Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Barbara Harrison isn’t crazy about waking up weekdays at 3 a.m. “I hate this shift when the alarm goes off. But when I get here, there’s no place I’d rather be,” the WRC-TV (Channel 4) veteran said last week, a few days after she and Joe Krebs celebrated their 10th anniversary anchoring the NBC affiliate’s morning newscasts.

Ms. Harrison and Mr. Krebs work some of the longest — and most brutal — hours in Washington television.

The mild-mannered duo preside over two hours of local news weekdays at 5 a.m., then each takes turns delivering brief updates during the three-hour “Today” show. At 10 a.m., they are back on the air together for another hour of local news.

Only meteorologist Tom Kierein and WTTG-TV (Channel 5) stalwart Lark McCarthy have worked the shift longer. Mr. Kierein has delivered the early weather forecasts on WRC since joining the station in March 1983.

Here’s the nutty part: Ms. Harrison, Mr. Krebs and Mr. Kierein all say they are perfectly happy on the morning shift, despite those predawn wake-up calls.

“People who are assigned to the morning shift and don’t want to be there aren’t successful,” said Lisa Rasmussen, executive producer of WRC’s morning newscasts. “We all want to be here.”

OK, who are these people and what is WRC putting in their coffee?

Whatever it may be, it’s working: WRC has the Washington area’s top-rated local morning news. In November, an average 103,000 households tuned into the station during the 5 a.m.-to-7 a.m. block, the first time a local station has broken the 100,000-household mark in the mornings during a major ratings sweep.

Viewership for afternoon and evening local newscasts is declining in the era of the Internet, but shifting commuting patterns in Washington and other big cities have made morning news more popular than ever.

The quiet chemistry among Ms. Harrison, Mr. Krebs and Mr. Kierein has made the trio easy to wake up to. On the air, they are as comfortable as an old bedroom slipper, a key reason WRC has kept them together for 10 years in a business notorious for turnover at the anchor desk.

Ms. Harrison and Mr. Krebs were two of WRC’s brighter lights in 1994 when the station tapped them to replace Kathy Vara and Alan Lee in the mornings. (Don’t feel bad: No one else remembers Ms. Vara or Mr. Lee, either.)

Ms. Harrison was the queen of the big interview, a kind of Barbara Walters for Washington television. Her memorable “gets” in the 1980s and 1990s included D.C. first lady Effi Barry and Suzanne Cooke, the estranged wife of Washington Redskins then-owner Jack Kent Cooke.

Mr. Krebs, formerly a prosecutor, was WRC’s ace legal reporter, remembered for his sharp coverage of the trials of John Hinckley, Oliver North and drug kingpin Rayful Edmonds.

Their lives are much different now.

WRC’s morning shift begins between 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., when the producers of the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. newscast arrive at WRC’s Tenleytown newsroom and begin determining the next day’s big stories.

The producers plan through the night. About 1:30 a.m., they have a conference call with Ms. Rasmussen. She arrives at the station at 3:30 a.m., roughly a half hour before the anchors and the reporters.

The program goes live at 5 a.m. Six hours of headlines and weather and traffic reports later, the show is off the air, but most staffers do not call it a day until 1 p.m. or later.

Ms. Harrison, for example, spends many afternoons taping “Wednesday’s Child,” her weekly profile of local orphans. Mr. Krebs reports on “Cold Cases,” a much-copied feature on unsolved homicides in the Washington area.

Neither is ready to give up their morning gig.

“When we started out together, I hoped we could make this newscast as important in the lives of Washingtonians as Harden and Weaver were,” Mr. Krebs said, referring to Frank Harden and the late Jackson Weaver, who ruled Washington radio for 32 years as the morning drive hosts at WMAL-AM (630).

That’s quite a record to match. Stock up on the coffee.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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