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John Cardenas: No Rest Until We’re Best

B&C's 2011 Local TV Executives of the Year

John Cardenas, WTHR Indianapolis’
vice president and general manager,
calls 2011 a “year of change.” Tragedy set the
wheels in motion: WTHR’s popular GM, Jim
Tellus, died suddenly in 2010, and Cardenas—
then news director at Dispatch Broadcast
Group sibling WBNS Columbus—took over.

Cardenas, 47, figured the best way to honor
Tellus was to get WTHR back to undisputed
No. 1 status in ultra-competitive DMA No. 26.
His first mission was to engage in one-on-one
“workshops” with staffers, sitting down with as
much as 70% of WTHR’s personnel.

His findings were illuminating: WTHR had
lost its edge, and staffers wanted it back. “We’d
gotten a little bit complacent,” Cardenas says.
“The dominance of prior years was not there.
It was pretty easy for me to recognize where it
had been, where it was, and where it could be.”

Cardenas issued the ultimate challenge: be
the best TV station in America.

He brought in a new news director in respected
KHOU Houston
vet Keith Connors. He
formalized a beat system
among reporters, and demanded
they break stories
deep in their beats.
He created a director of
digital media position,
and mandated the entire
newsroom be engaged
in social media. WTHR’s
Facebook fans went from
8,000 when Cardenas
came on board to 95,000.

WTHR’s ratings shot skyward,
too. Dispatch Broadcast
CEO Michael Fiorile says the NBC affiliate had a
“fabulous” November sweeps: a decisive No. 1
in morning ratings, along with wins in total day,
early evening and late news. “John is a strong
leader, a consensus builder, a high-integrity
guy,” Fiorile says. “It was obvious early on that
he didn’t need a lot of hand-holding.”

WTHR shone brightest following the tragedy
at the Indiana State Fair on Aug. 13. The
news team expertly married social media with
traditional reporting on a fatal stage collapse,
and WTHR’s investigative
team executed follow-up
exposés in the subsequent
weeks, the way Cardenas
envisions the best station
in the country doing. “As
a news guy, I watch in a
very critical way, and I
could not have been more
pleased,” he says.

Cardenas is looking
forward to 2012, when
WTHR will broadcast the
Super Bowl in Indy in February
and the Olympics
next summer. The new
year also offers a shot at repeating WTHR’s rare
trifecta of a 2011 Peabody, DuPont-Columbia,
and—most prestigious—National Murrow
Award for Overall Excellence in a large market.

Says Cardenas: “Someone was looking over