Dreaming of media empire, ex-candidate Binnie builds slowly and carefully

Last modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Five years from now, a morning television show featuring New Hampshire news will be broadcast on WBIN and provide content for Bill Binnie’s 17 radio stations. Reporters will contribute from bureaus across the state – including the former Walker School building in Concord.

Binnie’s Concord news center will open next year with television studios, six radio stations and an auditorium where he hopes national politicians will announce their candidacies for president, interact with voters and participate in debates.

The Seacoast businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate is building his media company from the bottom up, using his business savvy, political experience and New Hampshire connections. His goals are lofty, and Binnie acknowledges they won’t become a reality overnight.

Today, WBIN has three reporters in New Hampshire. Its weekday newscast is delivered by anchors in Iowa.

“I think that it will take us a significantly long time to build our business out, but I’ve done this before,” Binnie said. “I’ve built other companies. I have a good idea of how long it takes.”

Binnie’s television and radio transmitters reach audiences in Massachusetts, Vermont and one county in Maine, but he plans to focus on his home state.

“I saw early on an opportunity to build a media company in New Hampshire that’s locally owned, locally focused and understands the issues of New England,” Binnie said. “All of the media companies . . . principally television companies, were owned by people from out of state and, frankly, most of them – with one exception – have a Boston-centric focus. And I think that that presents an opportunity for somebody like myself. I believe I understand New Hampshire and I know it.”

That one exception, Manchester-based WMUR-TV, has been on the air in New Hampshire since 1954. The ABC-affiliated Channel 9 station is owned by Hearst Television, and covers local and political news across the state. The state also has New Hampshire Public Television, a PBS station based in Durham. Concord and other communities have their own public-access cable stations. Former New Hampshire television stations include WZMY Channel 50 in Derry, which Binnie renamed WBIN after buying the station in 2011, and Channel 21 in Concord. Binnie’s company also operates Channel 13 in Nashua.

WMUR’s General Manager Jeff Bartlett said it would take a significant investment to compete with his station’s hold on the New Hampshire market. Its 16 reporters and anchors broadcast news from New Hampshire.

But Bartlett is keeping an eye on Binnie.

“I’d be crazy not to watch and pay attention to what they’re doing, but at this point they haven’t done enough that I’m worried about,” Bartlett said. “But again, I’ll keep watching.”

N.H., Fla. and Iowa

WBIN’s three reporters film and edit their own work for the 10 p.m. weekday newscast. The 30-minute program is hosted from Davenport, Iowa, where an anchor and meteorologist combine WBIN’s own reports with national and international news.

Anchor Amanda Decker and meteorologist Dan Bronis work for the Independent News Network, a company in Davenport that produces and anchors news programs for television stations across the country. Decker and Bronis also anchor for GTN News in Gainesville, Fla., according to GTN’s website.

Binnie said using out-of-state anchors allows him to invest in local reporters.

“From our standpoint it’s a way to efficiently deliver news,” he said. “. . . The news-gathering capability is really what counts in the news organization.”

The anchors’ location isn’t apparent from watching the newscast; their set includes graphics of Boston and New Hampshire.

Last week, the 10 p.m. news on WBIN featured local stories such as U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster’s property tax payments, rising gas prices and the education tax credit program.

Binnie said the news lineup is chosen at WBIN in Derry and communicated to Iowa.

Decker introduces the local news packaged by WBIN reporters Martin Morenz, Garrett Brnger and Carolyn Choate. Local stories alternate with national and international news. National economic news is provided through a partnership with Bloomberg.

News today can be provided by “a Syrian dissident holding up a $100 smart camera phone,” Binnie said, and the 21st century will bring more change.

“It’s those kinds of breakthroughs that we’re dealing with when we build this company,” Binnie said. “That we have to go in different directions to become cost-effective. If we just followed what everybody else did in the marketplace, we know we won’t be successful.”

Binnie, 55, made his fortune in plastics and began purchasing radio and television stations after finishing third in the Republican Senate primary in 2010, his first stab at politics.

“It grew out of my experience in traveling around while I was running for public office, and I got a much better understanding of the media business and media marketplace in New Hampshire, and it is very unique,” he said.

New Hampshire is part of the Boston media market, but Binnie said the Boston reporters only leave their own state for “salacious crime.” He saw a market for news that speaks directly to New Hampshire residents.

His efforts aren’t the first attempt at competing with WMUR – or bringing television news to Concord. Channel 21, for example, broadcast from Concord in the 1980s.

Fred Kocher, a former WMUR anchor, said competition is healthy for any media market. With competing stations, “everybody is more on their toes,” he said.

Kocher said previous New Hampshire television stations, like Channel 21, Channel 60 in Manchester and Channel 50 in Derry, failed because they didn’t have powerful ownership or a strong financial market. But with a growing amount of economic activity, business and news stories in New Hampshire, Kocher said now may be the right time for another media company to enter the scene. WBIN could succeed without a major network affiliation, he said.

“The times are different, and I think that’s part of the reason why they didn’t succeed and certainly Bill Binnie may, and certainly is,” Kocher said.

Since 1993, Kocher has hosted a New Hampshire business show on WMUR. He has not worked as a Channel 9 anchor since the 1970s; his business segment is “a hobby” for which he receives no compensation.

“So what Bill Binnie’s doing is bringing competition to New Hampshire, and I think that, bottom line, it’s a good thing,” Kocher said.

WMUR now has 16 reporters and anchors, Bartlett said; anchors sometimes work as reporters, and all reporters work alongside cameramen. The station is “enmeshed in the sort of fabric of New Hampshire,” he said.

“So I think that a challenge will be a great undertaking in terms of time and money to equal what we do, but we’ll see, you know, what Mr. Binnie has in mind.”

WBIN’s three reporters use specialized laptops to edit the video they shoot themselves. Binnie said he will soon double his reporting force, and plans to one day boast a larger staff than WMUR or any newspaper.

“Our news, which is currently 30 minutes a day, will expand, and when it expands our economics will change,” Binnie said.

Concord location

In Concord, reporters based at a studio at the former Walker School will contribute to WBIN newscasts, which will also news from television and radio offices in Derry, Laconia, Manchester, Lebanon and Portsmouth.

Binnie is purchasing the old elementary school from the Concord School District for $900,000. The deal is expected to close in March, with construction beginning this summer. He plans to open the building in early 2014.

When complete, the Walker School will be “the No. 1, preeminent media center in the state,” Binnie told city officials during a meeting at Concord City Hall last month.

But Concord won’t necessarily have its own local newscast; news assembled at the Walker School will become part of a news program broadcast to WBIN viewers in all states. Binnie said he’s still considering what those news programs should include. He wants to follow substantive issues, not just crime or fires.

“What we have not done, and we’re debating about internally, is whether or not we put the cameraman into the truck and send him to the fire in town X,” he said.

One local voice already stands out on WBIN: Meteorologist Al Kaprielian records hourly weather updates from the studios in Derry.

Kaprielian, known for his high-pitched voice and enthusiastic reports, was laid off from WZMY in Derry in 2009. Binnie purchased WZMY in 2011 and hired Kaprielian in July.

Kaprielian’s forecasts are shown on WBIN from 2 to 9 p.m., and he spends his days at the WBIN studios studying the weather and recording his hourly updates. He sends forecasts to Binnie’s radio stations, which announce his name on the air.

The weatherman stands quietly with his hands folded when he’s not gesturing wildly at a weather map but is quick to remind visitors that he’s been reporting weather from New Hampshire for 30 years. Binnie said Kaprielian – “one of the real characters in New Hampshire’s media” – will eventually have his own audio clips on the radio stations.

“Over time we will do news and other cross-promotional, cross-platform conversations between the various mediums,” he said.

Binnie’s 17 radio stations include Concord’s 105.5 JYY, 93.3 The Wolf in Belmont, 106.3 Frank FM in Nashua and Laconia’s 98.3 LNH. He also has stations in Maine and Vermont.

He is still considering how to link radio and news coverage, but he plans to eventually have news updates from his television reporters on the radio. The entire company will operate under an umbrella name – likely “New Hampshire 1 News.”

“Certainly part of our ability to gather news is because we have a lot of radio stations around the state,” he said.

The media company will broaden its reach through partnerships with other news organizations. He co-sponsored political debates last year with several newspapers, including the Monitor, and the Nashua Telegraph sends a reporter to WBIN each week to film a segment for the 10 p.m. news.

Binnie has not partnered with Channel 9 or the Union Leader, which co-sponsored their own political debates last year.

“I think that they have a relationship, they’re working together, and I think there’s plenty of room for another voice – even two – in our state,” he said.

WBIN has carried political advertisements – a significant source of revenue for television stations in an election year. His television station had advertising contracts with Super PACs and most major candidates, including President Obama, Mitt Romney, Gov. Maggie Hassan, Ovide Lamontagne, Massachusetts Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, and most of the New Hampshire congressional candidates, according to the public files at the studios in Derry. But compared with Channel 9, WBIN sold few ads.

In the New Hampshire congressional races, for example, the public files show WBIN sold one spot each to Reps. Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, more than 100 spots to Charlie Bass and none to Frank Guinta.

Meanwhile, Channel 9 sold hundreds of spots to all four congressional candidates, according to its public files.

Binnie said he was pleased with his success during the 2012 campaign season.

“Political ads happen because you’re relevant, they don’t happen because you target political ads,” he said. “So if we build a good media company, by definition, we will be talking to the citizens of our state.”

While Binnie argues he’s already relevant, he adds his company will continue to grow.

“It will take years, not weeks or month,” he said. “I think the people that we are competing against or who are watching have an expectation that it’s going to happen quicker rather than slower.”

As for his other ambitions, Binnie didn’t rule out another run for office during an interview last week.

“I would like the opportunity to serve if it’s appropriate, but at the present time I’m really focused on building this company – and enjoying it,” he said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)