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Alan Frank: Champion of Localism

Alan Frank, president and CEO of Post-Newsweek, never aspired to run a TV station, let alone a group of six. It was 1988, and Frank was happy to be a corporate programming executive, advising the Washington Post Co.-owned stations on local and syndicated fare.

But the group needed a general manager for its largest station, WDIV Detroit, where Frank had once worked, and the brass wanted him. He hesitated because he thought he’d hate the hassles of being the big boss who had to manage all the mundane parts of a station’s operations. “I spent my life creating programs and seeing them on the air, having an impact on my community,” he says. “I never wanted to worry about the air conditioning.”

Then, Frank says, he found a compromise: He would run a station with a producer’s mentality. “You focus on what you want on the air and then cast it, in front of and behind the camera,” he says. The script for WDIV was heavy local involvement, on-air and off.

When Frank took over Post-Newsweek in early 2000, he exported that vision to the company’s other five stations. He demands first-rate news, encourages local programming and wants stations to be active in public affairs. Local executives are empowered to pull off the production, with Frank advising—much like an executive producer.

The hallmark of a great station, Frank says, is localism. “You need to have a clear understanding of your community.” It has been a guiding principle throughout his career, and it is one of the main reasons Frank is B&C’s choice as the Broadcaster of the Year, an honor he will be awarded at the TVB conference this week.

Advocates affiliates’ interests

Frank is a champion for local broadcasters and, at times, a bit of a maverick. As chairman of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, he has collided with the Big Four networks, pressing for more local input in network programming and more opportunity to preempt network shows for local coverage. As an active board member for the National Association of Broadcasters, he similarly advocates affiliates’ interests, including limits on the number of stations a company can own.

“He has a real talent for content and promotions, and superb instincts on the sales side,” says TVB President Chris Rohrs. The two worked together at WDIV in the mid 1980s, and Frank, Rohrs recalls, often engineered ways to marry programming and ad sales. Examples of this include selling sponsorships of Detroit Tigers coverage with a series of vignettes on local businesses. “He was a great programming executive with a real gut for what would sell,” says Rohrs.

As head of Post-Newsweek, Frank guides the 14th-largest station group in the U.S., according to B&C’s 2005 survey of the Top 25 Station Groups. Its six stations—two ABCs, two NBCs, a CBS and an independent in Jacksonville, Fla.—pulled in $361.7 million in revenue in 2004, up 15% from $315.1 million in 2003. With its three Florida stations, Post-Newsweek cashed in on last year’s political season, taking in $34.3 million in political ad spending.

Unlike many top television executives who come out of the sales side of the business, Frank studied journalism at Duquesne University in his hometown of Pittsburgh and worked at local public-TV station WQED, where Mr. Rogers originated. He then went to Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse-owned KDKA as a volunteer, eventually working himself into a paid position. After journalism school at Syracuse University, Frank returned to KDKA and produced Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games, a career highlight for this baseball enthusiast. But this was the Vietnam era, and Frank enlisted in the Army; eventually, he worked his way into producing war-time documentaries and also worked on some Bob Hope Christmas specials. For a short time, he even ran the Armed Forces Video Network.

Returning from the Army, Frank became a producer for Westinghouse’s David Frost Revue. Group W stations, as they were known, aggressively programmed local and regional shows, including Evening Magazine, a nightly news magazine. Frank found Frost’s comedy show, filmed in New York, to be exciting, but he craved a more local Group W gig. When the company needed an executive producer at KPIX San Francisco, Frank headed west.

Over the next seven years, Frank hopscotched the country with Group W, working at WBZ Boston and WJZ Baltimore. He considered moving to Los Angeles to pursue more producing opportunities, but he wanted to put roots down in a more livable community. He arrived in Detroit as WDIV’s programming manager in 1979 and never left. He and his wife, Ann, reside in suburban Oakland County and have three grown sons, one of whom is battling cancer.

Although he has had the somewhat typical nomadic lifestyle of many TV executives, he also has a strong sense of community. His years at Group W and then at WDIV shaped his values on local broadcasting. “What we as local broadcasters put on the air is a big part of the community,” he says.

That same sense of responsibility guides Frank as a group head and industry leader. “He is a champion of localism, preserving it and advancing it,” says David Barrett, CEO of the Hearst-Argyle Station Group.

Defections from nab

Frank waves the local-TV flag for nearly every industry group. At NAB, Frank, Barrett, Cox Television President Andy Fisher, and association Chairman Phil Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Communications, are among the most vocal local broadcasters. They have led NAB’s push to cap the growth of network-station ownership. This position rocked the association. One by one, the big broadcast networks defected from NAB, with ABC the last to leave, in 2003. Frank says he still holds out hope the networks will someday rejoin.

Within NAB, there has been some friction between radio and TV members, with some radio members frustrated by the group’s high legal bills for advancing TV causes. Industry executives say Frank is a calming presence. “Alan is a guy who tries to build bridges. He listens to all different constituencies,” says one local broadcast veteran.

Frank’s support for limits on station ownership is the prevailing view among leaders of the big affiliates groups, and it sets them apart from others. His position is, once again, framed by localism.

Capping the number of stations any one company can own, Frank argues, preserves a federalist-type system where local tastes are reflected in a myriad of stations. With more owners, “we get a diversity of voices and plurality of ideas,” Frank says. “A more efficient system would be a more homogenous system” but wouldn’t serve viewers as well as it would satisfy owners. Translation: More network owned-and-operated stations means more cookie-cutter TV.

Backs up local ideals

Through NASA (the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance), Frank has pushed for affiliates’ rights in their contracts with the broadcast networks. This is perhaps his most passionate cause. “The local affiliate is responsible by law for what is on their air, not the network,” he says. But as networks have gobbled up more stations, Frank says, the networks have become more powerful and less amenable to affiliates’ input. Once, he notes, networks routinely sent out preview tapes of programs, so stations could give feedback. “Way too often,” he adds, “decisions are made on either coast that are not necessarily going to fly in other parts of the country.”

Frank argues local affiliates should have more say in what happens on their air. That means he believes stations should have fuller opportunities to preempt network fare without penalty and should control their own digital channels.

But Frank stands with the networks on some of the big issues. When ABC scheduled the uncut version of Saving Private Ryan earlier this year, Post-Newsweek’s two ABCs were among the affiliates willing to brave FCC sanctioning. Many ABC affiliates did not, fearful of the FCC’s new, hard-to-decipher standards of indecency.

Frank’s forthright attitude may occasionally give networks headaches, but, says Hearst-Argyle’s Barrett, “the networks have a better understanding of local issues because of Alan’s leadership.”

How far is Frank willing to go in showdowns with the broadcast networks? Look no further than Jacksonville, Fla. In 2002, after a dispute over compensation, the station dropped its CBS affiliation and went independent (see page 48). It was a bold move, though not one Post-Newsweek will repeat anytime soon. Its other stations have long-term affiliation agreements in place.

Fortunately for Post-Newsweek, Frank backs up his local ideals on-air. WDIV sets the standard. The station produces documentaries and specials on area events, like the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the July Fourth fireworks display and the crucial North American International Auto Show in Detroit. WDIV preempts up to 30 hours of NBC shows a year to accommodate its own productions—a hefty number. In the 1980s, it even dabbled in scripted programming with a sitcom called Hamtramck, about a hardscrabble, blue-collar, Detroit suburb. The show, Frank recalls proudly, often earned an impressive 30 Nielsen rating.

WDIV’s infrastructure is even more production-minded than most stations. The building has four studios that can handle simultaneous live productions.

The spirit of local programming is echoed across the other Post-Newsweek stations. Each station general manager goes on-air weekly with editorials, a rare feature in today’s station business.

Decentralized operation

Other efforts vary by market. In Orlando, Fla., WKMG surveys hot local issues with Saturday-morning talk show Flashpoint. With a local twist on self-help, KPRC Houston invites viewers to send relationship questions that local love expert Dr. Barbara Levinson answers on-air.

At WJXT Jacksonville, original programming is more than just a prerogative. It is a necessity. Faced with programming 24/7, the station has ratcheted up production with specials, newsmagazines and series, like monthly show Eye on Crime, which helps the Jacksonville sheriff’s office solve crimes.

But there is no blueprint for a Post-Newsweek station, on programming or the business side. Frank favors a decentralized operation. “Our markets are different, and the stations should be different,” he says. Even the company’s three stations in Florida “might as well be on different planets.”

While some station groups buy syndication or new sets or graphics en masse, Frank encourages his stations to manage their on-air product independently. “We’re like branch managers,” says WPLG VP/GM David Boylan. “Alan sets the vision, but you are accountable for your operation.”

What WPLG needed recently was afternoon programming to compete against The OprahWinfrey Show on CBS-owned WFOR. It bought Judge Judy and poached Dr. Phil from WFOR for 2006. The station had flexibility because Frank doesn’t mandate group buys of syndicated product. “A lot of groups turn these decisions over to larger committees, and you miss opportunities for programming or talent,” Boylan says.

What Post-Newsweek doesn’t lack is ideas. In Jacksonville, Frank and WJXT created a local version of American Idol, called Gimme the Mike, sponsored by General Motors. Sister stations KPRC and WPLG Miami liked it, too, and Post-Newsweek ended up selling the format to 32 stations outside the group.

Frank delegates authority with confidence, because selecting the right station management is one of his biggest strengths, says Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co. “Alan is a great judge of people and where they fit. He is hardworking, imaginative and people-smart.”

Graham cites Orlando as one example. When WKMG needed a new general manager, Frank suggested Henry Maldonado, a WDIV vet and marketing specialist. “The station needed a push, and it has made great strides.”

Unassuming persona

With the emphasis on his stations, Frank keeps Post-Newsweek’s corporate operation lean. The entire corporate staff, he quips, could fit in one car, and its offices are part of WDIV’s building in downtown Detroit.

The unassuming persona earns Frank praise across the industry. “Alan has been able to address some issues that have had the potential to be contentious,” says Hearst-Argyle’s Barrett. “But because he is so respected, there can be good dialogue.”

Frank’s motivation is simple: “The broadcasting system in our country is the envy of the world, and it is worth preserving. We have a great combination of national ideas and local ideas.”