NCTA’s Unflappable Eye of the Hurricane

May 7, 2007  •  Post A Comment

NCTA executives were in Los Angeles for a meeting when, in the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake hit. Advance/Newhouse Communications CEO Bob Miron remembers running out into the hallway of the Four Seasons Hotel, where he encountered a very calm Barbara York.

“She had it all under control,” he said. “She never panicked. We had a board meeting scheduled for that morning and, despite everything, she put it together and we had that meeting.”

Anyone who knows Barbara York, NCTA’s senior VP of industry affairs, will nod his or her head in recognition. Unstoppable, unflappable and infinitely gracious, Ms. York has been a center of gravity at NCTA as the organization — mirroring the industry it represents — has transitioned from a small organization to the multifaceted, influential group it is today.

“She can handle anything,” Mr. Miron said. “Barbara has the ability to handle the people on the committee, the chairman of the committee and every other issue, to make the convention just get better every year and change with circumstances when the industry changes and technology changes. She’s able to move and change with it. She has a steady hand at the rudder.”

And change it has. The NCTA’s annual Cable Show — the world’s largest — has more than doubled in size since Ms. York joined the organization in 1982. Over the years, she has responded to every change in the industry, staying at least two steps ahead when it comes to trends and technology.

“Barbara has virtually single-handedly made the [Cable] Show the must-attend event for our industry,” said Philip Kent, Turner Broadcasting System’s president-CEO.

When Ms. York joined NCTA, she brought with her an avid intelligence, insatiable curiosity and an almost superhuman ability to organize. June Travis, then NCTA’s executive VP, recalled their first convention together “One thing I saw that very first year was that she had a book, inches thick, which listed the timing for every event,” she said. “Barbara knows where everything needs to be in 10 minutes, so if something goes wrong, it allows them to recover quickly. She told me where I had to be at what time. I didn’t have to think — just look at my schedule and go. She solves any problem that comes up so quickly that you don’t notice it. It takes a lot to get Barbara ruffled. She rolls with the punches. As she says, she ‘scrubs’ everything so many times that the possibility of something going wrong is really minimal. And if something does go wrong, she’s never nervous about it.”

“That quiet sense of purpose, her creativity and vision and her strong relationships with the top leaders in the industry combine to make the Cable Show a wonderful experience each and every year,” said Cox Communications President Pat Esser. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount working with her as the show co-chair this year.”

A 1972 graduate of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., Ms. York’s first job out of school was director of media relations and internal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the major trade association for the food and grocery manufacturing industry. There she met Tom Wheeler, then a GMA executive. When Mr. Wheeler left to become a president of NCTA, he encouraged Ms. York, who had run the GMA’s annual conference, to join him. She started in August 1981 as vice president for administration, a position she held until August 1984.

What sets Ms. York apart in the industry is her ability to combine tight organization with a sense of humor and deep connection to the people she works with. Ms. York is also well known for her ability to lighten difficult moments, to befriend everyone from the CEO to the secretary, and to remember people, their histories, their interpersonal relationships and their preferences.

“From my very first meeting with Barbara I knew that we were in for a buttoned-up, well-oiled, lean NCTA meeting machine,” said Bernard Bell, senior VP, office of the president, TV One. “She organized the calls, the meeting books and the actual face-to-face meetings with the same military precision by which she runs her department. Barbara’s humor, her sharp wit and her attention to detail have made her such a pleasure to work with. She has been extremely supportive of our efforts at TV One, and always has made sure that we were not penalized for being a start-up network.”

Though Ms. York is universally described as soft-spoken, gentle and genteel, no one confuses that with a lack of will. “Barbara is without a doubt among the most persuasive people in the cable industry,” said Mr. Kent. “She will not take ‘no’ for an answer. I know this from personal experience.”

The Turner Broadcasting chief isn’t the only one to have had this experience. “Barbara’s not Southern, but she’s a classic steel magnolia,” Mr. Esser said. “She’s all tough determination in a genteel package. She can convince you to do something you absolutely are opposed to, and then make you glad you did.”

Born in Calcutta, India, Ms. York attended high school in Hong Kong and moved, alone, to the U.S. for college. Former NCTA president Jim Mooney recalled a story Ms. York told him about her first experiences in the U.S. “She’d never been to the States before, and she arrived in the middle of the 1969 riots in D.C.,” he said. “When the taxi cab pulled up to the school gates, there was a man at the gate, holding a shotgun on his knees, and she thought, where have I come to? That was her introduction to the U.S., and she wasn’t altogether sure she’d done the right thing by coming here.”

CTAM president Char Beales, a longtime friend, remembered Ms. York had told her that when she first came to the U.S., she had been sheltered by her large family and had never handled money or cooked a meal. “Now she’s a big executive and a gourmet cook,” said Ms. Beales. “She’s developed a lot of different skills that she learned later in life.”

Her longtime friend and mentor June Travis agreed. “I think she came to the States quite young and on her own, and that has made her very self-sufficient and take-charge.”

Being a quick study is one of Ms. York’s strong suits. When she joined NCTA, she knew nothing about the cable industry, but she quickly became built the relationships and knowledge base to be a leader.

Advance/Newhouse Communications executive VP Nomi Bergman, who has been on NCTA’s Cable Show planning committee for the last four years (along with her father, Mr. Miron), pointed out that Ms. York’s deep knowledge of the industry, her wide-ranging relationships and her high standards impact everyone involved in the planning process. “She is always cool, calm and collected, and that makes her an effective foundation upon which to have innovative conversation — and it makes for a better convention,” she said. “The conversations are smooth and productive, and it creates a good space for people to have meaningful conversations.

“She also seems to be very good at capturing opportunities. She often follows up with me one-on-one after the planning meetings, and I’m sure she does that with others. I’ll receive calls from her asking me to think through a particular session, how can we make it even better. She’s very good at getting you thinking, motivating us to push ourselves and use the contacts we all bring to secure great speakers. She’s very effective.”

Ms. York is also the only person Ms. Bergman knows who signs her emails “hugs,” she said: “It makes me smile.”

Loyalty — to NCTA, to industry leaders, to vendors, to her friends — is another trait that endears Ms. York to her wide circle of acquaintances and friends. Indeed, after joining NCTA in 1981, she left for a brief period — and that was to follow Mr. Wheeler, who originally recruited her to NCTA. She followed him to NABU: The Home Computer Network in summer 1984. NABU proved to be an idea ahead of its time, and Ms. York soon returned to NCTA.

“It became clear [NABU] was too early, and [NCTA’s] Jim Mooney enticed her back immediately,” said Ms. Beales. “They never filled her job while she was gone.” On her return, in 1984, Ms. York was named
VP for industry affairs, a title elevated to senior VP in January 2000.

From 1994 to 1998, in addition to her NCTA responsibilities, Ms. York was executive director of the National Academy of Cable Programming, which bestowed the prestigious national and local CableACE awards. That put her in the unique position of playing a significant role in the world of programming as well as cable operations, and Ms. York quickly created a new roster of friends and connections and another area of expertise.

She also has built a network of relationships with other industry groups that has enriched the Cable Show and the operations of NCTA in general.

“Barbara is an agent of change in this industry, but she’s often the glue that keeps us all together,” said Joe Rooney, Cox Communications’ senior VP and chief marketing officer. “Her contributions have been crucial in these dynamic and hypercompetitive times. Her scope of influence goes far beyond her role at the NCTA. A fantastic supporter of CTAM’s efforts, Barbara has worked to ensure that our various industry organizations maintain a wide frame of reference, working toward individual organizational goals while also collaborating. Barbara helps us realize synergies. When the industry is harmonizing nicely, Barbara’s hand is likely involved.”

It’s impossible to talk about Ms. York without talking about food. She is well known among her colleagues as a gourmet cook, something she generously shares with many of them in the form of home-cooked meals and restaurant trips. “She loves to go to markets and grocery stores,” said Ms. Beales, who noted Ms. York is also an accomplished painter, in a traditional Chinese style, and a swimmer. “Whatever city we’re in for a convention, she always knows the ‘hot’ deli or the ‘hot’ open-air market. It’s her hobby.”

Ms. Travis, who has retired from the industry, has several of Ms. York’s paintings hanging in her Colorado home. “A dozen years ago, she took up Chinese painting,” she said. “Like everything else, she dove into it and excelled. She paints beautifully, and that’s not an easy skill to learn. But she loved it and does lovely work.”

After years as an unsung hero, Ms. York is being pushed into the limelight in 2007. In addition to being named TV Week’s Cable Person of the Year, she is scheduled to be inducted into the Cable Pioneers at the 2007 Cable Show and, later in the year, will be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame.

Although she richly deserves the honors, receiving them may be the most difficult thing that Ms. York — who is quick to praise others but prefers not to attract attention to herself — has had to do in a career marked by tremendous challenges and a volatile industry.

NCTA President-CEO Kyle McSlarrow recalled last year’s Cable Show, where he honored Ms. York with a President’s Award on the 25-year anniversary of her taking on running the show.

“I had decided there would be a new award given, from time to time, to NCTA staff, and the very first person I thought of was Barbara,” he said. “But I also knew that the only place to present it was at the Vanguard Awards. I had to sneak around with people she knew to choreograph getting me up on stage and asking her to come up on stage. The entire time I am talking to everyone about how wonderful she is, she’s whispering to me that I’m impacting the time schedule for the Vanguards. She’s got this down to increments of minutes, and I was messing up the time schedule.

“I think she was very appreciative and very honored, but kind of mad at me,” he added. “It underscores the point that she does not look for accolades, and this article will probably be horrifying for her. The great thing about Barbara is that she wants all of the honors to be about other people.”

The Weather Channel’s Debora Wilson noted one of the major components of the Hall of Fame is to send senior people in the cable industry to speak to students at colleges and universities. “It’s a learning opportunity for students who don’t know a lot about our industry,” said Ms. Wilson. “And it’s also an opportunity for us to attract the best and brightest to our industry.” That sounds like a challenge that’s custom-made for Ms. York, who was on the board of her alma mater Trinity College for many years.

Though being the recipient of so many awards may embarrass Ms. York, it will bring rich satisfaction to her many fans in the cable industry. “When you say the name Barbara York, it brings a smile to your face,” said Ms. Bergman. “You’d do anything for her.”

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