A week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, John Reardon flew to Baton Rouge with a team of fellow Tribune Broadcasting executives on a chartered plane loaded with water, food and cash. Staffers at Tribune's ABC affiliate WGNO and its WB outlet WNOL had fled the studio they shared near the Superdome and retreated to Louisiana's capital. Although the storm had knocked the stations temporarily off the air and badly damaged their facility, for Reardon, then-group VP for Tribune's West and South regions, the first priority was the employees, many of whom had lost homes and were separated from their families.
“These were human beings,” Reardon says. “This wasn't business.”
Today, getting the New Orleans duopoly back to business is one of many priorities for Reardon, who became president/CEO of Tribune's 26 stations in November. But as he looks to develop the group's collection of WB, UPN and Fox stations (WGNO is its only traditional network affiliate), he brings to the task a commitment to localism that has been a hallmark of his long tenure at the company.
A focus on news and syndication
Reardon is stepping up at a critical time for Tribune, taking the reins from Pat Mullen after a year marred by declines in the group's revenue. The WB, its primary network affiliate and corporate cousin, is struggling in prime time. Advertisers, notably auto companies and movie studios, that target youthful WB and Fox viewers, have held back. And competition for local news and quality syndication is as fierce as ever.
But Tribune can boast some successes. WGN Chicago, WPIX New York and KTLA Los Angeles have found niches in competitive markets with strong news products, particularly in the morning. And the company is trying to foster syndication by partnering with studios such as Sony Pictures Television to develop first-run shows.
Reardon hopes to pursue similar deals that give station groups a hand in development and more control over the products that end up on their air. And he moves forward with the full backing of his Tribune higher-ups.
“Our business is based on programming, and John is an excellent negotiator and has excellent relationships,” says Chairman Dennis FitzSimons.
Few executives understand the company better than Reardon. In his 20 years in local TV, he has never worked for another outfit. Reared in Chicago, Tribune's hometown, he majored in finance at Loyola University. After graduation, he worked as an account executive at a computer company, then followed a friend to sales-rep firm Petry Television.
In 1983, the allure of cable led Reardon to MTV Networks. Although selling advertisers on a new platform was tough, he once managed to persuade Kellogg to buy a $200,000 order of spots on MTV's then-fledgling channel Nickelodeon.
Still, Reardon preferred the more established world of broadcasting, and when then-Tribune President Jim Dowdle, his former Petry boss, offered him a sales position at WGN in 1985, Reardon jumped. He climbed the sales ranks, working for several years under FitzSimons, and in 1992 was tapped to be station manager at KTLA Los Angeles.
Reardon immersed himself in the nuts and bolts of the station, hanging around the newsroom, tagging along with reporters on stories and shadowing the station's top engineer, Ira Goldstone (now Tribune's chief technology officer). It paid off when he was named VP/general manager in 1996. “I learned all the areas that I hadn't concentrated on, so when I became GM, it would be a smooth transition,” he recalls.
KTLA flourished on Reardon's watch. Its morning news, launched a year before he arrived, became a top player in L.A.'s competitive morning-news wars. He negotiated local sports deals—including with the Anaheim Angels, the Dodgers and the Clippers—and procured popular syndicated fare, such as Seinfeld. “He was influential in securing product that got us to No. 3 in the market at one point,” says current KTLA VP/General Manager Vinnie Malcolm, who was sales manager under Reardon.
Reardon credits the station's success to his cadre of lieutenants. But colleagues say it is a testament to Reardon that several of them are now running Tribune stations, including Malcolm, Audrey Farrington in Sacramento, Calif. (ex-KTLA programming director), Pam Pearson in Seattle (former station manager), and Vince Giannini in Philadelphia (KTLA's head of finance).
An online and wireless push
Reardon soon took on oversight for Tribune's West Coast stations and, in March 2004, became regional VP for the stations in the South and West.
Now, as chief, he intends to push Tribune's stations to ratchet up their online and wireless products.
Already, WPIX New York has debuted the Commutercast, an afternoon Webcast that provides traffic news with updates every 30 minutes, a product that Reardon hopes to replicate in other big markets, including Chicago and Los Angeles. He wants the TV stations to collaborate with Tribune-owned newspapers on news stories and special reports, and the company to get a jump on broadband.
And he will continue to “push the local angle,” as he has done in New Orleans. WNOL and WGNO are hunting for a new facility in the area. “New Orleans will come back stronger, and money will pour in,” Reardon predicts. Already in the fourth quarter, he says, the stations' ad billings were stronger than expected. “There is a lot to be gained down there,” he says, “and we are invested.”