Gina Gaston tried for the big time, leaving Houston three years ago to take a job with MSNBC in New York, and ended up coming back last year. Given how few people tune in to MSNBC these days, she probably got out while the getting was good. At any rate, Houston's been the better for it -- Gaston has an electric smile and a welcoming presence that livens up Channel 13's afternoon broadcasts. The 36-year-old California native has a bright future at the station, unless the siren song of the East Coast calls again.

What does a city full of businesspeople need? How about a radio station that follows the stock market? Brent Clanton's morning drive-time show updates listeners on yesterday's market movement so they'll be ready for the opening bell. Street Talk, the afternoon drive-time show with investment planner-financial adviser Lance Roberts, wraps up the trading day and provides more specific stock and market trend advice. Sandwiched between those weekday financial heroes are all kinds of helpful programs, from stock and fund shows to the popular Dave Ramsey, who advises folks on how to get rid of their credit cards and stay out of debt. Weekends offer everything from a fitness program to the only show about advertising for advertisers. The caustically witty two-hour event called The Ad Show actually proves entertaining to the layperson as well, with vintage commercials played between breaks.

Wayne Dolcefino has become a brand name in Houston -- the name that government bureaucrats hate to see on their "While You Were Out" message pads. His melodramatic touches can be a bit much -- and Lord knows he doesn't need to do anymore strip-club pieces -- but the fact is Dolcefino, 45, comes up with some impressive stuff each sweeps month. Whether it's City Hall types wildly overcounting the amount of parkland in Houston, the number of potholes they've allegedly filled or the total of truck-safety violations given, watching Wayne put their feet to the fire is always a cheap thrill.

Where in the world is traffic reporter Susie Loucks (a.k.a. Elaine Closure) after the Clear Channel blowout? (And to make things perfectly clear, she was not fired but replaced by Clear Channel's own in-house traffic service.) These days, you can find her wild and wacky style of traffic reporting on 95.7 FM with Rick Lovett, and on their sister stations Business Radio 650 AM and KILT Sports Radio 610 with John and Lance. Since leaving Sunny 99.1 and Rock KLOL (remember phone sex traffic?), the comely Susie was snatched up by the folks at Infinity Broadcasting, where she now stretches her comedic talents reporting on traffic and weather with her candid, often controversial twist on traffic tie-ups. She often lapses into impersonations. There's Sharon Osbourne, Anna Nicole Smith and her dog Sugar Pie, Cha-Cha Closure and "Kim," her naughty nail technician of sorts. "I've lived in Houston my whole life. Traffic sucks here, so why hype it up and freak people out? Instead, let's have a good laugh," she says. That's our Susie. Often copied, never duplicated. Tune in.


Quick, finish this sentence: "We believe in new beginnings, we..." If you answered "believe in you" without skipping a beat, you are one of the thousands who have gladly been sucked in with one of the best marketing campaigns in Houston history -- that of Lakewood Church. The catchy jingle is the brainchild of Joel Osteen, our pick for best religious leader. Osteen, who took over the position as head pastor when his father, John, passed away a few years ago, has managed to expand the megachurch while retaining the same folksy charm that made him popular in the first place. A modest, quiet man, Osteen concentrates on spreading God's love instead of his damnation, and his sermons are full of feel-good messages that would cheer up even Winnie-the-Pooh's Eeyore. With that approach, it's no wonder the church is bursting at the seams. Next on Osteen's agenda? Shepherding the roughly 30,000 members of the church into Compaq Center.
Why let a little thing like a lack of belief in God keep you from going to church? The Houston Church of Freethought has been hosting monthly services, minus the religion, since 2000. Sunday-school sermons can cover such topics as the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or Darwin's theory of evolution. Just because you've strayed from the flock doesn't mean you see no benefit in belonging to a herd. There still exists the human need to share a little coffee and conversation with like-minded folks.

Some BBBs have standards that hardly go beyond mounting membership plaques correctly. And Houston has historically lagged behind more progressive areas in policing scam artists. But the current aggressive bureau has stepped in repeatedly to warn naive consumers about schemes and scams before they can be ripped off. The feat is due in large part to Dan Parsons. The former radio newsman is new to the BBB's president/CEO position, but he's a seasoned warrior (2003 will be his 20th year with the bureau) in the trenches against fraud. With new programs such as a the "Scam Jam Festival" for young consumers, the BBB is educating new generations in smart consumerism. And with Parsons's refreshing tell-it-like-it-is approach to the BBB's crusade, the agency will be ensured unquestioned credibility and results for a long time to come. Move over, Marvin Zindler. Dan's the Man in these parts.
At a time when most organizations are paring down, Big Brothers Big Sisters is pouring it on. Under the guidance of president Deborah Ortiz, Houston-based BBBS has expanded into an incredible 31 counties that stretch from the Gulf Coast upward into East Texas. The organization manages to be dead serious about its mission -- and yet not make the mistake of many agencies in taking itself too seriously. The so-called Bigs have fun; one event featured "Hunk Night" (Houston firefighter calendar models and the Houston Texan cheerleaders). And BBBS has evolved with the times. There are now programs for couples and entire families to "adopt " a child in need of reliable adult friends. In the last few years, agencies, politicians and pretty much everybody else seems to have discovered the power of the M-word -- mentoring -- as the solution to salvaging our youth. But that new buzzword for others has been the backbone of a half-century of efforts for BBBS. Staff and volunteers prove that with enough sweat and love, it gets results where others fail.
Although she's technically not a whistle-blower, Enron executive Sherron Watkins's memo to Ken Lay warning him of the coming catastrophe last fall made her the Cassandra of the biggest business scandal ever to hit the city. Watkins managed to stay on the Enron payroll while becoming a national hero through appearances before congressional interrogators. She's now collaborating with Houston writer Mimi Swartz on an upcoming tell-all book about life inside the Crooked E.
Republican Lynn Hughes hardly blinked when he advanced from his state district court (a civil one, no less) to the federal bench some 12 years ago. That characteristic aplomb has yet to be erased by some of the most demanding cases at the federal courthouse. He's coupled a healthy disdain for the traditional veil of legalese with a quiet but firm demeanor that has established him as one of the most independent jurists anywhere. Hughes demanded answers in a shady immunity deal for the notorious Graham brothers. And he didn't shy away from forcing the government to admit to submitting a false affidavit against an ex-CIA agent and lying to a grand jury in a bank fraud case. By now, his straightforward search for the truth is legendary among lawyers.

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