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Val Zavala’s 30-Year Career in Broadcast Journalism

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Val Zavala's office at KCET is in transition. 

The desk is virtually empty, the computer is partially disconnected, and the lights are rarely on — a stark contrast to not much long ago when its occupant was working well into the evening hours reviewing video clips on upcoming "SoCal Connected" segments. But stuck on the glass wall are oversized Post-Its scrawled with copious production notes, and on top of one drawer still stands her eight Golden Mike awards, neatly arranged in a row. In a cabinet above are various plaques for her abundant journalistic and civic achievements. The phrase "Award-Winning" is often used when describing Zavala's career, which is sunsetting this month after 30 years with KCET.

Val Zavala receives her first award from Walter Cronkite.
In 1980, broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite hands Val Zavala the first of her many awards. | Photo courtesy of Val Zavala

But amid the myriad accolades garnered in her career (which also include the 18 local Emmy awards — already packed), the award that has meant the most to her was her very first one. Earned in 1980 while as a graduate student at American University in Washington D.C. was the Writer's Guild of America East's John Merriman Memorial Award for Study in Broadcast Journalism. Personally handing the award to her was none other than broadcast news legend Walter Cronkite.

Born in Chicago and raised in Southern California's Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties, young Valerie Renee Zavala could have never imagined where her professional career path would lead. Los Angeles was a crowded, unpleasant place she and her family "avoided at all costs," and the Yale University-educated Zavala, Latin American Studies degree in-hand, was looking forward to serving in the Peace Corps somewhere in Central or South America, helping people in need.

While waiting for her Peace Corps assignment in 1978, Zavala temped as a secretary at KQED-FM in San Francisco. But the news programs at the National Public Radio affiliate station soon piqued her interest and led her on a different path.

"Journalism never entered my mind at first," says Zavala. "But listening to those NPR reporters, it appealed to me. In Journalism, you can cover a lot of things and have a wider view of society, unlike, say, the law profession, where one has to specialize. I like the generalist aspect of that."

Her stint at the public radio station led her to grad school to study Broadcast Journalism at American University, thanks to an NBC fellowship. Now with a master's degree, she was about to embark on her career. And it was already "Award-Winning."

Zavala cut her teeth as a production assistant at WBAL-TV in Baltimore and first appeared on-camera in 1983 as a general assignment reporter at KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo and KFSN-TV Fresno (then known as "Renee Zavala," before her friends convinced her to use her first name again). But by the time she was a reporter in her hometown market at San Diego's KFMB-TV, she had already grown disillusioned at the superficiality of commercial TV news.

"It was great training, but it wasn't where my heart was," Zavala says. "I had been in commercial news for five, six years and realized I was not going to be happy there. I wanted to see if there was something for me in public media."

Within a few months, she stumbled upon a posting for a news reporter at KCET.

Zavala arrived at the historic Sunset Boulevard studio lot in November 1987, appearing on-air for the nightly news program "7:30" (later re-named, "Newsline"). She had quickly found her stead in public television, with the editorial depth and breadth of issues that the medium provided.

"Working in this news environment, compared to commercial news, is like working at a gourmet restaurant instead of a burger joint," said Zavala in the July 1988 issue of KCET Magazine.

In 1990, she co-hosted and reported on the program "By The Year 2000," a look at the emerging people and issues of the coming millennium. 

"Life & Times," one of KCET's landmark news and public affairs programs, premiered in January 1992. Known for its roundtable host format, which included Patt Morrison, Hugh Hewitt, Ruben Martinez, and Kerman Maddox, the program was catapulted into prominence just a few months after its debut during the week-long rioting and civil unrest that followed the verdict of the police beating of Rodney King. The nightly program experimented with various presentation formats during its first few years, which also included a documentary feature format that was produced by Zavala, who eventually became executive producer of the program.

"Val Zavala has been the ‘compleat broadcaster,' says Morrison, "Life & Times" co-host from 1992 to 1999. "Like a Hall of Fame utility player who stood out in any position, she has been manager, mentor, moderator, on-air talent, and role model."

Early 1996 signaled a changing of the guard at KCET's leadership, with veteran network TV exec Al Jerome replacing longtime president Bill Kobin.

"I didn't know anybody at the station at first; I was looking for people whom I can build upon," says Jerome. "Val earned my respect almost exclusively on the basis of the work I saw her doing."

Solidifying a commitment to public affairs programming and sensing a need for consistency in the "Life & Times" format, Jerome decided to promote Zavala to the station's Vice President of News and Public Affairs.

She turned him down.

"She didn't think she was the right person. I thought that was interesting. But I persisted, and she finally realized this was a great opportunity for her, she decided she could do it. I've seen her work. I knew she could do it," says Jerome.

"Al was a really great mentor," says Zavala. "He had a lot more faith in me than I had in myself."

Val Zavala and Warren Olney
Val Zavala and Warren Olney co-hosted "Life & Times" in 1999-2000. | Photo: Mitzi Trumbo

With "Life & Times" switching to a news magazine format, Zavala eventually emerged as co-host in 1999 along with local news veteran Warren Olney, followed by the late Jess Marlow a year later.

"Val was then, and is now, a consummate professional," says Olney, host of KCRW-FM's "To The Point" public affairs program. "She doesn't assume a false identity when she's working. She is the same person off the air as she is on: kind and generous, very attentive — and sharp as a tack."

"Life & Times" came to an end in 2007, as did "California Connected," a statewide public affairs program co-produced among KCET and three other PBS stations in California that had run since 2002 and aired in a dozen public TV stations across the Golden State.

But the legacy of both programs continued in 2008 with the premiere of "SoCal Connected," now the longest-running news magazine program in Los Angeles. Over its eight seasons "SoCal Connected" has won numerous local Emmy, Golden Mike and L.A. Press Club Awards, as well as Peabody and duPont honors.

While many viewers are familiar with Zavala's hosting duties on "SoCal Connected," she played an even larger role on the other side of the camera as the program's executive producer, as well as her overarching VP role at KCET.

"You had to look at things from a higher perspective," says Zavala, in describing her off-screen duties. "In addition to choosing stories, you have to have your hands on things but not in things…you have to strike that balance between the big picture and the details."

Val Zavala Outside with a Camera Operator and an Interview Subject
Val Zavala conducts a 'SoCal Connected' interview at the Huntington Library. | Photo: Ed Krieger

Zavala's behind-the-scenes responsibilities over the years have also guided the careers of many TV journalists who have had the privilege of working with and learning from her.

Derrick Shore, "SoCal Connected" reporter from 2014 to 2016 and now an afternoon show host at KPRC-TV in Houston, credits Zavala for helping him start his broadcast career 20 years ago when he was a "Life & Times" guest contributor.

"I was only 19 years old and my appearance on the show was not fabulous, to put it nicely," says Shore. "Fifteen years later, after polishing up my journalistic chops, Val called and asked me to report for ‘SoCal Connected.' Val helped me tell meaningful, relevant stories, she helped me tighten my writing skills, and she taught me life lessons that will stay with me throughout my career."

Rocio Zamora, producer at "Dateline NBC," was an associate producer for "SoCal Connected" from 2010 to 2012 and is also grateful for Zavala's role in launching her career, following a recommendation from one of her professors at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

"I can't think of another correspondent or TV host that would show that level of support to an entry level applicant."

"It was Val who convinced the executive producer to give me a shot," says Zamora.  "Having worked in print, I had very little broadcast experience to speak of, but Val was convinced I'd be perfect for the job. Before my second interview, she called and gave me the inside scoop on what the executive producer would be looking for during the interview and gave me a few other pointers. She did all this because she believed I would be a good fit for the show. He hired me on the spot. I can't think of another correspondent or TV host that would show that level of support to an entry level applicant."

Zavala's impact has also been felt among her peers in the Los Angeles broadcast news industry. Laura Diaz, anchor at KTTV Fox 11, whose 35-year, award-winning career parallels that of Zavala's as a visible Latina in Southern California television news, describes her as, "a journalist's journalist." Diaz says, "conscientious reporting and deep knowledge of Southern California issues have made her one of the most trusted journalists in Los Angeles."

The visibility and influence of Zavala, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father, also made her one of the most successful Latinas in the journalism field, especially in Southern California, where many regard her as a role model.

"In 2004, I stood at the podium at Mount Saint Mary's University giving the commencement address to hundreds of women graduates," recalls Zavala. "Nearly half were Latina. Most were the first in their families to go to college. It felt wonderful to think that my story and my position at KCET encouraged them even further to strive for success." 

From reporter to producer to executive to mentor to role model, Zavala's 30 year career has witnessed the changes in KCET,  such as the end of the 40-year affiliation with PBS in 2010 ("A pretty gutsy move," she describes politely) and changes in the media profession itself.

"The rise of digital and social media have transformed how we get our news." Zavala says. "The advantages are the tremendous quantity and wider distribution of information at lightning speed. The disadvantages are a loss of accuracy, credibility and depth. It's sad that at a time when facts are more important than ever, they are so often ignored."

Zavala cites no one specific reason for retiring, but admits the changing TV news climate was one of the factors. 

"I could learn digital media stuff, but nah, it doesn't interest me," she says. "I'd rather go out hiking! Journalism has changed. I'm ready to leave it to the younger ones who have all those skills."

Another factor: "I'm not one of those people who want to die at their desks, there's a life beyond career," Zavala says.  Though she has no specific post-KCET plans, she does plan to stay put here in Southern California with her husband, dog, and a shortlist of activities she'd like to take on.

"I'd like to spend less time on the computer and more time in nature, gardening, yoga, meditation, friends…reading books I haven't read. Maybe pick up the guitar again." 

She also plans to continue her commitment to her community-based activities, which includes serving as a board member of Alzheimer's Greater Los Angeles, as a regent for Mt. St. Mary's University and as a hospice care volunteer.

Val Zavala stands in KCETLink's offices with a monitor in the foreground.
 And that's a wrap: Val Zavala on the final "SoCal Connected" shoot of her 30 year-long career at KCET. | Photo: Karen Foshay

Zavala's three decades at KCET have covered countless issues and have allowed her to interview the rich and famous to the homeless and everyone in between. Zavala is particularly proud of the series of minute-long animated "Ballot Brief" videos produced in 2016 for that year's general election to explain the 17 statewide propositions that California voters were expected to vote on.

"They did really well, they got more than a million views," says Zavala. "I've gotten more personal, face-to-face feedback on this than anything I've ever done. People came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for doing that, I can trust what you said, it helped me decide.' It was extremely satisfying."

In Spring of last year, Zavala's "Ballot Brief" videos won a Norman Lear Center/USC Annenberg Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in TV Political Journalism.

It was a poetic, full-circle bookend to Zavala's tenure. 

For all the statues and plaques she has earned over those 30 years, it's her viewers, colleagues, mentees, peers, and friends who have won the best award of all: witnessing the distinguished career of Val Zavala.

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