'Grace’ Under Pressure

Narrow news race defines lively Memphis market

Incumbent Willie Herenton won the bitterly contested mayoral race in Memphis earlier this month, and the players in the market’s news race are just as determined. NBC affiliate WMC grabbed evening and late news wins in July, while WREG won total day and primetime. WMC celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, and would love nothing more than to wear the news crown on its birthday.

“Raycom has made a major investment in the station over the last 18 months,” says VP/General Manager Lee Meredith, citing a state-of-the-art weather radar system and new satellite truck. “We’re doing everything we can to make the investment pay off for them.”

The home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate, Memphis is also home base for FedEx, which employs some 30,000, along with corporations such as Auto Zone and International Paper. The housing market has been all shook up by the recent lending crisis, and crime remains a problem, as the murder of University of Memphis football player Taylor Bradford earlier this month painfully reminded everyone. Crime was, in fact, a central issue for the mayoral candidates.

“It is a problem, and it does have to be addressed,” says WHBQ VP/General Manager John Koski.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom in Memphis; station managers speak of a lively and diverse city that’s rich in history and culture. The market took in $110.1 million last year, according to BIA Financial (the No. 44 DMA, it ranked just 50th in revenue). WMC led with $33.4 million, ahead of WREG with $27.7 million and Fox O&O WHBQ with $22 million. Newport Television owns ABC affiliate WPTY and CW outlet WLMT.

The market has seen a number of station deals of late. Oak Hill Capital bought WREG from The New York Times Co. (the deal closed in May), and its Local TV arm runs the station. Newport, run by veteran Sandy DiPasquale, took over the former Clear Channel stations. WHBQ, meanwhile, is one of the Fox O&Os that is for sale.

All the tumult makes the WMC folks appreciate their stability. “New owners mean new evaluations and new issues to consider,” says Meredith. “We’re fortunate to have a good, stable owner.”

But new ownership can also mean reinvigoration. Anchor George Brown jumped from WMC to WREG this past summer, and does double duty on air and on wreg.com. WREG has also made consumer affairs a staple of its newscasts. “Our viewers recognize that we provide them with 'on your side’ news and information,” says President/General Manager Ron Walter. “We’ve got comprehensive coverage of consumer issues.”

WHBQ has emerged as a morning power; Koski, a 24-year WHBQ veteran, says Mike and Juliet beat Regis and Kelly in July households. MyFoxMemphis.com had the mayoral candidates take turns answering viewer e-mails, while new sets and the emergence of Good Morning Memphis anchor Ernie Freeman have boosted news.

WPTY, meanwhile, offers an extensive classifieds section and long lineup of station blogs at www.myeyewitnessnews.com, not to mention a weather dog named Doppler.

Station managers say there’s never a shortage of news in Memphis. “There’s always something amazing happening here,” says Koski. “It’s never dull.”