It's a doozy of a commute from Westport, Conn. to Internet Broadcasting's base in Minneapolis, but new boss David Lebow doesn't flinch. Formerly the general manager at AOL Media Networks, he's been through it before. “When I started at AOL, they forgot to tell me the job was based in Dulles (Virginia),” says Lebow. “But you have to go where the business is.”
It's an appropriate statement for the man tasked with heading up IB, which manages the Websites for dozens of the nation's premier television stations, all of whom are scrambling to reinvent themselves as much more than TV. Lebow will call on his rich background in radio, video and the Web—not to mention lessons learned from media pioneers like Jeff Smulyan and Ted Leonsis—to pull off the task.
A New York native, Lebow got his start in radio, working for Arbitron and Clear Channel (then AMFM/Chancellor Media), and founding a ratings analysis research company that he sold to AMFM. After serving as senior VP at broadcasting giant Emmis Communications, Lebow shifted to the Web world in 2002.
As executive VP/general manager of AOL Media Networks, Lebow oversaw several key digital products, including MapQuest and Cityguide, overhauled the advertising technology, and helped steer the company through a tumultuous period, both in terms of the fractious Time Warner merger, and the shift from relying on dial-up access for revenue to an ad-based portal model.
“More than anything, I'm proud of the pivot the company as a whole made, and proud to be a part of the uber-shift,” he says. “Five years is a long time in the Internet space, and we got a lot done.”
He jumped from AOL to Internet Broadcasting in part because he saw a big opportunity in the local TV business. Backed by NBC, Meredith and Hearst-Argyle, among others, IB runs 70 station sites nationwide, competing mainly with New York-based World Now. And he says he liked that the company is lean (there are around 400 employees), yet funded by “big-time media executives.”
Lebow also wanted to try running his own show. “I've worked for some incredible people and had a chance to learn from the best,” he says, citing Emmis boss Smulyan and AOL execs past and present Jon Miller, Mike Kelly and Leonsis, among others. “I really wanted the opportunity to apply these skills and build out my own team in a company that had unexploited opportunity.”
Hearst-Argyle Television Executive VP Terry Mackin, an IB board member, says Lebow brings the right combination of experience and vision to the post. “We had a lot of great people come through the door for that job, and David was hands-down the best,” he says. “He's an incredibly bright and articulate strategic thinker, and his experience as a broadcaster and at AOL will serve him well.”
Assuming the president/CEO job in early July, Lebow takes over for founder Reid Johnson, who stays on as an advisor for the 11-year-old company. It may seem like an awkward setup, but Lebow says they'll work well together. “We're in a good place,” he says. “Reid's a big shareholder, so he's got a lot of reasons to want to see me succeed.”
Lebow suggests the board wanted a new strategy for IB, and—splitting his time between offices in New York and Minneapolis—and he's hard at work on one. (One challenge is keeping the partner companies on board—industry whisperers say NBC and Cox may pull out to run their own station sites).
Foremost, he'll reinforce to staff the philosophy that the Web is used differently than television—for starters, it's interactive and can connect with users on everything from shopping to pets to travel. If stations are simply extending their TV brands online, Lebow says, they're missing the point—and a large pile of revenue.
“These local brands are tremendous assets, but in order to be relevant, they need to be leveraged across however consumers consume information,” he says. “The opportunity is to create a local forum for discussion, sharing, polling, user-generated content—the things you see light a fire on the Web. That's a different behavior than traditional broadcast.”
And with the presidential election heating up, stations are keen to grab the lion's share of cash online. Lebow admits he hasn't fully plotted out IB's strategy for securing advertising, but believes the potential windfall is tremendous. “The candidates are really recognizing the combination of being able to get the word out online, and the interactive nature of the media,” he says. “Much like the Web has changed the way we shop, I think the Web will change the dialog around this election.”
Lebow is adapting to life in the Midwest, and that frequent-flyer commute. Free time is spent with family, following his two teen sons' sporting endeavors, boating on the Long Island Sound, and watching CNN and Curb Your Enthusiasm on TiVo. He also absorbs as much Web content as possible, including TMZ.com, zillow.com, Maxpreps.com, and the Leonsis blog ted.aol.com. “I spend a lot of time on the Web,” he says. “When my wife goes to bed, I sneak in there, spend an hour, check out everything.”
Leonsis, the AOL vice chair (and owner of multiple Washington sports franchises), says Lebow is a slam dunk in his new role. Lebow showed up at AOL with a robust broadcast background, says Leonsis, and promptly set out to learn all he could about new media. “David got his hands really dirty doing lots of jobs, and did every one with aplomb,” Leonsis says. “He's a well-developed and self-actualized leader—teams love him, and customers love him.”