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Station to Station

7/08/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Station Stresses Boston Accent

After five years and two markets, Diane Sutter is close to bringing her vision for a new breed of community broadcasting to the airwaves. Later this summer, Sutter, founder and president of Shooting Star Broadcasting, plans to re-launch independent station WNDS Boston, acquired last fall, as a hyper-local station with a heavy dose of local programming and viewer participation. “We're going to make this a station that is of, by and for the viewer,” says Sutter.

While she isn't ready to give too many details yet, Sutter says viewers will contribute content to WNDS on-air and online. The audience will also suggest show ideas and weigh in on the station's schedule.

At a time when TV stations are trying to strengthen their connection with viewers, Sutter's experiment is sure to grab attention. Increasingly, broadcasters want “to have a citizen voice in the process,” says station consultant Seth Geiger of SmithGeiger. Stations are reaching out to viewers and asking them to help gather news by sending video from their cellphones or text-messaging tips. Broadcasters are also developing new ways to reach viewers who are on the go, with innovations including online newscasts and podcasting.

Sutter's new ideas for television are inspired by old-school radio, which, she says, forges deep connections in its markets by drumming up community events and getting involved in local happenings. Sutter envisions WNDS' pursuing similar efforts: “We'll be doing radio with pictures.”

Sutter is well-schooled in local media. A Pittsburgh native, she spent 15 years in the radio business, including running WWSW(AM/FM) Pittsburgh, then owned by Shamrock Broadcasting, Roy Disney's family-owned broadcasting company. Sutter went on to run Shamrock's TV stations.

When Disney bought ABC, Shamrock sold off its TV stations, and, in 1997, Sutter's Shooting Star bought its first station, CBS affiliate KTAB Abilene, Texas. Two years later, KTAB was sold to Nexstar Broadcasting, and Sutter was on the hunt for a new TV station.

She came very close to buying WQEX Pittsburgh. After a legal battle that dragged on for years, Shooting Star won FCC approval to convert the noncommercial TV station to an ad-supported outlet, but the $20 million deal fell through after the economy bottomed out following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But it was in Pittsburgh that Sutter hatched the idea of a local-centric indie. She has been fine-tuning it ever since.

In fall 2004, Shooting Star, in partnership with private-equity firm Alta Communications, offered $28 million for WNDS, an independent located in Derry, N.H., but licensed to the Boston market. The station is available to 2 million out of about 2.3 million area homes on cable and satellite and over the air.

The station, with a 50-person staff, includes a functioning newsroom that produces two daily newscasts at 7 and 10 p.m. The station runs some top-shelf syndicated fare, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Judge Mathis, and sitcoms That '70s Show and Frasier. But Sutter says this is not a station that is going to build itself on syndicated fare.

What it will become is a good question viewers will help answer. The station—which is getting new, still-to-be-determined call letters—will query viewers about its current schedule and go from there. That might mean more news or more entertainment. “What this station looks like on day one may not be what it looks like on day 100 or day 300,” Sutter says. “We don't have to stay with a show if viewers are not interested.”

Sad News

Alex Frank, son of Post-Newsweek station group CEO Alan Frank, died June 24 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 29 years old.

The family requests that donations be sent to the Alex Frank Scholarship Fund at the Berklee College of Music, 1140 Boylston St., Boston, MA, 02215, to the attention of Marjorie O'Malley.

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