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KIRO news director bringing her station out of the cellar

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Cox-owned CBS affiliate KIRO-TV has been in the basement for years in the Seattle news race. But for the past year in every major book, KIRO has gone from third place to second, notably at 11 p.m., beating out ABC affiliate KOMO-TV-a major coup for KIRO.
Helen Swenson has been the station’s news director since June 2001. “It’s extremely competitive in that there’s not a distant No. 3 station anymore,” Ms. Swenson said. “Before I came here, there was success in the morning show-they were No. 2. But we were never No. 2 at 11 p.m. and that’s the biggest change in the past year-beating KOMO three major books in a row for an entire year.”
Of course CBS’s prime-time lineup helps as the lead-in, but Ms. Swenson said having a solid newsroom and being able to be on top of breaking news is the key. “Obviously prime time is always a factor, but I would say that we pop up significantly from our lead-in, and that really speaks to having a quality newscast with very strong content,” Ms. Swenson said. “We’ve also made significant gains on owning breaking news.”
At 5 p.m. KIRO has also seen significant improvement, up 33 percent in May from last year.
“Our objective is to own a story and give viewers the most in-depth coverage,” Ms. Swenson said. “I don’t ever have to motivate this team. They are self-motivating in that they want to win.”
On May 17, the Seattle Marina went up in flames, and several houseboats were on fire. KIRO had the only chopper on the scene and cut in all night during prime-time programming with updates. Ms. Swenson said the station also had the first live ground crew on the scene, and it had the only 11 p.m. newscast that was commercial-free that night. KIRO did not beat Belo powerhouse KING-TV, the market’s NBC affiliate, which had an 8.1/21, but it came in second with a 7.4/19. “We almost caught KING there,” Ms. Swenson said. “That’s just one example of how strong our coverage is.”
Ms. Swenson was born in Manhattan and grew up in central Florida. At age 16, she had her own sports column with the St. Petersburg Times. That turned into a sports-reporting gig for a local radio station. After graduating from the University of Florida at Gainesville, she worked at NBC affiliate WBBH-TV, Fort Myers, as a producer and later as an executive producer. She then worked in Palm Beach and in 1992 went to Fox affiliate WSVN-TV, Miami, as a 6:30 p.m. news producer. She later landed in Atlanta as a 6 p.m. news producer, where her current boss, KIRO General Manager John Woodin, was the news director. She later moved to Orlando, Fla., then Pittsburgh, then back to West Palm Beach, where she was a news director until she got hired at KIRO.
Ms. Swenson enjoys sports, playing softball on the KIRO team as an outfielder, and organizing flag football games. But winning the news race is the main game now, and using her sports skills has been part of that process.
“My philosophy at KIRO is the same as my management style-you build a team, one relationship at a time, and you lay out the objective,” she said. “You get everybody to work together to achieve those objectives.”