Steve Riley, the director of marketing for Cox’s Atlanta ABC affiliate, WSB, is retiring after 42 years in local TV news marketing. “It’s been a great ride and I’m so fortunate to have worked for this wonderful company for over four decades, and to retire as a lifelong member of Cox.”
Steve Riley, the director of marketing for Cox’s ABC affiliate, WSB, is retiring after 42 years of marketing local TV news at Cox stations in Atlanta (WSB), Pittsburgh (WPXI) and Charlotte (WSOC).
Riley never sought the spotlight, never craved awards.
“My boss in Pittsburgh told me a long time ago … the only award you need to win is put on the kind of spots that help us win the news ratings.”
I talked to Riley about his career, and how working at exclusively Cox stations influenced his news marketing philosophy.
Riley’s first TV job was running camera for the 6 and 11 o’clock news at WSOC, Cox’s ABC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. One day, the station’s promotion manager came up to him and said she’d created a position just for him.
“What’s that,” Riley asked. By that time he had made his way to director.
“She said, you love to write, you love to produce, you love to edit, you love to do all those things and that’s what I want you to do for me in promotion. And you would be the first person to ever do that job. And I said, ‘Why in the world would I want to do that’? I’m directing the news and commercials, all that kind of stuff. And she said, well, because it’s the future.”
Riley said it was his “aha” moment. He took the job and television marketing became his future.
But like many of us who began creating advertising for local TV news, Riley said he “really came into it from the creative side, not the marketing strategic side.”
Riley said reading Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout helped him understand the role of marketing. (I also highly recommend another book by Ries and Trout, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.)
“It really was what helped me lay out an understanding in our marketplaces of who owns what and what was important about each one of those issues. What I ultimately figured out was WPXI really had to take a guerrilla warfare kind of approach.”
In 1984, Riley became the marketing director of WPXI, Cox’s ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh. And it was here that Riley realized the power of research.
“What I found out very quickly was the commitment to rigorous research. We did it a lot and committed to it as a company. There was a side of me in the beginning that I was like, I don’t know. I am a creative guy. I don’t want to be tied up in research. So it took me a little bit of adjustment certainly learning how to interpret it, how to work with the researchers to get the kinds of things you wanted to know from a marketing standpoint.”
“Marketing is figuring out what it is that you can offer that the other guys aren’t offering or aren’t doing as well. We had been just throwing darts at a wall trying to come up with new creative ideas, but once we got some reliance along the research side, we started learning more and more about what the vulnerabilities were of our competitors, and what were opportunities for us. It is really what helped us turn that station around and commit ourselves to a real focused plan. We just started doing things that were more specific and what we thought mattered and not trying to be everything to everybody.”
In 1999, Riley became the marketing director for Cox’s WSB, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate.
At WSB, the competitive situation was different.
“How do we take a brand with basically the same winning story over and over and over and over again and continue to move it forward? The whole concept was, hey this is a great station. So don’t screw it up.”
Riley stresses that no matter what the competitive situation is, it’s all about knowing your audience and what they want.
“What is it that I want to know from the viewers who like us, who have chosen us, what is it about us that they like and want to keep seeing. And the people who are in a no-preference place, what is it that they are looking for and that allows us to try to write to them.”
Riley said that today, there are even more ways to find and recruit news viewers.
“But what we are challenged with is inspiring them to watch us and that’s with an image promo or a topical of the day. In today’s world, there is digital and social and as well as radio and things like that. So there are so many more ways to find people, where at the point in time they can make a decision to watch you.”
Riley said having great bosses has been key to his success and names four who were instrumental in his career.
Some of those are John Howell who was general manager of WPXI in Pittsburgh from 1984 to 2001; Greg Stone who was general manager at WSB from 1990 to 2006; Bill Hoffman who was general manager at WSB from 2006 until 2011; and Tim McVay, who was WSB’s general manager from 2011-2017.
“They held me accountable. My performance evaluation was based on how we were doing in revenue and ratings. They are great mentors, great coaches, great advisers, and they were so open to hear from me. I was always on equal footing; we were part of a team together. We didn’t always agree with everything, but we always worked it out.”
And, he credits the tremendous partnerships that he had with his direct reports, Karen Lah in Pittsburgh, and WSB’s Promotion Manager Barry Sinnock and Design Director Julie Schulman, and their teams for any successes that he’s had along the way.
FYI, he did receive a few Emmys, Addys, Promax and International Film Festival awards along the way.
“It’s been a great ride and I’m so fortunate to have worked for this wonderful company for over four decades, and to retire as a lifelong member of Cox.”