Lots of television executives fancy themselves as living by the work hard/play hard ethos, but the latter usually means 18 holes and a few cold ones. For Steve Carlston, KNBC Los Angeles general manager, it means ultra-competitive basketball with men half his age, black diamond skiing and a slightly more extreme pursuit: After a long day of pushing a complete turnaround at the station, Carlston, who is 56, unwinds with a vigorous ride on his skateboard—fancy suit and all.
“My neighbors think I’m absolutely looney tunes. They all go, ‘Who’s the dude skateboarding down our street?’” he says. “But it’s sort of a Zen deal for me.”
KNBC, long underappreciated by former parent GE, will need some Zen to get back to a position of primacy. But Carlston, who took over in September, may just be the one to pull a 180. “Steve knows he has to fix absolutely everything,” says Valari Staab, NBC Owned Television Stations president. “But there’s a lot to like about his leadership style. He’s got a strong presence, but he’s a warm and friendly guy. He’s from Los Angeles. I’m impressed with his career.”
That career is as colorful as it is varied. Carlston launched an ad agency while in college, and got his first job in television at rep firm Katz. Subsequent posts involved station sales, program distribution, running a station, owning a station and, most recently, managing KUTV Salt Lake. He has learned from boldface name bosses such as Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller.
Taking over KUTV in 2009, Carlston was competing against mammoth KSL, owned by the Mormon Church. He built up the CBS affiliate’s weather department and emphasized strong storytelling through branded franchises, focusing on topics such as family and health, which resonated in Salt Lake. Noting the church’s apathy to social media (Carlston is a Mormon), he pushed hard on the Facebook front, driving viewer engagement by building a base of more than 350,000 KUTV fans.
Ratings and revenue shot up, too. “KSL had never lost a late news since they signed on,” Carlston says. “Over the period of a year, we not only beat them in late news, but in every single newscast.”
Industry leaders noticed, including Staab, as she sought to find a GM for KNBC. “I asked people I know well and whose opinion I most value who the best general managers were around the country,” she says. “Steve’s name came up a few times.”
It’s a dream job for a guy who grew up skateboarding in Southern California’s empty swimming pools and who was interviewed by KNBC’s sports guys as a schoolboy basketball ace. Carlston is applying lessons learned in hoops—he played at Brigham Young University—to KNBC. Carlston had the words “Game Day, Every Day, Every Newscast” painted above a doorway leading to the newsroom, along with “The Stories Begin Here” on the door entering the station—rallying cries more typically found in a locker room.
Saying the ceaselessly competitive Carlston is hands-on is to understate his involvement. He designed the new KNBC logo, grew Facebook fans from 10,000 to more than 100,000 and has a hand in writing scripts. New parent Comcast clearly has Carlston’s back. KNBC has 18 new staffers, a fleet of new trucks, one of the few Perceptive Pixel boards in local TV and its own helicopter, and will have a dazzling new building next year. “In the past, it was save your way to prosperity,” Carlston says. “Comcast’s philosophy is to invest for profit.”
While NBC’s primetime continues to ail, the Super Bowl and Olympics mean lots of sampling of KNBC’s new offerings. John Weiser, distribution president of Sony Pictures Television, says Carlston will do for KNBC what he does in hoops: make everyone around him better. “He will improve performance, and the way people feel about working there,” says Weiser. “It’s not what’s expected of him that drives his performance— it’s what Steve expects of himself.”
While he has no qualms about skateboarding around the neighborhood in his workday finery, Carlston at least has the good sense to change when he hits the skate park with the neighborhood kids. “I don’t want to get laughed at, so I wear shorts and skater shoes,” Carlston says. “I try not to look like a grandpa.”
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