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GM of the Year Markets 26-50: Big Challenges In the Big Easy

Joel Vilmenay of WDSU New Orleans
WDSU New Orleans president and general manager Joel Vilmenay (Image credit: WDSU)

Joel Vilmenay, president and general manager of WDSU, knows there’s never a dull moment in New Orleans. But this year, the city faced five hurricanes on top of the racial unrest and pandemic that made news and affected businesses nationwide.

“This is our calling,” said Vilmenay, who’s been running the Hearst Television-owned station since 2007. He praised the way the station’s staff pitched in with long shifts and gave up vacation days to cover the news. Between June and October, WDSU devoted nearly 200 hours in local news and extended weather coverage surrounding the six hurricanes and tropical storms which affected the southern Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines.

“It’s in these moments that viewers really need us and so we relish the opportunity to report these stories to help keep viewers safe and to keep them informed,” he said. 

Even though the pandemic hurt ad revenues — and Louisiana didn’t have election campaigns that generated much in political spending — WDSU was still able to provide intensive coverage thanks to Hearst. “I’m thankful we’re able to approach these events knowing that the resources will be there and they’ll be there consistently,” he said.

Station Coverage Draws Praise

The station’s efforts this year haven’t gone unnoticed. “I have to say the WDSU coverage has been outstanding,” said LaTonya Norton, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s press secretary and a former WDSU anchor/reporter. “They’ve always had their ear to the ground and they’ve always catered to the community. I can’t imagine this television market without WDSU, and I know a lot of what we see is to Joel’s credit and under his leadership.”

In this crazy year, Hearst Television president Jordan Wertlieb said his general managers have done a great job being present, even when most staffers have been working from home. Wertlieb noted that Vilmenay had a sales background when he joined Hearst as GM of KETV in Omaha in 2003 before being moved to the Big Easy.

“Obviously, there are a lot of general managers that come from a sales background, myself included,” he said. Beyond sales, the job involves content, engineering, community service and being a parent to the station family. “I think Joel has embraced all of those aspects just perfectly,” Wertlieb added. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

A Washington, D.C., native, Vilmenay’s interest in broadcasting stemmed from working at the radio station at the University of Maryland, WMUC. After graduating, he got a job in sales at a radio station in Charleston, South Carolina, and returned to D.C. with WUSA. 

He got the assignment to work at WDSU a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and was excited to help rebuild the station. With parents from Haiti and a French-sounding last name, he quickly fit in with the city’s gumbo culture. He now chairs the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters.

Before COVID hit, Vilmenay and the station were jolted last December when that station’s sports reporter, Carley McCord, was killed in a plane crash en route to cover Louisiana State University in the college football championships semifinal game. After getting the news that Saturday morning, “I was devastated and sat still for an hour,” Vilmenay said. He then helped the station plan its coverage and got grief counselors for staffers. “She was a real impact player for us and really beloved by everyone here,” he said. The station has funded two scholarships through the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters to support aspiring local female sports journalists in her honor.

Recognized for His Editorials

Vilmenay makes an impact, too. He delivers the editorials written by the station’s editorial board, so he gets recognized by viewers at the supermarket who want to discuss the issues. The experience gives him empathy for the station’s on air talent. “When I’m on my twelfth take, it makes me appreciate the work they do, because it’s not easy,” he said.

Beyond its Edward R. Murrow Award-winning newscasts, the station has been airing extensive original programming to help viewers through the pandemic. Ask Dr. Hébert, a 30-minute show featuring the station’s medical editor Dr. Corey Hébert, aired in prime access 18 times between March and July, drawing an average of
54,000 viewers. It has continued to air on an as-needed basis. 

WDSU also worked with the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the local PBS station to broadcast Easter Sunday Mass live to worshippers who couldn’t attend church because of Louisiana’s stay-at-home order.

Vilmenay is looking forward to 2021, when the NBC affiliate will air the Olympics. Some effects of the pandemic may linger, though. Already, Carnival
season leading up to Mardi Gras is canceled, which will have an estimated nine-figure effect on the economy.

“We’ll see what that will mean for local business and how
we can help them get through all this,” he said. “It will be a big year for us.”