Jeff Murri: Motor City’s Madman
Never enough news hours on the schedule for WJBK Detroit boss
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/19/2011 12:01:00 AMB&C's 2011 Local TV Executives of the Year
Perhaps more than any market, general managers in Detroit do more than simply run their TV stations. They are fully immersed champions for the struggling market—extensions of the Chamber of Commerce, benefactors of the region’s considerable downtrodden public and advocates for a city besmirched by corruption.
It’s a giant job, and none handle it better than Jeff Murri, WJBK vice president and general manager. Adding six hours of news per week this fall, the Fox-owned station now offers a staggering 63½ hours a week of news, on top of what may be the deepest lineup of community outreach programs in the U.S.
Murri says WJBK now provides around 40% of the local TV news hours in a market stocked with top-fiight stations. “We have a significant voice, and with that a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he says. “We recognize our commitment to local news separates us in the community.”
The station thrives on an underdog mentality, says Murri, but WJBK’s ratings and revenue belie that little-guy ethos. The station runs neck and neck with Scripps’ WXYZ and Post Newsweek’s WDIV, and wins almost all adults 25-54 races. Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy says Fox stations are particularly challenging to run, and he suggests none do it better than his guy in DMA No. 11.
“Jeff’s newses win in the demos in almost every daypart and have the highest revenue share,” says Abernethy. “As far as I can tell, they’re the most profitable, too.”
Murri is a local boy, growing up just outside city lines. When he took over WJBK in October 2001, the station produced 38½ hours of news a week. Over the next decade, he added 25 more.
With so much time to fill, Murri and news director Dana Hahn (“the engine that runs that department,” Murri says) are always up for fresh takes on local news. There’s live music most every day. Murri brought on Charlie LeDuff, an offbeat former New York Times columnist with Detroit roots and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, to write and report.
But news is only part of the picture at WJBK. The station hosts thriving job fairs and took part in Adopt a Family and Adopt a School programs, with staffers teaching a six-week class at a communications high school. Partnering with a furniture outlet, WJBK publishes an annual Holiday Connection Wish List book, which links the region’s nonprofit organizations with potential contributors. Its Gleaners Community Food Bank fund-raiser stands to collect $1.4 million for the hungry this year. A franchise called Redefining Detroit offsets the abundant negative news about the Motor City in the press. “We shine a light on people who are making a difference,” Murri says. “It’s a place to go to find out the good things that are happening.”
Murri is perhaps most proud of WJBK’s “Problem Solvers” franchise, where viewers reach out to the station with their personal issues, whether it’s crime or city bureaucracy. More than 12,000 problems have been logged at WJBK thus far in 2011.
“A small fraction of them become news stories,” Murri says, “but 100% of them get responses. I’m proud of that.”
Several of the initiatives make real cash, including a My Fox Half Off couponing program that has more than 50,000 subscribers.
Abernethy says a number of initiatives are hatched out of Detroit, then rolled out throughout the group. “Many people who run successful stations are risk-averse,” Abernethy says. “Jeff is extremely entrepreneurial. If I have a project that doesn’t come with a playbook, Jeff is the guy I give it to.”
Abernethy says Murri has a knack for rallying the troops behind his initiatives, not because he’s the boss, but through an infectious enthusiasm and willingness to roll up his sleeves and help new programs take fiight. Abernethy mentions Murri painting an LNS office in the building one Saturday prior to its opening and working the phones for a new WJBK online dating platform.
Murri says the vast outreach practiced at WJBK isn’t just about helping the community; the various initiatives provide a steady flow of news stories, color and flavor about real-life Detroiters. “It’s one of the benefits of going deeper,” he says. “We can do things that, quite honestly, the others can’t.”
The son of an auto industry worker, Murri is ecstatic to be tasked with doing right by Detroit. “It’s always nice to be a part of a city’s rebirth,” he says. “Especially in your own city.”
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