m 71 years old. In today’s TV world, you don’t find a lot of 71-year-old guys doing television.”

Nor do you find many 71-year-old guys willing to get up at 3:30 a.m. to go to work. But for Matz, who lives a disciplined and quiet life in Cross Keys, working out at Meadow Mill Athletic Club daily, meeting with friends on occasion for an early dinner, and retiring by about 8:30 p.m., it’s a life well-lived.

“It’s been a crazy, wonderful ride,” he says.

Rhea Feikin, ‘Be Yourself’

Rhea Feikin — whose tenure of 30-plus years at Maryland Public Television has earned her the affectionate nickname of “the First Lady of MPT” — claims to have fallen into her long and illustrious local television career.

But a closer glimpse reveals that her success was no accident.

A Hampden native, Feikin has adored being before an audience ever since she was in her first theatrical play in fourth grade. She performed in plays through college while studying speech therapy, landing a job after graduation as a speech therapist for the Baltimore City Public School System. Feikin was just beginning her career when a rare opportunity arose to get in front of a crowd again.

In the 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission required local TV stations to air educational programming. WBAL chose to focus on speech, turning to the city school system for assistance. Feikin jumped at the chance to get involved, landing the starring role of the kids’ show, “Betty Better Speech.” Noting her talent, WBAL offered her a permanent job, which lasted several years before ending as abruptly as it began.

Feikin managed to survive under several general managers at the station, which according to her is a rare feat in the industry. Then, she and the noted late puppeteer Cal Schumann, with whom she hosted a weather program, heard they were being fired. They decided to leave on their own terms.

On air, Feikin turned to J.P., the puppet manned by Schumann, and said, “I’m really sad to say we won’t be doing the weather anymore because we’ve been fired.” They then walked off the set, leaving the anchor with four minutes of air time to fill.

After departing WBAL, Feikin began her freelance career, appearing in several radio and television commercials. Her most notable appearances have been on MPT, where she continues to host “Chesapeake Collectibles” and the station’s on-air membership drives, during which she sometimes employs an effective tactic she calls Jewish guilt.

“I’ll say, ‘I have to tell you, the phones aren’t busy at all. And I know you’re watching the show.’ It always makes the phones ring,” she says.

Feikin says she makes her appeals for MPT guilt-free. “I really believe all that stuff I say on the air,” she says. “I also truly believe in public television. It doesn’t care who you are. The variety and breadth of people who watch is so fulfilling. You don’t need cable. You just need a TV set. It’s the pathway to amazing programs.”

Feikin ardently supports local arts and culture out of the spotlight, too. She was a founder of Center Stage and has served on the boards of the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Gordon Center for Performing Arts.

But it’s Feikin’s television career that has brought her the most acclaim, as evidenced by several awards, most notable being her induction into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Silver Circle.

Television is where she also seems most at home. Perhaps that’s why she continues to engage audiences after all these years.

“It’s not brain surgery. But you’ve got to be able to be yourself, because it’s an intimate medium,” Feikin says. “And you have to hope they like who you are.”

Clearly, Feikin has passed this litmus test with flying colors.

 Max Weiss, ‘It’s An Honor’

Max Weiss plays a wicked cello. She’s also a film critic and a pop culture blogger. But she’s probably best known for her role as managing editor of Baltimore magazine, the oldest continuously published city magazine in the nation.

Weiss, who grew up in various suburbs of New York City before attending Bennington College in Vermont, came to Baltimore by way of two post-college internships, with the Baltimore City Paper and WJHU Radio (now WYPR).

Now, having worked for Baltimore magazine for more than two decades, Weiss probably knows as much or even more about the city than your average native Baltimorean. She’s also had the privilege to have a front-row seat to the evolution of both the city and Baltimore magazine’s coverage of it.

“The magazine has evolved as the city has evolved, with our coverage of dining and the arts in particular reflecting the city’s wonderful growth,” she says. “Obviously 23 years ago, we had no website and probably didn’t know what a website was, and now baltimoremagazine.com gets as much care and attention as the [magazine]. We’ve had to change our entire way of operating — from a publication that put out a monthly magazine to a group of writers, editors, and designers who create daily content, including video.”

What hasn’t changed in Weiss’s 23 years on the job is the goal of publishing a magazine that reflects the best of Baltimore. “We love Baltimore and its surrounding counties, and think others should love it, too,” says Weiss, who previously worked as a film and pop culture critic on WBAL-TV. “It’s fun — it’s an honor.”

Photography by Evan Cohen