With the nation choosing a new leader in the coming weeks, Hearst-Argyle President/CEO David J. Barrett is pleased to be running a broadcast company with strong stations in as many as eight swing states. While the advertising revenue from the presidential hopefuls is certainly a welcome infusion in a difficult time for broadcasters, Barrett is every bit as excited about his stations helping viewers decide on the right person for the job.
While the national networks may get the sexiest “gets,” Barrett says reporters at the station level are tirelessly chasing the candidates around the local markets—and delivering vital reportage to viewers. “That's the filter through which some people will make their determinations,” he says. “There's a substantial amount of revenue, but with that comes a huge responsibility to report on this thing well.”
David Barrett is a devoted family man who's all too happy to talk about his Olympian son, newswoman daughter, and daughter who works with special-needs children. Barrett is an amateur kayaker and horseracing handicapper.
But as much as anything, Barrett is a broadcaster—a radio veteran who shifted to television almost 20 years ago, rose through the ranks to run one of the most respected station groups in the country and is looked upon as a broadcasting role model. While some question broadcasting's viability in the iPod-Xbox world, Barrett says no other medium matches the might of local television.
“The leading TV stations continue to be a terribly important part of their communities,” he says. “As we saw with the recent hurricanes, there's still a significant role for stations to play.”
Barrett reflects on his storied career from Hearst's stunning New York headquarters, in an equally stunning office overlooking Columbus Circle to the north, then Central Park spread out like the world's greatest front yard.
Born in Chicago 60 years ago, Barrett's first job was an account executive post at WGLD radio in the Windy City. Radio gigs saw him traverse North America—Montreal and Toronto, St. Louis and Baltimore. FM radio was just starting out, and Barrett says he benefited from getting in at the right time. “It enabled me to learn an awful lot about the media business,” he says, “as well as how to appreciate the value of programming.”
It also enabled him to see an inordinate number of memorable concerts, such as a double bill featuring the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, and maiden U.S. tours from Elton John and Rod Stewart. “They were young guys like I was at the time,” he says. “Now we're all old guys.”
After several general manager jobs in radio, Barrett was tapped to be general manager of the Hearst radio stations in 1984, and added CBS affiliate WBAL-TV to his slate in 1989. Hearst management saw tremendous potential in Barrett; then-Broadcasting General Manager John Conomikes, whom Barrett calls a mentor and friend, had the young manager on the fast track. “John charted every opportunity I've had with this company going on 25 years,” Barrett says.
Barrett, who moved to New York to be deputy general manager of broadcasting in 1991, is also quick to credit Hearst CEO/Hearst-Argyle Television chairman Frank Bennack. “He saw potential in me, supported me, tolerated me and gave me terrific opportunities in this company,” he says.
From his perch high above Gotham, Barrett steers Hearst-Argyle through some uncharted territory. He's focused on making the Websites at Hearst's 26 stations (it also manages three others) every bit as relevant as their on-air news operations; on playing hardball with cable and satellite operators over retransmission consent; and on ensuring viewers still have that crucial connection when the DTV switch goes down.
Many are expecting Barrett to lead them through a tumultuous time. “Other station operators look to David as a spokesperson for the industry,” says Fox Networks Group chairman/CEO Tony Vinciquerra, who worked with Barrett from 1997 to 2002. “David has always represented the industry in a very positive way—and in a way that doesn't call attention to himself.”
When he's not guiding Hearst-Argyle TV, Barrett enjoys time with his family: He credits Beth, his wife of 35 years, for artfully restoring their 200-year-old weekend home, but more importantly for raising three exceptional children. Liza works with autistic youngsters, Kate is at the ABC News bureau in Washington, and Casey runs a swim school out of Manhattan.
Casey, who held most of the records at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club until a skinny swimmer named Michael Phelps came along, swam for Canada (where he was born, back in Dad's radio days) in the 1996 Olympics. David swells with pride when he discusses the event, and Casey says it never would've happened without his father's love and support—not to mention David's role as the swimmer's “head coach” when Casey was a surly wreck before meets.
“He taught us not just to do what you love, but to do it all-out and make sure your commitment is full,” Casey says. “He's been the ultimate example of that.”—Michael Malone
Steady at the Wheel