Pat Ciarrocchi, Respected News Journalist for KYW-TV and Co-Host of Talk Philly, Stays True to Wilmington Roots
First lady of Philly news: Newscaster Pat Ciarrocchi got her start in Wilmington. She remains strongly connected to the city
Pat Ciarrocchi breezes into the Philadelphia office of Joanne Calabria, vice president for public affairs at CBS television, a floppy rain hat low over her eyes, her raincoat slightly damp from a mid-winter drizzle.
Sweeping her hands from head to foot, the 60-year-old newscaster calls attention to her look—no makeup, flat shoes, casual clothes—and announces: “This is the Patti Ciarrocchi from Wilmington.” Later, in the sparsely furnished dressing area at KYW-TV, she will style her blonde hair, apply makeup, change into a flattering red dress and be transformed into Pat Ciarrocchi, respected television journalist who has been on the airwaves of Philadelphia’s KYW-TV for 31 years.
During those three decades, she has served stints as medical reporter, early morning news anchor and co-host for “Evening Magazine,” and has handled reporting assignments that have taken her across the country and from Great Britain to Israel to the Vatican. In 2000, she earned recognition for her influence in the broadcast field with induction into the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame.
In addition to serving as a daytime news anchor and reporter, Ciarrocchi co-hosts the noontime news and lifestyle program “Talk Philly” with Ukee Washington, whom she calls “my brother from another mother.”
Ciarrocchi and Washington, a Brandywine Hundred resident, have worked together off and on for 27 years, and they have an easy rapport that audiences love. “We know each other so well that we finish each other’s sentences,” Washington says. He suggests that their similar backgrounds create chemistry: “We were both raised in working-class families that put a strong emphasis on family and education.”
It’s a hectic day at the studio—much more so than usual. Washington has taken the afternoon off, and just minutes before “Talk Philly” is scheduled to go live, the crew learns that President Obama has called a news conference for noon, pre-empting local broadcasts. Ciarrocchi remains on set, ready to go on air at a moment’s notice if the press conference ends early, as it does. At 12:20 p.m., the president has concluded, and Ciarrocchi finishes up the last few minutes of the day’s “Talk Philly” broadcast.
Promptly sliding out of her seat at the news desk, she heads to the living-room section of the “Talk Philly” set to greet guests who have come to record a segment that will air the following week.
Then it’s off to another studio to anchor her second live broadcast of the day, a breaking news report about a kidnapping investigation. All is going as planned with the broadcast, until the script on the teleprompter changes abruptly. Not only that, the machine goes haywire, the words scrolling up and down repeatedly. Ciarrocchi stays cool, deftly transitioning from one topic to the next and winding up the report as the camerawoman counts down three, two and one on her fingers.
Ciarrocchi grew up in southern Chester County, where her father co-founded Modern Mushroom Farms, which is still owned and operated by her family. She now lives in Merion with her husband, David Fineman. But Wilmington has always been her second home. When she was a child, it was “the big city,” where the family came to shop at Wanamaker’s department store, visit extended family, and connect with the rich Italian history and close-knit community at St. Anthony of Padua.
“Wilmington represents my Italian-American community, much more so than where I grew up. It’s my connection to my history and my family’s past,” she says. “To have begun my career in Wilmington and still be able to broadcast there now—that’s very special to me.”
Her ties to the local community were further strengthened with her acceptance to Padua Academy. “It was one of a long line of yeses in my life that I really believe were divinely inspired,” Ciarrocchi says. It was on the Padua school newspaper that she got her first taste of journalism. “I loved everything about journalism. I really lost myself in it,” she says.
Part of the first generation in her family to attend college, Ciarrocchi continued her all-female, Catholic education at Rosemont College on the Main Line. She says she appreciated the faith-based grounding of the schools she attended, as well as their educational focus on women. A committed Catholic, she feels “the divine presence” in herself and believes it exists in every person. “I feel that as I’ve moved along in life, I’ve been divinely inspired,” she says. “I disagree with some things the church has done, but this is my faith path. My faith means a lot to me.”
Ciarrocchi’s faith informs all aspects of her life, says Rosalie Mirenda, president of Neumann University and Ciarrocchi’s close friend. “She is unabashed about speaking and addressing the importance of her faith in her personal and professional life,” says Mirenda. “That’s very special, almost unheard of.”
After graduating from college, Ciarrocchi began freelancing for The News Journal and waitressing at The Red Fox Inn in Toughkenamon. She received her big break when she waited on Steve Courtin, sales manager of WAMS, then a Delaware AM station. They chatted; she mentioned she was looking for work as a broadcast journalist, and he told her about an opening at the station for an advertising copy writer. It wasn’t reporting, but it was an in, so she jumped at the opportunity.
Eighteen months later she was asked to substitute for a vacationing on-air reporter. It wasn’t long before she was recruited by WDEL. Ciarrocchi still refers to Courtin as her “Broadcast Godfather.”
The early to mid-1970s was not an easy time for a woman trying to make it in journalism, but Ciarrocchi’s talent couldn’t be overlooked.
“It was a time when a female on-air voice was fairly rare,” says John Rago, communications and policy director for Wilmington City Council. Rago, a WDEL reporter back then, recalls that there was some resistance to a woman joining the news staff.
“But good sense prevailed, and Pat was hired. She came in as a reporter, and once she grabbed hold of that position, she worked with it, generating fresh story ideas and new segments,” Rago says. “Back then radio news was fairly straightforward, but she was always looking to find the stories behind the stories and to connect with the people in the community.”
Ciarrocchi feels obligated to report the deeper, universal story. “You just have to listen carefully to hear it, and then to elevate that universal story above the immediate news,” she says. It’s not enough to report that there was a fire, she explains. You also need to show how people were affected.
“Pat makes a point of getting inside the story, of getting to know the players and understanding the situation so she can report on it. She works harder than a lot of people in this business,” says Pete Booker, president and CEO of Delmarva Broadcasting Co., which owns WDEL. Although he has never worked directly with Ciarrocchi, Booker has known her since high school. As colleagues in a close-knit industry, he has watched her career for decades. “All of us in the broadcasting industry would like to be regarded and respected in the way that Pat is,” he adds.
Despite her success in what was once a male-dominated field, Ciarrocchi dismisses the idea that she was a trailblazer. Instead, she points to Barbara Walters. “She was a real pioneer in this field. She led the way and created a path for me to follow.”
Ciarrocchi’s career in television began serendipitously. She was reading the news on WDEL one day when a veteran colleague asked if she’d ever considered television reporting, “because you look like you’re on television right now.” That observation altered her career goals, and she began looking for work in television news. Her first gig was at WHAG-TV, a small station in Hagerstown, Md. She worked there three years when she learned that KYW-TV news was putting together a hometown team. It was another divinely inspired moment, Ciarrocchi believes. Her aunt had written to the studio management to suggest they hire her niece. Soon after, Ciarrocchi—then working in the 154th broadcast market in the country—was called by KYW-TV, then and now the fourth biggest market in the country.
That was in 1982. She’s been at KYW ever since, adapting to myriad changes in the industry and sustaining her respected career through 12 news directors, 13 general managers and a change of network affiliation.
“I built my career on the philosophy Joe Biden used in his first run for Senate: People may not really know me, but I can get them to know me. You go out there and shake hands with them and look them in the eye,” she says. “I would accept every opportunity to speak, no matter how small—emceeing, graduations, public speaking for various groups—in order to create a public footing.”
Those ties to her community are deeply satisfying to Ciarrocchi. She says she’s never had a desire to work anywhere else. “I’ve always believed that being part of a community I love, and working in a market large enough to do network-quality work—that would be most satisfying,” she says.
Ciarrocchi has earned her success, having racked up a host of regional and national industry honors, including multiple regional Emmys and awards for communications excellence from a variety of groups, including those representing women and Catholics.
As a Catholic, Ciarrocchi was a natural when it came to covering stories about the church. These have run the gamut from inspiring—the canonization of Philadelphia’s Saint Katharine Drexel and John Paul II’s 1989 visit to the U.S.—to tragic, such as the sex abuse scandal. “It was gut-wrenching to look at the terrible violation of children at the hands of people they trusted and to see how the church protected the institution first,” Ciarrocchi says. “That was an assignment that was personally disturbing for me, but never once—not for a moment—did I think about not doing it.”
Despite her fame, Ciarrocchi’s “office” is a cubicle in the sprawling newsroom—a window view the only indication of her status. Family photos are scattered about: Ciarrocchi with her mother and two younger brothers, with her husband and two adult stepsons. She was 42 when she met her husband, a man, she says, who “reaches right into my soul, sees it and reads it back to me. It’s a wonderful gift to have someone like that as your life partner.”
Using Her Influence to Help Others
A framed saying hangs prominently on a cubicle wall: “We are all called upon to do great things with love.” It’s a philosophy that guides her work and community involvement.
Ciarrocchi’s first foray into fundraising came when at 9 years old, she raised $38.75 in a backyard carnival for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, an idea inspired by Sally Starr, the recently deceased host of the former Delaware Valley children’s television show “Our Gal Sal.”
Ciarrocchi never forgot the power of the medium to support philanthropies. She goes beyond what’s required for KYW-TV’s fundraising efforts by seeking out and reporting the compelling stories of people helped by the charities. “She feels an obligation to give back,” says Calabria, who calls Ciarrocchi “my station sister.”
Ciarrocchi has served on the boards of numerous nonprofits, including the Easter Seal Society of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and Rosemont College.
Her community involvement, particularly with Padua and St. Anthony’s, led Wilmington’s Columbus Day Communion Breakfast to honor her as Italian-American of the Year in 2012. “Once her name was brought up by the committee, the approval was instantaneous and unanimous,” says committee member John DiEleuterio. “People in the community refer to her as ‘our Pat Ciarrocchi.’ They’ve adopted her as a Wilmingtonian.”
Last year Ciarrocchi established scholarships at Padua Academy and Neumann University in honor of her 30th anniversary at KYW-TV. She also was instrumental in forming a communications department at Padua and helping the school to set up the Pat Ciarrocchi Television Studio. She even hosted the first of the high school’s daily shows, which are broadcast internally for the student body.
“Pat is like a rock star when she comes here,” says Cindy Hayes Mann, head of Padua Academy. “So many of the young women emulate her. She’s a strong woman who knows where she’s going, but is compassionate to others—a lady in the truest sense of the word.”