Sanford Bernstein & Co. media analyst Wolzien has long been the envy of rivals because he's not beholden to the investment-banking side of the business. At most "sell-side" firms, the big clients aren't investors but the companies the analysts cover. The big fees are in helping companies go public, sell bonds or buy other companies.
But Bernstein doesn't have a corporate-finance unit and subsists on investors' trading commissions and money-management fees. So Wolzien doesn't have to mute negative assessments for fear of being left out of a company's next IPO or merger.
In fact, he sees himself less as an analyst than as the journalist he was for two decades. "It's private reporting," he points out. "My distribution is 4,000 to 7,000 people who pay for it by giving us their stock trades."
But Wolzien is respected more for his expertise than for his freedom. Taking a more academic approach than his peers, he's a poor source for gossip on next week's takeover but is recognized for thinking well ahead of events. He predicted in January '98 that CBS would combine with Viacom and in October '98 that AOL would combine with Time Warner. Both deals were cut 18 months later. He also was early in proclaiming the severity of the current advertising slowdown.
Among his claims to fame is a patent for "The Wolzien Process," a method for embedding a Web link in a TV signal that would, say, let a cable subscriber click on a button that pops up in a Toyota commercial and then be taken to a Web page with more details.
Wolzien knows the TV business from the very bottom. Before he was a producer at the White House for NBC and a planning executive for NBC cable, he was on the ground at a station.
While still in college, he started as a cameraman at Time Inc.'s KLZ(TV) Denver (now McGraw Hill's KMGH-TV). For his tryout, the news director handed him a camera and told him to shoot 100 feet of film on Denver architecture. Denver was so bland, the director said, "if you can do that, you can do anything."
A bad draft number prompted Wolzien to enlist in the Army, a move that put him in Officer Candidate School instead of the infantry. He landed in the signal corps and went to Vietnam in a combat photography unit that furthered his TV skills but gave him little affection for the military. "I've had a hard time shining my shoes or cutting my hair since."
Following his discharge, Wolzien wanted to produce, so he moved to a smaller market, Green Bay, Wis., in 1973.
That gig lasted only a few months, since Wolzien liked to air Watergate-related stories, an affair the news director dismissed as "a political vendetta." A blind-box job-wanted ad in Broadcasting
magazine ("Young Producer, New Ideas") drew just one nibble: the news director who had just axed him.
Eventually, Wolzien landed at CBS-owned KMOX-TV St. Louis as a producer for the weekend news shows. Fortunately, the station was used as a test bed and was one of the first to deploy "mini-cams," video cameras light enough to be considered portable. That led to a call from rival KSD-TV, Pulitzer Broadcasting's NBC affiliate, which, in turn, led to an NBC offer to go to Washington. "I was fortunate to be one of the few local producers who knew mini-cams," he remembers.
He moved up through the news and cable divisions until he was recruited by Bernstein.
The starkest change in Wolzien's life came six years ago when a car accident left his son, Trevor, a home-bound quadriplegic. One difference he has seen is the way people relate to him once they find out about his son, revealing their own personal struggles. "I've found that every family has a story."