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WMBF's Trial by Fire

On Aug. 8, staffers at WMBF Myrtle Beach will raise their champagne glasses and salute a most eventful 365 days. It was a year ago that Raycom launched WMBF, an NBC affiliate it built from scratch (see “Birth of a Station "). The year involved everything from tropical storms to heavy snow to harrowing wildfires—not to mention that little economic tsunami.

“I feel like we've been on five or 10 years,” says News Director Matt Miller. “I feel like I've aged that much in the past year.”

Raycom could hardly have picked a more miserable time to launch the station, though it was committed to timing the debut with the Olympics opening ceremonies on NBC, not to mention the assonance the 8/8/08 date provided. VP/General Manager Ted Fortenberry says Raycom's privately held status afforded it the patience to let WMBF find its footing.

“Raycom doesn't have the pressure from Wall Street,” he says. “You still have pressure to hit your numbers, but you can look at things on more of a long-term basis.”

Raycom President/CEO Paul McTear, with a large concentration of the group's stations in the Southeast, was eager to set up shop in Myrtle Beach. The No. 104 DMA has added more than 56,000 residents over the past five years, according to BIA Financial, and did not have its own NBC affiliate. The other players include Media General's WBTW, which claims more than half the market's revenue per BIA, Barrington's WPDE and Bahakel's WFXB.

A stormy beginning

WMBF's rookie year was marked by a number of milestones. Besides NBC's colorful curtain-raising in Beijing, there was a major storm bearing down on Myrtle Beach a month later. The market was smack in the middle of Tropical Storm Hanna's path, springing Miller's newsroom into round-the-clock coverage.

Mercifully, Hanna ended up doing a quick turn up the East Coast, leaving Myrtle Beach drenched but otherwise unbowed. Still, the event was a vital lesson for the WMBF news staff.

“We watched the competition and realized we could do equal, if not better, coverage,” Miller says. “That showed us a lot.”

That, along with covering some rare South Carolina snowstorms last winter, prepared WMBF for what Raycom Senior VP of Television Marty Edelman calls its “defining moment.” The area's largest wildfire in more than three decades struck in late April, destroyed dozens of homes, and had viewers frozen with fear for several days.

Miller says WMBF became the go-to station for crisis coverage, getting 2.9 million page views on in one day, as well as numerous video clips and photos submitted by viewers. Edelman says WMBF's coverage “creamed everybody,” based on ratings in the first week of May sweeps.

WMBF benefited from the competition being somewhat hamstrung by layoffs and cost-cutting, Miller says: “So many people told us the wildfire coverage turned them into [regular] viewers.” (WPDE did not respond to a request for comment, while WBTW VP/GM Michael Caplan, responding after the print deadline, said the station's commitment to covering breaking news has never been stronger.)

WMBF, which launched the digital channel WMBF News XTRA in June, has emerged as something of a model station within Raycom. Building from the ground up, Raycom was able to design a digital station to meet the needs of the modern multi-platform world, without the legacy infrastructure other stations must often work around. One Raycom general manager says the general managers are often instructed to call the folks at WMBF to see how they worked through particular issues.

Fortenberry, who oversees a staff of 79, divided the station into five departments: content, marketing, sales, engineering, and general and administrative (other stations may have eight or nine different departments). Absent is the mindset of one person handling one role. “Everybody is trained to do multiple tasks and have multiple skill sets,” he says. “For us to be relevant in the future, I think that's a necessity.”

Raycom thought enough of WMBF's setup that it was rolled out throughout the system in January. “People are cross-trained so that you're not just a master control operator or photographer,” Edelman says. “Employees have welcomed the challenge of doing new things.”

Edelman, who retires later this month, says WMBF has accomplished most everything it set out to do in Year 1; with Myrtle Beach's TV economy down 29% this year, the revenue goals will have to wait a little longer to be met. Edelman is shooting for a double-digit share of revenue by the end of 2010.

Fortenberry is fully aware that the brass has big things planned for Myrtle Beach. “Raycom built the station to be No. 1 in revenue and ratings,” he says. “The goal is to keep moving up the ladder.”

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