Rare Piece of Mind

In a nod to old-school television, Raycom boss McTear pushes GMs to deliver editorials

As Raycom closed its deal with Lincoln Financial Group to acquire three stations in early April, a trio of general managers added a new duty to their job description: on-air editorials. While station management tackling community issues on-air was a staple of local television several decades ago, Raycom is perhaps the only major broadcaster that still mandates the practice.

For the managers at WCSC Charleston, WBTV Charlotte and WWBT Richmond, it means assembling advisory boards, identifying issues, working the phones, penning scripts and shooting editorial segments.

“It really helps us connect with the community,” says WBTV VP/General Manager Nick Simonette, who debuted editorials about a month ago. “I grew up watching them, and I'm a firm believer that you have to give back to the community.”

Raycom President/CEO Paul McTear is a believer as well, saying the company's 46 stations have a responsibility to spark discussion on issues of substance, same as a newspaper does on its editorial page. “We believe our stations should be the news of record in their marketplace,” he says. “We encourage [GMs] to be provocateurs in the community.”

Raycom's opinions stop short of making political endorsements, says Marty Edelman, the broadcast group's senior VP: “We just don't think it's our place to tell the viewer who to vote for. Tell them our take on the issues, yes, but it's up to them to make their decision on candidates.” (Stations have rarely made such endorsements; unlike newspapers, broadcasters are regulated by the government.)

Anything else is fair game. While some concede that the editorials are extra work piled onto a busy workday, most general managers seem to relish the role. At WOIO/WUAB Cleveland, VP/General Manager Bill Applegate's segments (such as a ban on cellphone usage while driving) fit with the stations' point-of-view-driven newscasts. The editorials are not only a family tradition (Applegate's father was a newspaper editorial page editor), but a nod to his early days in television. “I can do them in one take,” he says proudly. “I come from an era where you did them in one take.”

For WCSC VP/General Manager Rita Littles Scott, who debuts the editorials in September, it's a chance to practice her on-air skills. “My background is theater, so it will give me a chance to get back onstage a little,” she says with a laugh. “As broadcasters, we should have an opinion as to what happens in the community.”

Editorials fell by the wayside after stations either opted to step back from controversial stances or sought to keep opinion out of the news process. While they exist at some outlets in secondary markets, multiple station executives were hard-pressed to come up with a major broadcaster other than Raycom that champions editorials. Sinclair famously central-casted “The Point” editorials, but pulled the plug on them in 2006 after a public outcry over what many claimed was a conservative agenda.

With the rise of opinion-driven journalism online, Poynter Institute ethics leader Kelly McBride believes there's a market for station editorials: “People are attracted to journalism with some opinion in it.”

Controversy is hardly verboten among the Raycom segments. WTOL Toledo VP/General Manager Bob Chirdon repeatedly challenges Mayor Carty Finkbeiner with barbed language, and viewers are quick to let him know when they disagree. “There's always that risk of saying the wrong thing,” he says. “Some people agree and some don't.”

Raycom managers say the editorials give the station a larger presence in the community (several mention the novelty of being spotted by viewers around town), keep the station relevant with viewers and foster interactivity. Several read e-mailed responses to editorials on the air, and WOIO even gives viewers the chance to vent on-air. A WTOL editorial on a statewide ban of smoking in public places (Chirdon supports it) elicited three straight days of disagreeing e-mails.

McTear, who eschews fluffy, feel-good editorials, says a little back and forth between viewers and the station is healthy. “People may not always agree, but that's OK with us,” he says. “The editorials are part of our long-term strategy; they're part of who we are.”

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