With clients like Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show, Julie Moran of "Entertainment Tonight," Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News and Chuck Henry of KNBC, Ken Lindner is one of the top news agents on the West Coast.
Lindner, who is headquartered in a suite of spacious offices in Century City, finds jobs and negotiates contracts for more than 250 clients in TV news and reality-based programming.
Lindner, 47, began his career as an agent at the William Morris Agency in New York, just after graduating from Cornell Law School in 1978. The Brooklyn native moved to the L.A. office of William Morris in 1983. Among his biggest competitors in Los Angeles is Ed Hookstratten, an attorney who represents Tom Brokaw, Tom Snyder and Bryant Gumbel.
Lindner started his own agency, Ken Lindner & Associates Inc., in 1988, growing it into one of the premier agencies of its kind. When Lindner first opened his office, he had two associates. Today, he has 16.
Question: You've carved out quite a career by discovering talent. How does that work?
Answer: At William Morris, I was going to find up-and-coming people. It would be my niche because other people like Ed Hookstratten had a strong hold on the market. I was living in New York and I went to Sacramento and three or four other markets and sat in various hotel rooms watching TV newscasts. I'll never forget my first trip to San Diego. I got lost and wound up in a Holiday Inn at a bar, having a ginger ale, and I saw this woman on the bar's TV who was amazingly compelling as a consumer reporter. She just drew me in. Her name was Bree Walker. I saw this really handsome young guy with this great voice at Channel 8 in San Diego. It was Michael Tuck, and neither (Tuck nor Walker) had agents. I found three or four people in Sacramento and I wound up going to places like San Antonio, Austin. I paid for that Sacramento trip on my own during my vacation. I was off and running.
Q: Do you still hit the motel circuit?
A: For the first few years I would travel and find people, but now the company has a track record and I must get 40 tapes a week from people in smaller markets who want to leave news and go into reality-based programming. I don't have the time to do it, but that's how it started.
Q: Why did you decide to come out to the Los Angeles office of William Morris?
A: It was a mixed set of reasons. We already had Jim Griffin at William Morris (in New York), so both of us were there and no one was here. That was one reason. But my belief was that I had found a woman named Kate Capshaw doing commercials when I was in New York. I had also found Paul Sorvino and others. People (at William Morris) thought I had a good eye for talent. I also felt that some of the people at William Morris in New York felt I could transition into motion pictures as well.
Q: But you didn't. Why?
A: I really loved this group of news people I had found at William Morris and they included Leeza Gibbons, Chuck Henry, Fritz Coleman, Paula Zahn and many other people we know in L.A. There were also a number of people who were just about to make it on the national scene. I also knew that motion pictures are a very tenuous type of life. You never know, unless you are a Robert Redford or an "A" player, when your next job will come around. But in news, people sign three- and four-year agreements. Relationships are a lot more stable. I wanted that kind of continuity.
Q: How do you feel when someone you nurture goes to another agent?
A: It is very hurtful. Somebody said this to me the other day, "Kenny, it's business." And I said, "It is somewhat about business, but when I found you as a producer and four years later you are on a national show, it's personal to me. That's why I took you on." It is very painful for me to lose a client. It is a personal blow.
Q: Ever become vindictive?
A: I don't hold grudges. I've never dropped a client. If somebody chooses me, I'll never leave them.
Q: What is the state of local TV news in L.A. and other cities?
A: There is so much pressure for profits now and so much pressure to keep the viewer. Station owners still want the same profitability. They cut jobs and news budgets and they do anything they can to hook a viewer, which may mean tabloid news. They may do things like sex soiree and bikini waxing to get a viewer. Many of these people went into news for a noble reason to inform people, to raise the bar, to enlighten, to empower. But quite often the kinds of stories they do and the short shrift they have to give to some stories aren't leaving these people feeling very good about what they do.
Q: What's distinctive about the L.A. news market?
A: For a long time, it was very entertainment-oriented news, but then we had a lot of fires, riots, a decline in the economy, and we got into hard news more. But you have motion pictures in Los Angeles and TV production and maybe you have to do more soft-feature stuff and more sensationalism. I am not sure L.A. has the true hard-news viewer like Chicago or Boston.
Q: What kind of reporter or anchor can succeed in a town like this?
A: One criterion is universal: People who can connect with people. Lisa McCree connected with the viewer in Los Angeles. When she first came into town, there was something about her. Her look was non-threatening attractive, but non-threatening. Paul Moyer is one of the few people who was able to move across the street (KNBC to KABC and then back to KNBC) and materially benefit KNBC. Part of it is that male anchors are hard to find in Los Angeles. Chuck Henry did it, too (moving from KABC to KNBC).
Q: What's a typical day for you?
A: I work out in the mornings. I live across the street, so the time I save by not commuting, I use to work out. I am usually in the office at 7. I do a lot of business on the East Coast, so that's a perfect time for me to get people. I am on the phone talking to prospective employers for clients, whether it is news or reality-based programs. I am returning or making calls to clients. I am critiquing tapes, negotiating deals and putting out fires. I am always on the phone.
Q: Lunch in the office?
A: I try not to take lunch outside unless I need to. To me, staying in the office from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., that's my most effective day. The more I am out of the office, the less effective I am. I need to be in the office.
Q: Has being associated with Hollywood helped or hurt you as a news agent?
A: I think it was somewhat of a detriment in some ways. I am from Brooklyn, New York, raised in New York City and spent my educational life on the East Coast. But to many people, especially on the East Coast and in network news, Hollywood has a connotation of being a little more transient, a little slicker, maybe not as rooted. Someone will say, "You're Hollywood." No. I care about continuity. I care about relationships. On the other hand, starting my company benefited from my being in Los Angeles. Here, companies are new all the time. It was much easier.
Q: Explain your fee structure.
A: I charge 10 percent when I find somebody a job. That is the going rate for agencies. But I charge 6 percent to represent a client who is already working. If I were taking on anchor X at KABC as a client, I would charge 6 percent. If I would move that person to ABC network, I would charge 10 percent. My concept is to divide the 10 percent into something like 4 percent for finding a job, 3 percent for negotiation and 3 percent for servicing the job and working problems through.
Q: Paul Moyer at KNBC reportedly makes $2 million a year and is the highest-paid newsman in Los Angeles. How high will salaries go in LA?
A: I think Paul Moyer will make more money in the next contract. KNBC is doing well, and good men in this business are harder to find than good women.
Q: How scary was it for you to go out on your own in 1988?
A: It was incredibly scary. The day after I left, I came here to Century City on a Friday afternoon and found a place. My mother came out on a Saturday to shop for furniture and on Monday I resigned from William Morris. I basically hoped that my clients would come to me. I wasn't sure of it. And after I left, William Morris was calling all my clients saying they needed to stay. I realize at that point how vulnerable I could be. I left July 12, my birthday was July 13. I went to this birthday dinner and I could barely speak. But the clients came. They were incredibly loyal to leave a name like William Morris.
Title: President and CEO, Ken Lindner & Associates Inc.
Born: Brooklyn, 1952
Education: Harvard University and Cornell University Law School
Most Admired People: Mother and father
Turning Points in Career: Joining the news department at the William Morris Agency and starting his own agency
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