Success Lessons From A Television Executive Who’s Seen It All

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Lew Leone
Lew Leone

Lew Leone

VP and General Manager at WNYW/WWOR-TV

Sometimes I get to go on TV. It’s always a fun experience. I get to meet interesting people. Some of those people are on set, and others are behind the scenes. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Lew Leone, VP and General Manager at WNYW/WWOR-TV. He’s engaging, intelligent, and wildly successful in the news business. He’s also a nice Italian kid from New York – so of course we bonded immediately. Over the years I would encounter Lew in the hallway, and he would dive right in to the topic at hand. Always with an opinion, a question, and an open mind.  Lew impresses me. He has an Ivy League education – a great family – and a career he loves. In my mind this is success.

So today, I bring you the 3rd “Success” interview on the Chris Dessi blog. Lew Leone – welcome.

Chris Dessi: As I write this, your title is VP & General Manager at WNYW/WWOR-TV. That’s impressive. But of course, you didn’t start off at the top. What has your journey been like? The highs, the lows, how did you end up here?

Lew Leone: I’ve had an incredible journey so far and consider myself extremely lucky. After college I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My dad’s friend Bob Calandruccio ran the buying arm of what was the essentially the first media buying service Vitt Media. He hired me as an assistant buyer and I quickly learned the ins and outs of local TV and radio buying. It became clear to me that I belonged on the sell side of the business. I looked at some of the TV Station rep firms but most of them required relocation so I found a job at Avery-Knodel in NYC representing small NBC Affiliates and some sign-on independent stations. It was straight commission and it was awesome. That led to a sales job at WABC-TV in 1985. I was by far the youngest person and they called me “the kid” I thought I would stay at ABC for my entire career. I entered the “system” which was essentially a rotation to different jobs around the country. Chicago for 3 years and then St. Louis when we were acquired by Capital Cities. Cap Cities had a different philosophy regarding moves and I was essentially stuck in St. Louis. I was going to leave and accept a job in NYC when I finally reached (there was no email then) Bill Cella who was running ABC Sports Sales. I flew in a few days later and he offered me a job. It was the heyday of ABC Sports. Monday Night Football, College Football, Triple Crown, Indy 500, USGA Golf Package, Wide World of Sports. I had clients like Anheuser Busch, Nike, Microsoft and Burger King and negotiated huge deals. It was a dream job. In 1996 we were acquired by Disney. They fired Dennis Swanson who was the President of ABC Sports and then disaster struck. The Executive Producer of ABC Sports Jack O’Hara, his wife Janet and daughter 13 year old Caitlin died aboard TWA Flight 800 on their way to The Tour de France which was to be Jack’s last assignment at ABC. Jack was not only a co-worker but a friend and high school football teammate. It was a very strange time for me. At that point Dennis Swanson recruited me to join him at WNBC-TV as a local sales manager. My boss was Frank Comerford one of the greatest salesmen of all time. After that I did an 18 month stint in the number two role at NBC Network Sports Sales as VP, Sports and Olympic Sales. When Frank Comerford got promoted I returned to WNBC as VP Sales. At WNBC we set a record for single station TV revenue and margin which will never be repeated. We had a 71% margin in 1999 and then the dot-com bubble burst. In 2002 Dennis Swanson and I exited NBC on the same day he became COO of the CBS Station Group and I became President, WCBS-TV. It was my first GM job and I felt extremely well prepared as we initiated a major turnaround at WCBS. 3 years later I was presented with an opportunity to work for Jack Abernethy running Fox’s New York Duopoly of WNYW and WWOR-TV. I jumped at the chance. I‘ve been with Fox for almost 10 years and I love what I do and who I work for.

Chris Dessi: Is this always what you wanted to do? If so, who did you want to emulate? Did you have a mentor?

Lew Leone: When I started at WABC-TV in 1985 I thought it would be pretty cool to be the GM of a New York City TV Station but since by definition there are only a handful of those jobs I knew it would be a longshot. Throughout my career I’ve had many different opportunities but somehow I kept getting pulled back to local television. Dennis Swanson was clearly one of the all-time great TV Station General Managers. He is the guy who put WLS-TV the ABC owned station in Chicago on the map by launching Oprah Winfrey’s career and playing Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune in the prime access time period. He followed that up by taking WNBC to the number one position in New York. Dennis is well known for his integrity, work ethic, tenacity and desire to win. He values loyalty and family. He has been a great mentor to me.

Chris Dessi: What do you think will be the most enduring thing you’ve done? What I mean is: in 100 Years from now we look back on your career, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Lew Leone: I think I’ve been able to connect with the community through interaction with many diverse groups. I feel that I always try to help whoever asks. Certainly since they are on video I hope my editorials will prove that I knew what I was talking about

Chris Dessi: How important has your family (wife/kids) been to your success? Do you bring your work home, or have you been able to create a clear work/life balance?

Lew Leone: We had very young children when I worked for ABC Sports and that job required a good dose of weekend travel to sporting events. It was tough on my wife in those days because I was off having a great time and she took on all of the child rearing. By definition as a TV Station GM you are on call 24/7. When the phone rings at 2am it is never good news. However, I’ve been able to do things like coach my kids and recently I served on my local school board so it has been doable.

Lew Leone & Family
Lew Leone & Family

Chris Dessi: You’re active in your community (Scarsdale), how important is it for young families to get involved in the politics/policy of their local school district?

Lew Leone: Most people don’t pay attention until they have kids in school. In New York City it is very difficult to affect change but it is different in School Districts where citizens get a chance to vote on their School Budget and for their Board Trustees. I would urge young families to get involved, attend a few meetings, join the PTA and get to know the faculty and staff in your district.

Chris Dessi: You host a popular segment on Fox 5 called Lew’s view. You state that your views aren’t necessary those of the station. What do you say to detractors who say that this is a conflict of interest, and that you should report the news, not comment on it?

Lew Leone: Every newspaper has an editorial column. That’s akin to what I do with Lew’s Views. I’m not a journalist just a regular guy. I think Viewers appreciate that I have a point of view. It also gives a name to the guy behind the scenes. I guess if people think I’m a jerk then they will not watch but I respect everyone’s opinion and I answer questions and connect with our audience.

Chris Dessi: How are you and your staff working to stay relevant in a medium that for young people has become secondary, or even worse – completely obsolete? How has technology (social media) changed programming during your tenure? How are you working to stay relevant?

Lew Leone: Young people have never really embraced Television News so what you had were young viewers of traditional TV who grew up and turned to news when they got married, had kids and paid taxes. Now you have young people who have never watched traditional TV but who will care about our content when they get older. We have to be readily available with our content on every platform. Our advantage is that we produce 8 hours of live local content every day. Our challenge is to make sure that our content is relevant and serves the needs of a mobile audience who want to know what is going on from a credible source.

Chris Dessi: I find you to be highly intelligent, but more importantly very personable, engaging and relatable. Genuinely fun to chat/banter with. Do you work at this? I guess what I’m asking is – are you a “How to win Friends and Influence People” type of guy, or do you think it just comes naturally to you? If this doesn’t come naturally to some, what advice can you give them?

Lew Leone: Both of my parents are super sales people. My mom in Real Estate and my dad Life Insurance. My dad used to eat dinner with us as a family and then go out and sell insurance in people’s living rooms. I was at an event recently and I introduced myself (my dad is Lew Sr.) and the guy said “Lew Leone? Let me tell you about Lew Leone. On the day I got home from my honeymoon your dad knocked on my door and sold me an insurance policy and I ended up buying three more from him. It was the best thing I ever did. Now I get a nice check every month” They taught me the art of engaging with and talking to just about anyone. I’ve also learned from some of the best sales people in the business. I continue to learn especially as it relates to making connections in the world of social media. For young people I can’t stress enough the value of connecting in person, asking questions and genuinely listening. In fact I just read a nice post from Gary Vaynerchuck on Networking.

Chris Dessi: As I write this you have 2,438 followers on a very active Twitter account. How important has social media been for you? Do you think every newsperson should be on social media?

Lew Leone: I jumped in late to social media but I used Lew’s Views as a way to engage. It has proven to be a very valuable tool to connect with viewers, influencers and causes and I continue to find ways for my interactions to add value to my day job and my life. For instance a women I have never met @sallypancakes told me on Twitter that I should just show up at a November Project workout. It is a free fitness movement for people of all abilities and it will change your life. Still waiting for Julia La Roche aka Sally Pancakes to show up. Absolutely every newsperson must use social media.

Chris Dessi: You have degree from Princeton University – arguably one of the finest universities in the world. What do you say to those who feel that college is a waste of time? How much of your success do you attribute to your time at Princeton?

Lew Leone: I once received an award from Bill Cella the then President of ABC Sports Sales. It was a plaque of me throwing my Princeton Diploma in the trash. I was a great High School athlete who used that to get into college. I had never been west of Pennsylvania and had one trip on an airplane to Dartmouth in March of my senior year. For me the value of College was exposure to a huge diversity of incredibly smart people. I was blown away by how smart people were. I think you can argue that College is too expensive but it is certainly not a waste of time.

Chris Dessi: Tomorrow you wake up, and you’re Mayor. What are the top three priorities your administration focuses on to ensure New York’s success?

Lew Leone: As Mayor of New York City my priorities would be Education- It is disgraceful that we are failing so many kids. Quality of Living- I want NYer’s to be safe and proud of their city and lastly I would work to make NYC a more business friendly environment and that includes improvements in public transportation.

Chris Dessi: Guy walks into your office for an interview – top of his class at Princeton. He’s a genius, best guy for the job and will surely get you promoted. You will make you lots of money from this hire– but he shows up for the interview in shorts, flip flops and tank top. Do you give him the job?

Lew Leone
Lew Leone

Lew Leone: Does he have any tattoos? Look. A few years ago it would be a hard no. I like to think that I’m evolving with the times and have more of an open mind.

Chris Dessi: What’s your daily rhythm? What time are you in bed, what time do you wake up? Do you exercise? Meditate? How do you stay on top of it all?

Lew Leone: During the week I’m usually in bed by 10:30. Usual wakeup is 5am unless I’m closing in on a race then I move it up 4:30am. Drive to NYC for a workout which is swim,bike,run or November Project and then in the office around 8 or 8:15. I would like to meditate more often but I use the same lame excuse that I can’t find 10 minutes. I like to be busy. If I’m not busy then I lose track of things. Does that make sense?

Chris Dessi: How do you define Success?

Lew Leone: I define success by being able to look in the mirror and know that you have done the best you can.

Chris Dessi: Working in news is a difficult task. Have you ever thought “enough it enough” ..I’m outta here? Or do you think it’s in your blood – either you’re in it or you’re dead?

Lew Leone: I just watch the news and our competition. The real warriors are the photographers and reporters who are in the field gathering the news. Being on scene at some of the tougher stories can get to you but for the most part that’s where the true news hounds want to be.

Chris Dessi: What has been you shining moment in news? What are you most proud of? I guess I’m asking – what has been your greatest success/achievement? Publically and personally? Is it the same? Why?

Lew Leone: I’m most proud of the fact that our little local show Good Day New York was able to beat the behemoths Good Morning America and The Today Show. Yes it is the same. Personally I took satisfaction because I hired the people that did it.

Chris Dessi: You’ve met heads of state, and major movie stars. Who has been the most fascinating person you’ve encountered, and why?

Lew Leone: I think it has to be Wendy Williams. To go from drug addict to major star and business mogul is a truly fascinating story. I used to laugh very hard with her on the radio and was amazed at how smart she was. And now to witness her work ethic, drive and determination to succeed, in person, has been an inspiration. I always tell people that Wendy is the real deal.

Chris Dessi: News is a tough business. What do you say to young college graduates looking to break into news? Where should they start? How can they impress you, and get your attention? What does that skill set look like?

Lew Leone: News is a tough business. Technology has turned everyone into video news gatherers, editors, producers writers and reporters and that’s just with an Iphone. Often time’s young people have all of these skills but we have multiple people doing them. We need to adapt faster and become more efficient. Right now the most valuable people in a news organization are reporters with contacts who get the story right. My advice is to listen to Chris Dessi and start a blog.

Chris Dessi: They decide they’re going to make a movie of your life story. Which actor would you choose to play young Lew Leone – present day Lew?

Lew Leone: Finally an easy question. Young Lew- Darren Criss. Present day Lew- Billy Bob Thornton.

Chris Dessi: Best day of your life?

Lew Leone: Wedding Day. Vero Beach Fl, morning golf tournament and “ The Land Sharks” band

Chris Dessi: Worst day of your life?

Lew Leone: 9/11.

Speed round:

Mets or Yankees? Yankees

Rosanna or Greg? I’m sure they would both love for me to answer that question

Football or Baseball? Football

Favorite Joke/Comedian – the Amazing Goldstein

Favorite book? Still Life with Woodpecker

Early-bird or Night owl? Early – Bird

You and Greg Kelly get into a fistfight, who wins? Well he is very stubborn so every time I knock him down he will always get up

Did Ernie really say what we think he said? Yes, he said “Stay Classy New York ‘

Beer or wine? Both

My kids know that I hate witches, what’s the one thing that scared the hell out of you as a kid, and still freaks you out? I don’t like goodbyes and to this day I prefer just to disappear

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