School for would-be owners

Station executive, NAB, team to put diversity principles into practice

One weekend a month, 21 men and women-all successful executives-gather at the National Association of Broadcasters.

They come from all over the country and represent a variety of ethnicities, but they share a common dream: owning their own TV or radio station.

They admit that the once-a-month, 10-month seminar, which started last fall, has mostly taught them that buying a station is no easy feat. Prices are high, inventory is low and the margins aren't what they used to be. But there's something about being a station owner that motivates these people-something about being a broadcaster-and the hard work and slim odds don't seem to deter them.

"It's kind of mystical," says participant Camille Jefferson, manager of audio engineering in National Public Radio's broadcast services department. Jefferson started her broadcast career in engineering because it was easier to break into than sales, which was what she really wanted to do. After participating in the program, she says, "I'm moving to sales. In my head, I'm moving to sales."

"You do it because you love it," says Rita Littles O'Neill, vice president and general manager of Jefferson-Pilot Communications' WCSC-TV Charleston, S.C. O'Neill had to sue to get her sales job in the '70s and now is one of a handful of black women who have become broadcast executives. O'Neill says she realizes how hard it will be to own a station, but she's even willing to move to a new place to get what she wants.

"We have an opportunity to balance the system," she says. "I'm not going to have a situation in my company where people don't have opportunities."

And even if they don't end up owning stations, they still return home "better people" for the experience, says Joe Cabral, new media director of Hispanic Business in Santa Barbara, Calif. Cabral and O'Neill both say that, at the very least, they are now better station executives. The program has taught them to keep better records, stay in compliance with FCC rules and run a more efficient shop.

Then there's networking.

Over the past few months, the group has bonded, learning from each other and exchanging ideas. They keep in touch between monthly sessions, and some say they are already upset the sessions are ending come the end of the year. But the bonding was part of the program's point: building strong connections that could open doors in the often closed world of broadcasting.

As part of February's session, the group is learning how to ask the right questions before making an offer for a TV station.

They tour Gannett Broadcasting's WUSA-TV Washington, and General Manager Dick Reingold coaches participants on what they need to know.

"Diane gave us a three-page due-diligence list," Cabral says. "We used every question."

"Diane" is Diane Sutter, and the program is her brainchild.

Sutter is the president, CEO and founder of Shooting Star Broadcasting in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and she herself is buying noncommercial WQEX(TV) Pittsburgh. Sutter came up with the idea three years ago while listening to then-FCC Chairman William Kennard address the National Association of Broadcasters convention.

Kennard was talking about getting more minorities and women into broadcasting, and it came to Sutter that the reason those groups were shut out was that they don't have access to information, capital or decision-makers.

In her 11 years at Shamrock Broadcasting, Sutter had gotten on-the-job training on how to buy and sell stations. "I had already built relationships with the people I needed before I needed them," Sutter says.

But she realized most minorities and women in broadcasting don't have the same opportunity. That's when she dreamed up the Broadcast Leadership Training Seminar. It didn't take long for NAB to back her dream. The NAB Board voted her pet project into action at its 1999 winter board meeting, Sutter says.

"The foundation is very proud that Diane Sutter brought this project to us to seek funding and support," says Chuck Sherman, president of the NAB Education Foundation, through which the program is funded and run. "While our other work in the minority and women's areas is important, the Broadcast Leadership Training program is the foundation's jewel."

Once she had NAB's support, Sutter went looking for money. She hit up station owners and group heads, raising a total of $380,000 from Belo, Benedek Broadcasting, CBS, Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst-Argyle Television, LIN Television, Morgan Murphy Stations, NewCity Foundation and Scripps Howard Broadcasting. NAB matched that total, giving the program $760,000 over three years.

Some of the broadcast groups have been so impressed with Sutter's program that they have sent their own participants, even though they are neither minority nor female. For example, LIN Television sponsored Dr. Walter McDowell, a professor at Southern Illinois University, so that he will be better equipped to teach students about real-world issues.

The program began in September with guest lecturers and sessions covering general business topics, such as strategy, marketing, accounting and finance, as well as mentoring. By November, the help was more specific, including how to set up a company, choose partners, develop business plans, negotiate financing and exercise due diligence. The program will close with sessions on how to successfully run a station.

Sutter sees these efforts as benefiting the entire industry. "[The participants] bring a different point of view," she says. "The industry is changing rapidly, and the ability to have as many points of view represented as possible enhances the possibility for success. Having a diversified work force is just a smart business decision."