The year 2009 looks like a rocky one for business, but Brian Lawlor's been down some taxing paths before. Tapped in November to head up the E.W. Scripps station group, Lawlor, 42, has learned to persevere.
He surely picked up some endurance lessons from that Iron Man competition he completed a few years ago. When mere marathons and mini-triathlons weren't enough to satisfy his urge to find his physical and mental limit, Lawlor took on nine months of hard-core training before embarking on the Iron Man's 2½-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run through mountain slopes in the 92 degree heat of a Louisville summer.
Some 14 hours after starting, Lawlor completed the course. “It's a loooooong day,” says Lawlor, who still looks like he could finish the course in a respectable time. “But it wound up being one of the neater things I've done.”
Promoted to oversee the 10 Scripps stations, including WEWS Cleveland and WXYZ Detroit, after running WPTV West Palm Beach, Lawlor knows broadcasting's foreseeable future is looking more and more like survival of the fittest.
While he concedes it's an “interesting” time to move into big-picture management, he welcomes the chance to rethink the local television business on a larger stage. “It's a time of incredible opportunity,” he says. “Decisions we make in the next six months will really define what a broadcaster looks like in the next decade. To be involved in those discussions is actually pretty exciting.”
The Long Island-reared son (and grandson) of New York City police officers, Lawlor thought he would be sticking with the family business in his post-college days. He'd taken the various NYPD tests, but decided on another career path when he considered what he calls increasing levels of disrespect directed at police officers in the rougher parts of the city.
In Manhattan recently for an NBC affiliates board meeting, Lawlor says being there always makes him ponder what might have been. “Every time I'm sitting in a cab in New York and I see a cop on the corner,” he says, “I think of how different my life would've been.”
Law enforcement's loss has been broadcasting's gain. Lawlor's first job out of college was in sales at WBRE Wilkes-Barre in 1989, where he'd interned in college. The nonstop buzz of the TV world suited him well. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “Every day is different, every customer is different, and you're constantly selling different products.”
The first of Lawlor's three stints at WPTV began in 1991. After a few years at WTVJ Miami, Lawlor came back to WPTV as national sales manager, then back again as general manager in early 2004. The NBC affiliate is nothing short of a colossus in West Palm Beach, comfortably besting rival stations from Raycom and Hearst-Argyle in revenue, according to BIA Financial. “It's been No. 1 for 50 years,” Lawlor says.
He says the station was at its best during the various hurricanes that ravaged the region—Lawlor lived through three during his time in the No. 38 DMA. Besides airing Weather Plus on a digital channel, WPTV kept viewers connected during crisis with its HurricanePlus.com microsite. He seems to view the role of broadcaster the same way his father might view police work—a vital means for serving, and at times protecting, the community.
“At the scariest times of their lives, when everything's at stake, people are trusting our people and our voice,” Lawlor says. “We're a really powerful medium, and I don't take that for granted.”
E.W. Scripps President/CEO Rich Boehne says Lawlor had been on the upper-management fast track for some time, but his cool head during the hurricanes convinced Scripps brass that he was ready to run a group. “He did an outstanding job at WPTV, not only in the good times but in the incredibly difficult times when the hurricanes were hitting the station,” Boehne says. “That was a real look at his leadership skills—it confirmed things for us.”
Lawlor, his wife and three children have relocated to Scripps headquarters in Cincinnati, as he takes over the stations for the retiring Bill Peterson. He knows the market well, serving as general sales manager at Scripps' WCPO from 2000 to 2004. Lawlor says he misses the buzz of the newsroom (“our corporate office is really quiet,” he says with a smile), but likes the opportunity to put his stamp on a group, which includes six ABC affiliates, three NBCs and an independent. His broad range of experience is useful as stations rethink their roles in the local market.
“It's a different dynamic, but those '30,000-foot views' are probably more important now,” Lawlor says. “Having just run a station, been hands-on on operating a couple of Websites, launching HD…I'm probably closer to the product than a lot of other people in a similar job.”
Among his plans are a program called The Sales Team of the Future, which reconfigures stations to better sell to their local markets, and revamping the stations to be 24/7 news outfits. That involves ramping up digital operations to enable the stations to cover breaking news on all platforms. “It might be midnight on Christmas, but we'll make sure that if something's happening, we've got people in place who can cover the story, put it on the Web, and build it out on whatever other platforms we need to,” he says. “You'd better be serving that as it's happening, because somebody else will if you don't.”
When he's not working, Lawlor unwinds by attending his children's Little League games and dance performances, and watching the likes of How I Met Your Mother, The Office and, as one might expect from a guy who races across both street and surf for fun, The Amazing Race.
Boehne says Lawlor's knack for extreme endurance will serve him well as the Scripps TV boss. “The local TV business won't be for the faint of heart the next 18 months,” he says with a laugh. “Brian's training will come in handy.”
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