Roots in Cuba,Thrives in Michigan

Detroit GM offers big-time bilingual experience running stations
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It’s been an atypical career trajectory for Ed Fernandez, one of the very few television executives to jump from running a Spanish-language station to managing a major English-language outlet. But Fernandez, formerly of Telemundo, has found a happy home at WXYZ Detroit. He recently was given greater oversight within the Scripps group, including the Azteca America affiliates acquired last fall.

“It’s not the typical way to get there, but these are changing times in this country,” says Fernandez. “My whole career has been a little different; my whole life has been a little different.”

Fernandez was in the womb when his parents fled Cuba in 1962. He was born in Miami Beach, but was on the move again inside of a year. Sponsored by a church in western Michigan, the family relocated to the tiny town of Zeeland.

It was culture shock, to say the least. “My parents did not speak English and had never seen snow,” says Fernandez. “But it was an opportunity for them to start a new life, and we’re eternally grateful to the people there who helped us get on our feet.”

Fernandez’s career path was decided in those early Zeeland days. His parents worked double shifts at a factory that manufactured office furniture, while Ed watched an “inordinate” amount of television— even learning his new language from TV. “I fell in love with television,” he says. “I never wanted to be on television— I wanted to be in television. I was amazed at the world it showed me.”

He started in master control at WZZM Grand Rapids in 1984, before shifting to rival WOOD’s sales department a year later. Fernandez’s first general manager job was at Fox affiliate WXMI in 1999. That was where he got to know Ibra Morales, then an exec at Argyle Television, which also owned a station in the market.

Morales had heard about a fellow Cuban in the region, and when he moved on to be president of Telemundo’s station group, he tapped Fernandez to run WSNS Chicago. Morales said he got a feel for Fernandez’s character—and his keen sense of rhythm—during a client dinner in Florida. The lights went down around 10 p.m., the demure Latino restaurant turned into a hot nightclub, and Fernandez impressed the client—and his own boss—with his fluid dance moves.

“Ed is a very involved leader,” says Morales, now senior VP of marketing at Katz Television. “He knows that to truly be part of the community, you can’t just be at your desk. You have to be out with the people. That’s what makes him a great general manager.”

Fernandez was snapped up by Scripps in 2010 to run its largest-market station. He was delighted to get back to his home state, and do right for the Michiganders who helped his family decades before. General managers in Detroit are much more than that—they are full-time ambassadors for the struggling city too. That made Fernandez an even better pick.

“Quite frankly, we were blown away by the guy,” says Brian Lawlor, Scripps senior VP of television. “Detroit was something that was real special to Ed.”

WXYZ’s efforts to improve Detroit include well-financed investigative reporting and signature franchises such as Detroit 2020—an on-air and local outreach effort to mobilize the community to reshape the beleaguered region.

“When [Scripps CEO] Rich Boehne and Brian gave me the opportunity to run WXYZ, they gave me two jobs,” Fernandez says. “One was run WXYZ, and the other was to use the bully pulpit of WXYZ to make Detroit a better place.”

Following Scripps’ acquisition of the McGraw-Hill stations, Fernandez was given greater oversight, including the Spanish-language stations picked up in the deal. His role does not leave a ton of leisure time, though Fernandez can often be found at Lions and Tigers games and riding his new Harley—a passion he and girlfriend Lila share.

Now that May sweeps is over, he can address some other pressing matters. “I got engaged earlier this year,” Fernandez shares. “I’m trying to find a free window of opportunity to get married.”

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

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