News with a salsa beat

Steve Mauldin had been on the job at WFOR-TV about six weeks in November '98, when Miami's new American Airlines Arena caught fire—a major story by any estimation. "I sat here in my office with about six TVs," he recalls, and watched crews from several competitors show up before WFOR-TV's. "A West Palm Beach station beat us there. The next day, I called a meeting."

Mauldin was determined that the station work its way toward the top spot in the market. Since that time, "I'm not saying we win them all, but we're definitely in the hunt every day."

WFOR has gone from ratings disappointment to contender and frequent winner in what is perhaps the nation's tightest large market for English-language stations. It has become a bright spot in the CBS station group, whose top-market stations are mired in low ratings.

"The job he did was incredible," says Patrick McGinley, vice president and general manager at CBS-owned KEYE-TV Austin, Texas, and former WFOR-TV director of sales.

"You don't see a station turn around like that very often, and I've seen Steve do it at several stations," adds McGinley, who has a 15-year history with Mauldin and credits his mentoring with helping him prepare to run his own station. "We were in last place. We weren't very well thought of in the buying community. Viewers weren't watching. But Steve has a way of immersing himself in the community. He changed the look, the lineup; he made the station reflective of South Florida."

"I came up through the business with good teachers and good coaches. I'm a player-coach," says Mauldin, who attended Baylor University on a baseball scholarship. "I'm heavily involved in news, sales, marketing and promotion. You have to be. But I have strong managers. That gives you the ability to move quickly."

Among his changes were the station graphics and the addition of a salsa beat to its news theme "that better reflects the South Florida community we cover. We better reflect the energy and excitement of this market. The graphics feel like the market; they showcase the beauty of the market."

And then there's Oprah.

"[King World's] Roger King and I have a relationship that goes back a long time, and there was a window of opportunity to get Oprah. We had to move quickly." Viacom President Mel Karmazin signed off on taking the show within 48 hours, Mauldin says. The Oprah Winfrey Show began on the station in September 1999.

"I don't know if losing the show was as big for WPLG (TV) as getting it was for us. It was the exact audience we were looking for, the best lead-in for us. We got a lot of promotional opportunities."

The gains, Mauldin says, have been dramatic: From February '99 to February 2001, the station was up more than 100% in household ratings at 5 p.m. and 88% at 5:30. But, he notes, "the first newscast we won was at 11 o'clock."

Mauldin has also built on the community presence already in place with the station's Neighbors for Neighbors relief effort, started after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The station is now involved in selecting students- and teachers-of-the-month and in partnering with educational institutions to recruit school volunteers.

One community promotion particularly close to Mauldin's heart is the "Team Up 4 Kids" initiative, which kicked off in late March with a riverfront celebration called "Stephanie's Day," named for Mauldin's autistic 11-year-old daughter.

Broadcasters believe his success in Miami and elsewhere makes him a candidate to run a station group or to move up within CBS' own group—including the current slot open at KCBS-TV Los Angeles.

Mauldin demurs. "I'm very happy here, and I don't think the job's done" yet.