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Former WPXI news director to lead operations at KDKA

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The most-watched man in Pittsburgh television this week won't have to bother with makeup, hair spray or $75 neckwear.

Al Blinke, itinerant news hound, is back in town after a five-year absence. This time he has been imported to lead KDKA's "hometown news advantage."

Blinke takes over today as news director at Channel 2, the station he spent nine years trying to sink to the bottom of the ratings books. He previously headed the news department at WPXI, which rose from third-place finisher to first-place contender during his stay in the 1980s and '90s.

WPXI's ratings rush was marked -- KDKA General Manager Gary Cozen would say marred -- by contests designed to lure viewers with the promise of cash prizes. Even with Cozen's distaste for the way Channel 11 has maneuvered for audiences during Nielsen rating periods, Blinke was the news director he coveted.

"The reason I hired Al? Well, there were many reasons," Cozen said. "The people at WPXI would like to believe it's because he knows that station, and there's some merit in that statement. But Al is coming to us from the preeminent television news consulting firm in the country. He has terrific insight. He knows how to assess a market and how to assess an audience."

Cozen lost all such confidence in his last news director, Joe Coscia. He lasted just five months before Cozen fired him.

The ax fell only weeks after WPXI whipped KDKA in the February news sweeps. In the just-released May ratings, KDKA regained the top spot at 6 p.m.

Blinke actually was Cozen's choice for the news director's job a year ago. But Blinke, who has spent the past three years advising TV stations on how to improve their news shows as a consultant for Iowa-based Frank N. Magid Associates, could not immediately make a move. Cozen waited for him until October, then decided he couldn't delay any longer in installing a leader for his newsroom.

He hired Coscia from an Albany, N.Y., station, but concluded in a matter of weeks that he had made the wrong choice.

So Cozen fired Coscia. Then he set out again to recruit Blinke.

"I understand," Cozen said, "why an anchor or reporter might look at me cross-eyed and ask do I know what I'm doing."

Many in the newsroom felt unease when they read the terse memo announcing that Coscia was out.

Still, Jeff Weissbart, KDKA's executive producer of news operations, maintained that the leadership shakeups have barely caused a ripple at the station.

"It's had no impact on what we do day to day. This is a well-run, well-oiled operation," said Weissbart, who served for about two years as KDKA's news director before Coscia arrived.

A rarity in broadcast news, Weissbart remained at the station after relinquishing the top job in the newsroom. He said he expects Blinke to fine-tune a news department that is strong in most respects.

"Obviously, if he's tutoring stations all over the country, he will be of some help to us as well," Weissbart said.

Blinke said he never expected to work again in Pittsburgh after he left WPXI in April 1996. He had landed a plum job as news director of WSB-TV in Atlanta, flagship station of Cox Broadcasting Inc.'s television empire.

It seemed like a perfect arrangement, but it ended on sour terms after two years.

"It wasn't really what I expected or hoped for. Sometimes you go someplace and the chemistry is not there between yourself and the general manager," was all Blinke would say about it.

After that, he plunged into the fast-moving world of broadcast consulting, coaching TV news crews on how to build and hold audiences.

In his own newsrooms, Blinke's credo was "own the story." Co-workers said he led by example. He arrived at work early, stayed later than most and jumped all over breaking stories.

KDKA anchor Jennifer Antkowiak saw him in action while both were at WPXI during the Pittsburgh Blizzard of 1993. Even before the snow began to pile up, Blinke sent her to Pittsburgh International Airport for a story on how the storm was disrupting travel.

Antkowiak and a photographer arrived before mounting drifts shut down the roads. They were stuck, but no other news crews could get to the airport. WPXI had the story of stranded passengers to itself.

If Blinke had a focus at WPXI other than news, it was on building staff morale.

Margaret Shortridge, a former WPXI anchor who is now at the Fox station in Chicago, said Blinke's style made people want to hustle for him.

"He was open and he would listen. Then he would formulate his opinion. Al, you could always talk to," Shortridge said.

Blinke discovered quite by accident that he had an instinct and talent for journalism. After dropping out of college in the early 1970s, his aim was to become an all-night disc jockey at radio station WXYZ in his hometown of Detroit.

In hopes of worming his way into the studio, he took a job as a courier in the station's mailroom.

"I met the news guys when I delivered the mail. They had an opening for a gofer," Blinke said.

He got the job and quickly exhibited a knack for writing brisk, clean news stories. Before long, Blinke was on his way to a radio station in Flint, Mich., to indulge his newfound interest in reporting. By then he couldn't have cared less about being a disc jockey.

"I've never spun a record in my life. When you're 23 years old, what you thought you wanted to do and what you fell in love with doing are two different things," he said.

After eight years of mining stories in radio, Blinke broke into television as an assigning editor at WJBK in Detroit. The station wanted him for a practical reason: He had locked up many of the best sources in town.

Blinke brought something else to the job. He had an easy way with even the most temperamental reporters and anchors -- a talent that gained immediate notice. Before too many newscasts were behind him, he was on the management track.

After a stop at a station in New Haven, Conn., he arrived at WPXI in 1987 as managing editor, the No. 2 job in the newsroom. Blinke rose to news director three years after that.

"He was very straightforward, very honest. He never tried to fake anything," said Jack Etzel, a former WPXI reporter who was let go by Blinke at age 61 when his contract expired in 1996.

Although the parting was painful for Etzel, he said he appreciated getting the bad news from Blinke without any gamesmanship.

He regarded Blinke as a rarity in broadcast news for another reason.

"He has no ego problems," said Etzel, who worked under eight news directors during his 22 years at WPXI. "Because of that, he was able to surround himself with people who were a little bit more skilled than he was."

If Blinke's hiring at KDKA is a topic at WPXI, the rival station is trying to keep it quiet.

"Why would I comment on a competitor's personnel decision?" said WPXI General Manager John Howell. He declined to say anything else.

Cozen said Blinke faces no big rebuilding job at KDKA. Many times, Cozen said, a television station needs to be "blown up," industry slang for wholesale changes in staff, style or both.

Blinke has visited KDKA just once since his hiring was announced three weeks ago. He said he had no immediate thoughts on what he would change. "If we have this conversation a month from now, I may have something to say."

Blinke is matter of fact about the bad feelings between his new boss and his old Pittsburgh station.

The promotional contests at WPXI that so inflame Cozen do not generate so much as a yawn from Blinke. When he was at WPXI, Blinke said, he worried about news and only news. The contests that were plugged into the broadcasts were somebody else's sideshow. He said he paid them no mind.

Kris Long, who anchored for Blinke at WPXI and now has a similar job at the ABC affiliate in Phoenix, said Blinke is not one for gimmicks.

When the Steelers played in the 1996 Super Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., Long lobbied Blinke to do a week's worth of WPXI newscasts from the Arizona desert. Blinke killed the idea in a flash.

"He can be tough when he has to, but he does not have to be like Napoleon, calling all the shots," Long said.



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