After 66 years, Fort Smith-based television station KFSM-TV, Channel 5, is ready to embark on a new era.
Longtime station president and general manager Van Comer confirmed to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that the region’s CBS affiliate is moving its headquarters and primary studio for originating newscasts to its new facility in Johnson on South 48th Street, north of Inn at the Mill. The Business Journal first reported the construction plans in February 2018.
Some employees began moving into the $10 million building in late May. A grand opening and ribbon cutting for the 26,500-square-foot facility is planned Friday (June 14) at 10 a.m., and the station will originate its first live program from the building at 10 p.m. June 29.
“If you drop a pin in the population center of our 11-county coverage area, it’s actually right here in Johnson,” Comer said. “We will keep the Fort Smith office as a bureau and cover the news there on a daily basis, and Fort Smith will always get our attention but this building [in Johnson] is our primary facility.”
Comer said it’s a “mixed bag” of company employees who are planning to relocate to Northwest Arkansas or commute. A handful of KFSM’s most recognizable on-air talents — anchor Daren Bobb and meteorologist Garrett Lewis, for example — live in the Fort Smith metro.
Comer said Lewis and anchor Erika Thomas are planning to move to Northwest Arkansas. Bobb and meteorologist Joe Pennington are planning to commute.
Sports director Bobby Swofford lives in Fayetteville, as do Comer and several other off-air executives.
“Ultimately, we will be judged by our content,” Comer said. “This facility will give us more opportunities to produce more local content.”
KFSM and its sister station, KXNW-TV, have about 110 employees, Comer said. The new building is being designed for approximately 100 workers and is replacing KFSM’s existing Northwest Arkansas studio, situated in 6,700 square feet inside Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Mall since 1992.
The region’s CBS affiliate since 1980, KFSM — a content partner of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal — signed on in 1953 as the first TV station licensed to Fort Smith. It serves western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. The station was initially KFSA-TV but changed its call letters to KFSM in 1973.
KFSM was the first station to open a news bureau in Northwest Arkansas in 1968, but its primary studio for originating its televised newscasts has always been in Fort Smith. The studio and administrative offices are in downtown Fort Smith in the former Carnegie Library on North 13th Street. Comer said KFSM owns the property, and he said plans to update and modernize those studios underscores the station’s commitment to Fort Smith and the Arkansas River Valley region.
He said any renovations would, however, ultimately have to be approved at the corporate level. KFSM’s parent company is Tribune Media Co., although media conglomerate TEGNA is in the process of buying KFSM and 10 other television stations in eight markets throughout the U.S. In December 2018, Nexstar Media Group and Tribune jointly announced they had entered into an agreement to combine their companies. As part of that agreement, Nexstar announced it would be divesting stations from its portfolio to comply with regulatory ownership limits.
TEGNA’s acquisitions are contingent on the closing of the Nexstar-Tribune merger, expected to take place later this fall.
KFSM has historically been the highest-rated station in the Designated Market Area (DMA), an 11-county area that includes nine counties in Arkansas and two in Oklahoma. According to data from ComScore, a producer of market and audience analytics for media and marketing industries, KFSM’s 5NEWS at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m. double (and then some) the next closest newscast from competing ABC and NBC affiliates. The data also shows all KFSM newscasts are up between 10% and 45% year-over-year, and 2018 marked the 15th consecutive year KFSM has been the most watched station from sign-on to sign-off.
KFSM also televises the University of Arkansas football and basketball weekly coaches’ shows. The initial three-year deal started with the 2018-19 school year. Financial terms were not disclosed.
A CAMPUS FEEL
The Johnson building’s single-story design blends newsroom, advertising, production and other departments into one seamless workspace.
Comer said the primary benefit was being able to design and build a new studio and production control room from scratch.
The new studio set was created by Orlando-based FX Design Group and includes LED lighting, interactive screens and other state-of-the-art technology, including a robotic camera system.
Other design elements of the 4-acre site include enhanced security, a covered loading and unloading zone for camera equipment, garage parking for television production trucks and a back porch area that will give staff meteorologists the opportunity to originate outdoor weather reports.
Kyle Naples, the owner of NAPA Construction LLC, led the building construction. BiLD Architects PLLC was the building designer. Both firms are in Fayetteville. Comer lauded their efforts to give the building a distinctive, campus-like feel. As companies increasingly use real estate as a recruitment and retention tool, television stations are no different. Nicer properties help them compete for talent in a crowded media market.
David Erstine with CBRE in Fayetteville handled the leasing negotiations for KFSM, which has signed a 15-year lease with the building owner, Checkk Properties of Texarkana, Texas.