Maryann Balbo, vice president at Cox Media, started her broadcast career as a part-time master control operator in her hometown of Watertown, N.Y. Today, she lives in lives in Wichita, Kan., and is responsible for operations and advertising sales in the Kansas and Arkansas markets. I spoke to Maryann about her career, how she went from being the only woman in the engineering department to eventually being a station general manager and then corporate VP with stops in sales, programming and marketing along the way.
Maryann Balbo, vice president at Cox Media, started her broadcast career as a part-time master control operator in her hometown of Watertown, N.Y.
Today, she lives in lives in Wichita, Kan., and is responsible for the company’s operations and advertising sales in its Kansas and Arkansas markets
I spoke to Maryann about her career, how she went from being the only woman in the engineering department (master control is usually the territory of engineering) to eventually becoming a station general manager and then VP with stops in sales, programming and marketing along the way.
Balbo: I started out in my home town as a part-time master control operator. Watertown, N.Y., at WWTI. It is an ABC affiliate. It is now owned by Nexstar. I walked in and the woman said are you here for the master control job and I said yes and I did not even know what it was. So I went in the back, I interviewed, they gave me the job. It was 13 hours a week, $6.50 an hour. My very first day I dressed in a suit. I went into the control room with all the buttons and all the lights and all the monitors and just kind of in awe at my boss who was the head engineer. After about a half an hour into it he said to me, you have no idea what you are doing do you? And I said no. And he said that is OK, I will teach you, but I predict you have a very long future in the business probably on the sales side. And so he taught me and I would fill in and do overnights, I would drive the truck in the parade, I would give tours of the TV station. I was not great at it, but that is where I started.
Watertown is about 70 miles north of Syracuse, and just east of Lake Ontario, where lake effect snow storms can drop three feet of snow. So Balbo wanted to move south. She said her boss found an opening at WNCN in Raleigh, N.C., and Balbo began her campaign to convince the manager there to hire her.
Balbo: I used to fax him, mail him my resume, I even had registered letters sent to him so he had to actually sign for it. He would not return my phone calls. I had a little bit of cash and I bought myself an airplane ticket, flew to Raleigh, found the address of the TV station, walked in, asked the lady at the front for an appointment with this gentleman, he came out and he said you are the person that keeps sending me stuff. And I said yeah, give me a chance and so he took me in the back and he hired me on the spot.
Greeley: So let me just get this straight. So you were sending this guy all this stuff because you knew they had an opening and you flew there without an appointment to interview. Is that correct?
Balbo: Yes exactly right. This is before e-mail and social. Could you imagine? So I totally stalked him, I got the job and I was the only woman in the engineering department.
In 1997, Balbo was recruited by WTVD, the ABC-owned affiliate in Raleigh, as a broadcast engineer.
Balbo: So there I was able to run tapes for the shows and tune in live shots and run across the board. And then from there, an opportunity came up in programming. Somebody was on maternity leave and I went to the head program director. She oversaw production and marketing also and I said I would love to volunteer while this person is on maternity leave. I will put in my own time. I will do whatever you need me to do. She took me up on the offer. While that other person was on maternity leave I filled in helping with programming. And the person never returned to work so the opening was there for me to grab and all the guys I have worked with in engineering said oh, you will never go to the carpet. Nobody from here ever goes to the carpet.
Greeley: What is the carpet?
Balbo: Meaning administration, out of production and engineering. They were like, nobody leaves here. You stay here. I said, no that is not the way it is going to work. So I got the job on the carpet and I was assistant program director at WTVD for a few years.
In 2001, Balbo was recruited by Time-Warner Cable and AOL as a sales promotion specialist in Raleigh, managing multiple sales teams throughout North and South Carolina.
Balbo: I oversaw all of the promotions for the networks in a creative role that had a sales element to it. So any type of MTV music awards, giving away a trip, I would help the reps to put together a promotion to sell it to a client. I would work with MTV, VH1 and CNN, all the major networks, and I was the liaison for the organization. That is where I got my first taste of digital because that is when Time-Warner and AOL merged. So my team was the first to sell a cross-platform promotion across the country which included print with People magazine, AOL and then cable.
In 2004, Balbo was recruited back to WCNC in Raleigh as marketing director. She was promoted five times in three years there, eventually becoming the director of new media sales responsible for overseeing all sales related to WNCN’s digital products, including internet, mobile, texting, widgets, and e-news.
Balbo: In 2009, I was recruited by the Tampa Bay Times for a digital director role. I moved my family to Tampa and was there for four years, launched the reimagined Tampabay.com, led a team in the newsroom making digital-first and incorporating video into their marketing messages as well as into their coverage.
In 2013, Balbo went from Tampa back to WTVD in Raleigh as director of marketing and digital sales where she was recruited by Lockwood Broadcasting to become general manager of its CW affiliate there, WHDF.
Balbo: That was my ultimate goal throughout my entire career. I was discouraged by just about everybody I talked to that I would ever be able to get there with my unique background. Lockwood thought my unique, diverse background was a benefit, especially in a small station where the general manager really has to be a generalist in everything and I could bring that experience from a community standpoint, marketing, sales, programming, production, digital, all to the table and really be able to take things in a different direction.
(NOTE: While Balbo was at WHDF, she sent Market Share some holiday promos along with her thoughts about how she remembered old-school holiday promos.)
Greeley: So when you walked in the door in Huntsville, Ala., as the general manager, were you intimidated? Tell me about that transition, how that was?
Balbo: The unique thing about this GM role was that my husband is also in the business and we have always been competitors. Lockwood Broadcasting actually offered us both the opportunity to work together. So for the first time in our 15-year marriage, we decided that we were going to work together. We got quite a few chuckles in the marketplace. They had local magazines do articles on us. We had two children, I was quoted as saying the TV station was our third child, it really was.
So we were very committed to that station, but at first, it was intimidating. I thought, can I really do this? Those voices in your head of everybody telling you, you don’t have just straight news or just straight sales experience. But digital and marketing, I was like, I have to lean on all of that. So it was intimidating at first, but I had the chops and I knew that I could do it. And we were able to turn that station around from a revenue standpoint as well as a ratings and community standpoint.
Greeley: What kind of strengths gave you an advantage or that helped you be a good general manager?
Balbo: I think that it really helped that I had that engineering background because I understood the challenges around the execution piece of the business. But having the sales and production and digital background also I could see where the bigger picture was and what the goals were. So being able to bridge that gap between those departments, I could understand both sides and could help them to be able to understand where each was coming from.
I was not labeled, just the sales GM or the news GM or even the marketing and creative GM. I was a little bit of everything. So that generalist experience really helped me, I believe, in growing my staff so that they could understand both sides because as a department head throughout my career, I have been in those meetings where news wants one thing, engineering wants another, sales wants another, we just couldn’t come to an agreement. That was not the case with me because I saw all sides and was able to bridge that gap. I think it helped grow my staff and for them to be able to see the bigger picture.
Balbo: Early 2018 is when they called about this opportunity in Kansas and Arkansas. I had never been to Kansas before and went through the process and decided that it was a good fit based on my leadership style and the experience that I had had in developing people focused cultures and to align with the awesome culture that Cox already has. So that is why I took on this challenge, moved my family across the country, my husband was able to transfer within Lockwood. He worked for KCTV here in Wichita. Now we are back to being competitors. We like that better. So here I am today.
Greeley: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in rising up like you have? What would you say to them if they came to you and said I would like to do what you do someday or be a general manager of a TV station someday or oversee operations in a couple of states? What would you say to them?
Balbo: I would say that first and foremost, you have to start with a skill set and learn and focus on that and getting really good at your job. You have got to know everything about it. You have long-term goals of leadership? How do you do that? I call it being a part of the usual suspects. It is those folks that always raise their hands to volunteer for something extra, always there on the weekends to be in the parade, always say, I will take on the new podcast strategy, I will try it out. There are those that will go to the luncheon at the Chamber [of Commerce]. Those are the ones you can turn to that you know will go above and beyond their regular job are the folks that continue to rise within the business.
Once you get to a point in your career where the recognitions are all about your work and what you bring to the table, you need to really flip your mindset to being more people-focused. How can you help others, how can you bring others along and once you make that shift and you start investing in others, that is a direct reflection your leadership. Once you make that shift, you will see the opportunities open up for you. What our business needs is to be fantastic at what you do every day, and to want to go above and beyond and be committed to our business. It is your leadership, and how you are going to bring others along. How are we preparing the next generation of leaders who will continue with this beautiful business that we all love.
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