Local news will be a test for new WYPR

TV/radio column

Broadcasting: News veterans say the station must measure up to National Public Radio standards.

November 07, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At the soon-to-be WYPR-FM, the successor to WJHU, leaders are mapping plans for a new local news operation. But the man who selected the station's shows over the past four years has some tart advice: You'd better do it right.

"It has to have the core values of radio," says Terry R. Trouyet, who will leave his job as WJHU's programming director later this week. Since 1997, he has helped to guide the National Public Radio affiliate toward a more consistently news- and information-oriented format.

"What are you going to put in it to gain the audience you need for that story?" Trouyet says. "You should not just haphazardly put it together."

The station's evolution after its expected detachment from the Johns Hopkins University in the next few months is of interest to a relatively small audience compared to the many thousands of people who listen each hour to Baltimore stations owned by Viacom, Hearst or Radio One.

But WJHU's importance has overshadowed its small core audience, through Marc Steiner's weekday public affairs talk show and its role as the sole Baltimore-based station to offer a steady diet of NPR news programs, the antidote to the headline patter heard elsewhere on the dial.

Steiner, the president of the Baltimore group that has an agreement with Hopkins to buy the station for $5 million, talks of a news desk with free-lance reporters and perhaps a few full-timers culled from the ranks of journalists with experience at The Sun or NPR. He plans for a steady increase of local feature stories and in-depth political pieces that can be integrated seamlessly into NPR news broadcasts.

"That's something that fits into the pattern of how you build a news department locally," Steiner says. "That's a place that gives birth to new programming."

But he'd do well to heed the results of intriguing research about local reports on NPR stations.

The week of the terrorist attacks in September, the president of a national organization of public radio officials was to speak in Baltimore about that study.

The convention was canceled. But the focus group findings remain of interest, as the study argues that listeners of NPR affiliates resent local reports that fail to rise to the network's level of quality. And, in an unexpected twist, researchers found that the better the local report, the more likely listeners will assume that the dispatch was created by the national network.

"There is no advantage to doing local programming if the presentation is below the standards our listeners have come to expect," Marcia Alvar, head of the programming directors' group, wrote in prepared remarks. Listeners, she said, "draw a clear line between local information like headline news that they can get from other sources and coverage that gives them knowledge [and] understanding and makes them think.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't do newscasts," she concluded, "I'm simply saying we found no evidence that spot news adds significant value for our listeners." The study was based on focus groups conducted by George Bailey of Walrus Research in collaboration with four major stations in Connecticut, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

Trouyet, 50, has experience as both a manager and an on-air announcer. He's worked at commercial stations and at public ones, having started at WBJC in the 1970s. He's taking a job as a marketing director for Westwood One, a Viacom company.

Along with former WJHU general manager Ray Dilley, Trouyet envisioned a local news desk. The two men announced their plans in the summer of 2000, but they never got off the ground, as the university positioned the newly solvent WJHU for a sale.

He doesn't directly criticize Steiner or Maryland Public Radio, the Steiner-led community group that is awaiting federal approval to take over the station. But Trouyet does express some words of caution.

"One of the true tests of success is, if you have freedom, if you have autonomy, what do you do with it?" Trouyet says. "The new organization, in my opinion, has very little room for error or failure.

CNN on an upswing

Just this summer, CNN was emphasizing planned new shows built around often-pricey personalities.

Meanwhile, CNN owner AOL/Time Warner had forced deep job cuts, and there had been internal talk, according to a foreign correspondent, that there would shortly have been more serious reductions in its operations abroad.

The terrorist attacks and the U.S. military response changed all that. In the process, the cable network has rediscovered its franchise. CNN has greatly increased how many its journalists it has abroad, doubling levels from the Gulf War. Instead of shows from glossy sets in Atlanta or New York, shaky images of experienced correspondents beamed from videophones in central Asia are providing the most compelling television. And the ratings have followed.

Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, dismisses earlier rumblings of cuts in foreign coverage as one of "101 scenarios."

"For the world to take CNN seriously, it's important that CNN take the world seriously," Jordan says. "Most of the people who watch CNN are outside the United States. It would be ridiculous for us to do anything to undermine or tarnish our commitment to the world."

Last night, for example, CNN featured reports from its journalists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Belgium, Israel, Northern Ireland, China and Uzbekistan. Even as the network seeks to land familiar faces, such as morning anchor Paula Zahn, the news is the star once again.

Swapping forecasters

Weather forecaster Kirk Clyatt, late of the morning show on WBFF (Channel 45), has found a new home at WBRE, a television station that serves the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region in Pennsylvania. Why should that station sound familiar? WBFF has replaced Clyatt with Steve Fertig, until recently WBRE's chief weather forecaster.

David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folken-flik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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