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Tuned In: KDKA's Blinke beefs up breaking-news coverage

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At his first meeting with newsroom staff this summer, new KDKA news director Al Blinke declared he had closed the doors and shuttered the windows on the "KD country club" and poured out the vat of "KD Kool-Aid."

"There'd been a perception of a KD country club -- that people haven't had to work that hard," Blinke said in an interview last week. "And when new people were hired and they tried to go the distance, people would tell them to drink the KD Kool-Aid and get in line."

That analogy didn't go over well with some staff members, but Blinke had reason for concern.

"In my first few weeks there, I got to see a couple breaking-news situations where it took up to 40 minutes for a reporter and photographer to get out of the building," Blinke said. "It wasn't just one occasion. Every time something big was happening, we were very slow to react. That's not what I want to be.

"The tone may have been harsh, but it wasn't meant to degrade anybody here," he said. "Since that meeting, we've really turned around our way of doing things."

Blinke said he told the staff KDKA would be "an aggressive, hungry TV station, so when breaking news happens we're out the door in minutes instead of tens of minutes."

Whether perception or reality, breaking news has been KDKA's Achilles heel since it opted not to remain with live coverage of the Wilkinsburg shootings in March 2000. Blinke intends to remedy that.

"If you've been looking at us at all recently, you've probably noticed an increase in breaking news, a real sense of a lot more live coverage," Blinke said. "One of the things we're focusing on is being the station people turn to when it comes to breaking news."

Blinke said no anchor changes are planned, and the only cosmetic change will be a new nighttime backdrop behind the anchor desk to replace the current image, which features the now-demolished Three Rivers Stadium.

"It's a really good station, and a lot of good people work there," Blinke said. "I think we've probably had a little bit of lack of direction and focus, and we're going to get focused again."

In addition to more breaking news, he wants the station to cover more news in outlying counties -- Westmoreland, Beaver, Butler and Washington -- and to "deliver real news, not a lot of fluff, not a lot of features in the communities that surround the city of Pittsburgh. ... We really want to have a presence everywhere."

Avoiding fluff and features sounds a lot like the WPXI approach, which comes as little surprise, since Blinke was news director at Channel 11 for six years in the early '90s. He says a hard-news edge reflects recent research on the interests of Pittsburgh viewers.

"It's a news town, and people really want the hard news, real news, news centered around real people from neighborhoods they live in. Already we're shying away from talking to officials about some things and going to talk to people about how things affect their lives and how they live."

Blinke hopes to bring "some definition" to the station's "Hometown Advantage" slogan. The station has new weather promos that put an emphasis on KDKA's weathercasters, replacing past campaigns that focused on the AccuWeather forecasting service.

"My priority as news director is to get KD back to the glory days when they were the dominant TV station in town," Blinke said. "I'd like to get the station to win, and then I'd like to get the station to win big and then try to get the dynasty all over again."

Taking action of some sort

WTAE-TV caused uneasiness for at least one worker at the Sunoco chemical plant on Neville Island last week. An angered employee sent the Post-Gazette an e-mail to complain about what he perceived as a Channel 4 news crew's attempt to sneak onto plant property to test the plant's security.

Plant manager Matt Bucklad downplayed the incident.

"I have some inkling they weren't seeking out the front gate to gain proper access," Bucklad said. "I think it was careless on their part. I'd hate to say they were malicious in their actions, 'cause I just don't know for sure."

Bucklad said WTAE reporter Paul Van Osdol and photographer Kathy Driscoll were seen shooting video of the plant. Later, according to the e-mailer, their unmarked van closely followed a truck through the gates.

Van Osdol disputes that. "We did not follow behind a truck. There was no truck anywhere nearby we could see."

He said they were looking at security at a number of plants, and at the Sunoco plant they drove through "an area that appeared to have no security and appeared to be open. We saw no 'No Trespassing' signs. We were trying to get over to a rail yard area, and this appeared to be a road that led to that area, and it, in fact, did."

Van Osdol and Driscoll were detained until police arrived to confirm their identities. No charges were filed. Bucklad was interviewed by Van Osdol the next day for the upcoming WTAE report.

"We were looking to see what security measures were in place in the area," Van Osdol said. "We were not trying to provoke anybody to come out to grab us or anything like that."

WTAE news director Bob Longo said an air date for the report has not been scheduled.

Mook or Muk?

How do you pronounce the name of the graffiti artist who goes by the tag "Mook"? Depends on which news station you watch for coverage. WPXI and WTAE prefer Mook (rhymes with spook). KDKA opts for Muk (rhymes with book).

It's amusing to see the differences that arise when you're trying to come up with the pronunciation for a goofy nickname.

I'd go with "Mook," just because it seems to fit the vandal, as in, "He's a big mook." The slang term "mook" is defined as "an insignificant or contemptible person" at Dictionary.com, and that certainly applies to anyone who would vandalize our city.

Badly blurbed

The WB network is running a promo this week for the new sexcom "Off Centre" (9 p.m. Sunday) that quotes from my Oct. 12 review of the show. Of course, they judiciously ignore that I wrote, "Every right-thinking, propriety-loving ounce of my being wants to hate The WB's new sexcom 'Off Centre.' And mostly I do."

Instead The WB cribs from the sentence, "Future episodes don't push the envelope, they tear it to shreds and set it afire."

So, to clarify: Mostly hated it; pushing the envelope is not necessarily a good thing.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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