A Woman on a Mission of Diversity

Paula Madison cut her teeth in the media business as a print reporter, honed her craft in television and then went on to become the first African-American woman in the country to run a top five-market television station. But through it all, her underlying passion has been diversity.

“Look at the demographics of the U.S.,” says Madison, who has served as executive vice president and chief diversity officer of NBCUniversal since July 2006. “This country is becoming more racially diverse by the second. There is recognition on the part of corporate America that the spending power of people of color has increased in exponential amounts. To generate great business and great products, businesses need to be more diverse. And that’s not just for the entertainment industry, but for law, finance and every other industry in this country.”

After graduating from Vassar College in 1974, Madison started her career as a newspaper reporter in her home state of New York and also in Dallas/Ft. Worth. She soon broadened her interests to television, and it wasn’t long before the ambitious young woman was carving out a path in broadcast.

In 1989, Madison was named assistant news director at WNBC New York; in March 1996, she was promoted to vice president and news director. “I am particularly proud of my role in having our team get all of the station’s newscasts to No. 1 in the No. 1 market,” she says of that time.

Four years later, Madison was asked to move west to head up KNBC Los Angeles where, among other things, she worked hand in hand with the police chief to stop the incessant highway chopper chases that L.A. newscasts spent tons of time on in the post-O.J. era. In 2002, she became the first African-American woman to oversee a triopoly, receiving stewardship of L.A. Spanish-language stations KVEA and KWHY when NBC acquired Telemundo.

With all of that on her plate and then some, Madison also performed a second full-time job for NBC. In 2000, the company named her vice president of diversity, promoting her to senior VP of diversity in 2002. In July 2006, Madison was named chief diversity officer and executive vice president of NBCUniversal. After five years in that position, Madison, now 58, will retire from NBCUniversal on May 20.

Madison’s departure comes not long after NBCU’s acquisition by Comcast. Included in Comcast’s agreement with the government were several memoranda of understanding. These require Comcast to take diversity seriously, with agreements in place to add 10 new minority-focused channels to its cable lineups, to expand distribution of the minority-targeted networks it already carries, and to convene a diversity advisory council comprised of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, women, the LBGT community, people with disabilities and veterans. Although Madison does not take personal credit for the memos, it’s clear—given the diversity foundation she built at NBC and the continuous efforts she inspired and forged— that her stamp is all over them.

Comcast has said it intends to replace Madison. Those who know her say that the strong-willed Madison definitely left her mark on NBCU and on the entertainment industry overall.

“Paula’s authentic leadership and her commitment to engaging individuals is what makes her a powerful business voice on diversity,” says Elise Buik, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, on whose board Madison sits. “She looks at diversity through every lens—age, race, gender and economic status. When you interact with someone who is different from you in an authentic way, it forever changes your perception and how you might change your behavior or approach. Paula creates transformational change in people through her ability to connect [with] them.”

“By putting Paula in charge of diversity, NBC had to take it seriously,” says Bob Reid, executive vice president and general manager of the Africa Channel. “She would not accept the position if that was not the case. She would not stay in the position if she felt compromised, and she would not do the job without a highly refined, resolute and aggressive effort to make diversity something more than an empty commitment.”

Reid is in a position to know. Madison and her family jointly own Williams Group Holdings, a major investor in the Africa Channel, which airs programming that’s from, about and relevant to Africa. Williams Group Holdings originally was formed to invest in the algorithmic trading company, Allston Trading, created and launched by Madison’s brother, Elrick Williams. Allston was hugely successful, and Williams Group Holdings has gone on to invest in other endeavors. Williams is now Africa Channel’s president and CEO.

Williams Group Holdings also is a majority owner of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. “Paula has a very entrepreneurial mind,” says Mike Levy, Sparks president. “I’m sure that now she is going to be thinking Sparks all of the time and coming up with ways to take us to the next level.”

As part of Williams Group Holdings, Madison has also launched the Madison Media Fund, which will make investments in multicultural media, although she does not plan to do any producing, she says. She’ll also continue to serve on the many boards and charities with whom she has been working for years.

“Paula has a wonderful style that helps everyone feel involved and engaged and wanting to do more,” says Jeff Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, which among other things reaches out to underprivileged children in the Los Angeles area and helps to teach them about science and math.

As Madison prepares to depart, she feels that NBCUniversal has established a diverse foundation that is only getting stronger. “It’s been some years since I needed to go work for another company, and NBC’s commitment to diversity is as strong as it ever was,” she says. “I think I’m finally comfortable going off to continue my career in other areas.”

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Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.