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Patty Hamilton WXMI-TV 17
Janet Mason WZZM-TV 13
Diane Kniowski WOOD-TV8

Rising Through The Ranks: Women Lead Local Television
By Mark Johnston
Photography by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo

In a broadcast industry largely driven by staying ahead of the competition, it’s no surprise the legacies of television stations in Grand Rapids are partly built on “firsts.”

Among its other triumphs, WOOD-TV 8 was the first station in West Michigan to broadcast in color, performing the feat in 1953. WZZM-13 introduced the first weather radar in western Michigan in 1971.WXMI-17 is a charter FOX television station.

Yet, these stations can collectively celebrate what may be a first not only in West Michigan but also the nation. All three are led by women: a triumvirate of general managers whom, while downplaying “trailblazer” labels, embrace their roles as mentors to other women in what, until recently, was a male-dominated business.

It may be timely to put the spotlight on them in March, which is National Women’s History Month. But it’s more accurate to show that the leadership and influence of Diane Kniowski (WOOD), Janet Mason (WZZM) and Patty Hamilton (FOX) go far beyond gender-based considerations and designated recognition.

“ If you’re capable, gender is not an issue,” Kniowski said. “While 10 years ago we wouldn’t have had three women general managers here, I really don’t think about it all the time. But I respect it. I know I’m representing women.”

It’s been a long road to that respectability. In 1934, newspaper editor and author Stanley Walker published his book “City Editor,” in which he offered his take on women in journalism.

“ There are so many of them seeking a chance: more than the traffic will bear,” Walker wrote. “They are often too persistent, so pathetically eager are they to try anything. Even the ones who are fairly expert sometimes are guilty of all the weaknesses of which the callous male has accused the women.”

Fifteen years later, on Aug. 15, 1949, WOOD-TV 8’s predecessor, WLAV-TV, broadcast the first night of television in West Michigan. And 50 years after that, Kniowski became WOOD’s general manager.

Kniowski is in her 11th year at WOOD, joining the station in 1993 as national sales manager. Her career began in Erie, Penn., where, as an intern, she logged time in every core department of WICU-TV. While her penchant for writing briefly resulted in commercial production, financial considerations prompted her to explore sales.

Successful tenures as an account executive for ad agencies and broadcasting organizations in Texas culminated in 1990, when she earned the Award of Excellence for Television Sales from the American Women in Radio and Television. Her sales success continued at WOOD, where she reconstructed the sales department — leading to increased revenue — and helped implement several community involvement projects.

“ Her female touch is critical and important to this particular station,” said Patti McGettigan, WOOD-TV 8 news director. “There isn’t a lot of ego at play. It’s about getting the job done and doing the right thing for the product.”

Kniowski said the transition to general manager in 1999 required quick learning, even quicker action, and a new definition of “competition.”

“ We went to a digital signal in my first year as GM,” she said. “I had to really understand what is digital and how is it going to change our industry. It’s massive. It is a major paradigm shift in thinking. It can be scary or exhilarating.

“ Technology has changed more in the last five years than it had in the previous 50. And technology has become the major competitor in this industry. It’s not so much newspapers, radio or even other TV stations any more. It’s who has access to, and the best understanding of, technology.”

His shortsightedness regarding women notwithstanding, Walker too recognized the technological impact of “news on the air.” He highlights in his book the competition between print and electronic industries even in 1934, noting broadcasting allowed events to be transmitted to the public “with a speed which makes the printing press look like some hopeless archaic piece of junk.”

“ Some day, some sort of television device will bring a complete newspaper to the customer over the wire,” Walker wrote.

Such choices are what WZZM’s Janet Mason sees as a key competitive component of today’s broadcasting industry.

“ Until about their mid-20s, people are not regular newscast viewers to begin with. But now there are so many more options that are technologically driven,” she said. “That’s one of our challenges. We will always have competitors: There are just more now than in the past. Cable television, satellite, the Internet: They are all ways to pick up information that are not part of the mainstream.

“ For the foreseeable future, they complement each other. In two or three decades, the five o’clock news may not be the primary way we deliver the news. ”

A few decades ago, it was one of only a few ways. Starting out at television stations in Wisconsin and Iowa, Mason took work as a general assignment reporter at KARE-11 in Minneapolis in 1979. She held several positions during her 17 years at the station, including news director, managing editor, St. Paul bureau chief and local update anchor for “The Today Show.” She became vice president of news in 1988, and then served as vice president/news executive for Gannett Broadcasting for a year before joining WZZM in 1997.

In that span, Mason and the broadcasting industry saw the rapid transition from 16-millimeter film as the newsgathering standard, to three-quarter-inch video tape, to live remote capabilities. The changes were fast and transforming.

“ Technology has changed the industry in every decade,” she said. “But, historically, our industry has embraced it. Technology has always helped in some way.”

As big as its role is, technology is only one part of the broadcasting — and general managing — challenge. Underlying all discussions about digital signals, HDTV, disc-based servers and non-linear editing are the beneficiaries of those clearer picture advances: the viewers.

The viewing public must always be in the management picture, Mason said.

“ We believe we need to present the news our viewers need and want to know,” she said. “In other programming, we are still responsible for everything that goes on the air. If we know we are going to have something graphic or possibly upsetting, we warn our viewers, because that’s what a caring station will do.”

Market research reports, network edicts and government regulations all contribute to what makes it on the air. However, that doesn’t mean all that is broadcast reflects a television station’s or its general manager’s tastes, opinions or preferences.

Kniowski said complaints voiced to her or the station from viewers upset about something they see on television can be indicative of an industry that often veers from its responsibility.

“ The networks are letting down their rules and regulations because it’s fashionable,” she said. “I forward some of the e-mails I get to the network because I often agree with the writers’ concerns. I’ll respond to the e-mails with, ‘I agree. It’s terrible.’ Sometimes I wonder what we, as a society, have reduced ourselves to, in terms of what we watch on television.

“ But that’s why it’s so important to provide checks and balances at our local station. We are providing for the community. I make sure where we can control it, we do. And I know that I watch television differently — I’m not the average viewer. I never go by my judgment of what I think viewers want. We go out and ask them what they want.”

That commitment to not merely reflecting but also becoming a part of the community is a staple of all three stations and their leaders, as evidenced by several philanthropic examples. WOOD’s efforts for local nonprofit agencies have generated millions of dollars. WZZM’s “13 Friends for Life” is a public awareness campaign for breast cancer detection. FOX 17’s Charities Fund helps nonprofit organizations address a wide range of family needs, including children and youth.

Add stewardship of those efforts to the day-to-day responsibility of overseeing all aspects of a television station in the nation’s 38th largest television market, and Walker’s proclamation that “most complaints against women in journalism have arisen because of their lack of versatility,” quickly deflates.

“ It’s still the exception to see a lot of women in leadership positions in broadcasting, but women really started getting into this industry in the 1970s,” said Mason, who was designated last year as one of the “50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan” by the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

“ I think we’re seeing the beginning of those women moving into leadership positions. Ten years from now, we might see a very different landscape.”

So does that make the female leaders of today “trailblazers?” That’s too dramatic, according to FOX-17’s Patty Hamilton.

“ I really don’t look at it as a matter of being a man or a woman,” she said. “Is it unusual (to see three women as general managers)? Yes. But my main concern is to help my entire staff — men and women — to grow in their careers. That’s what is very rewarding for me.”

Hamilton began her broadcast career in Rochester, N.Y., where she was an advertising account executive for WUTV. She progressed to sales manager positions in Rochester, Buffalo, N.Y., and Springfield, Ill., before accepting general manager positions at television stations in Rockford, Ill., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

She assumed general management duties at WXMI in December.

“ She’s been very engaging and interested in what we do and how we do it,” said FOX-17 News Director Tim Dye. “She is very involved and very focused, and I don’t think the fact that she is a woman has any bearing on that. She clearly has experience at doing what she does, and we’re really excited to work with her and with the new ideas she brings.”

Hamilton said when she started in broadcasting, FOX wasn’t even in the media picture. However, she said she is fortunate to be affiliated with a network that has the reputation of being somewhat of a maverick.

“ FOX went against the norms,” she said. “I prefer to be in an underdog role, although FOX isn’t necessarily the underdog anymore. We’re not for every viewer or age group. But our viewers are very diverse. Our target age group is 18 to 49 but the median age group is much older than it used to be. It varies all the time.

“ I’m lucky to be in a profession that is ever changing. That keeps my creativity up.”
In 1934 Walker noted, “Every year the broadcasters become more enterprising, and they do their job better.”

Kniowski takes that continuing challenge head on.

“ We’re still a traditional, structured newscast. That’s what Western Michigan wants,” she said. “But I love thinking outside the box. You have to be fearless about change. You have to embrace it. The hardest part is helping move people through change.”

Or at least showing that change has benefits. Kniowski projects that within the next two decades, WOOD TV will be able to utilize its broadcasting band width to a point where Channel 8 could be complemented by Channels 8A and 8B, which could offer viewers the previous night’s newscast or even a week’s work of newscasts for viewing at more convenient times.

Mason is equally enthusiastic about WZZM’s push for stronger local programming. Debuting this month is “Take Five Grand Rapids,” a show designed to generate community discussion about local issues. Former news anchor Catherine Behrendt, now WZZM’s community and special projects director, said the show will be unlike any other in West Michigan.

“ I was on the air for 16 years, so I know there is a lot of interest in what’s going on, and people like to talk about the news of the day,” she said. “I recognize the hunger in this community to get a discussion going. This is a passion of Janet’s. She is a great example of how women in the industry have been able to rise through the ranks and take on a decision-making, direction-setting role.”

And it’s that part of the general manager role that is both timeless and gender-blind, Hamilton notes.
“ It doesn’t matter what gender a person is,” she said. “It’s the quality of the people and their desire to succeed that matters.” GR

Mark Johnston is a free-lance writer who lives in Belmont.

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