The CBS affiliate in Macon, Ga., is sticking with its 25-year-old slogan–“Straight form the Heart”–and its 10-year-old Junior Journalist program for one very good reason. They work.
The biggest mistake in television is also one of the most common: change for the sake of change. This happens in sales and promotion when someone—all too often the general manager’s spouse—decides that the station’s logo, theme music or news features are “worn out” or “boring.” Usually the opposite is true, especially in this era of audience fragmentation. Just when station employees are absolutely sick and tired of a campaign, it’s a safe bet that viewers are just becoming aware of it.
In other words, if it works, keep doing it.
That would make a good motto for Gannett’s WMAZ Macon, Ga.—that is, if it didn’t already have a better one. “Straight from the Heart” has been its slogan for almost 25 years, and it’s still going strong, branding everything from station image promos to news health segments. If this all sounds a bit mushy, remember we’re talking about the dominant station in DMA 121. “Everyone here has close ties to the community,” says Dodie Cantrell, president and general manager of the CBS affiliate. “We really listen to our audience. In fact, we have to. They’re our friends and neighbors.”
The feature launched in 1997 with two goals: to expose a cross section of bright local children to careers in broadcasting, and to showcase these young go-getters as role models. The project became an instant hit, thanks in part to former President Bill Clinton. During the height of his impeachment woes, he was visiting central Georgia, but was not planning to granting local interviews. He made an exception for a WMAZ Junior Journalist, earning the project national attention and a permanent place on WMAZ’s top-rated newscast. Ever since, there’s been no shortage of applications.
Originally, the program accepted kids as young as 8-years-old, but the staff quickly shifted focus to middle school kids, ages 10 to 13. “We have tryouts at various malls in the community,” says Cantrell. “Hundreds of kids show up, but we can choose only thirteen. We carefully evaluate their schoolwork as well as their basic communications skills.. Sometimes we choose kids who aren’t quite ready, because we believe they’ll grow and improve on the air.”
And improve they do, because the Junior Journalist segment is much more than a cute news feature. It’s an age-appropriate journalism training that puts each kid through a kind of TV reporter boot camp. Each child, plus a parent, must sign a pledge to complete the two-year program. In the first year, each Junior Journalist is assigned to do a profile of an area teacher selected on the basis of letters sent in by students, My Teacher’s Tops. “We focus on interviewing skills, plus how to write a compelling story,” says Cantrell, who was news director when the project began. “And of course we make sure that everyone uses proper English.”
By year two, the Junior Journalists have graduated to finding and reporting their own stories. With thirteen journalists, each kid writes and produces three or four stories from beginning to end. (See some recent Junior Journalist stories by clicking here.)
According to Kari Corbett, the senior news producer who now supervises the entire project, there are some fringe benefits to having kids in the newsroom. “None of these kids becomes jaded,” she says. “They make you see your business from a fresh new perspective. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with them. I would have loved to have a program like this when I was a kid.”
Some of the more ambitious young reporters have been known to edit their own stories, says Cantrell. “This makes a big impression on reporters who claim the Avid system is too tough to learn.”
Among the more tangible benefits of the Junior Journalist program is a solid boost to WMAZ’s bottom line, thanks mostly to Raffield Tire Master. “I love the Junior Journalist program. And we love My Teacher’s Tops even more,” says co-owner Sam Raffield. “In Central Georgia, our schools often don’t do as well as the rest of the state, let alone the rest of the USA. Remember, WMAZ is a powerhouse around here because of their news department. When [students or teachers] get featured on that station, it’s a powerful thing.”
The second-generation tire merchant says this mirrors his company’s philosophy. “This is a way to recognize who’s doing a good job,” Raffield says. “We call it management by encouragement. Catch someone doing something right and pat them on the back.”
For the educators, that pat comes in the form of an official plaque and a schedule of sponsored promos and PSAs, which Sam Raffield says his company is very happy to pay for—in addition to its regular ad buy. “The Junior Journalist program serves us well. As a small independent service business, our image is very important to us. You want to take your vehicle to a place where there are people of integrity who care about the community. You can tell where our heart is.”
WMAZ’s Junior Journalists program has earned numerous honors, most notably a 2005 National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation Service to Children Award.
“I’ve been doing our advertising since 1972 and there’s nothing better than this project,” says Sam Raffield. “I really hope this article encourages other stations around the country to imitate this program. This is a win-win-win situation. It’s a win for the station, for the community and for Raffield Tire Master.”
If I were a station executive looking for a winning sales promotion, I’d listen to this man.
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald showcases winning station and sales promotions every Monday in TVNewsCheck, but there’s a catch. Arthur’s not allowed to just make them up. Editor Harry A. Jessell insists that these stories have to be true —something about journalistic integrity. Therefore don’t waste a minute. If you know of a promotion that actually works, tell Arthur by writing to [email protected].