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WDRB's Bill Lamb takes out the competition [Feature]
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This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

The future of newspapers, he thinks, is television.

Bill Lamb leans back on the couch in his stifling office. His suit jacket is off, revealing a white-on-white striped shirt and gold knot cufflinks. Six-foot-three, with blue-gray eyes, he’s better looking in person than on his twice-weekly television appearances as the editorial voice of Louisville’s Fox affiliate, WDRB. Onscreen, his ears seem a bit too noticeable, his hair and persona a tad too uptight.

His is a business where looks matter, where everyone, including the 58-year-old Lamb, meets with appearance consultants periodically. As president and general manager of WDRB and vice president of broadcasting for station owner Block Communications Inc., he represents a type of media notorious for its superficiality — notorious, at least, among print journalists, who often feel smugly superior to their more popular television competition, with its 45-second stories, its in-depth investigations of the obvious, and all that perfect hair. Four times in the course of two long conversations, Lamb mentions that WDRB reporters may be good looking, but they’re also “tough as nails,” betraying a degree of defensiveness at any casual dismissal of local television as the dumb blonde of journalism. But it’s no more than an annoyance, a conversational gnat swipe. The way he sees it, he’s a few steps ahead of the journalistic pack, and his well-groomed people are manning battle stations. Then it’s bye-bye Courier-Journal.  

The future of newspapers in Louisville is, according to Lamb,  WDRB.

You need not be a media junkie to catch the weird vibes on the airwaves this year. Just drive downtown on Interstate 65, where faces that once peered from inch-wide windows on the sports front of the C-J are now some 15 feet tall on billboards, watching over the Spaghetti Junction traffic with light amusement. In June, WDRB wooed the Courier’s two most familiar faces, sports columnists Eric Crawford and Rick Bozich, into its ranks — a move that turned heads all over the local media landscape. Courier-Journal management may have been more shocked than anyone. Although Crawford gave the paper a month’s notice, and Bozich two weeks’, the next morning both received emails asking them to return company-provided equipment. While they talked to each other on company-provided cell phones, the phones went dead. “I guess that told us where we stood,” Crawford says.  

A television station recruiting newspaper people was a move so unusual, it caught national attention in media circles, with David Goetzl of online MediaPost noting that “it’s surprising more stations haven’t tried similar gambits to boost their digital presence.” Since then, stations in New Orleans and Detroit have followed suit, recruiting popular talent from withering newspapers. 

“We’re changing the rules,” Lamb says. “We don’t have to play by the rules other TV stations set up, that you only hire TV people. . . . We didn’t just hire TV people. We hired journalists.” The only real precedent for this kind of thing is ESPN, which for years has raided newspaper talent, including former C-J columnist Pat Forde (now with Yahoo! Sports).

“I was surprised,” says Glenn Haygood, president and general manager of the top-ranked television station in the Louisville market, the CBS affiliate WLKY. “But one thing I’ve learned from getting to know Bill — don’t ever be too surprised. He’s a very aggressive marketer and a very aggressive businessman.” 

In 2009, Lamb bid successfully for Live! With Regis and Kelly (Regis Philbin subsequently left the program), Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and Dr. Phil — all of which began airing on WDRB in 2011. “I probably stunned my competitors. They didn’t think anybody would be stepping up,” says Lamb. Then Fox added the sitcom The Big Bang Theory to its lineup, another audience grabber that, together with the others, “had a great deal to do with changing how we’re perceived,” Lamb says. The station also added a 6:30 p.m. local news broadcast on weekdays.

When the Nielson ratings came out for the 6:30 time slot, Lamb says, “We would have been probably satisfied with a 2 (percent share of local televisions tuned to WDRB news) and happy with a 3,” Lamb says. So they were delighted when in May, “we did north of a 5.”

In overall ratings, WDRB is still struggling to climb out of third place behind WLKY — far and away the ratings leader — and WHAS, but the gap is closing. In February last year, WDRB was No. 3 by .6 of a percentage point (WLKY 5.1, WHAS 3.9, WDRB 3.3). By November, WDRB was behind by .3 of a point. By February and May of this year, .1 of a percentage point kept WDRB in the No. 3 slot. Lamb is optimistic about the station’s climb.

“We just need to keep it coming,” Lamb says. 

Around 2007, even before the recession hit, the newspaper industry began a slide into full crisis mode. Nearly every paper laid off employees, or reduced print operations, or cut salaries. Several, including the Baltimore Examiner, 

Albuquerque Tribune, Rocky Mountain News, and Cincinnati/Kentucky Post stopped publishing entirely. At many, employees who remained were rewarded with regular unpaid leaves. In newsroom after newsroom, the most experienced hands were encouraged to call it a day. This was more than a bad moment in the economy. It was the end of an era. The Gannett-owned Courier-Journal, as punch-drunk as any in media, ordered layoffs, unpaid furloughs and buyouts among its most experienced employees over the next few years.

Television went through its own cataclysm. Network powerhouses ABC, CBS and NBC all laid off news people. Stations in Denver, Toledo, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York and other cities shed employees. Louisville stations cut costs.

Still, Bill Lamb looked around him, and saw that it was good. He was feeling optimistic. 

In 2008, the national economic outlook only worsened. Financial markets resembled the morning after a frat party. Nearly every business in nearly every sector trimmed all sails, threw excess inventory and people overboard, lashed the few remaining employees to the mast, and prayed for a miracle. 

WDRB was in an alternate universe. The station was wrapping up the most profitable year in its history. Lamb called a staff meeting.

“We promised not to lay anyone off,” Lamb says. In fact, he intended to hire more people. (The station has gone from 130 employees in 2007 to 148 today.) “We knew this was the time our competitors would be most vulnerable. If we could take advantage of that by attacking, we can set our course for the next 20 years,” he says.

“Our strategy was very simple: Attack. Attack. Attack.”  

By the following December, it was clear Lamb’s plan was working. “Even I was a little surprised about how good (2009) was,” Lamb acknowledges. It turned out to be the station’s third-best profit year of a stellar decade.  

Inspired by this success, he did the kind of thing only people in business management advice books do. (He’s a voracious reader of those and has one of his own, Money Follows Excellence, due out this fall. He also regularly dips into The Art of War.)

“I had kind of an epiphany in December of 2009,” he says. It was a vision of a great television station. As all good management books advise, he developed a list of measurable goals WDRB must attain to qualify for greatness. That first list had five items: Become No. 1 in news viewers; have the highest revenue share; have the best technology; be the employer of choice; have the most-viewed website. Not long after, the list evolved to 10 with these additions: Have the best syndicated programming; be the innovation leader; improve community service; be first in weather; earn the most news awards. Then came No. 11: Gather the best, deepest sports team.

Marti Hazel, WDRB vice president and director of sales, was at the station when Lamb took the reins in 2002. She used to think of what the station would be like, what it might accomplish, if people just stopped all the infighting. “It was so exhausting — especially for the sales department because you’re out there fighting every day,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to fight inside too.” All those battles went away under Lamb’s leadership, she says. The whole place transformed.

“People here have a lot of pride, and they’re proud to work here, and proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Hazel says. So when Lamb announced his first five-point plan, she wasn’t surprised to see how many nodded in agreement. “I think that people here want to be great,” she says. “That’s just part of the culture.”

Culture. It’s the number-one vocabulary word in the WDRB handbook. And it’s part of what led to the decision to woo Bozich and Crawford. Hazel was in the room when the plan was hatched. It wasn’t Lamb’s idea; it was news director Barry Fulmer’s. But Lamb likes a bold move. He likes the calculated risk. 

It was an object lesson he learned from his father, Willard “Bill” Lamb, in 1960, at the peak of the American moment in automobile manufacturing, in a town that embodied the American automotive dream: Flint, Mich.  

Lamb Sr. was a household name in Flint. There were Bill Lamb fan clubs and Bill Lamb-sponsored dances. And he was having a blast, working as a radio disc jockey in the days when disc jockeys were hometown celebrities and the likes of Percy Faith and Perry Como shared the Top 40 with Frankie Avalon and the Drifters. But the steady growth of rock and roll left him cold. When the station he worked for switched to an all-rock format, sentencing him to days of spinning Elvis’ latest hits and Chubby Checker and his endless twisting, Lamb quit.    

He had a plan. Rather than look for another station, he approached the city’s biggest employer, Buick. At the time, General Motors had more than 80,000 employees in Flint — then a city of nearly 200,000. Lamb asked Buick to sponsor a daily show hosted and produced by him from his home studio. It would include interviews with GM employees and Hollywood stars along with music. The company went for it. Lamb’s Factory Whistle aired first once daily, then twice a day, until 1986. It was the market’s top-rated afternoon show for 20 years.

By the time his father started Factory Whistle, six-year-old William Lamb was already running a mock radio show. His dad had built him a studio in the basement. It was a defensive move as much as anything. Left unattended, his son loved to monkey with the real equipment his dad used for his on-air broadcasts. One day, Lamb Sr. wrapped up his own broadcast and headed up to the kitchen. Moments later he heard his son’s voice coming from the radio. The kid was on the air. He was about four years old.

“All I ever wanted to be was like my dad,” Lamb says. “I used to set up a studio on Thanksgiving Day and I would do commentary for the parades. I did a play-by-play and recorded it and played it back.” One of the few personal mementos in his office reveals his radio roots. It’s a black-and-white painting by the second of his four children, daughter Kira, made from a 1974 photograph of Lamb, his hair grown out into an afro, sitting at a broadcasting console. He was a junior in college.  

Two years later, it was all over. The owner of the station where he was working stopped in for a visit. “You don’t have much talent,” Lynn Martin told him. “But I think you could be good as a sales manager.” 

It stung. “I thought he was mean,” Lamb says. Today, he says Martin was right. He was never going to amount to much on the air. “I did radio shows every day from the time I was about five years old,” Lamb says. If he weren’t great after all that practice, he never would be.

Lamb’s father, now 88, says his son had the most important talent: a love of hard work. “I had four kids, and they were all good,” he says, “but Bill was the one who would get the lawnmower out and go up and down the street selling his abilities. He would mow lawns and do odd jobs. He had a shoeshine stand in a barbershop at one point.”

Lynn Martin guessed it. When it came to sales, Lamb was a natural. (Ironic side note: Lamb is working with Martin again. Martin, who owns LM Communications Television in Lexington, recently purchased WBKI, the CW Television Network station in Louisville. WDRB signed a shared-service agreement with Martin to provide assistance on the business and technical side.)  

Sales is how Lamb spent the next few decades, in radio and then television, first in Flint, then Nashville, before becoming vice president/director of sales in Birmingham and moving as general sales manager to Miami. From 1996 to 2002, he was president and general manager for a television station in Peoria, Ill. 

Although he is not active in sales now, it is a knack he hasn’t lost.  

A few years back, Hazel realized she had access to hard-to-get Ryder Cup tickets. She approached Lamb with a proposal that the station buy a large block of them and award them to merchants who signed substantial advertising contracts. Lamb immediately saw the advantage despite the expense.  

“That’s one of the things that’s so great about working here: We are able to be entrepreneurial,” Hazel says. “If we were part of a bigger company, like our television competitors, doing this would be a lot more difficult. . . . We’re able to do these things right away.”

Nimble. The word is nimble. 

This spring, Barry Fulmer began chewing on an idea that seemed so nuts, it almost overshadowed the feeling that it also seemed so right.

“It was so far out of the box, I didn’t know if anyone would even listen to me,” he says. Fulmer has been news director at WDRB for seven years and had worked with Lamb for 10. He knew that if anyone would take this seriously, it was Lamb. So he made his suggestion: Hire Bozich and Crawford. “TV stations across the country are giving up on local sports,” Fulmer says. “They don’t feel it’s important. The real stronghold of sports is print journalism. That’s where the star sports journalists are. So why not get the best sports journalists in town to work for us?”

Fulmer figures almost half of the readers on the Courier-Journal website were there strictly for Crawford and Bozich. (Lamb says that prior to hiring the duo, sports was on the bottom for WDRB website page views. Now it’s at the top. In May sports accounted for 1,486 page views. In June, with the new hires on board, the count jumped to 88,000.) 

Remember that putting together the best and deepest sports team was among Lamb’s goals for becoming a great station and having the most-viewed website was another. Fulmer’s proposal had a double appeal. “I can’t throw out a goal without giving people the tools to hit it,” Lamb says.  

“We pitched it around, talking for 20 minutes,” Fulmer says. “I could see Bill getting more excited. We weren’t quite sure we could make it happen. But Bill really got behind it.” 

“It’s my job to think of what can go wrong,” Lamb says. “I don’t have these guys in the budget and they’re going to be expensive.” So he asked advertising, “If you had these two guys, could you sell them?” 

Absolutely, advertising said.

“I believe in our sales department so strongly, that’s all I had to hear,” Lamb says. 

But first it was he who had to do the selling, and it wasn’t just to Bozich and Crawford. He needed to convince Allan Block, chairman and principal executive officer of Block Communications Inc., which not only owns WDRB but also several other television stations, two newspapers, a cable system and a telecom company. Block gives Lamb a lot of autonomy to run WDRB the way he sees fit. Still, this was an unusual move.

“I have to say, I was worried,” Block said in a telephone interview from his Toledo, Ohio, office. “I just wasn’t sure. On the other hand, Bill Lamb’s record recently . . . has been outstanding.” 

By all calculations, WDRB should be the market underdog, beaten bloody by the big-three network-affiliated stations. “Instead, we’ve become the leading broadcast station as far as revenue, and our audience is almost the largest,” Block said. “We have successful news in all parts of the day. We’re about the highest-rated Fox station in the country that was not previously with a big-three network. There are only six stations ahead of WDRB” in all of Fox. All of those were formerly network affiliates, he said. 

Becoming a revenue leader in Louisville was high on Lamb’s list of goals. The combined revenue of WDRB and WMYO has been No. 1 in the market for a while, Lamb says. But this year, WDRB alone held the largest revenue share of any Louisville television station in the second quarter, Lamb says.  

With Block on board, Fulmer sent an email to the two sports columnists, inviting them to visit the station. Neither man thought much of it, expecting a plan for a weekly feature or occasional on-air time. “We’d get some kind of offer, go back to the paper, and they’d shoot it down,” Crawford says he figured. “Instead, I remember Bill said, ‘We want you to think about a career change.’

“We were shocked.”

At some stage in their talks, Lamb handed the men a two-page essay titled, “What It Means To Work Here.” Every prospective employee receives this document. It talks about things like pride and passion and maintaining an underdog mentality. It demands integrity and creativity and bans T-shirts and blue jeans. It’s the kind of document one might easily ignore as empty corporate blather. But combined with the presentation of Lamb and Fulmer, it worked magic.

“It’s not just a job,” Bozich says. “It’s like a culture. People look out for each other and help each other. That culture thing was real important. That kind of appealed to me. Eric and I walked out of there saying, ‘Is this real?’” They were to talk to the station again after Derby and see where things stood.  

Bozich was inclined to believe that Lamb and Fulmer meant what they said. For most of the year, he had been noting changes in WDRB sports coverage. 

He was in Milwaukee in January to cover a University of Louisville basketball game. That afternoon, he realized Kyle Kuric wouldn’t be playing. “I was going to put it on Twitter and do a blog post,” Bozich says, when someone told him that Pat Doney from Channel 41 had already posted the news. That was a surprise. It wasn’t so much being beaten to the story; it was who beat him. “Channel 41 is sending sports guys on the road?” he remembers thinking. After that, he noticed WDRB reporters regularly at out-of-town games. 

“I had seen the proof that they were serious about what they were doing,” Bozich says. 

Crawford and Bozich told no one of the offer, referring to it as Vandelay Industries — George Costanza’s fictional company on Seinfeld — in their private discussions.  They both realized a job at the station wouldn’t be the gigantic shift today that it might have been a few years earlier. They would write for the web. They already did that. It would require social media skills. Check, did that too. They’d log some time in front of the camera. They already did that at the Courier. They were more than halfway into the world from which Lamb beckoned.

And, the real advantage? There would be no looming buyout offers, no watching colleagues let go or escaping, no mandatory unpaid vacations, no sense of being the last guy alive in the trench, waiting for the next mustard-gas canister. There would be journalism. Real journalism. “A lot of places, they keep cutting journalists out of the profession,” Crawford says. “We’re idealistic enough to believe, if you beef it up a little more, put more into the publication, that it might make a difference. And (Lamb) wanted to put in more resources. That’s a very attractive thing and something that’s very hard to find right now.” 

They met with Lamb and Fulmer again after the Derby. They began separate salary negotiations. On June 4, the Monday before the Belmont Stakes, the columnists gave notice. Crawford had been at the paper 12 years. His father, Byron Crawford, had worked there until just a few years ago, when he accepted a buyout. Bozich had been at the paper since 1978, and had turned down an earlier buyout offer.  

Although Bozich and Crawford had not planned to go public with the announcement until they were about to start at the station, it took less than an hour for word of their resignation to appear on the news website Insider Louisville. Later that evening, a Courier editor called them for comment. WDRB followed suit.  

The following day, Terry Boyd of Insider Louisville called the departure of the two columnists “an event that likely will go down as a mile-marker on the C-J’s long road to mediocrity.” It wasn’t the last. In July, sportswriter Jody Demling left the Courier for the online site FoxSportsNext. Unlike Bozich and Crawford, Demling was allowed to work out his notice.

Lamb says being part of a family-owned company (Block Communications), with the ability to make decisions quickly, made all the difference in getting the two columnists. “If this idea occurred to one of my competitors, they could not have made the decision locally,” Lamb says. “It wouldn’t get any farther than the first person who can say ‘No’ at corporate. It never gets to the person who can say ‘Yes.’” 

Both Bozich and Crawford say the atmosphere — the culture Lamb so emphasizes — has been eye-opening. “We’ve had more staff-meeting celebrations in the last two months than the two of us had experienced in our years in newspapers,” Crawford says. On June 5, when they were brought in to be introduced to the staff, “they had everybody— sales people, financial people — all down in the newsroom. We walked in and everybody started clapping,” Bozich says.

“There’s been tremendous revenue impact adding Bozich and Crawford,” Lamb says. “The revenue we generated, it has surpassed our expectations; I’ll just say that.”

People who know Lamb say he’s a stickler for detail. Three seconds of dead air-time grabs his attention. He wants the building spotless and everyone’s desk tidy. “I ask reporters to clean their desks off,” Fulmer says. “If they don’t, I clean them off with one hand.” 

Becky, Lamb’s wife of 10 years, sees it at home. “Bill is very particular about things. His closet is way better organized than mine. He likes structure,” she says. “He even has a little battery organizer,” she says. “Really, do we need our batteries organized? Well, OK.”  

But unlike many who sweat the details, Lamb is all about the big picture. And in his big picture, WDRB is going to be the No. 1 news source in Louisville. “I think every great community needs what a great local newspaper does for the community,” Lamb says. “I’m not necessarily saying that every community needs a newspaper. You need what a newspaper does in terms of holding business and political leaders accountable. You need what they do in terms of investigative reporting and in-depth reporting.

“I am basically pulling for the Courier-Journal to be a better paper, but in my opinion, they’re in a death spiral. They will not be able to pull out of it. In two or three years, they will be dead.” (The Courier-Journal did not respond to a request for an interview.) The spiral starts, Lamb says, with layoffs to save money, which means less news content, which means fewer readers, which means less money, which means more layoffs. “That’s the spiral,” he says. “They’ve done that complete circle at least three times in the last few years. So in my opinion, they are like an airplane that cannot get out of its death spiral. 

“I’m not pulling for it. But I’m planning for it.”

In the next three years, Lamb says, WDRB will add 15 to 20 journalists to its team of 60. The station’s website will work hand-in-hand with the television station, allowing for stories of greater depth and breadth than television typically can manage. “We are preparing to be the entity that fills the void when the Courier-Journal goes out of business,” Lamb says. “Television is the only vehicle that has any hope of filling that void. None of us are ready yet. None of us.”

And here’s where he differs from others in the business. He’s the only one in the race.  

The death of newspapers changes nothing for television, says Haygood of WLKY. “The changes that type of event would cause have already happened. You’ve already seen people shift away from reliance on a seven-day need for a print vehicle. . . . The C-J just hasn’t let go of the archaic model. When they finally let go of the archaic model, I don’t believe it’s going to change things significantly for us. We’ve already changed.” 

It’s far too soon to predict what Bill Lamb’s ambitious plan will come to. Although a local television station with 70-85 newsroom employees is remarkable, it’s a shadow of the number of people metropolitan newspaper newsrooms employed even a decade ago. And while WDRB has kept the wolf at bay and avoided layoffs, Block Communications, its parent, has not.  

But right now, Lamb’s plan is one of the few in town with enough money behind it to hold obvious promise. It’s a safe bet that if he was able to attract two of the city’s best-known print journalists, there could easily be more to come. 

But even Lamb admits he can’t predict every step. “Understand, I’m making this up as we go. We have to create this thing from scratch,” he says. “We operate a little like skeet shooters. You have to shoot ahead of the target. If you shoot at the target, you’re going to miss every time.”

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About Jenni Laidman

I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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