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Dunn Follows in Dad's Footsteps

When WCBS New York President/General Manager Peter Dunn talks about the station's resurgence reflecting the efforts of all 200-plus employees, he's not just spitting out management clichés. When he says the engineers are every bit as important as the anchors, he means it; Dunn's father was an engineer for both WCBS and the network decades before, working in the same Hell's Kitchen building Dunn toils in today.

“I used to come to work with him and get lost in this building,” Dunn says from a large office decorated with sports memorabilia. “I still get lost in this building.”

Dunn says his father wore several hats, working the audio board, manning a camera, even pitching in on the Captain Kangaroo program. The younger Dunn also wears several hats, whether it's critiquing the WCBS newscasts, spotting the underserved viewerships in New York or driving the station's digital strategy.

Since arriving nearly three years ago, he seems to have pushed the right buttons in boosting the CBS O&O from a perennial also-ran to a strong runner-up to WABC.

While it may seem that the straight-talking Dunn was destined to turn up at WCBS, it took him a long time to get there. He grew up amidst the New York City suburbs, where Channel 2 was always on in the Dunns' Long Island home. Peter's father, John, passed away at 48, felled by a heart attack while walking out of the CBS Broadcast Center.

His mother, Kathleen, worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat (at one point, mother and son commuted together to their jobs at a country club). Peter cites her as his main mentor. “She taught me to work hard,” he says. “If you don't work hard, you can still learn, but you need the hard work to really succeed.”

A standout guard on the St. Agnes High School basketball team (“I was short but I was fast,” he says), Dunn set out for Niagara University in upstate New York, where he studied communications. When he graduated, he got a job with WUTV Buffalo, earning a princely $12,000 a year. Sales jobs followed at WHEC Rochester and at Katz.

Back on Long Island, Dunn's mother, recalling how fond John had been of WCBS, pestered Peter to try the station for a job. He contacted the general sales manager, but refused to drop his dad's name. The GSM never got back to him.

After lengthy stints at ABC and NBC, where he eventually moved up to executive VP of sales for the NBC-owned stations, he shifted to CBS, as VP and general manager at KYW Philadelphia. All the while, Kathleen grilled him with business questions, based on hearing her husband talk about the television business for so many years. “She talked to me like a manager—'Are you hitting budget?'” he recalls.

Kathleen passed away in 2003, and Dunn landed at WCBS two years later. One of his biggest laments is that she wasn't there to see him get the job. “She's the one that kept on pushing and pushing and pushing me to go to WCBS,” he says. “If she knew I was sitting here—and I'm sure she does—she'd be really thrilled.”

Dunn set about overhauling the operation, from sales to marketing to creative services to news; he says all but finance got revamped. He also orchestrated “tons of research” to ferret out where the growth might be in the ultra-competitive Gotham market, and found that upscale women were underserved. He made health coverage a major focus and brought in some TV-friendly doctors. While CBS-owned stations in several markets are clinging to middling perches, WCBS is moving forward. WABC has considerable command in New York, but WCBS was runner-up in total day household ratings in May, and No. 2 in evening news.

CBS Television Stations President Tom Kane credits Dunn's competitive streak, his “devilish persistence,” and his appreciation for all parts of a TV station in sparking WCBS' momentum. “He's smart, he's very competitive, and he's got a can-do attitude—all of which is quite contagious for the staff,” Kane says. “One of the differentiators with Peter is that he interacts equally well with sales and news and marketing and promotions.”

Dunn is trying to guide WCBS to the next level. He's drawing on the recent CBS acquisition of CNET to enhance tech coverage; is growing digital business with the fledgling CBS 2 New York Network, which shares content and revenue with blogs; and is keeping staffers believing they can win. “The whole team has the same marching orders—it's not a lot of people moving in different directions,” he says. “I think that's where a lot of our success comes from—people are happy to work here.”

When he's not managing the station, Dunn, the father of two college-age children, can be found scrutinizing its newscasts from his Westchester home (the local news studio is the same one where his father worked on Captain Kangaroo), watching his beloved Jets and golf (on Channel 2, naturally), and playing golf—a sport he threw himself into after a calf injury ended his hoops endeavors. As competitive as Dunn is in the office, Kane says he's a different animal on the course—one who easily puts shanked drives behind him. “He just calmly goes to the next shot, whereas I carry the last hole to the next tee,” Kane says. “For Peter, it's a game, not a job.”

But he's all business in the massive CBS building at 524 W. 57th St. For luck, Dunn comes through the entrance his father used decades ago, closer to 11th Avenue, even though it's a longer walk to the executive offices. Walking through the building's guts is a good reminder of what makes a station tick.

“A lot of people think of a station as the people they see on TV,” Dunn says. “From where I'm sitting, they're just part of the team. The people playing with knobs, looking at 10 screens in the dark—they're just as important, and I think they know that here.”

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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.