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The Times of her life

When is a human-resources person not a human-resources person? When she's considering buying eight Big Three network affiliates to double the size of the New York Times Co.'s Broadcast Group.

That was part of the on-the-spot training that Times Senior Vice President for Human Resources Cindy Augustine got before it was announced on April 27 that she would take over as president of Times Co.'s eight TV stations.

Augustine had accompanied then-President C. Frank Roberts to conduct due diligence at eight of the nine stations put on the block by Lee Enterprises. Although the Times' bid ultimately was unsuccessful, Roberts, for one, predicts success for Augustine in future purchases. (Lee's stations were bought by Emmis Communications Corp. for $562.5 million [see story, page 38].)

"We're in a very testing time and facing very serious matters in broadcasting," says Roberts, who stepped down after 15 years in the president's chair but is staying on as chairman-and working with Augustine-until the end of the year. "She will be able to take these issues and put them in place better than I would," he says. "She's 10 times smarter than I am."

And she'll do it while keeping her human-resources job. It will be a challenge, but Augustine, a lawyer by training, says she's up to it. "We'll be fine."

Human resources, which she has run since February 1998, is sharply focused and has won a lot of respect inside the primarily publishing company, she says. And this she already knows about the TV side: It's full of "very, very good, solid, professional, bright, hardworking operators who know their business very well."

In the short period since she was named president of the Broadcast Group, Augustine has managed to visit two stations: CBS affiliate WREG-TV Memphis, Tenn., and NBC affil KFOR-TV Oklahoma City, in the nation's 40th- and 45th-largest TV markets, respectively.

Still to go (with affiliation, market ranking): WTKR(TV) Norfolk, Va. (CBS, 42); WNEP-TV Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. (ABC, 51); WHO-TV Des Moines, Iowa (NBC, 70); WHNT-TV Huntsville, Ala. (CBS, 82); WQAD-TV Moline, Ill./Davenport, Iowa (ABC, 88); and KFSM-TV Fort Smith, Ark. (CBS, 118).

Augustine plans to get together with all the general managers next month to brainstorm about where the group is going, she says. (Times Co. also owns Radio Disney affiliate WQEW(AM) and WQXR-FM New York, "the most listened to classical music station in the U.S.")

Although she expected during her visits to be asked about her lack of direct broadcast experience, Augustine says it didn't come up. Besides, managing in both fields isn't that different, she says. In both cases, she has to set goals to ensure that performance standards are met, and no matter what the job, journalism "is very strongly embedded in our culture."

She notes that six Times stations are ranked No. 1 in their markets, the other two at No. 2.

And Augustine is well known at the Times Co., having worked there off and on for some 10 years and being a member of the Executive Committee.

Augustine says she has no dramatic plans for the Broadcast Group. But, she remarks, with the advent of digital television, "it's a very, very exciting time to be part of the broadcast industry. ... It is a time of big opportunity. It's also a time of uncertainty."

The Times Co. has already gone digital in one big way. All of its TV stations now are linked by a central master-control room, the Digital Operating Center in Norfolk.

But exactly what the stations will do with all their extra digital spectrum is not yet known, she says. In March, the Times joined a dozen other broadcasters to form the iBlast network, which will use a portion of the digital spectrum to deliver Web content faster than the current connection methods. That service is expected to debut in 102 markets early next year. In the meantime, "we've got our eyes open" for other spectrum uses, Augustine says.

And, as indicated by the company's recent interest in Lee, station acquisitions may be on the horizon. Although the Times hasn't bought a TV station since 1996, "we do occasionally look," Augustine says. "We'll continue to do that in the future. ... The leverage a larger player has is obviously beneficial."

If it had acquired Lee, the Times would have been the nation's 23rd-largest TV group. As it is, it reaches just 3.2035% of U.S. TV households (when its two UHF stations are discounted by 50%, per FCC practice), which puts the group at No. 33.

-Elizabeth A. Rathbun