What It Takes To Innovate In Broadcasting?

The former general manager of two TV stations in Des Moines shares his answer in the form of two broadcast success stories where he listened to the "what if?" and followed through with "irrational passion" despite the inevitable naysayers.


Last month, longtime broadcaster Ted Stephens was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame during its annual convention. He is a marketing consultant now, but during his 36 years in broadcasting he enjoyed success running two stations in Des Moines, KDSM and later KDMI.

In his acceptance speech, Stephens talked about innovation and two critical elements that make it possible.

An excerpt from the speech:

As I look back on my career, I can’t help but notice that some of my proudest accomplishments had two things in common. They started with a “What If?” and were then pursued with irrational passion. I will share two examples.

I was general manager of Sinclair’s KDSM Des Moines in the late 90s. The station was a strong Fox affiliate, doing well. One day in a department head meeting, the topic was brought up that we need to get into the news business. The conversation got very passionate and quite heated.

I said, “Look folks, I’ve done the math on this a 100 times. It will cost several million dollars in capital investment to start a news and over a million dollars a year in operational expense. There is no way it will make money and there is no way corporate will approve a money losing venture.”   


Then, my chief engineer Marty Mohrfeld said, “You know, the state of Iowa is pretty well fibered. What If we lease a fiber line between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and have our CBS sister station Cedar Rapids, KGAN, produce a 9 p.m. newscast for us out of their studio? They already have the infrastructure.”

I thought it was an interesting idea. We did some research and could not find another example of where a local newscast was being produced in another DMA, so we put together our own playbook and  I then got on a plane for the Sinclair corporate office in Baltimore to present our amazing idea to the CEO of television, Barry Drake.     

Barry took me into a conference room and invited the corporate heads of sales, programming and engineering to sit in on the presentation.

Then, full of irrational passion, I showed them our revolutionary idea on how we could get into the news business and make money the first year and how great this was going to be and all of the new business it would generate.

When I finished. the corporate head of sales, corporate head of programming and the corporate head of engineering all hated the idea.  They said, “It’s not local. It won’t sell. You’ll have all kinds of technical challenges, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

As I started packing my things, humiliated, wanting nothing more than to crawl out of there and go home to Des Moines, Barry Drake sat back in his chair and said, “I love it!  Let’s do it!”  And we did.

In March 2001, we launched “FOX 17 News at Nine” produced out of the KGAN studios in Cedar Rapids, fibered to Des Moines and broadcast live on KDSM.  It was a hit from day one and made money the first year.  And it all started with Marty Mohrfeld asking “What If.” 

Fast forward to about seven years ago. I’m the general manager of KCWI Des Moines. Early one morning Lori Dillard, one of our local AE’s, came into my office and said, “On my way in I was listening to ‘Lou, Heather and Round Guy’ on KGGO radio. What If we televised that show?”

I liked the idea and met with Terry Peters the general manager of the Des Moines Citadel stations, owner of KGGO. He was receptive. We did some research, but could not find an example of this being done anywhere. So, we put together our own game plan, went to the KGGO studios and shot a spec TV show of “Lou, Heather and Round Guy.”

I then went to Fresno, Calif., to present our idea at a Pappas Telecasting corporate meeting. There, in a hotel ball room I got up in front of the 35 Pappas general managers and all of corporate and, filled again with irrational passion, I told them about this revolutionary programming idea and how great it was going to be.

I then showed them the spec tape and when I was finished that room full of general managers and corporate people hated the idea. They said, “Radio people aren’t good on TV. They tried this once in Fargo and it didn’t work. It’s not news. Why would anybody watch?  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

So, I crawled out of that ballroom and came back to Des Moines disappointed, but not discouraged and not having lost one smidgeon of my irrational passion for the idea. 

Shortly afterward Cumulus Broadcasting bought Citadel and blew up the “Lou, Heather and Round Guy” show.  I met with the main host, Lou Sipolt, and asked, “Rather than us televising your radio show, What If you come to work for KCWI and we create a Monday-Friday morning TV variety show using some of the elements from your radio show?”

Lou was all for it. I asked if he thought he would have enough content to do three hours live. He said, “No problem.” Lou is the poster child of irrational passion.

In April 2012, we launched Great Day. It was different, unusual, unique. Some of those adjectives are not necessarily positive. The technology gods did everything they could to keep the show off the air.

We were starved for resource. I never asked, but I’m pretty sure my meteorologist Jason Parkin’s source for weather information was KCCI’s web site. We hedged on so many FCC rules that I’m sure on every desk in the offices of the FCC Rules & Regulations Division in Washington is a 400-page pamphlet entitled, “KCWI: How Not To Run A Television Station.”

But “Great Day” found its niche. In six months, it had a positive cash flow and a year and a half after the show was launched we expanded to four hours live per day. All being done with only 20 people on our entire staff. All being done because Lori Dillard asked What If.  

Those are the things I remember fondly. Those are the things I was proud to be a part of.


Comments (5)

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Kaylor Blakley says:

July 12, 2017 at 9:56 am

Good post. Actually, great post. I’m running into the same situation with Stations, although from a different angle. I’m CEO of a start-up Network through an app called Spincast and a major focus for us is getting local Broadcasters a global audience that does not interfere with their current affiliation. Yet, getting these local broadcaster to understand it costs them nothing from our end and the benefits are a an increase in revenue — plus a massive increase in eyeballs, is a very difficult task. Everyone knows local numbers are going down, traditional Networks are putting on the squeeze, internet media and “fake” news is killing real journalism and locally produced programming, and the FCC is all but abandoning the local markets. In the end, when all these stations have diminished to nothing more than a satellite feed from a central station, they’ll have no one to blame but the one in the mirror.

Change is hard. But change is, and will always be constant. So why not flow with it.

yin yu says:

July 12, 2017 at 9:57 am

With all due respect, the Internet has turned the economics of Broadcasting and Cable TV on its head. Being a great general in the last war is very interesting but not helpful in this one. Broadcasters are having a hard time now that the FCC can no longer protect them from competition as it has.

Allison Coquet says:

July 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm

I enjoyed reading this. It shows that great ideas and determination will never be outdated. No matter the time or technology available, there are always going to be great ideas. You just have to be willing to risk failure.

Snead Hearn says:

July 12, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Congrats Ted… The days gone by were some exciting times and you enjoyed the positive contribution you could bring to your community with your station. Times have sure changed but it is nice to see the IBA recognize good broadcasters. Congratulations.

Jamie Olofson says:

July 13, 2017 at 9:32 pm

I would have loved to have been there to hear this speech. Ted was my manager for many years. Not only is he a “What if” kind of guy. He is also has that “Can do” attitude. So often we look at ideas and come up with reasons why not to do them. Ted looks at ideas and says if they are good for the station and good for the client then why not give it a try! There is no doubt the business has changed but one thing still is true….good ideas and good people are what ultimately make the wheel go round! Congrats Ted on your induction!

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