Barr Keeps WLS on Top
GM maintains strong focus on Chicago community
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/2/2005 7:00:00 PM
When a fire raged recently at the LaSalle Bank building in Chicago, ABC-owned-and-operated station WLS extended its evening newscast to cover the breaking story. As 8 p.m. approached, the station faced a tough choice: Monday Night Football was about to start, but it wasn’t known if the burning building had been fully evacuated.
For Emily Barr, president and GM, there was no debate. Breaking news trumped football. WLS stayed live until the fire was brought under control around 10 p.m. “Yes, it costs you money and a lot of angry viewers when you don’t air programming, but people eat, live and breathe news here,” says Barr, GM since 1997, who has survived and thrived in one of the most competitive markets in the country. A typical Monday Night game pulls in an 8 or 9 rating; that night’s fire coverage drew a 17.
“The entire station derives its image from news,” says Barr. In Chicago, WLS is No. 1 in news and strong in access and prime time. From Oprah to Desperate Housewives, the station’s entertainment lineup is red-hot. Its newscasts are top-rated in every time slot, part of 33 hours of local programming each week. WLS prides itself on showcasing local events, including 10 parades a year; it also has its own weekly lifestyle show, 190 North.
“WLS has never been stronger,” says Walter Liss, president of Disney’s station group. “That’s not an easy trick. You have to work the room, you have to work it every day, which Emily does fabulously.”
Despite her success, Barr keeps pushing. Her work ethic comes courtesy of a New England upbringing. A Massachusetts native schooled at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, “I always hedged my bets,” she says. Though a film major at esteemed Carleton College, Barr sought an internship to learn practical job skills. She applied to TV stations nationwide and each sent back courteous rejections, except for KSTP in Minneapolis, which didn’t reply at all. Barr took that as encouragement, calling the station incessantly until someone invited her for an interview. She landed an internship as a news editor, then a full-time job.
Barr longed to be more hands-on than an editing job would allow. When a position in the promotions department opened, she applied. When their first-choice candidate rejected the job offer, Barr got her break. “Doors open for all sorts of reasons,” she says. “Sometimes, you have to run right through.” Soon, she was writing and cutting promo spots for the station’s newscast. “News promotion is the front line at a station,” she says. “I tried to be enticing but not sensational or misleading.”
By 1983, WJLA in Washington, D.C., recruited her to be a news promotion specialist. Barr took the job, but she was uncertain about a career in TV. She enrolled in night classes at a part-time MBA program at George Washington University; everyone at the station told her it was a mistake, but Barr saw the degree as insurance. “With an MBA, I figured I could always go work for General Mills and have a real job,” she says.
Instead, she started to connect the TV dots. “Prior to business school, I didn’t understand TV was a business, or how we made money.” Barr decided to play a bigger role, so she moved to KHOU Houston and expanded her purview to promotions and advertising. Then she hopped on a management track, heading to WMAR Baltimore in 1988, where she was assistant GM for six years. Barr liked being second-in-command, and she found a mentor in then-WMAR chief Arnie Kleiner. While there, she also met her husband, Scott Kane, a former Baltimore/D.C. videographer.
Barr landed her first GM job in 1993, at ABC’s WTVD in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.—and it was a coup. WTVD was a Cap Cities station, and the company rarely hired people from the outside. Barr inherited a strong station, but once there, she made changes. She replaced most of the department heads and pushed in a new direction. “I tried to focus more on news and community events,” she recalls. “Baltimore taught me that your relationship to the community influences your news ratings.”
When the GM spot at ABC station WPVI in Philadelphia opened, Barr lobbied for the job. She lost the post, but gained another offer: to run WLS. The timing wasn’t ideal—Barr was 7 ½ months pregnant—but she accepted.
In the flurry of those first weeks, rival WMAQ’s popular anchor duo Ron Magers and Carol Marin quit in protest after the station hired talk show host Jerry Springer as a commentator. Barr knew Magers from her days as an intern at KSTP, when he was lead anchor. She scooped him up for WLS. “It was fortuitous,” she says. “He is a terrific anchor and highly regarded by viewers.”
With a steady hand, Barr chose not to alter the station’s anchor lineup just to accommodate Magers. Rather, she introduced her new star at 5 p.m., and Magers slowly evolved into a WLS ace. Barr espouses this subtle strategy for any TV station, especially a market leader. “You have to keep moving forward,” says the seasoned television pro, “but you don’t want to upset the viewers.”
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