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Sharing Best Practices, Spreading Democracy

A station general manager’s field of vision typically stretches as far as the limits of his or her TV market, but a select group of local broadcast executives is showing off management skills in some far corners of the globe. With parts of Ukraine and Georgia under intense pressure as Russia exerts influence on its neighbors, leaders at WDRB Louisville, WDBJ Roanoke and other crack TV stations have put boots on the ground in these nations to teach the finer points of producing, and monetizing, news.

Through a program orchestrated by non-profit outfit IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) and backed by the U.S. embassies in Kiev and Tbilisi, Jeff Marks, president and general manager of Schurz Communications-owned WDBJ, has visited Ukraine four times and Georgia one as part of a best practices exchange with his eastern European counterparts. He’s eager to do it again. “I’m an avid supporter of this program,” Marks says. “A, it’s the right thing to do in terms of helping societies become informed, and B, it’s a wonderful opportunity for our people to expand their horizons.”

It’s the busy season for IREX’s exchange program, which sees several Ukrainian and Georgian TV news groups, including translators, headed to the likes of Anchorage (Schurz’s KTUU), Springfield, MO (Schurz’s KYTV) and Harrisburg, Illinois (WSIL TV, Inc.’s WSIL), as well as to various newspapers and radio stations. Robert Zabel, program coordinator, democracy, governance & media division of IREX DC, says 29 U.S. media outlets have taken part in the exchange. The organization targets overseas stations that are likely to be around for the foreseeable future (Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year took several local media outlets off the table for IREX), and show a willingness to learn new things. U.S. stations that send delegates typically end up on the IREX radar screen because they’ve been recommended by local TV executives already in the program. Ukraine, for one, is key as it straddles eastern and western Europe, both geographically and philosophically.

“I know if I ask Bill [Lamb, WDRB president/general manager] or Jeff [Marks], I’ll get consistently high quality partners,” says Zabel.

Creating the News, Selling the News

The American representatives generally focus on two departments: the news and journalism going on at the overseas stations, and sales. The Europeans and Asians pick up the finer points of neutral reporting and the latest in graphics and digital, say the U.S. general managers. One could make the case that the news side of the operation has never been more critical. According to Marks, Georgians get much of their news from Russian-operated satellite TV, which does not always mean a balanced take on current events. Svitlana Zholobaylo is the program manager for IREX’s Ukraine operation, formally titled Ukraine Media Partnership Program (UMPP). She describes an “unfair” battle for the independent TV and online news outlets that compete against state-owned media. The local media outlets have, for instance, vastly improved their websites and mobile performance, says Zholobaylo, since receiving American tutelage. “They teach us how to be profitable,” she says. “Stations here are not profitable.”

In April, Zholobaylo was in Las Vegas, of all places, taking in the latest in video technology at NAB, and distributing information on the exchange as she lined up new partners. “UMPP works with print, broadcast and online media outlets throughout Ukraine to promote the development of a free and independent media sector by developing partnerships between U.S. and Ukrainian media outlets,” stated the literature, which noted 38 exchanges since 2002, and over 200 Ukrainian reporters and managers visiting the U.S.

A Two-Way Street

Past participants at U.S. stations stress that the learnings go both ways. Lamb, for one, was blown away by the “brilliant”—and relatively inexpensive—animation in Ukraine, which he plans to tap for Louisville’s Fox affiliate. “It’s a great opportunity for us to learn stuff too,” says Lamb, who spent a week in the country in late May.

Marks’s delegation came away impressed by the moxie of the news crews in eastern Europe. “It was great for us to see how a 14-person staff gets things done,” he says.

After the workday is done, both parties then partake in a cultural exchange, whether it’s the opera, a vodka tasting or the Chernobyl Museum. After all, it’s not all about work. “Lots of Facebook relationships remain,” says Marks. “The program has created some lovely friendships.”

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.