Local News Close-Up: Grand Rapids Leader Stays Hot, Knock on WOOD

 Ken Kolker is a key figure in WOOD's Target 8 investigative team. .
Ken Kolker is a key figure in WOOD's Target 8 investigative team. .

The kids in Grand Rapids were in for a bit of a shock on Halloween, as much of the market got snow. As they trick or treated, a few inches of the white stuff fell and the temperatures were in the high 20s.

That’s life in western Michigan.

“We signed up for it,” said Daniel Baylog, WZZM president and general manager, with a smile, “knowing that’s the reality in this geography.”

Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek is Nielsen’s No. 42 DMA. Nexstar Media Group owns NBC affiliate WOOD and ABC outlet WOTV, along with MyNetworkTV low-power station WXSP. Tegna holds WZZM, which is also an ABC affiliate. E.W. Scripps has Fox station WXMI and Sinclair owns CBS affiliate WWMT and The CW-aligned WMMT.

Comcast is the dominant pay TV operator in Grand Rapids.

The market has two ABC affiliates because it is a hyphenated one, and WOTV was initially licensed to Battle Creek, in the south of the state not far from the Indiana border, while WZZM’s transmitter is north of Grand Rapids. Kalamazoo is directly south of Grand Rapids, around 50 miles away, and Battle Creek is around 25 miles east of Kalamazoo.

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WOOD is a powerhouse. Its news is simulcast on WOTV, and it garners some serious ratings. The stations were tied up in a summer-long retrans spat, but back in May, WOOD-WOTV won the 6 a.m. battle in both households and viewers 25-54, per Nielsen, took a closer 5 p.m. contest in both races, and won 6 p.m. by a wider gap. WWMT was runner-up in each race. At 11 p.m., WOOD-WOTV posted a 4.3 household score, ahead of WWMT’s 3.8, WZZM’s 1.9 and WXMI’s 1.1. In the demo at 11, WOOD had a 1.9, WWMT a 0.7, and WZZM and WXMI both averaged a 0.4, according to a source familiar with the numbers.

Known as News 8, WOOD dominates thanks to a robust breaking news game plan and investigative reporting that “stands above the rest,” said Julie Brinks, WOOD-WOTV-WXSP VP and general manager. Investigative reporters Ken Kolker and Susan Samples are well-known in the market, and viewers turn to the Target 8 investigative team to watch pressing community issues get addressed and often solved.

“Both do outstanding investigative work,” Brinks said.

So does Henry Erb, she added, who came to WOOD a stunning 53 years ago and has a part-time role in investigations these days.

Stations are hustling to pinch a ratings point or two from WOOD. WZZM has 13 On Your Side branding and Baylog said it is known as the “community station.” He described 13 On Your Side as “a genuine and authentic advocate for the people who make western Michigan a great place to live.”

That includes the youth literacy initiative 13 Reads. WZZM sponsors reading events in all corners of the market. “Let’s get books in the hands of kids and get them reading!” says WZZM13.com.

“It has given us a greater understanding of literacy as a social issue,” Baylog said.

Juliet Dragos, who joined WZZM in 1991, anchors the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. news.
Juliet Dragos, who joined WZZM in 1991, anchors the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. news.

WOOD isn’t the only station to boast of long-tenured talent. WZZM has anchor Juliet Dragos, who has been there since 1991, and chief meteorologist George Lessens, who has been at WZZM since 1980.

“There’s a community flavor to our local news, delivered by people who have been in the market a long time, who have been employed by the station a long time,” Baylog said.

Last year, WXMI morning anchor Michelle Dunaway became co-host of lifestyle show Fox 17 Morning Mix, with Todd Chance. She’s also the station’s community relationship manager.

Dan Boers spent 24 years at WOOD, leaving as news director in 2021 to take the same job at WXMI. He succeeded Brooks Blanton, who shifted to WCCB Charlotte.

Blanton returned to Grand Rapids in May 2022 to be news director at WZZM.

Kim Krause departed a VP of sales and marketing post at WZZM in 2017 to become WXMI general manager.

WWMT, known as News Channel 3, has a primary focus on Kalamazoo, where it is based.

WOOD-WOTV is bullish on local sports, whether it’s Grand Rapids Griffins minor league hockey or Grand Valley State college football and basketball. “It’s been a long time since those kinds of products are available on a local level,” said Brinks.

Speaking of sports, WOOD-WOTV hosts the “Football Frenzy Food Drive,” where high schools compete to raise food and funds for local food pantries during football season. The 2023 affair saw some 57,000 pounds of food delivered to the pantries. (Kalamazoo Central High won, if you’re scoring at home.)

“This year it really took off,” said Brinks.

The Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek economy is lukewarm. A decade ago, the market weighed in at No. 39 on the Nielsen scale, three spots higher than today. Major employers include office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, Pfizer, Amway and Spectrum Health. Station chiefs are looking forward to substantial political spending next year.

A few days after the Halloween snow, the temperatures around Grand Rapids were back in the 60s. Baylog mentioned the relatively low cost of living, and “unique” beach towns up and down Lake Michigan as attributes of the market. “There are a lot of things here that are not typical for a city with a population of 200,000,” he added.

Brinks voiced a similar thought. “It’s a really cosmopolitan market,” she said, but one that’s “small enough to know people and to raise a family.”