by Kim Hackett
Photography by Alex Stafford
HE MAY NO LONGER MANAGE or consult for TV stations all over the globe, but retired media executive and Sarasota resident Irwin Starr still follows the media landscape. Starr, 75, holds court a dozen times a year at the Florida All Media Roundtable, a loose organization of working and retired publishers, station owners, reporters and some of the biggest names in the business, who meet at the Field Club for frank (and off the record) discussions about media, old and new. Starr has been running the 66-year-old Roundtable since 2001. During much of that time, he also consulted and operated the Landings Eagle, a community newspaper and website he developed and sold in 2012 for a handsome profit.
Starr started in radio as a teenager when rock ’n’ roll first hit the airwaves. He helped launch a PBS station in Pennsylvania and managed TV stations all over the country when there were only three networks. After the fall of communism, Starr consulted with former Soviet states on how to build capitalist-style networks.
Working in magic shows was as close to show business as I could get when I was a kid. I started taking magic lessons at a magic shop when I was 11. I worked Saturdays and summers, doing banquets and birthday parties; that got me interested in broadcasting.
My greatest success and my greatest failure happened in the same place. I moved to KGW-TV in Portland, Ore., when it was doing badly from both a ratings and a financial standpoint. We had a financial and programming turnaround in 18 months and the station increased its share of market profits each year. NBC was on a growth swing, going through a renaissance in the mid-1980s. Bill Cosby, then the top-rated show, was going into syndication and we decided to buy it. It cost us millions and it was a total failure in reruns.
I had the good fortune to work for privately held companies for most of my career. They didn’t answer to the stock market; they answered to the owners’ needs. They wanted to be profitable and grow, but they also had goals of public service and public commitment. Public companies have a different balance; their first goal is growth. It’s led to a lot of short-term thinking among media companies and it’s hurt them.
You need to get staff committed to what you are trying to accomplish. You have to plan where you are going in a company and involve department heads in the process, whether they want to participate or not. I’ve never been a believer in cleaning house. When I took over managing a TV station, I’d get to know people to see if they had the same goals and attitudes as I did. It took about five or six months for me to figure out who were my good people. When you can’t get them on your team, sometimes you have to let them go.
Accept that you can’t manage the guy above you. In television, you have three constituencies: the advertisers, the audience and the people you work for. You can influence advertisers and your audience, but you can’t control corporate. I never spent a lot of time trying to manage corporate, you have to concentrate on what you can control.
“You can’t control corporate.”
Cable has fragmented the audience. We used to all see the same things; we had a common experience. Now, people go to the newscasts that are comfortable with their philosophy.
What excites me in media is the choice of delivery methods. Through your phone, electronic reader, on the computer, on TV. Twitter is part of the downside; you can’t tell a story in 140 characters, and it’s unfortunate that that’s where a lot of people get news.
I see a lot of innovative things going on in media. The New York Times does a very good job with its Internet site and use of electronic journalism. They are doing video stories and interactive animated graphics that surpass what you see on TV news. Netflix and Amazon are doing some innovative programs with strong character dramas and solid writing. They are targeting smaller niche markets and are not driven by the same forces that drive the networks. Amazon has a show, Mozart in the Jungle, that features a symphony. When have you ever seen a sitcom made about a symphony?
One of the biggest concerns at the Roundtable is the decay of print media. Local newspapers have gotten so thin. There’s a lack of reporters and a lack of content. There is also a love-hate relationship with the young reporters coming up. While they have energy, they are coming in at the expense of seasoned people from the “check and double-check” era. Where are the editors?