“One of the things I loved about being a local newspaper publisher with competitors was it didn’t take much to get me out of bed every morning. … You wonder, ‘What occurred while I was sleeping that’s going to change my life?’ Working in the media business in the United States today is both a great privilege and a great challenge.”
Frank Bennack, executive vice chairman and former CEO of Hearst Communications; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, May 22, 2017.
On growing up with a postman/poet/actor father
We were a very modest family, in terms of our income. My father never left the state of Texas until he visited me in New York after I was named president of the Hearst Corporation. He became a postman to earn a living in the Depression, but he was a very talented individual who wrote poetry and stage acted with his twin brother. At a very early age, they had me on the stage of classic minstrel shows, which still existed in the South. I played a shoeshine boy who recited this poem about how wonderful my mother was. So I was exposed to theater and entertainment, albeit in a form that should have and did go away. I also followed my father around as he was starring in local versions of plays that were previously on Broadway. This very early experience of being on the stage and reciting poems and then ultimately going with him and learning some of the shows that had been on Broadway, that’s not your ordinary childhood. I’m an only child, and my mother was not well, so it was easier on her for him to take me to these shows. So I was in the entertainment business very early.
On starting in the radio, television, and newspaper businesses at a young age
In high school I was part of a group called The Mighty Little Opera Company. I played different roles in a number of those shows, but most often I was the master of ceremonies. I got to bring a lot of young talent on to dance or to play the piano or the accordion. A very prominent local radio executive and disc jockey named Bud Whaley came to one of the shows and said, “I’ve got this idea of doing a young people’s radio show on Saturday mornings. Would you like to do that?” So while still a junior in high school, I had my own radio show on KMAC in San Antonio every Saturday morning. I would do all of the work in the booth: I’d spin the records, do all the talking and read the commercials and decide what music to play. When television came to San Antonio, the powers in charge decided that I might adapt my show to a television show, which I did. It was originally called Teen Canteen and then became Time for Teens. It ran from late 1949 to late or mid-1951. It was a Sunday-night, 30-minute show that I had complete control over, which is remarkable to think of today. I sold the advertising, I wrote whatever script there was, and I lined up the talent. And we chose a beauty queen, which was a nice occupation for a young high school junior and senior, at that point of one’s life.
In the meantime, I had gone to work for my hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Light. I got the job by being a winner in an oratorical contest that the newspaper sponsored. I actually won second place, and the publisher of the paper came up and said, “The judges don’t know what they’re doing. You should have won.” He offered me a job in the San Antonio Light classified advertising, which I took, and then I continued to do my television show and work at the newspaper. Then in 1951 I got offered a job as a classified advertising manager in Greenville, Mississippi, working for the elder Hodding Carter. He was a legendary newspaper publisher who had won a Pulitzer Prize for advocating integration, which was a really tough thing to do in the late ’40s, early ’50s. I opted for my newspaper career and gave up my television show and moved to Mississippi. I worked there until I went into the Army in 1954.
“A free press is indispensable to a free society”
There is one element of newspapers that has not changed, and that is the watchdog role that newspapers played and continue to play. With cable network news channels, it could be argued that Washington gets an adequate level of coverage and attention, but coverage of local and county governments and all of the activities locally, nobody does that as well as the local newspapers. Even local television coverage is not nearly as deep and complete as the coverage that a local newspaper can give. The disappearance of competition among local newspapers was another blow in the role and function of newspapers. Competing newspapers were motivated to get stories, which may not happen when you don’t have competition. Hearst newspapers have improved their performance and their profitability in each of the last five years, which is not common these days. Most newspapers are still struggling with their finances. Make no mistake, our newspapers are smaller businesses by a good bit than they were at the peak of their performance. But after a few years’ decline they’ve started to come back, which feels good, and I’m hopeful. We’ll do everything we can as a company to be sure that we’re carrying on that role that is so central to American life. A free press is indispensable to a free society. That has been true from the start of the Union and continues to be true today. And it is particularly the case with local newspapers.
On the global appeal of American media and the responsibilities of media producers
Despite its detractors, the free enterprise system in the U.S. is a great stimulator in terms of creating content. Our media system has evolved with the absence of government control. As you go around the world, very often television channels are government-backed and government-owned. So much of the world’s entertainment is created here in the U.S., and many foreign governments have been resentful of that and have even legislated against it. But there is a big demand for American entertainment content, and the syndication of it is an important ingredient of what gets created here.
I believe strongly in our taking full responsibility for the creation of content. There’s content that we will create and be associated with, and there’s certain content that we won’t. But I also think part of the magic of the system is that there’s no rule book, that as long as it doesn’t cross over the line as a legal matter, have at it. Now of course we all have obligations and responsibilities. Some important media vehicles have fallen away from the efforts in the past to be more balanced and objective. Media in the U.S. took the position for most of our history, although we were not always true to it, that we were an objective media. We were always looking at it through the eyes of objectivity, rather than putting the thumb on the scale in either direction. Some media have gotten away from that to some extent. There has always been opinion present in media content and in news, but at least the benchmark by which we all tried to judge each other was how complete and how objective we were being. Today I’m not sure that that’s even a criteria in some corners. We all like to hear our own points of view, and it’s not for me to judge those who inject their views into news reporting, but it’s not what I would like to do and not what I would like to be associated with.
“I knew we needed to change or we would die”
I have to think of myself as a risk taker. As a young CEO, we bought the Houston Chronicle and paid the most anybody had ever paid for a single local newspaper up until that time. We also paid the most anyone had ever paid for a single television station at the time, Channel 5 in Boston. I would stay awake at night thinking, Boy, I hope I’ve done the right thing. But I knew we needed to change or we would die. And we needed to move into electronic media and, in the case of newspapers, pivot to the morning field where the successes were being achieved. But those were big risks. About that time the late Leonard Goldenson, the head of ABC, and I started talking about this phenomenon called “cable networking” and we both said, “A lot of money is going to be lost in this, so why don’t we do it together?” We both had a history in television, and we knew we would make good partners, so we formed Hearst ABC Television. That was a big risk, and we lost money for seven years in the cable networking business before we turned a black bottom line.
This Hearst building that you’re sitting in was the first commitment to New York City after 9/11. The meeting that we had planned to look at the design was planned for September 12, 2001, the day after what turned out to be 9/11. Of course, the meeting never took place. Nobody wanted to talk about a high-rise building on the 12th of September, 2001. By the end of October, however, we had the board’s approval to go ahead. Pretty courageous.
After a while, leaders in business develop parameters of risk that they feel perfectly comfortable with. The first test is always, “Can this cost us the company? Is this such a game-changer negatively, potentially, that if it doesn’t work out we’re goners?” I don’t think I ever took a risk like that. I did make acquisitions that could’ve taken us a lot longer to pay for or could’ve been a lot less successful than they turned out to be. That’s the risk I took. But you get somewhat accustomed to it, and you also get an internal measurement that kind of tells you, I can handle that; if that goes bad, I can handle that.
On the importance of media companies in preserving the history of media
Our generation, and those after us, are the first in history to have sound and pictures depicting the world around us. Everything before was word of mouth or at the most written down, as contrasted to seeing it with your own eyes and hearing it with your own ears. Bill Paley believed that television wasn’t given credit or afforded the esteem that he believed it deserved. The Paley Center was created to make a statement that this is pretty damned important stuff, and if you don’t think it is — if you think that the world begins and ends in Hollywood — I’ve got a different idea for you. Today, the combination of writers, performers, directors who are there talking about their work and seeing those clips out of the archives is powerful. It is also for the public good and providing financial support for such activities, recognizing we’re in a privileged position, is vital. If we don’t participate and we don’t know what goes on in places like this, how could we expect ever to be able to do our jobs as a mirror of the communities that we serve? It is charitable, and we feel good about it, but it’s also absolutely necessary to doing our jobs.
On the KCOR microphone, Renée Fleming, and William Randolph Hearst
I remember KCOR very well during my days in San Antonio. It was founded by Raoul Cortez, but it was ultimately owned by a group which was, in those days, known as Televicentro, which was a large Mexico-based media company that was in radio and television. I remember very fondly the various managers who ran that station during my days there. I had the opportunity of visiting the head of the parent company in Acapulco and then later in Mexico City so I kind of feel that KCOR is a part of my own history because I knew them so well. The success of a Spanish-language broadcasting company in the city was very important. It’s radio and television, and I remember that well.
Recently we saw and heard what has been announced as probably the last opera that Renée Fleming is going to sing at the Met. She’s going to continue to sing but likely do concerts. I am proud of my association with the Met Opera, including with her, although it’s very marginal. I remember very fondly attending a master class that Renee gave with young singers, which was thrilling to see how she helped them advance their careers. I’ve been in her company a few times as chairman of Lincoln Center, and she’s a lovely person. I feel very privileged that, during my time at the Met, she and singers like Pavarotti and Domingo were there all at the same time. Maybe never has there been that kind of extraordinary talent at the same time.
Of course, we have many writings and photos of W.R. [Hearst], a very nice one — from around 1930. I’m sorry that I never met Mr. Hearst, and none of my predecessors met him, except Dick Berlin. He was the only one. He was the first president who took over as boss of the company upon Mr. Hearst’s death. Being able to celebrate our 125th anniversary is testimony to the brilliance of the founder and his commitment to the world of media.