City Life

Frederica Freyberg: Madison's broadcast newswoman

The anchor of "Here and Now" started as a dancer

The world lost a dancer when Frederica Freyberg —then Frederica Runge—decided during college that dance wasn’t ever going to pay the bills. 

But once Freyberg took stock of her skill set, she left her college out East, returned home to enroll at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and settled on a new major—broadcast journalism. She’s never missed a step since. 

From her days as an intern at NBC 15 in the early 1980s to her current role as anchor of Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now” program on Friday nights, Freyberg has embraced reporting. 

“It was a great choice,” she says. 

Asked what drew her to it—perhaps breaking stories, or telling stories—Freyberg says, “It was everything. All of that. I liked spot news. I liked covering an entire criminal trial.”

Her current job allows Freyberg the weekly chance to interview the state’s biggest newsmakers; to moderate debates between candidates for Wisconsin’s highest offices; and to make hourlong documentaries, including 2016’s acclaimed “Too Many Candles: Milwaukee Gun Violence.”

If there’s a drawback, it may be that broadcast news is a life in the public eye, and inevitably leads to things like magazine interviews. Freyberg is less comfortable when the tables are turned.

“It’s so weird for me to talk about myself,” she says.

Freyberg’s on-camera poise and range might lead to the assumption that it all comes easily, but it never does. She left an early TV job in Green Bay, where the Packers dominated the news, because her skills weren’t in sports reporting.

“I tried to do some serious reporting,” Freyberg says, “and was assigned to things like cat shows.”

As a general assignment reporter in the Twin Cities in the late 1990s, Freyberg was dispatched to interview then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura about a controversial passage in Ventura’s new book, “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed.”

It was evening and the governor was at a Minnesota Timberwolves game. Ventura was not favorably disposed toward reporters.

“He called us jackals,” Freyberg says. “If you went to one of his press conferences, you had to wear this press pass that said ‘jackal’ on it.”

Freyberg tracked down Ventura at the Target Center. She brought up the passage in the book in which Ventura wrote about visiting a house of prostitution in Nevada just prior to shipping out with the Navy SEALS. It was causing an uproar.

“He didn’t take kindly to that line of questioning,” Freyberg says. “He got really red in the face and angry. His state trooper had to actually step between us because he was so angry.”

Even when she was a young reporter, Freyberg brought with her some unusual life experience.

A Madison native, she attended Crestwood Elementary and Jefferson Middle School. Then when her father, esteemed UW Law School professor Carlisle Runge, took a post with the United Nations, Frederica, known as Fred to her friends, attended school for a time in Switzerland.

She eventually graduated from a prep school in Massachusetts, then attended Sarah Lawrence College, north of New York City, where she decided her love of dance would not carry into a career.

After enrolling at UW–Madison, Freyberg interned with NBC 15. She returned to the station in 1983 for a reporting job and stayed there six years. She ticks off the names of valued colleagues who longtime Madison residents will quickly recall: Dave Crawley, Rick Fetherston, Bryan Brosamle and, especially, Bob Richards.

Richards was best known as a consumer reporter, but he liked the drama of the criminal courts.

“Whenever we heard on the scanners that the sally port was opening at the federal building,” Freyberg says, “Bob was certain it was Leo Burt”—a reference to Wisconsin’s most famous fugitive.

While reporting for NBC 15, Freyberg was introduced by mutual friends to a law school student named Gary Freyberg. They were married in 1985 and have three kids, all now in their 20s.

After jobs in Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, Freyberg returned to Madison in 2001 and took a job covering the Wisconsin state Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio in 2002.

It was not lost on Freyberg that she was replacing the highly admired 25-year veteran John Powell. “It was daunting,” she says, but she dug in, accepted the learning curve and soon relished the intensity of covering a gubernatorial election and the just-breaking caucus scandal.

Anchoring “Here and Now” came next. Freyberg has been doing that job full-time since 2004. She appreciates her longtime producer, Andy Moore—“funny, nice, with a real institutional knowledge of the state and all the players”—and likes how she can do  the occasional reporting piece as well as anchor the show.

In late 2011, Freyberg produced a 10-minute story on the tumult surrounding the Act 10 budget repair bill. “Wisconsin: Torn in Two” received a Chicago/Midwest Emmy for Outstanding Achievement for News Specialty Report/Series.

“I feel really lucky,” she says, “to still be doing what I started doing so many years ago.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine.

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