John Reardon on Running a station With a Soul

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For many broadcasters, these are especially difficult times. There has never been more competition over the air or from cable, satellite and alternate choices such as video games and the Internet. For some independent stations, however, these changes have actually helped level the playing field. That added up to a very pleasant morning one day last week for John Reardon.
An ad sales veteran, Mr. Reardon has been VP and GM of KTLA-TV in Los Angeles since 1996 and station manager since 1992. He is also a regional VP for Tribune Broadcasting, overseeing stations in Seattle, Sacramento, Calif., San Diego and Denver.
During his tenure he has seen the arrival of The WB Network, consolidation and a more targeted approach to reach specific demographic groups. He has also seen his flagship station in L.A. go from being an also-ran to being in a much more competitive position. “For example, last night 7th Heaven and Everwood were No. 2 in the time period,” Mr. Reardon said with unbridled enthusiasm. “So we’re doing numbers we didn’t do 15 years ago with our movies.”
I had gone to see Mr. Reardon for a look at a big-market station a month before the Federal Communications Commission is to vote on rule changes that may allow big broadcast groups to get even bigger. He wouldn’t talk about the pending vote but was happy to discuss how KTLA has benefited as the market has fragmented.
The culture fits him
“When I first started out you had totally dominant affiliates, and we’ve seen them shrinking,” said Mr. Reardon, who began his career with Petry Television and MTV Networks before joining Tribune as a sales executive with WGN-TV in his native Chicago. “We’ve seen the independent come on, so [the independents] are kind of like street fighters. The survival of the fittest in our world has played into our hands. We enjoy that.”
It is clear Mr. Reardon loves what he does. “It’s the people,” he told me. “I work for a great company. I’ve been here a long time [18 years]. It’s got great integrity. It fits who I am. The culture fits me. KTLA has a wonderful tradition. KTLA’s got a soul. There’s not a lot of places with a soul, but there’s definitely a soul here.”
Group has buying power
In L.A., KTLA now faces two broadcast duopolies, but Mr. Reardon isn’t about to criticize them. After all, he oversees a duopoly in Seattle, and if the rules do change, Tribune will be among those taking advantage of more liberal limits. “[Duopoly] makes a lot of sense when you can do it, but we also need to compete effectively against it where we don’t have two stations,” Mr. Reardon said. “It really gets down to programming.”
KTLA, he explained, has benefited not only from The WB but also from Tribune’s group buying power, used to acquire off-net shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace.
He also credits a strong local emphasis for the station’s success. “We started the morning news here in July 1991. … Yesterday it was basically No. 2 in the market,” Mr. Reardon said. “The only one who beat us was Good Morning America. That puts us in a unique position.”
The KTLA Morning News is a lively mix of news, chat, gossip and features. It competes fiercely with Fox’s morning show, which now also has a national edition. Both regularly top the network morning programs in Southern California.
With consolidation, one rap is that there is a loss of localism. That is a charge Mr. Reardon adamantly denies in terms of his stations. “The Tribune philosophy is different than some others. We’re into localism,” he said. “Each community is different, and we want to reflect that on our air, in who we employ and through our involvement in that community.”
Part of that commitment is fulfilled by money returned to the community by the McCormick Trust, set up some four decades ago by the Chicago Tribune’s founders. It doles out funds to charities, school and institutions. KTLA, for instance, spent about $1.6 million last year in the L.A. area, and the Los Angeles Times, owned by The Tribune Co. for the past three years, spent roughly an equal amount. “Education is a big focus, as are afterschool programs and the homeless,” Mr. Reardon said. “On the Morning News we can highlight these things. It further emphasizes our role in the community.”
KTLA has also developed a news partnership with the L.A. Times, after an uneasy start to the relationship. At first the Times wouldn’t even cover KTLA for fear it would be perceived as a shill for its sister business. These days they work together editorially with regular news reports-including shared resources during the Iraq war-and on the advertising side. Last week, during the Trib annual meeting in Chicago, KTLA and the L.A. Times won the company’s annual Values Award for joint efforts by their ad teams that the Trib said helped “to more than double multimedia advertising revenue last year in Los Angeles.”
So whatever the future brings in terms of consolidation, Mr. Reardon remains confident. “It’s just a reality,” he said with a shrug. “It’s an evolution. The model is, change all the time. We just need to focus on what we do best. You’ve got to be aware of the evolution and where things are going, and you just keep plugging away.”