Better Know an Executive: A Musical Moment with SyFy’s Dave Howe

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When SyFy President Dave Howe was a boy in England, his father was a very famous soccer coach. Had he grown up in the States, it would have been like having Bill Belichick as a dad, but probably with a better personality. In any case, Howe could have cared less.

“At the age of one, I rejected football completely,” he says. “I have a picture in which I’m holding a football and pulling a face.”

Good thing Howe had three soccer-obsessed brothers to take the pressure off him.

What Howe did love was music. At just seven years old, he begged his parents to let him learn how to play the piano.

“I was inspired by our next-door neighbor who had a piano,” he says. “I was really very engaged by that, although my parents were skeptical about the whole thing.”

The neighbor came across an old piano that someone wanted to get rid of, and Howe’s parents said they would accept it and let Howe take lessons under one condition: the piano had to reside in the garage. If he proved his commitment, his parents said they would buy him a new piano and move it into the house.

That took two years.

“I spent many a cold winter night in the garage practicing the piano with barely any light. But my parents followed through on their commitment and actually bought me a piano. I became a very focused pianist and went as far as I possibly could with it.”

In England, that means taking eight levels of exams, all of which Howe passed with distinction. Along the way, he also began playing percussion and oboe for his school orchestra. “I couldn’t play piano in the orchestra and they needed a percussionist so I just started playing drums, timpani and xylophone. I took up oboe for the same reason. I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Everyone else wanted to play the flute or the clarinet and thought the oboe was too hard and not very attractive-looking or sounding. I took all of that all the way through the end of high school.”

Still, when it came time to choose what to study in college, Howe knew he really wanted to work in television. He had been with his dad while he did TV interviews and “became obsessed with TV. I followed my father around every TV studio.”

 When it came time to choose, Howe passed up a music scholarship to pursue a degree in languages instead, and now speaks three: English, French and German.

While that might not seem the most obvious path to TV, Howe says that at the time, employers looked at languages as a more serious path of study than, say, media studies, so it made sense to go in that direction. During his college career, Howe played music in his spare time, but he also made videos while in pursuit of his degree.

All of that experience translated into broadcasting. “I took a management training course that the BBC ran, and ended up working at BBC World Radio Service for three years. After that, I crossed over to TV as a director,” he says. With BBC World Radio offering services in 36 languages, Howe’s language skill actually did come in handy.

From there, he worked his way up, working a total of 15 years in both programming and marketing at the BBC and launching more than 10 entertainment and news channels in the UK and internationally.

He was hired at SyFy (then Sci-Fi, a brand change that’s still in transition, but I decided to embrace change and go with the new) as executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy in September 2001. He was then promoted to general manager and EVP in 2004, and named the networks’ president in January 2008. While Howe’s been at SyFy, the network has had success with such shows as Battlestar Galactica, Tin Man,Eureka and Ghost Hunters. On July 7, the channel will launch its latest original series, Warehouse 13 (the nifty little press kit for which just arrived today). That’s also the official launch date of the channel’s rebrand.

Today, Howe still plays piano regularly. Before moving into his brand-new Manhattan apartment, he purchased a concert grand piano without even knowing if it would fit. Turns out, it did, but it had to be lifted by crane to the apartment because it wouldn’t fit through the front door.

Howe says that in a career that demands most of a person’s time, music keeps him sane. “I do love my job and I’m incredibly passionate about it, but if I couldn’t do it, I know for a fact that I would always have music to fall back on.

“I think it’s critical that everyone has something outside of their job that gives them joy and gives them something that distracts and diverts them. It keeps you real.”

P.S. Yes, I intentionally stole the name of what I hope will be an ongoing Fates & Fortunes feature from The Colbert Report. Better Know a District, when members of Congress decide to get brave and play with Colbert, is one of my favorites.

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