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GM of the Year Markets 51-Plus: Keeping Spirits Up In a Trying Time

John Ware of KPLC
John Ware, VP and GM, KPLC Lake Charles, La. (Image credit: KPLC)

“I stood on the roof and talked to Jesus today.” 

When John Ware, VP and general manager of Gray Television’s KPLC in Lake Charles, Louisiana, wrote to his staff in September he wasn’t emailing about an epiphany. He was updating them on Jesus Reyes, a roofer from New Orleans, repairing the damage done by Hurricane Laura. The Category 4 storm had Ware sending staff to two sister stations to keep broadcasting amidst a pandemic and an election season. 

Later, Ware wrote about mopping up “nasty water pooled in the break room” and how with that, the wet carpet near the studio and a lack of functioning air conditioners, “the station has got a little funk going!” But he always emphasized the positive: “There were about a hundred other things we dealt with today, but even with all of the frustrations we made progress.”

The email captures Ware’s essence, Pat LaPlatney, president and co-CEO of Gray, said. “The idea of a servant/leader is a cliché, but it’s true of John,” LaPlatney said. “No job is too big or too small. John was cleaning the floors while coordinating with the engineers about getting on the air. He’s a selfless guy and he wraps that up in a great sense of humor.”

Ware had already set aside much of his 2020 plans. “We had replaced our news director, and along with our change in leadership we were planning on expanding into new digital territory and launching new automation when the pandemic hit,” Ware said. “We were hoping to get to a whole new level. But in early March, corporate leadership wisely pushed us to react immediately so I had to figure out how to separate people in the building and which people could work from home.”

There are lessons learned during 2020 that will carry over, even when (or if) things return to normal, Ware said. For example, reporters learned that Zoom knocked down old boundaries, so that while they might have initially thought about interviewing local doctors at the start of COVID-19, soon they were interviewing Lake Charles residents working at hospitals in New York when it was the pandemic’s epicenter. That use of Zoom to broaden horizons will continue.

Meanwhile, Ware’s focus on safety during the pandemic would only grow
with the arrival of hurricane season. He took to writing nightly emails to staffers because with people scattered, “I wanted them all to see the big picture. It wasn’t just about the logistics but also about our humanity.”

Hesitated to Close Down

While his emails contained plenty of light-hearted humor, initially it was tough to see the lighter side. As the hurricane approached, he hesitated to close down the station. Finally, flooding concerns prompted Ware’s decisive action: Some staffers were embedded with local emergency officials, while other critical staff was sent to sister stations in Alexandria and Baton Rouge, all while maintaining COVID protocols. Ware was the last person out the door. He spent the night at the city’s Emergency Operations Center a few blocks away. 

KPLC Lake Charles, La., broadcast tower after 2020 hurricane

Among the challenges that KPLC’s John Ware had to handle in 2020 was a storm that toppled the station’s broadcast tower.  (Image credit: KPLC)

Ware returned at first light the next morning. While it turned out flooding wasn’t a major issue,  Ware immediately saw that 135-mph winds had toppled a 380-foot tower onto the building where his journalists would have been working. 

“I did have a little bit of a breakdown, because I could have killed people if I hadn’t changed my mind,” he recalled. While keeping spirits up, Ware also kept KPLC running, delivering news via a digital setup at their Baton Rouge sister station (WAFB). Ware had everyone home a month later. And the temporary roof held up through a second hurricane in early October. 

Ware also encouraged his staff to take a more personal approach on the air, talking about their losses and what they went through. “My home was not destroyed but others on the staff did have that happen,” he said. 

One story of a staffer whose cat was thought missing and ultimately found really connected deeply with the viewers who had gone through similar experiences, Ware said. “Our community said we were like a ministry to them with our reporting,” he said. “I’m  proud that we never took our eyes off the ball.”

Now, Ware is finally looking ahead. “Three weeks after the second hurricane I got a viewer hate mail about some political thing and I knew we were getting back to normal,” Ware said.

“We’re past the triage stage and are thinking about how we can redesign the building and also support our community.”