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Dear Diary

A few days into June, stations in Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich., are still waiting for May-sweeps numbers. Using old-school paper diaries, the market is the only one in the top 50 that doesn’t measure daily ratings, say managers.

As a result, station managers rely on gut feelings. “May sweeps feel really good for us,” says Janet Mason, president/general manager of Gannett’s ABC affiliate WZZM. “In a diary market, you go with these feelings.”

Unfortunately for Mason and the rest of the competition, May also feels pretty good for market leader WOOD, a LIN-owned NBC affiliate that handily won total day, morning, evening and late news in February. “We had a phenomenal February,” says WOOD General Manager Diane Kniowski, “and we feel very comfortable that we’ll maintain our lead.”

Besides its unplugged ratings methodology, the No. 39 DMA is unique for several reasons. It comprises three cities, each with a different profile. Three general managers among the Big Four stations are female. And lastly, there are two ABC outlets.

Managers say the market’s personality is conservative, faith-based, resistant to change and brand-loyal. One manager points out that 86% of residents have a preferred station for news, well above the typical 60%-70%. While the auto industry in Detroit, a few hours to the east, is sputtering, such sectors as education and medical—the latter centered around downtown Grand Rapids’ “Health Hill”—have partially filled the breach. Still, the market’s revenue rank is 46, seven slots lower than its size rank.

Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek took in $115.9 million last year, according to BIA Financial, up from $99.2 million the year before. LIN’s WOOD led with $32.475 million, ahead of the Freedom-owned CBS affiliate WWMT ($29.6 million), WZZM ($24.3 million) and Tribune’s Fox station WXMI ($19.9 million). LIN also owns the second ABC outlet and the MyNetworkTV station.

WOOD, whose motto is “uncover and discover,” built its lead with what Kniowski calls a “well-seasoned, well-trained, high-energy” newsroom. “We can go six, seven, eight layers deep on a story,” she says, “which can lead to five new stories.”

The competition is hustling to make up the difference. WZZM is playing up local fare: a homespun take on Dancing With the Stars, called 13 Dance Off and featuring community celebrities, including anchor Juliet Dragos. The afternoon show Take Five features entertainment fare, as well as a product showcase for area vendors. “Local content has been our focus the past 40 years,” says Mason. “That hasn’t changed.”

WXMI plays up its local flavor, too. The Fox affiliate offers the market’s only 10 p.m. news and recently started morning and afternoon newscasts for the Web. Running for about two minutes, Fox 17 Web Update doesn’t feature ads, but VP/General Manager Patty Kolb says the project is still in the experimental stage. Tapping local merchants is the focus of the WXMI ad strategy, she says: “We’re concentrating on developing new business into the television market. We want to branch out from traditional TV advertisers.”

Over at WWMT, which enjoys the strong CBS prime and a killer syndication lineup, including Oprah, new News Director Cathy Younkin is pushing harder news. So far, it appears to be working, but—until the stations cough up money for set-top meters—VP/General Manager Jim Lutton can only surmise. “We had a nice jump from November to February,” he says, “and we hope that continues in May.”

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