Paula Lopez is familiar to locals as the telegenic co-anchor of KEYT’s evening news broadcasts on Channel 3, but her warm sincerity and cool, on-air professionalism belie the fact that as a child she was so quiet that her teachers were concerned her shyness would hold her back in life.
Leslie Dinaberg: Did you always want to be on the news?
Paula Lopez: No. (Laughs) I never considered being a broadcaster until one of my Spanish professors (at UCSB) approached me. His daughter was working at KEYT and he encouraged me to do an internship. I was on a path to go to law school but I had some time on my hands, so I called her up. Her name was Giselle Fernandez and she brought me in. ... I walked in the newsroom at KEYT and — next month it will be 25 years — there was a certain energy I felt immediately. Back then they had the TeleType machines with the wire copy and the scanners were going, reporters were on the phone. ... But when I walked in the newsroom I knew I wanted to be there and be a part of it — but I didn’t want to be on camera.
LD: How did you end up making it your career?
PL: I did the internship my sophomore year at UCSB and it turned into a part-time job and then into a part-time reporting job on the weekends. It’s a small station so, inevitably, you had to go on camera at some point. I was nervous, but when you want to start reporting the news it’s one of those things you just had to do. ... Back then you had to do everything, even shoot, write, edit. By the time I was a senior I was going to work at 4:30 in the morning and anchoring the Good Morning America cut-ins. I’d be off the air at 8:30 and into class by 9 and go to school during the day. It was a pretty rigorous schedule. Then our main anchor left for another job in Portland and they asked me to take the position as 6 and 11 p.m. anchor.
LD: When you were in school would people recognize you from the local news?
PL: Sometimes I got recognized. It was funny.
LD: You sort of assume when you’re that age that anyone who is on TV is older.
PL: I was young.
LD: I know you have long history in Santa Barbara, but did you ever want to go to a big city?
PL: I was approached by an agent from William Morris. He said, “I think I can move you to a bigger market.” And I said, “I don’t really want to move to a bigger market. I’ve grown up in Santa Barbara.” And we met and he said, “If you could move where would you go?” I was so naïve at the time, I said I’d go as far as San Diego and Los Angeles. And sure enough at the end of my contract he got me an interview with KCAL, which had just been purchased by the Disney Co. I was hired for the morning show and the noon show. I was there for six years, commuting.
I lived in Los Angeles for a year and then I got married. My husband (Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa) has to live in the county since he’s an elected official so we moved to Carpinteria. The commute was about 80 miles and it was in off hours. I’d leave here at 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning and did my morning show and my noon show and then I’d be on my way back by 2 or 3.
LD: Did you have kids then?
PL: Well, when my son came along I commuted until he was 8 months old and then when he turned about a year we started looking at options to bring me back to Santa Barbara. I was lucky enough to be able to come back to KEYT. The owner at the time, Bob Smith, had told me when I left if there was anything I ever needed, pick up the phone. I picked up the phone and he made a space for me.
LD: It’s pretty amazing that you’ve been able to have this career in your hometown without ever really leaving. I’ve had a few friends who’ve been in broadcasting who have had to go to the worst places.
PL: I know. ... I talk to a lot of students and the advice is you have to go to the small markets, you have to go to El Centro, you have to go to Eureka and Yuma and put in your time and then move on, and they all say, “Well, you did it.” And I say, “I’m an anomaly, really I am, and it’s not the way it works in broadcasting. I’ve been really, really lucky.”
When I did come back, my husband and I talked and we said if we want to have more kids we have to make some adjustments. And he did as well. He was up for a federal judgeship in Los Angeles and we both decided that we wanted to raise our kids in Santa Barbara ... He said, “I never want you to resent or regret leaving that behind,” and I never have.
Luckily, I was here because we thought we’d have one more child and it ended up being twins! (Laughs) There was no way I could have done the commute then. My mom quit her job at Harding School to take care of Diego for the first 18 months, so I was lucky to have family to take care of him.
LD: That’s one of the huge advantages of being here.
PL: But once the kids all got in school my days were free. I am still able to go work in the classroom and volunteer and do all of those things, but I’ve started wanting to occupy my days. I don’t go to work till 3 or 3:30.
LD: So you go into work in the afternoon and you do two newscasts?
PL: I do an hour at 6 and then I take a dinner break and come back and do a half-hour at 11, so I get home before midnight. But you’re so wound up I don’t get to sleep until 1:30 or 2, and then we wake up at 6:45 to get the kids ready for school. It’s a long day.
LD: Do they watch you on TV every night?
PL: (Laughs) Yeah, they do. When they were younger we used to monitor the news but they are pretty news savvy and the girls come to the station with me a lot. When they go to work with me they see what goes into putting the broadcast together — the writing and the decision-making and the discussions and debates. It’s funny to have their little ears listening in on that.
LD: Is it ever hard to report on certain stories because of your family or community connections?
PL: I’m ninth-generation Santa Barbaran. My dad has nine brothers and sisters and my mom had 12, and one of my dad’s sisters had eight kids, and so I have lots of cousins! So, sure, sometimes we’ll have relatives in the news. But it’s fine. And my husband encounters the same thing in court. It’s funny because some of my photographers will run into people out on the street or out on the job and they’ll say, “Oh, I’m Paula’s cousin,” and then they’ll come back and say “I met your cousin.” And I’ll say, “Which one because I have thousands here.”
More than that, growing up you just know a lot of people. When I look at somebody and they recognize me, my first thought is did I go to school with you?
LD: I think it’s different reporting on people and places that you know.
PL: I covered so many major events in L.A. when I was there. I did the O.J. Simpson trial, the riots ... Covering small-town news isn’t any different, but for me it is because it’s my environment and you have to, as you know, remain objective because that’s what we do. Even though you have an opinion you can’t inject that in a story. And sometimes that’s hard, especially when there are tragic stories.
LD: And you’re so deeply rooted in Santa Barbara.
PL: My mom was a Cota and our original ancestor was Pablo Cota who was part of the Portola party and he came up from Baja, California. He was a lieutenant under Francisco Ortega and they founded the Presidio of Santa Barbara. We can trace our ancestry from there.
LD: That’s pretty wild.
PL: It really is. I was always taught that growing up, so I think you are raised with a sense of real grounding and roots. It gives you that sense of really being a part of this community. My children are 10th generation.
LD: Yyou’re active in a lot of nonprofits. Where do you volunteer?
PL: I’ve done some work with Girls Inc. I was helped by so many organizations growing up and that was one of them, so it’s really important to me. So many organizations helped me, whether it was scholarships or counseling or mentoring or helping me get into college; those are the organizations that I like to spend time with. As my kids are getting older I like to help out the organizations that they are involved in. I worked on the Peabody Charter Foundation and we built a $5 million state-of-the-art computer science and library building.
When I spend time away from home, my kids are aware what it is going toward and why I am leaving for a meeting. So they understand that and, hopefully, it will be an example to them that they need to be involved.
... I was a really good student but I was extremely shy — extremely — and when I was in fourth grade my teacher, Mrs. Marcus, called a conference with my parents. My parents were really upset because they thought I was messing up, doing something wrong. She called them in and said, “There’s a problem with Paula. She knows all the words, she does all the work, but she sits in the back of class and she won’t read out loud, she won’t raise her hand and she’s extremely shy, and unless she overcomes it this is going to really hold her back in life. You need to put her in activities.”
My parents said, “We can’t really afford that type of thing.” And she referred me to the Girls Club. At that time it wasn’t Girls Inc. it was the Girls Club and I really didn’t want to go. I said to my mother, “There are people there I don’t know.” And she said, “You need to give it a try. Try it for a month and if you don’t like it then you don’t have to do it.”
I went and I spent years there, got involved in drama and gymnastics and all kinds of other activities ... There are certain points that you can look back on your life and think that they were life-changing and I think that was one of them.
I still struggle with speaking in front of people, though.
PL: Yes. One of the things that Girls Inc. does is challenge you to challenge yourself and to go after your weaknesses. In fact, I auditioned for the Civic Light Opera just to go to the audition. The first time I sat in the back and when they called my name I was gone because I couldn’t go through with it. So I finally went through with it and I said, “Oh, no, I don’t want the role, I just wanted to audition. (Laughs) But I did come back and I auditioned again and I was in Evita.”
LD: Does it feel different to you now being in front of the camera versus standing in front of a crowd?
PL: It’s very different. There’s one person in the studio really when I’m anchoring the news, and I really don’t think about the number of people out there, so I think that makes it easier for me. It’s much more difficult for me to speak in front of a group of people. But I’ve done it so many times now I’ve gotten more relaxed with it. It’s taken a long time — a long time.
LD: What’s your favorite aspect of the news business?
PL: I like doing live, continuous coverage that is unscripted. During the Jesusita Fire we were on set for three days. We went home for a few hours to shower and then we would come back, and there were no scripts, we were just talking. You throw all the writing and you throw all of the graphics away, and you just give people the information they need.
I was exposed to that my first official day on the job at KCAL, which debuted 20 years ago. ... About a half-hour before we were to go on the noon show, we got word that a young athlete at Loyola Marymount had dropped dead on the floor, Hank Gathers.
So your director tells you you’re going to go live to the news conference at Loyola Marymount, you’re going to go live to the hospital. We stayed on the air that day, and that was my first exposure really to live, continuous coverage. Of course, we did it during the floods and the riots, and I was on the air for seven, eight hours straight during the O.J. Simpson trial. I really like that. It really brings home why we do what we do. You throw all the fancy production values out, it’s just giving people the information they need.
LD: There’s definitely an urgency to those kinds of stories.
PL: Right. And you never know when you show up at work what you are going to be facing that day. During the Tea Fire, we were on the set, it was 10 minutes to 6 and somebody said there’s a fire on the hill. Growing up in Santa Barbara you know when it’s 85 degrees out and the winds are blowing that it’s not a good situation. I looked at C.J. (Ward) and I said, “We’re going to be here for a long time.”
Vital Stats: Paula Lopez
Born: Feb. 12, in Santa Barbara
Family: Husband Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa; son Diego, 15, and twin daughters Alana and Olivia, 11, live at home, along with two dogs, a cat, a bird, a chinchilla and a desert tortoise. She also has two grown stepsons, two daughters-in-law and a baby grandson.
Civic Involvement: Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, Peabody Charter School, Children’s Museum of Santa Barbara, Greater Santa Barbara Ice Skating Association, American Lung Association of Santa Barbara
Professional Accomplishments: “Story-wise, the thing that stands out is being on the air those three days during the Jesusita Fire made me really proud to be doing what I’m doing and proud of our teamwork.”
Favorite Local Spot: “We spend a lot of time in our backyard. When we go out we spend a lot of time at the Tee-Off; that’s one of our favorite places. We like to take walks. I think that we take for granted until we have visitors coming that we live five minutes from the beach, and we look at each other and think we get to come here any time we want.”
Little-Known Fact: “I’d like to learn how to paint.”
The One Hundred Committee was formed in 1985 by Perri Harcourt, Joanne Holderman and Jeri Resvick along with other Girls Inc. supporters. Their original goal was to have 100 women contribute $100 each to attend a luncheon at Harcourt’s home, hear a distinguished speaker, and raise scholarship support for Girls Inc. programs. In honor of the silver anniversary, Harcourt, Holderman and Resvick will also be recognized for their dedication.
The One Hundred Committee Scholarship Luncheon has grown to become the major source of funding for the Girls Inc. scholarship programs. More than 70 percent of the girls participating in these award-winning programs are on scholarship.
Tickets to attend the luncheon are $175 for general admission, $1,500 for godparent tickets and $5,000 for patron tables. Raffle tickets to help support the fundraiser are also available for $25 a ticket or four for $75. For more information , contact Zohe Felici at 805.963.4757 x16.