While the closest most kids will come to world leaders is reading about them in textbooks, Steve Ridge was fortunate enough to forge a friendship with a former U.S. president as a teenager. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ridge worked on the campaign of former Michigan governor George Romney (the father of presidential hopeful Mitt) in 1965, and the governor introduced him to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the summer of 1966. After spending time with “Ike” at Eisenhower's Gettysburg, Pa., retreat, Ridge was invited to be a summer intern for the former president.
Ridge worked side by side with the five-star general in the summer of '67, attended Eisenhower's funeral in '69, and stayed in touch with his widow, Mamie, thereafter.
The mentorship has had a lifelong impression on Ridge. “It created a perspective in me to think big,” says the TV president of the international media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, which consults for stations around the country. “You don't have to assume that [major accomplishments] are something that somebody else does.”
After working as a congressional campaign manager and graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in political science, Ridge made the switch from politics to TV news.
He worked at various Iowa stations before landing his first news director post at WAAY Huntsville (Ala.) in 1978. He then jumped to ABC affiliate WKBW Buffalo, where he ran the news powerhouse from 1979 to 1983. In those two stints, Ridge worked closely with Magid consultants, and eventually made the jump, where he became the firm's first full-time manager of its TV consulting unit in 1983.
Ridge's station experience served him well, and he quickly learned the ins and outs of consulting at Frank Magid's side. “Almost daily, he'd come to my door in the morning toting a legal pad full of notes,” Ridge says. “He'd say, 'Do you have a minute?' and I knew what that 'minute' was gonna turn into. Usually it turned into a late lunch.”
While Frank had a bottomless bounty of information to pass along, Ridge says he was torn between tagging along with the boss and tending to his already demanding day-to-day duties.
Most times, he opted for the former. “I tried to dream up every excuse in the book to shorten those meetings, but my only regret is that I didn't get more time with Frank,” he says. “Those legal pads are worth their weight in gold.”
As with Ike decades before, Ridge says his time with the Magid founder, now the company chairman, left a permanent impression on him. “Frank saw himself as a creator of chaos—he'd challenge everything that was conventional about television and how to do business,” he says. “His perspective on human behavior taught me to question even the most fundamental assumptions of our business.”
Magid, who recently celebrated the 50th year of his eponymous firm, describes Ridge as perceptive, creative and exceptionally driven. “Steve will pursue an objective in an extraordinary way once his sights are set to accomplish something,” he says. “He'll do everything he can to make sure those objectives are attained.”
Besides overseeing the firm's TV division, Ridge created the Magid Institute, a mid-career development program that features 6-8 TV executive crash-courses a year around the country and recently marked its 20th anniversary.
“I always believe the best product is a result of good listening and understanding a client's needs,” he says. “That's one that was born when I was a client and became a product when I was at the company.”
More recently, he launched the new-media-focused Magid Media Labs, which put the firm in a stronger position to help TV stations grasp the ever-changing digital desires of their viewers.
As much as Frank Magid had been a mentor to Ridge, Frank's son Brent, the current Magid president and CEO, lauds Ridge for the help he's given him. “Steve is a true visionary in the business,” says Brent, who credits Ridge with boosting local television business to “an all-time record performance” when conventional wisdom said it was mature. “Steve has been a tremendous mentor to me since I started here, and was right by my side when I took over as CEO.”
These days, Ridge travels the country, helping stations keep up with the myriad changes in their industry. Amidst all the tumult, such as primetime programs made widely available on the Web, he remains bullish on local TV.
“The core business has been turned upside down,” he says. “Despite it all, television properties are changing hands at record multiples because some of the successful players and new entrants are visionary in their thinking.”
When he's not on the road, Ridge is relaxing with his family back in Iowa. He sits on various boards and keeps busy with volunteer work, such as with United Way. He enjoys jogging, rooting for the Cubs, and watching his daughter RyAnne's University of Colorado basketball games. “Anyone can go to a home game,” he says, “but I really like to be one of a handful of parents at an away game.”
Ridge has undeniably left his mark on Magid Associates, and he's also left a mark—albeit a minor one—on American history. At the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum in Abilene, Kan., there's a re-creation of Ike's Gettysburg office. In there, one finds a golf putter Ridge gave Eisenhower way back in 1967. A plaque with Ridge's name on it sits next to the club. “Knowing him was a very inspirational experience for me,” says Ridge. “I learned to dream big, because anything is possible.”
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