#69 Clueless Part 1

Around 1995, a friend called to tell me that there was someone in the paper I probably knew. But I did not recognize the name or the photo. The article was about a former General Manager of the last radio station where I worked in New York. She had been named President of a regional Public Media corporation. I did not contact her as a former colleague might, because it was a misquote. She had not been GM.

A year or so later we got a winter blast that threatened to flood the region. Friends living by the rising river called to ask if they could come over to stay with us. The night before I had driven by the river and the ice was moving at the same speed as my car. I’m justified in calling it, awesome.

We turned on our TV to find basketball and only basketball. It was March Madness. Our friends did brave one bridge to get to us. Fortunately only their basement flooded. But I was stunned that no station in the area even had a crawl under any basketball game warning residents of the potential danger. A historic walking bridge fell into the river, and that appeared on CNN before there was any local coverage. The media writer for the newspaper reported that the story received delayed coverage because it was a weekend with reduced staff.

I had been firmly trained in broadcasting that a radio or TV station’s prime purpose is to inform a community. We citizens own the licenses. Because of the flood, I wrote to that new President of the media company and asked how it was possible that her station had no television news of any kind. In my letter I introduced myself mentioning my background but did not speak of the article. I received a call from her thanking me for the note and suggesting that we meet.

There was nothing familiar about her, though she definitely knew my work. She said she worked in corporate headquarters. I did not mention that the paper had reported her as General Manager. I still assumed she was misquoted. She said that her company no longer had TV news because of the cost of competing with commercial stations.

She wanted me to run a new commercial venture they had just bought, an unwired statewide radio network. I had experience with such networks but I was writing plays at last. I interviewed several people at the company to ascertain what they needed. I wrote a document recommending a plan. Though I needed an income, it wasn’t right for me.

She approached me again about another position and was always complimentary about my business reputation in New York. I was a stranger in this area. No one knew me. At that time I had separated from the man I didn’t name in #55 It Takes Two. Being unknown was something I had done to myself, and I was completely unprepared for the continued consequences. So it was nice that someone knew of me.

She wanted me to lead all sales for all divisions of their diverse organization. Again I went in to meet with some of the staff. One key person told me that his wife worried that if I joined the company there wasn’t enough money for him. That comment was a scary screech. My purpose would have been to increase sales, therefore increasing income for all. I was asked how much I would want to make. With his attitude, I knew this wasn’t a good fit so I named a high but achievable number. If they agreed, fine. I continued with my writing.

She contacted me again. By then I had gone back to my home with the man I did not name; one of my more gigantically stupid moves. She came for drinks one evening and had another position she wanted me to consider. So I met the young Publisher of their magazine and the notion of leading sales for them was intriguing. There were only three of these regional Public magazines left in the country. Though he was much younger, we got along very well. It wasn’t an urgent move and I wanted my summer. So at the end of 1997 I joined the company as Sales Director of the magazine to help it grow. I had the assurance from the President that she would be there at least five years.

When I arrived I was shown to my office that was being used to store junk. I had to get help to clear it out. It was an old building that had been repurposed many times over the years so I didn’t expect luxury. But this was a strange start.

The person I was replacing was still there. I was replacing her all right, but she was not retiring as I had thought. They were astonishingly rude to both of us about my arrival. She would now be part of my staff. Want to know how awkward that was? I said nothing.

I was also entering a culture for which I was not prepared. All of my broadcast experience was in the commercial world. Create a good product and find clients to advertise. Though the politics might be corporately complicated at times, it was straightforward.

This was another solar system. Public Broadcast came out of academia: hence the moniker of educational television. But this particular corporation was a combination of both absolute commercial ventures and publicly funded divisions. They lived partially on grants both state and federal. The corporation competed in a commercial market but held on to the 40-year perception in the region, that viewers and listeners alone funded them. They still do.

The person I was replacing wanted to help acquaint me with accounts. I seemed brusk to her but I needed get to work with the staff. There was never anything comfortable about my replacing someone who was still there. I gave her the respect she deserved but I had a job to do. The President and the Publisher left it for me to handle. This was becoming a theme.

I was also coping silently with the immune dysfunction not wanting anyone to know. After ten years I learned how to manage the illness, but I was exhausted and could say nothing.

For a pretty large company, only two people came to welcome me. One I already knew from an earlier job possibility. The other was the face and heart of the company, there the first day they went on the air. Otherwise there was no orientation. I didn’t know where to find paper clips.

I met regional magazine publishers around the country and that’s where I got my education. Our revenue went up consistently.

The President told me she was bringing in someone as a consultant. I had worked with him in three different jobs in New York. Though he had no experience in television or publishing, he was to do a study about combining all sales divisions under one roof; something I knew was a disaster.

She told me that when my former colleague arrived I was not to let anyone know I knew him. Huh? This was someone I had not only worked with in three different jobs, we had over the years both dated briefly and then a few years later had an affair. I was instructed to pretend not to know him. And in nearly the same sentence she asked me to take him to dinner while he was in town.

I had not figured anything out about her. Whenever we talked I learned to say back what I thought she just might have said to me. She spoke incomplete thoughts. For a Board meeting she gave me precisely 17 seconds to speak and told me what to say. I had not revealed to anyone that she never was the General Manager of the company where I had worked, but now I was to lie about knowing someone I used to sleep with, and I said nothing.

She was determined to bring me into the company because of my experience, yet continually hid it. When he came to town, we were in the middle of budgets, the busiest possible time. The man in my life, who was betraying me, had nearly died and was in the hospital. The only seemingly sane thing in my life was hard work.

As instructed, I did take the former colleague to dinner. There wasn’t much time and I don’t remember what we talked about. There was no explanation of the staged meetings we were in or why he agreed to be there. And it was too late to get to the hospital that night.

Not long after that I got a call over a weekend to have brunch with the Publisher, without spouses. He announced that he was leaving the company and assumed that I would take his position. He had not yet told the President. He and I worked well together. In fact he had been named VP of the radio division even though he knew nothing about radio. I sent him to New York where he spent a day with a friend of mine at CBS who gave him a primer. I had earned my VP stripes years ago, but I let this pass. I wasn’t one much for titles and had never expected to be in publishing.

Now I was meeting regularly with all heads of divisions. I kept trying to convince myself that it was my imagination that the publishing division wasn’t respected. We were also the design center for the entire company. But the staff was used to being neglected. I was determined to change that.

I was struggling on yet another front. The man who had taken the job with the commercial radio network had also been named a VP and had dominion over the magazine. He lived in Virginia and was only in the office two or three days a week. He was doing everything possible to undervalue our growth. I was hired to improve publishing so none of this made sense. I learned later that his father wanted to buy the magazine.

The President was livid when she found out that the Publisher had told me first that he was leaving. I mean screaming at me in front of my staff for his telling me first. Really not prepared for that behavior. She and the CFO, for whom I had no respect, gave me two hours to decide to take the job of Publisher. The CFO had a sketchy background. And he made a practice of quizzing me about radio before he attended a meeting so he sounded as if he knew what he was talking about. Why was he making this announcement?

My appointment was broken to the staff with little explanation of my background. They had just lived through a huge design change with their young charismatic publisher and knew little about me.  I was in for another rough ride.

The departing Publisher had just hired a new young editor who had not yet started but moved from New York to take the job. I thought she knew, but he announced in my presence that he was leaving and I was taking over. So that was uncomfortable. Assuming that she would be named Editor she almost moved back to New York. But she did start work, though I could not put her in charge of a budget yet. That caused friction. Even her father was openly angry with me. This was getting grimier and grimier.

I moved into the Publisher’s Spartan office which evidenced he had never planned to stay long. The dust was so thick I lifted it off the spokes of the chair in one piece like a layer of felt. He had a laptop at a bare table. There was one flimsy photo tacked to the wall. I found bits and pieces of furniture in a storage shed to create an office.

I was Sales Director, Publisher and though I was doing the job, they had not given me the title or paid me as Editor in Chief. I still spent time in my office upstairs to work with the sales staff. I saw in the budget that I was paid 20% less than my predecessor, yet doing extra jobs. That mattered little to me because a greater amount of my income was based on performance. I said nothing.

I needed someone to replace me as Sales Director. If sales weren’t maintained there would be less of a magazine. Finally one of the sales staff took on the job and I could get back to learning how to be a publisher. Half the editorial and design staff was unsure of me.

I gave our sales assistant additional responsibilities with circulation. She thrived and grew. I knew if we could increase magazine sales on newsstands, we could introduce more people to the company.

The entire staff was working so hard and doing so well I planned a day out of the office for fun. A friend who owned a grass air field had us all there for a day of games, softball and everyone got to go up in his Piper Cub, one or two at a time. The President thought I had taken them all on a big plane together risking the lives of an entire staff. It’s the way her brain worked.

In a Public Broadcasting company, telethons/begathons come up often. I annoyed that side of the company by not going in front of a camera to pitch for “donations.” It made absolutely no sense. Ours was a commercial piece of the company. Also I photograph horribly and have a lousy voice.

This was a large company and many people had been there for decades. They were so dedicated some might have worked for no pay. There was also a large contingency of long time volunteers. It was a confusing blend of commercial and non-profit.

The magazine staff volunteered to answer phones for a begathon. Happy parents called with donations for the programs they watch with their children. Then the phones went dead. Editors read books. In the boredom I swear someone threw a spitball. The phones went crazy again because there was a program on about personal finance. See, the purpose of getting donors is to get new members who hopefully will continue to give money. However the programs for the begathons is vastly different than regular programming. I heard one of the sales people uncharacteristically trying to talk someone out of a donation. We all had uncomfortable calls. It was a Suze Orman pitch made for QVC. Callers were desperate to spend their last $250 for CDs and books to get out of debt. We were all sickened by the experience. I spoke with the President who promised to pull Suze Orman programming in future fund drives. I had become the unwelcome corporate conscience.

I was researching the possibility of a kid’s version of our magazine. What a great way to reach children in a literate way. A sales person and I visited a FOX station in the region to learn about their club for kids. On our way out the Manager craftily bought a full-page ad for a program of theirs. This was common. All regional stations bought space in the magazine. I wasn’t aware of any invisible rule and when the ad came out was forced to defend myself. The copy that they ran was for children’s programming that PBS had lost to FOX. Uh oh. The President left me on a limb to defend a reasonable business transaction. But the emotional reaction around the company was a stink in my direction. One day I came in and was greeted by a screaming, gesticulating employee I did not know. She was threatening me, and I hoped that someone would come to my aid. She had been with the company for decades and called me a traitor and many other things. I was genuinely afraid but knew to let her let off steam. I feared there might be something wrong in her life to allow her to go off like that. The CFO, the one I did not trust, decided to make a thing of it and called for a union inquiry. I would not be voted most popular.

The magazine had been chosen as a test by our printing firm in Virginia to go digital. I knew little about printing. Now it was digital. When I first went back to work I hardly knew how to use the phones. Our Production Manager and I were asked to speak at a conference about the transition. I spoke about seven syllables about giving us more time for sales each month and then turned it over to her. I wasn’t foolish enough to speak to a group of publishers about digital printing.

When I returned to the hotel, there was a call from the President informing me that she was leaving the company. Actually she had never moved from New York. She had a small apartment here and was only around about three days a week. The two people who had brought me in, gone.

And mentions in the paper about the President having managed a station I worked for in New York still appeared. I knew she wondered if I would ever speak of it. I did not. But how would she know that?

She did an odd thing before she left as if everything else she did wasn’t odd. She took me to dinner. She was not a warm and fuzzy gal so this was unusual. She wore only gray IBM suits and never carried a purse, both meant to make her appear more serious. In one of our weekly meetings I started to tell her that I had left the man in my life. She stopped me by making a football time-out sign saying she couldn’t handle any personal information. Got it!

Over dinner she told me what a great job I was doing and she wished she had ten of me. She went on and on about my successes. And then she said if I ever repeated that she would deny it. With that, dinner was over.

The next morning her job review for me was on my desk saying that I was a “fish out of water.” That was accurate, but the least offensive remark. She knew at the restaurant that I would see this the next day and she’d be gone. On top of the unflattering review was a large bonus. Whiplash. I was never able to confront her. I’ve never heard from her again. And I knew she hadn’t actually written the review.

As always I had a huge capacity for long hours and hard work. I only knew how to do the best job possible. I had no capacity for knowing how to handle deception.

I had a fight on my hands with the CFO who was playing with our budget. If I spent one day out of the office I’d return to find that he had charged an expense to us.

A search was launched to replace the President. The search committee contacted me because staff members had nominated me for the position. It was lovely but I knew the miserable spot this could put me in.

I confided in the godfather of regional publishing in California. He told me if I wanted it, to go for it 100% or not at all. I should have gone to work for him.

I called the friend, the former colleague who had been brought in to write the report. He confessed that he only came to town that time to see me. Someone else was going to write the report that they wanted. I asked about the departing President’s resume conflict. It had never occurred to me to ask him before. Both he, who was in fact the General Manager in New York, and his predecessor who had hired me, had agreed that if she put that on her resume they would not lie for her, if contacted. They were never contacted.

When I went to Philadelphia to be interviewed by the search firm, which only recruits women, they kept me waiting for two hours. When I was about to leave to catch a train they called me into a conference room and paid little attention while I spoke naively about better serving our region.

I knew this could be trouble with whoever was hired. The staff meant well by wanting me in the job. I knew I could do it. But this was a no win situation.

One bright spot was my new circulation manager who was doing exceptionally well. She was happy, learning, traveling to conferences. Suddenly she changed. No matter what I suggested, she said it couldn’t be done. With the help of circulation managers around the country, now I knew what could be done. She went from excited about possibilities to completely irritable and negative.

She resigned, and it would be several months before I found out why.

One Comment on “#69 Clueless Part 1”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Working in a profession filled with deception and negativity, it truly is amazing that you survived this! You explain it very well, even to someone like myself who is just a consumer of the media/publishing products.

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