A hush hangs over The Galleria.
It’s 8:45 on a Wednesday morning — the stores don’t open until 10 — and there’s a lone figure waiting at a table at the southern tip of the mall.
She’s tall, thin, beautiful, and she’s hunkered over her Blackberry as if cramming for a quiz.
In front of her is the swank department store Nordstrom.
Behind her, hanging from the rafters, are her billboard-size photos. Those same photos, on real billboards, decorate freeways all around town. They show a closeup of her lovely face with a smoldering, come-hither invitation: “Watch me at 9.”
Mia Gradney, who has been the prime-time news anchor at Channel 39 since the fall of 2008, turns away from her phone, unfolds to her full 5 feet 9 inches and offers her hand.
She’s the biggest fish in an admittedly small pond at 39, the TV station with the lowest ratings in town.
That said, there’s no denying the 33-year-old Gradney’s ambition, work ethic or charm. Or her determination — the determination of the entire 39 news team, in fact — to keep the operation afloat.
The station is affiliated with the CW network, which is often described as struggling. And 39 is owned by the Tribune Broadcasting Co., which is in bankruptcy proceedings. Nevertheless, the staff has beefed up its local programming by adding newscasts at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. They’re converting to high definition, to compete with the bigger stations around town. And they’re trying to own their target audience — young women, ages 18 to 34.
That demographic seems to love Gradney and the racy ad campaign.
“We serve a niche,” says general manager Roger Bare. “We’re not trying to get everybody.”
As if on cue, three young women, all lugging camera equipment, come charging toward Gradney. The four of them are working on a 30-minute fashion special, and they have only the morning to shoot it.
In moments, it seems, they’ve taken over Nordstrom’s designer dress department; Gradney has exchanged her jeans and sweater for a slinky, belted dress; and she’s practicing her lines in front of trusted photographer, editor and friend, Shannon Runyon.
If the job seems easy, it is not. They move from location to location without pause, almost without breathing. Finally the job is done, the production staff goes to lunch and Gradney heads for the station.
She does the fashion shoots for fun and personal satisfaction. Now it’s time to start her real work day.
She’s at her desk when Emily Black, a college student who has spent months, even her Christmas break, working for Gradney for free, makes a quick appearance and hands her a gift.
“Don’t do that,” Gradney chides her gently. “You’re the intern. I’m supposed to give you gifts.”
And she does. Gradney produces a prettily wrapped package. She won’t say how much she makes, but she is generous with however much money she has. She remembers names, dates, children and spouses. She’s also a dispenser of cupcakes, notes and gift cards.
“She’s always that nice,” Runyon says. “Maybe she has a migraine. Maybe she didn’t sleep the night before. But she’ll still show up and be the most pleasant person in the world.”
As anchor, Gradney spends most of her work day in the 39 studios in southwest Houston. When she’s on assignment, Runyon says, “Mia is more concerned about the people she’s interviewing than the story itself. She’s very gentle; she doesn’t just run in and run out. And people respond well to that.”
Climbing the ladder
Gradney gets cold when the temperature dips below 55 degrees.
Her favorite food is guacamole.
Her favorite vacation spot is Mexico.
She’s a native Houstonian, she explains simply, the third child and the only girl born into her middle-class, African-American family.
As a kid, she had virtually everything she wanted or needed. Still, she started working at 16. She liked the real-world experience she was earning, not to mention the money.
At 18 she enrolled at Sam Houston State University. She looked at other, more competitive schools, but she’d already fallen for the radio, TV and film program in Huntsville.
Why go further afield, she asked herself, if her No. 1 goal was to work in Houston and tell Houston stories?
She was a sophomore, juggling her studies and a job at Dillard’s, when a cute boy from school walked into the store, bought a wallet for his dad, then asked, “Does your number come with that?”
“Depends who’s asking,” she retorted.
She and Troy have been together ever since and married since 2001. They share the same intensity and competitive spirit, and he’s her biggest fan and most honest critic.
(She asks that his last name not appear in print. The flip side of relative fame is having fans who are fanatical.)
The couple was still in college when Gradney scored an internship at Channel 13, where stars on both sides of the camera helped prepare her for the news biz. After graduation in 1998, she landed an on-air job at KAVU-TV in Victoria. The experience was great but the $12,000 a year salary, not so much.
Beaumont was a bigger market and a step closer to Houston, so Gradney snagged an interview with the news director at KBMT, the ABC affiliate there.
While she waited for her interview, she wandered around the newsroom and introduced herself to the staff.
That’s how she met sports director Jorge Vargas.
“After she walked out of the news director’s office, I walked in,” Vargas remembers. “I said, ‘OK, when does she start?’”
“I didn’t hire her,” the boss said.
“Are you serious?” Vargas asked. “She’s got everything.”
Soon Gradney was offered a job as a producer. That was a step down from her on-air job in Victoria, but she grabbed it. In just a month or two, she was reporting, producing and anchoring the morning show.
In the summer of 2000, Vargas accepted a job as sports director at 39. As soon as he signed his contract, he asked his new boss if he had all the staff he needed.
As it turned out, there was a reporting spot still open.
“You’ll love Mia Gradney,” Vargas said. “She’s not one of those TV people. She’s real.”
A good ambassador
Gradney has been at 39 almost 10 years. In that time, she’s done some celebrity news. She’s developed her weekly fashion program, which she calls Style Files. She does another regular feature, Mia at the Movies.
She’s also developed the gravitas for hard news. She was at the Astrodome, working, when the Hurricane Katrina evacuees began streaming in.
She managed to grieve with them, show them where they needed to go and interview them, in one swoop.
She’s also proud of a series she did on Matthew Wilson, the Rice University student who disappeared right before finals in December 2008, and a report on Adderall addiction, which earned her a nomination for a regional Emmy Award.
Most recently Gradney has been nominated for a 2010 Star Award in the category of on-air TV personality, and she’ll find out if she’s a winner in mid-February. The awards are presented by American Women In Radio & Television.
Bare, 39′s general manager, describes Gradney as the best ambassador he could hope to have for his TV station.
“She’s a person who is consistently the same every time you interact with her,” Bare says. “She’s a working anchor. She doesn’t come in and just read the news. She works stories. She attends meeting. She writes and produces segments on her own.”
Beth Olson, director of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, doesn’t disagree. She just doesn’t like the ad campaign.
“Voyeuristic,” she says. “I’d say the ads sell the wrong thing.”
“Funny,” she writes in an e-mail, “some people find those pictures suggestive. I find them to feature me as the woman I am — endearing, fun-loving, and confident. I find confidence extremely sexy, perhaps others do, too. I think viewers of all ages appreciate my sense of self and style.”
Motherhood may be the one thing that has ever thrown Gradney off balance.
She and Troy were free to work almost around the clock until little Avery arrived three years ago.
Today, Gradney takes care of Avery workday mornings, then delivers her to nursery school and works until 10:30 p.m. Troy gets off at 5, picks up Avery and handles the evening shift at home.
What’s hard, Gradney says, is when Avery gets sick.
The face of 39 News can’t stay home with every childhood cold or cough.
“I call my mom for help,” Gradney says. “She picks up the phone before I even dial.”
If Troy, a sales manager in the security industry, has qualms about their busy schedules, he doesn’t let on.
They’re just like every other working couple, he says, juggling during the week and relaxing on weekends.
And, he loves the billboards.
“But I often wonder, do people know how beautiful Mia is on the inside?” he says. “I know that’s cheesy, but I wonder. Do they know how smart this girl is? Do they understand her dedication?”
Troy also says Gradney means it when she says she plans to stay in Houston.
“She has an agent, and the phone does ring,” he says. “But she wants to live and work in Houston. She wants to tell Houston stories.”
Vargas, one of Gradney’s best friends, jokes she should get a job in Los Angeles and take him, too.
Gradney laughs and changes the subject. She’s a pretty good cook, she says, and she’s trying to perfect a recipe for what she envisions as the perfect Houston cake.
Layers of cornbread, she says dreamily, and guacamole icing.