Newsroom Veterans Getting GM Nods

With the beleaguered broadcast business increasingly focused on the bottom line, Dan Bradley’s promotion to general manager at WCMH Columbus July 1 may have surprised some. While group managers have typically preferred a seasoned sales type to head up a station, Bradley’s resume is full of news experience, including news director at WFLA Tampa and an eight-year stint as VP of news for corporate parent Media General. Most recently, he was director of digital journalism and content at WCMH.

At the time of Bradley’s hiring, Media General cited the diversity of his experience and, tellingly, his knack for marshaling “multimedia innovation” at WCMH. “Dan knows the business throughout, and has the breadth of mind to handle general management,” says Executive VP/COO Reid Ashe. “A big requirement is perspective, and Dan has that.”

General managers coming from news have long been a tiny minority—perhaps 10% in recent years by many estimates. The likelihood of a news director—or anyone outside of sales—getting promoted to general manager seems to have gotten even more remote in the last few years. With the bottom line under a giant spotlight, hiring managers are often iffy about putting anyone but a career numbers ace in the top spot. The increased presence of private equity in broadcasting, moreover, has heightened the focus on dollars and cents.

It’s all about content

But many say they’re seeing that paradigm shift. With stations creating round-the-clock content on an array of platforms, some believe it makes more sense to have an experienced content producer as general manager. And with the business model clearly in need of a dramatic reset, a fresh perspective may be the best way to maximize station performance.

“With the business under siege, anybody who can look at the business through a different prism has an advantage,” says WBBM Chicago President/General Manager Bruno Cohen, who once headed up news at WNBC New York. “If you’re not coming from the traditional background of ad sales, you’re probably looking at it through very different eyes. That’s a good thing these days.”

To be sure, there are a number of savvy general managers with extensive news backgrounds. Besides Bradley, Media General has WVTM Birmingham’s Gene Kirkconnell.  Other prominent general managers from the news side include WJW Cleveland’s Greg Easterly, WFIE Evansville’s Debbie Bush, WOIO/WUAB Cleveland’s Bill Applegate, KOLO Reno’s Nick Matesi and KWCH/KSCW's Joan Barrett..

The addition to the club in recent months of news vets such as KMGH Denver’s Byron Grandy, KPTV/KPDX Portland’s Patrick McCreery and WKMG Orlando’s Skip Valet indicates that group managers are more willing to consider candidates who don’t offer sales backgrounds. While the axiom about content being king has long been uttered by broadcasters, stations’ shifts to 24/7 community media outlets have given original programming even greater status. So having a content whiz running the station may be the right move for these tricky times.

“There seems to be a new appreciation that content is more important than ever, and an appreciation for distributing it across multiple platforms,” says WLNE Providence VP/General Manager Steve Doerr, a former news director.

News directors past and present are quick to point out that managing a station isn’t that big a leap from managing news. As news director, you handle massive budgets, manage touchy talent issues, oversee the biggest department at the station, deal with unions and push for edgy content while steering clear of lawsuits. “The news director has so many management experiences,” says SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney. “They all serve to make a good news manager a good general manager.”

While the natural rivalry between sales and news will always exist, many say the distinction between effective salespeople and newspeople isn’t that great. “We have different agendas, but we’re all in it for the chase—sales for share of market, news for share of viewers,” Bradley points out. “There’s a lot in common concerning what drives us.”

Some news vets say their background works against them when they’re up for a general manager post, but many believe offering the job to the usual suspects won’t help stations rethink the model.

“We have to find a new way of doing business,” says Mark Antonitis, who ran news at WMAQ Chicago years before becoming general manager at various Young stations. “The ideal person may come from sales, or they may come from news. Or they may come from another department—as long as they’re prepared to look at the world in a different way.”

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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.