For four local anchors who hail from the Rockford area, sharing the daily news is more than just work. They’re talking with friends, family and other connections who care just as much about their hometown as they do.
If home is where the heart is, then it shouldn’t be any surprise to see so many Rockford natives on local television news. At WIFR-23, several top talents have built a career in their hometown. Every day, they’re sharing the news as much with strangers as they are with neighbors, friends and family. And their knowledge of the area lends them an instant connection.
Ask them what it’s like to come home and they’ll give you a simple answer: It’s rewarding.
The other half of WIFR’s “Andy & Aaron” morning show never really left home. Aside from a brief stint at a Wisconsin station, Aaron Wilson has been a firm fixture in Rockford households for nearly two-and-a-half decades. And to think it almost didn’t even happen.
Growing up in Rockford, Wilson admired local personalities like Sue Mroz and Bob Kevern, as well as wacky Willard Scott, the weatherman on “The Today Show.” Wilson remembers thinking it’d be fun to talk weather and ham it up on camera for a living. He interned with a local TV station as a teenager and decided it wasn’t for him, after all.
“I kind of got my fix,” Wilson recalls.
He headed to Rockford University with plans to become a teacher. But fate had another plan.
In 1997 his old connections told him they were surprised he’d left the business and persuaded him to take a weekend forecasting job at WIFR. Within six months, he was offered a full-time position on the morning show, opposite Andy Gannon. Wilson traveled twice a day between the WIFR studio and his college classes, juggling school work and the daily broadcasts. Again, he figured it was just temporary.
“I had all but decided I was going to leave and pursue teaching,” Wilson says. “Through talking with management, WIFR committed to a longer term with me, and now here we are 24 years later.”
Generations of Rockford residents have enjoyed “Andy & Aaron” in the mornings, including many young reporters who first knew him on their TV screens.
Wilson says it’s especially rewarding to talk with his hometown every morning, particularly because of the many connections he has on the other side of the camera. It’s not uncommon for friends and family to share breaking news with him – sometimes, even as he’s reporting it live on air.
“In your hometown you’re able to make more of an impact, because so much more of the community is special and near and dear to you,” he says. “I just didn’t feel I was able to make the same impact somewhere else that I could here, in my hometown. There’s more of a real, true connection here.”
When she left for college, Shannon Kelly wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, but like most young Rockfordians, she anticipated moving on to bigger places, far from home. Nearly a decade later, she’s making a name for herself as one of Rockford’s evening news anchors.
“I think some people have this mindset that, when you move back home it’s almost like a failure, and you’re just coming home,” she says. “I think coming here was the best decision for my life and for my career, because I was able to really do a lot in such a short amount of time. I don’t think I would have been able to do that in another market.”
Looking back, Kelly says she’s surprised she didn’t make the move to journalism faster, given her strong interest in English and writing, and her lack of interest in more everyday fields. So, when she saw the inner workings of ESPN’s “Collge Gameday” while attending Michigan State University, the calling was instantaneous.
Kelly fielded job offers from several cities, including some on the West Coast, but the Midwesterner preferred to stay closer to home. When she got wind of an opening at WIFR and another local station, she figured it was a sign.
“I’m really glad I chose to move back home,” she says. “I think, especially in the news industry, it’s tough starting out. Being able to be in your hometown, where you’re already familiar with things and already have some contacts made, it’s easy to create new relationships.”
And, even though she can’t see who’s on the other side of the camera, Kelly believes sharing the news is still something personal.
“I got into this work because I like telling stories and journalism. But being able to do that, and being able to relay that information out to people you actually know, and people you actually care about – I think that makes it so much more worthwhile,” she says. “You can have a passion for something, but when it’s something that people you know really care about, I think it just hits harder for everyone.”
These days, Kelly finds it fun to work with the likes of Wilson and Gannon, whom she grew up watching on TV. And it’s even more “surreal” to be recognized while out in public.
“Growing up, you see these personalities on TV and you think they just exist in your television,” she says. “You see them out, even at the grocery store, and it’s like seeing your teacher outside of school. It’s weird. So, to be in that position now, it’s funny because I just think, ‘Well, we are people, too. We do exist outside our TVs.”
Kelly says she’s inspired by “boomerangers” like her, who’ve left town only to return and settle down. In fact, she launched a regular segment on “Comeback Kids” and the work they’re doing to improve the Rockford region.
“Don’t think of it as giving up or resorting to coming home,” she says. “I would advise somebody who’s thinking of coming home to Rockford to embrace everything it has to offer, because since you moved away so much has changed.”
You won’t see Laura Neuzil on the evening news, but you’ll certainly see her work. As WIFR’s assignment editor, Neuzil plays a critical role in coordinating every broadcast. Her days are often spent digging for answers, following leads and handing off information as reporters rush out the door.
“I’m the person saying, ‘I think this is a really big story in our area. This is what we should cover. This is something people care about,’” she says. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s what makes it cool.”
The Lake Summerset native has fond memories of watching “Andy & Aaron” as a child. See recalls seeing Wilson testing out roller coasters and exploring the region through her 9-inch television screen.
If you’d asked the Dakota High School grad in her teen years what she’d do with her life, journalist might not have been on the list – because she took every other English course in school.
“I think that’s so interesting, that the one course I didn’t take is the field I ended up going into,” she says.
That she ended up in the industry at all was almost an accident. Fresh out of community college, Neuzil had an offer to work in her school’s financial aid office. She hesitated and soon discovered an opening at WIFR for social media coordinator.
“I thought, ‘This sounds like a really fun job. I’d love to work with the news. That sounds really cool,’” recalls Neuzil. “And I ended up getting the job, and it was awesome. One of the biggest risks I ever took was turning down that job in the financial aid office.”
For five years she worked behind the scenes at WIFR, learning about journalism and sharing the news online. The job involved constant interactions with the public, something she found she really enjoyed. Then, in 2017 Neuzil accepted a digital editing job at a station in Milwaukee. It was a serious culture shift, going from a smaller, hometown market to the nation’s 37th largest.
“One thing I love about Rockford is that, even though it’s a larger area, even though we have a little over five counties to cover, everyone’s connected,” says Neuzil. “We take care of our own. In Milwaukee, what people in the city are experiencing isn’t always what people in Waukeshau County or Fon du Lac County are experiencing. There wasn’t the same small-town feel, and I missed that when I left Rockford.”
Family drew Neuzil back to the area, and in March 2021 she returned to WIFR. These days, she arrives around 9 a.m. and stays until the 6 p.m. broadcast. On election night or during other breaking news events, you might spy her working late into the night on a big story.
“The exciting thing about the news is that every day is new,” says Neuzil. “There’s a new challenge. Yesterday is not going to be like today, and I don’t think there’s any industry where you can say, ‘Yesterday’s news is yesterday’s news. Today is a new day.’”
And sharing that news with the people she knows is just the icing on the cake.
“I like having that close-knit feeling around here,” she says. “This is home, and there’s nothing like it. You know the area, you know the issues, you know what people care about, and it’s comforting. I feel like I can provide a voice – at least I hope I can – and that’s awesome to have that feeling again.”
The newest member of WIFR’s newsroom spent a lifetime preparing for this role. Growing up in Johnsburg, Ill., in eastern McHenry County, she admired the glamour of TV journalism and the WIFR personalities who appeared on her family’s TV.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool to be able to report or anchor?’” she says. “I would practice my signoff, ‘Reporting live, I’m Ali Rasper.’ That was always a fun game for me as a child.”
Those around her took notice. In fact, Rasper’s mother likes to recall the time Ali’s fifth-grade teacher called after a big report.
“Your daughter is going to be on television someday,” the teacher said. “I’m just calling it now.”
Rasper knew she wanted to study journalism when she went to Illinois State University, and she had a hunch she’d like to stay in the state. Eventually she connected with fellow Redbird Maggie Hradecky, who’s now the news director at WIFR. Rasper went on to earn a master’s in journalism at University of Illinois-Springfield and reached out again to her fellow alumna. Hradecky brought her on, and Rasper hit the airwaves this past June.
“I wanted to stay in Illinois, which not many people would say, but I really wanted to report locally,” Rasper says. “I wanted to come back to my hometown area, and Rockford is about an hour away. Northern Illinois is very different from central Illinois, where I’ve been the past five years.”
So far, she’s enjoying making new connections and digging deep into the community, especially as she builds connections in Rockford and at the newsroom – including with her mentor, Hradecky.
“There is so much going on in the Rockford, Loves Park, Roscoe area, and so far I’ve gotten to meet some amazing people and tell some amazing stories,” says Rasper, who was on the scene reporting during the recent Chemtool fire in Rockton, Ill. “That’s what it really means to me to be a journalist: helping the community shed light on something and making someone’s day or making them feel better about something and informing them. I think that’s really rewarding for me.”