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Roger Ogden: Mile-High Winner

Just because Gannett’s Roger Ogden is running one of the country’s top 10 TV-station groups doesn’t mean he has lost his local focus.

In fact, it’s that focus that won him his job—and Broadcasting & Cable’s 2007 Broadcaster of the Year award. On April 12, Ogden will be honored at the Television Bureau of Advertising’s annual conference in New York.

Ogden, 61, had long been considered one of the most competitive general managers in the business when he was named president/CEO of Gannett Broadcasting in July 2005. He likely could have run a station group earlier in his career, but, for years, he was content to serve his hometown of Denver with dynamic local programming.

Indeed, although Ogden is headquartered in Washington, he flies home every weekend.

And on the job, being president of Gannett’s broadcast division means a lot more than running TV stations. Television now is about digital platforms, mobile technologies, high-definition TV.

“This is a strategic moment in the transition of our business,” he observes, “and I’m engaged by that.”

On Ogden’s watch, Gannett stations have been among the first in the country to switch over to high-definition television, with Gannett stations broadcasting high-definition local news in seven markets: Atlanta, Denver, Washington, St. Louis, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

The Internet has become an integral part of the stations’ sales strategy, and Ogden was one of the first broadcast executives to see the sales potential in TV-station Websites. Gannett’s general managers see the Web as a way to keep viewers informed 24/7, while its sales forces see it as a way to recruit new business.

And Ogden has always focused on keeping his stations strong and local. One of his most important contributions is adding locally produced programs to the company’s slate of products (see story, p. 34).

“Almost anything he touches turns into a success,” says Craig Dubow, chairman/president/CEO of Gannett Co., Ogden’s current boss and one-time rival in the Denver market.

One year ago, Gannett added another area to Ogden’s domain, naming him senior VP of design, innovation and strategy of Gannett Co., a title Dubow held before being promoted to company chairman. Under that umbrella, Ogden is tasked with getting Gannett’s employees to brainstorm to see what great ideas they might come across.

And while that may sound a little nebulous, to Ogden and Gannett, it’s crucial.

“We’re living in a world in which good ideas are going to drive our businesses,” he says. “Good ideas can come from any level of the organization, from any source. We can’t sit back and hope and expect that’s going to happen naturally or automatically. So we’ve developed a culture in which we encourage people to participate.”

Ogden believes that people and their creativity are the most important part of any media company’s survival, and he has already made his mark as an innovator at Gannett.

Besides reorganizing Gannett’s station sales forces and launching notable community-based programming, he’s hoping to invigorate Gannett’s 90 daily newspapers by pairing TV crews with newspaper reporters and teaching them how to shoot video so that it can be added to the papers’ online stories.

Over the past year, the number of news video streams on Gannett’s community-newspaper Websites jumped from 3,700 in March 2006 to more than 900,000 in January 2007, according to Gannett’s annual report. The company, which publishes USA Today and some 90 other papers, is similarly training its newspaper salespeople so that they can ad video to online newspaper ads.

By expanding into new businesses and plumbing the stations’ creative depths, Ogden is working to modernize the local-TV business models while improving their profit margins.

During a tough time for TV stations, Gannett’s 23 stations have remained good performers even though they are as dependent on political cycles as any other station group. Last year, Gannett Broadcasting logged $855 million in revenue, up 16% from 2005. That reflects the effect of the 2006 Winter Olympics on NBC, political and election-related advertising, and the acquisition of stations in Denver and Atlanta, which created two new duopolies for Gannett.

Still, Gannett Broadcasting’s 2006 revenue was up just slightly from the $822 million in revenue the company took in during 2004, a presidential-election year, when most stations benefited from increased political advertising. If the 2006 elections are factored out, the company’s year-to-year quarterly results were down from 2004, according to Gannett’s latest earnings report, released on March 15.

But Gannett is one of broadcasting’s undisputed leaders, and so is Ogden, who wins the admiration of TVB President Chris Rohrs because of Ogden’s orchestrated forays into new media. From multicasting to producing top-notch Websites, Ogden is much more a leader than a follower.

“Television is evolving toward multiplatform delivery, targeted content and electronic business processes, and Roger Ogden is a leader in all those areas,” says Rohrs. “He 'walks the walk’ and has for quite a while. He built a great station Website at KUSA way ahead of the curve and took the station to HD for local news when few were stepping up to that investment. Today, he’s pushing Gannett and the industry to understand and capture the emerging digital opportunities.”

Maybe Ogden’s eagerness to excel comes from his almost lifelong devotion to broadcasting; he grabbed his first job in the business when he was 13 years old.

While he was growing up in Denver, he and his parents went to a church on Sunday mornings, on Sunday nights and again on Wednesday nights. Ogden couldn’t take all those sermons, but one of the only approved ways out of attending services was to take on a relevant job. So Ogden began working at the church radio station. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with broadcasting.

“Even in the early stages, I always had this great curiosity about what was going on in the world,” he says. “Once you have that, it doesn’t go away.”

Throughout high school and college, he worked at Denver radio stations KPOF, KLIR and KBTR as a news reader and reporter. In fact, his duties at KBTR eventually took so much of his time that he quit the University of Colorado at Boulder to focus on work, a decision that has never slowed him down.

“I’ve always considered him among the nation’s finest general managers,” says Bob Wright, NBC Universal chairman of the board, General Electric vice chairman and, at one time, Ogden’s boss.

Ogden got his first full-time job at a radio station in 1962, when he was 17. He became an announcer and news reader at KLIR, an AM/FM radio station, and moved to all-news KBTR in 1967. He spent only a short while there before moving across the hall to the TV station, KBTV, owned by Combined Communications.

While Ogden’s career was progressing, it was also staying put in Denver. He never wanted to leave his hometown, a tough decision in an industry where most executives live itinerant lives to advance their careers.

He finally decided to take the leap in 1977 and became news director at Combined Communications ABC affiliate WLKY Louisville, Ky. (which is now owned by Hearst-Argyle Television). Ogden was in Louisville only a year before he felt the pull of home. In 1978, he returned to his old job as news director at KBTV, remaining there until 1981. In 1979, Gannett merged with Combined, adding KBTV to its portfolio and giving Ogden his first exposure to the company. KBTV was renamed KUSA in 1984.

When Ogden jumped from KBTV in 1981 to GE NBC affiliate KOA, Dubow was just arriving in town to work in sales at KBTV. He got a chance to see Ogden’s work close-up and was impressed: “Roger’s a very quick study, and he’s very thorough in the way he approaches opportunities. He knows how to capitalize on them.”

Ogden, competing against his old station, had a mission: Make KOA (renamed KCNC, for “Colorado’s News Channel,” in 1983) what KBTV was. He started by beefing up the station’s news and local programming. The jump was a big deal for both Ogden and the TV business. As a news director with no sales experience, he was an unlikely candidate to run a station; in the early ’80s, most general managers usually came out of ad sales.

“It was in his self-interest to understand sales,” says Wright. “Roger wanted the station to be successful, and he knew that he had to have sales to do it. He needed his sales staff to perform in order to support his program costs.”

Says Patti Dennis, VP of news at Gannett’s KUSA, “He worked hard at beating us.” Dennis, a 26-year veteran of the station, competed against Ogden when he was running KCNC and worked for him when he returned to run KUSA many years later.

“At the time, KUSA was a little arrogant,” she says. “We thought, 'We’ll always win.’ We suddenly realized that these 'average’ guys on the street were kicking our butts.”

Ogden programmed as much local fare as he could get on the air during his tenure at KOA. Although, today, he believes in programming solid syndicated shows, during his 14-year reign at KCNC, the station ramped up to more than 40 hours of local news and programming per week, airing no syndicated programming at all.

In 1995, GE traded the station to CBS in return for WCAU Philadelphia. At the time, Ogden was considering his options, and Wright finally came up with an opportunity that would tempt Ogden to leave the Mile High City. He proposed that Ogden run NBC Europe, an important but struggling piece of the NBC empire.

Ogden thought his kids—Catherine and Andrew, then 12 and 6, respectively—were at a good age to move, and the opportunity came at a point when he could take advantage of it. So he took the job and moved to London.

Still, in only two years, he was back in his beloved Denver. What a homecoming. This time, he returned as president/general manager of Gannett’s market powerhouse, KUSA, the place where he had made his name as news director.

Gannett kept broadening his role. By 1999, Ogden was given oversight of five more of the company’s top stations: WXIA Atlanta, WKYC Cleveland, KPNX Phoenix, WUSA Washington and KXTV Sacramento. He also oversaw the company’s Captivate Network, which places ad-supported programming on screens in elevators. He took over all 23 of Gannett’s stations in July 2005.

And still, there’s Colorado. He and his wife, Ann, own Crystal KYSL Summit County, Colo., a radio station that she runs, and he enjoys heading up to the high country and his home in Breckenridge on weekends. His daughter is in law school, and his son is just entering college.

His big job, he knows, is trying to keep Gannett ahead of the curve at a time of tremendous volatility in the media business. “We’re in a world that’s changing so dynamically,” he says. “If you don’t experiment with that world, you are going to get left behind very quickly.”

That’s unlikely to happen to Roger Ogden.