In the late eighties I started believing my own press clips about what an innovator I was, and started looking for that next big challenge.
So far every news department I had run had shown steady ratings growth—in one or two cases, phenomenal growth—and I figured I’d bestow my blessings on some poor benighted station somewhere. I’d walk through the door and the people would scrape and bow: “Sun-Ra the News God is here to deliver us. All worship Sun-Ra.”
And I would answer, “Rise up my people, and look me full in the face (if you dare). I have come to lead you to the land of ratings milk and honey money.”
Remindeth me againeth: what doth pride goeth beforeth?
I went to WMAR in Baltimore. Forget, for a second, my ego. WMAR was a station with a long and proud history of driving away the audience. I honestly figured I could make a difference. Something was needed. WMAR’s newsroom had been rudderless for a long time, and the #1 station in town, WJZ, was a damn dominant juggernaut. WMAR’s General Manager, knowing change had to come, decided to do the new News Director a ”favor:” he left a dozen news positions (out of a newsroom of about sixty) unfilled. That way the new ND could shape his or her own staff.
So I get to Bawlmer (a wonderful city, by the way) and I take over WMAR (which has a lot of wonderful people on the staff). But the challenges are stiff: learn the staff, learn the city, learn the strengths (many) and weaknesses (few) of the competition, and set a new winning direction.
Oh, and along the way hire one-fifth of the news staff and bring them up to speed.
Let me admit one of my more serious shortcomings. It takes me forever to hire someone. I worry and fret and stew and second-guess myself. I want every hire to be a perfect hire. I want people who work with me to be happy, productive, fulfilled and rewarded. I don’t want them to work 24 hours a day, but I do want their undivided attention, their enthusiasm and all their effort while they’re on the job. I honestly want to believe in everyone on the staff, and I want the staff to believe in me. When Marv Levy was coaching the Buffalo Bills he said, “The secret of leadership isn’t getting people to follow you, it’s getting people to join you.” I wanted (and still want) to be a part of a team.
So the hiring (12—count ‘em—12 positions!) went more slowly than I would have liked, and a lot more slowly than the GM wanted.
Finally he came to me and said, “Listen, stop the stalling. We’ve got a 90-day probationary period here. Just hire any old people and if they don’t work out you can fire them within the first three months, no harm done, and move on.”
And I thought, “Uh-oh.”
And I thought, “One of us has made a big mistake: but I'm the one who's going to have to pay.”
Right again. But I’ll say this in my defense: most of the few people I hired at WMAR went on to successful careers there.