After 35 years working in Pittsburgh media, Lynn Cullen has a ton of behind-the-scenes stories to tell — from television news outtakes to the time she met a sexually inappropriate dolphin while on assignment at the Pittsburgh Zoo. (Yes, you just read that correctly.)
On Nov. 17, Cullen will share her experiences during her one-woman show Lynn Cullen's Wild Ride, at the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret. The show will benefit Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, an organization Cullen is passionate about and for which she serves as a board member. Cullen says she'll be sharing stories about her journey from Wisconsin to Pittsburgh and from her days as a reporter and talk-show host for WTAE. Most recently, Cullen has hosted a one-hour Internet talk show for City Paper at www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/LynnCullenLive/Page. She sat down with CP to chat about her life and upcoming performance, but not before brashly warning us not to "give the show away!"
- Illustration by Vince Dorse
What attracted you to this career?
I was not necessarily attracted to this career. I always felt it just happened. I, myself, did not think I would go into television, and it was not my idea to go into radio. I've felt like my entire life has been an out-of-body experience.
Well then how did you get here?
I've always been amazed at people who know what they want to do, who have a goal, who steadfastly seek it out, who have ambition and passion. I had none of that. I was a very bewildered and lost soul well into my 20s. I did not get a degree from college until I was 26. When I first went to college, I just went because that was what you were supposed to do. The '60s and the Vietnam War began, and I was swept up in all of that. Because I was an idiot, my guru was the LSD guru Timothy Leary. I had personally heard him speak at Northwestern University. He sat cross-legged on the stage as he talked. I heard him say "turn on, tune in, drop out." This was genius to me. So I did drop out of school, and I managed to sort of support myself. I got a job as secretary, and then I got it in my head to go to San Francisco because I guess that's where things were happening. My parents, desperate to stop me, managed to do so. That where my story takes a turn. They lucked out and somehow got me to a situation where I was sort of able to grab onto a branch in this raging river that was carrying me to who knows where.
What do you think of the Pittsburgh media landscape now?
I think it's pretty horrific. I think TV news, even at the network level, has dumbed down to a point where my heart goes out to them for having to work in it. There are so many bright, capable people who are in that job. I think radio is obviously beyond a vast wasteland. It's a moonscape, a nightmare, a monochromatic right-wing horror show. The [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette] is hardly big enough to wrap fish in anymore, and that's a liberal newspaper that couldn't seem to endorse Tom Wolf for governor. There are some really good reporters in this town, but old media — TV, radio, newspapers — are like me in my 20s. They're grasping, they're being sort of driven by huge forces beyond their control. They're being swept downstream, and I don't think anybody quite understands where that will end.
Where do you see yourself in the Pittsburgh media landscape? Is here a niche that you fill?
I'm half-way out to pasture. I made my mark. I had a hell of a time. I'm on Medicare, for God's sake. I do think I managed to carve out a career here that was unique, and most of all, I was allowed to be myself. For some reason, Pittsburgh accepted this loud-mouth and made me feel very, very at home.
What issues are you mainly covering now?
They're all so damn depressing, it's a wonder anybody's even listening anymore. I think I reel constantly about the fact that all of our institutions are broken. I look with a measure of fear at the coming of artificial intelligence. I actually think that my son, when he was 7 or 8 years old, said that the smartest thing I ever heard, and that was, "Mom, you're lucky. At least you won't have to live under robot overlords." And he's so right!
I must say, in my own life, I'm surrounded by friends and love and family, and the world is beautiful. But no one wants to hear you talk about that.
What stories do you plan to share in your show?
I'm going to show some clips from my TV career at WTAE because in my TV career here, I had a hell of a lot of fun and did things that you would not see anywhere in television news now. I had an alter-ego named Miss Spelling who had a tiara and sash. I tried to do other people's jobs, and we'll see some of that. I used to love showing the outtakes that no one else wanted anybody to see because to me that was always the best stuff. I have a great story about Iggy Pop. It's a story that you can only imagine. To this day, every time I hear his name, my blood runs cold.
Do you plan to share the story about the dolphin?
I'd think there'd be a riot if I didn't. It was probably the greatest sexual experience I had in Pittsburgh and it was with a fish. I know it's technically a mammal, but "fish" is funnier. It almost makes me weep, that poor animal. I've just never gotten his loneliness and neediness out of my head. I weep for the life he led.
Why did you choose Planned Parenthood as the benefiting organization?
I support their mission with all my heart. They have been on the receiving end of such a despicable campaign of misinformation and disinformation. They are an organization that provides women access to health care. They are under constant assault from all the yahoo state legislatures that have been taken over by Republicans. The thing I can't comprehend is how women in this country supposedly have the right to end a pregnancy if they so choose, and yet in so many states, they can't access that right.
You've been having a health issue. Do you want to mention anything about to your audience right now?
I am totally freaked out. I'm about 78 percent of my normal energy level right now. I'm having a very rough recovery from an emergency surgery. I mean, the show will go on even if I have to be wheeled out in a hospital bed. It's very upsetting to me that I don' t feel like I'm going to be a 100 percent, and my anesthesia befogged head is not where it should be to pull this off, but I'm hoping that I'm like a racehorse and when the gate opens, I'll come bounding out.
Why should people come out and see your show on Nov. 17?
There's no way you won't find these stories funny. Also, much more importantly, they'll be supporting a great cause in need — more than it's been in ages. The idea of Planned Parenthood becoming something that's considered an outrage by so many is beyond my ken.
Lastly, what do you think about your online show at City Paper?
God bless them for being willing to have a voice like mine and my politics and for giving me a platform. I am so grateful, as are all the people who are thirsting, starving for something other than white, heterosexual males whining.