A TV Station Loses Its GM, News Director and Two Anchors. Really?

After a day of news catch-up following a “real vacation” (no cell phone, texting, email, Web or Social Media for a week), there’s one story that still has me thinking. There’s fast-moving change in the media. Then there’s this story.

All of us who follow the media business closely knew changes would occur after ABC/Disney sold WJRT-TV in Flint. The business and that community are too different now since the mega-owner bought that station 16 years ago. But nobody was expecting what happened last week.

It really all started a month ago when longtime General Manager Tom Bryson, who served for decades, retired. This was not surprising as new ownership likes to bring in its “own guy” and Bryson apparently saw a window to retirement. He was a “throwback” GM – a recognized long-term leader in the community, not just an exec climbing the corporate ladder while passing through town. Check out this video of his retirement party, not the typical cake in the newsroom affair but a fundraiser attracting the top leadership from the Flint area.

Fast forward just a couple of weeks and in one fell swoop, the new ownership dramatically altered the station. They fired News Director Jim Bleicher, a veteran himself of more than 20 years at the same station with a reputation of being one of the nicest and most solid people in all of TV news. Both of those qualities are unusual for a TV News Director (the average tenure in that profession, at one time anyway, was 18 months to 3 years). Right after that, new ownership fired the station’s main anchor, Bill Harris, who had been at WJRT since 1977, as well as the weekend anchor and frequent lead reporter, Joel Feick who had been on the air there since 1983. Here’s a report from a trade website with the details.

The faces of the station in the business community, to its audience and to the broadcasting industry – icons all – are now all out of their jobs. Why? My simple, educated guesses are the typical reasons, power and money. New ownership wants their own GM and ND to run the station their way. That probably means a higher mandated profit margin than even Disney had demanded. So relatively high-priced talent is out the door.

This is far from an isolated case, just an extreme one as far as the timing. The position with the worst job security in broadcasting right now is on the anchor desk. Stations feel they can cut there and sacrifice only salary. But here’s the irony – one of the reasons they are cutting is “increased competition” from other news sources, namely the Internet. But how can TV news, when done well, distinguish itself from other sources? Local personality. TV stations should heed the lesson of the radio stations that dropped their personalities to save money, while bemoaning the competition of the iPod.