WDRB’s Lamb continues agressive growth to ‘compete with everybody’ in local news, media
When local TV station WDRB-TV got an award for being one of the city’s best places to work, it wasn’t because of its plush headquarters and roomy offices.
The fact is the station has been growing out of the building it has inhabited since 1980 for a while, with cramped quarters making desk-sharing common.
In the newsroom, anchors, reporters and producers find themselves tripping over each other. On a recent afternoon, I noticed at least one staffer at almost every one of the couple dozen desks, with people breezing in and out on unknown missions.
The activity rarely stops. The station airs close to 40 hours per week of news, and just added six more with a weekend morning show.
Bill Lamb, president and GM of the station, oversees all this production from a comfortable 2nd floor office at 7th and Muhammad Ali. The building originally housed just 40 employees 33 years ago. There are now 160, including 15 new ones hired for the Weekend Morning newscast just launched. And, he says, he wants to hire 15 more people by the end of the year, but he doesn’t have the space for them.
So with little fanfare Lamb announced on Feb. 11 that he’s expanding the building with 11,000 square feet of additional space, extending the main structure to the sidewalk on 7th and into the parking lot out back.
“We’ve been growing for a long time, and we needed a long-term solution,” he said. “Last September we started talking about it and made the decision in January.”
Toledo-based Block Communications owns WDRB-TV and WMYO-TV, but Lamb has more autonomy than anyone would expect. He calls the shots locally, and takes risks other GMs don’t have the authority, or balls, to make. Like hiring the two most prominent sportswriters away from the Courier-Journal. Or buying up popular syndicated shows like “Dr. Phil” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, along with sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men,” when competitors weren’t willing to pay renewal fees.
And if you ask him, Lamb will tell you every one of those moves have paid off. Adding Rick Bozich and Eric Crawford to his sports staff, he says, hasn’t brought a huge jump in ratings, but has caused his website to “explode.” Halfway through the current sweeps period, most of those syndicated shows launched in 2011 are beating the competition, and newscasts in all time periods are up.
Included in the new space will be room for an expanded sales staff, a new recording studio and enhanced production capabilities. Lamb won’t say how much the expansion will cost, but says it’s a multi-million dollar investment. He’s quick to say that 2012, 2010 and 2008 have seen the most revenue and profits in the company’s history.
Lamb, who for some time has been touting his strategy publicly, says that the success of the station today is a credit to a philosophy launched years ago. Lamb made the decision to expand newscasts, upgrade equipment, and buy programming during the hard times of 2008 to 2012. He refused to authorize layoffs when every other media outlet in town did. He doesn’t back off when expressing his business beliefs any more than he does on those on-air editorials, and in November released a book of business advice, “Money Follows Excellence.”
The book has been praised by local business leaders from David Jones to John Schnatter to Mitch McConnell. His focus has been, and always will be, on growth and excellence.
“Since I’ve been here (he arrived in 2002), we’ve focused our resources on WDRB. It is now clearly one of the top 2 stations in town. We’ve got good programming and news. We can focus on generating WMYO a bigger share and also help WBKI grow,” he said. Lamb added that while there are four good TV stations in town, there are no great ones.
When asked if he views other media outlets, including the Courier-Journal and other web sites, as diect competitive targets, Lamb said, “We compete with everybody.” (Last year, in Insider Louisville’s coverage of the Bozich and Crawford hires, Lamb said, “everyone sees The Courier as vulnerable.”)
WMYO’s highest-rated show is Maury Povich, and most shows hover around a 1 rating, so there’s plenty of room for ratings growth.
Last year, Lamb signed a “Shared Services Agreement” with then-struggling WBKI-TV, which has since doubled its ratings and built revenue, he says. He’s added a WDRB newscast on the station nightly at 7. And, there’s no longer competition for WDRB’s 10 p.m. newscast. WHAS-TV’s agreement to air a 10 p.m. newscast on WBKI ended at the end of September. WDRB’s 10 p.m. news has more viewers than the late-night newscasts at WAVE-TV and WHAS-TV.
Lamb’s plan for the expanded space includes the potential for new programming. With a second studio, there will be production hours freed up. He mentioned the possibility of local content shows for WMYO, including newscasts. For now, the organization can produce and air from only its main studio, which is in use for newscasts at least 12 hours per day. In the new space, it will be possible to do live shows simultaneously.
Those who admire Lamb’s on-air editorials say he always lets his audience know where he stands on issues. And Lamb loves nothing more than to hear from those who disagree with him.
For now, that point of view seems to be paying off.