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For Rich O’Dell, Big Ideas from A Not-So-Big Market

GM of the Year, Markets 51+: Rich O'Dell, WLTX, Columbia (S.C.)

For WLTX Columbia (South Carolina) president and general manager Rich O’Dell, success is all about feet on the street.

Already a fixture in the state’s broadcasting community — he has run the station for 20 years and was inducted into the South Carolina Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2018 — O’Dell and his news team were selected by parent Tegna to marshall a pilot program aimed at finding the pulse of the community and producing stories that make a difference in residents’ everyday lives.

The result, Street Squad/Deep Dive, has been a catalyst for ratings growth in DMA No. 75. In 2019, the station gained seven news-viewer share points in early evening news to take the No. 1 position this past summer. The change was even more dramatic in late news, where WLTX, a CBS affiliate, picked up 15 points on the No. 1 station in the market (NBC affiliate WIS) between July 2017 and July 2019. According to Tegna, WLTX was three share points behind WIS in July 2017 among adults 25-54, and 12 points ahead by July 2019.

“Rich has a rare combination of versatility and humility that makes him one of Tegna’s most effective and respected leaders,” Tegna executive VP and chief operating officer for media operations Lynn Beall said. “As his colleagues know, he’s incredibly deserving of this award.”

Street Squad came out of a brainstorming session at Tegna’s quarterly Innovation Summit. WLTX volunteered to spearhead the pilot for Tegna’s 61 stations across the country.

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The shift wasn’t easy, as it required reporters to upend their regular routines, but was one the newsroom embraced wholeheartedly. After laying the foundation for Street Squad last year, WLTX fully launched the project in January.

The station overhauled workflow in its newsroom. “We got rid of the dedicated assignment desk,” O’Dell said. “We’ve gotten rid of the old way of doing things.”

O’Dell credited news director Julie Eisenman with the makeover. WLTX has one content team and there is no division anymore between producing for on-air and digital.

“We are developing content, producing content, publishing content constantly, whatever platform it goes on,” O’Dell said. A greater focus on community reporting means that reporters no longer make the newsroom the first stop of their day. Street Squad staff start off at a specific geographic location each morning.

“They’re walking into the hair salon, they’re walking into a coffee shop and just striking up conversations with people about what’s important to them and their neighborhoods and what should we know about,” O’Dell said. “We have come up with so many stories that are people-related that are absolutely relevant to individual communities that we never, ever would have known about without talking to people.”

Uncovering Hidden Stories

One of those stories concerned the deaths of two residents at a public housing complex from carbon monoxide poisoning, which also forced more than 400 tenants out of their apartments. O’Dell led the charge to find out what really happened at the complex, and the station’s investigative Deep Dive Team discovered that gas leaks and other safety hazards were a common problem there. At one point during the investigation, two WLTX journalists who were searching through public documents at the housing complex were handcuffed and detained by private security. O’Dell and Eisenman got their reporters released and made sure they got the records for which they were searching.

As a result of WLTX’s investigative reporting, several members of the housing board resigned and the South Carolina legislature took action to ensure closer scrutiny of all public housing in the state.

O’Dell credited Eisenman and the WLTX investigative team for their tenacity in pursuing the story. He’s proud of the difference his team has already made in the community. “I was at church the other day and somebody came up to me and said, ‘Your Street Squad, those guys are doing what needs to be done,’ ” O’Dell said. “I love hearing that. It’s not just a marketing technique, they are really out there doing the deed.

“Relevancy is the key, localism is absolutely the key and we’ve found another way to make LTX stand out,” he added.