René Syler Biography
In 2002 René Syler became the first African-American woman to host a network morning news program as coanchor for The Early Show on CBS. Syler deftly handled news stories and conducted interviews with both celebrities and political heavy-weights, and she won a top journalism honor for her 2003 series on breast-cancer awareness after her own health scare. "I was looking for a platform to help this cause," Syler was quoted by Yvonne Lardizabal of the Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger. "If I can lend my name and face to help people listen, then that's the first step."
Syler was born on February 17, 1963, in Belleville, Illinois, near Scott Air Force Base, where her father was stationed at the time. The family later relocated to the Sacramento, California, area, and there Syler was a standout on her high school's track and field team. She enrolled in American River College in Sacramento in 1981, transferred to Azusa Pacific University three years later, and eventually earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from California State University's Sacramento campus in 1987.
That same year, Syler began graduate work in her field, but soon realized that perhaps she was not ideally suited for the career in counseling to which an advanced psychology degree seemed to lead. Around this time she read an article about Liz Walker, a Boston journalist who in the mid-1980s was the highest-paid African-American woman in television news, and decided that this might be a career option for her, too. She landed an internship at a local Fox affiliate, which gave her the necessary clips to put together a resumé reel. She then dropped it off at a Reno, Nevada, television station across the California border, and they hired her as a reporter.
Syler earned just $15,000 during her first year at Reno's KTVN-TV, and later said she kept a sack of potatoes in her desk drawer that served as her daily microwaved lunch. In 1989 she became the weekend news anchor at another Reno station, and a year later moved to Birmingham, Alabama, as the weekend news anchor for WVTM-TV. That job led to an offer from a major market, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and she worked as a morning and noon anchor for WFAA-TV for five years. By 2002 she was married to a television advertising sales executive and was a popular local celebrity in Dallas as anchor of the noon and 6:00 p.m. newscasts for KTVT-TV, a CBS affiliate. She assumed she had reached to pinnacle of her career and was happy there. She and her sister, who also lived in Dallas, encouraged their widowed mother to relocate to the city as well; furthermore, Syler and her husband, Buff Parham, had just finished building their dream house.
Syler was stunned when CBS executives in New York called to invite her in for an interview. Her husband was wary about a possible cross-country move, but Syler went anyway and soundly chastised her husband when she returned for not being more supportive. Remorseful about the argument they had the night before she flew to New York, he told her, "'If this ever happens again I will be there,'" Syler recalled in an interview with Gwendolyn Quinn that appeared on The Crusade, the Web newsletter of the African American Public Relations Collective. "And don't you know, no sooner had he said that? The very next day I get the call from CBS saying, [CBS Television president] 'Les Moonves is going to be in town tomorrow and we'd like you to come up and meet with him about this show.'"
Syler began on The Early Show in October of 2002 as one of its new team of four anchors. The network's two-hour weekday morning broadcast, which kicked off at 7:00 a.m., had a long and troubled history as the perennial third-place loser in the morning ratings war on network news. Its various title changes and anchorperson configurations had failed to beat its two strong competitors, NBC's The Today Show and Good Morning America on ABC. Syler joined one of The Early Show's holdouts from its previous incarnation, Julie Chen (who would wed Moonves in 2004), along with a CBS veteran Harry Smith and Hannah Storm, a sports broadcaster hired away from NBC. The fouranchor format was viewed by some as the network's newest attempt to lure viewers in the high-stakes morning ratings game, but New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley saw it as a sign of the cutthroat nature of the news business. "Starting three women as anchors at once," Stanley observed, "could seem callous, as if signaling that if one makes it, the other two could be discarded like used rocket boosters."
Less than a year onto the job, Syler had a mammogram to screen for breast cancer—which both her mother and father had suffered—and it detected an unusual mass. She underwent four biopsies before doctors ruled that they were benign calcium deposits. During this time, she created a three-part series on cancer awareness for The Early Show that aired in October of 2003. The first installment came just after she was given a clean bill of health. "When they told me there was no cancer present, I couldn't stop crying," she told Philadelphia Inquirer writer Gail Shister. "You think, 'I'll just deal with it.' As working women and mothers, it's what we do. I don't know how to do anything but that."
Syler's series won her the National Best Anchor honors in the Gracie Allen Awards for Individual Achievement, bestowed annually by a professional organization of her peers, the American Women in Radio and Television. Her husband did comply with his earlier promise to be more supportive of her career, and the couple moved to the suburban New York City enclave of Westchester with their son and daughter. Syler's home boasts a greenhouse, where she grows orchids as a hobby, and she also enjoys scouring flea markets and estate sales for treasure. She is a member of the National Black Journalists Association, but tries to deflect attention from her historic first in the annals of television network news. Looking back to her career that began at a Fox affiliate in Sacramento in 1987, she told The Crusade's Quinn that "I've seen incredible strides made in newsrooms across the country. It will be great when this is no longer an issue."
D, January 1, 2003.
Daily Variety, October 15, 2002, p. 2.
New York Times, October 29, 2002, p. E1.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2003.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 28, 2004, p. 1.
"AAPRC Weekly: René Syler," The Crusade, www.thecrusade.net/words/mt-archives/000722.shtml (June 21, 2005).
"Syler: A Move to the Big Apple," CBS News: The Early Show, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/10/28/earlyshow/main527260.shtml (June 21, 2005).
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