Jim Yager’s television career was determined by the stars. His mom, for example—she was a star in her own right in their hometown of Detroit, though Yager didn’t realize it at the time.
“My mother was one of two people who took J.L. Hudson Co., a department store, into electronic advertising. Her office was in the J.L. Hudson downtown store. She did a 45-minute show right after the ‘World News Roundup.’ ...I used to go downtown and hang out, watching her and the people there.”
Yager didn’t follow the stars yet, but rather took a political science degree from Colgate University and went to law school for a year. “I discovered law wasn’t meant for me,” he said. “A number of my high school friends had gone into TV in Detroit at WXYZ-TV. They were all very excited about the new phenomenon of ‘television.’”
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Yager didn’t join them, however.
He instead won a trip to Fort Jackson, S.C., courtesy of the U.S. Army. There, he was assigned to the public affairs office and made 16mm training films for the army. “We also produced a show called ‘Fort Jackson Presents’ at WIS-TV, owned in those days by the Broadcasting Company of the South, later changed to Cosmos Broadcasting. I spent the first 20 years of my career with them.”
Yager split those decades between South Carolina and New Orleans as general manager of two Cosmos stations. He moved on to Spartan Radiocasting as the chief operating officer, then to Benedek Broadcasting, where he built the midsized market TV concern that is today part of Gray Television. Yager left Gray after a few months when his priorities suddenly shifted. His wife of some 40 years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I gave up everything at that point in time,” he said. “I have never, ever regretted those three months that we had. We became very, very close, and realized what great friends we really were.”
The memory still stops him, breaking the voice of a man who has been an industry leader, testifying on behalf of broadcasters before Congress. But Yager comes off as neither confrontational nor elusive. He’s a straight shooter from middle-class Detroit who had a paper route when he was nine.
Like a lot of the folks in broadcasting, Yager isn’t fazed by the glamour of ‘teevee.’ He’s simply a businessman. He formed Barrington Broadcasting Group the year after his wife passed away.
The company, located in Hoffman Estates, Ill., has 21 small and mid-market television stations. Barrington is holding its own in one of the toughest periods of the industry. Capital has dried up even as broadcasters face the most radical change in the history of the industry--the digital transition.
“It amuses me to hear that Congress or FCC has a lot at stake, he said. “The broadcast industry has the most at stake in this transition. If we lose 5 to 8 percent of our audience because somebody didn’t know about it, we’re the real losers.”
Yager is nonetheless optimistic.
“I think this will be a very viable industry, as long as we don’t hold on to the way we’ve done things,” he said. “We have to change. The younger generation is an Internet generation, but it is not a substitute for a family that gets together in the evening, to do what free over-the-air broadcasting has done.”
That would be about stars, and bringing them right into people’s living rooms.