Fighting Alabama crime with airtime

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Fox affiliate WALA-TV in Mobile, Ala., is gearing up to capture its 200th crime suspect through its popular weekly news segment “FBI Files.”
WALA launched the segment, which airs Wednesdays during the 6 p.m. newscast, in March 1994. Hosted by anchor Bob Grip, “FBI Files” gets information each week from the local FBI office on a new suspect of a violent crime varying from assault to murder.
WALA shows a mug shot or a sketch of the suspect or even a videotape of a robbery, for example. Although no reward is offered, viewers nonetheless call in with information to help the station capture the local suspects.
“Right now the product out there stations have is `Crime Stoppers,’ and they don’t have a very high apprehension rate because a lot of the effort goes into the re-creation” instead of the expediency of broadcasting mug shots or a video, said WALA General Manager Scott Wilson.
Mr. Wilson said the addition of “FBI Files” segments to its newscasts has augmented WALA’s image as a station that is active in the community. He said any station can copy the format. “It’s not real glitzy. It’s pretty basic the way we present it,” Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson said even though “FBI Files” could get sponsors, the station wants to keep it purely a news segment. “It’s one of the those things we could easily find a corporate company that could put their logo on it, but we find others things for that. We want to keep this as clean as possible,” he said. “We just don’t want to commercialize it in any way. We want to make sure there is no perception of bias.”
Mr. Grip, who also anchors the 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, has been a champion of the segment since its inception, which is a joint effort between the local FBI office and the station.
“It was a wonderful way to get the community involved in crime fighting,” Mr. Grip said.
Mr. Grip said the segment helps clean up the streets, and viewers he meets in the community regularly compliment him on the segment. “I get positive feedback no matter where we go,” Mr. Grip said. “They know all they have to do is phone in a tip and people will get the suspect off the street. Very often these kinds of suspects are accused of violent crimes, so when you take one person like that off the street, you eliminate three or four other possible crimes. They get the satisfaction of knowing their neighborhood is a little bit safer.”
Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” is planning to feature WALA in a segment airing May 5.
WALA isn’t the only Alabama station with the idea. Fox affiliate WCOV-TV, Montgomery, airs a similar segment with the same title. WCOV is one of the only locally owned and operated stations in that market and is not related to the Emmis Communications-owned WALA.
WCOV does not have a news department but does the 30-second “FBI Files” segment about once a month with the help of the Montgomery FBI office.
WCOV owner David Woods started a show similar to “Cops” called “Montgomery Police Department.” A WCOV cameraman rides with a police car and shoots video for the show. The local police department and mayor’s office review each show before it airs.
“It builds good will in the community,” said WCOV General Manager Dennis Christine. “We don’t have a local news, but this is something better. Very often if there’s a serious crime, the other news stations show up, and we are already there because we’re riding with the police.”
Mr. Christine said the popularity of “Montgomery Police Department” spawned another show on WCOV called “County Law,” which is about the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department. That show gives viewers a look at various aspects of law enforcement, such as the forensics lab and the coroner’s office.
Mr. Christine said these shows are “more fun to promote and tie-in with advertisers. I have talked to a lot of general managers interested in doing these shows, but they don’t have the support of their local police department, and they need that.”