Fox Go-To Guy Made in Michigan

Running WJBK Detroit is, for Jeff Murri, nothing short of a dream job. He's working in his home market, he has one of the liveliest newsrooms in the U.S. and he spends each day focused on making Detroit a better place. Murri is passionate about local news and community service, and WJBK delivers both by the boatload; the Fox O&O produces a whopping 57½ hours a week of local news (and growing), and actively mentors the challenged market’s youth.

Competition is extraordinarily close in DMA No. 11. WJBK competes against what are considered flagships of the Post-Newsweek (WDIV) and Scripps (WXYZ) groups, as well as a CBS-owned duopoly. Murri believes an outsized—and innovative—local news presence is the smartest strategy. “If you’re truly engaging the community and telling stories in a different way and trying to make the market a better place, there is never enough news,” the exuberant GM says. “What might appear to be exhausting for others is energizing for us…at least we’re nuts enough to think it’s energizing.”

Murri’s promotion to WJBK vice president and general manager in 2001 was the culmination of a hometown dream. He grew up in Shelby Township, a little north of Detroit, and learned to be a broadcaster in high school, hosting “Murri in the Morning” on the school radio station. The program featured music, banter and a little news. “If the ink cartridge worked, I’d read copy from the AP wire,” he says. “If it didn’t, I’d grab whatever I had. It was great experience for broadcasting.”

Murri learned the business side from his older brother Michael, who sold time at WXYZ Detroit (and is now the station’s general sales manager). His first job was at WJBK in 1984. The station was a weak CBS affiliate at the time, and Murri was handed a phone book and told to drum up new business. In 1987, he jumped to Atlanta to sell national accounts for Storer Communications, then hooked up with WCBS New York two years later.

Murri returned to WJBK in 1991 as national sales manager (the station became a Fox outlet in 1994) and worked his way up over the next decade to the top spot.

Upon becoming GM, Murri set out boosting the station’s news output, including a 5 a.m. show in 2002, two additional hours of weekend morning news in 2005, an 11 p.m. newscast in 2007, a 4:30 a.m. (first in the market and first in the Fox group) in 2008 and a 9 a.m. Monday through Friday news in 2009.

This September, WJBK will add an hour of news at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, giving it a 6½ hour morning behemoth; the move will boost the station’s its weekend-morning output by 30 minutes a day and bring its total weekly news output to 63½ hours, among the highest in the U.S., Murri says.

It’s a crush of work for the WJBK staff, including news director Dana Hahn. But Murri’s Detroit crew always has his back. “Jeff’s energy and management style have helped grow WJBK into the news leader it is,” says Sharri Berg, senior VP of news operations at Fox Television Stations. “His drive to be the best is infectious—if you’re around him, he lifts the room.”

Beyond the loads of news, Murri strives to make WJBK’s content stand out in the noisy media environment. One innovation includes the Thursday-night program Let It Rip; the unscripted issues show made national news on April 21 when notorious Koran-burner Terry Jones, following an on-air debate with a local Muslim leader, accidently fired a handgun in his car in the WJBK parking lot. “It’s different every week,” Murri says of the show, adding that the “let it rip” attitude is present in every “Fox 2” newscast. “But it’s always informative, sometimes crazy, and definitely entertaining.”

Other innovations include the daily e-newsletter “My Fox Morning News,” designed to capitalize on the diminished presence of Detroit’s local newspapers (the e-newsletter taps Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper vet Charlie LeDuff to deliver offbeat reports) and switching up the morning and late news anchors for a week in January—just for the heck of it. Berg calls Murri a “go-to GM” for Fox, and says corporate often looks to Detroit for ideas that might work systemwide. Murri says the mandate to be different comes from Jack Abernethy, Fox Television Stations CEO. “When Jack says, ‘What are you doing that’s different?’—boy, you’d better have an answer, and it had better really be different,” Murri says with a laugh.

But as much as Murri is trying to shake up the marketplace, he’s trying to promote the good things going on in the beleaguered metropolis. “Made in Michigan” segments celebrate local merchants doing interesting things. The station throws its weight behind an “Adopt a School” program, with staffers mentoring students at Communications and Media Arts High School. WJBK addresses poverty with Operation Backpack and a thriving food drive, and community health with Healthy Heart Project. “We have the ability to make a difference, and engage others to become involved,” Murri says. “When you can use the power of the medium to make the community a better place, that’s nirvana.”

Being the son of an auto industry worker, there’s no place Murri would rather be than Motown. “It’s home,” he says. “I love the people, the energy, the passion, the can-do attitude. We’re fighters. We’ve been through hell and back, and that gives you an extra layer of skin—and one helluva sense of humor.”

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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.