Wonya Lucas, new PBA/WABE CEO, settling in, making changes

Wonya Lucas, who has worked at Turner, CNN, Discovery, TV One and the Weather Channel, takes over Public Broadcasting Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Wonya Lucas, who has worked at Turner, CNN, Discovery, TV One and the Weather Channel, takes over Public Broadcasting Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

By RODNEY HO/ originally filed Friday, August 6, 2015

Public Broadcasting Atlanta CEO Wonya Lucas, just three months into her tenure, has already shaken up the organizational structure of the company in hopes of preparing the organization for future growth as it adjusts to new competitive challenges.

Lucas is a product of Atlanta Public Schools, which owns PBA, a combination TV operation (WPBA-TV), radio station (90.1/WABE-FM) and digital platform (www.pba.org, www.wabe.org) And she has a varied media career, including stops at Discovery Communications, Turner Entertainment, CNN, TV One and the Weather Channel, she has landed in public TV and radio for the first time. (Check out her impressive resume here.)

"This is a great marriage," Lucas said in a 30-minute interview with me earlier this month at PBA's modest headquarters off Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge. "For me, it’s really super serving this community. It really is. I am of this community. Anybody who knows me in the world knows I love Atlanta, which is why I came back."

Besides working for two of the bigger Atlanta media companies, her father was former Braves executive Bill Lucas and her uncle is Hank Aaron. (Here's a photo of her with Aaron when she was a child.)

Over Lucas' first few weeks at PBA, she held "listen and learn" tours with each department, trying to glean interesting facts from each of the 90-plus employees. One person, she said, interviewed two Beatles and a Beatles' wife. Another person met her husband in kindergarten. And one works on civil rights cold cases on the side.

One of her first big changes last month: dropping John Weatherford, long-time chief operating officer at PBA, after more than a decade there. Weatherford helped bolster PBA's financial sheet, engineered impressive growth in individual giving and built up a sizable news operation from almost nothing. He was also the man who helped pull the trigger and drop classical music earlier this year in favor of pricier news/talk options during mid-days.

Lucas decided to absorb Weatherford's responsibilities as she streamlined the corporate structure of PBA. "I want a flatter, more nimble organization," she said. This means the COO position is gone and she will take on the duties of both her predecessors, including former CEO Milton Clipper, who retired after 20 years there.

While on the job, Clipper focused mostly on external relations. I personally never spoke to Clipper a single time over the years since he basically left day-to-day operations and media interaction with Weatherford. (Weatherford did not respond to an email seeking comment about his departure. Presumably, his severance package limits his ability to talk to press for a period of time.)

With her more hands-on approach than Clipper, Weatherford's job became redundant.

Lucas -who has an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and an MBA in finance from the Wharton School - plans to focus on revenue generation. That means grants, individual giving and underwriting, which has been a relative weak point to date and resulted in FY 2015 (ending June 30) revenues falling just short of budget. Individual membership, gifts and contributions went up 6 percent year over year (now 55% of revenue) vs. a 6 percent drop in underwriting (now 31% of revenue).

Overall, revenue was flat year over year with expenditures up 5 percent mostly due to increased staffing to handle the new programming initiatives.

For the current FY 2016 budget, the board is anticipating a 5.2 percent increase in revenues and a 7.5 percent increase in costs with likely losses funded by a rainy-day fund.

For Lucas, "I think there are great opportunities for growth. There are opportunities beyond radio. That platform is solid. It's in great shape. There's more opportunities on the television and digital sides."

So far, the daytime shows are less than eight months old including local ones led by Lois Reitzes and a combo of Denis O'Hayer and Rose Scott. "I think it's good," Lucas said. "It could be better. I describe it as a Herculean effort. What I love is the passion they put into it."

The digital site has seen a quintupling in traffic over the past year since they've beefed up the news product, she said. "WABE is the strongest brand we have," she said. "We have to leverage it on the digital side." Before she got there, management had already set its sights on a new WABE app, a  website redesign and the launch of Atlanta Planit.

She expressed no worry about Georgia Public Broadcasting's encroachment upon their NPR territory a year ago when GPB took over Georgia State University's WRAS's FM dial for much of the day. Recently, GPB began an awareness campaign, blanketing MARTA trains and billboards across town.

"We have people who tune to us," Lucas said. "They have no reason to see a billboard and switch. I'm always aware of the competition."

Teya Ryan, who runs GPB, worked with Lucas at CNN more than 13 years ago. Lucas said they have conversed over the years and remain friendly.  She said she'd love to work with GPB in collaboration on projects down the road but nothing has come to fruition.

"It's more about us focusing on what we can do better or how we can do better" than focus on a  rival, Lucas said. (Ryan hasn't made herself available for an interview with me for more than a year.)

Lucas said GPB will have a hard time taking away their listeners. Their job, she said, will be to find new ones. (So far, WRAS ratings are about 1/7th of that of WABE and it's too early to say if the new billboard campaign is helping.)

GPB has long had the upper hand on the TV side, with its station receiving first dibs on new programming vs. WPBA-TV. The radio station brings in the vast majority of funding for PBA.

Al Meyers, who was Turner's director of strategic planning while Lucas was vice president of business operations in the late 1990s, said Lucas should be a "breath of fresh air" for PBA.

"She knows how to build a programming strategy and this will help PBA remain relevant in an increasingly fragmented world," he wrote me via email. "She will help them continue to sharpen their voice in the minds of consumers. She knows how to get along with people and bring out the best in them."

Scot Safon hired her at Turner in 1997 to be his second in command in the marketing department. She later moved to CNN and convinced him to take her marketing job when she left CNN in 2002 for the Weather Channel.

"She has blue-chip training," Safon said. "I've never met an executive as community minded as her. I can't imagine a better fit for her. She has to make the case for donations. She has to meet with community leaders. She knows the business community. She knows the political community. She knows entertainment and news. She can talk all those languages."

Safon, a marketing expert who has also worked at HLN and the Weather Channel, said she is also very focused on broad-based strategy. "A lot of people in TV are seat of your pants. She's more measured. She's not impetuous. She has a good gut in terms of what she likes and what she doesn't but she's also a good business person."

He said watched her struggle between her creative and her business senses. "She grew from being just an analytical person into someone who was also a content person and a marketing person."