A citadel is a fortress, typically on a hill and in a prominent, strategic position for defense. It’s interesting that Phil Lombardo named the broadcasting company he founded in 1982 Citadel Communications, because, throughout his life, Lombardo has always been on the offensive.
While some may spend their lives working to attain a single goal, Lombardo is constantly conquering goals and making new ones. The 80-year-old Citadel CEO and Broadcasters Foundation of America chairman says his life has been a series of plateaus. “As I was successful at one plateau,” Lombardo says, “when the opportunity came to move to the next plateau, I took that opportunity.”
Growing up in a rough neighborhood near the north side of Chicago with radio as his companion, Lombardo knew he wanted to go into broadcasting. His first job was at WBBM-TV, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Chicago, as a production assistant. From there, he moved to KCRG in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to be a producer and director.
After a six-month stint in the army as a national guardsman, Lombardo eventually returned to WBBM for six years, where his budding entrepreneurial skills were put to good use. He worked for the station during the week and the network on the weekends, helping to produce Packers football games in Green Bay or CBS’ baseball game of the week or traveling shows in Chicago, such as The Ed Sullivan Show. He immersed himself in the creative side of the business. He choreographed the Chicago Ballet Company for television and directed station-specific drama series, many of which went into national syndication.
As he progressed in the industry, he gained a reputation for being a turnaround manager, especially for his job at a station in High Point, N.C.
“I know just enough about what everybody does at the television station to not be conned,” he says. “From an operating point of view to evaluating capital expenditure to evaluating people, I credit my creative side for taking the ability to make actors better than they were or understand better their role, and take that into how I evaluate people and mentor people...it contributes to turnaround success.”
That eventually led him to New York to take over Corinthian Broadcasting. During his nine-year tenure, he acquired a station in Norfolk, Va. and several cable systems, put shows into national syndication and bought a rep fi rm. Then he resigned.
“I said [at the time] I felt like I was in a velvet coffin,” Lombardo recalls. “I didn’t have any more challenges. I needed to have new challenges and new horizons.”
Although he hates to say it, Lombardo was bored. He could have gone to a network, but he didn’t want to be an employee again. Also, by starting his own company, he could give it to his children when they were out of college. It was a huge undertaking, but he decided to take the leap.
“It was the challenge of jumping off the cliff and seeing if you could fly,” Lombardo says. “It became obvious I did know how to fly and did know how to do these things.”
Lombardo lived in every city he bought a station, from Burlington, Vt., to Buffalo, N.Y., to Sioux City, Iowa, to Rock Island, Ill. He built a station in the middle of a cornfield in Lincoln, Neb., from scratch and, in 1994, acquired WOI from Iowa State University despite heavy opposition.
“Many probably would have thrown in the towel, but that’s not in Phil’s DNA,” says Ray Cole, the president and COO of Citadel, who has been working with Lombardo for 30 years. “He’s dogged in his approach. He’s very much a self-made man in the broadcast industry.”
Citadel had seven stations at its peak, and continues to buy, turn around and sell stations today. Less than two years ago, the company took over cable news operations in Sarasota, Fla., transitioning it into a low-power digital station.
Another perk of owning his own company, Lombardo says, is that he can devote however much time he wants to other ventures. In Lombardo ’s case, that has most notably been as chairman of the Broadcasters Foundation of America.
When Lombardo took over 15 years ago, the foundation, which provides financial assistance to radio and TV broadcasters in need, was giving out around $60,000 a year, according to its president Jim Thompson. Last year, it gave out close to $850,000.
“When Phil gets involved in an organization, he’s never a passive participant,” Cole says. “There’s never been any kind of Ivory Tower bone in his body. He approaches [his responsibility] with great dedication and commitment.”
“He’s a hard guy to say ‘no’ to,” adds Hearst Corp. director and fellow board member David Barrett. Thompson credits Lombardo’s skills as a leader and motivator. “If he were in the Second World War, we would have beaten Patton by a day to get to where we needed,”
Thompson says. “He knows how to get things done.”
Not only has Lombardo led the foundation’s significant fundraising efforts, he has also donated generous amounts of his own money.
“He portrays himself as a tough guy,” Barrett says, “but his heart’s as big as anyone’s in the industry.”
As a way to honor all the work Lombardo has done for the foundation, the board in 2010 voted near-unanimously to name the annual Las Vegas NAB convention’s Sunday golf tournament, which benefits the foundation, the Philip J. Lombardo Golf Tournament.
The only negative vote? Lombardo’s.
“Put aside his 50-year broadcasting career, put aside his service on affiliate boards, put aside his stint as NAB joint board chairman and all the rest,” Cole says, “he should be included [in the B&C Hall of Fame] by the basis of his remarkable contribution to the Broadcasters Foundation alone.”