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Joblessness an issue in Grand Rapids, but optimism is winning out

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What's Working In Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek

As western Michigan gets more wired up, its TV stations do too. WZZM last fall expanded its reach with the launch of 20 community Websites. “My Town News” provides hyperlocal content—and advertising—to residents of various neighborhoods. “We had certain content and revenue goals in mind, and we’ve reached them,” says Janet Mason, WZZM president/general manager. The Gannett station is also relaunching WZZMTV.com and its mobile site in February.

News leader WOOD has had a robust digital strategy for some time. WOODTV.com gets 12 million page views per month, which General Manager Diane Kniowski says is easily tops among local TV sites. The WOOD app, with 25,000 downloads so far, has been updated for the iPad. “Thank you for making the investment in the iPad app. I have long liked the iPhone version,” commented one user in iTunes. “This is a good app from a great news channel.” —MM

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Michigan was hit as hard as any Midwestern state by the recent recession, but station executives in Grand Rapids–Kalamazoo– Battle Creek say there are two distinctly different stories in the state. Eastern Michigan has struggled to redefine itself after its manufacturing business cratered. Western Michigan, where DMA No. 41 is located, is a different—and markedly brighter—story.

The market has recast itself, with biotech and the pharmaceutical industry moving into old manufacturing facilities. Medicinal monikers have sprung up around town, such as Medical Mile and Pill Hill, showing the new face of business in and around Grand Rapids.

“Michigan is obviously a tough state,” says Patty Kolb, WXMI VP/general manager. “But we fare better than the east side of the state. We’re doing pretty good.”

Unemployment is down 3%–4% from last year in many counties around the DMA, but it is still well into the double- digits. “It keeps getting better,” says Janet Mason, WZZM president/general manager. “The unemployment rate is a good indicator of how things are going.”

NBC affiliate WOOD is the market’s powerhouse. The LIN Media station won morning, evening and late news in the November sweeps, the latter with a 5.6 household rating/19 share, ahead of WWMT’s 4.8/16. LIN also owns the smallish ABC affiliate, WOTV, out of Battle Creek, and MyNetworkTV outlet WXSP.

According to Diane Kniowski, LIN VP and WOOD’s general manager, WOOD thrives on its legacy status and its relentless approach to news. “Being a legacy station gives you the advantage, but you have to deliver on that,” Kniowski says. “When the others cut back, we expanded.”

The ratings race is tightening, however. Freedom Broadcasting’s CBS affiliate WWMT won prime time in November, typical of CBS affiliates around the country, and edged out WOOD for the total-day ratings title. “We dethroned WOOD as the most-watched station in November,” says Jim Lutton, WWMT VP/ GM. “We’ve narrowed the gap in newscast performance. We’re firing on all pistons.”

Also in the hunt are Gannett’s ABC affiliate, WZZM, and Tribune’s Fox affiliate, WXMI. The main cable operators are Comcast and Charter.

Stations are rapidly expanding their local product. On March 5, WZZM will launch a 6–8 a.m. weekend newscast. “It was cancelled in the depths of the recession,” says WZZM’s Mason. “But the economy has improved enough to bring it back.”

On Feb. 2, WXSP debuts MYGR Weekend in the 7 p.m. Wednesday slot. WOTV recently named Morgan Lind as the new “Face of 4.” The cheerleader/dancer for the Muskegon Lumberjacks hockey team will represent the station in the community for the next year. On March 7, WXMI will debut a 5 p.m. lifestyle show, The One Seven. “We’re all about local, local, local,” says WXMI’s Kolb. “That’s where we’re seeing the growth.”

Perhaps more gratifying than dethroning WOOD in total-day ratings, WWMT won an NAB Education Foundation Service to America award in 2010, one of just three TV stations to get one. The station was celebrated for a “Caring For Kids” telethon that encouraged parents to sign up their children for underutilized state health insurance programs.

“We’re really proud of that,” says WWMT’s Lutton. “It’s not just ratings, but community service too. It’s one of those times where it’s nice to work in this business.”

General managers are finding it’s increasingly nice to work in the local television business in and around Grand Rapids, thanks to the improving economy. “Companies are starting to announce expansions and are hiring people,” says WZZM’s Mason. “That makes us optimistic.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz