Gloria Penner. Her radio personality is different from her off-air personality, the one that laughs so hard at her self-deprecating asides that she nearly chokes.
In other parts of this world, she would be called a shtarker. Pronounced pretty much as you see it written, shtarker is a Yiddish word from the German shtark meaning strong. In the world of Jewish orthodoxy, shtark can connote a kind of grab-you-by-the-lapels moral seriousness. In a more secular Jewish vein, a shtarker is someone who doesn’t mess around — not so much a bully as someone with an extremely low tolerance for nonsense.
Gloria Penner is a shtarker. Stylistically, it’s a quality more common to the East Coast than the West; shtark, as a character trait, is more highly prized by Jews than Gentiles. (In modern Israeli Hebrew, a dugri, probably from the verb idareg, or to rank, is someone who calls a spade a spade, who pulls no verbal punches, who cuts quickly to the heart of any matter. And dugri is far from pejorative; it’s an accolade.) So it’s therefore surprising to hear Gloria Penner’s crisp, dugri-esque voice cutting through San Diego’s cheery, laid-back airwaves, Monday through Friday, on KPBS radio’s These Days with Gloria Penner.
Penner’s is an excellent voice for radio — a clear, resonant alto whose lucid diction commands attention. It’s a voice made all the more arresting by the fact that Penner began her career in broadcast media by imitating the speech of a child with a cleft palate.
But try, just try to get Penner to give you the precise date of her cleft-palate impersonation in a radio drama aired by WNYC in Manhattan. For all her shtarker's meticulous doggedness for detail, for the frank quote, Penner is coy about, of all things, her age.
“Are you trying to guess how old I am?” she laughs, incredulous, when you try to pin down precisely when she attended Brooklyn College.
“Look,” she says, “I don’t like giving my age, not out of vanity, but because people like to pigeon-hole people by age. And I don't like being pigeon-holed.”
Heaven help the fool who pigeon-holes Penner.
Her radio personality is different from her off-air personality, the one that laughs so hard at her self-deprecating asides that she nearly chokes. You don’t get much of Penner’s humor on These Days when she’s hammering home a relentless, precise question to one city councilperson or another on a fine point of civic legislation. But this is a gal, to use an archaic term, who can throw her head back and really laugh — a skill not unexpected from someone born in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, on some unspecified date before or after World War II.
She was, she says, raised by a single mother, a situation uncommon in its time. Penner is quick to add that her mother’s family was not unsupportive. “From time to time we lived with family members. We were very poor. My mother was a saleswoman at Lord & Taylor. She’s one of the most independent-thinking, self-reliant people I’ve ever known. She was and always will be a role model for me.”
So, you can imagine Penner, a highly intelligent Brooklynite, no silver spoon in her mouth, raised by a single mother, itching for the larger world in which she reckoned she could make her way. She wasn’t the kind of young woman who left much to chance. When Penner got her role in that WNYC production, while taking a course in radio at Brooklyn College, she actually went to a school for children with speech disabilities to learn perfectly how to mimic imperfect speech.
“I found,” she says, “I had a facility for acting, of all things.”
She later took her masters in English at Syracuse University.
This is where Penner’s story hits fast forward. The year after she finished her masters she met her first husband, a physician, and moved to San Francisco, where she got a job at KCBS as an associate producer of a daily two-hour radio program called “Housewives Protective League,” or, as Penner puts it, “every young woman’s nightmare.”
“Housewives Protective League” was an early talk-show version of consumer awareness programming wrapped around needy chunks of advertising for things like local grocery stores. The show was geared toward an imagined audience of young women mesmerized by the intricacies of cleaning and maintaining a household.
“What did I learn from the year I spent producing Housewives Protective League?” Penner asks. “I learned you’re supposed to treat your talk-show hosts very carefully.” And again, you hear the booming laugh.
After Housewives Protective League, Penner went on to teach English. Then she and her husband moved again, to Washington, D.C., where for three years Penner worked at the Washington bureau of NBC’s Today show.
“It was a fantastic time to be in Washington. This was the Kennedy era and I was fortunate to work with Walter Agronsky who taught me everything about the Hill. I loved it. I became completely enamored with politics, with everything about politics — campaigns, how legislation was passed, the personalities. I became fascinated by the personalities of people who wanted power. I received a marvelous political education working for NBC.
“For as much as I loved government and politics, however, Uncle Sam had other ideas. My husband was a doctor in the military, and Uncle Sam decided to send us to Honolulu, Hawaii. I was devastated. Where, I wondered, was I going to find the kind of job that interested me in Hawaii?”
“Fortunately, back then, Hawaii was more isolated from the mainland than it is now. My arrival was sort of a big deal. When my husband and I got off the boat, we were met by a photographer from the Army’s PR department who took my picture: ‘Lady from Washington, D.C., Who Worked for the Today Show Comes to Hawaii!’
“I quickly got a job in radio, KULA, doing talk. Strictly talk. So there I was, about a week after moving to Hawaii, doing talk radio five hours a day. To me, Hawaii was like a foreign land. Everything had these long Hawaiian names I didn’t know how to pronounce. I tried very hard to learn, but I was so new. I’d literally just gotten off the boat. It was kind of funny, really. I lasted, I think, about 26 weeks on KULA.”
Penner landed on her feet. She got a job as a campaign speech writer for Ben Dillingham, a conservative Republican who ran and lost for the U.S. Senate in November 1962. Then she was hired by Hawaii’s House of Representatives to develop campaigns for the Republican Party. Campaigning was, Penner says, “intoxicating.”
She had her first child. She freelanced for NBC’s election unit and wound up in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was killed. And then there was yet another move, to San Diego, in 1967. She and her husband settled in Chula Vista where they ultimately raised two sons.
This was back in the very early days of public television, when KPBS was KEPS. Herb Klein, who Penner had first met in Washington, D.C., told her she ought to check out this new medium. She did. Almost 30 years later, Penner has appeared on more than 1000 KPBS programs and even produced two series on her own that were syndicated nationally.
In many ways Penner embodies the on-again/off-again debate within public broadcasting over the local versus the national. Because funding for public broadcasting has recently and so intensely been debated at the national level, people tend to forget that part of public broadcasting’s initial mission was to provide forums for the discussion of local issues and politics. The success of Sesame Street, Barney, and the Civil War series, have obscured that fact. Penner doesn’t seem much interested in becoming as wildly popular and well-known as Barney. She loves local politics.
It’s odd to hear her, then, in her dugri-esque fashion, hammering away at some local city councilperson about the pros and cons of halfway houses in residential neighborhoods, or about potholes, or about how district elections have changed the way San Diegans think of themselves as citizens. Penner sounds driven. She elevates the most mundane local matters to Meet the Press status. And hammers and hammers away until she’s satisfied. Listening to this woman lavish her intelligence and extreme curiosity on county supervisors and other bureaucrats, you can’t help but wonder if maybe she has a point. Even the most politically apathetic listener would be compelled to suspect that perhaps local politics are important.
“I’m really a gracious person,” Penner asserts when teased about her on-air tenacity. “But I’m curious. I have no other agenda than finding out the truth. That’s just the sort of person I am. And the studio I work in is very small. I’m literally sitting elbow-to-elbow with whoever it is I’m interviewing. I work in such close proximity to my guests that I let them know by my demeanor that I don’t mean them any harm. I want to ask them good, hard questions.
“No matter how rough the interview was, my guests always leave the studio amazed at the quality of my audience. ‘Your callers are so intelligent,’ they tell me. And I think that’s because I try to ask intelligent questions. And I can ask intelligent questions because I’m sincerely interested in the subject, even if other people think of it as ‘just local politics.’
“And I tell you something else, if you’ve come out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, San Diego is heaven. And when you live in heaven, you’re very interested in what goes on there.”