Fifth Estater: Colleen Brown

Fisher Communications chief connects with communities thanks to an always-stocked “idea drawer”
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Colleen Brown’s career plans were sealed on a snowy day in Denver three decades ago. Representing the University of Colorado in a graduate school marketing competition, she and four teammates were creating a plan for a General Motors automobile in front of a roomful of business luminaries that included then-KUSA Denver CFO Cecil Walker.

Up against the Ivy League’s brightest, Brown’s crew won the top prize, and she so impressed Walker that she got an offer to work in the Gannett station’s finance department. “Out of three offers, it was the one that paid the least,” says the Fisher Communications president/ CEO. “I went after what I knew I’d love.”

Walker, who retired as president/ CEO of Gannett Broadcasting in 2001, suspected there was a future broadcasting leader in the room. “Colleen was always an overachiever,” he says. “She’s very bright and very, very good on her feet, and she’s always on the front edge of new things that come into the broadcast arena.”

Brown is currently on the edge of another innovative local initiative, as Fisher rolls out hundreds of community Websites. Five markets, including Seattle and Portland, Ore., feature 135 such sites thus far, covering hyper-local news and offering a wide array of advertisers a price point that fits their budget.

While every broadcaster is brainstorming ways to tap local revenue, Fisher’s community Websites have traction. “I keep saying, we’re rolling up nickels,” Brown says. “And that’s just fine with me.”

Fisher is so keen on the strategy that it announced a $1.5 million investment in DataSphere, the firm that provides the technology—and on whose board Brown sits. Fellow director John Connors, a partner at tech investment outfit Ignition Partners, says Brown has played a key role in helping DataSphere understand local media. “Colleen has a deep, deep knowledge of the media industry,” he says. “She’s helped shape the strategy and technology to fit where she sees the industry going.”

Brown grew up in rural Iowa, tagging along with her father, a country music promoter, to various fairs. She stayed local for college, before shifting to Boulder for the M.B.A. studies that led to her career path.

Brown started at KUSA in 1980, eventually moving up to station manager in 1988. Her first general manager appointment came in 1991 at Gannett’s WFMY Greensboro. Four years later, she was tapped to run Gannett’s KPNX Phoenix.

A 18-year Gannett run came to an end in 1998, when Brown was named president of Lee Broadcast Group. When Lee sold its broadcast division in 2000, Brown moved to Belo as a senior VP.

The responsibilities kept increasing, but Brown—the mother of two—took it in stride. “My grandmother told me God never gives you more than you can handle,” she says. “I really believe that—it’s part of my DNA.”

Brown got another opportunity to run a group when she took over Fisher in 2005. As befits its Seattle roots, the company is a technology leader, and its stations, including KOMO Seattle, enjoy solid news reputations.

Fisher stations are community advocates that avoid manipulative teases, according to Brown, and dig deeper to inform viewers. “We work very hard not to scare viewers,” she says. “We go the extra mile to find out why, what’s the problem, how is this happening.”

While free time is scarce, Brown spends it with her two college-age children, and with young female professionals through the mentoring organization she co-founded, Ladies Who Lead. But she’s quick to admit that her thoughts are always on the next big broadcasting thing, whether it’s Fisher’s Web strategy or its ambitious plans for mobile local video (she spearheads the Open Mobile Video Coalition’s policy group).

Brown says former KUSA general manager Joe Franzgrote, who passed away March 3, keeps inspiring her to think creatively. “He had a drawer in his desk that he loved to show me. He’d say, ‘This is my idea drawer. If it ever gets empty, I have to leave,’” she says with a laugh. “I still have an idea drawer today.”

COLLEEN BROWN
Title
President/CEO, Fisher Communications

Education
B.A., University of Dubuque, 1979; M.B.A., University of Colorado, 1980

Employment
KUSA Denver: finance department assistant, VP/business manager, program manager, station manager, 1980-1991; WFMY Greensboro, president/general manager, 1991- 1995; KPNX Phoenix, president/ general manager, 1995-1998; Lee Broadcasting Group, president, 1998- 2000; Belo Corp., senior VP, 2000- 2004; current position since 2005

Personal
Born Aug. 4, 1958, Vallejo, Calif; married to Guy; son Pierce, daughter Blair

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