FOX Knocks On WOOD

September 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi came out of hiding last week to survey the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, both ABC News Radio and FOX News Radio were there to tell the story of the storm. Both news services covered the evacuation and rescue efforts of the local authorities. Both gave updates on how the storm was progressing. But when WOOD Newsradio 1300 listeners heard morning host Gary Allen speak live with a reporter in the midst of the storm's wake, it was FOX News Radio they were hearing.

That's because WOOD, like all of the West Michigan stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, has dropped its longstanding relationship with ABC News Radio in favor of the relatively new FOX service, a spin-off of the popular cable network FOX News Channel.

FOX News Radio hit the West Michigan airwaves at the beginning of August, but the decision that instigated the change was made months before. In December 2004, Clear Channel signed a deal that would have FOX News Radio serve the top 100 markets in the country. The West Michigan market is No. 38 in the nation.

Working this closely with a premier national news provider for the majority of our news/talk stations makes overwhelming sense," John Hogan, CEO of Clear Channel Radio, said at the time of the agreement. "Because of the breadth of this relationship, our local news directors will get a more customized and higher quality national news product — and that's great for listeners."

Although the decision was made on the national level, it was a natural fit for Grand Rapids, according to Skip Essick, regional market manager for Clear Channel West Michigan. For the conservative demographic that makes up much of West Michigan's talk radio audience, there is a familiarity and an affinity for FOX News' coverage.

"There's some compelling evidence as to the credibility of the FOX News Channel, and that's obviously driven by the popular cable network," Essick said. "So for a lot of the talk news stations across the country, FOX News brand has become the brand of preference with our listeners. The traditional networks did not score nearly as high with our listeners in terms of credibility or of fair and balanced coverage."

Industry analysts have found that to be true, as well. An article on the Clear Channel/FOX deal in Billboard Radio Monitor suggested that "ABC has faced some difficulties in pro-Republican parts of the country where news/talk affiliates have delivered right wing offerings such as Rush Limbaugh against ABC news content considered by some listeners in these regions to carry liberal bias."

However, picking up a news brand that better suits the listeners' political tastes is a side benefit. The real deal had to do with money. Radio news networks do not actually charge individual stations for use of their product. Instead, they require the stations to air (or "clear") a certain number of national commercials during the same timeframe (or "day part") as the news reports the network provides.

"We were having to clear a tremendous number of commercials with ABC. With FOX, we don't have to clear nearly as many commercials," Essick said. That means more spots become available for local sale, which means more revenue for stations like WOOD. So even though no money is changing hands between FOX and Clear Channel, FOX is essentially offering its service at a lower cost to Clear Channel stations.

But for individual stations, that savings is the side benefit. The ability to produce better news programming, according to Essick, is the larger improvement.

"I really believe that that is the bigger issue here. We didn't give up the ABC news brand on WOOD because we can run fewer commercials. That's a part of it, but it's not a big part of it. The big part of it is improving our news product. I think therein is the real story. I passionately believe it is a big improvement in our product."

Gary Allen's conversation with a reporter on the front lines of the hurricane cleanup and rescue efforts is a perfect example.

"If you're a local affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Toledo, Ohio, or Louisville, Kentucky, you want to be able to — particularly on your morning show — have access to the reporters in the field. You want access to give your local listeners a perspective of what's going on. That has always been an issue with the major networks: They'll make their correspondents available to stations in Los Angeles or Chicago, but they're not going to get down to medium markets. And that's something that I've always been very critical of. With a conventional network like ABC, they're not going to give you that. But FOX wants our business and they're willing to do that. And they've got reporters in the field that are going to do that."

Although WOOD listeners may notice a difference in the field reporting, they won't hear much change in the way the news is presented. Regular hourly news reports are available from FOX News Radio, but WOOD will continue to produce its own, tapping FOX resources when necessary.

"We use network feeds and correspondents, but we do not, during the day, actually carry the FOX News network newscast, because we have a six-person news team here," Essick said.

Clear Channel's other West Michigan stations also will be served by the FOX News Radio service in the event of emergencies and breaking news. However, most will continue to produce their own news updates from Associated Press and Clear Channel news sources.

In total, 500 of Clear Channel's 1,200 stations across the country are expected to sign on to FOX News Radio service by the end of the year. Most of them will drop ABC service.

Regardless of network affiliation, this type of consolidation and homogenization of news delivery is troubling to some.

"It limits voices and perspectives that are heard," said local media critic Jeff Smith. "It also streamlines the focus (of all the Clear Channel stations) to national news. OK, so Clear Channel owns (seven) stations in Grand Rapids and it has huge financial resources available. Why couldn't it spend some of those resources on improving local news coverage?"

This is apparently a common criticism of Clear Channel. In fact, the company's Web site offers a 200-word treatise refuting the "myth" that Clear Channel is not committed to covering local news.

WOOD's six-person news team — among the 500 nationwide whose paychecks come from Clear Channel — would likely disagree, as well.

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