Les Vann knew he would be facing a stiff challenge this past summer while in the running for the WISH Indianapolis general manager job. The LIN station was years removed from its marketleader standing. The position got a whole lot more challenging when WISH then lost its affiliation.
Vann was on vacation in Ireland when he heard about CBS pulling WISH’s affiliation, and whipped off a quick email to LIN VP of television Jay Howell. The message? He was now doubly interested in the job.
Making WISH—or any station— work without network entertainment and news, not to mention big-time sports, is a mighty difficult chore. But Vann moved to Indianapolis knowing precisely what he was getting himself into. “This heavy a lift is not for everybody,” he says. “It is for me.”
A tiny handful of stations has succeeded following a network split. Many more have seen just how hard it is to draw viewers without true tentpole programming. “It is a heckuva challenge,” says Sandy DiPasquale, who hired Vann to run WKRC Cincinnati when he was president/CEO of Newport Television. “If anyone has the right attitude and can hold a staff together and motivate them, it’s Les. He’s probably the perfect guy for this.”
Hankering for Anchoring
Indianapolis was attractive to Vann for a number of reasons, including his Midwestern roots. His father worked at the post office in Springfield, Ill., and his mother was a nurse, assisting in the delivery of thousands of babies. As a boy, Vann played baseball, football and basketball. “My whole neighborhood, our entire recreational life, was centered around sports,” he says.
Baseball was his favorite; Vann fondly recalls listening to Cardinals radio broadcasts in the backyard with his father Bill. So it made sense that Vann sought a career in sportscasting, until a professor steered him in another direction. Working in sports might turn you off sports as a hobby, advised the professor. And there are way more jobs in news.
Vann worked his way up at WICS Springfield: photographer, writer, producer, assignment editor, even anchor. “I thought I was pretty good [on the air],” says Vann. “When I look at the tapes, I’m not so sure.”
He eventually made news director, then got his first GM job at WICD Champaign in 1994. The station was acquired that year for $3.5 million, he says, and was sold for $21 million five years later.
Subsequent GM jobs followed before Vann landed at WKRC in 2008, and proceeded to move the station ahead of longtime leader WCPO. “There was a sense of calm, of confidence at the station, and I attribute that all to Les,” DiPasquale says.
Vann resigned when Sinclair acquired WKRC late in 2012, and landed at LIN’s duopoly in Savannah a month later. Howell picked up on Vann’s knack for community when the two went out to dinner, and half of the restaurant’s guests seemed to be friends with the new GM. “He got those stations rocking in a very short time,” adds Howell.
Rebuilding Indianapolis will take way more time and money. The “countdown clock,” as Vann puts it, is set for Jan. 1, when WISH goes independent. WISH will add 20 hours of news per week. It is playing up its heritage in Indianapolis in promos and a 60-minute special.
As if relaunching a station isn’t a tall enough order, Vann had been dealing with his father’s failing health. Bill passed away Nov. 13; Les’ out-of-office email said he was “laying to rest the Greatest of the Greatest Generation.”
Vann got his work ethic and optimism from his father. Perhaps inadvertently, Bill also showed his son the value of doing what you love for a living. “My dad did not particularly enjoy going to work every day,” says Vann. “I’ve enjoyed every day, even the bad days. This is a great business to be in.”