Even as a boy, John Kueneke had a clear idea of what he wanted to do for a living. A friend's father was the general manager at St. Louis news powerhouse KSD (now KSDK), and John peppered the man with questions about the business. Jump ahead to grad school in the late 1960s, and Kueneke had an internship at the station.
Skip to 1991, and Kueneke was running the place. “It opened up a whole side of the television business behind the cameras that I didn't really know existed,” he says of his experiences with his childhood mentor, Hod Grams. “Having the opportunity to talk to somebody on the inside really sparked my interest.”
Kueneke's career has included stints in California, including holding the general manager position at KCRA Sacramento. But he keeps coming back to his native St. Louis. He was overseeing half of the Pulitzer Broadcasting group until it sold its stations in 1999, but Kueneke didn't last long on the free-agent market. David Bradley, president of Missouri's family-owned News-Press & Gazette (NPG), said some broadcast friends told him that a talented young TV executive looked ready to run a group.
“I told John, 'I want a good person to lead and direct our broadcast division,'” Bradley says. “We made a deal, and it's been a great relationship.”
As president of NPG's St. Louis-based broadcast division, Kueneke has applied his big-market expertise to NPG's stations, which include KESQ Palm Springs and KECY Yuma, Ariz. NPG's seven markets range from small (No. 92 Colorado Springs) to tiny (No. 189 Bend, Ore.), but the stations—No. 1s and No. 2s in their markets—punch well above their weight. According to Kueneke, NPG has 25 different “services” in those markets, including stations multicasting the likes of Telemundo, LATV, The CW and local weather channels. (NPG also owns cable systems and newspapers.)
Equally noteworthy, the six NPG stations airing local news all do it in high-definition—making the likes of KJCT Grand Junction and KVIA El Paso the envy of many small- (and numerous middle-) market stations. “News is the bedrock of what we do,” Kueneke points out. “If we're going to invest in anything, it's going to be in making our local news product stronger and better and more attractive to our audience.”
While Kueneke came up on the sales side, he's the uncommon broadcast chief with a master's in journalism, a background that fuels his obsession with top-shelf local product.
“The stations' slogan is 'Where the news comes first,' but John's not just saying it—it's his philosophy for all the stations,” says NPG Director of News Mike Stutz. “He's got the sales and news ends covered, and he's got a pretty remarkable grasp of both.”
Kueneke says that working for a private company has been vital to the group's growth—especially as the competition has been cutting back. “The company takes a very long-term look,” he says. “I'd say we're coming out of this recession stronger from a competitive standpoint in all our markets than we went into it. Where we were No. 1, we're a dominant No. 1 now.”
When he's not visiting the NPG stations, Kueneke and his wife, Sharon, enjoy traveling, including visits to their daughter in Barcelona and son in San Diego. Or they're unwinding at home in St. Louis, where Kueneke roots for the local Cardinals, Rams, Blues and the hoops team at St. Louis University, his alma mater. (He got his master's at the University of Missouri.)
Frank N. Magid Television President Steve Ridge says Kueneke's strong sense of community pervades the NPG stations. “With John, success in local news is not just a priority—it's a station-wide mission,” Ridge says. “John keenly appreciates that every marketplace is unique unto itself, and that locally empowered decision-making is the key to lasting success.”
The Bradley family's ties in the region run deep, and members hold key executive posts within NPG. David Bradley says Kueneke is a valued confidante about several aspects of the family business. “John's one of our stars,” he says. “He's just like one of our family.”
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