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Jack Sander

Sprinting to the Finish Line 4/14/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Jack Sander learned some valuable life lessons while courting advertisers for WTOL Toledo, Ohio, early in his career. Despite numerous pitches, Sander could not persuade a local men's-clothing chain, B.R. Baker, to advertise. So when a new B.R. Baker president took over, Sander pounced. The executive wanted to draw younger consumers, and Sander offered TV as the perfect avenue. Soon, the clothier was running a full ad campaign on WTOL.

“We put a lot of people in the stores that had never been there before,” Sander recalls. “It reinforced the power of television.”

Still, there was a problem: Traffic increased, but sales did not. So Sander went undercover and visited the stores himself. The company's older salesmen, he discovered, were not directing shoppers to the more youthful merchandise. He passed his findings on to the Baker president, and when the executive took action and sales began to increase, a strong business relationship was forged.

“I learned advertising was important, but you need a good business plan, too,” says Sander, now vice chairman of Belo Corp., which operates the country's 11th-largest TV-station group.

A lesson on local reach

Thirty years later, that lesson still serves him well. Local television's ability to reach into a community, Sander says, is the industry's biggest selling point, and, in news and sales, stations have to constantly reinforce the message. This principle has guided him through a storied career in local TV, one so impressive he was a natural pick as Broadcasting & Cable's Broadcaster of the Year. He will be honored at this week's Television Advertising Bureau (TVB) conference in New York.

Since arriving at Belo Corp. in 1997, Sander has headed its TV stations and, more recently, its newspaper and interactive businesses, too. He was promoted to his current position in February and plans to retire at the end of the year.

Under Sander's direction, Belo's stations have flourished. Many are among the top performers in their markets, and the group is widely recognized for its journalistic achievement and technological innovation. The most recent acknowledgement came two weeks ago, when Belo's CBS affiliate WWL New Orleans was awarded a prestigious Peabody Award for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina (see page 36).

“Belo keeps reinventing, and Jack has led the way,” says TVB President Chris Rohrs. “His stations are active online and strong players on-air.”

Sander has been fascinated with broadcasting since he was young. His family (his father was a telephone-company manager, his mother a homemaker) were among the first on their Cincinnati block to have a television. He also listened obsessively to radio broadcasts of Reds baseball. As a student at University of Cincinnati, Sander studied radio and television and was attracted more to behind-the-scenes work than to on-air. To gain experience, he worked at the local educational station and tagged along with a professor who produced the 11 p.m. news at WLWT.

After a brief stint at graduate school at Syracuse University, Sander left because the program emphasized journalism over business, he says, and he wanted to start making money. Although he always appreciated local news, he says, he didn't want to report or anchor. He wanted to run a television station.

Sander took a job as a sales service director in Columbus, Ohio. For $85 a week, he collected commercial material, mostly slides and occasionally film, from clients and delivered the materials to the station's sales and traffic departments.

From there, he started on the nomadic career path of a television executive. He moved to WTOL, where he wooed clients like B.R. Baker to TV. But his ambitions went beyond sales. “I was an adequate salesperson, but I thought I had a wonderful product,” Sander says. “I envisioned that television could do a lot of good.”

Sander was interested in station operations and ways to marry news product, sales and promotion. He stayed in Toledo until 1978, climbing to general sales manager and assistant general manager. His daughters—Jennifer, Jodi and Julie—were born during that time.

Sander's passion for his product was tested at his next post. WTOL's owner, Cosmos Broadcasting, purchased WDSU New Orleans, now a Hearst-Argyle–owned NBC affiliate, and, in 1978, dispatched Sander to be station manager under veteran Jim Yager, now president of Barrington Broadcasting. It was a daunting assignment. WDSU was a middling station competing against heavyweight WWL. Sander and Yager built up the sales staff and upgraded the news and promotion. “We ran into the juggernaut of WWL, but Jack never let our staff think we were No. 2 or No. 3,” says Yager. “He always believed we were No. 1.”

WDSU improved but could not catch WWL.

Two years later, Sander was back in Toledo as general manager of WTOL. Among his tasks was building a new broadcast facility, a “wonderful learning experience,” he says, “because I am not technologically inclined.” Success in Toledo, where his station was top-rated, led to another general manager job at KTSP Phoenix. Although Sander would move on to other locations, his family remained in Phoenix, and all three daughters graduated from the University of Arizona. It remains Sander's home base.

“The pulse of your community”

As Sander's journey continued, his rise was swift. Taft Broadcasting acquired KTSP (short for Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix) and tapped Sander to head its 12-station group. After running individual stations, Sander was struck by the corporate culture at Taft, which had a centralized operation, with corporate VPs for programming, news and marketing calling many of the shots. (UPN founder Lucie Salhany was VP of programming.) Sander pushed to give local executives more responsibility.

“If you're a good general manager, you should have the pulse of your community,” he says. “You should have the best understanding of your competition, and you should know where the opportunities are.”

At the same time, the local broadcast industry was changing. Cable distribution was growing, and more networks were launching, creating new rivals for TV stations. It was Sander's first taste of outside competition. “Suddenly, we didn't have the exclusive relationship with viewers anymore,” he says. “We had to become more business-oriented.” The lesson would repeat itself later at Belo, where Sander's stations face competition from such platforms as the Internet and video-on-demand.

After Taft's assets were sold off, Sander returned to local management in 1988 as president/general manager of WAGA Atlanta, then a CBS station owned by George Gillett. Sander arrived with what he describes as a “360-degree” view. “I had always thought from the local perspective, but now I understood what shareholders wanted and corporate executives needed,” he says. “We would sit in Atlanta and have a good television station, but we also could ask the questions our bosses would ask.”

“A rare combination”

That approach to managing caught the attention of Dallas-based Belo Corp. In 1997, Belo was acquiring the Providence Journal Co. and adding several television stations to its portfolio. Looking for a group manager, then-TV Group President Jim Moroney recommended Sander to Chairman Robert Decherd. “We were attracted to his breadth of experience,” Decherd says. “He'd run a group, run stations, had corporate and operating roles, and was always successful. It was a rare combination.”

Competitors say he was the right guy for the job. “Jack has a combination of smarts and experience and wisdom,” says Hearst-Argyle CEO David Barrett, who was named Broadcaster of the Year in 2004. “When Belo hired him, it was a master stroke to get one of the best broadcasters in the business.”

Sander did not waste time in making his presence felt at Belo. Surprised by its lean sales staff, he doubled the local sales forces and created the company's first-ever sales-training program, which Decherd calls “an attention-getter.”

“Belo was spectacularly good in journalism and in their communities,” Sander says. “But we needed a push and emphasis on sales and research.”

With broadcasters once again facing increased competition from the likes of cable, Internet and DVDs, Sander also pushed the stations to expand their delivery—and change the way they view their business. “We're a content company, not a distribution company anymore,” he says. “We have to get our local content to consumers wherever they want it.”

To attract a larger audience, Belo stations have partnered with local cable operators on news channels, although some have shut down. In Dallas, flagship ABC affiliate WFAA and the Dallas Morning News built their relationship, collaborating on stories and a joint Web site. Across the Belo group, the TV stations operate robust Web sites loaded with video. The next development will be delivering to wireless and portable devices. “Television is still the best means of reaching the largest number of people in an effective, organized way,” Sander says. “But we don't have the 76 share of the audience we once did.”

Sander's next act

In 2001, Sander was promoted to executive VP, media operations, and added the Belo newspapers to his watch. Three years later, he was promoted to president, media operations, with additional oversight of Belo's Washington bureau and all its operating companies. In February, he announced his intention to retire at year's end and is working closely with his successor, former CFO Dunia Shive, one of the first Belo executives Sander met when he joined the company.

Sander, 64, has a busy year ahead of him. Since The WB and UPN announced in January that they will shut down and form The CW, Sander is overseeing Belo's negotiations with The CW and its Fox-owned rival, My Network TV. So far, he has engineered deals with The CW in Phoenix and Spokane, Wash., and with My Network TV for its Tucson, Ariz., station.

Sander, who has been active in industry organizations, including the National Association of Broadcasters and the TVB, and has served as chairman of the NBC affiliate board and vice chairman of the Fox affiliate board, plans to work on unnamed projects when he retires. His boss, for one, doesn't expect him to slow down much. Says Decherd, “Jack is the rare bird who will cross the finish line sprinting.”

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