President Obama is in the South Bend-Elkhart area so frequently that residents might start to take him for a local. The president visited for the third time in his young presidency in early August, to announce $2.4 billion in grants.
Residents in the No. 89 DMA have a mixed reaction to Obama’s lingering presence. While the president is a popular figure here—he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since 1964—they also realize that Elkhart is a symbol of the brutal economic struggles enveloping the nation. Following an abrupt break from its recreational-vehicle manufacturing past, Elkhart’s jobless rate is around 17%.
“There are a lot of people looking for help,” says WSJV Station Manager/News Director Ed Kral. “They’re hard workers who just got caught.”
To be sure, a president’s arrival in northern Indiana is great news for the stations, with wall-to-wall coverage, user-generated photos and the speech streamed live on the Web. “It’s fun for our newsroom, I’ll tell you that much,” says WNDU VP/General Manager John O’Brien.
South Bend features a hot news race between Schurz Communications’ CBS affiliate WSBT and Gray Television’s NBC outlet WNDU, which Gray bought from Notre Dame University in 2006. Moving into a state-of-the-art $45 million facility that serves as Schurz’s corporate office, WSBT has pulled ahead. The station had a huge May sweeps, winning total day household ratings and primetime, along with evening and late news—the latter with an 8.0 rating/26 share. Calling itself “Your Severe Weather Station,” WNDU took morning news and grabbed the most revenue in 2008, according to BIA Financial, its $15 million a little better than WSBT’s haul.
Quincy Newspapers owns Fox outlet WSJV, while LeSea owns independent WHME. Schurz is awaiting FCC approval on a $22 million trio of Weigel stations affiliated with ABC, The CW and MyNetworkTV.
WSBT President/General Manager John Mann says the station succeeds thanks to its dual dedications to breaking news and community service. “Schurz genuinely believes that you can’t be the best station in the community if you’re not being the best station for the community,” he says.
Stations are scrambling for an advantage. WSJV adds Dr. Oz and The Office this fall. WSBT opened the doors to its new digs for the public earlier this month; Mann says 500 people lined up an hour before the opening, eager for a “peek behind the curtain.”
WNDU, meanwhile, produces the coaches’ shows for Notre Dame—the university representing one of the few mainstays in a distressed region. “We’re continuing the tradition,” O’Brien says, “and it’s a tradition we have great appreciation for.”