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Broadcasting Pioneer Gloria Penner Dies At 81

Broadcasting Pioneer Gloria Penner Dies At 81

Gloria Penner, a San Diego broadcasting pioneer whose distinctive voice and reassuring presence graced the KPBS airwaves for nearly half a century, died Saturday.

Ms. Penner, who battled cancer for more than a year, was 81.

Gloria Penner, a San Diego broadcasting pioneer whose distinctive voice and reassuring presence graced the KPBS airwaves for nearly half a century, died Saturday.

She started at KPBS when the station was in its infancy and helped build it into one of San Diego’s most respected institutions. In her decades on the air, Ms. Penner shared with us the insights and visions, the concerns and struggles –- and always the humanity -- of thousands of San Diegans.

Her strength was an insatiable curiosity about all things -– especially San Diegans and San Diego -- and her consuming interest was politics. She interviewed everyone from governors, mayors and members of Congress, to judges, City Councilmembers, school and water board members, reporters and editors.

She believed the struggles of women and minorities, single parents, seniors on fixed incomes and striving members of the working class to be worth our time and attention. And she believed we would be better off knowing about the ideas and work of scientists, artists, writers and musicians of all kinds. Ms. Penner introduced them all to us.

Her influence on the direction of KPBS was profound. KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo said, “In Gloria Penner, KPBS has lost one of its greatest assets. Gloria was the heart and soul of our organization for years. She knew local politics better than the politicians themselves and was a wonderful resource, both for the public and for the news staff. It is a sad day at KPBS.”

Karlo began working at KPBS as a San Diego State student in 1973 when Ms. Penner was director of public affairs. He has often told the story of how she encouraged him over the span of his career, as he moved from camera operator, to producer, to management.

“Gloria was such a powerful presence at KPBS,” Karlo said. “She was a role model for and champion of women in broadcasting at a time when not many women were visible, especially in decision-making positions."

“She was really a trailblazer when it came to covering elections and political issues with the depth and analysis that KPBS is still known for," he added. "She spearheaded those early efforts with her election specials. In fact, being interviewed by Gloria was sort of a ‘rite of passage’ for young, up-and-coming politicians.

“I am so honored to have had the opportunity to work with her for several decades –- she taught me so much. KPBS wouldn’t be the same without her and neither would I.”

KPBS was a fledgling public broadcasting outlet when Penner was hired in 1969 as director of community relations, which was not the career she originally chose.

She began her professional life as a high school English teacher in Brooklyn. (She was a proud member of the San Diego Brooklyn Club until her death.) She was the first in her family to attend college, urged on by her strong and independent mother, Ethel Stern, and a large, extended family of Russian Jewish immigrants.

But when she was asked to teach a class in radio production, all bets were suddenly off. “I was hooked," Ms. Penner said to Laura Walcher in a San Diego Magazine article. “I moved to San Francisco, got a job in radio and began my love affair with broadcasting.”

When she began working at KPBS, the station was squeezed into a rehabbed music library and a converted apartment building on the San Diego State campus. It was a time when opportunities to contribute to the nascent TV and radio stations were only limited by space and hours in the day.

Very quickly, Ms. Penner got hold of a microphone, sat down in front of a camera and began talking with San Diego’s movers and shakers.

She hosted several KPBS public affairs programs over the years, with slightly different formats under a variety of names: “That’s 30,” "San Diego Week,” “KPBS Weekend Edition,” “San Diego Business Week,” “Gloria Penner in Conversation,” “These Days,” “Full Focus” and innumerable “Ballot” programs around elections.

In the process of doing what she was so good at, Ms. Penner picked up a boatload of awards, including seven Emmys, five Golden Mikes, two Gracies from the American Federation of Women in Radio and Television and the San Diego Press Club’s Harold Keen Award for excellence in journalism.

She was thrilled when the League of Women Voters of San Diego County established the annual Gloria Penner Award for Civic Service in 2003. She was the first recipient.

The award-winning show that held a special place in her heart was “The Editor’s Roundtable,” a program she created in 1998. It featured three editors, most often Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Tim McLain of San Diego Metropolitan Magazine and John Warren of San Diego Voice and Viewpoint. North County Times editor Kent Davy often joined the panel.

Once she went on camera in 1970, she did not stop broadcasting news and public affairs on KPBS until illness forced her hand. Her last broadcast was as the host of “The Midday Edition Roundtable,” on July 20, 2012.

She is survived by Bill Snyder, her husband of 26 years, her sons Steve Penner of Tucson, Ariz., and Brad Penner of San Diego, and a granddaughter and grandson.

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