WBAL is losing its news director Atlanta-bound: Dave Roberts, credited with the station's improved ratings, is taking a job in a larger, higher-profile market.

January 05, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

David Roberts, who led WBAL News in a remarkable turnaround from worst to a contender for first place in ratings, is leaving the station to become news director at WXIA-TV in Atlanta.

Roberts, 39, will be the first African-American news director for a network affiliate in Atlanta television history when he joins WXIA on Jan. 21. He took over the newsroom at WBAL in 1992.

"The fact that I'm African-American and the fact that I'm going to be the first are definitely significant," Roberts said yesterday. "But there are a number of factors involved in the move. This is the toughest decision in my career for a lot of reasons, but the opportunity is one I just couldn't pass up."

Roberts said those other reasons include Atlanta being the country's 10th-largest television market, while Baltimore is 23rd, as well as WXIA being owned by Gannett, one of the industry's most powerful group owners. Among Gannett's 15 stations is WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington.

Furthermore, WXIA is the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, which means it will be the host station for the Summer Olympics, since the games will be held in Atlanta and shown on NBC.

"We are in a very competitive market here, and this is going to be a big year for us with the Olympics," said Craig Dubow, president and general manager of WXIA.

"When our search for a news director began, David's name kept popping up at the top of the list because of what he accomplished in Baltimore, taking that station to first place in late news. We think he's someone who can make a big difference for us, and we're delighted to get him," Dubow added.

Like WBAL when Roberts took over, WXIA is in third place among the three network affiliates. It is looking to use the huge audience expected for the Olympics to introduce Atlanta viewers to a new, improved news product. In addition to both being NBC affiliates, both WBAL and WXIA are Channel 11. WXIA's gain was definitely seen as WBAL's loss in the station's newsroom.

"This is a dark day for us," said WBAL investigative reporter Jayne Miller. "He has extraordinary vision, and he's committed to good journalism. I mean, news is his middle name. He's a leader unto himself. Not only am I losing a terrific boss, I'm losing the best reporter I ever worked with. I can't tell you how many times, on stories we've broken, he's had something to do with it as a reporter."

Phil Stolz, WBAL's general manager, said: "I'm sorry to lose him. Dave has been the centrifugal force. He was the planner of the strategies we had in the news department, and we'll all miss him. Dave's had many, many offers over the years, and we knew at some point in time there'd be an offer out there that he couldn't refuse."

Stolz brought Roberts to Baltimore in 1991 as associate news director. The two had worked together as general manager and news director at WDTN-TV in Dayton, Ohio, which, like WBAL, is owned by Hearst. Eleven months later, Stolz promoted Roberts to news director here.

He took over a newsroom plagued by morale problems, dissension and a losing attitude. WBAL was in last place among the three network affiliates in the important newscasts at 6 and 11 weeknights. The ratings were so bad at 5 weeknights that the station had decided to cancel the newscast outright.

"You cannot overstate the turnaround he made happen," said Miller, who has been at WBAL since the early 1980s, after leaving CBS News.

"There developed a certain complacency at the station for a number of years before he arrived," said WBAL anchorman Dave Durian, who has been at WBAL for 13 years. "There were some unspoken givens in this market about who was going to always zTC win, who was always going to lose and who was going to be number two. And Dave Roberts just refused to believe it. He's an old-fashioned journalist who's very competitive, who likes to win and who made us want to win, too."

Anchorman Virg Jacques, who worked with Roberts at WJBK-TV in Detroit in the early 1980s, said yesterday, "I don't think there are many other news directors who would have had the ability to take what he had at WBAL and motivate the people up to the higher level that we're now on."

There was even some praise for Roberts yesterday from WJZ's general manager, Marcellus Alexander, who said: "Dave, in combination with a great NBC lineup, has elevated the caliber of their local product. I'm certain that he will continue on his successful path in Atlanta."

Under Roberts, WBAL reached its ratings high in November, when it beat long-dominant WJZ in ratings for late news. The weeknight newscasts at 11 p.m. are the most important because they play to the largest audience, so stations can charge their highest rates during the newscasts.

WBAL's 11 p.m. victory over WJZ, though, was only one of the gains the newsroom made under Roberts' guidance. Last year, Roberts relaunched a 5 o'clock weeknight newscast. In November, it finished a close second in its time period -- one ratings point (about 9,800 homes) behind WJZ.

Roberts also led WBAL into new territory with Saturday and Sunday morning newscasts, which have come to be ratings winners and moneymakers for the station.

Roberts said he'd like to be remembered in Baltimore for what he helped the station accomplish journalistically.

"I believe our ratings turnaround is based on good, solid, team journalism. We emphasized investigative journalism with Frank Mann and Jayne Miller when no one wanted to do it. When others were emphasizing fluff, we said, 'Watch us, and you'll get real, live, late-breaking news,' " Roberts said.

"Dave Roberts isn't going to be a tough act to follow," Miller said

yesterday. "He's an impossible one to follow."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.