Considering that the lifespan of a local media outlet typically is measured in dog years, Richmond has a wealth of media that have stood the test of time. It’s not just the city’s venerable daily newspaper (153 years old and counting), or the oldest TV station in the South (WTVR 6, born in 1948). It’s also a long-lived weekly tabloid (Style Weekly, still spry at 22) and this lively publication, the monthly Richmond magazine (going on 26). It’s a top TV anchor team (WWBT 12’s Gene Cox and Sabrina Squire) who have been together 20 years. It’s a radio station that has been at the heart of Richmond life since 1925 (WRVA 1140 AM).
Sure, not everything in Richmond media is old. There are promising startups (WRIR 97.3 began broadcasting) as well as publications that fought, fell and are fondly remembered (Throttle and Punchline, where have you gone?). But often we find something we like and stick to it through thick and thin.
Here, we present a few of the people who make the city’s media landscape what it is:
Top at the T-D
As the new year begins, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is gaining a new boss. Thomas A. Silvestri, a 49-year-old former editor and newspaper manager with Times-Dispatch parent company Media General, is rejoining the daily as its first full-time publisher and the first non-Bryan to run the paper since 1887. In that role, Silvestri, a business-section editor and deputy managing editor at the T-D in the 1990s, will oversee the advertising and editorial sides of the newspaper.
The son of a New York cop, Silvestri will have lots to do at the Times-Dispatch. Like all metropolitan dailies, the Times-Dispatch is seeing circulation fall. In addition, reading the paper is no longer a daily ritual for most people — particularly young people. Somehow, Silvestri will have to guide his company's flagship publication through those shoals.
Will Silvestri concentrate on wringing some income out of the T-D’s no-frills, no-charge Web site? Will he push the paper to tone down the hard-right editorial pages that offend many moderate readers? Will he change a sleepy newsroom culture that seems to value insularness as much as aggressive coverage?
Silvestri isn’t saying. But considering that the Times-Dispatch sets the bar for all local coverage in and around Richmond, a lot of people are going to be watching.
Mark Holmberg was big long before he got famous. The 6-foot-8 former bricklayer and Falls Church native talked himself into a job at the Times-Dispatch chasing crime and cops in 1991. Six years ago, he parlayed a keen eye for details and a knack for conveying the gritty song of street life into a Sunday column for the Metro section. Last year, Holmberg gave up his police scanner after many long nights on the crime beat; he’ll now focus on his semiweekly columns and on whatever stories come his way.
At the buttoned-down T-D, the long-haired, scruffy Holmberg is well known for his eccentricities — he never wears a tie, sports tennis shoes at black-tie functions, and champions underdogs in his columns — for his obvious confidence in his own abilities, and for his undeniable talent. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
In his columns, Holmberg says, he tries to emphasize “that Richmond should and can be an absolutely fabulous city. I’m kind of a cheerleader.” That might come as a surprise to those who complain that Holmberg focuses on the dark side of Richmond life — the criminals, the lowlifes, the scary people in the city’s shadows. But Holmberg says that’s part of his point.
“I try to write about the people at the bottom of things,” he says. “Unless we can lift them up ... Richmond’s never going to get where it needs to be. We all have to understand each other — even the drug dealers and homicidal maniacs and the thugs and single mothers. Once that happens, Richmond’s just going to blow up. It’s going to be great.”
The Odd Couple
Gene Cox and Sabrina Squire
For 20 years, picking a Richmond prime-time news show has been a simple proposition: It’s Gene and Sabrina or whoever else is competing with them.
WWBT 12 anchors Gene Cox and Sabrina Squire have been on top for so long that it’s hard to imagine Richmond news without them. Part of the pair’s charm is their perfect dichotomy. Where Gene is gruff, Sabrina is sympathetic; where Gene is rough, Sabrina is smooth. And on it goes: white/black, male/female, country/city (Gene is from Appalachia, Sabrina from Richmond).
Somehow, the duo represents the region itself — divided by race and by background, by style and by appearance. But they work so well together, effortlessly tossing stories back and forth amid casual banter, that they are a model of regional cooperation.
Any advice for Richmond media consumers? “First of all, watch channel 12 all the time,” Cox says, presumably tongue-in-cheek. More seriously, he suggests varying one’s media diet. “Read Richmond magazine and Style Weekly every time they come out. Subscribe to the Times-Dispatch and read it — except for the editorial section, which is just downright embarrassing. ... It’d be a mistake to read only the Times-Dispatch; you need several sources of information. Open yourself up to all channels of local information — so I guess don’t bother much with radio. There’s no local information on radio.”
Richmond Radio King
Used to be, WRVA was the AM station that delivered Richmond to itself. Its talkers — Alden Aaroe, Tim Timberlake, Allen Price, to name a few — were Richmonders. Its management was in Richmond. Its topics were those of Richmond. Its news division covered Richmond aggressively and thoroughly.
Radio behemoth Clear Channel bought WRVA long ago, along with a slew of other Richmond AM and FM stations. WRVA moved its operations from its standalone building atop Church Hill to a corporate headquarters in Richmond’s West End. Most of the local shows were canceled, and the longtime hosts were canned. The local news operations were cut back; staff was slashed in half, to the point where there was no reporting staff on the weekends. National talk shows took over most of the available time slots except morning and afternoon drive times.
That puts whatever local control there is for Richmond’s main source of radio news squarely in the hands of Tom Parker. As the head of Clear Channel’s Richmond-area AM operations, Parker oversees WRVA’s local coverage and on-air schedule.
Radio news, he says, “is an important element” to people’s lives. “It’s portable, it’s companionship, it’s one-on-one,” he explains. “It complements a lot of the other information that’s out there.” Parker cites talk shows’ ability to act like a town-hall meeting, and the medium’s ability to convey quick news updates.
No room in this model for long, in-depth journalism on local issues; the important thing is to get in, get out. News fast, to the point. Leave the analysis to the call-in shows, with their shouters and dittoes. That’s news radio these days.
Parker points proudly to a recent increase in his stations’ local news coverage: Just before the 2004 elections, he approved a move to re-staff the news operations on weekends. Now, he says, “We have news coverage very nearly 24-seven.” In the diminished world of radio news, that counts as a victory worth praising.