The creator of Action News transformed local newscasts
Change Agent Frank Magid jettisoned the old format, and suddenly local news was a moneymaker.
Man of Action
Television news was a prosaic, solemn affair until Frank N. Magid got hold of it. The creator of Action News and other high-energy formats, Magid helped TV stations around the country make their local broadcasts more appealing, more entertaining, and -- for the first time -- profitable. He died of lymphoma on February 5 at 78.
Magid grew up in Chicago, the son of an inventor. Magid earned a master's degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and taught college briefly, but he was eager to apply academic theories about consumer behavior to real-world commerce. In 1957, he borrowed $500 from his father to launch Frank N. Magid Associates, one of the first market-research firms to conduct qualitative as well as quantitative research.
Magid's first client was a bank in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His research revealed that consumers are attracted to the small size and the security of locally owned banks; in response, the client rolled out marketing that emphasized its friendly neighborhood character. Throughout the 1960s, he worked in industries as varied as brewing and ball bearings. Then WMT, a radio-TV station in Cedar Rapids, hired him to juice its flagging news ratings. Magid's research uncovered the desire for more dynamic personalities, better visuals, and a mix of short segments positioned around a central in-depth story. That treatment boosted WMT to first place in its market, and soon Magid was making over stations across the country.
At the time, local news had all the pizzazz one would expect of a function that existed only because of an FCC mandate. Magid's research told him stories were too long and too few and ignored matters that affected viewers' daily lives. The delivery lacked excitement, too. No advertiser would look at such programs twice.
In 1970, at WFIL-TV (now WPVI) in Philadelphia, Magid rolled out his alternative. Action News combined short segments, telegenic talent, and bountiful helpings of human interest, sports, crime, and weather. The new format thrived and proliferated, to the delight of viewers and station owners -- many of whom rode Action News to ratings dominance. Some critics, however, disparaged what they viewed as a dumbing down of journalism. "A lot of people say that what he did was just happy talk, but that's malarkey," says Magid's son Brent, who became CEO in 2002. "Action News was driven by what people wanted to hear, what they were interested in."
Magid's other innovations include early-morning newscasts, team coverage of major stories, and expanded reporting on the suburbs. He was instrumental in shaping morning talk shows through his revamp of Good Morning America. He rescued Entertainment Tonight from obscurity.
"Frank was in the forefront of every type of media play, and the results he got were astronomical," says Steve Ridge, who worked with Magid for almost 30 years and is the firm's corporate executive vice president. "It all came out of his fascination with people. He gave them what they wanted, and they flocked to it."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan