Channel 4 General Manager Chris Musial has been at the CBS affiliate for 35 years, working full-time when he was still a Medaille College student.
So he is a student of local television news who witnessed the dominance of Channel 7’s Eyewitness News for decades through 2000.
He also has been Channel 4’s GM for almost 10 years and has been running the station for most of its news dominance in the first decade of the 21st century, when the station was the image of stability.
Musial, who used the phrase “to be honest with you” several times in a 45-minute interview, knows that image has changed in the three years since I left The Buffalo News and returned for a Rip Van Winkle tour.
In those three years, Lisa Flynn, Victoria Hong, Mylous Hairston, John Murphy, Paul Peck, Michele McClintick, Ellen Maxwell, Joe Arena and Melissa Holmes (now at Channel 2) are among the well-known staffers who have left for a variety of personal, professional and financial reasons.
And Musial realizes that all those staff losses may have had as much to do with Channel 2 News arguably taking over as No. 1 here as WGRZ’s improving news product and presentation.
“It’s got to be a combination,” said Musial. “It is a market that is very slow to change … Has [Channel 2 anchor] Scott Levin been here for 15 years already? A lot of people still think of him as one of the new guys. I think what started to happen in this market is we had changes, which allowed Channel 2 to remain focused and it was a building process.”
As a student of local TV, Musial knew change was necessary because of the market’s changing economics.
“When I started out, we were the 26th or 27th largest market in the country,” said Musial. “We’re No. 52 now. … When you are a smaller market, there are different business constraints.”
Like a professional sports GM, Musial essentially had to live with a player salary cap, which meant he and News Director Joe Schlaerth looked to hire younger, less experienced reporters than they had in the past. I labeled the new hires the Kiddie Corps in my blog over the last few years.
In the past three years, Channel 4 has hired 12 new reporters and anchors, who make up of more than half of its on-air staff. The Kiddie Corps includes Nalina Shapiro, who was hired straight out of college, sportscaster Lauren Brill, Bryan Shaw, former WBEN reporter Rachel Kingston, Anthony Congi, Ed Drantch and Brittni Smallwood. Several of the Corps have shown noticeable improvement. Channel 4 also hired some experienced new anchors and reporters in Diana Fairbanks, Lou Raguse, Emily Guggenmos, Steve Vesey and Jordan Williams.
“For the longest time our station was the example of stability,” said Musial. “Nobody left. And then [the financial crisis of] 2008 and 2009 came. … So a station that had been traditionally really generous in terms of re-signing people, we had to get a little more realistic. And some people decided they were going to check out other opportunities.”
Of course, LIN Media, the Providence-based company that owns Channel 4 and TV stations in 23 markets, has a say in how Channel 4 is run. “It is a good collaboration,” said Musial. “There is some direction. Obviously there are people [there] who have a lot of experience in this business. There is guidance. But ultimately, it is our station to run.”
The result was pay cuts, a slightly smaller staff and the hiring of younger, cheaper reporters.
“I think what we were trying to do was inject a different kind of energy,” said Musial. “They are all smart people, they all graduated in the top of their classes in places like Syracuse, Penn State, Geneseo, They have honed their craft on either radio or a couple of small markets. We made a conscious decision perhaps of sacrificing another four or five years of experience with the promise and expectation that these people are going to grow.”
“We are finally at a place now that some of the younger folks we have invested in want to stay and are actively in negotiations to sign new contracts,” added Musial, who disagrees with any suggestion the station’s image has become one of instability.
“I wouldn’t say instability when you still have people of the caliber of [veterans] Don Postles, Jacquie Walker, Don Paul, Rich Newberg and George Richert,” said Musial.
He made it clear that Postles and Walker are here to stay.
“Don and Jacquie and Don Paul are part of our team and our future,” said Musial. “That is as concrete as it can be. We still put a high premium on experience. There is a lot of experience in our shop and it is growing with the younger folks.”
“Brittni Smallwood has done a terrific job. She has grown. Ed Drantch, oh my god, that guy is a little bulldog. Terrific. Not only do we see the growth, but peers do. … I think Rachel Kingston does a terrific job.”
Kingston impressed immediately as a reporter, even as she had mean-spirited detractors. She apparently learned from the criticism. “I hate talking about appearance,” said Musial. “I will say in conversations with Joe and our consultants that she initiated in some part she asked, ‘How can I be a more effective communicator? I’m not on radio anymore.’ … It was tips on how to dress perhaps more professionally.”
Musial defends Brill, who has become Channel 4’s biggest on-air distraction covering sports. She can be difficult to understand and makes errors that make a sports-savvy audience want to shout that she is unwatchable.
“I haven’t heard people say she’s unwatchable,” said Musial. “Some people don’t like her delivery but even some of those people will say she goes after good stories. And there are others who really appreciate her enthusiasm and telling the stories of young people and not the traditional Xs and Os.
“One of the determining factors in her hiring was that she is terrific on social media. This is a smart person. She is going to keep getting better and I think WNYers more and more are embracing her. And you may disagree.”
Channel 4 has reduced its on-air sports staff to two people, half the size of Channel 2’s sports staff.
“We decided to look at different ways that we can expand our staffing to better fulfill what we perceive to be our mission, which is an investigative approach to the news, a no-nonsense approach, not a lot of fluff. We really want to become is the market leader in good investigations.”
Musial said the station is close to hiring an additional investigative reporter “who will surprise people in a very good way and say, ‘Wow. They really went and did what they wanted to do.’ ”
What Musial really wants to do is make some history and not wait for another decade to become No.1 again. How does he think that can be done?
“Through a laser focus on our mission, which is investigative, which is growing our team, identifying the people and growing them and being able to have them remain a part of the team,” said Musial.
You don’t have to be much of an investigative reporter to realize that morale has deteriorated over the last three years with all the changes. Last September, LIN conducted focus groups to determine why Channel 4 staffers were among the unhappiest at all of its stations. According to sources, Schlaerth and his management style took some big hits.
Musial defended his news director, saying Schlaerth had to make some unpopular decisions and enforce some unpopular work rule changes.
The change that has been the most difficult for staffers undoubtedly is seeing the popularity of Channel 4 News decline, something the GM hopes to change a year from now.
“I think we still are going to be winning the newscasts we are winning and winning a few more time periods,” he said of his goals for next year. “If not outright wins, it will be very strong challenges.”
To be honest, it won’t be easy considering Channel 2’s momentum and Buffalo’s TV history.