Broadcasting & Cable has established the Broadcaster of the Year award, to be given annually in recognition of both an extraordinary year and a career's consistent excellence. The award goes to the executive who best combines the commitments to programming, public service and financial stewardship that are the keys to successful local broadcasting. B&C Group Vice President Larry Oliver will present this year's award to WNBC(TV) New York President and General Manager Dennis Swanson March 26 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.
is a plain-spoken guy. When he says, "Winning is fun," it seems a throwaway line, but that's what he is all about. When he says it, he means it.
By that measure, he has had a fun life. Through 40 years in broadcasting, he has had more than his share of victories.
Swanson has done it all—or darn close: camera operator, reporter, producer, sportscaster, executive producer, news director, station manager and general manager of the No. 1 station in two of the top three markets.
KABC-TV Los Angeles became a news leader for the first time when he was its news director in the '70s. He helped his own cause, winning a Peabody for an investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department's treatment of minorities.
WLS-TV Chicago went from third to first in one sweeps book with him at the helm in the '80s. It was then that he put a little-known talk-show host from Baltimore on the air. Her name: Oprah Winfrey.
After that, he became president of ABC's station group. That was in March 1985. About a week later, Capital Cities bought ABC, and management decided that job wasn't big enough for him and promoted him to president of ABC Sports.
There, he single-handedly persuaded the International Olympic Committee, known for being somewhat set in its ways, to stagger the Summer and Winter Olympics, arguing correctly that it would help the IOC get bigger rights fees and more-lucrative sponsorships.
Today, as president and general manager of WNBC(TV) New York, he presides over an institution that is not only the No. 1 station in the nation's biggest market but also leads in revenue (over $300 million). New York television generated nearly $1.5 billion in revenue last year.
It is for his success at WNBC, and that station's superb coverage of the World Trade Center tragedy, that Swanson is the inaugural recipient of BROADCASTING & CABLE 's Broadcaster of the Year Award.
But the award also reflects the breadth and depth of Swanson's career, which began in the late 1950s, in the days, as he puts it, when "a mouthful of saliva and a razor" were the primary editing tools in the TV news business. And it reflects appreciation of another old-fashioned notion: an unswerving commitment to community service. Swanson and his stations are proof that serving the community can be good for a career and great for the bottom line.
Emphasis on diversity
In New York, Swanson is acutely aware of WNBC's position in the multicultural stew of the nation's largest city.
"I think, if you're going to put on television in a market that's 40% non-white, you better be aware of diversity and the impact of it," he says. "I thought, coming in here, there was an opportunity for us to expand our ratings by having a more diverse presentation than was occurring at the time. [Morning news anchor] Maurice DuBois was the first person I hired. He was at the Fox station in Chicago but grew up on Long Island. He's just a terrific television personality and has really grown into a major factor for us in New York.
"I just thought we had to have a diverse look on the air and we had to have a diversity in the work force behind the camera as well, because you want fairness, accuracy and balance in your news coverage. If you have your news coverage coming out of all-white male heads, guess what? It's going to take on an older-white-male cast.
"Whereas, if you have a diverse work force—Asian-Americans and Afro-Americans and Hispanics and all the various groups that are part of our society here—contributing to the editorial mix, it will much more accurately reflect the community. We sought to do that."
Swanson says the station took it a step further by "aggressively taking on community service and being more community-oriented." One example: The station made arrangements to cover the city's Puerto Rican Day Parade. "That is the
event in that community," he says.
Ditto the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the Columbus Day Parade. The Hispanic, Irish and Italian populations "are all major ethnic groups in New York, and it all revolves around the Catholic Church, which has a huge archdiocese here. We expanded the [Rockefeller Center] Christmas-tree lighting and turned it into a network show."
He also acquired the rights to the New York City Marathon. "We just wanted to be New York," he says. "And, to be New York, you have to represent a lot of different constituencies and keep in mind the diversity of the area we serve. That was a goal of ours and still is."
And who better to single out for good works than a champion of diversity in the broadcasting business? Swanson has been chairman of the Emma Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media for a dozen years. Sponsored by media companies, the foundation seeks out talented minority high school students and provides them with jobs, scholarships and, ultimately, careers.
When Swanson hired Oprah Winfrey in 1983 as a morning talk-show host for WLS-TV Chicago, she fretted that being a person of color would become an issue that could sidetrack her career. Swanson told her to forget about it. Oprah went on the air as host of AM Chicago
in January 1984. By the time the February sweeps were over, she was a local legend—and that in a city where one radio commentator regularly upbraided out-of-town television talent for mispronouncing "Chicago."
In less than a year, Swanson made lagging WLS-TV a powerhouse, in part by grabbing Wheel of Fortune
(Pat Sajak's an ex-Chicagoan) and bringing back veteran newsman Floyd Kalber, whom Chicagoans remembered from his pre-network time at NBC-owned WMAQ-TV.
More recently, Swanson and his team at News4 New York have been credited with providing outstanding coverage in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, delivered under very trying circumstances. New York TV stations were, of course, part of the story: Most of them had their main antennas on top of the World Trade Center and had to scramble in the ensuing days and weeks to find new facilities.
Swanson is the first to acknowledge that WNBC was just one of many news outlets to do outstanding work covering Sept. 11. "The media acquitted itself well overall," he says, "and television rose to the occasion as it has in past tragedies." Indeed, he credits the freedoms afforded the press in this country—precisely those freedoms the terrorists were hoping to harm or destroy—for allowing such stellar coverage to occur: "The public benefits from a free press and a competitive environment."
Swanson had wanted to be in broadcasting since he was a high school kid. When it came time to go to college, though, he didn't have the money to pay for tuition. The good news was, he got a four-year scholarship. The bad news: it was for engineering, which he tested well for but had little interest in. But it all worked out. After 2-1/2 years in college, he switched his major to journalism, and the group that awarded the scholarship said he could keep it.
His big break came in 1966, when a college mentor helped him get a job as a news producer at WGN-TV Chicago. Two years later, he was noticed by NBC and went to work at WMAQ-TV as assignment editor and field producer.
Trying sportscasting in the early '70s, he decided that in-front-of-the-camera work wasn't for him.
In the mid '70s, he joined a group of ex-NBCers who formed a company called TVN. The idea was to feed news packages to station clients via satellite. That three-year struggle ended when Coors, the principal backer, pulled the plug.
At that point, Swanson headed for KABC-TV. Others in the TVN group, including Reese Schonfeld, headed for Atlanta and helped Ted Turner develop CNN.
Looking back on his career, Swanson says topping the short list of accomplishments he's most proud of is hiring Oprah. "That would transcend anything else. That's only going to happen to you once, but it was an easy decision because she was so good."
He does have some criticisms of the business at which he has so often succeeded. "This probably won't endear me to some of the new owners," he says, "but I hope that, as an industry, we still focus on quality of presentation and community service. We [the broadcasters] don't own the airwaves, everybody does. Yes, we want to be profitable, but we have some obligation to give back, too."
When it's suggested that implicit in his response is that the industry isn't fulfilling that obligation as faithfully as it once did, Swanson replies, "I think you could make that observation with some credibility."
Meanwhile, Swanson turned 64 last Friday. Asked about the r-word—retirement, that is—he says he hasn't made up his mind. Some days, he says, he wakes up and thinks to himself maybe the time is soon; other days, he thinks he's having too much fun to even consider it.
"I want to keep my options open," he says, noting that WNBC newsman Gabe Pressman turned 78 in February. (Not being an officer of the company, Swanson doesn't have to retire at 65.)
He's on the 2012 Committee, headed by Jay Kriegel, former New York City Deputy Mayor and former CBS executive, which is trying to land the 2012 Summer Olympics for New York. (The IOC decides in 2005.) "Maybe that would be fun to work with," he says. "I think an Olympics in New York would be awesome."