On December 2, 2009, and after 21 years as anchor at WMAR-TV, Mary Beth Marsden signed off for one final time at the end of the 6 p.m. newscast.
It was a bittersweet moment for the Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, who, after months of stressful negotiations, had taken a buyout from the ABC affiliate.
While her three children (Jack, now 14, George, now 12, and Tess, now 10) and her husband, Mark McGrath, watched from the wings, she intoned, "Twenty-one years. Fifteen hairstyles—one for every news director," during a three-minute montage that began with her first story at the station on changes at the Towson Library and ended with her final farewell.
Nearly two years to that day, Marsden sits on a brown velvet sofa in the living room of her storybook Cape Cod-style home in Ruxton and reflects on the end of an era.
"It was a great run," she says, "but I think you can be someplace too long, and you need to have a change for yourself. I didn't seek it—it just came down the pike, but it was the right time for me. After the newscast, we all went out to dinner, and I was free as a bird."
But she was hardly retired. With her newfound freedom, Marsden developed a renewed passion for painting, exhibiting her work at art shows held at L'Hirondelle and Elkridge Country Clubs and even winning an award for her flower paintings at the Maryland State Fair. And in September of 2011, she was hired by WBAL radio to host the Maryland's News Now With Mary Beth Marsden.
But one mission has been particularly near and dear to Marsden's heart: In 2002, her daughter, Tess, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental delay, not otherwise specified)—a type of autism-spectrum disorder.
"I really didn't fully accept the name of the diagnosis for years," says Marsden.
Now, with her time away from the daily grind—and the unyielding spotlight of TV—Marsden was finally determined to do something proactive for her daughter and other kids like her.
When Tess was first diagnosed, Marsden knew very little about autism.
"We knew something was off," she explains. "At two, she didn't have two-word sentences, and she would sometimes act out, but autism was way off my chart."
Marsden and McGrath took Tess for testing at Kennedy Krieger Institute. She remembers observing Tess's session through a window with Rebecca Landa, the director for the Center of Autism and Related Disorders.
"She said, 'I believe that Tess is unequivocally on the autism spectrum,'" Marsden says. "And then she went, 'Blah, blah, blah,' because I didn't hear anything else she said. I was reeling. It was one of those moments where the whole world spins off its axis."
Once she accepted the diagnosis—and she admits it took a long time—she set out to become something of an autism expert. Using the same kind of doggedness that made her a successful journalist, she voraciously read about the condition and consulted with educators, other parents, and experts in the field.
About a year and a half into Marsden's "retirement," she came up with an idea for a possible television show. "I knew I wanted to do something with autism," she says. "My idea was doing a reality show called On the Spec, as in spectrum. I wove in aspects of [Dr. Seuss's] Horton Hears a Who—it was all the people on the spec in Horton who were all screaming to be heard—so it was a play on that. I had envisioned a whole SuperNanny type of thing for autism. We would take a situation such as a parent trying to potty train his autistic 8-year-old, and try to solve it."
While the powers that be at a national cable network showed some interest, ultimately autism was deemed a downer as far as programming was concerned.
"It got as far as a producers meeting [at the network], but they said it was 'too depressing,'" says Marsden. "They love hoarders," she cracks, demonstrating her trademark humor. "I was like, 'What if I find an autistic hoarder?'"
And she bristles at the idea that her pitch was depressing.
"'Really?'" she recalls saying. "'Yes, there are moments that are depressing, but, by and large, the people I know in this world are the funniest, most creative, empathetic, warm, and loving people; I find it uplifting. If you are seeing it as depressing, the world is seeing it as depressing, and we need to break out of that.'"
So Marsden decided to take matters into her own hands, forging ahead and using her own funds (to date, approximately $15,000) to produce a library of video vignettes for her website, Real Look Autism, (reallookautism.com), a resource for anyone touched by or interested in autism.
Her goal? To focus on concrete strategies and pragmatic solutions—from dealing with messy table manners to awkward social skills and compulsive behaviors—that have worked with children who have autism spectrum disorders.
"Research is great," says Marsden. "But we need to help people who are in it now."
Though Marsden had misgivings about the idea of putting Tess—now a fourth grader in a special-education program at The Chatsworth School in Reisterstown—and her anxiety about school in the spotlight, she ultimately felt it was an important thing to do.
"I realized that if I was going to ask other people to tell their stories, I would have to tell mine, too," she says.
In Tess's video, she is shown with helpful teachers who offer strategies—reinforcing positive behavior and giving Tess "preferred breaks" like video-game time—that help her deal with her anxiety about school.
"People have told me they have shown the video of Tess as part of an IEP [individualized education plan] meeting at school. I'm like, 'Wow. We helped someone.' That makes me feel so good," Marsden says.
All of the videos on the Real Look Autism site (eight to date), feature Baltimore-area families and are filmed and edited by Marsden's former WMAR co-worker, videographer John Anglim.
"I thought it was a fantastic idea," says Anglim, "and it was filling such a need that no one else was. It fit like a key in a lock. And from personal experience, there are members of my family on the spectrum, so it hit home."
The videos have been a huge hit not only in America, but also in Australia and the UK.
"She throws herself at it," marvels Marsden's husband, Mark McGrath, a financial adviser for Stifel Nicolaus. "I thought this might be just a 'Mary Beth project.' I had no idea it would reach a global audience."
Almost obsessively, Marsden tracks how many people have viewed her videos both on the Real Look Autism website and on YouTube.
"Fifty-thousand," she says, scanning her website on the laptop in her kitchen. "That's not enough. I want to get to one million. I could talk about autism forever," she adds with emphasis. "You either find your thing, or it finds you. And this is my thing."
As a child, Marsden, the oldest of three, was never afraid to go after what she wanted. And what she wanted in her teen years was to leave the family fold and get out and explore the world on her own.
"I was bossy and driven and independent," says the Washington, D.C., native. "I couldn't wait to get out of the house to work in Ocean City in the summers at the Longhorn Steakhouse. I wore a tight polyester uniform and spent the tips as fast as we made them."
In 1979, Marsden headed off to Towson University to major in fine art. In drama class one day, the assignment was to perform one's own obituary. Marsden performed hers as a newscaster.
"My friends told me I was a natural, so I think I had the bug at that point," recalls Marsden.
By 1981, Marsden, then an education major, transferred to University of Maryland, College Park, to pursue journalism. Once there, she landed an internship at D.C.'s WJLA, writing news copy for anchor Rene Poussaint. ("If she stumbled on a word during a broadcast, you figured you'd written something wrong," she laughs, "but she was really encouraging—in a standoffish way.")
At that point, Marsden felt she had found her calling. "I knew that's what I wanted to do. Period."
Her rise was fairly rapid, though there were some dues to pay. After graduating in 1983 with a B.A. in radio, television, and film, Marsden joined the news team at WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg, VA.
"In the TV world, you have maybe 220 markets," she says. "This was about 187."
Within eight months, Marsden made the leap to a much larger market in Scranton, PA, at WNEP-TV.
"I shot and edited my own video while driving around in my Ford Bronco," Marsden recalls. "I anchored and produced the show and ran my own prompter."
It was during this initiation by fire in Scranton, while covering everything from township meetings to strip mining, that Marsden really hit her stride.
By 1988, Marsden's former WNEP news director, Paul Steuber, hired her for a second time to work with him at his new station, WMAR-TV in Baltimore.
"I loved it," says Marsden, "because I am a questioner, and I am curious. It also satisfied a creative side of me—you are putting together a story with video and audio and you are piecing it together in an entertaining fashion."
And obviously Marsden and WMAR were a good match. She stayed at the job for more than 20 years.
On a sunny winter afternoon, Marsden sits at her desk on the third floor of WBAL-AM and gets ready to host Maryland's News Now With Mary Beth Marsden.
Dressed casually in a Relentless 7 concert T-shirt and a pair of corduroy jeans, she's got an hour or so to prepare before she goes on the air at 2 p.m. Of course, she's already put in a full-day's work on the domestic front: waking up at 6:30 a.m., riding the exercise bike for 30 minutes, getting three kids ready for school, driving Tess half-way across town to Chatsworth in Reisterstown, speaking at length with her children's pediatrician, and checking comments from fans of the Real Look Autism Facebook page.
When Marsden was offered the job of weekday afternoon drive-time host, she was initially hesitant. "I had two days where I was in a deep depression," she says. "But once I did two shows, I was like, 'Okay, I can do this.'"
Her WBAL colleagues had no such reservations.
"She is a great addition to our team," says sportscaster Brett Hollander. "She has always been incredibly well respected as a broadcaster and a journalist. Good broadcasters, I have always felt, can be chameleons in this field and can adapt to anything and move from TV to radio. Mary Beth has been able to do that with total ease."
As she reads the show's rundown, edits copy, talks to producer Jared Ruderman, and takes occasional sips of water out of Tess's SpongeBob Squarepants water bottle, the pixie-sized powerhouse is the picture of cool and collected.
As for her laid-back duds? She went casual from day one. "I didn't want to set the bar too high," she cracks.
During the show, Marsden is a total pro, juggling everything from breaking news to live interviews, and incorporating up-to-the-minute information into her script with mere minutes to broadcast. On today's docket, an interview with WBAL-TV reporter Jayne Miller about former Governor Robert Ehrlich campaign manager Paul E. Schurick's "Robo-calls" trial.
"Listen to this," she says to no one in particular in the studio as she scans an article from The Baltimore Sun about the charges of election fraud meant to suppress the African-American voter turnout during the 2010 Gubernatorial election. ["Schurick's attorney Dwight Pettit] called the whole thing a 'faux pas.'"
She scribbles a few notes, and minutes later, she goes live with Miller. "Do you want to talk about what the defense said first?'" she asks Miller. "I love that Dwight Pettit called it a 'faux pas.'"
So far, Marsden says she's loving the gig. She really appreciates the fact that "WBAL has a lot of connections," she says. "So you get to talk to Raven's coach John Harbaugh or a Supreme Court Justice or Cal Ripken comes in. I almost have this little kid excitement about it. I get jazzed. I am never bored, and I don't have to put my energies into making sure I covered a zit up!"
That being said, Marsden does have some designs on getting back on TV—just not how you might think.
"My parents had a big antenna put on the roof of their house in Montgomery County so they could get Baltimore stations, and now that I'm not on TV, my mother will say, 'Do you think [WBAL-TV] will call you to ask you to fill in?'" she chuckles.
But Marsden has other ideas for sister station WBAL-TV.
"I want to mainstream the Real Look Autism videos," she says with a glimmer in her eye, "and I am going to be pushing WBAL-TV in April during Autism Awareness Month to be running them. I have no hesitation about [a conflict of interest]. I'm like, 'Screw it.' If you have a venue, who is going to fault you? Journalism feeds my mind and keeps me sharp, but this feeds my soul."