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WFLD GM Mike Renda: ‘If You Don’t Evolve, You Die’

The May ratings book told a similar story as sweeps past for Chicago’s WFLD: the Fox O&O’s morning show increased viewership while its 9 p.m. newscast continued to struggle.

The challenges facing WFLD are certainly not lost on vice president and general manager Mike Renda, who has been with the station since 2009.

Renda spoke with TVSpy recently about the job status of news director Carol Fowler, how he plans to turn around the 9 p.m. newscast, and what Oprah’s departure means for the market…

Based on the last couple of sweeps periods, would you say that the morning newscast is the focal point right now, you’re most important newscast?

I’d have to say that any one of them is the most important because we’re working them all at the same time. There is no question we’re getting more traction in the morning right now, but at nine o’clock we’re working very hard as well. And the ratings aren’t, frankly, the ratings aren’t where we want them to be. I don’t think there’s any question about it. But I really believe that we’re going in a great direction, we’ve built a great team here, and we’ve got people who really care.

It’s hard when you make changes. I’ve been through this before. And people don’t like change. There’ll always be some that are very resistant to change, but I think we’ve got a great group of people and that morning show is starting to really gel. There’s a camaraderie that starts to develop in the morning because you’re kind of your own entity there. And I really see that starting to happen. So I’m really excited. It’s a big challenge, but I feel like right now the ratings are obviously a problem for us, not where we want them, but I really believe we’re going in the right direction. I really do.

And what would you say has been the cause of the success that you’ve had in the mornings? The 9 p.m. newscast continues to struggle but you have seen gains in the morning. What are you attributing that to?

Well I think morning news is really about understanding who the audience is and it’s also about talent. I think that we’ve made some changes on our morning show talent which we’re very excited about.

People want to like the morning anchors. But I also think that there’s a fine balance there between news and also sort of having the pulse of the city. And that chemistry thing in the morning is key. And I’m very excited about our people there. And I can tell sort of by anecdotal information that I’m getting, also just talking to people on the street, that they like our people a lot. And those are the great things that I’m hearing so far.

So what does it take? It’s a combination. But you got to have the structure, you got to have the chemistry in the group, and you got to have that sort of camaraderie that starts to build. And I think we have that.

And then switching to the night now, the 9 p.m. newscast, a couple of changes there. Mike Leiderman is taking over now. Why did you choose him and why is he the right guy to turn around that newscast?

There’s a lot of people that get involved in that 9 o’clock, producers, and obviously news management, there’s so much that goes into that show. But Mike’s got a great wealth of experience. He brings a really great knowledge of the city of Chicago.

We believe that we’ve got to be able to present news in a different way, in a more distinctive way, and a way that’s going to have an impact on the average guy. I think people are tired of the way that news is being brought to them by most of the stations now. It’s very format-driven, formulaic, and frankly boring.

I think that Mike brings a different take on let’s say the traditional way that evening news has been presented. And that, plus he’s smart, he knows the city. Those are some of the reasons that in a short period of time he’s gained the respect of the room.

And of course Lederman has a history with [9 p.m. anchor] Bob Sirott. They previously worked together on “Chicago Tonight,” which is a newsmagazine-style show. Do you see the 9 p.m. newscast transitioning into being something like a newsmagazine show?

No. It’s not going to be that at all. We’ve got to be able to present the news in a really compelling way. I’m not saying a newsmag isn’t, but that’s not what we’re all about. We still have to cover the breadth of the community and what’s happening here. And we have an hour, so we have the ability to do a lot of stories but we also have the ability to dive deep into some subjects.

I feel like we’ve got really compelling players in that 9 o’clock. Mike Flannery–he’s been unbelievable. We brought him over from CBS, and the guy is just an incredible newsman. I think the respect he gets in the political community has really sort of opened my eyes. And the thing that’s cool about him is he’s not afraid to do any story on the political arena, and as you know politics is huge in Chicago. When he goes to Springfield he stops people in the hallway, they want to talk to him. He’s very aggressive. He knows this market inside and out from a political standpoint. And to have him right now in the midst of the tremendous change that’s going on in our government, I think, is a huge asset.

And the other thing I just wanted to get in is that we’re really committed now to viewer tips. We just did a story about a homeless man who had gotten a lot of attention from a lady who had stopped, spoken to him, and treated him very well over the years. And she had some bad luck and also became homeless and he basically panhandled for her to keep her in a hotel with her child. And I’ll tell you what: we got a tremendous response online on that story and also from around the country. But that story came from a tip, and obviously we get a lot of investigative tips.

I feel like in some respects we’re having that ability to have a voice for people, a place where they can go if they have information. They can come to us and we’re going to look into it, and when it’s compelling we’re going to present it. And I think that’s something that the half-hour newscasts at night just aren’t–they can’t do it. They don’t have the time. And so I think that gives us a real advantage.

In addition to having that personal connection with viewers, what are some other ways that you’re trying to, from a stylistic standpoint or from a format standpoint, trying to stand out in the market?

Well, I think it’s the way we tell the stories. We’re trying to be very aggressive so that people know that we’re on the stories. I think we’ve got a group of people now that have passion for what they’re reporting.

Also, I can’t tell you how involved Carol [Fowler] is in our news and everything that we’re dong. And some of the things that I really take exception to are some of these stories that have been coming out about her leaving and so on. Carol and I are here for the long haul. And we’re working really hard on this and we now have people who I think can see where we’re trying to go, and they’re with us.

One other thing I want to mention that’s kind of new and cool is something that used to be done in this market quite a lot, and it’s that we’re doing editorials. And so far there’s been an interesting response to them. I’m getting really good comments, a lot from people on the street. So far the biggest, I think, the one that we’ve really focused on heavily has been the education issue, considering the reforms that are going on.

And how do you draw a line, in doing editorials, from becoming too editorialized and developing maybe a perception among viewers that you’re slanted?

To be honest with you, I think you have to know the subject that you’re talking about. And try to present a fair and balanced approach. I think that’s something that we’ve worked hard on in these. And at the end of the day we’re gonna make a call about how we see it. It’s not unlike the newspapers, the editorials that they’ve done over the years. But I think you’ve gotta know your subject.

We are trying to take some stands out there. And hopefully that gets us off the vanilla approach that we talked about earlier.

In describing the editorial approach, you evoked the “Fair and Balanced” slogan of the Fox News Channel and I wanted to ask you: Is it difficult distinguishing yourself from the Fox News Channel? The Fox News Channel has such a specific reputation within our culture. And do you find, on a day-to-day level, that viewers mistakenly associate you with the right-leaning views of the hosts during Fox News prime time?

I really do believe that the majority of people believe that we are separate. We’re Fox Chicago. I know that there’s some people that sort of want to build into that, that there’s something to that. But I think we’re unique, we’re trying to present news to the City of Chicago in a way that is compelling. There’s no agenda.

What sometimes gets overlooked is that Fox News Channel is very successful. We’d love to own our category the way they own theirs. But we’re a local television station and it’s really not the same.

You have somewhat of a reputation of being a “fixer”—coming into a station and kind of picking it apart and turning it around. And you’ve been at Fox Chicago for a couple of years now: Is there some sort of timeline that you’re working under, where you are going to try to make certain changes, and if they don’t work by this date you’re going to be forced to try something new?

No. You know what? I think that we really understand how hard this is, and I think that the people that I work for also understand it, that this process that we’re trying to go through here in Chicago is a difficult one. But it’s definitely doable and I feel that way every day that I come in here.

I think that we’re completely transparent about what we’re trying to do. Our staff understands it. I think that the majority of people are on-board. I think that certainly we want to be as successful as fast as we can. But I think that there’s understanding from the people that I report to, and also from myself, that it’s a process and it takes time. But we’re on the march. And I feel like in a lot of ways it’s the classic “If you don’t evolve, you die.” And while we haven’t found a foothold in our ratings I still think we’re making some great progress. And I see a lot of similarities to the things that we’ve done in other places. You gotta get the best people in the best place. And I feel very good about where we’re going but I’m getting tremendous support from the people that I work for, and, I think, from a lot of the folks here that are working at the station.

What sort of specific changes are you going to make to your morning newscast to draw away some of the viewers that used to tune in to Oprah at 9 a.m.?

Oprah moving to her own network is a tremendous opportunity for us and, I think, for the marketplace. And we look at it as a great chance to get some new sampling and new viewers. And it’s part of the reason, I think you may have seen, that we’re in the process of building a new set, which we’re very exited about. It’s going to be a newsroom set, very vibrant, very interactive, something that I think the viewers of Chicago are really gonna think is cool. And so I think that’s something that we’re really gonna take advantage of, hopefully, and we can grow with that.

And when is that going to happen?

Soon.

Soon, like summer-soon?

Yes. Stay tuned…

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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