A Czar is Born

Lindsay Czarniak Finds Center Stage at Home

Lindsay Czarniak Finds Center Stage at Home

Text by David Gignilliat / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Lindsay CzarniakThe Florida Marlins had just traded for Carlos Delgado, and WTVJ-Miami reporter Lindsay Czarniak was waiting at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport for the power-hitting first baseman to arrive. It was the kind of impromptu reporter gathering that typically occurs when a new player joins a club, especially one of Delgado’s caliber. Two seasons earlier, in 2003, the Puerto Rican slugger led the major leagues in RBIs and hit 42 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays. His free-agent signing was a big deal, worthy of coverage on local 11 o’clock newscasts around the country. So it made sense that then-NBC4 sports director George Michael might be calling Czarniak for a videotape to play on his station’s Washington D.C. air.

Czarniak, whose family moved from Harrisburg, Pa., to Virginia when she was 5, knew the voice on the other end of the line. Like many Northern Virginians her age, she grew up watching Michael, an affable former disc jockey, entertain television viewers with his energetic, highlight-driven local sports coverage. Whether it was rasslin’, Redskins or rodeo, he had a knack for getting people to tune in and pay attention. He’d built a local empire out of his effective mix of bombast and enthusiasm, created a syndicated hit in “The George Michael Sports Machine” and was entering his 25th year in the D.C. market.

But Michael wasn’t calling Czarniak to talk about a ballplayer, a story or a videotape. He wanted to hire her.

Michael had first noticed the James Madison grad a year earlier, catching her freelance work on The Speed Channel. She was young and had only been doing sports for a few years, but he liked what he saw. She had good energy. She was photogenic. She did her homework. She connected with people.

“I just liked the fact that she had the ability to ad-lib, and I thought she had good relationships with the drivers,” says Michael, 69, who now hosts the “Redskins Report,” “Full Court Press” and “The Jim Zorn Show,” all studio shows on NBC4. “She just had this natural charisma about her … I hate to use the word ‘it,’ but there’s an it [factor] to it. Some people have it. Some people don’t. And Lindsay had it. And I just said to myself, This is exactly what we’re looking for.”

0409ent_lindsay2At first, Czarniak, now 31, thought he was joking. She hadn’t sent him a demo. Originally a news reporter, she’d only done sports for a short time. She didn’t think he was even aware of her work.

“It was crazy. I really thought [George] was kidding,” says Czarniak, who lettered in lacrosse and field hockey at Centreville High School in Clifton. “My first thought was, You’re kidding me. I remember I hung up the phone, and I called my mom and said, Mom, you’ll never believe who just called me on the phone.”

Czarniak accepted Michael’s offer in April and joined the NBC4 staff in June 2005. Since then, the trajectory has been Washington Monument-steep for the 1996 Centreville High graduate. In September 2006, she officially became Michael’s co-host on “The Sports Machine.” After budget cuts at NBC4, Michael decided to abdicate his anchorship in March 2007 rather than pare his staff. The move eventually shut down “The Sports Machine,” but vaulted Czarniak and colleague Dan Hellie into unique co-anchor roles. Czarniak often anchors the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts alongside colleagues Doreen Gentzler, Jim Vance (“the coolest guy I know,” she says) and Bob Ryan, regularly grabbing the highest ratings among local newscasts.

And in a little over three years, she’s quickly become one of the area’s more recognizable media personalities. Her caricature adorns the wall at The Palm Restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. She’s graced magazine covers, won comedy contests and performed searing Barry Manilow duets with local media. She guests on several local radio shows, authors two blogs, and last summer a local minor league baseball team feted her with a commemorative bobble-head day  (“Only one kid came up to me with the head ripped off,” she jokes). And, in the argot of some of her devout male fans—the denizens of sports bars, message boards, blogs and Fed Ex Field parking lots—she’s earned a reputation as a legitimate sports babe.

“Lindsay is absolutely striking in person, but she’s still that girl next door,” says J.P. Flaim, 38, part of the Sports Junkies quartet that hosts a morning radio show on 106.7 WJFK-FM. Czarniak has been a guest on their testosterone-infused show. “She fits right into our locker-room atmosphere like one of the guys.”
Her colleague agrees.

“Lindsay is obviously attractive but there are tons of attractive [women] doing sports on television. What really makes her stand out is she is so likable,” says Hellie, 33. “I can’t tell you how many guys want me to set them up with Lindsay and how many girls say they would love to have a drink with her. I think it’s that old saying: Guys want to date her, and girls want to be her.”

Czarniak’s work continues to attract interest from beyond the Beltway. She works with cable network TNT as a pit reporter on the station’s NASCAR Nextel Cup telecasts. The Oxygen Network (owned by NBC) plucked the talented journalist to host its “Gymnastics on Oxygen” show last summer, covering the 2008 Summer Olympics from Beijing. Her contract with NBC is up for renewal in 2009, and she’s likely to have some suitors outside the Washington, D.C. area.

“I absolutely love what I do, and I feel like the opportunities that I get are amazing, so I really can’t ask for more. Sure, there’s stuff that I would love to try out there at some point, but right now I’m absolutely content,” says Czarniak, who lists CBS news anchor Katie Couric as one of her role models. “I really feel like my job matters, and I feel like I [get to] do it in my hometown, which is an opportunity that a lot of people never get. I’m very well aware of how special that is, and if you [ever] leave an opportunity like that, there’s just something to be said for being able to do that in a place where you call home. So, I’m aware of how difficult it would be to find that anywhere else. I don’t know. We’ll see. It would have to be the right opportunity, but right now I could also see staying here for a really long time.”

Czarniak has roots that run deep in Northern Virginia. A lifelong sports fan, her interest in sports journalism traces its origin to her father, Chet, who spent 17 years covering and editing sports for USA Today. An accomplished student-athlete, she was both homecoming queen and class president at Centreville High. Active in art and theater, Czarniak’s mother recalls a time she took her daughter to see a Matisse exhibit at a local art museum.

“She would really get absorbed [in one of his paintings], and she just looked at me and looked at one of his drawings and goes, ‘Mom, do you think if he had tried harder, he could’ve done a little better?’” Terri Czarniak, a principal at Rose Hill Elementary School in Alexandria, can recall.

“She was just very focused about things, even at that [age]. She just always wanted to know more, and then apply it, and then just seek out the next challenge.”

Czarniak took that thirst for new challenges to James Madison University, where she declared her major in electronic journalism by the end of her freshman year. Even her professors sensed they had a future star on their hands.

“Lindsay certainly was one of those people who makes a very, very positive and strong impression right from the very beginning,” says Rustin Greene, one of Czarniak’s James Madison professors. “She knew that she was just beginning, but she also knew that she had a lot to offer in wherever she was going to go. She just had that sense of confidence. It wasn’t cocky or arrogance at all—she was just a very confident young woman.”

After Czarniak graduated from JMU in 2000, she moved to Atlanta, where she worked for CNN as an associate producer. The next stop was Jacksonville, Fla., where she scored her first on-air position as a news reporter with the local FOX affiliate. A few years later, she found herself crossing over into sports at Miami’s WTJV, an NBC affiliate.

She’s taken a few lumps along the way, like the time in Jacksonville when she stood in front of a tree farm and went completely silent during a live shot. “I couldn’t say anything. I just stood there with this guppy face,” she recollects. Or the time she stepped on Jim Vance’s foot and apologized to him on-camera. Or when she inadvertently called Washington, D.C.’s Caps hockey team “The Craps.” But Czarniak—often self-deprecating, and rarely wan—seems to take it all in stride.

“You just try to relax, get over it and have fun,” she says. “The truth is about television, you never want to memorize what you’re saying. If you mess up just one word, then it all goes out the window. You don’t memorize stuff—you just know your story.”

Since taking the helm, Czarniak has had her fair share of high-profile stories—the 2008 Caps playoff surge, a pair of Olympics, George Mason University’s Cinderella Final Four run—but nothing quite like the tragic murder of former Redskins safety Sean Taylor. Czarniak was the first sports reporter to gain the opportunity to interview various Redskins players after the all-Pro’s death in November of 2007.

Working the beat at Redskins Park, she had  interviewed Washington’s mercurial field star on several previous occasions. “If he had agreed to talk to you and open up, he was someone that was just a warm, intriguing person,” she says.

Inside the Beltway, Redskins coverage is always high-stakes, but the Taylor story upped the ante. “Those situations are really what it’s all about [as a reporter]. I really enjoy the challenge of delivering news regardless of what the story is,” Czarniak says. “It’s interesting when it happens to a team you’re around all the time because it’s all very surreal.”

Czarniak has successfully emerged from the thicket of what is generally considered a male-dominated broadcast profession, and done so with remarkable grace and élan. Relentless in her preparation—“there are always tons of books in her car,” her mother notes—she refuses to put too much stock in the glass-ceiling side of the debate concerning female correspondents reporting from the field sidelines.

“People will ask me a lot of times how I feel about being in locker rooms. It’s not a big deal. Sure, it’s different. But why make it a big deal? It’s not. The guys don’t treat it like it is. You’re treated the same as everybody else,” Czarniak says. “I feel like sometimes you have to do more to prove that you’re as good as the guys and that you know your stuff. And, maybe that’s the one area where it gets kind of tough … But I think the bottom line is that everybody just wants to be respected, guy or girl.”

 

(April 2009)

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