When you run a TV station along the Gulf of Mexico, hurricane plans are a way of life. They're drawn up, practiced, tweaked, practiced and tweaked some more.
So when Hurricane Ike steamed toward the Houston DMA, which includes Galveston, in September, KHOU President/General Manager Susan McEldoon, Broadcasting & Cable's major-market General Manager of the Year, was ready to go. Generators were lined up to keep the station humming. Fuel tanks were on hand to keep the trucks running. Prepared food was packed in ice. KHOU headquarters was re-imagined as a giant dormitory for weary staffers, some of whose homes would be ruined.
“When you live on the Gulf Coast, it's not a question of if,” McEldoon says. “It's a question of when.”
Perhaps most important, McEldoon—at the time still in her rookie year as KHOU president—worked out contingency plans to produce KHOU's newscasts when power failures kept viewers' televisions dark. When Ike made landfall Sept. 13, KHOU's coverage could be seen on KHOU.com, and heard on local and satellite radio. It became information Houston relied on.
91 hours of Continuous coverage
While several Texas stations gave their all to keep viewers informed during the storm, it was KHOU, Belo's news powerhouse in Houston, that many believe set the gold standard during its 91 straight hours of live coverage. “The station did a great job, and that comes from the top. Susan planned it, and she worked her plan,” says Belo Executive VP Peter Diaz, who also marvels at how seamlessly KHOU shifted from covering breaking storm news to offering vital relief information after Ike had passed.
McEldoon got her first station job in 1985, when Roger Ogden, later the president/CEO of Gannett Broadcasting, brought her on board at KCNC Denver. She'd been a client, handling marketing for a department store, when Ogden created a “market development” position for McEldoon to focus on digging up new business for existing clients. She eventually worked her way up to general sales manager. “Susan's very smart, has a terrific work ethic and is a first-grade talent,” says Ogden, who retired from Gannett last year.
After Denver, gigs followed at WBBM Chicago and WBNS Columbus, as McEldoon worked toward a GM position. WBNS President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn said it was only a matter of time before she landed one. “Susan's an amazing leader and she's certainly never complacent,” Griesdorn says. “I knew immediately she was destined to run a station on her own.”
McEldoon came to KHOU in 2004 as director of sales, working for Diaz. He bumped her to station manager a year later, and when Diaz moved up to the corporate level to oversee all Belo stations in November 2007, McEldoon got the president/GM nod.
Despite having its ratings trimmed by the introduction of Nielsen's controversial Local People Meters in October 2007, KHOU had another standout sweeps in November; the CBS affiliate took late news and total day (household) ratings, and is the top revenue earner in the No. 10 DMA, according to BIA Financial. KHOU has grown ratings in several categories when much of the competition has fought just to stay flat.
'Great' success stories
Painfully aware of the struggles confronting broadcasters, she's rethinking the station-advertiser relationship in the extraordinarily competitive Houston market (KHOU is up against strong stations owned by Fox, Post-Newsweek and ABC-Disney). That includes maximizing a relationship with Cars.com to give auto dealers greater marketing might, and boosting revenue from product placement on Great Day Houston. “It's generated three times the revenue a syndicated show would generate with far less expense,” she says. “It's things like that that enable us to keep our No. 1 revenue position.”
When she's not working, McEldoon enjoys unwinding with her husband Nick, a semi-retired documentary producer, and her children (son Nick Jr. works at independent KTBU). She enjoys gardening, theater, and serving on several community boards representing the likes of the American Red Cross and the United Way.
That sense of community pushed McEldoon through those exhausting days and mostly sleepless nights during Ike. She says covering the storm was the kind of staff bonding experience that a lifetime of weekend retreats might not match—as staffers rode adrenaline highs to get the news out, had makeshift meals together, and bunked down in conference rooms and office floors.
With revenue on the back burner during the storm, the sales department took to serving up the grub. “That was a real team-building experience, because at a TV station, your salespeople don't interact with your news people that much,” she says. “There was great appreciation on the part of the news people.”
But it's the community's great appreciation that McEldoon will not soon forget. “One message was from a lady who was with her kid in the closet in their pitch-dark house. The woman said as long as she could hear [anchor] Gene Norman's voice, she knew she'd be OK,” McEldoon recalls. “I can give you a hundred examples of that.”