In the mid-1990s, Dale Cardwell spent three years producing Clark Howard’s WSB-TV consumer alert stories.
He then decided to do his own investigative stories for WSB-TV, building a reputation as a tough advocate for the people. He won six Emmys, three of which are perched on a shelf in his Midtown office. But he wanted broader impact, leaving WSB in 2007 to try to unseat Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
Refusing to accept special interest donations, he sought publicity by spending a week on top of a tower, a stunt normally reserved for radio DJs. He came in third in the Democratic primaries.
Unemployed, he came up with a new business concept, using his journalistic integrity as his primary selling point. Called TrustDale.com, his site recommends businesses in various categories such as roofing, tree removal and accounting work. Each gets his “Trust Dale” seal of approval based on his own investigative work.
“I choose the companies,” said Cardwell. “They don’t choose me.” He gets most of those businesses to pay into an advertising pool for him to air TV and radio commercials and ten billboards around town. He also hired an outside publicist who sold me on the story. (About a third of the time, he also gets a nominal finder’s fee via referrals off his site.)
For consumers, the site is free and if they mention they used his site, they sometimes get a discount.
So far, he has recommended 34 companies, most exclusive to a category. Each gets a two-minute “investigative” piece on his site. He said he could do potentially another 40 or 50.
“We felt he had the same values as our company,” said Greg Brooks, spokesman for Walton EMC, the natural gas marketer recommended by Cardwell. “He’s brought us customers and publicity.”
Warren McGrew, president of Academy Roofing, said he likes the exclusivity on the site, making it more valuable to him than subscription-based Angie’s List or Cox-owned Kudzu. While he isn’t sure yet if he has gotten a return on investment yet, he has faith in Cardwell’s vision and has gotten nothing but positive feedback from customers.
The Better Business Bureau of metro Atlanta has not received any complaints about Cardwell’s site and Fred Elsberry, president, said he has no issue with Cardwell’s business concept.
“Dale was an enterprising and aggressive investigative reporter at WSB,” wrote WSB-TV anchor John Pruitt in an email. “Whether his credibility in that role transfers to his business activities has to be judged by his customers.”
Clark Howard himself said he does not know enough about Cardwell’s business to comment. But “when I worked with him,” he said, “he was as ethical as it comes.”
Doug Richards, a WXIA-TV reporter who writes a TV news blog called Live Apartment Fire, dubbed Cardwell on his blog as “probably the most polarizing reporter I’ve ever known” among sources who felt they were burned by him.
Cardwell took that as a badge of honor: ” I’ve worked in five states. I have never worked in a state where the media held public officials to a lesser standard. It’s like they all want lunch with them and dont want to make them mad. My job wasn’t to be buddies with the elected leaders.”
Many journalists leave the business go into marketing or public relations, said Michael Castengera, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Georgia and broadcast news consultant. Cardwell, he said, is doing something more unique.
But he is unsure if Cardwell has enough community name recognition and real trust to draw enough customers to his site. He certainly isn’t as big a name as Howard. “I was a broadcaster and I think we tend to over-estimate the audience’s familiarity with us,” Castengera said.
Cardwell said, “Clark is such a national brand. But there’s a huge vacuum. He doesn’t recommend services, especially local. That’s where I can grow.”
So far, Cardwell says the year-old site draws 4,500 unique visitors a day and is “financially viable.” For now, though, he is pouring 90 percent of his funds back into the business. “It will reach a critical mass at some point,” he said.
He is also buying time Sunday mornings on WXIA-TV at 7:30 a.m. starting July 4 for a 30-minute weekly infomercial in which he solves consumer problems and provides advice while promoting his site.