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New leaders mean uncertain futures for Channels 4 and 7

When it comes to local TV news, all bets are off. Let me explain.

When I returned to The Buffalo News after a three-year absence, I interviewed executives from all three news stations about where the news departments are and where they are going.

And then in the last few weeks, Channel 4 and Channel 7 announced new general managers were going to run the stations.

That practically meant most everything that former Channel 4 General Manager Chris Musial and current Channel 7 News Director Polly Van Doren had told me became irrelevant.

Musial had said veteran co-anchors Jacquie Walker and Don Postles “are part of our team and our future,” and defended News Director Joe Schlaerth and weekend sports anchor Lauren Brill.

Van Doren had said that Channel 7’s primary anchor team of Keith Radford and Joanna Pasceri had recently deserved their new three-year deals and that she wanted morning meteorologist Mike Randall “to stay forever.” She added that the morning team of Patrick Taney and Ginger Geoffery were the “right people” and just needed more promotion and visibility.

The new GMs may have different things in mind, and the changes at the top have led to more uncertainty and anxiety in the new departments than in any time in recent memory.

Channel 7 staffers should view the GM change from outgoing Bill Ransom to Mike Nurse as an opportunity to get back in the game. Nurse is energized. He has been waiting a dozen years to take over to implement some new ideas and presumably was able to get some concessions from the hedge fund that owns the station to invest in more personnel.

Channel 4 staffers may view the GM change from Musial to out-of-towner Rene LaSpina with more skepticism and anxiety.

As always, I have advice for both new GMs.

Nurse has lived in Western New York for 12 years, so he knows the area and the station well. His job was made a little easier by Taney’s decision to leave to become a morning anchor in Rochester. Geoffery is leaving as well. She claims it is her idea to leave, though generally people don’t leave without a new job ready.

Whoever made the decision, it is a good move for Channel 7, which got into the morning game first but has had the most anchor instability in the market. It needs to find the right people and stick with them. Based on Channel 4’s success with the new morning team of Diana Fairbanks and Jordan Williams, an entire new morning anchor team can work quicker than in the past. A new Channel 7 team has a better chance of being sampled.

Radford and Pasceri appear to be safe as they would be if I were GM. Nurse also was wise to make a verbal deal with Randall, one of the station’s few recognizable veterans.

I’m also told that the contracts of Channel 7 sports director Jeff Russo and backup Shawn Stepner will be up for renewal by the end of the year. “Our intention is to keep both,” Nurse said. Russo, who is getting some much-needed promotion, is a solid anchor who needs to become as opinionated as Channel 2’s Adam Benigni, who already is the dean of local sportscasters. Stepner reminds me of Channel 2’s Stu Boyar. He is adequate and no threat to Russo.

Nurse was wise to announce Friday that Jason Gruenauer will become a third on-air sportscaster. If you are going to call yourself the Bills station as Channel 7 does, you should at least cover sports extensively.

Nurse has said he has been given permission to hire more reporters, which should help Channel 7 become more competitive. I’d look for reporters with personality to help the station get some kind of news image, which it is sorely lacking now. It would be smart to hire some specialists, including investigative reporters and consumer reporters. Yes, a consumer reporter even if he or she might uncover something that will upset advertisers.

Some of my other suggestions for the area’s lowest-rated news department concern cosmetics. Dress up the set so it looks like Channel 7 is in the 21st century and dress up the reporters so they don’t look like they primarily shop at Goodwill. (Not that there is anything wrong with that).

Unlike Nurse, LaSpina doesn’t know much about Buffalo, although the LIN Media release announcing her hiring said she is “very fond” of the area and has lived in New York State for five years.

As the GM in Albany, LaSpina developed a reputation for laying off staffers. In fairness, she worked for a station group that was headed to bankruptcy. Still, that reputation is understandably a little frightening to Channel 4 staffers.

Her biggest decision concerns the status of Schlaerth. LIN was told how unpopular he is when it conducted focus groups about the station’s management several months ago. The station’s improved demographics in May may help Schlaerth.

LaSpina should quickly realize that this market hates change, which should help keep the successful anchor team of Postles and Walker around for a few more years at least.

Fairbanks has impressed since her arrival here and is considered to be Walker’s eventual successor. However, her morning success makes her much too valuable there to move any time soon.

I’m not sure if LaSpina is a sports fan. She should be pleased with Sports Director Steve Vesey, who just needs to express some opinions. LaSpina will have to decide if she is going to give Brill as long to grow as Musial apparently was willing to do.

The new energy in the GM offices of its rivals isn’t good news for Channel 2, which is currently No. 1 in household viewership in most news time periods. Channel 2 would have been much better off if its rivals stayed the course, since the history of this market suggests that stations that take the news lead usually keep it for years.

But with so much change in the GM offices, all bets also are off about that bit of history continuing as well.