NAMIC President Kathy Johnson has been involved with the organization for almost the entire 20-year history of its annual conference. She took time out recently from preparing for this year’s event to talk about the conference’s history and the organization’s current priorities with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
TelevisionWeek: The National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications is marking 20 years of its annual conference in 2006. Have you been to all the conferences?
Kathy Johnson: I’ve been to 18, I think. NAMIC was started in 1980 by a group of African Americans who were working in the cable industry. When they would come together at cable trade shows, they’d see each other and felt the need to create an organization where they would have opportunities to network with one another. The early chapters were in Colorado, Chicago and New York City, and a few of those members are still in the industry, like Douglas Holloway, who’s the president of cable investments at NBC Universal. He was one of our founding members and he’s still very active in the industry.
TVWeek: How did you get involved with the organization?
Ms. Johnson: I’ve been a member of NAMIC since I joined the industry in the fall of 1987. I’m a charter member of the L.A. chapter, and I’ve always been involved in the organization. When there was discussion to hire someone to manage the organization on a full-time basis, I decided to apply for the position.
TVWeek: What do you remember about the early years?
Ms. Johnson: We started in the Waldorf-Astoria and the first year I attended, 1987, it was actually in one room. It wasn’t even a conference; it was the Urban Market Seminar.
TVWeek: When did things change?
Ms. Johnson: Over the years the organization evolved. In 1990, we established national headquarters in Southern California. Wrise Booker, currently the president of Reid Dugger Consulting Group, was intimately involved in NAMIC. She had started her own consulting business and organizational management firm, and they asked her to set up the national headquarters. Since she was based in California, our national headquarters became based there. Last year we relocated our offices to New York City. Most of our members are east of the Mississippi, and with all the changes in the industry over the years, with the mergers and consolidations, most of the cable companies are also on the East Coast. It made sense for us to move.
TVWeek: What are your earliest memories of the NAMIC conferences?
Ms. Johnson: The conference first started when cable operators were just starting to get franchises and moving into the larger cities, where there was more of an urban and ethnic audience. The initial focus of the NAMIC conference was on franchising opportunities for minorities in the industry. Things changed as those opportunities became fewer and fewer. We changed our focus to marketing and programming and customer operations in urban areas with multiethnic audiences. The conference was originally called the Urban Markets Conference. Then, in the mid-1990s, we decided that we needed to change the focus of the conference somewhat. While it still had value for a lot of people, some thought it was too marketing-specific. We changed it to have a broader perspective on diversity.
TVWeek: How has the cable industry changed over the past 20 years in terms of diversity and opportunity?
Ms. Johnson: In a lot of ways it has changed dramatically, like the mergers and consolidations. There are fewer players, fewer people on the affiliate sales side of the business. In terms of diversity, there has been an ebb and flow. It’s been up and down. I would probably say that overall the number of people of color has increased, but we tend to focus on the executive level in the industry. That would be executive vice president and above. There was a time, circa 2001, when there were about four women of color who were running cable networks. That number is down to two today. So I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to where we’d ultimately like to be in those terms.
TVWeek: Why has there been stagnation in the growth of diversity in the cable industry?
Ms. Johnson: I think part of the problem is that there are fewer jobs, especially at the top. There always are fewer jobs at the top, and I think with fewer companies because of the mergers and such, there are fewer still. To some extent, companies maintain that they have a difficult time recruiting folks, and I think retention is also an issue. New people come into the industry, they don’t see role models, they don’t see mentors, and they feel like they don’t have opportunities to advance, and therefore they look elsewhere.
TVWeek: How important is NAMIC for someone just starting out in the cable industry?
Ms. Johnson: I think we’re a great resource for people coming in, especially in terms of getting to meet people and to know people in the industry, to obtain mentors. People who are NAMIC members have the opportunity to apply to participate in our Executive Leadership Program.
TVWeek: Tell me about that program.
Ms. Johnson: We launched the Executive Leadership Program with UCLA back in 2001. Those who participate are high-potential executives of color who are nominated by their companies. And I’ve heard them say, “Although there may not be a lot of opportunity for me to advance a lot further in my company”-this person was already a senior vice president-“the fact that I was even nominated for this program shows that my company felt like they were making an investment in me, and that makes me feel good about being here. It was certainly helpful in retaining me as an employee.”
TVWeek: What is NAMIC doing to help companies with diversity?
Ms. Johnson: We added the Corporate Diversity Track. There are lots of companies in our industry who are just launching diversity departments or making diversity a part of their executive incentive goals, and they are trying to focus more diversity as part of their overall business plans. The Corporate Diversity Track offers sessions as a resource to companies who are managing work force diversity and the challenges around that. We also implemented a Leadership Development Track that’s targeted to the individual. It gives them the skills that they need in order to advance in their careers.
TVWeek: Are there other tracks as well?
Ms. Johnson: Yes. There’s a New Media Track that addresses all the new technologies and the relevance they have with diverse audiences. And we have a track called Multi-ethnic Markets, and that addresses marketing and programming. We also have what we call Hot Topic Sessions, where we try to deal with issues that are top of mind with our members.
TVWeek: How has technology affected the cable industry, in particular the issue of diversity?
Ms. Johnson: I think it’s opening up a whole lot of opportunities. NAMIC’s role in all of this is making sure that people are prepared to take advantage of those opportunities. We have a group called the Diversity Roundtable that’s comprised of diversity practitioners within our industry that we formed about five years ago, and they approached us because one of their challenges is in the recruitment side for some of those new media positions. It also requires a whole different mind-set for companies in terms of who they are looking at for those positions. They may want someone with 10 years of experience, but a lot of the people who have the expertise for those positions are probably only 20-somethings. They’re not going to have 10 years of experience, so we have to change the mind-sets of employers. I also think getting to people at younger ages to make sure that they’re focusing on the kind of technical education that will prepare them for these types of positions is crucial.
TVWeek: I noticed that one of the NAMIC sessions will be about the anniversary of 9/11.
Ms. Johnson: Right. We were actually in New York during 9/11 for our conference.
TVWeek: It happened during the NAMIC conference?
Ms. Johnson: It did. We had already ru
n some early sessions the Monday prior, and then on that Tuesday, we had an early-morning breakfast that was sponsored by Bloomberg and we were in the middle of the opening session when someone told me on the headset, “I think we’re going to have some delays. An airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” Then we heard it was two aircraft, and one was coming from Boston, and we were expecting people from there for the conference. We were at the Millennium Broadway in Times Square that year, but we had considered the Marriott at the World Trade Center, only they didn’t have our dates available.
TVWeek: What did you do for the rest of the conference that year?
Ms. Johnson: We stayed around and watched like everyone else. Then once the transportation was up and running again, people were able to leave. We disbanded the conference. We went back to the Millennium next year, and it just kind of cast a pall over the entire conference in our minds. It just brought it back a little too much.
TVWeek: What is this year’s conference doing about 9/11?
Ms. Johnson: We’re having a luncheon on 9/11, and it’s basically addressing how the media has changed since 9/11. Then we will give the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award, which was implemented back in 1992 in honor of the late congressman. CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien has been chosen this year for the award.
TVWeek: What will be new and exciting at this year’s conference?
Ms. Johnson: One of the things that’s very different is that we’re opening with a town hall meeting on diversity. We’re going to have interactive polling with the audience, and we have a panel with seven executives and we’re going to have questions for them as well as the audience. … NAMIC also conducts employment research on the status of multiethnic employment in the industry going back from 1999, and in 2004 we initiated a partnership with Diversity Inc. magazine and they deployed the NAMIC employment survey to companies on our behalf. … We’re just wrapping up the 2006 survey that will be released in conjunction with our conference. It will be the backdrop for the town hall meeting.