Local News Close-Up: Birmingham Stations Make a Little Magic

Gillian Brooks reporting for WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Gillian Brooks reporting for WBRC Birmingham, Alabama. (Image credit: WBRC)

Cities such as New York, Charleston, South Carolina, and Los Angeles rack up raves for their restaurant scenes, but Birmingham, Alabama’s foodie culture is getting some plaudits too. The four general managers in the market who spoke for this story all mentioned the range of innovative restaurants enticing consumers in DMA No. 45. 

“We’ve got one of the hidden gems of food scenes across the country,” said Jason Mathews, VP and general manager, WBRC-WTBM.

Birmingham’s newsroom denizens nonetheless remain hungry. It’s a competitive news battle, and an audience eager to tune in. “It’s a fun place to be in the television business,” said Susana Schuler, president and general manager, WVTM. “The community is very interested in consuming a lot of local television.”

Check Out More of Our Local News Close-Ups on Dozens of Local Markets

Gray Television has market leader WBRC, a Fox affiliate, and Telemundo station WTBM. Hearst Television owns NBC outlet WVTM. Nexstar Media Group holds CBS affiliate WIAT. Sinclair has ABC station WBMA, which goes by 33/40, The CW-aligned WTTO and MyNetworkTV affiliate WABM. 

WBIQ-WCIQ make up Birmingham’s PBS outlet, and Charter Communications is the primary pay-TV operator. 

Birmingham is known as the Magic City for the unique mix of iron ore, coal and limestone, all ingredients in steel, in its ground. That led to Birmingham being a major steel production city. “We’re like a little Pittsburgh,” Schuler said.  

Medical is the dominant industry in the area today, as well as education too, including University of Alabama at Birmingham. Bank chain Regions Financial Corp. is based in the area too. 

WBRC is a ratings beast. An ABC affiliate until it switched to Fox in the mid ‘90s, the station won all the key races in May, including 6 a.m., 5 and 6 p.m., and 10 p.m. The early evening race is tighter, but both mornings and late news are a runaway for WBRC. At 10 p.m. in May, it posted a stunning 37.8 in household impressions, per Nielsen, with WVTM at 17.5, WBMA at 15.6 and WIAT at 13.1. In the 25-54 demo at 10, WBRC had a 12.4, WVTM a 3.9, WBMA a 3.0 and WIAT a 2.7. 

The Gray stations’ approach to local news is relentless, with some 70 hours a week of the stuff on WBRC, WTBM and on OTT. An 11 a.m. newscast was hatched on the Fox affiliate last year. 

“We’re edging our way to a wall-to-wall news station, or at least locally produced programming,” said Mathews, a Birmingham native who started as general manager in December, when Collin Gaston moved up to corporate.  

Speaking of wall to wall, WBRC, known as Fox 6, with On Your Side branding, has a weather program on various OTT platforms. Mathews boasted of a 7-person meteorological unit. “It’s the deepest team of met’s in the marketplace,” he said. 

WBRC turns 75 next year. Longtime promotional song “Gotta Be” is back for the first time in about a decade, with Alvin Garrett handling vocals. 

Telemundo sister WTBM offers Spanish-language programming statewide. There’s a 5 p.m. weekday news, and it has hired a Spanish-speaking meteorologist. “The plan is to continue to expand news in the years ahead,” said Mathews. 

WVTM Meteorologist Stephanie Walker and anchors Carla Wade, Rick Karle and Sarah Killian offer up the news to Birmingham residents.

WVTM (l-r) meteorologist Stephanie Walker and anchors Carla Wade, Rick Karle and Sarah Killian offer up the news to Birmingham residents. (Image credit: WVTM 13)

Taking on the Titan

The rival stations are hustling to chip away at WBRC’s lead. WVTM introduced Live, Local, Late Breaking branding in October, and Schuler said it is the only station in the market that owns live radar. “That allows us to deliver emergency weather faster,” she said. 

Jason Simpson stepped up as WVTM 13 chief meteorologist in November, when Jerry Tracey retired. “Weather remains the common denominator in the market,” said Schuler. “We understand just how volatile weather is.”

Baylor Long became WVTM news director in 2021, shifting from an assistant news director post at WTAE Pittsburgh when Sue Stephens retired. Schuler said the newsroom mentality is being out and about in the neighborhoods. “We’re in the communities with them, not just reporting about them,” she said. 

WIAT plays up special events in the area. That includes the Children’s of Alabama Grand Prix car race in late April, and the PGA Tour playing at Greystone Golf Club for the Region’s Tradition each May. “We had special local coverage around that,” said Jimmy Cromwell, WIAT VP and general manager, of the golf, “and the events associated with that.”

Sticking with the sports theme, WIAT airs CBS 42 Sports Sunday leading out of the 10 p.m. news. College football is massive in Birmingham, and the market has a USFL team in the Birmingham Stallions. 

CBS 42 features Local Coverage You Can Count On branding. “I’m encouraged every day by the hard work of the people in our news department,” said Cromwell, “and the great work they do.”

Wayne Reid was general sales manager at WBMA before shifting to executive director at Alabama Public Television. “After 30 years in commercial broadcast, I decided I wanted to do something where I felt like I was giving back to the community,” he said, noting the “longer impact” of public broadcasting initiatives. 

APT’s education department, he said, is “what got me hooked.”

Programming includes documentaries Shuttlesworth, about civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and Sink the Alabama, about a Civil War-era commerce raider ship. Children’s programming includes Yellowhammer History Hunts. 

GMs Say Local Economy Is Doing Well

The general managers said the Birmingham economy is holding up well. One described advertising as a little better than flat. “It doesn’t see some of the highs of some other markets, but it doesn’t see some of the lows either,” said Cromwell. 

Besides the food scene, the market offers mountains to the north, beaches to the south, and plenty of history and culture in the heart of Birmingham. “It has all the amenities of a big city,” said Schuler, “without all the hassles of a big city.”

Schuler became general manager in 2019 after a run at Raycom corporate. She is enjoying life in Birmingham, and the lively TV scene she faces every day. 

“All of us are constantly challenging each other and upping the bar,” said Schuler. “It’s great for the audience and it’s good for each station.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.