Steve Carlston likes to get involved in just about everything at KNBC (Channel 4), from overseeing the efforts to attract more “Likes” for the station’s Facebook page to increasing sales of 30-second ad spots. But Carlston’s interests outside of the office are even more eclectic. After hours, he can be found cruising his Studio City neighborhood on a longboard, traveling to his grandson’s T-ball games or listening to Eminem. The L.A. native even drops the occasional “dude” and quotes Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But there’s no denying Carlston’s focus on reviving KNBC, which is trying to regain the perch its 11 p.m. newscast held atop the local ratings 10 years ago. The station finished the November ratings sweeps in a close third in Los Angeles for that time period – behind KABC (Channel 7) and KCBS (Channel 2). But Carlston, a self-described competitor, doesn’t expect to stay behind for long. He took over the station in late 2011 after Comcast Corp. purchased a majority stake in the station’s parent company, NBCUniversal. He’s since overseen a reinvestment in news coverage that he hopes will help get the station back on top of the ratings pile. Carlston sat down with the Business Journal at the NBCUniversal lot in Burbank recently to talk about what it was like living as a Mormon in Las Vegas, how he challenged Michael Jordan, and his belief that TV is still a growth business.
Question: I understand there are a lot of changes happening here. What’s the biggest one since you came on as GM a couple years ago?
Answer: Probably the biggest thing we all identified as department heads is that there was a need for a cultural change.
It had been under the GE ownership for 10 years and they had a way of doing things. I’m not so sure they had the same thought process of the growth of TV and that it could still be a growth business. One of the great benefits (under Comcast) is you have Steve Burke, who’s the president of the entire thing, and he believes in television. Valari Staab (president of NBC-owned TV stations) has been in the television business all of her life and she believes. Now you have a general manager who believes just as much as they do and you have a staff that wants to believe again.
So how does that play out at your station?
You can go down in the newsroom and look at it. There’s a sign; you walk in and it feels like a locker room. It says, “Game Day, Every Day, Every Newscast.’
What have you spent money on?
There are 13 new vehicles, and new cameras. We refreshed the set because the set hadn’t been done in a long time.
I understand your fingerprints are all over the place here. Are you involved with the Facebook page? I’ve heard that …
I’m a little anal? I try to be involved in everything but not get too anal about it. I’m the old dude. I can give some advice and I have a pretty good thought process, but not the only thought process. The key is I don’t have the only one, so I listen very carefully.
You personally worked on designing the new logo, is that right?
Yeah, from a graphic standpoint, we changed the look from yellows to blues, more vibrant colors, and then we changed the brand from just NBC News to “NBC4You.” Conceptually, it was there to let everybody know that we’re here for you. It’s a pretty easy brand to understand. We’re your news source.
Did you study design or is that something you kind of just picked up?
Avocation, not vocation. It’s something I’ve taught myself and learned over the years. When I was in college, I owned an ad agency. I just learned as I went. I think like an agency – very creatively in my thought process – and I dream in creative thoughts.
Was that your first job?
No, I was always working my way through college, selling something door to door. I sold insulation. I sold water softeners. And then I also sold, right after my mission, swimming pools.
Where’d you go on your mission?
I was in Idaho for two years. I was all over, all over. I went to every town in Idaho.
Did you have anyone who converted when you talked to them?
More than you could count on two hands, a lot more. You never brag about it, so I wouldn’t give you the number, but it’s a three-figure number. It’s a lot of people.
How did that experience impact you?
That schedule taught me how to be a businessman, because I was up every day at 5:30 there and you don’t go to bed until 10:30, and you do it repeatedly, every day. It’s Groundhog Day for two years. That teaches you real discipline and whatnot.
Does being Mormon influence your leadership style? What kind of ways do you apply your faith, if at all?
I don’t think I apply my faith other than just in my personal living. I’ve tried to be a good guy, treat people with the utmost respect. I have a philosophy that I’m sharing the planet with 7.5 billion people and every one of them has the same right as I do to be here, so I try to honor that and respect it and try to treat everybody as equally as I possibly can.
Have you ever found your faith tested? You were working at a station in Las Vegas for a while, right?
Actually, the opposite. You see all the stupid things people do and you’re like, “Oh, boy, I’m glad I don’t do that.” I pretty much know who I am and how I behave – other than the swear words that occasionally I drop in the meetings. Old habits die hard I guess.
Same goes for college?
It wasn’t like I was really getting wild in my youth and stuff. I just liked to do crazy stuff.
I like to helicopter ski the most, but it’s not a cheap date. Any time I can get back country, it’s great. And I’ve jumped a few ropes in my day; we try to find (runs) where nobody’s been. The big thing is getting out of bounds like that is not safe.
Have you ever been in a sketchy situation?
One avalanche. It was small, but I was screwing around and it wasn’t even on skis. It was during my mission. I was in Wyoming, and there’s this giant hill, probably 200 yards up. So my buddy and I got out of the car, walked up the hill and said, “This would be the coolest hill to body-surf down.” We jumped down, and my buddy stopped, and all of a sudden the hill gave way when I jumped, so now I’m swimming on top and got buried. My head never got under, but it was really scary.
Sounds like it. So were you into body surfing? Do you still do that when you go to the beach?
I do, and I was a competitive body surfer as a kid. I had some skills. I also had hair back then, so there’s a lot of differences from now to then. Yeah, we used to go down all the time and get in some pretty big stuff.
Did you grow up by the beach?
I grew up in La Habra. We’d sneak down before school. You could go down to Beach Boulevard in 25 minutes from La Habra. It’s 25 miles, you go 60 miles an hour and there was one light. Boom, you’re there, back in time for second period. Oh, I got sick, couldn’t make first period. (Laughs.)
So with the locker room motto in the newsroom, you’re also a team sports guy, huh?
Yeah, I played college basketball and I can still play. I play on a couple of different teams.
Do you find it helps keep you young?
I skateboard every day and jump out of helicopters. I guess we’re all kids. But I’m finding that the growing-up part is when you realize you can’t stand up the next day. Sometimes I do some sporting events that get me a little bit taxed. I’m like, “Oh, crap, I’m not like I used to be.”
I saw a picture of you playing basketball against Michael Jordan. How’d that happen?
I paid a lot of money. Michael used to have a fantasy camp, so anybody over 35 could go and you have all the major college coaches there. They have a draft and they pick teams and you’re on that team. It’s like going to camp.
So why was Jordan playing defense on you, rather than anybody else?
The rumor was that Michael Jordan would show up at 7 a.m. So he shows up about 7:15 and I walked up and I grabbed his shirt. I said, “I got you.” A guy says, “Well, geez. That’s pretty rude.” I said, “Dude, I didn’t pay that money to go play with Joe Bag O’Doughnuts. I paid that money to play with Michael Jordan.” So I D’ed him up and he D’ed me up.
Sounds intense. Does that mentality spill over to your work?
I live at a very high pace of competitiveness. Every day we look at the ratings. I look at the Web traffic. Every day I race people up the stairs, down the hallway.
Even with all the effort, I guess you could say you’re not there yet.
No. This is the hardest market in the country to get a ratings point. Getting to where we need to be is going to be a real process or a journey. One day, we’ll be No. 1, but for us to become the No. 1 station and rebuild the legacy is going to take a little bit of time because it didn’t break overnight. But we’ll get there.
Do you ever have bad days?
There may be bad moments, but there’s never been a day where I walk home and go, “I’m never going to go back – what a terrible day.” I’ve had some tough ones. But I’m a very big optimist. There’s certain things you can control and certain things you can’t. I get home and ride for a couple minutes and everything’s OK. There’s a quote from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High:” “All I need is a cool buzz and a tasty wave and I’m fine.” I don’t drink, but all I need is my skateboard and my family and I’m OK.
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