WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Judy Girard is a creator. She went from creating successful programs and content in the television business, to creating a school for at-risk girls in Wilmington after her retirement. Girard rose to high-level management positions at several networks over her 30-plus year career in television. Working alongside some of the best minds and talents in the industry, and early experiences with groundbreakers like Dick Clark and Jessica Savitch, groomed the New Jersey native for the journey up the corporate ladder. The journey, though, had a less-than-stellar start.
"I have a (criminal) record back in Morristown, New Jersey for underage drinking and shoplifting," Girard says. "I shoplifted one day a whole outfit to go to a football game. I was 15 or 16 or something like that, in Epstein's Department Store. As I was leaving the store I got arrested, and they took me to (the owner). He said, 'I can either throw you in jail', which I realize now he probably couldn't but it scared the life out of me, 'or I can have you work, and that's what I'm going to do. You'll work off every Friday night and Saturday, three times the value of what you just stole'. I loved working. It was my first job. I wasn't making any money because I was paying him back. But I was independent, and you kind of had to be somebody behind the counter. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Girard attended Ithaca University, which had started a radio, television and film department at the time. She says the school needed women to enroll in the program, which helped Girard get in despite her grades. The next step was her first job in television, in 1968, working for the local ABC station (now WPVI-TV) as a management trainee. Girard later took on jobs that included directing newscasts, before finding her way into programming. She discussed those early days at 2:50 of the podcast.
While working in Philadelphia, Girard also worked as a production assistant for Dick Clark, who at the time was hosting weekly American Bandstand shows on ABC. The daily Bandstand shows actually began in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Clark would go on to start Dick Clark Productions, which has grown to one of the largest creator and producers of live television shows in the world. Girard talks about the experience at 12:45 of the podcast.
"Dick was one of the best business people I've ever seen," she says about the entertainer who passed away in 2012. "I think he was one of the first people in the business that said, 'wait a minute, if they are going to pay me to host this show, and it's my show, why don't I produce it, and why don't they pay me to produce it, not just host it?' People loved doing business with him. He was just an honorable, honorable guy. He really taught me that you could be in this business and not be mean."
Philadelphia would also be where Girard's college roommate, Jessica Savitch, would reach new heights. Girard remained close to Savitch, who would go on to join NBC after working as a reporter and co-anchor in Philadelphia for five years. Savitch would anchor the network's weekend newscast, and later became the first woman to anchor a weeknight network newscast when she filled in on NBC Nightly News. Girard talks about Savitch's influence and the end of her career at 7:00 of the podcast.
"Because of the tragic end and the overpowering story, I really don't think she ever got the credit she should for being the first female anchor ever in the country," Girard said. "They put her on in Texas. Then she was the first female anchor ever at network, she preceded Barbara Walters. But she never really got the credit for it because of her own personal weaknesses that kind of took her over at the end there."
Girard's career took her to several markets including Binghamton, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Miami, before she landed in New York City, first with the network's flagship WNBC-TV and then as Vice-President of Program Development for stations the network owned and operated across the country. Girard says she tried to get (talk-show host) Phil Donohue to move his show from Chicago to New York, and join the NBC family of stations. That didn't work, and in need of a new talk show, Girard came across a candidate named Jerry Springer. She continues the story at 19:45 of the podcast.
"Somebody from Donohue's syndicator walked in and said, there's this guy Jerry Springer," Girard said. "He was the youngest Mayor ever, like 26 or something like that, in Cincinnati. They said 'he's done a lot of broadcast, was an anchor at one point. We think he could do another serious talk show'. We auditioned him and he was great, and we needed a show quickly in the Chicago studios."
Girard moved to Lifetime network, where she launched several other successful programs, including Intimate Portraits, which began with Jessica Savitch's story. After taking a break from the business, which included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (47:00 of the podcast), Girard came back to lead the Food Network. The network had programming, but was struggling for ratings. A conversation Girard had with the legendary Julia Child helped create a path forward. Girard says the solution was simple. Our discussion of her time at Food Network begins at 26:50 of the podcast.
Girard looked for personalities, first and foremost, even if they couldn't cook. "There were a couple, who I will let go nameless, who couldn't cook at all," she says. 'But the camera just took them. There was a culinary department of sixty people there. Oh my God, they would do everything."
Emeril Lagasse was doing serious show at the time Girard arrived, but asked to do an experiment with an audience and a band. She decided to take a chance, it worked, put it on five nights a week, and launched every other show after him. Then she needed to look for more personalities, preferably female since there was a shortage of them at the network. Girard found them. Rachel Ray, Ina Garten, and the southern cooking of Paula Deen. It took several tries before producers could sell Girard on bringing Deen into the fold. She tells that story at 31:45 of the podcast.
After reaching new heights at the Food Network, Girard landed at another cable network, HGTV. In 2004, Cable World magazine named Girard among cable's "50 Most Influential Women". Girard talks about her role in mentoring women at 40:55 of the podcast.
"I'm proud of the fact that I could mentor a lot of women, it's been a real honor to mentor women," Girard says about her career in television, and her time as a mentor at UNCW's Cameron School of Business. "I guess as you get older and you try to figure out what your purpose in life was, I think that was always my purpose in life and it certainly is now in retirement. It's to mentor the women who came behind me. The mentoring is, who are you in the workplace. It's not just mentoring into jobs or matching people into jobs or environments that will work for them, it's the discovery of who you are in the workplace."
After retiring from television, Girard came to Wilmington, never thinking she would end up being the nucleus for the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW), the first all-girls charter school to benefit at-risk youth. Girard had volunteered at Harlem Girls School while working in New York, and after volunteering at schools in Wilmington, she thought the concept would work here. A chance meeting with the wife of a former UNCW administrator led to taking a group to New York for a tour. She talks about the beginnings of the idea at 50:10 of the podcast.
Girard says there are 122 applicants for GLOW's second year class. "The first year's kids have been remarkable," she says. "For me personally one of the best experiences, we had a donor who will stay anonymous, a woman engineer who said 'I've bought out the Carmike Theater, and I want you to take all 100 girls to see "Hidden Figures". To see those girls get that story. Oh my God! Experiences like that that they would never have, in addition to the academic help, it's been a great year."
You can listen to the entire interview with Judy Girard on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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