46.5436° N, 87.3954° W
Marquette-area broadcast journalist Cynthia Thompson is a Superior Woman. As a news anchor, Thompson has been a guest inside the living room of most Upper Peninsula homes over the past three decades, but over the years, she has been comfortable both in front of, and behind, the cameras.
By Dale Hemmila
It is a bit of a bittersweet time for Cynthia Thompson.
Thompson, who has been invited into Upper Peninsula living rooms off-and-on for three decades as a news anchor with three different television stations, recently announced her retirement as news director and evening news anchor at WJMN-TV in Marquette.
For Thompson, it will mark the end of a career that has seen a lot of variety, including stints as a radio reporter, radio sales person, television reporter and news anchor, substitute teacher, radio freelancer, television pitch person, television news director and anchor, wine merchant, and television news director and anchor again.
If you noticed a pattern when it comes to broadcasting, it is because it is her first love and, according to Thompson, that affair began with a field trip when she was in the fifth grade.
“A field trip is a kid’s trampoline to the future,” she said recently while discussing her 30-plus year career. “They teach a kid what they want to do and what they don’t want to do.”
In Thompson’s case, it wasn’t the field trips to the factories, or the theater or business offices that pointed to her future, but a visit to a local television station that led her to a lifetime love of broadcasting.
“I still remember seeing the props and the cooking show set,” she said of the station tour of WHAS-TV, in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. “I remember what I was wearing that day. I remember sitting with my classmates watching their noon show, and I watched the anchors and it was like a movie. I went home and said, ‘I know what I want to do when I grow up!’ and that has never changed.”
While the goal has remained steadfast, the road has had some interesting turns inside and outside of broadcasting. But still, all these years later, when the discussion turns to the news business, it is easy to see how the career turns have always placed her near a microphone or in front of a camera.
“I’ve always been a newsie,” she said. She recalled reading the newspaper out loud to her granddad and taking home report cards from school, many of which said: “Cynthia talks too much.” She prefers to think of those as early hints that her vocal skills were being honed.
“I got my first paycheck and I was making $3.10 an hour and I remember thinking, I’d pay them at least this much to work here,” she said with a laugh.
Sometimes, when you find your passion, and you are willing to work hard to pursue it, the opportunities find you as often as you find the opportunities.
For Thompson that has been the case several times.
Her first opportunity in Upper Peninsula broadcasting happened in Marquette in the late 1980s. Her then-fiancé-now-husband, Frank, was in the Air Force and had been transferred to nearby K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base. Thompson joined him there, and one of her first stops after settling in was a cold call meeting with the news director at WLUC-TV6.
Prior to moving to the U.P., Thompson had subscribed to the Marquette Mining Journal and spent months reading the newspaper and absorbing the local news and preparing herself for the possibility of a news reporting position. Although the conversation went well at TV6, there was not an opening in the news department, and she left without a job.
However: Persistence, for Thompson, is not a problem. Shortly after landing a radio sales job in Marquette, she contacted the TV6 news director again. While the initial answer was still no, he agreed to meet again.
Thompson, who can be very persuasive, must have made a strong impression in the meeting, or perhaps, seeing the potential talent and not wanting to lose her to local radio, the news director offered her a job reporting three days a week, with a promise of a full-time position with the next staff opening.
“They essentially created a job for me,” she said.
It wasn’t long before the full-time position opened, and shortly after that, she began anchoring the morning news. By early 1989, she had moved into a full-time anchoring position for the evening news, alongside current TV6 news anchor Steve Asplund.
That began a run at TV6 that lasted until she left the station in 1996.
That departure in 1996 came just after K.I. Sawyer was closed in 1995 and her husband was transferred to Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. While maintaining households in both Michigan and North Dakota, Thompson was also looking after and home-schooling her two young daughters at that time. She followed Frank to assignments in Germany and South America, leaving minimal time for outside employment.
That changed during part of her time in Grand Forks when she became a pitch person for a local grocery store.
“I answered an ad in the newspaper, where this grocery store was looking for a Vanna White type of person,” she said. A part-time week-long assignment turned into something more permanent when she was asked to be the “average mom” as the on-air talent and voice over work for the store.
“I was the Hugo’s (Family Marketplace) girl,” she chuckled.
Eventually, her husband retired from the Air Force and was offered a job to operate the tower at what then had become the Marquette County Airport at Sawyer, which involved a permanent move back to Michigan.
After a variety of jobs in freelance work, including TV advertising , working as a substitute teacher, and operating a wine-making franchise store that she and her husband had opened in Marquette, an opportunity to get back into broadcasting popped up.
“I had a random phone call from WBUP ABC10 on my answering machine with a message that they would like to have a conversation about becoming news director and anchor,” she recalled.
“I was very nervous about it because I didn’t know if I could do it. But I decided let’s give it a shot. I signed a one year contract and stayed for four years.”
Thompson looks back on her time at ABC10 as validation that she could, in fact, “do it” again.
That would lead to her next position as news director and anchor at WJMN –TV channel 3, which was just beginning full-time operations in Marquette.
“Without the ABC10 experience, I would never have had the confidence to do this,” she said. “I proved to myself that I could go back and learn new technologies. So, help build a new news operation from the ground up? Bring it on.”
And she has. While building the operation over the past five years, she has continued to anchor the 6 p.m. newscast, and she directs a team of eight other TV news journalists.
“I’m extremely proud of what we have done here in every way,” she said. “I am proud of us coming in here and establishing a news organization to give people an alternative source for news. Each day we come up with relevant news and deliver it in an accurate and honest manner.
“We (owner Nexstar Media Group) have a way of doing things that is very attuned to the evolving news system, and they want us to be on the forefront of that. The support from the general manager and the vice president and president of the company is amazing.”
So with all that, why leave now?
She said a second skin cancer scare in 2016 probably tipped the scales some and she also feels she has filled her commitment to Channel 3.
“My goal was to do this to the five year mark,” she said. That’s right where she finds herself now.
“I’m in a good place; my husband is in a good place; my kids are in a good place and the next member of my family—this (news) team– is in a good place. I feel good about leaving now.”
With retirement on the horizon, Thompson is looking forward to some family time. That includes visiting her daughters, one in Chicago and one in New Mexico, visiting her parents, a motorcycle trip or two with her husband, and catching up on her reading.
As she ties up this portion of her broadcast career, she still looks back at what got her here. It was that field trip to a television station in fifth grade that sticks in her mind. So much so that she reached back into that memory to share a conversation with one of the participants.
“I had seen news anchor Milton Metz on TV in my home and at that moment, when I saw him THERE, at the TV STATION, I was completely and totally hooked.
“Mr. Metz died in 2017, but he will always be my ‘media model’ for setting the example of what a journalist/broadcaster should be. He had a deep booming voice that delivered his common sense and caring style, and his beautiful laugh showed his sense of humor. I had the opportunity to speak to him about a year prior to his death. He said he was tickled to know the role he had unknowingly played in my life all those years ago. I will always cherish that phone call.”
Thompson’s departure from Channel 3 is set to take place during the summer, though she has left the door open slightly for “other opportunities.” Given her career experience to this point, she might still turn up in front of a camera again.