2015-12-01 / Up Close

The Interviewer

A Conversation with WPSU’s Patty Satalia
by maggie anderson

Thousands of interviews with distinguished and renowned guests sounds like the resumé of Diane Sawyer or Charlie Rose. Instead, it’s local WPSU-TV and radio host Patty Satalia who has sat across from the likes of neurosurgeon and current presidential candidate Ben Carson, primatologist Jane Goodall, author Salman Rushdie, counterculture icon Timothy Leary, composer Marvin Hamlisch, health guru Deepak Chopra, spiritualist Sister Joan Chittester, and even veteran interviewer Terry Gross, delving deeply into each person’s story to craft unique interviews that engross viewers and listeners.

And bolstering her ability to have those engaging conversations with such a wide variety of personalities is an abundance of research. “People are always comfortable if they know you actually know what they did or what they’re there to talk about,” she says. “I go into it knowing as much as is possible for me to know in the time I have between interviews. I do as much as humanly possible. That means usually I’m reading late into the night to get ready.”

Jeff Hughes, Satalia’s longtime producer and current director of production for WPSU, knows that’s true. “I’ve never seen somebody who spends so much time researching,” says Hughes. “I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from Patty, just the idea of being thoroughly prepared when you put yourself out on the line.”

It has been that way for all of her 28 years at WPSU, even when she had two young sons (Danny and Matt, now in their twenties) at home. “Fortunately I had a husband who would grocery shop, cook a meal, do childcare,” says Satalia of her husband Ed, a building contractor. “We were always in this state of flux as to who did what, and there were no gender roles in terms of who would do what. The only thing he has never done is laundry.”

It was in those days when her sons were small that “Take Note” was a 15-minute television show airing every day after “Weather World,” and that meant a rigorous schedule. “What we would do to be efficient was we would tape five to six interviews back to back every single Wednesday,” says Satalia. “I would book all of those shows and prepare for six completely different topics. We’d tape three interviews in the morning, break for lunch, and then tape three in the afternoon, and I did that for over 20 years. It was exhausting. And fun!”

Satalia started her career in TV in Pittsburgh, beginning as a film editor, then filling in for news anchors and finally serving as public affairs director. But when she and Ed got married — they met at her brother’s wedding — they had to decide where to settle down. “Every week we kept debating who ought to make the move,” she says. “I eventually thought, ‘Well, we can’t do this forever,’ and I decided to move here. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

She had previously applied to work at WPSU (then known as WPSX-TV), but there weren’t any positions available at the time and Satalia started selling for the Yellow Pages. That’s when she got a call to audition. It went well. “I got a call and took the job immediately,” she says.

About the same time, Hughes began working at the station as a part-time camera operator on “Take Note.”Even when I first started at the station, I realized how great she was as an interviewer,” he recalls. “I think she has gotten even better. Her interviews I consider to be more like engaged conversations.”

Satalia has held those conversations on a variety of shows, including the multiple iterations of “Take Note,” the live call-in show “Conversations Live,”Pennsylvania Inside Out,”Conversations from Penn State,” “To the Best of My Knowledge” with former Penn State President Graham Spanier and, last year, “Higher Education in Focus,” alongside Penn State President Eric Barron.

Take Note” is by far the longest running show, debuting in 1965 with the station’s inception and taken over by Satalia when she started in 1987. It was also around that time that Katie O’Toole began at WPSU, and though they hadn’t worked together until recently, they did become friends. “I’m one of her biggest fans. She’s always upbeat, always in a good mood,” says O’Toole. “She’s fun to travel with.”

Satalia and O’Toole have traveled twice to Spain together, to ride along the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Satalia is an avid cyclist, taking trips throughout the region to places like Gettysburg, Pittsburgh and the Finger Lakes as well as abroad. She’s also a chocoholic and a practical joker, with O’Toole a frequent “partner in crime.” Professionally, the two share moderating duties for the Penn State Forum Speaker Series, of which they’re both board members. Satalia often interviews those guests on her own show as well, after the Forum lunch, but it’s never the same conversation.

“She knows everything inside and out,” says O’Toole, “but she also knows, because of all the research she’s done, what sort of question to ask that might trigger something particularly interesting.”

That’s part of why Satalia, who says, “I don’t consider myself a journalist,” has stayed in public broadcasting for nearly three decades. “Originally it was because it was the only game in town to be honest, but from the moment I got here it was a perfect fit for me,” she says. “I want to be involved in something that’s more than just a 30-second sound bite or a headline or a little blurb in USA Today ... And if I am any good at it, it’s because I’m interested.”

Though the list of Satalia’s guests contains many familiar names, she notes that sometimes it’s the non-celebrities who stick out in her memory. “If I think back to interviews that I was touched by, I interviewed, 25 years ago, the Sankey family from Clearfield,” she recalls. “Small dairy farmers all over were hitting a rough patch. Here’s this couple, and they had to sell their cows in a federal buyout program so that they wouldn’t lose their house and their farmland was being strip mined. It was heartbreaking to hear their story.”

Those stories are sometimes so engrossing that Satalia runs over the show’s time. “I end up talking for 10 or 15 minutes more, and I very often take what doesn’t end up in the show and post it on the Internet as additional interview,” she says. “I have no idea how many people listen to that, but sometimes all the really great stuff happens at the end, which is why I hate to throw it out and which is why I don’t.”

That commitment — to telling the story, to finding the humor and the gravitas, to relating to her guests, to going above and beyond — is why she’s one of the best. “I can’t think of another interviewer, even on the national stage, who compares to her,” says O’Toole. “We have all these treasures in State College, and I think Patty’s one of those treasures.”

Hughes agrees. “She would never allow it to happen, but she deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award in the broadcasting industry. I think she’s that great.” •SCM

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