Ray Cole manages four television stations as president and chief operating officer of Citadel Communications Co. Ltd., as well as serving on national boards that recently have given him national attention. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Ray Cole manages four television stations as president and chief operating officer of Citadel Communications Co. Ltd., as well as serving on national boards that recently have given him national attention. Photo by Duane Tinkey

Last week, Ray Cole boarded an early-morning flight for California, where he spent the next day and a half meeting with members of the ABC Television Affiliates Association and ABC executives, attending the Television Critics Association press tour and watching the taping of the ESPY Awards with his son. He then hopped on a red-eye flight to make it back to Thursday morning meetings related to the four television stations he manages as chief operating officer of Citadel Communications Co. Ltd., which includes WOI-TV, Des Moines' ABC affiliate.

This fly-by-the-moment lifestyle is the reason Cole became attracted to the broadcasting business in the first place. But it has become even more intense today as he has risen beyond managing four television stations to also leading national boards. His leadership roles have brought him to the forefront of many new - and controversial - issues the industry is dealing with today, and have given a voice to one of a dwindling numbers of small, independently owned television station companies in the nation.

"The nice thing is that in positions like this, size doesn't matter, but the person does," said Philip Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Communications, who now in his 70s has stepped away from serving on national boards. "In Ray's case, they saw somebody who is very knowledgeable in our business, very smart, and he impressed a lot of people."

In the thick of things

As chairman of the ABC Affiliates Association, Cole has led the group in discussions with ABC over several issues, including new business opportunities on a growing number of platforms.

"It's been an interesting educational experience given the challenges that we face to the traditional network affiliate distribution system in a digital world we now find ourselves in," Cole said.

One success is a deal with ABC that gives affiliate stations local advertising spots on a broadband player that offers viewers a chance to watch full-length episodes on AOL Video after the show airs. The deal relates to an agreement last fall between Disney-ABC Television Group and AOL LLC.

This year ABC and its affiliates group also agreed on a video-on-demand service that lets affiliate stations sell local advertising in their markets, in addition to advertising sold by the network. The service, which ABC is offering to cable systems around the country, is designed to compete with digital video recording devices like TiVo, but unlike those systems, it does not permit fast-forwarding through commercials.

Cole, who served as spokesman for the affiliates group during the announcement, has met criticism for the program that disables the fast-forward option. "I think it was the network's view and our view that it's a free advertiser-supported service," he said, during an interview with the Business Record in his large office at WOI-TV in West Des Moines.

Not all relationships between ABC and its affiliates have been good, though. An article in TelevisionWeek recently highlighted a disagreement between the two over a national-local cable news channel built with content from ABC News and its affiliates under the ABC News Now brand. The ABC Affiliate Association's board of governors ended talks after the network backed out of a deal to give the affiliates joint ownership in the channel.

Local impact

Cole's term as chairman of the affiliates board should have ended in May after two years, but because of the effects of this year's Writers Guild of America strike, he won't turn over leadership until September. Then, he will refocus his efforts on his newly-appointed role on the Television Board of the National Association of Broadcasters, where he'll deal with more government-related issues.

If nothing else, Cole said, his national roles have helped give his television stations a little more clout with the big dogs.

WOI-TV hosted a town-hall meeting with Hillary Clinton and last August hosted two presidential debates. "I think the relationship that I have with senior executives at ABC certainly helped facilitate the planning and execution of those debates," Cole said.

But he is vague on whether his roles will lead to any expansion of Citadel Communications, which refocused its operations on just four Midwest stations in the 1990s.

Cole joined Citadel in 1985 when it bought Sioux City-based KCAU-TV, the station where he worked his way up from intern to general manager after graduating from Briar Cliff University in 1977. Lombardo later offered Cole the chance to run several of Citadel's stations from Des Moines and eventually promoted him to president and COO.

Though Lombardo, who lives in New York, still helps with strategic planning, "the center of the universe is out here," Cole said.

Cole was attracted to the broadcasting industry because "no two days are the same," and lately they have been especially interesting, with issues such as the switch to digital transmission by February 2009 and the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) crackdown on what stations air.

In addition, competition has increased, with a recent study by The Nielsen Co. showing that the average U.S. home now receives 118.6 channels.

"I think the challenge that we face

is complementing a national program service like we have, the strength of an ABC television network, with syndicated and local news information programming," Cole said. "There's still a great opportunity to serve viewers well, even in a multi-channel digital world."

As part of this effort, Citadel will offer a new digital subchannel, called the Retro Television Network, with its three ABC affiliate stations. That subchannel will air "oldies but goodies," such as "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke," under a setup similar to KCCI's and WHO's weather subchannels.

As the lagging third-place station in Nielsen's newscast ratings, WOI-TV also started a rebranding effort last year, changing its on-air identification from WOI-TV to ABC5 to try to boost its audience. Though the effort has attracted new ABC5 News co-anchor Rachel Pierce from an Omaha station (to replace Lisa Carponelli, who took a job at Simpson College), along with other talent, the changes have not been reflected in the ratings so far.

Cole attributes part of this to Nielsen's rating system, which in Des Moines is still based on diaries that viewers fill out by hand. "We still have a methodology that in many respects has not changed dramatically from when we had very few program channels," he said.

As a member of the Nielsen Media Research A2/M2 Client Advisory Committee, Cole has been a strong proponent of changing how Nielsen gets its sample pools. As of Jan. 1, 2009, the ratings company will switch from using homes with landline telephone accounts - which doesn't take into account the number of younger people only using cellphones - to addresses.

Bigger problems

But of all the things Cole has dealt with recently, the most "surprising and frustrating," he said, are First Amendment-related issues with the FCC.

Dating back to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" incident at the 2004 Super Bowl, Cole said the FCC has tightened its regulations, so much so that it has created uncertainty in the industry as to what can be shown.

Under warning that the FCC was cracking down on foul language, Cole was forced to decide whether to air "Saving Private Ryan," a movie scheduled to run on Veterans Day in 2004 as a tribute to soldiers. ABC, under its deal with "Ryan" director Steven Spielberg, would not allow Citadel to dub over vulgar language and the FCC would not guarantee that it wouldn't take action if Citadel aired the movie, so the company pulled it from its programming. The action created a stir across the industry, Cole said.

In February, Citadel's Lincoln, Neb., station was slapped with a "notice of apparent liability" for an "NYPD Blue" episode it aired in 2003 that showed some nudity.

"As broadcasters, all we ask is that you tell us what the strike zone is, and if you're going to call the ball just off the plate, then tell us," Cole said.

As a small business in a field of big players, Cole won't say whether Citadel has received any offers to be bought out.

"We're, happy and even if that wasn't the case, I wouldn't tell you otherwise," he said with a smile.

But this kind of uncertainty and the issues the broadcasting industry faces today are exactly what motivate him to play a bigger role.

"I think you get involved in a way where you try to have an impact and bring about change where it's appropriate," he said.