WRAL-TV is in the middle of major renovations right now, and the changes aren't limited to fresh sheetrock and high-tech touch screens.
The biggest change comes at the anchor desk. Longtime anchor Pam Saulsby is leaving WRAL after 20 years at the station. Her final evening broadcasts will be this week.
According to a WRAL press release, Debra Morgan will take Saulsby's place with David Crabtree at 5 and 6 p.m. on weeknights. Morgan has been with WRAL for 18 years.
Morgan will also continue to anchor the 11 p.m. news with Gerald Owens, who will co-anchor the 5:30 p.m. newscast with newcomer Jackie Hyland. Owens and Hyland will also anchor the 10 p.m. news on Fox 50.
Jackie Hyland has reported for ABC World News Now, Good Morning America, WCBS and WPIX in New York and WFAA in Dallas.
WRAL's statement about Saulsby's departure only says that she will be "pursuing other opportunities outside of the station."
In the release, WRAL-TV vice president and general manager Steven D. Hammel said: "Pam has been an essential member of this station's news and community efforts for 20 years. She's well known for being an ambassador for children and women, especially with our community partner at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. We wish nothing but the best in her new journey."
Reached by phone this afternoon, Hammel reiterated his respect for Saulsby and his appreciation of her past contributions to the station and to the community, but had no other comment about her departure.
Hammel said Saulsby will continue to anchor the noon news with Bill Leslie for at least another month, but will not anchor the evening news after this week. Hammel says a new co-anchor will join Leslie after Saulsby leaves, but that person has not yet been named.
WRAL is also launching an interactive, high-definition weather system with 3-D storm tracking, a FutureCast tracking model, and a StormThreat feature that predicts tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail and flooding probability.
The new anchor pairings, studio renovations, and weather system updates will be revealed on September 27.
Here's the new anchor lineup:
5 p.m. on WRAL - David Crabtree and Debra Morgan
5: 30 p.m. on WRAL - Gerald Owens and Jackie Hyland
6 p.m. on WRAL - David Crabtree and Debra Morgan
10 p.m. on Fox 50 - Gerald Owens and Jackie Hyland
11 p.m. - Gerald Owens and Debra Morgan
Here's a story we ran in 2008 about Pam Saulsby's singing career:
Headline: THE ANCHOR SINGS / WRAL-TV'S PAM SAULSBY ENJOYS A SECOND LIFE AS AN ENTERTAINER
Publication: THE NEWS & OBSERVER
Reporter: Matt Ehlers, Staff Writer
Sunday Date: 5/25/2008
Text: Shortly after 6 p.m. on a Saturday, a shiny black BMW pulls up to a side door of Prime Only, on the edge of Glenwood South's barhopping district.
Out hops Pam Saulsby, WRAL-TV anchor and woman-about-town. She is dressed in running-around clothes, with eyes barely visible beneath a University of Florida ball cap pulled low. This is not the perfectly made-up woman who delivers the news to Triangle television viewers.
This is Pam Saulsby, a woman with manual labor in her immediate future.
She pops the trunk, props open the restaurant door with a chair and begins to "load-in, " performers' terminology for "moving the heavy stuff." She hefts a pair of speakers into the Rat Pack Lounge, the restaurant's mod-styled nightspot. Miscellaneous equipment follows, including speaker stands, an iPod and cords of varying pedigree. She assembles it all next to an elegant black grand piano.
In a few hours, Saulsby will return to the bar transformed, in high heels and a slinky black dress that shows a little bit of cleavage and a fair amount of leg. In a smoky room with highball drinkers nestled in high-backed booths, she will snap her fingers and shake her thang (modestly), generally behaving in a way far removed from her punch-the-clock job.
Because this is what one does while singing "The Girl from Ipanema" on a Saturday night.
This is not to say that Saulsby plans to drop the day gig and travel the region doing one-nighters. But she has thought about it.
She always had a voice
Saulsby is 50 but doesn't look it, a local celebrity with enough fame and beauty to draw the admiration of strangers. Perhaps it is not surprising that she sings on the side. People who are in front of the camera sometimes find it hard to stay out of the spotlight.
Don't be so quick to judge Saulsby. Painfully shy as a child, Saulsby sang in choirs, but was always "in the back." Until four years ago, her singing was confined mainly to friends' answering machines and the occasional workplace singing session, the kind one shares after hearing a particularly catchy song on the radio during the ride to work.
That's it. It wasn't until she saw some of her co-workers get ahead with their music anchor Bill Leslie is a successful new-age musician that Saulsby decided to take a chance.
"I knew I could do it, " she says in a coffee shop the day after her performance, describing the faith she has in her singing abilities. "But did I have the wherewithal, the guts, to have someone else listen?"
She contacted Randy Shepard, a local vocal coach and choir director. At the first session, he dismissed her fears.
"I was stunned. I was shocked, " says Shepard, who compares Saulsby's voice to that of jazz singer Nancy Wilson. "She has a wonderful voice."
Shepard took on Saulsby as a student, helping to hone her talent and break into the Triangle music scene, starting with performances in churches.
Today, Shepard admits he wasn't expecting much from Saulsby that first day. But she has a rich, luscious voice, he says, and a kind and gracious personality that comes through it.
Doing her set
Back at the bar, Saulsby starts her first set a few minutes after 9 p.m., singing to audiences of four or five at the most. Folks come in and sit down for a cigarette, finish and leave. Saulsby waves and smiles when they arrive, and thanks them when they go.
She rolls through songs such as "Peel Me a Grape" and "I've Got You Under My Skin, " singing to instrumental tracks provided by her iPod Nano, pumped through those speakers she set up earlier.
After a half-dozen songs with little audience to speak of, Saulsby lets on that it could be a long evening. "This may be a rehearsal for another night, " she says.
Between sets, she sits down to chat with a friend. A middle-age woman carrying a doggie bag walks by them in the nearly empty bar, cutting through the lounge on her way to the car. She walks by Saulsby and glances down, then walks another six or so feet and stops. She returns to where Saulsby is sitting and reaches down to touch her shoulder. "You're wonderful. You're beautiful."
"Thank you, " Saulsby says, smiling.
The woman leaves, probably never realizing that Saulsby was there to sing. With her local fame, Saulsby has a ready-made fan base, if she can figure out how to reach it.
Her kind of music
As Saulsby gained confidence in her voice, she branched out from gigs arranged by Shepard and joined an R&B party band. The experience taught her a little about what it's like to be in a band, with all the backfighting and rehearsal conflicts that come with it. She also learned to sing Beyonc"'s "Crazy in Love."
This is not a Pam Saulsby kind of tune. "Who writes these lyrics?" she remembers thinking. "They meant nothing."
So she left the band and started singing to prerecorded backing tracks around town. She became friends with Bill Stonehouse of Cary, who makes his living as a singer. Stonehouse is known for his Frank Sinatra stylings, and when he would sing in a restaurant, Saulsby would ask to sing a few songs during his set breaks.
He says she has the voice, and the personality, to succeed.
"You can have the best voice in the world, but if you don't have that sparkle in your eye and show it to the audience, you're dead." Saulsby has it.
Lisa Blair-Hawkins of Cary, Saulsby's present vocal coach, agrees. "She's so bubbly and polished already, " says Blair-Hawkins, crediting some of that to her years in the public eye.
Blair-Hawkins worked with Saulsby to lower her range, to better sing the mellow jazz songs she loves. Saulsby is attracted to these songs, some of which predate her, for what they say, as well as what they don't.
"The way they put the words together, it's so far from the language you hear in songs today, " she says. "It's suggestive, some of the lyrics are, but it's not right out there, like 'Let me touch your butt.' "
Connecting with listeners
Once her second set starts after 10:30 p.m., there are 20 or so people in the lounge. Saulsby breaks into "Fever."
A couple of people seem to be paying attention to the music. Otherwise, it's business as usual for folks enjoying their Saturday night. There is laughter and cell phone chatter. Some have their backs turned to Saulsby.
She says she sings the same way to two people or 200, and she proves it with a wide smile. She doesn't seem to be distracted by the obvious distractions. When a large group of people commandeers a table, Saulsby spots presents and chats up a young woman about her birthday.
Later, she says she understands that most people who see her happen to be out, not that they went out particularly to watch her sing.
"I get it that I'm not the featured attraction. So there's going to be some noise and people doing their own thing. Sometimes I'm just background music."
But she wants to move past that. She enjoys her regular Saturday night gig, but she wants to stretch. "I want this to be a progression. I think I might be on to something in this late stage in the game.
"You never know. Anything can happen."
She hopes to eventually hook up with a band, maybe something like the Pam Saulsby Quartet. Thinking bigger, perhaps this group could even travel on the weekends, to Washington or Atlanta.
"I'm OK with where things are right now, and when I get tired of that, that's probably when I'll start really going on Craigslist, " she says with a big laugh. "Singer: looking for musicians."