Jon Lawhead changed the faces of Cincinnati television
Longtime general manager at Channels 12 and 19 reflects on the changing TV landscape, shrinking TV news audience, continuing on-air turnover and his TV sales success.
The TV business has changed a lot since Jon Lawhead came to Cincinnati for a sales job at WXIX-TV in 1990, three years before the Fox affiliate added a news department and launched a 10 p.m. newscast.
Lawhead, 67, who retires June 30 as WKRC-TV general manager, leaves a legacy of having promoted Tricia Macke to Fox 19's 10 p.m. news anchor; hiring Sheila Gray from West Virginia to replace Macke on the Channel 19 morning show; and then hiring Gray away for WKRC-TV after he took over the CBS affiliate in December 2012.
Lawhead also reshaped the face of Local 12 news by naming Kyle Inskeep and Paula Toti main co-anchors after the departures of Rob Braun and Cammy Dierking in 2019, and promoting John Gumm to chief meteorologist after the 2016 death of Tim Hedrick.
"I've been very lucky," says Lawhead, general manager of WXIX (1997-2002) and WSTR-TV (2002-2012) who took over Channel 12 when it was bought by Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the nation's largest TV station owners.
"We're one of the most successful television stations in the company. We've got really great employees. It's a good place. It's a good station," says Lawhead, Cincinnati's longest-tenured current TV station general manager.
Gray, who has worked for Lawhead at two stations, says she "owes much of her career and happiness" to Lawhead.
"One thing a lot of people may not realize about Jon is his ability to put together news teams with great chemistry, who become family to each other and to viewers. He did that when he paired me with Rob Williams at WXIX, and again when he asked me to join John Lomax, Bob Herzog, John Gumm and Jen Dalton on Good Morning Cincinnati on WKRC," Gray says.
"Jon grew up in Lima, Ohio, and I grew up in nearby Sidney, so I know the values he holds dear. It's fun to watch his face light up when he talks about his children and grandchildren. He is not just a boss, he is a treasured friend."
Lawhead also is proud of his success building WXIX-TV into one of Fox Broadcasting's strongest affiliates.
"We took Fox 19 to heights that we had never reached before. We were the No. 1 revenue station for Fox for a period of time," he says.
Here are Lawhead's observations on the past three decades and local TV's future:
NO. 1: Lawhead says that Channel 12's sales "business has been very good since the pandemic, and before."
Channel 12 promotions boast that its morning, afternoon and evening newscasts are No. 1 in the Nielsen household ratings — but stations sell advertising by targeted demographic groups, not the overall household viewership.
And the pool is shrinking. My comparison of May sweeps ratings from 2018 to last month shows that the 11 p.m. local news audience dropped 45%, the 6-7 a.m. local news audience fell 42%, and the 6 p.m. local news audience dropped 36%.
FUTURE OF LOCAL TV NEWS: TV managers can no longer "expect people will sit down on the couch at 6 p.m. and watch the news. It's a big part of our strategy — as I believe it is for the other stations in the market — to give people news where they are, on their phone or online. It used to be that everyone had their one favorite station that they watched regardless. There were only four to five stations in town. So the bar was a lot lower for television stations to satisfy the needs of viewers. Now the viewers are in charge. They can watch, listen to or read news any time they want."
STATION TURNOVER: Starting in 2018, WKRC-TV lost most of its veterans to retirement: Reporters Deb Dixon, Larry Davis, Joe Webb and Jeff Hirsh; main co-anchors Braun and Dierking; and morning co-anchor John Lomax.
"That was one of the big challenges I faced. I knew a lot of retirements were coming up, both on the anchor desk and in the reporter ranks. When you have to replace very popular talent the natural concern is whether people will continue to watch us when their favorite talent is not on any more. And fortunately we really haven't missed much of a beat at all with the replacements that we've hired, so that's both gratifying and a relief," he says.
During his 11 years at WKRC-TV, Lawhead also has hired anchors Marella Porter, Meghan Mongillo and Aleah Hordges; meteorologists Tera Blake, Paul Poteet, Karoline Cohen and Eric DoBroka; sports anchors Gary Miller and Chris Renkel; investigative reporter Duane Pohlman; and at least a couple dozen reporters.
EXODUS OF YOUNG TV REPORTERS: In the past year, 17 Cincinnati on-air staffers have quit the TV business for new careers with "normal" 9-to-5 weekday hours. Four have left WKRC-TV since March: reporters Brad Underwood, Courtney Wheaton and Jenna Cisneros, and meteorologist Brad Maushart.
"There's not a common thread that I can think of, other than the supposition that reporters don't have what we'd call 'normal' hours … I think it's for a lot of the reasons that anybody changes jobs: I'm sure some of them felt they weren't being paid enough … plus they had hours they didn't like. For whatever reasons, some people don't think that being on the air on television is as 'glamorous' as it used to be."
RETIREMENT PLANS: He'll start retirement July 1 by boarding a plane to Florida to see his brother, sister and best friend.
"A buddy of mine has a boat on the water, so that's kind of hard to resist," he says. "I’m going to travel and go to places that I've never really had time to see."
He plans to remain as board chair for the Neediest Kids Of All, a WKRC-TV charity, and wants to volunteer for ProKids as a court-appointed special advocate for kids in the foster care system.
"When people ask me what I'm going to do, I jokingly say, 'I think I'll sit on the couch all day in a ripped T-shirt and watch Maury Povich,' " he says with a laugh. Then he quickly adds, "That actually sounds like torture to me."