Rick Blangiardi coached college football for seven years before starting his career in broadcasting. He is now the General Manager of Hawai‘i News Now, a role which allows him to continue his life of service to Hawai‘i, his colleagues, and his family.
Interview Vol.88 - Rick Blangiardi
Hawai‘i News Now Manager
Rick Blangiardi has led a life of uncompromising service to Hawaii, his colleagues, and his family. He is currently the General Manager of Hawaii News Now, KGMB (CBS) and KHNL (NBC). Prior to his career in broadcasting in 1977, Blangiardi spent seven years as a college football coach, five of those at the University of Hawaii, where he received his M.A. in 1973. After leaving a successful career as an executive and manager at television stations in Hawaii for Seattle, and later San Francisco, he returned to the Aloha State in 2002 and was the first to become Senior VP/GM of the KHONKGMB duopoly, then KHON (2005-2006), KGMB (2006-2009), and finally in 2009 adding Hawaii News Now. He has served in several volunteer leadership roles and was named the University of Hawaii’s “Distinguished Alumni” in 2014 and “Hawaii’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year for 2015" from the Aloha Council-Boy Scouts of America.
An Island Independent
When I started in the news business in 1977, if you were doing an interview somewhere else on the island you’d have to film it, jump in your car, and then run over the hill to deliver the footage. Satellite technology in those days was nonexistent.
Hawai‘i is a unique place. Television first started here in 1952 before Hawai‘i became a state in ’59. In terms of broadcast, this place evolved very differently, almost as a foreign country. When I first started here in 1984, the station was owned by a group headed by TV Asahi, which held 20%, as much as the FCC would allow any foreign entity to hold of a broadcast license at the time. They had partnered with 10 guys locally, with each one owning 3%, and eight of them were Japanese Americans?they wanted to make sure there was Japanese-language programing in Hawai‘i. You didn't have as many channels back then, so it was the main source of Japanese television in Hawai‘i. They showed the Japanese New Year's Day celebrations and other events like that. The local owners were excited, and they felt the station served the public interest.
The problem was, the company was in the red the whole time. I came in with the idea that we would develop an independent station. At the time, the station was making about $2 million in revenue. Half of that came from Japanese businesses that wanted to support the programming, like the broadcasts of sumo matches, and the rest came from paid programming, religious infomercials, and so forth. One of the first things we did was to change the call letters from KIKU to KHNL. We also made the station much more local, more independent. We formed a partnership with University of Hawai‘i Athletics and started to televise 100 sporting events a year. We did that for a couple of years from ’84 to ’86, and that really put the station on the map.
An Odyssey on the Mainland
In 1986, we sold the station to the King Broadcasting Company out of Seattle, Washington. In ’88, KHNL became a Fox affiliate when Fox was launching its network. Then in 1989, I was asked to go and run the station in Seattle for King Broadcasting. There was no way I was going to say no because King-TV was one of the most storied television stations in all of America. That began a 13-year odyssey for me on the mainland.
It took courage, but I didn’t want to sit back and relax. I wanted to take a risk. I’ve learned that your motivation really has to come from within. This is just the way I’m wired: I’ve always kind of sought that alpha position. I don’t know if it’s universal, but I just know that I have always aspired to be in leadership roles. I’ve never been one to say, “good enough.” Some people prefer to say no to new opportunities because then there are no expectations, there is no accountability, and nothing has to happen. But if you do that, in time, you start to go backward.
Hawai‘i News Now
I returned to Hawai‘i in 2002 and was in a leadership role when several of the local stations consolidated in 2009. When this happened, one of the first things I realized was that we had to rename ourselves because there were all these different call signs around the newsroom. It was alphabet soup. So we had to come up with an umbrella name or it wouldn’t work. We knew it would be Hawai’i, and we knew if we wanted to aggregate an audience in the digital era it had to be news. The difference was really in one three letter word: now. We decided on Hawai‘i News Now, because it was our responsibility and our opportunity to deliver information to an audience in the moment.
Since consolidating nine years ago up until now, our aspiration has been to morph into a 24/7 digital operation and get away from competing with the television stations of yesterday. The world has changed, and so it was a whole reeducation for how we did business. It used to be if you heard about something, you would ask somebody at work, maybe make a phone call, and try to get to the newspaper, television, radio, or whatever. Today the expectation is if something happens internationally, nationally, and especially locally, it will come to you, and that is a tremendous dynamic.
Given our isolation on Hawai‘i, but also due in part to the global cachet of the place, there are a lot of things that make what we do here special. We are going to showcase Hawai‘i to the world in ways you never could before. We might put something on Facebook that two million people will watch. Hawai‘i has a global following, so there are a lot of people who are interested in the things that come from here. Last month, 40% of our mainpage views were off-island. A lot of those views are people who were born here, who lived here, or who have family here, but it’s also just people who love Hawai‘i. We see a global reaction to what we put out digitally and that generates an internal sense of responsibility and makes us reflect on the bigger picture. We don't think about the geographical limits of Hawai‘i.
Building a Team
I’m very proud of my team here because no one can do this 24/7 by themselves. You just can't?nobody can. So we have to be staffed accordingly. We have digital teams, we have people who are watching what's happening, seeing what breaks. We have to stay current with all of it. That's just the way it works. At the same time, everything that we have done has been about creating something that Hawai‘i has never seen before. That's why I am so proud of what we do, both in our traditional media and on our digital platforms. With the Hawai‘i News Now mobile app, we have become a multi-platform provider.
To build this kind of organization there has to be a certain understanding among the members of the team. To be a team player means you’ve got to be selfless, and that means that even if you have a good idea, it may not necessarily prevail. I want to have strong individuals, but individuals who also understand they are going to work collectively toward a common goal. You can’t just be strong. I don't want to have a bunch of divas out here. I want to have a group of diverse people whose common denominator is that they understand what it means to be a team player. When a very strong individual enters your company or your team and they want to do things their way, either one of the two things will happen: either they understand how to use their strength for the overall good or they simply won’t work out.
And we see the results of this. Recently, when we had a powerful storm hit the island, our teams stayed here to report on it. They said they would stay as long as they could, and if they had to they would go to the roof. I was really proud of them that night. That was their sense of responsibility. Because of that, we were able to be here, putting out alerts even as the sirens were going off. We tried to provide lifesaving information for as long as we could, and, at the same time, we were doing the same thing digitally. That’s the power and responsibility that we have today, and we live with that.
Fake News and Adrenaline Junkies
In my current role, I try to be the person the folks in this office need me to be. It involves courage, it involves taking risks, and it involves being responsible for your decisions.
For example, the North Korean missile alert that happened a few months back. The alert came at 8:07 a.m., and we knew within a couple of minutes that it was a false alarm. We were able to verify, get on the air, and it took us 12 minutes. At 8:19 in the morning, we were the first on the air to give people the all clear. It took the state of Hawai‘i 38 minutes because they have their protocols, and they didn't come on the air until 8:45 a.m. That is an example of a seminal moment when suddenly something of real consequence is happening and you have to respond.
In a different way, we had to make choices with our coverage of the eruption at Kiluaea, which began as a geological phenomenon and quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis and, now, is something of an economic crisis for the Big Island. We were all over that story before the networks came in and really started to sensationalize it. Now, we’ve moved onto the resiliency of the people. There are a lot of people who have been displaced from their homes and there don’t seem to be enough resources, so our reporting becomes very important.
Recently, there has been this terminology of fake news and it’s something that I resent, although I understand it. Historically, big media has always had a certain bias. But what we do locally is very different. There is nothing fake about what we are doing. We report on Hawai‘i, doing 41 hours of news a week. We vet those stories properly and we do provocative stuff, including investigative reporting. The special investigation we did into former the Honolulu Police Chief Kealoha, who was indicted by the FBI, was a big deal. Likewise, the story we did on the sexual assault of children at Kamehameha Schools was also a significant story for Hawai‘i. But if we don't get those kinds of stories right, we would have to deal with a lawsuit every minute of the day. We live on the edge. We’re a bunch of adrenaline junkies. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring.
I have always taken great pride in building organizations of really strong people. I first learned that through football. I was a pretty good player in college, but when I started coaching I was coaching guys a lot better than I had been. And I had to get comfortable working with people who were better than I had been, who were bigger, stronger, faster, who could jump higher, hit harder. I also learned that when it’s time to go and recruit, those are the kinds of athletes I want, because if I only recruited people who were my level, we were never going to win. When I got into business, I used the same principle: put really good people around you. You can tell a lot about who is leading by who is following.
Now I manage three kinds of capital. The first one is my fiduciary responsibility to the company. Another is the human capital, the men and women that choose to come work here. The third is the primary derivative of those team members: their intellectual capital. What are the ideas and where do they come from? We want to live with the best ideas.
Years ago I read a book by Warren Bennis, a prolific author on the subject of leadership, and he made the distinction between managers and leaders. Managerial functions are important in this job, and I have to serve as a manager at times. But someone who is just a pure manager will always do things right. And that’s something you need in an organization. But you also need leaders, and a leader is not necessarily someone who will do things right, but someone who will always do the right thing. I will tell you that everyday in this office, I get challenged to do the right thing. You can’t make excuses and you have to have the courage that in that moment, you’ll know what the right thing to do is.