Local News Close-Up: Charm City Keeps Its Cool

WBAL anchors Mindy Basara and Jason Newton on the home field of the hometown Baltimore Ravens.
WBAL anchors Mindy Basara and Jason Newton on the home field of the hometown Baltimore Ravens. (Image credit: WBAL)

As racial inequality protests took place in cities large and small across the U.S., and some grew violent, Baltimore residents protested peacefully. Memories of the mayhem after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015 were likely a factor in keeping the street scenes within the laws. 

“There were demonstrations for sure,” said Bill Hooper, VP and general manager of WMAR, “but they were peaceful.”

Yet Baltimore has its challenges. Hooper called crime “a cloud over the city.” The beloved Preakness was cancelled last spring. Maryland has pushed hard to fight COVID, which means serious restrictions across the state, hurting restaurants and retail. 

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The stations have plenty to cover. Hearst Television has NBC affiliate WBAL. CBS owns WJZ. Scripps has ABC outlet WMAR and Sinclair Broadcast Group owns Fox affiliate WBFF, while managing The CW outlet WNUV and running MyNetworkTV station EBFF on a dot-two. Comcast (Xfinity) is the primary pay TV operator. 

Stations in DMA No. 28 have been increasing their news. WMAR and WJZ both slotted a 7 p.m. newscast in September. For WMAR, it came after President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 news conferences would often bump the 5 p.m. news. For WJZ, the newscast offers a high story count and lively pace. “It’s the entire news of the day in those 30 minutes,” said Audra Swain, president and general manager. 

WBFF, which does morning news 4:30-10 a.m., added an 11 a.m. news in September. It leads into Fox 45 Bmore Lifestyle. “We always continue to expand news, and that was the natural next step,” said Bill Fanshawe, senior VP and group manager at WBFF. 

WJZ will launch its CBSN Local streaming product in the first quarter. Swain sees it like a duopoly — a chance to offer local content when WJZ airs football or other network programming. “It can be so much more than a simulcast,” she said. 

WMAR’s topical specials have included Bridging the Gap and Rebound Maryland. It debuted its OTT product in September. “It’s pretty much a constant local news presence in the marketplace,” Hooper said. “That’s been a very big thing for us.”

WBAL is “tied at the hip” with a pair of Hearst-owned local radio stations, said Dan Joerres, president and general manager, one hard rock and one talk. Some of the rock jocks host a Saturday night program called Justin, Scott and Spiegel Shouldn’t Be on TV. Joerres called the radio properties “a huge advantage.”

WBAL, which conducted town halls related to race, is a ratings beast, and WJZ is not far off the pace. In December, the two were virtually tied in households at 6 a.m., and WBAL won in viewers 25-54. WJZ had the upper hand in both races at 5 p.m., while WBAL did at 6 p.m. At 11 p.m., WBAL posted a 5.0 household rating and 1.8 in 25-54. WJZ had a 4.5 and 1.0, WBFF a 1.8 and 0.9 and WMAR a 1.1 and 0.5. 

“Our brand is Live, Local, Late-Breaking,” said Joerres. “We live it and breathe it every day.”

The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens are an adored local team. WJZ has its “Purple franchise,” said Swain, such as Ravens-centric Purple Playbook and Purple Preview. “It’s a real source of pride for us,” she said. 

With Fanshawe taking on a larger regional role within Sinclair, Billy Robbins was named WBFF VP/general manager. WBFF has a pair of investigative franchises: “Project Baltimore” focuses on schools and “Crime & Justice” on government. 

General managers said Baltimore is vastly different from the way it is often depicted, such as on 2000s crime drama The Wire. Said Joerres, “We’re a very tight-knit community.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.