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Jack Dempsey Fights For Broadcasters’ Rights

Jack Dempsey runs the market leader in the so-called Tri-Cities along the Virginia/Tennessee border, but perhaps his best work takes place in a fourth city. While some broadcast leaders would rather sit through root canal than engage with their legislators in Washington, D.C., Dempsey, GM at Bonten Media Group’s WCYB-WEMT, hits the Hill every opportunity he can. “For me, it’s an honor and a thrill to point out the great things that local broadcasters do,” he says. “It gives you a chance to talk about the importance of local broadcasters.”

The significance of strong stations in their communities is not lip service from Dempsey, who took on leadership at WCYB three years ago after a long career at the station across the street (WJHL). It’s a tough time for local broadcasters, being squeezed by D.C. regulators and networks alike and fighting to remain relevant in the digital age. But Dempsey is energized by the challenge. “I don’t think there’s a better job in America than being a general manager in a small-to-midsize TV station,” he says. “Every day, you’re in a position to work with the news department, with the community, with people that head up nonprofits. It’s very rewarding to see your contributions around the market.”

Rabbit Punches

Dempsey shares some of his fighting spirit with his namesake, the famed prizefighter who ruled the heavyweight class a century ago. Growing up in Kentucky, Dempsey didn’t like his name as a boy, wishing instead it was Wyatt, as in Wyatt Earp. But he grew to appreciate that his moniker brought to mind the Manassa Mauler. “It’s always been an automatic ice-breaker,” he says.

Naturally, Dempsey is asked frequently if the two are related. Tracing the shared lineage involves an awful lot of “great” prefixes, but Dempsey says there’s a blood link. “I’m told I met him,” he says of a family reunion when he was 6 months old. “Legend has it he held me for a minute.”

Dempsey got his start in radio, selling time for an AM station in Lexington, Ky. Once, while hustling to get a furniture store to commit to an ad, enticing the manager with the promise of a 6-ft.-tall stuffed bunny to boost Easter promotions, the manager stepped away from his desk, allowing Dempsey a peek at a local TV station’s rate card. The radio station offered 100 spots, plus the bunny, for $400, while WKYT-TV commanded $100 for a single 6 p.m. news spot.

“That was my epiphany,” he says.

Mentoring Sook

Dempsey landed with WKYT Lexington, and a few years later set up at WOWK in Charleston-Huntington (W. Va.), where he became general sales manager. One person he managed there was an ambitious recent college grad named Perry Sook, the founder, president and CEO of Nexstar Broadcasting. Sook recalls working on a key client for about six months before finally getting them on the hook, only to have Dempsey tell him the agreed-on ad rates would not work. Sook was pushed to work out a better deal.

“Jack was a good teacher and a great mentor,” says the Nexstar chief, considered by many the architect of station retransmission revenue. “His booming voice certainly captured people’s attention.”

Dempsey’s first GM job was at WTSF in his hometown of Ashland, Ky., and he was later named GM at WJHL in the Tri-Cities in 1989. Randy Odil, head of TV at the former Park Broadcasting, promoted Dempsey to the WJHL top spot. “Jack was level-headed, honest as can be and great with people,” says Odil, who also echoes Sook’s testimony on Dempsey as a tough boss: “He can be very demanding in terms of getting things done.”

Dempsey spent a 23 years atop WJHL, a strong CBS affiliate in the Tri-Cities (Bristol, Va.; Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn.), but one that’s constantly in the shadows of WCYB. Three years ago, the opportunity to run WCYB came up and Dempsey seized it. “At times you wonder what else you can do with your career,” he says. “At age 61, getting a chance to go to another station and basically redefine yourself—I considered myself so fortunate.”

At Bonten-owned NBC affiliate WCYB, which also operates Fox affiliate WEMT, Dempsey says he’s more involved in news than in his previous gig. With a “Getting the Facts Right” tag line, WCYB corralled 41% of the market’s TV revenue in 2014, according to BIA/Kelsey, and is a power in every way. Local television is a unique proposition in DMA No. 97. “People identify with, and really feel like they get to know, the on-air people,” Dempsey says.

WCYB is based in Virginia, but Dempsey can see Tennessee from his office window. When he’s in Washington, that means addressing legislators from both states. It’s double duty, but he relishes the workload. “What more honorable calling is there,” Dempsey says, “than to stand up for the industry?”

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.