Local News And Premium Choice

Isn’t branding a wonderful thing?

“Local news” is a brand, really. Radio stations that still offer news on a local basis hammer that into listeners’ brains. “DEPEND on us for LOCAL news!” “We’re your LOCAL NEWS SOURCE!”

The reality is somewhat different in 2009.

For many stations which once had a, well, “local” newsroom…the “source” is often an anchor in a newsroom anywhere from 25 to a few hundred miles away, trying to sound like they know the area they’re serving via computer file upload.

None of this is new to Clear Channel, which has been “remote anchoring” stations as far away as Milwaukee from a certain newsroom on Oak Tree Boulevard in the Cleveland suburb of Independence for years.

But…it’s back with a vengeance.

Clear Channel’s latest operations plan will, in effect, accelerate the feeding of news from one market to another.

Here’s a list of Ohio markets that will be feeding other markets in Ohio and beyond. Much of this was already being done before this week, and some of it is new:

CLEVELAND:
————–
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Akron
Youngstown

CINCINNATI:
—————
Boston
Toledo
Memphis
Nashville

COLUMBUS:
————–
Lima
Defiance
Marion
Ashland/Mansfield
Chillicothe

We already have evidence of some of the new arrangements taking place today.

For example, Clear Channel Cleveland has officially returned to providing remote anchoring to its Youngstown sister cluster.

We heard WTAM/1100 news director Darren Toms this morning on talk WKBN/570…filling the news hole once filled by now-former WKBN news director John Nagy.

We heard WKBN news anchor Jim Michaels doing traffic, though we don’t know if that was recorded (it’s construction information and the like).

We assume Jim is still at South Avenue, and don’t know what role he’ll play in the new Clear Channel News Universe. When the anchors in Cleveland fed Youngstown before, he contributed and voiced reports for them, and occasionally did some afternoon anchoring himself.

Eerily, we heard a pre-recorded news feature voiced by Nagy, during the fill on the WKBN streaming audio feed.

Over in Lima, we hear that the cluster’s FM stations are now getting the newscasts fed out of Columbus’ WTVN/610, which are also being heard in middays on talk WIMA/1150. WIMA still has local news staffers, but it appears it and other markets being fed from elsewhere that still have news staff will get midday newscasts from the remote newsroom. Again, for now.

Here’s what Clear Channel lays out for its staffers about remote news anchoring… and we’re guessing that they’re writing it just as much for federal lawmakers and regulators as much as they are for their own staff:

—–

Improved Commitment to Local Communities

* Our goal is to utilize technology along with our very best and experienced news reporters to enhance our local commitment to news

* We will match up these regional resources with our local teams in the market to deliver superior local news coverage

* We will train and redirect local staff members to help give us more depth when it comes to the number of people in a local market assisting with news coverage and community connection

——

No, that last line doesn’t read “we will train and redirect FM program directors, disc jockeys, sales people, and anyone who can speak into a phone clearly to help us try to resemble a real local news operation”. That’s just our own interpretation.

In the “we’re pretty sure they wrote this for the FCC and Congress” department, the plan gives examples of the company using remote news anchors and resources to serve markets otherwise without local news operations.

Among the situations specifically noted was the effort by the company’s Syracuse newsroom to cover the recent multiple fatal shooting incident in Binghamton NY, where Clear Channel has no newsroom. It also highlighted the Binghamton cluster’s role, which was basically providing studio space and “local hits” for Syracuse from the Binghamton program director.

The plan also highlights the company’s recently announced expanded commitment to localized PSAs.

When a Clear Channel station without a dedicated, local newsroom – or a decimated one – runs liners saying “DEPEND on us for local news” or “Your LOCAL NEWS SOURCE”, are they lying?

We don’t at all fault the existing Clear Channel news anchors and reporters, in places like Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati or the other markets that will feed “local newscasts” out to other stations.

This isn’t something they begged for, it’s not their choice, and we presume they aren’t getting any significant extra money for this…if they’re getting any extra money at all. (Our guess: they aren’t getting an extra dime, or even penny.)

We don’t at all fault managers like CC/Youngstown veteran market manager Bill Kelly. We have absolutely no evidence that Mr. Kelly wanted to send 40-plus year WKBN veteran newsman John Nagy packing on Tuesday.

In fact, we have evidence of Mr. Kelly’s commitment to a locally-staffed newsroom just months ago, when he originally nudged aside the Cleveland-fed newscasts. We presume he hasn’t changed his mind in that short time.

Our guess – and it’s only a guess, since we haven’t heard from Kelly, who’s written us before – is that he actively lobbied to hold off as many of Tuesday’s changes as he could.

And WKBN has managed to hold onto three local weekday full-time hosts – morning driver Robert Mangino, program director Dan Rivers (middays), and afternoon driver Ron Verb – despite presumed pressure from corporate masters we imagine are just itching to put Glenn Beck into middays and Sean Hannity into afternoons.

But…it’s a different world at Clear Channel, even from before when it was owned by two large private equity funds.

Yes, we know other newsrooms have shrunken, even those not owned by Clear Channel. The once-full newsroom at NextMedia’s WHBC/1480 Canton is now basically news/program director Pam Cook and anchor Geoff Mears.

But at least Pam and Geoff are still there, physically, on Market Avenue South on the southern edge of downtown Canton. Who’ll be left if Clear Channel corporate decides that it doesn’t need Jim Michaels in Youngstown? How can a company claim a devotion to local news if you force your local cluster to dump a 40 year veteran newsman still at the top of his game?

In 2009, you can count fully-staffed local radio newsrooms in Ohio concentrating only on their home market (i.e. Akron’s Rubber City Radio, Cox’s WHIO in Dayton) on one hand and still have room to twiddle a few fingers around.

The second part of our discourse is about “Premium Choice”, Clear Channel’s clever name for its canned music programming.

The names that first surfaced included existing syndicated hosts Ryan Seacrest and Cleveland’s Steve Harvey.

Now, thanks to AllAccess, here’s Clear Channel’s list of (some) local hosts that will contribute to the “Premium Choice” menu for stations needing inexpensive, national fill on-air personalities:

WAXQ/NEW YORK middayer MARIA MILTO
WBBG/MIAMI afternooner DOC RENO
WXTB/TAMPA middayer BIG RIG
WFBQ/INDIANAPOLIS afternooner LAURA STEELE
WTUE/DAYTON afternooner JOHN “THE B-MAN” BEAULIEU
WHTZ/NEW YORK night dude BILLY THE KIDD
KIIS/LOS ANGELES middayer SISANIE
WDCG/RALEIGH PD/afternooner RANDI WEST

From what we’re hearing, all of these personalities are currently voicetracking non-local-specific generic national shows for their format. And we hear that at least one Clear Channel Cleveland personality is also involved in this effort…and we suspect a couple of others at Oak Tree will join that personality.

Randi West is a name familiar to many in Ohio. She once voicetracked a number of stations during her live shift at a Cincinnati Clear Channel outlet, an effort described in a newspaper article.

But these “shows” will be different. We don’t believe any of the personalities will provide ANY specific, local content in this effort. Ms. West will sound the same in one market as she will in her other markets outside Raleigh, for example. If Clear Channel wants to add local content, they’ll apparently rely on those expanded local PSAs and other community announcements.

Doesn’t it just excite the heck out of you? Aren’t you just dying to hear this programming?

Uh, OK.

Our final comment in this very long item: To us, “Premium Choice” sounds like the name for the house brand at Wal-Mart.

Oh, wait, that’s “President’s Choice”. Target, maybe?

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