Ask friends and colleagues to describe Chris Cornelius, president and COO of Barrington Broadcasting, and the word “competitive” seems to pop up more than any other.Being an ultra-competitive broadcaster befits a man who was an ultra-competitive athlete—albeit in a sport that is not played by all that many people. Cornelius was an elite paddleball player—think racquetball with a wooden racket, slower ball and more strategy—and he and his partner claimed a few national titles.
As Cornelius’ responsibilities have expanded, and his age has crept northward, it’s been harder to carve out playing time. “My body aches from all those days on the court,” he says with a laugh. “But it was worth it.”
Besides overseeing day-to-day operations for the Barrington stations, Cornelius became chairman of the CBS affiliates board in May, tasked with finding middle ground for the network and its 200-plus partner stations around the country. His colleagues describe him as an adept herder of cats, a big-picture thinker and a guy of substantial integrity.
“Chris is smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s even-handed,” says Michael Fiorile, Dispatch Broadcast Group CEO and fellow CBS affiliates board member. “He’s got honesty and integrity, and I think he’ll do a great job as the chairman.”
Cornelius credits much of his success to Jim Yager, the B&C Hall of Famer with whom he cofounded Barrington. The two go back to their days together at Benedek Broadcasting, Barrington’s predecessor.
Grand Rapids, Mich., native Cornelius took over Benedek’s WILX Lansing in 1997, and was promoted to a senior vice president group role a few years later. In 2003, he and Yager launched Barrington and grew it to a few dozen stations, including WEYI Flint and WNWO Toledo.
The Yager-Cornelius connection actually goes back several decades further, though neither Jim nor Chris realized it until more recently. During a staff meeting in the early days of Barrington, Cornelius lamented how Colgate University was dragging its feet in considering his daughter’s student application. Yager mentioned that he had graduated from Colgate, whereupon Cornelius said his father had gone to the same college. As it turned out, the elder Cornelius and Yager knew each other well—both were part of a group studying to be broadcasters.
“In those days, broadcasting was a lot like social media,” says Cornelius. “It was the new and upcoming thing.”
Yager, CEO of Schaumburg, Ill.- based Barrington, oversees four stations, while Cornelius keeps tabs on the rest. The 77-year-old broadcast icon says his protégé will make a capable CEO when the time comes. “Chris has a tremendous feel for the broadcasting industry,” says Yager, “and a love of television and what it can do in the communities it serves.”
That was perhaps never more apparent than during the recent Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado. Cornelius raves about KXRM Colorado Springs’ coverage, and the way Barrington staffers from other markets flocked to the region to pitch in. He tells the story of KXRM’s new mobile app, and how it helped wake a woman in the middle of the night, advising her to evacuate. She departed 15 minutes later; her home was burned to the ground 15 minutes after that.
“What this illustrates to me is that we’re no longer just a broadcast television news organization,” Cornelius says. “We’re tying together various platforms that communicate information of importance in a variety of ways, and we’re getting better at this as a company.”
The Barrington stations are in smaller markets, and Cornelius says they hold outsize influence in their communities. “We have the opportunity to cover relevant things in a far more localized way than what the big markets cover,” he says. “You become an important player in communications when the marketplace is a little bit smaller.”
Cornelius brings that heartland perspective to the affiliates board chairman role, which he calls a fun, if taxing, second job. But as July winds down, both Barrington and the affiliates board will have to get by without Chris Cornelius for a spell; he will be on a mountain in Crested Butte, Colo., for his daughter Kelsey’s wedding.
“I’ll be the proud father riding the ski lift to give her away,” Cornelius says. “There are good times to be had at 10,000 feet.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone
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