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01 Aug 2013

Hard-Charging, Yet Charming, in Charleston

Savvy general manager Rita Scott keeps WCSC (way) on top in idyllic seaside market
This was never how Rita Scott had envisioned taking over a TV station. It was 1999. She had been in the top job at WCSC Charleston for all of a week when Hurricane Floyd was bearing down on the region and residents were being evacuated. Scott sat in the newsroom with her department heads, going over coverage plans and how best to keep residents—and staffers—safe.

It was then that she realized the full depths of her new role. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m the captain of the ship, so we’ve got to make it happen,’” she recalls.

Scott told staffers that family members who did not evacuate—many were stuck on highways headed out of town—were welcome at the station. So were their pets: There were cats and dogs in the building, a few birds, a ferret, even a pig or two. “The only thing we said you couldn’t bring in were horses,” she says with a laugh.

The truest test of a general manager isn’t always ratings or revenue, but how the station performs when severe weather threatens the community. WCSC was wall-to-wall in storm coverage for three straight days, advising viewers on how to stay safe throughout the category 2 hurricane. “They did a first-rate job on it,” says Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. “They reported with energy and kept the community informed. Rita’s station is highly respected and trusted.”

These days, the challenge is keeping Raycomowned WCSC, which turns 60 this year, on top in DMA No. 98. It’s a challenge Scott embraces. Charleston residents have huge expectations of WCSC, and Scott uses that to keep the staff motivated every day. “For a legacy station in a destination market, there can be a lot of, ‘It’s been working, let’s not change it,’” says Don Richards, group VP of WCSC owner Raycom. “Rita always challenges her managers to keep it fresh.”

Thespian Dreams

Scott was raised in High Point, N.C., in her family’s funeral home. Her father was the mortician; her mother, the secretary and organist. Rita handled the corpses and arranged the flowers, went to the funerals, and consoled the bereaved. “You learned to respect life,” she says. “You understood that you rejoiced every day.”

With an easy laugh and rich southern accent, Scott had dreams of being an actress. She majored in theater before realizing a young mother would have an easier time in an office than on stage. She got her start in television at WGHP High Point in 1979, but not in any traditional manner. Women, and African-American women in particular, had little shot of breaking into station sales. Scott says she was part of a classaction suit against WGHP’s parent company at the time, demanding equality. “I didn’t ask for money—I asked for an opportunity,” she says.

Her first manager, David Whitaker, says Scott turned out to be an “incredible” hire, despite her lack of experience. Scott was routinely the first to arrive at work and took to sales immediately. “She had natural ability,” says Whitaker, who retired as general manager at KOAA Colorado Springs. “She could sell anything.”

Scott is the rare exec with “full-time coach’s wife” on her resume. Then-husband Gene Littles, a former American Basketball Association player, took on coaching jobs with the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets, among others, and Scott usually found TV jobs in her new city. When Littles was tapped for a Cleveland Cavaliers post, Scott went in to break it to Whitaker that she was heading to Ohio. A smile broke across her manager’s face when she told him the news—he had just been offered a promotion at WJW Cleveland, and he knew who his first hire would be.

Charmed by Charleston

Scott came on board at WCSC in 1994 as national sales manager, was promoted to general sales manager in 1998 and the top spot a year later. As is just about anyone who visits, Scott was captivated by Charleston’s abundant charms: its people, beaches, history, restaurants. Charleston is equally enamored of Scott: Mayor Riley staged a “Rita Scott Day” in 1999, saluting her for being, as his research revealed at the time, the only African-American female GM in local television. “She’s so well-loved, she could have more than one day,” says Riley.

WCSC has not lost a news ratings race since Scott arrived almost two decades ago, and its “Live 5” branding is ubiquitous around town. Don Richards singles out WCSC for its “soaring” digital strategy that is a model within Raycom. Besides page views and mobile, that includes a pair of multicasts to further WCSC’s reach in Charleston: Live 5 Plus and Bounce Charleston. Scott is contemplating a newscast for the latter.

Richards calls his GM in Charleston “a remarkable reflection” of the quaint seaside city. “Charming, competitive, resilient, ambitious and gracious,” he says. “All that, with her own unique style.”

By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable