Jay Howell's early lessons in TV news came not in the classroom or the newsroom but the family room. He used to sit alongside his father John, who was a news director during much of Jay's boyhood and later a general manager at WPXI Pittsburgh. John Howell didn't so much watch the news as offer a running critique of what was working and what wasn't.
“When you watch television with a father who's a news director, you don't watch like other people,” Jay says. “He's taking notes, he's making comments, he's swearing. I didn't realize it at the time, but growing up in that environment really helped me.”
Jay learned the language—and the business—at a young age. In fact, both John Howell III and John Howell IV, as Jay is formally known, were quick studies. The elder got his first general manager job at 37; the younger got his at 31.
Jay says he picked up much of what he needed to be a general manager by his father's side. “I could go into the news department and understand what they were doing, and not just be totally sales-centric,” he says. “It's served me well and allowed me to move up fast.”
Two decades after starting out at WTOV Steubenville, Ohio, Howell has indeed advanced quickly. These days, he's president and general manager at LIN TV's WPRI Providence and Super Towers-owned Fox affiliate WNAC. At the top of his agenda is overtaking longtime ratings champion WJAR in DMA No. 53. With a ramped-up investigative department and an aggressive marketing campaign, Howell is aiming to win over well-entrenched Providence viewers one at a time.
“They're creatures of habit and they're hard to change,” says Howell, whose fast-talking nature belies his Southern California upbringing. “You have to believe in what you're doing, and fight tooth and nail for every person you switch.”
Howell began his career as an account executive at Sunrise Television's WTOV in 1989. He was promoted to sales manager in 1994, and got his first general manager job at KRBC Abilene/KACB San Angelo, Texas, in 1999. Then-boss Sandy DiPasquale says he took some heat for putting a 31-year-old in charge. “People questioned my wisdom, but I never doubted Jay for a minute,” says DiPasquale, now president/CEO of Newport Television. “He's very smart and a very quick learner, with great leadership skills. He did a fabulous job.”
Howell learned to do most of the jobs at his stations, from running cable at high school football games to painting the newsroom with fellow staffers to save a few bucks. It's a mindset he brought to Rhode Island when he took over WPRI/WNAC in 2001, even turning up at story meetings to pitch ideas.
“In small markets, everybody had to do everything if you wanted to be successful,” Howell says. “It's what we do here, and it's helped make us successful.”
The high-energy general manager is on a roll these days, with WPRI scoring its first late-news win since 1993 in November, launching MyNetworkTV on a digital channel in October, and taking the product-integration morning program The Rhode Show from concept to air.
LIN Executive VP Scott Blumenthal says Howell's can-do attitude has been key to WPRI's gains. “One of the things that makes Jay a good GM is the fact that he's a good person,” Blumenthal points out. “He cares deeply, he has passion and he's got a progressive mindset.”
While Howell could surely run a major-market station (“I'd hire him tomorrow if he'd leave Providence,” DiPasquale quips), the father of two says he's more than happy in Providence, with its access to New York and Boston but distinct small-town feel. “There's something about the people here,” he says. “Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody.”
At the wise old age of 42, Jay Howell doesn't call his father for local TV advice as much as he used to. “I couldn't be prouder of him,” says the elder Howell. “Jay's got it; he had it early.”