A career by chance and BGS

Debra Leigh (’80)

A serendipitous sighting of a question on JMU’s Facebook page, a photo and the exchange of a few emails recently led me to discover Debra Leigh (’80) a voice-over actor living in Los Angeles. I googled her. There, alongside Betty White and other Hollywood luminaries, I found Debra. I was intrigued and decided to ask her about her career. What I found was an interesting story of an alumna with the right stuff and the right luck who parlayed a Bachelor of General Studies degree* into a great career. In her own words, here’s Debra’s story….

I say little prayers of thanks often for what was known in 1979 as JMU’s Bachelor of General Studies* program. Dr. Elizabeth Finlayson and my adviser Dr. Rex Fuller had a huge impact on my life, as did communication profs Tom Arthur, Roger Hall and Charlie Turner. Back then, radio broadcasting courses were part of the curriculum, and they catapulted my career.

My goal in 1979 was to write and produce radio and television commercials. I thought it would be helpful to learn the technical sides of broadcasting and advertising. The BGS program allowed me to tailor my courses and practicum specifically for that goal, since I already had my basics out of the way from six semesters at Westhampton College and the College of William and Mary a decade earlier.

I had taken an 8-year hiatus from college, married and started a family. With experiential learning and transferred credits, I entered JMU almost as a senior. That gave me a lot of leeway to structure my schedule and it was a godsend. I landed a job even before graduation — just by being in the right place at exactly the right time.

My plan was to begin as a radio station copywriter, not realizing tiny stations like those in the Shenandoah Valley didn’t have just copywriters. At small stations everyone wore ALL the hats. DJs sold advertising when they weren’t on the air, wrote the copy and voiced it.

I’m glad I didn’t know that when I decided to drive over to a little AM radio station, 790 WSIG, in Mt. Jackson where I lived. I met with the program director, Dave Parks, who also was a DJ and produced commercials. He asked me to step into the production room, sit down at the mic and read a PSA. A bit confused, but happy to oblige, I read while he recorded. He said he’d call me the next day. Unbeknownst to me, he and the station’s general manager, Dick Mawyer, who also headed WSIG’s sales department, had been discussing the possibility of adding a news department. Dave played my ‘demo’ for Mawyer.

The next day they offered me the position of WSIG’s first-ever news director— and first-ever news staff, first-ever news anchor, and first-ever news reporter. What are the odds I would walk into WSIG looking for work that particular week? But even if they’d offered me WSIG sanitation engineer, I would have accepted. Anything to get a foot in the door and break into the industry.

WSIG allowed me to work part time until I graduated in August 1980. Although I was pregnant that year with my oldest daughter, everything fell into place nicely. But after nearly three years of doing news, and with two small children, I found being the whole news department was taxing. Having the scanner on 24/7 so I could run out to cover big stories for my 6 a.m. newscast, sitting in court all day to cover a trial, phoning in reports, driving back to the station for my afternoon drive-time newscasts, and attending school board or county supervisors meetings at night was a real challenge for me and for my family.

In my third year, I explained this to my general manager, but assured him I would stay on until they found a replacement, regardless of how long it took. I didn’t want to leave them high and dry. He understood and was beyond kind in accepting my resignation. I asked him to keep me in mind if any position with less demanding schedules ever came up at WSIG.

Mawyer then explained that his bosses, the Lewis brothers who owned WSIG and quite a few other stations around Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, had asked him to send me their way if I ever decided to leave WSIG. They wanted to add a woman to their Winchester FM station WINC’s morning show. Once again in the right place at the perfectly opportune moment, I slid seamlessly from “790 WSIG news director” to “WINC 92.5 morning show co-host” — as soon as my replacement was hired.

The ‘right place, right time’ miracles never ended! Seriously, they’re still going on. It’s surreal.

One of my favorites happened in the early 90s. I was a DJ at another Lewis-owned station, Country KCY in Harrisonburg. I was hosting a ‘party bus’ of ticket winners to a Billy Ray Cyrus concert in Washington, D.C. As our bus rolled in, I realized I’d left my backstage pass at KCY. I had an interview scheduled with Billy Ray in minutes! I was at the backstage door explaining this to the security guard, who was under strict orders NOT to allow ANYONE in without a backstage pass, when someone came out through the door. In that split-second the door was open, I heard a voice cry out “Debra?” and caught a glimpse of my friend Carol Munse (‘84), a JMU grad who had also worked at WSIG. “Get in here, girl!” she said. The guard objected, but Carol who was working for WMZQ, the DC station hosting the concert, authorized my entry and introduced me to her general manager and program director. We all stood there chatting with Billy Ray. The next day Carol called to tell me her boss was considering hiring me, and asked how fast could I send her an air-check demo? That’s how I landed my first union gig. It would lead to amazing things I still almost can’t believe.

While in Washington, D.C., for the remaining years of my radio career (at WMZQ and WASH) I created, launched and hosted one of the first radio talk shows geared toward women.

Years later, while living at Massanutten not far from Harrisonburg, I had the opportunity to pay back a bit to JMU by working with an amazing group of talented young women at WXJM co-hosting a college version of Girl Talk. At least two of the women I had the honor of working with, Becky Martinez (’07) and Sarah Delia (’09), pursued radio careers and are now hosting shows on NPR affiliate stations in Wyoming and Indiana. I have the delightful opportunity to listen to their shows via the Internet!

Over the past three decades, my JMU acting training helped me book countless voice-acting jobs. I launched my own voice-over business when technology advanced to the point where it became possible to do voice-overs from a home studio.

Since moving to LA, I’ve landed some small but fun television and film jobs. Recently, I shot a couple of national commercials. I’ve also had a chance to do some stand-up comedy at L.A.’s legendary comedy venue The Comedy Store. Once again, I lucked into these by meeting an agent via another old radio friend.

Although I attribute a huge percentage of my career to luck, I realize “luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” The preparation I received at JMU enabled me to take full advantage of the opportunities Lady Luck sent my way.

At the outset of my career, I would try to explain my BGS degree to those who asked “what did you study at JMU?” It confused people, so I started answering, ‘broadcasting and advertising’ — the concentrations in which I earned my degree.

Indeed, thanks to the logistics of the BGS program, I earned my working knowledge for a great career. That, and a little luck.

You can learn more about Debra’s career, find links to her acting roles and voice-overs, see her in action, and hear her demo by going to her website: http://www.debraleigh.com/

*The Bachelor of General Studies program is now the Bachelor of Individualized Study. Part of JMU’s  Adult Degree Completion program, the BIS degree is designed to help students complete a degree earlier interrupted. For more information on the program, click the embedded link.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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