Made in Michigan,Making It Big in Manhattan

Overseeing a massive station group, Jordan Wertlieb spends much of his time flying into the Hearst Television markets, meeting with staffers and breaking bread with station managers. He’s not particularly fussy about where they take him to eat—it can even be a food stand—but Wertlieb has one vital stipulation.

“It has to be a locally owned business,” Wertlieb says as he recalls delectable fried chicken out in Okarche, Okla., and unforgettable barbecue down in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I think local is fun. It’s fun to see what gets people excited.”

While he moved to a corporate role almost two years ago, and an office with the Manhattan skyline glimmering outside his 39th floor window, Wertlieb will never lose his taste for local television’s connection to the community. Recent news events such as Election Day and Superstorm Sandy have only reinforced his belief that local broadcast plays a vital role in the nation’s well being.

“Its demise has been so overly reported,” Wertlieb says. “It’s just amazing how television has reinvented and reinvigorated itself after people have written it off.”

Wertlieb determined his career path as a teen. His high school in the New York suburbs had a television station, where he learned all aspects of the craft. Coupled with indelible memories of major news events, such as John Lennon’s murder, Wertlieb left high school with a clear picture of his future.

At the University of Michigan, he was program director at the school radio station and did play-by-play for several sports, including Michigan’s famed football program. While Wertlieb has the size of a Wolverines lineman, his athleticism wasn’t quite Big-Ten caliber. “At Michigan, you have to be big and fast,” he says with a laugh.

But Wertlieb wholeheartedly bought into the school’s code of honor—that a “Michigan Man” was one of integrity. The Michigan influence is all over the Wertlieb home; his wife, Kathy, also graduated from Michigan, and the dogs are named Annie, as in Arbor, and Bo, as in Schembechler. (“Do not speak ill of Michigan in his presence!” warns a Hearst TV colleague.)

Wertlieb started with Hearst TV in 1993, selling for WCVB Boston. His managers at the time recall him as whip-smart and driven. “With every assignment, he raised the bar,” says Bill Fine, president and general manager at WCVB. “He always targeted bigger and better things.”

Wertlieb moved on to general sales manager at WBAL Baltimore and was promoted to general manager in 2005. His stellar listening skills and infectious energy, say WBAL vets, not to mention signature partnerships he ironed out with the Baltimore Ravens and the Maryland Lottery, furthered WBAL’s elite status in Baltimore.

One fond, if chilly, Maryland memory for Wertlieb is plunging into the frigid Chesapeake to raise money for the Special Olympics—an annual event, sponsored by WBAL and its sister radio stations, that took off to the point where Baltimore luminaries, including Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, Governor Martin O’Malley and Wertlieb, took the plunge.

After he’d promoted Wertlieb to executive vice president, David Barrett, Hearst TV president and CEO, suggested an official WBAL handoff—with Wertlieb and incoming general manager Dan Joerres jumping in together. “I came out as the old general manager, and he came out as the new one,” Wertlieb says.

Barrett believes he has a rising star in his group chief. “I think Jordan is the best and brightest next-generation television executive in our industry,” Barrett says. “He leads, he inspires and he challenges. He has that precious management gift to help others be better and succeed.”

Like his boss, Wertlieb is immersed in industry leadership roles, including chairman of the influential NBC affiliates board and director on the NAB board.

Watching the measured manner in which local New York-area broadcasters reported on Sandy—as if he needed a reminder of that frightful day, his office offers an unhindered view of the stricken crane that hovered ominously over 57th Street during the storm—gave Wertlieb yet another reminder for why he believes it’s an optimal time to be in broadcasting.

“I think the business has recently been underestimated and maybe even underappreciated, but it keeps resurfacing,” Wertlieb says. “People keep coming back and saying, that’s why I love my local television station. To me, television is cool again.”

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Michael Malone

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.