John Cardenas: No Rest Until We’re Best
First-time GM issues lofty challenge to WTHR staff
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/19/2011 12:01:00 AMB&C's 2011 Local TV Executives of the Year
John Cardenas, WTHR Indianapolis’ vice president and general manager, calls 2011 a “year of change.” Tragedy set the wheels in motion: WTHR’s popular GM, Jim Tellus, died suddenly in 2010, and Cardenas— then news director at Dispatch Broadcast Group sibling WBNS Columbus—took over.
Cardenas, 47, figured the best way to honor Tellus was to get WTHR back to undisputed No. 1 status in ultra-competitive DMA No. 26. His first mission was to engage in one-on-one “workshops” with staffers, sitting down with as much as 70% of WTHR’s personnel.
His findings were illuminating: WTHR had lost its edge, and staffers wanted it back. “We’d gotten a little bit complacent,” Cardenas says. “The dominance of prior years was not there. It was pretty easy for me to recognize where it had been, where it was, and where it could be.”
Cardenas issued the ultimate challenge: be the best TV station in America.
He brought in a new news director in respected KHOU Houston vet Keith Connors. He formalized a beat system among reporters, and demanded they break stories deep in their beats. He created a director of digital media position, and mandated the entire newsroom be engaged in social media. WTHR’s Facebook fans went from 8,000 when Cardenas came on board to 95,000.
WTHR’s ratings shot skyward, too. Dispatch Broadcast CEO Michael Fiorile says the NBC affiliate had a “fabulous” November sweeps: a decisive No. 1 in morning ratings, along with wins in total day, early evening and late news. “John is a strong leader, a consensus builder, a high-integrity guy,” Fiorile says. “It was obvious early on that he didn’t need a lot of hand-holding.”
WTHR shone brightest following the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair on Aug. 13. The news team expertly married social media with traditional reporting on a fatal stage collapse, and WTHR’s investigative team executed follow-up exposés in the subsequent weeks, the way Cardenas envisions the best station in the country doing. “As a news guy, I watch in a very critical way, and I could not have been more pleased,” he says.
Cardenas is looking forward to 2012, when WTHR will broadcast the Super Bowl in Indy in February and the Olympics next summer. The new year also offers a shot at repeating WTHR’s rare trifecta of a 2011 Peabody, DuPont-Columbia, and—most prestigious—National Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in a large market.
Says Cardenas: “Someone was looking over us.”
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