Rob feder - where's Allison Payne?

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Posted by Alice In Pain on January 31, 2011 at 00:21:32:

Payne gone again: WGN anchor cites vocal cord trouble this time

Posted on January 31st, 2011 @ 12:00 am

The sad, strange saga of Allison Payne just took another bizarre turn. And this time, not even her WGN-Channel 9 bosses have a clue when the chronically ailing news anchor may be back.

For the better part of a month, Payne (pictured left) has been missing from the 11am weekday newscast she co-anchors with Steve Sanders on the Tribune Co.-owned station. Viewers were kept in the dark about her absence until Payne posted the following message January 20 on her personal blog:

Thank you all for your kind comments! WGN is a connection to Chicago for so many people. As if I haven’t had enough health issues recently, now I’m having trouble with my vocal chords [sic]. As you all know, I can’t read the news without a voice. The doctor says only time will heal it. I hope to be back with you all soon! And thank you so much for your prayers.

Love, Allison

Payne could not be reached for further comment, but WGN news director Greg Caputo confirmed her story, telling me: “She was diagnosed a few months ago and tried to tough it out. But her doctor eventually ordered her to cut back using her voice. Something like a newscast — especially one that runs for two hours and includes as many different segments as Midday — puts too much stress on the vocal cords, so her doctor wants her to stay off the air till they can fix the problem.” Caputo said he didn’t know how much longer that would take.

For Payne, who turns 47 in a couple of weeks, it’s the latest in a series of personal issues that intermittently have kept her off the air and in the headlines for years.

In 2008, after viewers flooded the station with calls when they observed Payne slurring her words and swiveling in her chair during a 9pm newscast, she issued a public apology and famously told Phil Rosenthal: “I was not drunk.” She attributed the incident to the “lingering effects of a series of ministrokes . . . compounded by overwork and perhaps a bit of adrenaline-fueled giddiness.” In early 2009, she also acknowledged treatment for depression.

After several extended leaves of absence, Payne was demoted from both the station’s 9pm newscast she had anchored since joining the station in 1990 and from the 5:30pm newscast. Nevertheless, around that same time, she was given a two-year contract renewal. And last November, celebrating her 20th year at WGN, she told Stella Foster: “My health is good now and I feel great!”

But her problems were still on display as recently as December 10 during live coverage of the funeral of Cubs legend and radio announcer Ron Santo. A croaky and seemingly overwrought Payne sniffled and snuffled her way through the broadcast. More than once she could be heard sobbing, leaving it to Sanders and sports anchor Dan Roan to cover for her. (Incredulous at what was happening, I tweeted: “How can WGN allow a clearly impaired Allison Payne to be anchoring coverage of Ron Santo funeral? What a shame.”)

Was it the vocal cord problem? Depression? Another after-effect of the ministokes? Something chemical? Or was Payne simply caught up in the event she was covering and unable to maintain a professional demeanor? We’ll probably never know the truth.

The last time I wrote a column about Payne and her history of slurred speech, glassy-eyed gazes and odd behavior on the air, she took to her Facebook page to denounce me as a “miserable, inadequate journalist” and “an irresponsible writer.”

She felt I had taken her on-air admission about a 20-year drinking problem and her public identification of her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor “out of context,” adding: “In full disclosure, I was treated by addiction specialists for clinical depression and all potentially addictive prescriptions were taken away from me.” But she insisted that neither alcohol nor substance abuse had anything to do with her numerous and prolonged absences.

So where does that leave viewers? If you tuned in to WGN Midday News in recent days, you’d have seen backup anchor and medical reporter Dina Bair alongside Sanders — with no mention of her filling in for Payne. When I pointed that out to Caputo, he thanked me for the heads up, calling it “an oversight that I’ve asked be corrected.”

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