Letting the Stories Shine at NJTV

Mary Alice Williams relishes her role as the face of NJTV, the state’s 5-year-old public-TV network.

Williams at the anchor desk in NJTV's new custom-built studio and headquarters in downtown Newark.
Williams at the anchor desk in NJTV's new custom-built studio and headquarters in downtown Newark.
Photo by Christopher Lane

Mary Alice Williams types with the muscular intensity of a concert pianist. Between bursts of activity at the keyboard, she stares at the computer screen, sometimes stopping to test the feeling of a phrase or passage aloud. As the anchor of NJTV News, she still writes her own copy, a practice she claims makes her unique in the business. “I really love that part of it,” she says—“it” being a career in broadcast news that spans close to five decades.

Williams also likes what her own writing adds to the program: a distinctive voice that she says is sometimes lacking on other newscasts.  “There are teams of writers at every news outlet,” she says, “but there’s a sameness to the writing because of that.” Creating a show for a public-television audience affords her the freedom to write well and expansively. “I hope the audience understands that I get that they’re educated—so you don’t talk down to them.”

You certainly don’t talk down to Williams, who began earning her broadcast bona fides straight out of high school. At 18, she was reporting the news at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, her hometown; the day after her graduation from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, the station promoted her to executive producer of news programming. Since then, she’s been an executive producer at WPIX and WNBC news in New York and helped shape and launch a fledgling CNN, where she served as New York bureau chief and as one of the network’s principal anchors. She was named a network vice president in 1982. After leaving CNN, she was co-host of NBC’s Sunday Today and a frequent anchor of NBC News Special Reports, NBC Nightly News and The Today Show.

For the past two years, Williams has been the engaging face (with the aquamarine-eyes) of NJTV, New Jersey’s public-broadcasting TV station, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. It hasn’t been an easy five years.

In June 2011, Governor Chris Christie cut off state funds to New Jersey’s 43-year-old public station, NJN, citing budgetary concerns.  Amid significant controversy, the state Legislature awarded the station’s franchise to New York’s public-broadcast operation, WNET, with the proviso that the new station be up and running the day after NJN signed off for good. The skeleton staff of the newly renamed NJTV learned about the deadline five days before it took effect.

The launch was hardly seamless. NJN had an annual budget of some $30 million and a staff of about 125. On July 1, 2011—the new station’s first day on-air—NJTV had no funding, no studio of its own (for  just under six months it was run out of WNET’s Manhattan offices and studios), and one full-time employee, John Servidio, now general manager. Critics, including state senator (and former governor) Richard Codey (D-West Orange) and Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan (D-South Plainfield), slammed the transfer to WNET, voicing concerns to New Jersey Monthly at the time that the out-of-state entity wouldn’t allocate sufficient resources to adequately cover New Jersey. In the early days, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) and other viewers bemoaned what they saw as spotty or nonexistent coverage of important statewide events like Hurricane Irene and the governor’s announcement that he wouldn’t run for the presidency in 2012. In the last three months of 2011, ratings for the station’s news programming indicated that more than half of NJN’s former viewers had gone elsewhere for their daily news fix. While NJN’s news programming in its final days had enjoyed a daily viewership of 43,442, NJTV’s early audience was a mere 15,852.

Five years later, the station’s numbers—and its prospects—are notably brighter. Average news viewership is 27,114; the number of weekly viewers of all programming is up to 864,000 from 845,000 in 2012, according to Nielsen data provided by NJTV. The network has a staff of 44, including independent contractors, up from 26 in 2013. There are 27 full-time staffers, twice the number in 2011.

Perhaps most significant, the operation, which had moved into leased studio space at Montclair State University in December 2011, now has a permanent home in the Agnes Varis Studio in downtown Newark. Built expressly for the station in 2015 with a gift from the nonprofit Agnes Varis Charitable Trust, the 10,000-square-foot studio and headquarters is more accessible to on-air guests from around the state.  Equally important, it finally brings together what Williams characterizes as the former “diaspora” of NJTV staffers. “It enables our team to convene under one roof,” says Servidio, “stimulating the sharing of ideas and keeping everyone atop the news as it happens.” The station also has studio space in the capitol building in Trenton and produces a nightly business report out of new studio space at New Jersey City University in Jersey City.

The new studio’s expansive community room allowed the station to host a series of debate-watch parties from October through January, at which NJTV staffers mingled with the state’s political cognoscenti over pizza and beer while watching—and dissecting—the presidential debates; highlights were broadcast the following day. The room is also home to a daily editorial meeting that generally convenes around 10 am.

On this morning in mid April, the  daily editorial meeting is starting a little later than usual—and with less energy—largely because much of the staff, including Williams, spent the previous evening at the station’s annual gala. Williams takes a seat at the head of the conference table next to executive producer Phil Alongi. She makes notations on a white pad as Alongi runs through the day’s top stories: an expected announcement from the governor about a new drug program; a report from the Centers for Disease Control revealing a sharp uptick in New Jersey’s suicide rate; and the unusual measures taken by municipalities around the state to demonstrate their adherence to affordable-housing quotas. At the latter item, Williams looks up from her pad at the faces around her, most of them considerably younger than her own. “In other words,” she says, “they’re gaming the system.”

Williams, an Essex County resident and the mother of three 20-something daughters, was hired not just to add gravitas to the station, but also, says Servidio, “to mentor our news staff,” helping them craft better stories. Williams could be called a conduit for the news team; her mission, she says, is to get out of the way and let their stories shine. Maybe that’s because she knows the slings and arrows of the business. An executive at WNBC-TV once called those aquamarine eyes “icy” and suggested she belonged in a Dracula movie. In 1980, the station let her go, but she landed on her feet—rather spectacularly—at CNN. At 67, she’s not out to be NJTV’s perky blonde, and by all accounts she’s no diva. When she sits down in the makeup chair after the editorial meeting, it’s clear she’d rather be almost anywhere else. She flinches as NJTV’s energetic makeup artist, Amelia Durazzo-Cintron, daubs her cheekbones with concealer. “I really hate this,” Williams says.

Back in the newsroom, Williams looks more at ease in front of the computer, researching a story about Ocean Township’s attempts to keep a local Jewish religious school from establishing a boarding school in the town. It’s exactly the kind of story she wants the station to cover.  Drawing a distinction between the reports you’re likely to see on commercial stations and those covered by her team, she says, “You don’t treat your viewers as an audience with appetites; you treat them as citizens with aspirations.” That means steering clear of standard news fodder like fires and murders, covering instead what Williams describes as “the five areas that we think are the most important for people to make decisions about this state and their towns and families: the economy, education, the environment, health and the arts.”

That focus appears to hold true throughout NJTV’s original programming, which now comprises 32 to 35 hours of the station’s 168-hour week. (The rest of the shows are picked up from PBS, including Charlie Rose, Antiques Roadshow and children’s fare like Bob the Builder.)  That number is up from the 20 to 25 hours of Jersey-centric content NJTV aired in its early days—and pledged to deliver as part of the deal transferring the network to WNET. Some of the shows are holdovers from NJN, including Classroom Close-Up, Due Process, State of the Arts, On the Record with Michael Aron; and Reporters Roundtable with Michael Aron. (Aron, NJTV’s chief political correspondent, is also an NJN holdover.) Other shows are original to NJTV, among them This Is South Jersey with Marianne Aleardi, American Songbook at NJPAC, Here’s the Story (a look at the state’s quirkier locales and inhabitants, originally titled Driving Jersey), and Pasta and Politics with Nick Acocella, an only-in-Jersey show on which the state’s movers and shakers talk current events with host (and political commentator) Acocella while whipping up their favorite Italian specialties.

Nine of NJTV’s original shows are independently produced, with budgets borne by outside production companies. They include four shows provided by Caucus Educational Corporation, the nonprofit media company run by Steve Adubato Jr., a longtime fixture on NJN (and a New Jersey Monthly columnist). That helps ease the station’s financial burden, though the exigencies of running a state television station without any assistance from the state are considerable. “The main challenge here is money,” Servidio confirms.

NJTV is supported in part by an annual grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as well as donations from individual viewers and corporate and charitable underwriters like NJM Insurance Group, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, PSE&G, Barnabas Health, Wells Fargo and the New Jersey Educational Association. Servidio says the station is reaching its fundraising goals, but adds that he’d like to see those goals increased. Since its inception, NJTV’s annual budget has been around $10 million—approximately a third of NJN’s. Nevertheless, the station has managed to add staffers and freelancers and invest in new equipment, which Servidio attributes to efficiencies in management and daily operations, as well as technological advances. An example of the latter: Reporters use LiveU packs—portable wireless video transmitters small enough to fit in a backpack—that allow them to broadcast live on location without a satellite truck.

In fact, the station is betting on technology to facilitate its continued expansion over the next half-decade. It’s already courting a digital audience with enhanced online programming, including web-original content and live streaming of newsworthy events like Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump. (Since July 2011, monthly visitors to the NJTV website have increased from 6,940 to 72,254, according to the network spokesperson.)

Technology should also enhance coverage of state and national events like this month’s presidential conventions—the station is sending a seven-person team to each—and the 2017 gubernatorial race, which Servidio imagines may be “the lead story every night once we get to the end of the campaign.”

Another push will be for increased engagement in local communities in the form of projects like Healthy NJ: New Jersey’s Drug Addiction Crisis, a yearlong initiative drawing on the results of community forums to be held throughout the state. “Public media’s future has to be more local,” says Servidio.

Williams agrees. “People are hungry for the kind of storytelling that helps them make decisions,” she says. She acknowledges that a larger budget wouldn’t be unwelcome. “Would we like to double our size and expand our reach?” she asks, answering: “Sure.” But she sees that as largely a matter of time. “We have many tens of thousands watching us,” she notes. “But to get to the 3 million or the 9 million mark, which is everybody in the state of New Jersey—that just takes time. So if we face a big challenge, it’s having the patience to let time pass until that happens.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor.    

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.