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Hill of a Difference

Ardell Hill's father worked for the military for 24 years before retiring in 1959 to start his own TV store. in Mobile, Ala. It wasn't until the early '80s, as Hill's career at Media General began to take form, that he realized how unusually long his father's military career had lasted. "I told him no one works anywhere for 24 years anymore," recalls Hill.

No? Today, Ardell is about to start his 23rd year at Media General Broadcast. He's senior vice president, broadcast operations.

"There are very few people who have the good fortune and honor of working with the same company for 22 years, let alone with the same boss," says Hill, referring to Media General broadcast division President Jim Zimmerman. "Not too many guys can say that and be happy about it."

Hill and Zimmerman have been together from the days when Media General owned only one TV station: WFLA Tampa Bay, Fla. Now it owns 26, and Hill remains actively involved in all aspects of the broadcast business as a member of the group's senior management team.

He says he has two jobs: to get things done efficiently and to look for new opportunities for getting things done even more efficiently. That includes projects like centralizing traffic, reducing costs or increasing productivity in master-control or graphics operations, or making a better on-air product. "It has to be based on a good, solid business plan," he says of any technical undertaking.

He cites a few projects he worked on as examples. For one, there are the transmission towers that he helped design from scratch in Tampa Bay and Charleston, S.C. The Tampa project was the larger, sending out signals for seven broadcasters; the Charleston facility handled three. "It was a big step to take the lessons we learned in Tampa," says Hill, "and show that we could do the same project on a smaller scale."

In 1998, he also stepped front and center to create a converged broadcast center in Tampa that had news operations for a newspaper, TV station, and Media General's interactive media services under one roof.

The challenges, he found, weren't the large strokes but rather the small ones. "Big things tend to answer themselves by default, but the little things, like elevator access or where you take the trash out, are the tricky things," he explains. "We just had good faith and trust in the crystal ball we used to plan it."

Hill's most recent task has been centralizing the group's 11 CBS stations in a facility in Spartanburg, S.C. The goal is to monitor and control the broadcast operations for the stations, but, unlike other operations, it won't centralize the transportation of the signal. That will be done by good old-fashioned satellite.

"That approach lowers the cost and leaves in place traditional hardware and discrete equipment at each station," Hill explains. "If we lose connectivity, the station can still operate as a standalone facility."

Stations worry that they lose a little of their soul when operations are centralized. But Hill says the first job is to make sure there is real consensus on a plan: "We don't say to the GM, 'Here's what to do, call me when you're finished.'"

He's no fan of the cookie-cutter approach. "At end of the day, if I have a cost savings of one person, what have I benefited in the overall scheme of things if I've pissed everybody off and they feel like they had no opportunity to participate in the process?"

Three Media General stations are up and running; the other eight should join them by August, a couple of months behind schedule. But Hill wanted to make "sure everyone is properly trained and the system is properly vetted before flipping the switch. We're pinching ourselves that we haven't run into any traps or made a mistake."

Staffers at the stations may be pinching themselves as well. For many stations involved in centralized facilities, the goal is to strip out as many technical tasks as possible. Media General isn't taking that approach.

"We're still impacting some jobs, but we aren't taking the heart out of the TV station's operation so that all they are is a newsroom and sales office," he says. Part of the reason for that is Media General's feel for the importance of localism. "We feel a very specific responsibility for the communities we're in," he says. "That helps make it a good, strong solid product, and we win based on the quality of our product. If we win [locally] we'll win the business war."

But the big projects offer a big dilemma: What if your creation is technically outdated by the time you're finished? Hill has an answer: "You can't put off something because you think the solution is coming tomorrow. You need to anticipate the solution and, if you do it correctly, take your time and be flexible enough to take advantage of any technology changes."

For now, Hill has his eyes on the horizon for those changes. In fact, that's something he says he does all the time by monitoring new manufacturers, vendors, and even the new "mousetraps" cross-town rivals across town might use.

It also involves keeping up-to-date with team managers. "I work with them to keep a handle on where we are and to make sure we have the resources to do the job we're doing," he says. "We're always rethinking things to try and do them a better way."

That's a habit he may have learned when he helped out at his dad's TV store when he was just 11 years old. "I started absorbing knowledge from the local TV engineers who would would work at the shop as bench techs," he recalls.

Hill learned his lessons well. And he went on to teach engineers all across the country how engineering can be more than just technology.