One's career path is generally driven by the people you know, the people you meet, the places you go and the myriad of challenges and experiences you are a part of. I thought my first blog should be a tribute to those "artists" who helped paint my career.
I have to start with my mom and dad, Phyllis and Sam, who brought me up with good values and provided support to me in so many ways. When I was a young teen my mom used to drop me at "30 Rock" in New York City each summer so I could go from one game show audience to another, taking in all of the aura of experiencing television first hand. I was hooked early on and when each summer ended I had memorized the latest version of the NBC tour so well that I could have easily corrected the paid tour guides when they missed something or misstated a fact. My brother and sister, Ben and Robey, were in college when I discovered the entertainment business was where I wanted to be but the dynamic they brought to our family unit delivered countless hours of amusement.
When I was waiting for the first opportunity to "taste" television, a buddy of mine named Mike Waldron helped me build our first pirate radio station. Made from a simple kit sold at Radio Shack, our FM radio station broadcast about a quarter mile from our homes and the time we spent building and rebuilding our studios kept our anticipation high for the challenges we would face later in life. In 1970 the Pinellas County, Florida school system received a $500K grant to build a television production vocational curriculum at one of the inner cities high schools in St. Petersburg. Mike and I were in the inaugural class of television production at Gibbs Senior High School (later known as City Center for Learning) and we really enjoyed those early moments in our career. I have to give a mention to Joe Crabtree, our second production teacher, who taught us so much about the sacrifices necessary to succeed in the business.
THE BIG NOT-SO-EASY
My college years at Loyola University, New Orleans were fulfilling and very hectic. Because of my yearning for the business, I decided to compress four years of classes into three. I became great friends with my communications professor's Norman and Frances Stein and David Jones. It was at Loyola where I first met Vinnie Grosso who became a lifelong best friend, collaborator and one person who always could find a way to make me laugh. Vinnie, Mark Bonner, Bill Capo, Frank Davis and I created somewhat of a media legacy for the school by producing a weekly half hour newsmagazine focusing on the city, the university and the region. "Pulse: New Orleans" was Loyola's first regularly schedule television series broadcast in the city. The program aired on WYES-TV, the public television station in New Orleans. Our "gang of five" were also on the cutting edge of production through our use of early iterations of mobile minicam gear and "moviola-style" videotape editing. We were very fortunate to learn film-style video editing way before it became standard in the industry.
MY FIRST JOB!
After Loyola I got a call from Jerry Smithwick, the General Sales Manager at KPLC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Jerry hired me to be a cameraman at the station but that didn't last long. Within three months I was directing, announcing (I was one of the few on staff without a regional accent) and volunteering for every job nobody wanted to do. It was a great way to learn. I am forever in Jerry's debt for giving me my first paid professional opportunity. After about a year there I segued to Lafayette, Louisiana where Vinnie Grosso and I reunited to run Louisiana Video Productions, a commercial production firm owned…..as we found out later…by a local bank with unsavory plans in mind. I bolted back to KPLC after making this discovery and for the next several years I rose through the ranks becoming their Program Director and Operations Manager. While in Lake Charles I was introduced to Jim Ross who was syndicating a highly rated regional wrestling program called "Mid South Wrestling." Jim remains a dear friend today and helps feed one of my few vices, pro wrestling.
In the last six months at the station, two "life-changing" events occurred. First, a flash flood dumped 22 1/2" of rain in Lake Charles during a 6 hour time frame. Living on the bottom floor of an apartment complex proved no match for the incoming tide. Lost virtually everything I owned. Within weeks I was faced with a catastrophic illness that could have easily taken my life. Fortunately I survived thanks to some great, caring medical professionals in Louisiana and Texas. Props also go to my family and my colleagues at KPLC who provided support and encouragement. And a special thanks to Pastor Clarence Young of the First Baptist Church of Maplewood who visiting me regularly during my first hospital visit.
During my time at KPLC I met a station consultant named Milt DeReyna who recommended me to the General Manager of a station in Jacksonville, Florida who was looking for someone with similar experience to mine.
In 1980 I moved to WJKS-TV, the NBC affiliate there as Operations Manager working for Gary Adler, Herb Gold and Ralph Becker. Within a year I had been promoted to Program Director and later added production and marketing to my list of duties. In 1982, the station was put up for sale. General Manager Gary Adler traveled a lot during the year between owners and Business Manager Joyce Lueders and I ended up running the station in his absence. Media General ended up buying the station in 1983 and of all of the department heads at the facility, only Joyce and I made the cut. Years later Joyce would follow me to Tampa, Florida and WFLA-TV. Joyce is one of those wonderful people you meet during your lifetime who you really admire with smarts, sass and boundless wisdom. Bob Sutton and Jim Zimmerman ran Media General's television operations at the time of the takeover and I am grateful to them for mentoring me for over ten years. While in Jacksonville, I got to meet another of my wrestling "heroes," famed announcer Gordon Solie. I grew up listening to Gordon commentate wrestling matches on television. Gordon was known worldwide as the "Walter Cronkite of Professional Wrestling." We grew to be close friends over the years and his passing affected me greatly. Jacksonville was also the place where I met my future wife but our nuptials wouldn't take place till more than twenty years later! More on that to come. I can't move on from Jacksonville without a mention of a late syndicator friend of mine who helped grow WJKS far beyond its traditional ratings deliveries. Hal Gaba of Embassy Communications took a liking to me and together we built some amazing time period winning franchises with Norman Lear's situation comedies. Hal was a real gentleman. It was also in Jacksonville where I met Bill White, one of the most generous and thoughtful men I have ever known. Bill became General Manager of WJKS and it was through Bill that I met Dick Block who would later become my mentor.
In the late 80's, Media General made me their Corporate Director of Programming and I moved to Tampa to administer that position and physically program WFLA-TV, the NBC station there. Jim Saunders was my boss and one of the brightest men I have ever known. After Jim moved west to work for Disney, Bill White moved to Tampa to take his place. My corporate job with Media General allowed me to work with many of the brilliant minds in our business. One of them was MMT's head of programming Jon Gluck. Jon is the ultimate programmer and consummate foodie, a great combination for someone like me. Jon is also a great thinker. While in Tampa I created a partnership between WFLA-TV and Anheuser-Busch for a weekday half hour program strip called "Harris and Co." The show was hosted by Jack Harris, the number one radio personality in the market and produced by Joe LoNigro who was a news producer at the station. The "Harris" show made a lot of money for WFLA and lasted for many years. Jack Harris is the kindest, most professional talent I have every worked with in the business. He is a hysterically funny man.
While at Media General, I got involved in the National Association of Television Program Executives, a non-profit trade organization of studios, producers and television programmers. Through Dick Block and Phil Corvo, the trade group's President, I joined the NATPE board and in 1994 became its Chairman and CEO. My favorite board moment was in 1992, when I produced the association's IRIS Awards. That year we presented Andy Griffith with NATPE's Lifetime Achievement Award. As I found out later, that was the first industry award Andy had ever been given after decades in the business. Meeting Andy Griffith and Ron Howard was a special moment for me. As NATPE transitioned its Presidency from Phil Corvo to Bruce Johansen, we guided the organization into being more of an international programming play. My board "buddies," Pat Patton, Carolyn Worford and Lou Gattozzi made significant contributions to the tremendous success of this trade association. The NATPE experience was one-of-a-kind and it provided me with contacts and a platform that ultimately launched the second phase of my career.
GAME SHOW NETWORK
In 1994, through the sponsorship of Dick Block, Mel Harris and Andy Kaplan of Sony Pictures Entertainment hired me to launch Game Show Network for their company. Game Show Network was a twenty-four hour basic cable network featuring great game shows of the past five decades and new, interactive game shows where our viewers could play at home to win thousands of dollars in prizes. In a compressed nine month period we went from concept to reality in one of the most fulfilling moments of my career. On December 1, 1994, the network launched and the team Dick and I put together represented some of the brightest, most dedicated people on the planet. Joining me again for the latter part of my GSN journey was Vinnie Grosso who helped make "Wheel of Fortune" on the internet a reality. Two of my most indelible GSN memories were our "Winners Tour" of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas where I shared many laughs on the road with Peter Tomarken and "Wheel of Fortune On The Road" with the incomparable host of the Newlywed Game Bob Eubanks. Years later Bob made another big impression on me by making a "guest appearance" at my wedding.
MEETING JAMIE KELLNER
In 1997, I met Jamie Kellner, the Chairman of the WB Network, who was looking for someone who was both broadcast and cable centric to create a network of locally branded, locally sold cable television channels that looked like local broadcast stations and served to ameliorate the coverage limitations that The WB was facing in their national distribution footprint. Jamie is an extraordinary guy with great instincts, tremendous character,loyalty and smarts like nobody I have ever met. In 1998, I launched the WeB, later referred to as the WB 100+ Station Group. Television history was made. Technological history was made. Our group shared a technical Emmy with Warner Bros. for the achievement. And 9% of America saw the WB Television Network, many for the first time.
I also must acknowledge the considerable contributions of Nory LeBrun who helped me navigate clearances for the WB Network on cable systems throughout the country. Nory is first class all the way and quite an amazing guy. He currently runs a consultancy business in Atlanta called Two Blue Rhino. His significant other, Susan Grant, was a key executive at CNN and one of the brightest, most positive people you will ever meet.
THE CW TELEVISION NETWORK
In 2006, The WB met its demise and the CW Network was born. John Maatta, who was the WB's COO, invited me to segue to The CW and take the same concept we used on cable and port it to the new digital broadcast spectrum. Today, The CW Plus multicast networks reach parts of 43 states and five time zones. Our footprint is over 13 million television homes across 111 television markets.
In 2005, I married a wonderful loving woman named Michele Adler. Michele is my soulmate, she's beautiful, sexy, a magnificent cook and knows me better than anyone on earth....including myself. The bond we have is extraordinary and I am blessed that she is a part of my life every day! I am also blessed to share her two incredible children Ian and Lindsay Cooley. Ian works with Lionsgate studios and Dick Clark Productions and Lindsay is already a master equestrian and hopes to run an horse ranch after graduating from Colorado State University. Both kids are very bright and personable and I love them dearly. Michele, Ian and Lindsay keep me laughing all of the time.
I couldn't complete this without mentioning several others who are so important to me. My beautiful and "whip smart" nieces, Tracy Warshauer and Connie Jacocks, Ben and Lisa's daughters, Susannah Tapp, Robey and Gary's daughter, all of my extended relatives on both sides of our family and, of course, all of the animals that have touched and blessed our lives.....The Cats: Curtis, Mozy, Coco, Bo, Tigman and Tortellini, Ozzie, Squirrel, Gremlin, Tinkerbelle, Red and Bengal, The Hound: Cali Anne, ....and The Horses: Andy, Petey, Kahlua, Ocean Lore, Ellie, Jock and Riley."
My career continues to delight me daily. I continue to collaborate with Dick Block and Vinnie Grosso almost every week and my friendship with Jim Ross has extended beyond wrestling to his line of incredibly delicious BBQ sauces and Chipotle ketchup.
I have met many of my heroes and worked with some real greats in the business and in the world. I enjoy sharing my experiences and shedding some wisdom to those who will listen. I couldn't have done it without the wonderful people I have mentioned in this blog and the others who have played a positive part in my life. To all of them, I am thankful.