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A Tale of Three Cities

Longevity and continuity go a long way in the so-called Tri-Cities market along the Tennessee-Virginia border. WCYB’s morning man Johnny Wood, who General Manager Jim McKernan describes as “Elvis Presley in the marketplace,” has been on for 42 years. WKPT has had the same owner (Holston Valley Broadcasting) and affiliation (ABC) for all its 41 years. And WJHL has had all of two general managers in its 57 years on the air: Hanes Lancaster for 36, and Jack Dempsey for the last 21.

“I don’t think you’ll find that in too many places,” Dempsey says.

The three cities of DMA No. 93 are Bristol (Tenn. and Va.), and Kingsport and Johnson City, Tenn. State Street serves as the line of demarcation for the two states. “Our station is in Virginia, but I’m looking at Tennessee out my window,” says McKernan, recently promoted to regional senior VP at Bonten Media Group.

Staffers wear multiple hats here. Steve Hawkins serves as news director and 6 p.m. anchor at WCYB. WJHL President/General Manager Dempsey says his photographers report, and his reporters shoot. “It was a rocky year last year, no doubt about that,” he says. “We learned, like so many stations, to do more with less.”

There’s a robust news race between NBC affiliate WCYB and Media General’s CBS outlet WJHL. The pair tied in late news in May, both carding an 8.0 household rating/23 share. WCYB won total day ratings, along with the morning and evening races; WJHL grabbed primetime. WCYB’s $12 million in 2009 revenue topped WJHL’s $11.2 million, according to BIA/Kelsey.

McKernan also manages Esteem Broadcasting’s Fox affiliate WEMT, just as he oversees the Bonten and Esteem stations in Greenville, N.C. WCYB and WEMT debuted HD local news June 17; McKernan calls it “a pretty serious advantage.” WJHL plans to flip the switch Oct. 4.

WCYB airs The CW on its .2 channel. WKPT offers MyNetworkTV and RTV on digital channels. WKPT used to air newscasts produced by WJHL, but the partnership ended a few years ago. The station features news “briefs” produced by its sister radio stations during Good Morning America, and weather updates throughout the day on air and online. President/General Manager George DeVault would like to expand WKPT’s news output. “I do envision getting back into the news business with half-hour ’casts,” he says.

The market is largely rural. Employers include the Food City grocery chain, Eastman Chemical Co. and various health-care outfits. Charter and Comcast are the primary cable operators.

Stations set themselves apart with local programming. WJHL has the 10 a.m. show Daytime Tri-Cities, which Dempsey calls “live, local and fun.” WCYB produces a nightly 10 p.m. news for WEMT. WKPT airs unique community happenings such as Kingsport’s Fourth of July parade and a bluegrass festival. “We try to stay involved with the community with those events,” DeVault says.

Bristol Motor Speedway hosts the wildly popular Bristol Night Race, which attracts some 160,000 spectators. ESPN2 aired the Friday (Aug. 20) race, and WKPT had the Saturday- night derby. “It’s the toughest ticket in NASCAR,” McKernan says.

Nestled amidst the Appalachian Mountains, Tri-Cities offers considerable attributes. “It’s probably the best-kept secret in the South,” Dempsey says. “There’s a wonderful climate and quality of life, and when you combine the three cities, it’s a pretty nice-sized little town.”

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