René Syler '87 (Psychology)

Making her mark on morning news

Ambition. Determination. Fate. And help from a stranger.

It took a little of each for René Syler to make the leap from psychology grad student to network morning anchor. Syler was still at Sac State, supporting herself with shifts at the local TGI Friday’s, when she made a radical turn in her career path. That turn eventually led to the “city that never sleeps” and a co-hosting role on CBS News’ “The Early Show.”

Along the way Syler earned a Gracie Award for excellence in broadcasting for her work in breast cancer awareness and prevention. And in 2006 she was honored by Sac State with a Distinguished Service Award at the annual ceremony during Alumni Month.

Syler didn’t grow up dreaming about becoming an award-winning broadcaster—that didn’t happen until grad school. The Sacramento native had earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Sac State and was pursuing a master’s degree.

“My goal was to work in psychology and I was moving in that direction,” Syler says.

That all changed one night when, while working the overnight shift at a suicide prevention hotline as part of her psychology studies, she came across a newspaper article on Liz Walker, who at the time was the highest paid black anchorwoman in the country.

“The light bulb went off. I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Syler says. “The very next morning I was on a new path, a new career.”

Syler picked up the phone, and called the weekend weather reporter—an African American woman—at Sacramento’s Channel 13.

“I told her ‘I’m interested in going into television.’ She spent so much time with me, telling me what classes to take, how to get a resume tape together.”

Syler immediately landed an internship with Sacramento’s Channel 40 and eight months later she had a weekend reporter job in Reno, at a decidedly entry level salary.

“I was happy to take it, even though I made more waiting tables in Sacramento,” she says.

She advanced to weekend anchor at another Reno station, spent two years in Birmingham, Ala. and then went on to Dallas where she pulled her first morning anchor duty—which didn’t come naturally in those days.

“Morning is a different animal. I was young and I still needed nine hours of sleep,” she says.

In Dallas, Syler faced her first major career challenge.

“I had been on a pretty rapid ascent,” she says.

The Dallas station had decided it didn’t want to renew her contract. At the same time, she found out she was pregnant with her daughter.

“It was a big crisis in my life at the time,” she says. “But it was also a powerful learning experience—the old ‘adversity is the breakfast of champions.’ I learned that TV is what I do, not who I am.”

After a year out of television, she got a position at Dallas’ CBS affiliate where she worked for four years. Then she got a call that signaled that her rise was about to continue. Driving back from a dental appointment her agent called to say CBS was recasting its national morning show. Would she be interested?

Her response: “Are you crazy?”

Syler and her husband had just built their dream house in Dallas and were prepared to stay for the long haul. In fact, the night before her interview with the network Syler and husband Buff Parham stayed up until 4 a.m. arguing about the potential move to New York.

After the interview, she didn’t hear back for two weeks. Both Syler and Parham were convinced she hadn’t gotten the position, and just when her husband had agreed to promise that the next time she had a chance for a big break he would be more supportive, Syler got a call asking her to meet with network president Les Moonves.

A week later she had the job.

Syler was part of a four-person anchor team with veteran newscaster Harry Smith, Hannah Storm and Julie Chen. At the time it was launched, “The Early Show” represented a daring switch from the typical morning format of an anchor duo—usually a male and a female—conducting the interviews, and a separate news desk anchor delivering the morning’s headlines. Critics weren’t sure if the “Early Show” format, which had the co-anchors sharing responsibility for news, interviews, even weather would cut it.

Syler says their multiple-anchor format works because they are all working toward the same goal. “We’re on the same boat, singing from the same hymnbook,” she says. “And for me, it’s because I don’t know any different. Harry and Julie have done network morning before, but Hannah came from sports and this is new to me. We’re in this mission together.”

When she joined the show Syler, the daughter of two breast cancer survivors, had hoped that at some point she would be able to use her family’s experiences to help others.

“With a network program there’s a capacity to affect change,” she says. “Then three years ago, I had my own breast cancer scare.”

Syler took the challenge as an opportunity—writing a story about it, filming a video diary and interviewing her mom about her experience. Syler won a Gracie Award for her work but says that’s not why she did it.

“It was cathartic,” she says. “I wanted people to see that if this could happen to me—a woman in decent shape, relatively young—it could happen to you.”

The results were overwhelming, Syler says. “Women e-mailed, they wrote. Strangers told me they were praying for me. I was literally moved to tears by that.” And scores of women told her they got a mammogram after seeing that story. “It underscores the power of the medium,” she says.

Syler remains involved with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “My goal is that by the time I’m done with television—and I plan to be in television for a long time—that people will no longer be dying of breast cancer.”

That story turned out to be an uplifting one, but others aren’t so easy.

“Sometimes you have to step away,” Syler says, such as the time she interviewed Rusty Yates, whose wife Andrea drowned their children, or when she would break down while reading tributes to soldiers who died in Iraq.

“People sometimes think that people in this business are around bad news so long that they no longer have feelings. They absolutely do.”

Syler is now a commentator for CNN Headline News, The Joy Behar Show, Wendy Williams, Mo’Nique and The Today Show, among others.

Her popular website includes articles, blogs and video segments on parenting, health, travel, business and personal topics.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Sac State Magazine.

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