K. James Yager, CEO and Co-founder, Barrington Broadcasting Group, LLC
K. James Yager HOF Speech
The coasts may get all the attention in broadcasting, from the sexy network skyscrapers in New York to the sparkling studios in Los Angeles, and the marble halls of influence in DC. Barrington Broadcasting, with stations in Kirksville, Mo., and Amarillo, Texas, among others, doesn't own stations in the mightiest of markets.
But CEO Jim Yager says those local TV outlets hold unique sway in their communities that their major market brethren might only dream of.
"We really are in touch with the community, the legislative process, our congressmen and senators. You know you are the voice for those people," Yager says. "Television is still exciting to people in our communities; all you've got to do is go to lunch with one of our anchors to see it."
And while those diminutive stations hold outsize influence in their markets, their chief executive wields extraordinary clout as well. One might expect the most influential voices to come solely from the players in the Top 10 markets, but several of broadcasting's tribal elders suggest there's no more impactful, or more dedicated, presence than that of Jim Yager. "Jim is a guy who is respected by everybody that's anybody in the business-station owners, operators, networks, syndicators, trade organizations," says Michael Fiorile, CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group and former NBC affiliates board chairman. "He's the go-to guy when you need help or advice. I was going to say he rarely says no, but Jim never says no."
Yager's broadcast career started during his U.S. Army stint in the late '50s at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where he worked in the public information office, and produced a weekly program for WIS Columbia called Fort Jackson Presents. That set him up for a job at WIS, then owned by Cosmos Broadcasting, after his discharge.
At the time, the FCC was promoting UHF-band television around the country, with WIS earmarked to potentially lose its VHF status. Setting the stage for a lifelong career of standing up for broadcasters' rights in Washington, Yager was on a committee that pushed for legislation, ultimately successfully, which ensured that all televisions manufactured after a set date feature a UHF tuner.
Yager was also tasked with heading up Cosmos' nascent cable efforts, which the company drove in part to make sure its stations maintained their reach in case the FCC's UHF plans caused coverage gaps. He oversaw the launch of cable systems throughout the region, even creating a local cable news channel in the mid-'60s that ran Cox's WSOC Charlotte's daily 6 p.m. newscast.
Yager's leadership earned him the WIS general manager job at the age of 32 in 1968. He added the oversight of WSFA in Montgomery, Alabama, to his responsibilities, then headed to New Orleans to run WDSU in 1974.
WDSU ended up featuring one of the great one-two punches in local TV history, between Yager and station manager Jack Sander, the future vice chairman at Belo Corp. Sander notes that Yager treated everyone at the station the way he treated his wife and children-with abundant fairness and generosity. "It was a great experience," says Sander, who was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame in 2009. "Jim is a tremendous broadcaster. He was a great boss and an even better human being."
After Yager moved on to an executive VP role at Spartan Communications, broadcast vet Richard Benedek approached him about forming a new station group. Benedek Broadcasting started off with four stations in 1986. But after ownership rules loosened, Yager, as president and COO, expanded Benedek's holdings to 28 stations.
Those heady days sound like ancient history amidst today's conservative M&A market. "We never saw a dollar we couldn't borrow," Yager says with a laugh. "We were very highly leveraged.
As his group grew, Yager became increasingly involved in industry leadership. He was twice the chairman of the influential National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Television board, from 1998 to 1999 and then a crucial 2008-2009 tenure during which analog TV was shut off.
He was the NAB's joint board chairman, was chairman of the NBC affiliates board and served on the TVB board. Yager has also logged countless trips to Capitol Hill to testify on behalf of broadcasters on vital issues, such as the broadcast spectrum. "He's probably the most testifiedbroadcaster of any," Sander says. "Jim has probably served more for this industry than any individual."
Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO, calls Yager a key ally. "Jim's been a role model for those who believe you can meet a payroll and make the bottom line, but still remain committed to community service," Smith says. "NAB and broadcasters across America have been blessed to have Jim Yager in a leadership role for many years."
After Benedek sold off its stations in 2002, Yager again set out to build a group from scratch. There was no doubt what kind of stations he was looking to assemble when launching Barrington in 2003: small-market news powers in the heartland. With newspapers in many markets hemorrhaging their share of hearts and minds, the stations grew that much more powerful.
"It's still where people look for their news and information," Yager says. "Congressmen and senators come to us. In a major market, that does not happen."
With crime less of an issue in these cozier precincts, Yager says the Barrington newscasts focus more on substantial issues, such as education and employment. "â€˜If it bleeds, it leads' doesn't happen in our communities," he says.
Tragedy struck Yager in 2003, when his wife, Patsy, who so frequently took the wives of other broadcasters under her wing when the men were off to fight their legislative battles, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died three months later. As he ponders his induction in the Hall of Fame, Yager credits Patsy for helping him get here. "She'd be proud," he says. "This would've been the culmination of her putting up with me all those years."
Showing no signs of slowing down at 76, Yager continues to focus on elevating the Barrington group, which totals 24 stations, including local powerhouses WLUC Marquette (WI) and KTVO Kirksville (MO). He's a staunch keeper of Barrington's broadcast spectrum, expanding the stations' reach through a variety of multicast channels (several Big Four networks air on Barrington stations' subchannels) and mobile apps. Chris Cornelius, Barrington president and COO, says Yager-whom he calls "one of the premier wise men of the business"-is pushing the stations to master the integration of social media into their content mix. "Jim has never taken his foot off the gas," says Cornelius, "in terms of how to be better local broadcasters with the newer tools available."
Looking back on his career, Yager mentions the people he's met, the betterment the stations have sparked in their communities and the sheer joy of working in television. Says Yager: "I look at young people and say, I hope you're having as much fun as I am." --Michael Malone