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High-Flying Gannett Exec Lands on His Feet - Broadcasting & Cable

High-Flying Gannett Exec Lands on His Feet

Jacksonville GM back in local TV after ventures into NFL, aviation
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While other 13-year-olds in Zanesville, Ohio, spent their summers playing ball or swimming, Eric Land was working at the local TV station. His father, Allan, was the general manager, and Eric made 50 cents an hour sweeping WHIZ’s floors and wiping down the weatherboard.

This unique vantage point enabled Land to see up-close how on-air talent—his dad had been a news anchor—could make the jump to station management, a vital life lesson for the youngster. “My dad had never sold a spot, never managed people,” says Land. “But they saw talent in him and gave him the [GM] job, and were never in the red again.”

The younger Land also took to running TV stations, following a detour that involved Csuite posts with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in the aviation industry.

In August, Land was named general manager of Gannett Broadcasting’s WTLV-WJXX Jacksonville, and the longtime pilot is pumped to get the NBC-ABC duo flying high.

“I think [the stations have] tremendous upside, not only in the traditional elements of our business, but with the vast investments Gannett has made in digital and social media,” he says. “The company is really poised to be a leader in what we evolve this industry to be. I find that very exciting.”

Television industry brats are not uncommon, but Land is one of the few who can (and does) call his dad a “television pioneer.” After World War II, Allan was a radio announcer in Lewistown, Pa.—commuting from Brooklyn, four hours away, as he did not earn enough to move his wife, June, to Pennsylvania.

That is, until a radio station general manager driving through Lewistown heard Allan’s voice and offered him $20 a week more to come to Zanesville. When the company built a television station, Allan ended up anchoring, then running the operation until he retired at age 81.

Eric earned a scholarship for his radio announcing prowess to Ohio University, being contacted with the good news by a grad student named Jim Saunders, who had left the university for a television job before Land arrived in the fall of 1969. Land anchored at the Ohio U. TV station—a position later filled by an ambitious undergrad named Matt Lauer. “He had real talent,” says Land. “I didn’t.”

Land parlayed an internship at WCPO Cincinnati into a reporter job. Six months in, he was called into WCPO general manager Bob Gordon’s office. Gordon saw a future GM in the 22-year-old. “He said, ‘You have to understand— 17 people are waiting for [legendary WCPO anchor] Al Schottelkotte to step in front of a bus,’” recalls Land, who jumped to sales.

Stints at WEWS Cleveland and rep firms followed, before that same Jim Saunders called—12 years after they almost met at Ohio U.—about a local sales manager job at WAVY Norfolk.

Land’s first GM jobs, meanwhile, were at WEYI Flint (Mich.) and then WGRZ Buffalo. Colleagues from Buffalo remember newscasts that had been “unwatchable” prior to Land’s arrival, and a live truck that had to be towed to the Bills’ NFL games due to a blown engine. While rebuilding moribund relationships with NBC, syndicators and viewers, Land’s steady leadership helped turn WGRZ into a winning station.

Tim Busch, Nexstar executive VP/co-COO and Land’s general sales manager at WGRZ, recalls a creative problem-solver. “He was sentimentally tied to the business,” says Busch. “To have the station fail on his watch was just not gonna happen.”

Following WGRZ came another turnaround. WBMG Birmingham’s local news was so bad, says Land, that the anchors’ parents didn’t even watch. He shut down the news operation for 35 days and ran a countdown slide on-screen in the newscasts’ place. Then, with Birmingham’s community leaders assembled in the parking lot, he pushed a plunger, blowing up the WBMG logo. When the smoke cleared, the new WIAT (“It’s About Time”) logo was revealed.

WIAT’s current management credits Land with energizing the staff and getting the CBS affiliate moving in the right direction.

Land’s career detoured after running WFLA Tampa, when the Glazer family, owners of the Buccaneers who knew him from negotiating TV rights, asked him to be COO. “I told them, ‘You don’t understand—I don’t know anything about football,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘That’s exactly why we want you.’”

The Glazers wanted a savvy business type to sell tickets, sponsorships and hot dogs. With a copy of Football for Dummies in his briefcase, Land put in two seasons, then three more years as a consultant. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” he says. “The Glazer family is extremely generous.”

Next up on Land’s wild ride were stints as COO, then president/CEO, at a pair of aviation companies. He knew more about airplanes than he did football, having tagged along in his father’s company plane as a boy. “Eric is a very good pilot,” says Busch, “even though he’s got a little bit of cowboy in him.”

Land’s diverse background was a plus in his recent hiring, says Lynn Beall, executive VP at Gannett Broadcasting. “Eric brings such rich experience and leadership from so many different business scenarios,” Beall says. “He’s an innovator and focused leader who has the know-how to build strong local brands.”

Land spends his downtime flying his Cessna 402. He and his wife of 39 years, Cindy, are expecting their first grandchild. He also enjoys golf, though his handicap has edged upward with his return to station management. “My game was OK in the airplane business, but now that I’m back in television, it may suffer for a while,” Land says. “We have a lot of work to do, but I’m really excited about where we are.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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