KPRC A Disaster Expert, But Pandemic’s Different

Jerry Martin, Graham Media-owned KPRC’s wry VP and GM in Houston, has a reluctant pragmatist’s approach to his station’s coronavirus pivot: “Keep playing the game like it’s going to get worse.” (Al Torres Photography)

KPRC in Houston is no stranger to calamity. The Graham Media-owned NBC affiliate has weathered hurricanes and flooding, its building always ready for a lockdown and housing staffers riding out a storm.

“We have got those plans in place,” says VP and GM Jerry Martin. “But I don’t think we ever contemplated what a pandemic would look like. The last one we had was in 1918, so, yeah.”

Now that the coronavirus has forced the station, like all others, to make a fast-evolving plan, Martin says the tenor is different than KPRC’s past dances with disaster.

“The anxiety here is different than in a hurricane when you’re worried your house might be getting flooded and you have to be here at the station producing a newscast,” he says. “It’s different when you’re looking around at everybody as a possible carrier of this disease.”

Martin says while veteran staffers have been more sanguine about that danger, some of the younger ones have needed “a bit more coddling … at a safe distance, of course. There is a bit more paranoia going on that as a manager you have to help them through.”

So far, no one at KPRC has tested positive (“please knock on wood,” Martin says), but the station is still deep-cleaned every weekend.

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Martin is also sending employees to work from home in stages, starting with 55 people out of a total of 188, “and then we have been whittling it down every day since this crisis gets to be more of a crisis.” He estimates 120-130 of them are now working from home.

He has been training his diasporic staff to work through Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings, and the engineering department has done a series of remote setups at anchors’ homes and can switch from the transmitter with studios set up there.

That said, he is not over the moon with the video quality from all of the remote production. “You just accept that the quality of the picture might not be what you get in a studio setting, but we are learning how to do newscasts different,” Martin says. “The quality is not quite what we would have loved, but it’s not horrible and it’s keeping people safe.”

KPRC has added extra half hours to some of its newscasts, including knocking Entertainment Tonight out of the way to make room for more local information, and Martin says he’ll continue to preempt syndicated programming as warranted.

He says on the station’s digital platforms “this is the biggest story we’ve ever had. It was up 50% two months of this year before this hit, and now it has just gone on steroids.”

But despite — or more because of — the fervent attention the station’s content is getting from viewers, Martin says he’s cautioned the news department to keep a cool edge in their tone.

“You don’t have to do this huffing and puffing,” he says. “We have got to get our viewers through this. It’s already sensational. We have to keep it in context and get the information out to people.”

He’s also got to keep perspective with advertisers. “We are trying to be very good to our advertisers,” he says. “They are stuck in a no man’s land, too. We are being very liberal with letting them out and trying to work with them as best we can to figure out when they can come back.

“There have obviously been a lot of cancels and we have redone our forecasting for the rest of the year.”

With so many unknowns still circling the pandemic along with the business fallout that will be its long tail, Martin is moving forward with a kind of dark pragmatism.

“I hate the word pragmatism, but you just have to enter every day with a pragmatic attitude of how you are going to adjust,” he says. “Keep playing the game like it is going to get worse.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included an erroneous quote that suggested Entertainment Tonight was in reruns when pre-empted by KRPC programming. It was not.

To read more TVNewsCheck coverage of how TV stations, station groups, news organizations and individuals are pivoting to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, click here.


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