Tola Murphy-Baran wanted to be in show biz from the time she was eight years old, when she would burrow under the bedcovers to listen to her transistor radio with a small earphone.
When she was 17, she got her first job at a radio station: Fordham University's WSUV-FM. She was just hanging around the station one Wednesday night when the host of a classical-music show didn't show up. That was her big break.
"I didn't know anything about the show or classical music," she says. "But I ended up doing that show every Wednesday for four years."
Graduating from Fordham, she became an advertising account representative at radio station wxlo New York. The job required her to go door-to-door to New York retail shops to solicit ads, a job she says was "impossible. Really, really tough."
She left after two years, going to ABC Inc. as a public relations manager. She was persuaded to leave there when a friend approached her about working at Viacom-owned Showtime. When she told her boss where she was going, he called cable a "flash in the pan" and said she'd be back within 18 months.
At Showtime, she migrated to a new business: selling bundled programming to satellite-dish owners. She worked with Showtime Satellite Networks to get Showtime premium channels on C-band satellite systems.
As Showtime's satellite-TV business was taking off, then-Chairman Neil Austrian started thinking about services to give dish owners the means to watch every NFL game. He left Showtime in 1987 to return to investment banking but resurfaced in 1991 as president of the NFL-the perfect place to test his new business idea.
Joining the NFL in February 1994, Murphy-Baran was given the task of realizing Austrian's vision: NFL Sunday Ticket, a package that would deliver every NFL game to C-band satellite-TV subscribers. From the moment she arrived until the first day of football season on Sept 3, she was engaged in getting the new program off the ground.
"From February to September," she recalls, "it was a race against the clock."
NFL Sunday Ticket was an immediate hit. "It was gangbusters," Murphy-Baran crows. "On the morning of Sept. 3, every one of our distributors reported that their phone systems were ringing off the hook."
About halfway through that first season, the NFL signed an exclusive deal with DirecTV to deliver Sunday Ticket over DBS' Ku-band. Today, Sunday Ticket is going strong.
"I think Tola's impact is two-fold," says NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "She's a real pro in the areas of her specialization: satellite, cable and all the new technologies. She's also a team player. I frequently hear from other parts of our organization that the person who understands what teamwork is, is Tola."
The NFL expects to expand to digital cable and broadband eventually. Right now, though, cable operators do not have enough capacity to carry Sunday Ticket, which sometimes airs 10 or 11 games simultaneously.
Broadband service is in the early stages of development, but the NFL plans to deliver games to international subscribers by downlinking games via satellite to Internet service providers, which would deliver the feed directly to broadband subscribers' PCs. Games would not be carried over the clogged and crowded Internet, though.
Besides working with the NFL, Murphy-Baran is completing a year as chairwoman of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association's board of directors.
"Tola is a hands-on chairperson," says SBCA President Chuck Hewitt. "She's committed to the industry and to the association."
Says Christine Sheehan, senior vice president of market development for MTV Networks. "She has a high standard of excellence. She's taken on the role of chairwoman of the SBCA with a real seriousness of purpose. She's accomplished a lot this year."