Back on Track, Thanks to Black
Kansas City station chief is a turnaround wiz
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/4/2005 8:00:00 PM
Though not yet 40, Kirk Black has already experienced a long career's worth of successful station turnarounds. Over the past 10 years, the VP/general manager of KCTV Kansas City, Mo., has helped recast three troubled CBS affiliates into viable players by overhauling news, sales and programming.
The most recent—and most high-profile—transformation Black has overseen is at KCTV. When he arrived in Kansas City in August 2001, the Meredith Broadcasting-owned CBS affiliate was running third or fourth in most dayparts. “Our programming was lousy, and revenue hadn't gone up in five years,” he says, offering the same blunt assessment he delivered to staffers in his first station meeting. Black's mandate was to improve both areas—a tall order in a market with a dominant ABC affiliate, KMBC, and two other strong players, NBC outlet KSHB and Fox affiliate WDAF.
Four years later, KCTV is rocketing ahead, challenging KMBC for first place in early-morning and late news. CBS' red-hot programming has meant a victory in prime time, not to mention lots of fresh viewers for the station's 10 p.m. news. Black has kept them coming back with the hard-hitting investigative pieces he brought to the station. With ratings on the rise across the schedule, he says revenue is following suit.
Broadcast was not Black's intended path. Growing up in tiny Byesville, Ohio, he dreamed of a career in music and went to Bowling Green University as a voice major, hoping to teach. But with twins on the way his senior year, Black started hunting for a more stable career. An advisor recommended TV-ad sales, and Black investigated—eventually landing a job at WTOV Steubenville, Ohio-Wheeling, W.Va. His first big account was Hanger Orthopedics, which advertised prosthetic limbs in the heavily industrial market.
With solid small-market training under his belt, Black moved on to bigger sales jobs in Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C. His big break came when Doug Gealy, his former general manager from WCMH Columbus (then running Benedek's broadcast station group), needed a general manager for WIBW Topeka, Kan. Gealy wasn't deterred by the fact that Black was only 29. “He was a mature go-getter,” says Gealy, now president of Acme Broadcasting. “He was very focused and eager to learn.”
Having never worked in news or promotion, Black wasn't entirely confident. So he learned by doing. When the engineers were lighting a new set, Black pitched in. He bought ad time for WIBW's radio spots and billboards. He participated in editorial meetings and went out on stories with reporters. He says, “It was my mission to learn everything.”
As the station started to improve its performance, Meredith tapped Black to run its CBS affiliate in Saginaw, Mich. WNEM had been a market leader for years but, after switching from an NBC to a CBS affiliation, had seen its ratings slip. Black studied local research, looking for opportunities. One of his biggest moves was buying Dr. Phil to bolster afternoon ratings and provide a strong lead-in to evening news.
After three years, Black jumped again, taking over at sister station KCTV. At 35, he was still much younger than most station managers, particularly in a top-50 market. While some might have seen his relative youth as a detriment, Black—whose favorite TV shows are The Simpsons and The Real World—used it to his advantage. He gave up syndication powerhouses Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! with an eye on shifting audiences. “We needed to get younger, and the return on investment didn't work,” he says. KCTV traded the shows to KSHB for entertainment programs Access Hollywood and Inside Edition, which attract smaller crowds but deliver the younger demos that advertisers prefer.
He also overhauled news, expanding its hours by including a half-hour 4 p.m. program and making it more hard-hitting. He shifted anchors around. Most controversially, he scrapped the station's sports department, outsourcing the scores and highlights to Time Warner Cable's Metro Sports. Radio hosts protested, saying Black didn't understand the market and its love affair with local teams such as the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.
But Black relied on his research, which indicated that most news viewers aren't interested in sports. “It is often ranked lower than religion stories,” he says. “There are too many places to get your sports. No one is waiting until 10 p.m. to find out if your team won.” In place of its sports department, KCTV added an investigative unit.
ANOTHER SUCCESS STORY
Black—who sang the national anthem at a Chiefs game two years ago—isn't finished. He wants to own No. 1 in early-morning and late news, and his next push is overhauling early-evening news. KCTV plans to expand its 4 p.m. news to an hour and more aggressively market its evening-news block. “We still have a lot of upside,” Black says.
So does his latest makeover project, he believes. Meredith recently cut a deal to buy The WB affiliate KSMO Kansas City from Sinclair Broadcast. As the principals await an FCC waiver to close the deal, KCTV is currently operating KSMO's sales under Black's management. If the deal goes through, Black plans to add news and local programming to the station.
His boss expects the kind of success story that has become Black's specialty. “When you have a strong leader with vision who gets everyone to buy in,” says Meredith Broadcasting President Paul Karpowicz, “remarkable things can happen.”
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