Steady at the Wheel
B&C Broadcaster of the Year Paul Karpowicz has left his mark on television—and on those he's worked with
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/23/2008 8:00:00 PM
One of Paul Karpowicz's oldest and closest colleagues loves to tell the story about the two of them—St. Louis natives better suited for flat, dry land—attempting to sail off the coast of Rhode Island a few decades ago.
The day started bright and beautiful, but having failed to check the weather forecast, the duo was in trouble when the 17-foot sailboat started drifting into the shipping lanes as the sky turned an ominous gray-black and the wind gusts reached some 30 miles an hour.
A lot of determination and a little luck got the pair close to shore—where Karpowicz desperately reached for the mooring and brought the boat to safety.
Scores of concerned neighbors cheered from the shore as the men collapsed at their feet. “The drama of watching these two flatlanders sail was better than any kind of TV show you might've seen,” says former LIN TV CEO/chairman Gary Chapman, who mentored Karpowicz over the course of the 26 years they worked together and was half of the ill-advised seafaring duo that day in Rhode Island.
While it was uncharacteristic for Karpowicz to not have been better prepared for the storm—and, for that matter, to not have watched the news on that day—the sailing incident is an apt metaphor for his colorful career.
Whether the seas have been rocky or smooth over a long tenure at LIN and a shorter one at Meredith Broadcasting, Karpowicz's steady hand has been there to guide the ship to safe harbor. From messing around at his father's station as a boy, to leading LIN TV as VP, to his current role as President of the Meredith Broadcasting Group, Karpowicz—who at 54 insists he's way too young for “Broadcaster of the Year”—has felt an intense connection to television and the role it plays in the community. Few broadcasters, if any, take their craft more seriously—and few do a better job of it.
He'll be feted at a luncheon at the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) Annual Marketing Conference on March 27 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.
“Paul has always understood that the real foundation of the broadcasting business is the people,” says Chapman, now retired. “He has this great ability to reach out and touch the general manager, the anchor and the rest of the station, right down to the guy who sweeps the floors. He's got this knack for identifying with everyone—and everyone identifying with him.”
A VIP on 'Romper Room'
Broadcasting runs in the Karpowicz family, and has for nearly 60 years; Paul's mother, Ginny, refers to the business as the family's “country store.” Paul's father, Ray, talks about leafing through Broadcasting magazine, as this publication was known until the mid-1990s, as an undergrad at the University of Missouri in the late '40s. “The school library was a good place to go before drinking beer,” Ray says. “I looked through it and thought, this is a good business to get into.”
Ray became the general manager at KSD St. Louis (now Gannett's market-leading KSDK), and young Paul was a regular at the station—frequently turning up on the children's variety show Romper Room. “Any time there was a snow day and my mother wanted to get me out of the house, she'd send me over there,” he says. “I probably logged more hours on Romper Room than any other kid.”
Paul, the eldest of five, continued to grow up in and around the business. Ray—who went on to run the half-dozen outlets in the Pulitzer station group—says the boy was poring over his issues of Broadcasting by age 8. TV was always on in the Karpowicz house—the largest one tuned to KSD, two others to the competition. When the news wasn't airing, young Paul was taking in programs like Roy Rogers and Rin Tin Tin, and had a knack for knowing exactly what was on what station at any time of the day. “I've always been amazed at his ability to remember TV shows, TV facts, TV history,” Ray says.
Karpowicz's mother, for one, is not one of those parents who lament how much time their children spend in front of a television. “Don't tell me television isn't good for kids,” says Ginny, who credits her Irish blood in shaping her son's lively sense of humor. “It was certainly great for our children.” Her husband, at 83, still helps out with his son-in-law Tim Sheehan's Super Towers broadcast tower business in South Florida.
Paul hung out with the KSD stagehands, and lugged gear when the news crews were chasing a story. The elder Karpowicz recalls a teenage Paul and a friend racing to St. Louis International Airport upon hearing of an airplane hijacking there. He checked in with the KSD cameramen, who suggested they courier film back to the station. But after getting in two separate car accidents on the short trip back to KSD, station brass wondered if they might find another use for Ray's kid.
“The news director said, 'Hey—next time, maybe you guys can just put the film in a cab and send it over to me,'” Ray recalls.
When it came time for Karpowicz to head off to college, he had little doubt as to what career he would pursue. “I think he recognized at a young age how you can raise a family and have a really good life in this business,” Ginny says.
After getting his bachelor's in business administration at Notre Dame, Paul started selling at the country-and-western radio station WIL in St. Louis. He made the jump to television when Chapman, who was the general manager at WLNE Providence, hired him as a local sales manager in 1979. (Chapman had worked with Ray Karpowicz back in St. Louis, and knew Paul from when he was a boy.) Karpowicz worked his way up the ladder, and when Freedom Broadcasting took over the station from Pulitzer, Chapman moved up to group head, and Karpowicz to general manager.
Under Chapman's tutelage, Karpowicz grew the station from third to second in the Providence market, but it wasn't easy. Besides WLNE's ownership changes, there were a number of different capitalization structures. Through it all, Chapman says his protégé kept staffers focused on strong programming. “The different transitions would've given heartburn to many, but through it all, Paul was like a rock,” Chapman says.
Perhaps owing to the fact that Karpowicz had spent the better part of his life around TV stations, his colleagues say he seemed to have an innate sense of what was working and what wasn't simply by walking the station floor and speaking with staffers. “The soles of his shoes would tell him how the station was really doing—whether it was gaining or losing momentum,” Chapman says. “He could walk the floor in an hour, and come back with more than he'd have learned reading an entire prospectus on the station.”
His next move was to LIN's Indianapolis powerhouse WISH in 1989, where he spent six years as the president and general manager, growing the station from the runner-up to the market leader and creating WISH's iconic “24-hour news station” brand (WISH still employs the tagline, though “station” has been changed to “source” to reflect digital media).
Current president Jeff White, who joined the WISH sales department around the same time Karpowicz took over, remembers Karpowicz as a brilliant manager who knew television inside and out. “I've been very fortunate to follow in the footsteps of guys like Paul Karpowicz and [subsequent GM] Scott Blumenthal,” he says.
Karpowicz's next promotion was to the corporate level, shipping back to Rhode Island to be VP of LIN TV in 1994. The station group nearly doubled in size during his 11 years in that role, from 12 to 23 stations. Working alongside Chapman, Karpowicz spearheaded several initiatives, such as pushing cable operators for retransmission consent fees, obtaining the rights to Major League Baseball in various markets (sometimes flipping them to cable for a handsome profit), and organizing what is believed to be the nation's first local marketing agreement (LMA) between WOTV Grand Rapids and WUHQ Battle Creek (now WOOD Grand Rapids and WOTV Battle Creek).
Blumenthal, who took over WISH when Karpowicz left (and is now LIN's Executive VP of Television), says Karpowicz's best trait was getting everyone working toward the same goal. “Paul's very good at creating a universal sense of purpose—we all knew what we were trying to achieve,” he says. “He's a very supportive guy and a good friend—the kind of guy you want living next door to you.”
Much as he enjoyed charting the course for two dozen stations, Karpowicz admits he missed—and still sometimes misses—managing a lone station. “There are those days,” he says with a laugh. “Being a general manager and seeing your plans work out each day is one of the greatest jobs in the business.”
When a headhunter approached about a post at Meredith, Karpowicz told them he was more than happy in his role at LIN. But the “very persuasive” recruiter got Karpowicz in for a meeting with Meredith's then-president/CEO Bill Kerr (now chairman) and COO Steve Lacy, who proved to be every bit as persuasive as the headhunter. “I did want to run my own group,” he says. “After a few meetings with them, I thought, this could actually be very good.”
A steady hand for Meredith
Meredith, which owns venerable women's magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle in addition to its 12 stations, was going through a rough patch with former broadcast group president Kevin O'Brien, who had sent general managers and news directors at nearly every Meredith station packing over the course of his stormy three-year tenure. In Karpowicz, who came on board as president in February 2005, Meredith got not only a seasoned broadcasting veteran, but just the pacifying influence the company needed at the time.
“Paul made people calm again and got them headed in the right direction,” says Lacy, now Meredith Corp. president/CEO. “He's a real broadcasting pro, and he's created a culture where, when we have an opening, people are clamoring to come work for us. That's a testament to Paul's skills as a leader.”
While Karpowicz has been a calming presence, it's nonetheless been a harrowing time for everyone in the television business, as broadcasters hustle to keep up with broadband and mobile, and tackle the challenge of retaining viewers in an increasingly digital world. Splitting time between offices in Hartford, New York and Des Moines, he's game for the challenge. “We still do the traditional blocking and tackling of the broadcasting business, but the business has really evolved quickly,” says Karpowicz, who's quick to deflect credit to his Meredith colleagues. “You have to be pretty fast on your feet and willing to accept change.”
Toward that end, he created Meredith Video Solutions (MVS) in the spring of 2006. With Mark Berryhill and J.R. McCabe as VPs and Kieran Clarke as Executive VP/General Manager, MVS works across various media platforms to distribute both original content and material gleaned from Meredith's magazines and stations. Last April, MVS launched Better.tv, a broadband network featuring dozens of channels dedicated to cooking, decorating and beauty, and October saw the launch of Parents TV, a video-on-demand partnership with Comcast.
Better.tv takes its name from another Karpowicz innovation, taking KPTV Portland's morning program Better and syndicating it around the country. Shopping the show at NATPE this past January, Karpowicz has inked distribution deals with stations owned by LIN, Northwest and Fisher, and is courting groups with outlets in the top markets. “We're in discussions,” he says. “We're very close to a couple.”
Besides MVS, Karpowicz is focused on equipping Meredith's stations for local high-def (KPHO Phoenix and WGCL Atlanta, and perhaps KCTV Kansas City and WFSB Hartford, will flip the switch this year), getting stations ready for the digital switchover next year, negotiating retransmission deals with the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and testing the waters for acquisitions. “We're looking all the time,” he says of possible station targets. “We'll continue to look at what's out there.”
Karpowicz's general managers say the boss is unfailingly fair, and—much as he was on that sailboat a few decades ago—darn near unflappable when things get sticky.
“Paul is one of the most quality human beings I've known in this business,” says KCTV/KSMO VP/General Manager Kirk Black. “He's hands-on when he needs to be, and hands-off when he needs to be. It sounds easy, but it's not.”
Karpowicz shuttles between his offices, the Meredith stations around the country and his home in Naples, Fla., where he enjoys unwinding with his wife, Lisa (they have two adult children, Katie and Michael), and spending time with his parents, who live nearby. He's an avid, if not always consistent, golfer—Scott Blumenthal says Karpowicz is the only man he knows with a different swing on every hole.
Like the house he grew up in, the TV is always on in Naples: newscasts, golf tournaments, even Telemundo and Univision to pick up a few pointers. “I don't speak much Spanish, but I still find them fascinating,” Karpowicz says. “I study the production, the product integration, and I think, why can't we do that?”
Karpowicz also liberally gives his time back to the industry that's done so much for him and his family. He's a director on the Association for Maximum Service Television board and the National Association of Broadcasters' TV board, and was formerly chairman of the CBS affiliates' and the NAB TV boards. He is also chairman of the Television Bureau of Advertising board, where he has championed the group's ePort initiative (see story, p. 24).
To Karpowicz, volunteering isn't so much an option as it is a requirement. “I learned from people like my dad and Gary Chapman that we owe it to the industry to put our time back into it, and make sure we represent it well,” he says.
TVB President Chris Rohrs says Karpowicz is a “good big-picture guy, but he's willing and able to jump into the details, too.” Adds Rohrs, a fellow Notre Dame grad, “He's low-ego but high-involvement, with a world-class temperament.”
Karpowicz views his vocation with the same philosophy he uses for volunteer work. He recalls a telethon his father aired when Paul was a boy—not because sponsors were lining up, but because Ray Karpowicz thought it was the right thing for the market.
“The thing about this business is, you can still make money and be successful, but you really do have the opportunity to do good things,” Paul says. “I always thought the neat part of the business was that you really get to touch a lot of lives.”
Your story captures Paul perfectly. There are few people with the temperments and personal integrity of Paul Karpowicz and Gary Chapman.
Paul is most deserving of this coveted award not only because of his successes but because of the way he has achieved them--by appreciating the hard work of others in pursuit of excellence. To quote Harry Truman who could easily have been talking about Paul: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
Congratulations, Paul, from a guy who tested your temperment on a few occasions during our great years at WLNE-TV in Providence.
Dave Layman - 3/26/2008 10:53:00 PM EDT
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