AYEAR AGO yesterday, then-CBS co-anchor Alycia Lane made national news after she was arrested during a run-in with New York City police.
Alerted about the arrest during the station's annual holiday party, management moved fast. The image of the station was at stake, especially after Lane's having been embroiled in a controversy earlier that year involving e-mailed bikini shots of herself. By New Year's, the decision had been made. Lane had to go.
Her abrupt firing, which Lane would later challenge in a lawsuit, left the station in a turmoil: Who to replace the popular, telegenic newscaster? CBS3 needed someone safe and non-controversial, but also seasoned and with the journalistic chops to carry the all-important 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. But there was no time for a lot of coaching or carrying out a nationwide search. The anchor seat needed to be filled immediately.
Station management asked Susan Barnett to fill in while the bosses decided what to do. Like Lane, she had been hired from Miami, where she had co-anchored the weekday-morning newscasts at CBS-owned WFOR and its sister station, WBFS. Barnett also was known for her striking good looks. A native of the Philadelphia area but a relative newcomer to the local airwaves, Barnett had been hired in December 2005 to co-anchor in the morning with Ukee Washington.
But her morning gig didn't last long. By fall 2007, Barnett had been demoted to reporter. In November, she was sent to Miami to cover the arrest of accused cop-killer John Lewis and wound up getting exclusive video.
Just a few weeks later, with Lane's seat vacated, Barnett was being offered the chance of a lifetime - the kind of high-stakes opportunity that doesn't come around all that often. For Barnett, who must have still been smarting after losing out on the morning anchor job, it was a case of being in the proverbial right place at the right time.
"I thought at first that I would just be filling in for a while," Barnett told me recently over dinner.
"I took it day by day," she continued. "There was a lot of pressure involved. Performance-wise, I feel confident in my skills. But just appearance-wise, I know how the 11 [p.m. newscast] is held in this market.
"I remember just being very focused. Everybody around me made it very easy," Barnett recalled about her early days co-anchoring with Larry Mendte, who was later fired and convicted of a felony after it was revealed that he had snooped in Lane's e-mail hundreds of times and fed information about her to the media.
Mendte was replaced by Chris May, who was hired in October 2007 as a weekend anchor.
"I never in a million years thought that things would come full circle so quickly," Barnett said.
The youngest of six children, Barnett is 11 years younger than her next sibling. The family's four-bedroom home on River Lane, in Levittown, was crowded to the point that Barnett used to sleep in a youth bed in her parents' bedroom.
Her dad, whose formal education only went as far as the eighth grade, was a roofer. Her mother was a homemaker who later worked at a local dry cleaner. The Barnett family attended St. Michael the Archangel Church.
"She was born here. She was raised here. She was part of this community," explained Joan DeLuca, a former neighbor in the Red Cedar Hill area of Levittown whom Barnett describes as a "second mother."
"Where you come from is what makes you who you are, good or bad. It helps mold you, to make you who you are.
"We are just kind of average people. We are blue-collar workers," DeLuca continued. "None of us have a lot of money, but we have family and we have each other."
Barnett got her first job busing tables at age 13 at a local diner. She worked at Friendly's, beginning as a dishwasher, and eventually waitressed. She was a cheerleader at Harry S Truman High School and competed in beauty pageants. She was crowned Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA in 1990. In 1996 she was Miss Pennsylvania USA.
She worked for a time as a dancer and as a character at Sesame Place.
"I come from a big family, but I was like an only child at the same time. I was always very much a pleaser. I always did things the way people expected me to do them," Barnett said. "I got caught up in a good crowd at school who were all going to college and I said, 'I'm going to college, too.' . . . When I said to my parents, 'I want to go to college,' my mother said, 'College? We can't afford to send you to college.'
"I'm the first one to even want to go to college. My brothers are all laborers," she said.
Nobody made it easy for Barnett. The University of Delaware didn't accept her initially. But after getting the rejection letter, Barnett began calling the admissions office daily, begging them to reconsider.
"I would call him up every day after school," Barnett said. "He would say, 'I think you should go to community college. Apply again in January.' "
She kept at it until finally university officials relented and allowed her to enroll. Once in, Barnett majored in mass communications and minored in history. During her senior year, Barnett won a coveted internship at WPVI-TV, where she spent two days a week on the assignment desk, answering phones, making police checks and learning the news business. She still remembers her surprise when anchor Marc Howard offered her a powdered doughnut.
After graduation, Barnett got her start the traditional way by working in small markets. One of her earliest on-air jobs, in Clarksburg, W.Va., paid $12,000 a year. But she accepted it, moving into a $210-a-month apartment. It was while honing her skills there that she came to the attention of New York agent Peter Goldberg at N.S. Bienstock.
"She was working her butt off in a small market. She was pretty without it being annoying, and she was very dedicated to trying to get better," he remembered of his young client.
Goldberg helped Barnett land her next gig at the CBS-owned station in Pittsburgh. While there, she met Greg Persichettia, a future dermatologist and surgeon, whom she wound up following to Miami. The couple married in 2004 in Newtown in the same church where, decades earlier, her parents had taken their vows.
These days, when she's not in the newsroom, Barnett spends time playing with her toddler son, Blase. The 35-year-old enjoys watching "Divine Design with Candace Olsen" on HGTV and decorating the airy, traditional but eclectic-style home she and her husband built in Delaware County.
"My life outside of work exists in the suburbs. I have a pretty quiet existence," she said. "My husband and I don't do date nights or anything.
"I could just stay home all day and never get out of my pajamas," Barnett said. "In a job where you have to be so energetic and so on all the time . . . when I go home, I enjoy not putting on makeup."
Her quiet personal life is a stark contrast from the bizarre happenings that engulfed CBS 3 this past year. Instead of merely reporting the news, certain on-air personalities made the news - national news at that. Barnett's former co-anchor, Mendte, pleaded guilty to illegally accessing Lane's e-mails and was sentenced to six months' house arrest, three years' probation and 250 hours of community service. He also was ordered to stay away from Lane, to undergo computer monitoring and a psychological evaluation, and to pay a $5,000 fine.
Lane filed a wide-ranging lawsuit in federal court against her former employer, KYW-TV; Mendte, and Daily News columnist Dan Gross.
Other defendants include KYW's parent company, CBS; Michael Colleran, president and general manager of KYW-TV; Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC, and the Daily News.
New York dropped charges against Lane in August.
Barnett told me she tried not to get caught up in the drama that engulfed the station.
"I'm usually the last to know the scoop or the gossip. Nobody comes to me for really good dish," she said. "I have a job to do. Plus, that stuff always come back to haunt you."
She doesn't see herself competing for headlines with any of her former colleagues. "No mug shots. No arrests."
Have you every checked somebody else's e-mails, I asked half-jokingly.
"Never. That's easy. I probably don't check mine often enough.
"I've always lived a clean and straight and narrow life. I guess that goes back to my being a pleaser. I want to hear 'good job.' "
The station's public-relations chief, Joanne Calabria, who accompanied us to dinner, smiled.
"I love these two," Calabria said of Barnett and co-anchor Chris May. "No drama." *