executive as good guy
Lemon of WMAQ-TV makes the system work for him
would claim the credit if his world were perfect, also must get the blame when
all goes awry.
That, in essence, is my very own, freshly-developed Culpability Theory.
for instance, to State's Atty. Edward Hanrahan, who would have basked glory if
the Black Panther raid had succeeded and who now must shoulder the responsibility
for his raiders' mistakes.
The converse, the
Approbation Theory, holds that: He whose head may be lost if all goes wrong, deserves
knighthood when his plans prosper. Or: All credit to the man who naturally would
have been blamed in case of error.
And that applies to
Bob Lemon, 51, vice president and general manager of WMAQ-TV, a local station
which has had an amazing year.
WMAQ-TV, for instance,
was the only station to pre-empt prime time for a special on the Black Panther
raid. It was the only local station this year to introduce a news-feature show,
Editorially, it has been the bravest broadcaster in Chicago, favoring a withdrawal
from Vietnam, supporting the Senate motions which would stop our Cambodian operations
and demanding that Hanrahan resign. WMAQ-TV also opened three hours of air time
for the public to respond to the outspoken editorials. The result was a most interesting
Monday night, WMAQ-TV
won eight of the 12 local Emmy awards, coming in close to totally dominating the
ceremonies as any station in Chicago history. The trophies went to a drama-comedy
show ("Royko at Best"), an anti-pollution special ("Alone in the
Midst of the Land"), a variety hour ("The New Performers") and
a segment of the station's year-end round up (on space exploration)---demonstrating
WMAQ's various areas of excellence.
none of the awards mentioned him by name, Lemon was ultimately responsible for
of the WMAQ-TV staff (with the possible exception of a few hawks who disagree
with the station's editorials) adore their boss. Lemon, once a high school dropout,
is described by them as everything from "the Renaissance man of television",
"a real pro" to "the best boss I've ever had."
In person, the man is deceptively soft, a quiet, good-humored, intelligent man
who quotes frequently from a wide variety of books ("I'm a voracious reader").
He thinks carefully about each question put to him and his answers are often very
candid. Beneath the Midwest intellectual exterior, there is a decisiveness and
a quickness in the man that reveals why he went so far and so fast with NBC.
PATH to the executive suite began in New Guinea in World War II,
when he published a newspaper while serving in the Army Air Force. When the war
ended, Lemon was determined that the world must be changed, that a holocaust must
never happen again.
But few highs school
dropouts change the world (although Lemon may be one of them). He returned to
his home town of Bloomington, Ind., worked in a wax factory and then helped start
the town's second newspaper.
He worked for six
months without pay for the new paper and was hired as its advertising salesman.
He wanted to write, but he was needed as a salesman.
He became a salesman
for WTTS in Bloomington when it was founded in 1949 and still remembers the minister's
invocation at the time. The minister said, "As we dedicate this antenna in
a world of too many noises, may this station not be just another noise."
HE JOINED NBC as program director of its
Philadelphia station in 1957, transferring to WMAQ in 1958, and rising to general
manager in 1965.
As an NBC vice president,
he is in charge of Chicago NBC properties and makes WMAQ-TV policy.
mind, humans may be divided into users and contributors to society, and he wants
to be among the latter.
"Most people in a leadership capacity are there because they're ambitious,
have a lot of drive or like to tell somebody else what to do," Lemon says.
"I used to feel I wasn't ambitious, but finally I had to recognize that I
"I had to accept
that I must have in my genes an enormous drive and part of that is that you want
to think for other people, plan other people's lives, and direct them. But in
order to accomplish whatever it is you want for that ambition, you must work through
for Lemon, begin at home, in Winnetka. He admits that he owes much to his wife
Frona and that, if he has any hobby, it is attempting to maintain close contact
with his children Kathy, 20; Theresa, 18 and Robert Jr., 9. They in turn tune
him into today's youth.
Lemon's concerns about
his community are expressed in WMAQ-TV editorials which he does not consider particularly
brave. When they are compared with the stands other stations in town have taken,
they are indeed courageous.
"I believe you
will gain an audience with an honest, responsible, strong position," Lemon
says. His words are echoed by few other broadcast managers. "Namby-pamby
editorials would not add to the station's audience," he adds.
"What the audience can't stand is incompetence. If we did the editorials
badly, we would lose the audience.
would like to have the largest audience, the highest quality programming and make
the most money. None of those are contradictory to me.
the only frequent criticism I have heard about Lemon is that his station wouldn't
be allowed to be so outspoken as it is if it did not produce vast profits for
NBC. WMAQ-TV takes in much more than $25 Million a year, according to recent estimates.
He answers, "If a man has a sense of mission, if he wants to do something,
he has to retain his constituency. Everybody I know deals from some kind of a
power base, and one of those bases is that you survive.
"I consider it appropriate and proper that I do make as much profit for my
company as I possible can," Lemon says, carefully measuring his words. "I
also consider it appropriate and proper that we do programming which is meaningful,
and that they go hand in hand."
JOB, locally, is trying to determine what 8,000,000 people in
the Chicago area want. "One way is trying to stay human, which is tough,
and listening to your own people. Plus doing a lot of research." He also
tries to lead his community, searching for that balance which will result in "as
much leadership as possible, without committing suicide."
Nationally, Lemon sits in on the highest councils of NBC and firmly believes that
giant corporations can be influenced and moved. He is also firmly committed to
"networking", to network-originated programs. He believes that much
of what is excellent in TV exists because there are huge networks, and he disagrees
with those critics who would seek to destroy the networks.
A COMPLEX MAN, Lemon, despite a lack of
formal education, is knowledgeable and has wisdom.
In a business
where sales and profits are supreme, he is concerned about news and quality programming.
At a time when society often repays bravery with abuse, he is courageous. While
"The System" is under attack from all sides, he makes our present broadcasting
system work for him.
This may indeed be the time of the "silent majority," but Robert Lemon
stands up well as a loud, brave, rare minority of one in local broadcasting.