High performance, even greatness, has always bubbled to the surface in Deborah McDermott’s large, lively family. As she was growing up in rural South Dakota, her father, Jim, was an entrepreneur with ventures ranging from a car dealership to a drivein restaurant to a stock brokerage. Her uncle Dick Kneip was governor of the state and, equally notable for broadcasting folks, a finalist in Saturday Night Live’s famed 1977 “Anyone Can Host” contest.
McDermott has kept up the tradition of excellence—growing the Young Broadcasting station group through bold acquisitions, masterfully guiding it through a trying period and hammering out an innovative deal to set it up for long-term success—all the while raising some standout kids.
Males have controlled the bloodline in her family for generations, teaching McDermott how to hold her own in a dude-dominated corporate world. Couple that with the entrepreneurial drive that’s part of the family DNA, and it’s no surprise that she has emerged as one of the most respected figures in local television. “My dad, his brothers, his dad and all my brothers are entrepreneurs,” she says. “I joke that I am the corporate entrepreneur. When you have that in you, you’re always trying to build and grow and look at how to make things better.”
That core value pushed her to iron out a stunning merger with Media General that, when it is approved, will create a 30-station monolith. George Mahoney, president and CEO at Media General, suggests McDermott is a vital part of the Young package.
“Deb has gotten Young through very difficult times to a very sound financial position today,” he says. “She’s hired terrific people who reflect her passion for localism and community.”
Growing up in small-town America as Deborah Kneip, McDermott was an avid cheerleader with four brothers and no sisters. Uncle Dick was elected governor in 1970 when he was only 37, before moving on to be President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Singapore. But what McDermott recalls most fondly about him was his SNL appearance, where he traded jabs with host Buck Henry. “[My uncle] was tall and lanky and funny—he reminded me of Dick Van Dyke,” McDermott says.
After she graduated from South Dakota State, McDermott applied for a job as director of promotion and public relations at KOLN-KGIN Lincoln (Neb.)—mostly because one of her brothers lived in nearby Omaha, Neb. “I’d never been inside a TV station,” she says. “I figured I wouldn’t get the job, but I’d at least get a free meal from my brother.”
McDermott got the job, and parlayed it into a program director position at KMBC Kansas City in 1983, working with former Hearst-Argyle president John Conomikes. Three years later she went to Nashville as station manager, and later general manager, of WKRN.
She was elevated to an executive VP role at Young in 1996. McDermott’s charges describe her as unfailingly honest and even-keeled. Mike Sechrist, former WKRN general manager, says he could always go to her with bad news—which kept minor issues from becoming major ones. “I never saw Deb get angry,” he says. “It was always let’s get it fixed, learn from it, and move on. That’s rare.”
Much of her corporate role at first involved acquisitions with then-CEO Vincent Young. Those included independent KCAL, which Young acquired for $368 million in 1996 and sold five years later for $650 million, and KRON San Francisco, for which Young paid $823 million in 2000, only to see the station lose its NBC affiliation and a giant chunk of its value.
McDermott took valuable lessons from the experience. KRON was faced with dire economic realities years before every TV station hit the reset button during the recession; forming an army of multimedia journalists, KRON built a round-the-clock news operation and climbed back to profitability.
“We learned how to be entrepreneurs,” she says. “We had to recreate how to be successful—how to be innovative and drive change.”
The deal dragged Young into bankruptcy, but it was McDermott’s calm and operational excellence that kept employees focused. “She was the glue that held everything together,” Sechrist says.
Young emerged from Chapter 11 in 2010 in rock-solid shape. That set it up for the Media General merger, which will give both parties the scale station groups are desperately seeking. McDermott will oversee the stations in the combined outfit.
When she’s not visiting the local TV outlets, McDermott unwinds in front of the television. Her appointment viewing includes Modern Family, The Good Wife and anything with a pigskin. “I love football—college football, NFL football,” she says. “I was a huge Titans fan…until recently.”
That’s because her son Kevin Jr. plays for the San Francisco 49ers. Deb and her husband, Kevin Sr., attend as many games as possible— both Kevin’s and his brother Conor’s (he’s at UCLA). “To say she went to extraordinary lengths to get to our games is an understatement,” son Kevin says. “She’d be flying to stations all week, then catch the red-eye so that she could see our games.”
Without Mom—and Dad—cheering from the stands, Kevin concedes he may not have made it to football’s grandest stage. “Their support is what makes it possible for me to do this,” he says.
While her accomplishments in broadcasting are extraordinary, it may just be parenting that Deb McDermott views as her life’s work. “I’m very proud of who they are today—not because of football, but because they’re just good people,” she says. “That was always my goal—to make sure they turned out to be good people.”