Morning Drive's Making A Turn

Wbal Unveils New Format Beginning On Monday

August 30, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

For nearly two decades, tens of thousands of Maryland listeners have been starting their days with "Dave Durian and the WBAL Morning Team" - an easy-to-take mix of news and talk airing on the one of the oldest and most honored local news stations in the country.

Monday at 5 a.m., that Baltimore media institution will be replaced by "Maryland's Morning News" -a clock-driven, harder-news and information-focused program designed for the Internet Age with more and shorter stories, an intensely local orientation, higher production values and much tighter format.

Instead of one anchor, there will be three. Among other changes, there will be more reporting and discussion of business and the economy - and it will be formatted so that viewers will know they can hear those segments at 20 and 50 minutes after the hour.

Weather, traffic and sports will continue to be featured, but there will be more weather, with Tony Pann returning to Baltimore and joining the new morning show along with WBAL-TV weathercaster Sandra Shaw.

"Primarily what we're doing is we're really beefing up the immediacy and hard news, and backing off some of the lifestyle features," says Mark Miller, the station's longtime news director. "In terms of style and pacing, 'Maryland's Morning News' is going to be very snappy with a format that keeps the story count up. Technology has changed the news business so dramatically, and we have to respond. But we still employ more news people than all the other stations combined, and we still go out and cover the stories like no one else - there's no rip-and-read here."

Like almost everyone in the mainstream media these days, Miller and the other WBAL managers are trying to walk the tightrope of changing with the times while retaining the best of the institution's brand. For WBAL, that core identity is built on winning 19 national Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellence in news, more than any other station in the country.

There's plenty of continuity in the new morning lineup - starting with Durian as one of the three anchors.

"Dave Durian is the locomotive that drives the train," says Ed Kiernan, the station's general manager.

But in the new mix, the 20-year veteran will have two other locomotives alongside in John Patti and Bill Vanko - newsroom names familiar to any WBAL listener. One or the other will always be anchoring with Durian. It is a little like the plan that "The NewsHour," PBS' nightly newscast, will start this fall with co-anchors joining Jim Lehrer one at a time at the anchor desk.

"This is me becoming part of the news department," says Durian, a former news anchor for WBAL-TV in the 1980s. "And that's fine with me, because that's where I've been most of my career - in news."

"We're not looking at this as the traditional [co-anchoring], I-do-a-story, you-do-a-story," Miller says. "We're looking at this as two guys who share the hour. For the most part, Dave is the lead guy for the first 20 minutes, and then Bill or John would be the lead guy for the next 20, and then Dave for the last 20. Sometimes, we might sit two of them together to do an interview with someone. One of the reasons I think it will work is that we all kind of like each other."

The new morning team was in dry-run rehearsals last week, and from a fly-on-the-wall perspective on Friday, one of the most obvious elements was how at ease the various players seemed with one another.

First of all, it is a large team - too large for all of them to sit together in the main studio at WBAL. In addition to the three anchors, there are two producers, Johnny Goldsmith and Malarie Pinkard, as well as Tamara Nelson and Dave Sandler on traffic.

Steve Fermier is also part of the crew as a reporter and writer. Of course, the entire news department reports for the show, but Fermier is specifically assigned to the team that arrives as early as 2 a.m. to start putting the broadcast together.

By and large, it's also a veteran lineup, with the ages ranging in the 30s, 40s and 50s - with dress running from baseball caps on backward and bowling shirts, to polo shirts bearing the station logo.

Even though there was a reporter and photographer on hand Friday, nobody was hotdogging it or getting falsely enthusiastic. They seemed to be mostly just trying to get it right - hitting their cues and clipping their reports to get in and out on time in response to the all-important oversize clock - actually three clocks, all of which are impossible to ignore.

"From Catonsville to Cockeysville, from Reisterstown to Ruxton, this is 'Maryland's Morning News,' " a big-sounding voiceover announced at the start of the final hour of the run-through broadcast, and the crew was off and running.

A tightly focused CBS News story recounted the motorcade that took the body of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy from Hyannis Port to Boston, and the lines that waited outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library until 2 a.m.

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