"There is a reason we have a gate with barbed wire around the station."
How can rules against sexual harassment in the workplace be applied when one’s workplace is a five-county area and the job includes developing a personal rapport with your customers?
Women are more likely to be harassed by someone they know, likely a co-worker or boss.
But stranger danger looms over the lives of women broadcasters like a dark unknown. In an informal survey of female radio and television personalities working in the Milwaukee market each said they received unwanted attention from overzealous viewers or listeners who were usually male and often mentally ill.
“There is a reason we have a gate with barbed wire around the station and key card access,” said one local broadcaster.
All sources were promised anonymity if they chose.
Some dismissed the problem as an occupational hazard.
“I’ve had über fans but I’ve never felt threatened,” said former WKLH-FM morning show co-host Carole Caine. “At the same time I’m not easily intimidated and like to think the best of people.”
Caine also joked her sisterly or more maternal image was not the stuff of fantasy.
The reaction of others ranged from voice in the back of their mind urging caution to feeling in danger.
“I remember the message that came with the flowers is what set everyone off: ‘The time has come for you to be mine,’ ” said former WTMJ-TV reporter Samara Sodos, about an incident in another market.
June was the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of news anchor Jodi Huisentruit on her way to her morning shift at a Mason City, Iowa TV news station.
She was never found and was declared dead in 2001.
Years later when a broadcaster got a job at the same station her parents were so freaked out she used “a made up name to cut down on the chances of stalkers and creepers.”
This April a Minneapolis DJ revealed she was taking a leave of absence to deal with a stalker.
She wrote: “My life … has involved a series of restraining orders, seemingly endless calls to 911, the installation of security cameras at home, and police photo ID line-ups. I’ve been constantly looking over my shoulder, dead-bolting doors, and jumping when someone rings my doorbell or my motion lights go off. Do you know what it’s like to feel unsafe…? To worry any time a stranger approaches you? To not be able to sleep or eat properly? That’s what my past year has been like.”
The experience, she said, changed who she is and how she relates to her listeners.
Radio is in the business of “creating things out of thin air,” says Saga Broadcast chief Ed Christian.
And its ephemeral quality is behind many such obsessions.
“I’m playing dime store psychologist here,” said one broadcaster, “but it’s easier for that fantasy to evolve” on radio than TV. That sense that “‘This is my special friend. This person is talking to me’.”
One announcer said that in conversations with other women DJs “everybody had at least one story about a stalker, someone who went from being overzealous to crossing that line.”
On TV, “people think they know you,” says Sodos, now Wisconsin media relations director for AT&T.
So “they can tell you what they think about your hair and how you’re dressing. Especially in Milwaukee. It’s a very personal market. The viewers are very connected to the people on TV. They are much more ‘These people are my family.’ ”
One anchor said that when she started in Milwaukee she sought a restraining order against a viewer who “showed up at the station with an odd assortment of gifts.” She said she never felt in danger.
Yet restraining orders are a clear signal of fear for one’s safety.
One local radio personality said she sought two. The first against a mentally ill man who showed up at public events “proclaiming his love for me” and at the station “screaming my name.” He told the judge “he was psychotic and couldn’t promise he wouldn’t hurt me or myself.”
Another was filed against a man police picked up in her neighborhood “who said I was his girlfriend and that he was going to my house.”
She was also harassed by a man who showed up at a restaurant she talked about on the the air because “ ‘You told me you wanted me to be here. I thought it was a date. And I reserved a table for us’.”
When his letters became about “spending our lives together,” police spoke to the man directly.
“I never heard from him again.”
Another announcer said that early in her career a man broke into her apartment. Another pounded on a station’s studio windows telling police he was “ ‘just a really big fan and want to meet me.’ ”
“But the worst situation” was in Milwaukee. Every day for a year and a half she received “a very non threatening one sentence email” anonymously. He then called her on the request line and sent pictures of himself at her events. The station took the threat seriously and hired round the clock security.
But authorities were never able to locate him to file the restraining order. She was later contacted by his case worker who said he had also been stalking her.
The ordeal gave her an insight into how difficult it must be “for battered women” to seek protection.
“And desperately trying to jump through hoops to get it. The thought of that,” she said, “was a scarier thing to me than my actual situation.”