In the late 1990s, Bray Cary was preparing a speech for a journalism class at West Virginia University when his wife unearthed an old essay he had written about why he wanted to work in journalism in West Virginia.
Then living in North Carolina, where he was helping to turn NASCAR into one of the most popular of American spectator sports, he had already been thinking about returning to West Virginia. That essay had helped him win a scholarship to the university in 1965 and provided the foundation not only for his speech, he says, but also for his current goals.
After a long detour that included producing and syndicating football and basketball programming, sports syndication, and the world of auto racing, Cary has returned to embrace journalism in West Virginia—but not as a reporter or editor.
Cary owns the station—three, actually—and a weekly newspaper as well. And, if things continue to go well and the government allows it, he plans to own a network of TV and radio stations and daily and weekly newspapers in all West Virginia markets and beyond.
Cary thinks common ownership of a local newspaper and television station would not eliminate a voice but strengthen it. In smaller markets, he believes, there's not a lot of in-depth reporting in either medium on local issues. But, he says, a different economic model might provide for more local reporting in both media.
His priority, though, is the state in which he grew up and got his start as a teen-age sports editor for a local newspaper and weekend disc jockey for a small radio station. "What we want to do here," Cary says, "is return to the old community television, television as a key part of the community. We want it locally owned, locally managed, with a focus on the community. West Virginia is an underserved market with a lot of growth potential."
Cary sees his fledgling media network as "a fundamental way to invest in West Virginia economically. With this network, we can make investments in people and in local news and programming."
It won't be the first time Cary started with a product that was small and local and expanded it. When he started with the Sun Belt Conference, TV stations weren't interested in its sports programs. "None of the traditional networks or syndicates had any interest at all," he recalls. "So we produced everything in-house."
In its first year, the conference lined up enough stations to make a profit with its 10-game schedule. The basketball games were popular enough to preempt the early part of the 1980 Super Bowl telecast to broadcast the finish of the University of New Orleans-Virginia Commonwealth game.
"By our third year," he says, "we were making a million dollars a year. That's when I figured out that I really liked this business and could make a living at it."
Cary's own company grew as the appetite for sports on cable TV grew. Creative Sports worked extensively with ESPN on Dallas Cowboys, Charlotte Hornets, boxing and NASCAR and with Turner networks as well. It was immensely successful, earning annual revenues of more than $100 million, and was eventually sold for more than $20 million.
Living in Charlotte, N.C., Cary first became involved with NASCAR as a fan. But both his involvement and the sport grew significantly, and he soon helped consolidate all TV rights to NASCAR races under a $2.4 billion, six-year contract with Turner/AOL that will advance the sport not only on television but via the Internet as well.
But it's his new venture that's closest—literally and figuratively—to where he lives. "We want to raise the bar on local news in this state and to redefine how this state markets itself. What I've been able to do in my career is find unique niches in sports and reposition them. We've got another unique niche here."