Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Press Releases: TV on the radio

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Starting this past Sunday, regular listeners to WGAN (560 AM) radio heard some new voices giving some news and weather updates. No longer are the folks from WCSH Channel 6 (Portland’s Gannett-owned NBC affiliate) on the talk-radio station. Instead it’s the folks from WGME Channel 13 (the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate in town) who will be doing both live and recorded segments for WGAN.

The arrangement expands a previous arrangement with WPOR (101.9 FM), which is owned by the Portland Radio Group, to sister stations WGAN, WZAN (970 AM), and The Bay (1400 and 1490 AM).

WGME is overall the second-ranked television-news station in the market (behind WCSH, and ahead of WMTW Channel 8, the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate), but it has been climbing. In last May’s ratings standings, News 13 was the top broadcast in both the 10 pm and 11 pm time slots.

Pushing hard to expand its audience, the station has made some traditional deals, such as the one with the Portland Radio Group, and another new arrangement to provide weather forecasts to six Courier Publications weekly newspapers in the midcoast; a similar arrangement with the Lewiston Sun Journal has been going for a couple years now. This type of media collaboration is increasingly common, but may serve to limit the free exchange of ideas; allying with businesses and government agencies risks making providers of news and information less independent.

Some of WGME's efforts to grow have brought the station close to non-media companies, and even to government agencies. In a WGME promo spot running before every movie at the three local Cinemagic theaters, WGME staff tout the cinemas’ technology, and anchorwoman Kim Block calls it “the region’s premier family-entertainment cinema.” But when a projector broke in July 2007, during a midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, WGME aired nothing; WCSH and the Portland Press Herald broke the news.

In a recurring segment called “Fugitive Files,” WGME reporters profile criminals wanted by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and urge viewers to call in with tips. And News 13 cameras have gone with police to videotape many of the 22 arrests that have so far resulted from the program. Other news-police collaborations, such as the Dateline NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” have been accused of operating too cozily with law-enforcement officials.

Even more recently, the station has cuddled right up to the government — at the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at the Portland Jetport, the security rules are explained in a video by WGME’s own Kim Block, who utters phrases like “TSA security officers are here to help you.” (The same video also is played at the Bangor airport.)

WGME news director Robb Atkinson defends all of those efforts, saying they are ways the station can attract prospective viewers. Of the TSA video, which the station made for free as a “public-service announcement,” he says it is part of service to the community required by the Federal Communications Commission of all owners of broadcast licenses.

He adds that TSA officials have told him the video has “helped people go through the lines” with fewer delays, and that it has been more successful than the TSA’s own stock video, which features an androgynous animated character.

All of these — and some others he says are in the works but not yet ready to be made public — are “ways to extend our reach,” Atkinson says. As for whether the TSA video is too close to the feds for comfort, he replies, “We’re all Americans, aren’t we?”