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Roper Knows News in New Mexico

Mary Lynn Roper, president/general manager of ABC affiliate KOAT Albuquerque, N.M., really puts the local in local news. A New Mexico native whose family has been in the state for eight generations, Roper has spent more than 30 years covering the Albuquerque market. And while many station managers come from the sales side of the business, she is a product of news, having climbed from photographer to anchor to news director and, finally, station chief.

Owned by Hearst-Argyle, KOAT is top-rated in 5 p.m. news and locked in a battle at 10 p.m. with the CBS and NBC affiliates. Roper's knowledge of the vast market gives her station an inside track. “We have to cover every area of New Mexico,” she says. “We can ask questions that the viewers can't ask.”

Roper grew up in the northern New Mexico town of Raton, where her father owned a small radio station. She says she was everything from “a janitor to a disc jockey” as a girl, spinning easy-listening favorites like Nat King Cole and Andy Williams throughout high school. She left for college at West Texas State but returned a short while later, after her mother was killed by a drunk driver. The tragedy, she says, pushed her to return to Albuquerque—and to radio.

Roper landed her first news job at KQEO(AM) as a reporter and producer. And when all-news station KNWZ(AM) launched, she jumped, becoming assistant news director—at the age of 22. But when the radio station switched to a country format, Roper turned down a disc-jockey job and took a photographer post at KOAT, hoping a reporter gig would open up.

Early on, Roper learned that the playing field wasn't always level. When she tipped the assignment desk off to a hard-news story, a male reporter was sent to chase it down. “I came from news radio and had good sources,” she says. “But I was assigned to shoot a rose-garden show.”

After several months, the managers gradually let Roper report more stories and, in 1978, rewarded her with an anchor spot on the early-morning news. A year later, the station decided to try the market's first co-anchor team for evening news and paired her with veteran Johnny Morris. Ratings for the 6 and 10 p.m. news skyrocketed to No. 1 in the market.

But Roper—who also held the title of executive producer—insisted on maintaining a presence in the field. “My heart will always be in going to get the story,” she says.

Her most challenging assignment was a 1980 prison riot that comprised “36 hours of death and destruction,” she recalls, during which 33 inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico were killed. Her contacts from radio, combined with her local celebrity as anchor, opened up doors. “People would give me tips, and I was able to get closer than other reporters,” Roper recalls. “I might have been [only] 24, but I was informing the public and getting exclusives.”

After the police had established control, they brought all the inmates (more than 1,000) outside, where they sat wrapped in army blankets in the cold. Inmates addressed the familiar newswoman by name.

“'Mary Lynn, we're freezing! We're hungry! Mary Lynn, you should tell them about this,'” she says they told her. After the riots ended, prisoners would regularly send her letters and phone the station (collect, of course) with tips.

As anchor, Roper was constantly mulling ways to improve the newsroom. If she were news director, she mused, she would beef up the staff on the swing shift to improve late-news coverage. More live shots, she said, would increase immediacy. When the news- director position opened up in 1986, Roper had her blueprints in hand.

She expanded news, adding 5 p.m. and weekend-morning newscasts. She pushed her anchors and reporters to be more aggressive. “We should probe, investigate and expose,” she says. “That's always been my mantra, rather than reporting stories that just come across your desk.”

Four years later, the station's former owner, Pulitzer Broadcasting, called Roper to corporate headquarters in St. Louis to be VP of news. She crisscrossed the country, advising the group's nine stations, but she missed being in the trenches—and missed Albuquerque. So when KOAT needed a general manager in 1993, she jumped at the opportunity to return home.

Focusing on the bigger picture

Being general manager brought a different set of challenges. Roper had never been involved in ad sales or technology. She had to pull back from the newsroom day-to-day and focus on the bigger picture. But she used her background to bolster KOAT's news coverage, such as adding bureaus statewide. She's developing the station's Web site with more-robust product, such as streaming video, and increasing advertising. To keep advertisers informed, she sends out weekly updates called “Mondays With Mary Lynn,” which provide behind-the-scenes looks at the station.

So far, she gets high marks from her bosses. “Mary Lynn knows all the issues and the players in the marketplace,” says David Barrett, president/CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television. “That enables her to make very good decisions.”

While she knows almost every nook of New Mexico, Roper must nonetheless grapple with changes to the marketplace. “This is a growth market, and we have stiffer competition,” she says. “We just have to keep getting better.”