Bill Rosendahl Connected to the Issues

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Bill Rosendahl has attended almost every Western Show since 1981 and served as chairman of the last three. However, he won’t be in Anaheim, Calif., this week for the event’s finale. Two days before Thanksgiving he taped the last of about 3,000 cable TV public affairs shows he has hosted since 1987 and which have been distributed locally and nationally. He brought down the curtain on his 22-year tenure in cable television.
After the holidays Mr. Rosendahl will begin in earnest his new career as a candidate for the Los Angeles City Council, aiming at an election in March 2005. “After asking all those questions for all those years,” said Mr. Rosendahl, “I’m going to get on the other side and help solve the problems.”
The son of German immigrants, Mr. Rosendahl first discovered his love of politics growing up in New Jersey. He quit grad school to work for Bobby Kennedy and was in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of his assassination. He later was drafted into the Army, where he ended up a special assistant to the top brass. He developed programs to promote racial harmony and improve morale, which (in 1971) got his photo into Life magazine, where John D. Rockefeller III saw it and tracked him down. His first post-Army job was “to help bridge the gap between the establishment and young people.”
He was 22, with an office overlooking New York’s Central Park, but he still heard the siren song of politics. He soon enlisted in the doomed George McGovern presidential campaign and other election campaigns followed. But the glitter faded. “I was 29 years old and had sublimated all my sexuality with heavy work,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “I was a closeted gay guy and didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Over 18 months he trekked through 39 countries. When he returned, politics beckoned. He later worked as a trade rep in the State Department until President Carter lost his re-election bid. Then “the calls began to come in from the cable world,” Mr. Rosendahl said.
It was the era when the game was about winning local cable franchise monopolies. “I saw that my skills in political campaigning and organizing, my love of people, could find a place in a corporate business setting,” he said.
Group W cable, which had just acquired TelePrompTer, hired him and sent him back to L.A., where he became VP of PR, government and community relations. “I will never forget that the head of Group W at the time found out I was gay and began to really persecute me,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “He took away my staff. Put me in a windowless cubicle. I was being beaten up by the politics of who I am.”
In 1986 Century Cable took over. “Its chairman, Leonard Tow, put me in charge of everything,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “All of a sudden I was a regional VP.”
“Leonard came to town and we were schmoozing, getting to know each other,” said Mr. Rosendahl. “He asked me about my wife or girlfriend. I was tired of saying to the corporate world, `I just haven’t found the right one.’ But one had to be careful because prejudice and discrimination do exist in business and you can lose your job. I just had a vibe. And I said, `Leonard, you’re Jewish. I feel like a Jew in Nazi Germany. If I put my head up, they’re going to gas me. I am a gay guy.”
“He was silent and looked at me and then said, `I don’t care what you are. I’d love to have you work for me.’ Well, that was my last breakthrough-in terms of going public.”
Not long after, Mr. Tow called and said, “Willy, I’m going to make you a star.”
public affairs beckons
As part of the franchise negotiation, Century promised to provide public affairs programming. “[Mr. Tow] said, `I’m not going to give these politicians any money, but you can give them exposure,”’ Mr. Rosendahl remembered.
While he continued to run Century, which then had 1.2 million subscribers, for several more years Mr. Rosendahl threw himself into hosting public affairs shows. By 2003, there were seven, including “Week in Review,” “Mideast Perspective,” “God Squad” and “Personal Best,” which aired locally. He also did “Beyond the Beltway,” which aired on Century and later on Adelphia systems, nationwide. He did interviews with mayors, senators, supervisors, pundits, experts, journalists and others. “The opportunity was for people to learn something,” he said. “Get more information. More facts. More understanding of the world they live in so they connect to the issues of the day.”
After a dozen years Century was sold to Adelphia, and Mr. Rosendahl went to work for Chairman John Rigas, who was so conservative he wouldn’t offer porn to his 6 million subscribers. But he got along with Mr. Rosendahl. “He found it very interesting to meet an openly gay guy who was happy and positive and having a great time and making a contribution to the community,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “The normalness of who I am impressed John Rigas a lot. And he accepted me right out.”
Mr. Rosendahl never saw any improper business conduct: “The stunning revelations about the Rigases and that company caught us all by surprise. I lost all of my value in all of my stock. I had my whole retirement tied up in it.”
out of the loop
He still has compassion. “What the Rigases did was minor in a sense,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “There was one partnership off the books. Wrong as that was, he immediately became this huge symbol. Why? Because he lives in rural Pennsylvania. He was not part of the Washington game, where they buy off everybody and you schmooze your way to success.”
Now Mr. Rosendahl is teaching college classes and broadcasting some lectures over an academic cable link and on the Internet. Adelphia plans to continue public affairs programming without him, but it is unlikely to be at the same volume. “It was my passion that created so many shows,” Mr. Rosendahl said. “I was never under any requirements. I just happened to love what I have been doing. I was having fun at it. And I know people got something out of it. I’ve been on a mission.”