When Telemundo needed to fill the top programming job, it searched worldwide. Then the NBC-owned Spanish-language network tapped someone in its own backyard. Ramón Escobar's meteoric ascent isn't a surprise. He's one of a handful of TV whiz kids spotted by NBC veteran executive Don Browne, who doubles as his boss and COO at Telemundo.
Back in the early 1990s, Browne was No. 2 at NBC News, where his gut told him to put a 26-year-old hotshot producer—Jeff Zucker—in charge of the Today
show. Fast-forward to 1997. Browne is running WTVJ Miami and names 27-year-old Escobar news director at the big-market station.
Browne brought Escobar to the station in 1994, having recruited him at a conference for minority journalists.
"He just lit the place up. He combined the highest journalistic standards with an energy, passion, sense of humor, and competitive intensity all wrapped up in one package," Browne remembers. "Ramón has a way a making everyone in his environment perform better."
MSNBC took notice and deployed his talents to run daytime and live programming. During his tenure, two of the biggest stories in the nation's history broke: Election 2000 and 9/11. "You're lucky to get one story like that in a lifetime," says Escobar. "I got two."
He also got focused.
Growing up in Little Rock, Ark., in the late '60s and early '70s, he was profoundly influenced by TV. Among a tiny number of Hispanics in the area, his immigrant mother learned English by watching TV. "I began to observe the absolute power of TV," Escobar says, "and its ability to shape and inform and create images."
What started as a fascination with the small screen erupted into a career passion.
Early on, Escobar aspired to be a star TV reporter. But he turned down a shot at a reporting gig. Why go on air in Yakima, Wash., he thought, when he could be a producer in New York? That's right, his very first job out of college was as a sports producer for Univision affiliate WXTV New York. That was in 1990, a gig secured through "a friend of a friend of a friend of my dad's."
In less than a year, he was producing the station's late newscast and, by 1993, had been lured to the competition. Telemundo station WNJU made him executive producer and assistant news director. A year later, he met Browne at the Unity Journalism Conference—and his career took off. He served first as WTVJ's special-projects producer, then as managing editor, and finally, as news director in 1997.
After a three-year run as news director, he joined MSNBC in 2000, only to get a call from Jay Ireland, president of the NBC Television Stations division, at the end of 2001. Ireland's timing dovetailed neatly with NBC's decision to buy Telemundo.
The new offer was compelling: oversee the integration of the Telemundo station news departments with the NBC stations. Escobar jumped at the opportunity, running the Telemundo local news and programming operations for a year.
When the Telemundo network job materialized, Browne pitched his protégé to corporate higher-ups. By that time, however, Browne didn't see it as a gamble; he saw Escobar as a safe bet.
"If I'm going to put my reputation on the line," says Browne, "I want to put somebody up without reservation versus someone we're a taking a bet on."
And Escobar welcomes the challenge.
"We're in a pioneering moment in Spanish television," he says. With Telemundo's emphasis on original production, "we're really kind of creating the next generation of programming for a country that is changing before our very eyes."