How the veteran radio journalist got her start and what it’s like reporting on the coronavirus.
As most of us are self-quarantining at home, we would like to spotlight the local journalists in and around L.A. who bring us ever-so-vital news and updates.
There are many admirable things about Claudia Peschiutta. And we’re not alone in our admiration. Her colleagues will gladly talk your ear off listing all the things they love about her.
One thing that immediately stands out when we spoke for hours about her life as a veteran radio journalist, about the dangers and pitfalls of covering breaking news in L.A. and the numerous times she had either been involved in a confrontation or instigated it, is that she never once mentioned the time she was shot by the L.A.P.D. in South L.A. on a day off. While wearing a party dress.
So let’s start there.
“See, this is the perfect example of the fun, adventurist journalist that Claudia is,” KFI radio editor Nikki Campbell says.
“We were out celebrating her birthday at some bar in Highland Park,” Campbell says, when she and a handful of fellow journalists were alerted that Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, had been acquitted by a Florida jury of second-degree murder. The surprising verdict spawned angry protests in South L.A.
“So Claudia said, ‘Let’s go down and check it out,'” Campbell says. “It was happening on Adams or Crenshaw near the 10. [KFI’s] Steve [Gregory] was with us. He was all, ‘I’ll drive.'”
“We all drove there in my news truck to see what we could see,” Gregory says. “Claudia gets out there in her summer dress, talking to people.”
“Steve was all, ‘You girls go ahead,'” Campbell says. “Claudia and I wanted to get in the scrum. We wanted to see what was up. It was a Saturday night. Nobody’s got to work in the morning. Steve stayed behind with the vehicle. We were walking to the crowd. So then I heard what sounded like gunshots. This was my moment of shame, although we laugh about it now. I totally ran like hell.”
Campbell admits she panicked and left the birthday girl alone to fend for herself.
“I did not even take Claudia’s hand or find out where she went,” Campbell says. “I just ran as far as I could in the other direction. Then, when I was at a safe distance, almost where Steve was with the car, I noticed Claudia wasn’t with me. In that moment I thought, ‘I’m the world’s most terrible friend.’
“I was panicked because I thought those were gunshots. I didn’t know what was going on,” Campbell says. “The crowd was crazy and chaotic. Then, about a minute later she’s limping over to us and I was like, ‘OMG are you OK?’
“She goes, ‘I GOT SHOT.’
“Of course, I’m still thinking it was actual bullets,” Campbell says. “I started freaking out. She said, ‘No, with, like a bean bag.'”
Gregory helped her get treated by a nearby paramedic, but Peschiutta wasn’t done for the night.
“In the moment after she got shot she was on the phone to CBS national desk to tell them what happened, to tell them she was in the middle of it. That’s so Claudia. If that had been me, I would have been crying, moaning. I highly doubt I would have called my newsroom. That is a perfect example of her combo-ing her adventurism with being in the middle of news and doing her job.”
Nikki Campbell, KFI radio reporter
Peschiutta got her start in journalism through print. First at the Arcadia Weekly, then the L.A. Business Journal and the Glendale News-Press.
Not really the path one would think she would have taken, given that she earned a bachelor’s degree in English at UCLA without ever learning how to type.
Thanks to a UCLA Extension class taught by an L.A. Times staffer, she not only learned how to type 50 words a minute via Mavis Beacon, but she was also schooled in the fundamentals of journalism.
“That extension class is what saved me,” Peschiutta says. “First of all, you had to know how to type in class. My parents bugged me to learn to type, and I hated it and I didn’t want to learn it … I taught myself how to type in one weekend.”
The class also prepped her with what would eventually be the tools she would use in her radio career.
“It was great because they would do a mini news conference,” Peschiutta says. “The teacher would say, ‘OK, I’m the fire chief, here’s what happened.’ And he would take questions. Then, we would get like half an hour to write the story. And then he critiqued it, and it was perfect. I didn’t even know what an inverted pyramid was. He even taught me how to write a lede.”
As far as developing skills for radio, the Monterey Park native credits her time at UCLA for teaching her how to solve problems by herself.
“The UCLA radio station was great,” she says. “It was just trial by fire. Go. Go. Go. Do it. You’d run into all these technical problems and you’d just have to MacGyver something, which was good preparation for real-world radio because so much of what we do is figuring it out. I’ve never worked in TV, but usually, there are at least two people out there: a cameraperson and a reporter. So that’s a couple of people who could work out a problem. But in radio, it’s just you and you’ve got so little time to prepare sometimes, you just have to find a way to make it work.”
Peschiutta not only makes it work but does so confidently, something KNBC’s Eric Leonard says is harder to achieve than it looks.
“I spent 21 years at KFI and I can tell you that what sounds easy coming out of the radio is one of the more complicated and difficult and frustrating jobs in journalism,” Leonard says, “because unlike virtually every other medium, radio people are always flying solo. Claudia does not have a team of editors to assist with crafting the best language. She does not have a librarian to pull archival materials. There’s no photographer or editor to come along to spike-up the story one way or another. You’re just on your own.”
On top of that, radio reporters, unlike their print or TV counterparts, are expected to file and produce multiple stories a day — on deadline.
“The demands of radio are different because you are typically juggling between two and five different stories each day,” Leonard says, “and your deadlines are much shorter than they are virtually anywhere else — other than Twitter. So it takes a very unique person with a very unusual skill set, who’s able to navigate that. And what you hear come out of the radio sounds relaxed and composed and well-thought-out. You have no idea the chaos that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. Claudia’s uniquely good at that.”
Lately, the way we work had to change due to the coronavirus pandemic. Peschiutta says that because she has been working remotely for years, the adjustment hasn’t been as dramatic for her.
“I’ve always done — and continue to do -— interviews by phone. The big change is that I now regularly cover news conferences by livestream/teleconference,” she says. “There have been several technical challenges with that. There have been times I, or other reporters, haven’t been able to get through to ask questions. We text each other and try to get someone who did get through to ask the question or at least let the teleconference people know we’re having technical problems. It’s frustrating but it’s also nice to see competitors helping each other out so we can all get our stories done.”
At first, L.A. County’s daily COVID-19 briefings were riddled with technical problems. Reporters were unable to ask questions in the way they originally planned, but the experienced journalist figured out her own workaround.
“The stream on Facebook was still live so they instructed reporters to submit questions via the comments section of the post,” she says. “Of course, that prompted a flood of questions. So I just started texting questions to a public information officer who I knew was physically at the news conference. He passed on my questions. It’s like we’re all just trying to figure this out on a daily basis.”
The pandemic has caused an influx of local stories. Since everyone in L.A. has been affected, there was suddenly a multitude of pieces she needed to cover. Thanks to her new home office, she has been able to crank out an unusually high amount of stories for KNX listeners.
“I’m getting more work done than ever … I’m also trying to answer questions I’m getting from people via Twitter,” she says. “I’m working long days but it makes me feel good to try to get people the information they need and want right now. Also, in a weird way, the hectic pace helps alleviate some of my anxiety. I have OCD and this pandemic is really exacerbating some of my worries. Even though I spend pretty much all day covering coronavirus, I’m too busy to dwell on obsessive thoughts.”
If you think you’ve been inundated with coronavirus news. Imagine what it’s been like for journalists.
“It’s almost nothing but virus stories right now,” she says. “The other day, I did something on the plea deal reached in the corruption case against former L.A. Councilman Mitch Englander. Can’t think of any other non-coronavirus story I’ve done in the past couple of weeks.”
From the White House to City Hall, news conferences have made a comeback. Some officials behind the mic have no problem answering direct questions with full answers. But occasionally, a reporter will ask a question and the speaker will tap dance around it and when they call on the next reporter, the subject will change. Peschiutta won’t let that evasive behavior slide.
“When I hear someone ask a tough question and if the person doesn’t answer it and it gets dropped, I’m like, ‘Oh no, we have to go after this,'” she says. “We, as reporters, have to help each other. If one reporter didn’t get that answer, then I will ask it. ‘I want to know the answer to so-and-so’s question.’ We have to work together on things.”
Sometimes that means being there, literally, when another reporter can’t be. Among radio reporters, teamwork is not a dirty word.
“My very first big story that I had to cover when I came out here was when the coroner’s report came out about Whitney Houston’s death,” says fellow KNX reporter Margaret Carrero. “Huge story! So I went to the coroner’s office, but by the time I got there, the press conference was already done. So a fellow reporter took care of me and gave the audio to me. So yeah, we have each other’s back. And in situations like that, I am grateful. Deeply grateful.”
Gregory says that is not a rare occurrence among radio journalists.
“If I am out in the field and a radio reporter needs help, I will help because we are a solo act,” he says. “There may be a time where I might show up late for a press conference and Claudia will give me a recording of the press conference and I will return the favor. Our circle is shrinking. If you go to journalism schools, no one wants to be a radio newsperson. They all want to be sportscasters, they all want to be TV stars or they all want to host their own TV show. No one goes to school to be a radio reporter anymore.”
Why would they? It’s not glamorous, you have to work on multiple stories at once and you’re alone. Plus, things can go wrong out in the field.
“If you are doing a live shot, a lot can go wrong,” Peschiutta says. “Sometimes you have a hard time getting a signal. Sometimes figuring it out means that you’ll have no time to write something. That’s the hardest thing for me because I’m so concerned about getting everything right that sometimes I might not get it out as smoothly as other people do. Because I am really nervous about not getting everything perfect.
“I’ve heard some broadcasts and they always sound amazing, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best broadcasters. I’ve covered the same thing someone else has and I know they’re not getting some stuff right — but it sounded really good and confident when they say what they say. I think that’s an issue in our industry. Some people take themselves a lot more seriously than their work. And then I think the rest of us take our work more seriously than ourselves. I’m in the group in the latter.”
Because of the nature of journalism, technology and consolidation, the radio corps in L.A. isn’t as large as it once was.
“There was a group of us of about 15 radio reporters and radio people, and we used to go to dinner on a regular basis every couple months,” Gregory says. “We’re talking KNX, at that time KFWB, KABC radio, KFI, ABC News Radio, CBS radio, Westwood One radio, CNN radio — would all get together and we were all really good friends. NPR. All of us. The one thing we have realized is we are stronger together than we are as competitors.”
Gregory recalls how years back Peschiutta proved how valuable she was to the group:
“There was this one brilliant moment when Antonio Villaraigosa was mayor. This was when there was controversy with the L.A. fire chief. It had to do with Tennie Pierce, the firefighter who claimed he was being racially discriminated against, harassed — someone had put dog food in his spaghetti. It caused this huge ruckus. The fire chief resigned and we were waiting for the new chief to be appointed.
“So we were at a press conference to celebrate Magic Johnson who was opening a movie theater in South L.A. We showed up because we knew the mayor would be there and up to that point, the mayor had been very elusive and unavailable to comment on the new fire chief and the new direction of the Fire Department.
“Sadly, and Magic didn’t know this, but none of us were there for his event. We were all there so we could corner the mayor when it was done. And we did. We did a scrum around the mayor afterward and he’s telling us, ‘No, I haven’t decided yet. I’m not sure where I’m going to go yet.’
“But then someone asks him the same thing in Spanish. Well, in Spanish he admits that he’s chosen somebody already and he’s about to announce it. He had basically lied in English and told the truth in Spanish.
“Claudia catches it and says, in English, ‘Wait a minute you just said in English that you didn’t know.’
“She totally caught him in a lie. That’s the kind of stuff she does. She’s fearless, tenacious and I absolutely love working with her in the field.”
When asked about what it’s like to cover the current mayor, Eric Garcetti, Peschiutta pauses.
“I’m not going to say, ‘No comment,'” she says. “This mayor’s press office operates differently than any of the ones I’ve dealt with in the past. Of course, you’re not always gonna get the mayor. The mayor is a busy person. In the past, you would call up the main spokesperson and you’d do an interview with the spokesperson about the mayor’s view. Fine. This press office, you will never get an interview with one of the spokespeople, you will have to wait like hours to get a written statement — and often I will get it after deadline. So, no, it is not a good relationship.”
She hopes that changes.
“I haven’t covered an event with Garcetti where there was some time to chit-chat before or after,” she says, “but I have definitely thought about talking with him about it. His press office is a huge frustration to reporters in Los Angeles. I’m talking about simple things.”
She lays it out:
“I was doing a story about one of [State Senator] Scott Wiener’s Last Call bills,” she says, referring to the proposal to extend the time bars can serve alcohol beyond 2 a.m.
“There were a number of cities that could do a pilot program and Los Angeles was among them. So I asked one of the mayor’s spokespeople, ‘Would Garcetti be open to a pilot program in L.A.?’ I had seen that he had talked about it in some interviews several months before this, and he seemed to be in favor of 4 a.m. last calls. But I just need to check — would he be cool piloting it in L.A.?
“I could not get a straight answer on this. The answer was something like, ‘The mayor is supportive of Wiener’s bill.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not my question. My question is: Is he in favor of piloting this in L.A.?’ I couldn’t get a straight answer.
“Sometimes the mayor does these informal Q&As with reporters so I asked him at the next one. And he was like, yeah, I’m totally for it. Whatever. So I sent that sound bite to his spokesperson and I was like, ‘Why was this so difficult?’ It’s unnecessarily difficult.”
Peschiutta, whose office is also in City Hall, cannot understand why he has become less accessible over the years.
“I don’t know who’s making these decisions,” she says. “I would have to guess Garcetti has something to do with it. I don’t know. That’s why I want to talk to him about it. I want to say, ‘This is not helping your cause. Your spokespeople have to be empowered to speak on your behalf.’ It wasn’t like this when he was council president. You could call his main spokesperson. It’s very confusing to me.”
Perhaps the mayor wants to keep his distance from the sharp ones. Listening to Leonard talk about her, one could see why a politician might shy away.
“She’s a reporter’s reporter who can pull out information, up against a deadline, reliably,” he says. “She doesn’t make mistakes and she sets a wonderful example for both a work ethic and the kind of journalistic responsibility that I would hope the whole industry embodies. At the same time, she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.”
When asked about politicians she enjoys interacting with, Peschiutta says she loves interviewing people who get back to her quickly and answer questions. “[L.A. County Board of Supervisors] Sheila Kuehl usually is very responsive and she’s smart and she answers all my questions.”
Are there any that she misses?
“Oh Lord, do I miss [former L.A. City Councilwoman] Laura Chick,” she says. “She just spoke her mind. That’s what I like. Yeah, obviously you’re a politician and you have to be mindful about not pissing off the wrong people, but I like people who are courageous enough to speak their mind.”
She also had kind words to say about L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin because he is “a little fiery sometimes, so it makes for a more interesting interview.”
Her dream interview?
“Barbra Streisand,” she says, lightning fast. “Call me.”