Graham’s Barr Offers A ‘Master Class’ In TV Leadership
Some CEOs inspire respect among their employees. For Emily Barr, the effect is closer to adulation.
As president and CEO of Graham Media Group, TVNewsCheck’s Station Group of the Year, Barr commands a level of admiration in the industry so ardent as to initially invite skepticism. Even Catherine Badalamente, VP of digital and chief innovation officer at the company and Barr’s top lieutenant, felt it initially when Barr took the group’s reins in 2012.
“The cynic in me said it isn’t possible for there to be a person who is so revered and then is going to live up to this, that she had this amazing position within the industry,” Badalamente says.
Call it the Barr Effect. Its principal attributes are a zeal for innovation, a disarming sense of empathy and an ability to forge fast, deeply impactful personal connections that are rare among any level of professional, let alone a CEO.
“Before I joined the company, I had a company crush on Graham Media largely because of the leadership of Emily Barr,” says Stephanie Slagle, senior director of brand agency and sales strategy for the group. “Emily has far exceeded what I expected from a CEO. The organization is over 1,000 people, and she knows all of them and genuinely cares.”
Sherry Carpenter, director of creative services and local programming at WJXT Jacksonville, Fla., echoes that sentiment. “When you meet her, you just know that she is a truly authentic person,” she says. “She is so easy to engage with and talk to. When she walks into a station, she knows everybody’s name.”
Margaret Ashburn, news director at WSLS Roanoke, Va., has seen the same dynamic play out at her station. “Emily is what sold me on coming to the company,” she says. “[She] makes a point to come and learn your name and learn about you and sit down with you.”
“Anybody who has worked with Emily Barr tells you that she has an absolutely amazing touch with people, that people love working for her, that she has a very good touch at selecting managers,” says Donald Graham, chairman of the board of Graham Holdings, the family-owned company that owns the group.
But it isn’t just her empathetic nature people are drawn to. General managers respect the latitude they’re given to run stations according to their markets’ particularities, all the while being held to the discipline of hard targets.
“We are not micromanaged from the top like some other groups that have a template that they have to follow,” says Phil Lane, VP and GM of KSAT San Antonio, Texas. “We are held accountable to our goals. We are given some flexibility to innovate to get there, and if you swing and miss it is OK as long as you hit your goals at the end of the year.”
Behind all this is a station group leader whose first ambition was to be a documentary filmmaker while studying at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. On a professor’s recommendation, she applied to a dozen TV stations to get some experience and was rejected by all but KSTP in St. Paul, Minn., which simply ignored her.
Persisting with the station’s chief photographer, he invited her to meet him. “He said, ‘Well, you are too short,’ ” Barr says of their first encounter. “’You couldn’t possibly be in the middle of a scrum of photographers, and you will get knocked over and hurt.’ ”
He put Barr to a test: Pick up all the gear and carry it around the station three times. She later learned no one ever humped all of it together at once, but the photographer admired her gumption. She was brought on as an intern editor, segueing into a part-time position in her senior year, when she shuttled back and forth between college and the station.
Barr spent a year and a half as an editor before shifting over to promotions, where a writing spot opened up and she came under the tutelage of Hank Price, whom she credits for helping get her first true start in the business.
Her ascent in the industry was steady. A stint as a writer/producer at WJLA Washington led to roles as advertising and promotion manager at KHOU Houston where she later worked as director of creative services. From there, she moved to WMAR Baltimore as director of broadcast operations and programming and then assistant GM.
Barr had her first president-GM role at WTVD, then the ABC O&O in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., leaving to became president-GM of ABC WLS Chicago before coming to the helm at Graham (then known as Post-Newsweek Stations) in 2012.
Departing CEO Alan Frank welcomed Barr with a caution that the digital era was dawning for broadcast, and that she’d need to embrace it to succeed. Of digital, “he said, ‘I know we have to do it, I just don’t fully get it,’ ” Barr recalls. “’We need someone like you who can look ahead and not be fazed by it.’ ”
Barr wasn’t just undaunted by digital; her embrace was instant and robust in an industry that was then making only tentative forays there at best. She immediately pulled Badalamente into a full-time corporate role and with her set about building the team that would become Graham Digital, a nimble unit that operates like a startup within the company, iterating new products quickly, failing fast and moving straight on to the next idea. The team, based in Detroit, is now some 25 staffers strong.
“Many of them have not come from the television business, so they are not weighed down by the traditional view of what we should be doing,” Barr says.
Underpinning the deep investments Graham has made in digital is Barr’s fervent belief that the industry is in the midst of a sea change. “You need to look at how users and viewers are accessing the information that we are putting out there,” she says. “We need to really dig into this and make sure we are doing everything we can not just to be the No. 1 source of news among television stations, which is how we used to measure ourselves.”
For Barr, that means primacy on all local news platforms, and she points to Detroit’s WDIV besting other outlets like MLive and the Detroit Free Press as the kind of brass ring for which she’s reaching. “I take that as a vindication of the effort we put into this,” she says.
Where viewers are moving, so too are advertisers, and Barr doesn’t want to be left chasing behind either group. Instead, she wants to be ready to meet them when they arrive. “You can see what is happening to viewing,” she says. “It is completely disaggregated. So, trying to find a massive group of people to run mass advertising in the way that we used to do it is just not going to be possible.”
In response, Graham has launched OMNE, an in-house digital agency, that looks to break up old industry advertising paradigms by taking a more holistic approach to dealing with clients, promising them results instead of just impressions.
Under Barr, Graham has laid down big bets with its digital division on the in-house development of station websites, mobile apps and streaming apps, where its stations were among the industry’s first to launch and experiment with original programming.
“What we need to do is broaden out the way we serve these viewers, and the revenue will follow,” she says.
Most recently, Graham has also launched a group-wide membership program, Insiders, aimed at deepening stations’ relationships with their most engaged consumers. “It is like a super-charged focus group that allows you to really understand what it is that is driving and motivating someone to really lean on you,” Barr says.
Insiders, in its way, is utterly emblematic of Barr’s leadership style: lean in, learn more, adapt.
Barr has had to do more than her share of adapting as the group plunged into the new reality of pandemic operation in March 2020. From its early days, she began writing a weekly memo to staffers that has become a key connection in an uncertain era of remote production.
“I didn’t know at the time it was going to be weekly,” she says. “I just felt like I needed to let people know not only what we were doing as a company, but what my own personal fears were and my own concerns and the things I knew and the things I didn’t know. I was trying to be very candid.”
Barr’s candor had a powerful effect across the company.
“The way that she has led the organization through the last year and a half — completely uncharted times — has been a real master class in leadership and a real lesson for me in giving people grace, standing up and providing strength in a storm,” Slagle says.
“Nobody knew it was going to be OK, but she managed to stand up and say, ‘We got this,’ ” she says. “And all the while, we all continued to innovate and have done even more amazing things than I ever thought we could have.”
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series on Graham Media Group. Part one examined the company’s independent streak and culture of innovation. Part three, on Wednesday, will take a closer look at Graham’s Insiders program. Barr will be featured in a live interview as part of TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 event on Wednesday. Register here to watch.