People at WBFF are in an all-out sprint to ready the station's new morning news program in time for its March 12 debut. Yesterday, station officials made a strong step in that direction, naming anchors and correspondents.
Harold Fisher, until recently an evening anchor on the NBC affiliate in Kansas City, Mo., will be teamed up with Jennifer DesMarais, a reporter and anchor for a cable news channel in Tampa, Fla. The show will be called "Fox 45 Morning News."
Nina Edwards, a reporter who has carried out free-lance assignments for the station for the past several months, has been tapped as a full-time correspondent for the morning program. And weekend weather forecaster Kirk Clyatt will join the morning show as well.
In all, 18 people have been hired to create the program, which is scheduled to be broadcast weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. - and there's one more job left to fill. The station intends to provide a show centered on local affairs (unlike NBC's "Today Show" or ABC's "Good Morning America") without relying as heavily on the kinds of personalities that propel WJZ's popular offering.
"It's all local for a very long time," says WBFF news director Joseph DeFeo. "We'll have a lot of elements about what's happening around town, beyond the news of the day."
The Fox 45 morning show promises distinctive features. Once all the kinks are worked out, captions will appear below anchors and to their right, highlighting major news headlines, weather forecasts and traffic hot spots. The show will feature interviews with prominent public figures and visiting celebrities, a bit like Washington's WTTG does on its morning show - which DeFeo helped create.
And, on many days, part of the "Big Phat Morning Show" from WERQ (92.3 FM) will be simultaneously broadcast on that radio station and WBFF. The Radio One morning program, a hit among African-American listeners, is one of the most popular in the region.
Fisher, who also helped launch a morning show in Buffalo, has strong local ties: a native of Washington, he's a 1986 graduate of Morgan State University, and his parents and young daughter live nearby.
He says he was eager to return to the morning stint - a grueling task for many broadcast journalists, as it requires them to awake by 1:30 a.m. and be at the office at 3 a.m. "It's more relaxed" than the evening news, Fisher, 36, says in an interview. "It has to be a balance of information and fun. There is room in Baltimore for it - I hope that we are able to really bond with Baltimoreans."
DesMarais, 26, has been at BayNews 9 in Tampa since 1997. She turned down a job offer to be an overnight news anchor on the Fox News Channel in favor of Baltimore.
"We definitely don't want to copy-cat anything else on TV now," DesMarais says by cell phone from Florida. "We want to create our own style, our own niche."
A question of sponsorship
National Public Radio listeners have become accustomed to hearing so-called "underwriting" messages from sponsors that essentially are rarified ads. Right now, you can also hear the following:
"Support for NPR comes from the state of Kuwait, in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait's liberation. On the Web at KuwaitthanksAmerica.org."
Hearing that spot, scheduled to run through March 4, stopped this inattentive listener in his tracks. One wonders when we can expect a message saying "Latvia sends a hearty high-five to the United States" or "The former president of Chile, as he goes on trial, reminds his friends in the CIA that he remembers them fondly - by name."
Others raised more serious questions. Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, offered a flavor of letters from some appalled listeners:
"It is a very bad idea to let a country, any country, underwrite a public radio News Program, but especially a country that has such a horrendous human rights record and won't allow its women to vote," wrote a Texas woman. "What kind of a signal does this send?"
A spokeswoman says NPR followed typical procedures, saying that underwriting guidelines allow sponsorship from "associations, corporations, foundations and other interest groups, including governments both domestic and foreign."
Newspapers accept advertising from political and foreign sources all the time. What makes the Kuwaiti ad stand out is its forum.
"The public radio format is well-suited to what we want to accomplish," says Shafeeq Ghabra, spokesman for the Kuwaiti Embassy. Its campaign includes ads in the New York Times and other newspapers. "We just want to deliver a simple message: `Kuwait remembers (Operation Desert Storm), and is grateful.' "
Dvorkin ultimately concluded NPR had not compromised its integrity. But, he writes on its Web site (www.npr.org), NPR made an "error in judgment" in accepting the underwriting.