Today’s Broadcast General Manager

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In most respects, it has always been a tough, demanding and often criticized job: that of a broadcast General Manager. The broadcast General Manager has all of the responsibilities senior management positions have in other industries; tasked with financial concerns, lender concerns, upper management concerns, concerns of employees and customers. But unlike most of those, he/she must concern themselves with a federal regulatory body, and an outside rating service on an every day basis, or at least, several times each year. The findings of either could very well determine their future.  Because of these demands, you have the dynamics of a very unique, challenging, highly visible and volatile job.


Some General Managers understand the dynamics of the platform better than others, and adapt to a changing universe on a regular basis. The world we operate in is filled with more economic peril than ever before. Many lenders are putting pressure on group executives and General Managers to perform more than ever before.  A major reason is, as always, economic in nature in order to capture the necessary revenue and BCF. Simply put, the responsibilities of all broadcast executives and especially the front line General Manager are many and they are fraught with personal and professional peril. The old saying of “if the revenue doesn’t get you, the ratings will” still holds true, but now you can add HR to that as well. As we all know, we live in a very litigious world, and the fear of being sued stops many managers from involving themselves in problems, because as one becomes aware of problems, it becomes their responsibility to correct them, and there is exposure in the fixing. That is a major problem in this industry right now and why we see so much complacency, blandness, sameness, lack of on air energy, et al.  Not rocking the boat has taken over for rocking the ratings and the revenue!

So why is it that some General Managers succeed while others fail?  I think the answer lies somewhere in the past. Until recently, and maybe going back 10 or so years, and certainly with the General Managers of 30 or 40 years ago,  General Managers were risk takers. They had to be. They were experimenting with formats, newscasts, with equipment and the complexities of integration, with multiple audience measurement companies, talent, clients, personnel issues, demanding bosses, all of it. There were no perfect formulas then and there are no perfect formulas now…though some sales and news consultants would have you think so. I believe they contribute to the sterility of the industry, the cookie cutter approach to stacking and producing newscasts, the shine your shoes and diagnostic approach to selling, all of it. And with what results??

The difference was and is inventiveness; some might call it impulsiveness, and say that impulsiveness is wrong, a bad thing. Well, not in the broadcast world it’s not.  Risk taking rather than risk aversion, creativity, not predictability, and hard selling everything they aired was the norm.  There was very little risk aversion to upsetting an agency, and if so, you went to the client. If your viewers and listeners didn’t like what you were programming, no matter, they could go to your competition with your blessing. It didn’t prohibit a General Manager programming and airing what he/she believed was good for their station and requiring the sales staff to go sell it. And General Managers made calls right along with the AE’s.

That was just how it was done. Now management and staff are so concerned with developing new media that their eyes are off the ball.  I am not referring to the Internet. Personally, I find the internet unbelievably compatible with radio, television and cable operations. I am speaking about the time, effort, and resources spent developing the one trick pony rather than the daily effort necessary to concentrate on the core operation of broadcasting. Originating more local newscasts and then selling time that is adjacent and within it—that it reaches our viewers and listeners should be the most specific concern of all management at all levels, second only to protecting the license.

Many stations understand this, while others seek to take their executives and staff off the street to develop additional resources that are years away from duplicating a station’s current revenue stream, let alone surpassing it. I have to have developed more non traditional revenue than anyone else I have ever known….but never at the expense of the monthly or quarterly revenue figures that were budgeted. NTR should be icing on the cake, not used to make budget.  Relying on NTR to make budget is a dangerous game and rarely lasts unless the General Manager and the General Sales Manager are focused on it. The easiest way to make budget and grow revenue is to grow rates. Like everything else, there is an art to raising rates. Successful management understands how to raise rates, when to raise rates, and how to do it effectively.

Poor performance in ratings and revenue usually confirm a lack of proper management, not necessarily at the General Manager position.   Most times, a new General Manager is anointed with his or her position, having recently been a News Director or Sales Manager.  They may have little or no understanding as to how other departments actually work and spend most all of their time back operating the department they know best…that which they just came from. They don’t know and sometimes don’t care to know how other departments work, how to supervise and give direction, how to plan and to manage that plan and to integrate all departments into that plan, and further to use all the resources available to them at the station.

The best resource available should be a department head. If they know their department they should be a great aid in the development of the General Manager. Usually, if a new General Manager is not as successful as hoped, it is not always their fault. It may reflect poorly on the current department heads. If they received little or no training from the previous management it will probably take this station time to get up to speed. But get up to speed it can. It always can with good leadership. There are those who wonder why some stations even with the same network perform better than others.. It’s not hard to understand why.

Operating a broadcast entity is not accomplished by magic. Rather, by assessing the needs of a station, preparing a plan, organizing that plan at all levels, and implementing that plan. Also, by being so engaged in it that the General Manager knows and understands every facet of it.  If the plan is not meeting goals for any reason,  then it is important to  have the business acumen, guts, nerve, whatever you want to call it, to effectuate change quickly and  smartly, and to once again mobilize the staff and head off into a better direction.

Generally speaking, you have more information to effectuate the change in plan than you had to make the original plan. Hard work, product knowledge, leadership, total immersion in the operation, by being at the facility daily, talking, learning, coaching up, training, listening, helping, making quick and precise decisions that allow for speed, strategizing with the department heads, discussing the goals for the month, the quarter, the year, and for that day are difference makers.  When the sense of creativity and immediacy is lost, all may be lost. When a General Manager cannot or is not capable of comfortably strategizing with department heads , learning  their issues, and problems, helping to solve them today if possible and move on, then how can the correct goals for these departments be established and adequately supervised, accountability maintained, and expectations met?  Well, they can’t!  And that affects the ownership, investors, staff, community…generally with devastating effects.

For the most part, the original broadcasters who formed this industry understood this.  They were bold without being brash, aggressive without being arrogant, and led by example, and not by isolating themselves from problems so as not to make a decision that could carry personal and professional risk. Nope, they led from the front. If you don’t believe this…ask yourself this question. As an individual, what have I done today that will grow my stations ratings, revenue, and reputation in my market?  If the answer is “a lot,” good for you. You pass muster! If it is,” I don’t know, or I am unsure,” then seek out the necessary training and skill set to develop your managerial and leadership skills.  Learn how to operate with innovation, creativity, purpose, and ethics.  I once worked for a fellow who never watched television…and actually bragged to his staff about it. I thought it absurd then, and think it absurd now!  Listening, watching, that’s the job! That’s your product, your responsibility. The most embarrassing question that can ever be asked of any of us is, “I was watching your station last night, and on your news I noticed…..” Or, “I was listening on the way to work this morning and I heard…” Or simply, “What was that all about?” And you hadn’t watched, nor listened and don’t know.  How can we ask a viewer or potential advertiser to watch or listen and support our station if we don’t watch and listen? It doesn’t make sense, does it?

Our progress is imperiled by certain choke points, usually caused by ourselves. If only we would once again become risk takers, become spontaneous, throw in some impulsiveness, some bold and quick action. To do this we don’t need more screaming on the radio, nor more salacious programming on television and cable. This is not what I mean by risk taking. Leadership is what I am talking about. Being fully engaged in the operation, accepting responsibility every day, all the time. Demand that a handshake seals the deal and is final. Demand that we hold ourselves accountable and hold our department heads and staff accountable. Our FCC license asks of us, requires us to serve in the interest, necessity and needs of our community. Can we honestly say that we are doing this every day? Does the current programming on television, radio and cable reflect this? Are we passing down to the new people what commitment to excellence really is?

We have the ability to create our own environment. Let’s be cognizant of that, proudly go broadcast and sell what we have created.  You don’t create ratings. Ratings reflect the energy, passion, efforts and direction of a broadcast facility. If all of this is in place, revenue, I have found, takes care of itself.

–Mike DeLier, President, The DeLier Group. [email protected]
The DeLier Group is a full service management consulting company specializing in television, radio, and cable properties.