2003: Jim Goodmon

Visionary broadcaster, campaigner for civic improvement, leader of an ambitious renovation project in downtown Durham, he is undertaking some of the most significant tasks of a busy lifetime.

Staff WritersDecember 28, 2003 

Rain pounds the asphalt one early December afternoon as about 250 people dash inside the RBC Center to get to the annual luncheon for long-term employees of Capitol Broadcasting Co. At the sign-in desk, everyone gets a noisemaker, including, to no one's surprise, the boss.

Jim Goodmon takes his toy into the banquet hall and works the room like he just got elected class president, joking with one person, clapping another on the back, laughing all the while. He approaches a table of employees and rattles his noisemaker. All faces turn up to his, and everyone is smiling.

He feigns seriousness, then he grins and says, "Now let's raise some hell."

In unison comes the reply, "Yeah!" and the noisemakers resound.

The luncheon program reports that in 2003, Goodmon passed his 35th year with Capitol Broadcasting, but the way he counts it, his tenure actually approaches half a century. As president, he has led his television and radio stations through broadcasting's accelerations in technology, programming and operation. To Goodmon, 60, the work has never gotten old. In fact, it has never really been work.

"I'm still amazed that you can send pictures over the air," he says. "Really. I'm amazed."

A sheer delight in life animates everything Goodmon does as a businessman. He has led a host of public and private campaigns for civic improvement throughout the Triangle, often stoking them with his money or with grants from a family foundation. At an age when many people would long to retire, he has shouldered some of the most significant tasks of his life, for his community and for his industry.

He is directing the ambitious rehabilitation of the American Tobacco plant in downtown Durham. At a cost of close to $200 million, the restoration aims to create 900,000 square feet of office, retail and living space from the old cigarette factory next door to the baseball palace the city of Durham built for Goodmon's Durham Bulls Triple A team. He sees the American Tobacco project as a cradle for fresh products and medicines and ways of thinking -- in other words, the future.

Goodmon also is challenging a fundamental shift that he says will darken the years to come in broadcasting. The networks want to buy more local TV stations, and the federal government is inclined to permit them, which would drive out local owners, such as Goodmon.

Virtually alone among broadcasters, he repeatedly raises his opposition because "democracy is at stake."

"What we do is not frivolous," he says. "It makes a difference, and it's important."

He urges his industry to reclaim its bedrock principles, which he embraced as a boy: The airwaves belong to the American people. A government broadcast license is a public trust. With that unique power comes the responsibility to put the community first, always.

"You need to have awe for what you do. You need to respect what you do," Goodmon says. "There ought to be a little more awe and respect in broadcasting."

The Goodmon home just inside the Beltline near North Hills Mall shelters one cat, two dogs and six television sets receiving in high definition, a transmission form that Capitol Broadcasting pioneered. On Goodmon's hip hangs a Blackberry computer-cell phone. He likes his dress shirts monogrammed, his cars luxurious, his milk for latte at 160 degrees.

Around Capitol Broadcasting's headquarters on Western Boulevard, the 6-foot-1 Goodmon strides through the halls with a gap-toothed smile, eternally in a hurry. "I have a short attention span," he says, and his daily schedule forever mutates with appointments and meetings.

As a boss, he performs tasks he could easily parcel out to human resources, such as coaching new workers to join the profit-sharing plan. He holds monthly receptions for employees marking a service anniversary. In 2003, Capitol backed a CD of anchor Bill Leslie's music and published a book of photojournalist Bob Sadler's stills.

In the broadcast-news business, which is notoriously itinerant, Goodmon's name lures and keeps talent. While working in Denver, David Crabtree had considered anchor chairs in larger cities, but when he got a feeler from WRAL-TV nearly 10 years ago, he needed little persuading.

"This place had a national reputation that if you were passionate about getting a story on the air, you can get it on the air at this station," he says. "I have a good friend at the network who says, 'I hope you realize what a good thing you guys got there.' "

For Goodmon, the good thing arrived when he was 12, and he saw the images on his family's round-screen Zenith. He asked his grandfather for a job.

'Our president'

Raleigh lawyer and businessman A.J. Fletcher had grasped the impact of broadcasting in its infancy and obtained licenses to run a radio station, then a television outlet. Fletcher saw a successor in his grandson and put him under the wing of chief engineer Virgil Duncan, who taught the boy the wizardry of TV. One summer, the two traveled around Eastern North Carolina measuring the signal strength of WRAL's tower.

At the same time, Goodmon discovered something else about himself: He liked to be a leader. From seventh grade through Broughton High School, he was class president. The line over his 1961 yearbook picture captured his peers' enduring impression: "Our president ... service ... channel 5."

Goodmon left Duke University after four years without a degree, his greatest regret. He enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Memphis, where he met a spirited, dark-haired nurse named Barbara Lyons. He returned to WRAL in 1968, married Barbara a year later, and they reared three children, Elizabeth, James Jr. and Michael. He converted to Roman Catholicism, his wife's faith.

Elizabeth Goodmon Jordan, 29, a teacher in Oriental and the mother of Goodmon's one grandchild, says her father instituted iron rules on TV viewing in their house.

"I don't know what it means to enjoy television," she says. "He did not want us to spend all our time in front of the TV. We never had a TV in our rooms, and we got to watch it in 30-minute increments."

When Fletcher died in 1979, Goodmon became Capitol Broadcasting's president and chief executive officer at age 36. He pushed WRAL-TV into innovative technologies, which he believes account for its dominance in the Triangle. The station was the first in the state to get a helicopter, which lands on the roof above Goodmon's office. He also started a satellite-communications company and an Internet service provider.

In 1996, WRAL-TV became the first station in the United States to shift to high-definition television, which eventually will be the industry standard. Viewers have not quite warmed up to HDTV and have resisted the expensive new sets despite their sharper images and sound. But Goodmon likens the upgrade to the switch from black-and-white to color screens. HDTV, he says, "is what is going to keep us competitive right into the future."

Today, the networks and local stations around the country send people to Capitol to see how HDTV is done.

Full of ideas

The stress of the broadcasting business is inescapable even for a nonsmoker who played tennis and rarely drank. The minor heart attack came three months after Goodmon's 50th birthday, leading him to a fat-free vegetarian diet maintained with brutal discipline. He uses skim milk in latte, and he tries to get to a Raleigh gym three or four times a week. But he maintains a high-torque working life.

No matter the time of day, he toggles the Blackberry to fire off communiques. Paul Pope, a senior vice president and a 37-year Capitol employee, says the speed of Goodmon's train of thought exhausts him.

"When I get in every day," Pope says, "I might have five or six messages from him that all have 'see me about' in the subject line, and the message always starts, 'I've got a great idea.' "

Once an idea gets a plan of action, Pope says, Goodmon "expects people to deliver."

Pope sighs. "He wants a latte machine in the building, but I can't figure out where to put it."

Goodmon acknowledges that he does not bottle up his unhappiness. He says Smedes York, a friend from their days at Broughton, teases him about it.

"If we're doing something together, and I get mad, Smedes will say, 'You going to get mad and quit and pout about this?' " Goodmon says.

But he does not pout often or for long. He takes too much pleasure in the gee-whiz of broadcasting and the other ways that make Capitol a distinctively local company. The WRAL Gardens, a public space that his grandfather planned and planted, feature dozens of varieties of azaleas, including one that blooms in December. In keeping with family tradition, thousands of cuttings go out to employees, nonprofit organizations or other groups around the state every year.

In his civic leadership, Goodmon sees Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill not as one sprawling exurb but as cities with separate personalities that work on selected regional projects. But that perspective required evolution.

In the early 1990s, a big idea came to him: Triangle Central Park, a soccer stadium, conference center, indoor sports arena and baseball park all in one place near RDU International Airport, accessible to all, belonging to all.

Local officials were underwhelmed. Goodmon pushed. When the owner of the Durham Bulls declined to share the vision, Goodmon bought the team. The purchase ignited rebellion in Durham, where fans did not want the Bulls moving to Wake County no matter the higher purpose.

Nothing Goodmon said persuaded anyone. For one of the few times in his life, he surrendered. The experience taught him "to spend more time getting everyone on the same page. And I'm really terrible in a sort of political environment. I'm used to saying, 'Here's the plan, let's go.' "

Instead, he recruited the designer of the Baltimore Orioles' renowned Camden Yards field to realize Durham Bulls Athletic Park downtown with a complementary office building where Goodmon installed his other area TV station, WRAZ.

But across the street from the grandstand, Goodmon could not help but notice the massive brick husk of the American Tobacco Co. The factory once employed thousands of people, but the business closed and the structures were abandoned in 1987. The brick Lucky Strike smokestack piercing the skyline, weakened from neglect, threatened collapse. Yet the buildings' magnificent cornices and 12-foot windows gave Goodmon another idea.

Pushing ahead

"I went to the city and county and said we might make American Tobacco work, but the city and county had to provide the parking," he says. "I told them, 'If you want to do that, then I'll try,' but we had to be a team."

The project is a natural extension of Goodmon's lifelong community work. In 1986, Shaw University's red ink nearly forced a shutdown, so Goodmon paid for a financial planner to revive Shaw. When Raleigh needed a new Chamber of Commerce building, he ponied up $150,000.

Much of Goodmon's philanthropy comes through the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. His grandfather instituted the nonprofit organization to support his National Opera Company, which sang the great works in English at schools all over North Carolina. In recent years, the foundation has shifted emphasis to social-action issues, at the direction of its new president, Barbara Goodmon.

The foundation also got into real estate, buying and restoring the historic Briggs Building on Fayetteville Street Mall in Raleigh, then claiming the top floor.

Goodmon supports causes with money and with time, but once on board, he freely distributes pieces of his mind. Former state Rep. Chuck Neely of Raleigh asked Goodmon to help fight a lottery. Goodmon signed on and bluntly told lawmakers the state had no business in gambling, letting "the chips fall where they may," Neely says.

When Goodmon proposed the American Tobacco project, the city and county of Durham each agreed to spend $20 million to build parking garages, resolving a primary issue for tenants and shoppers. The Fletcher Foundation bought the property, then Goodmon heard a lot of advice.

"Developers said, 'Jim, what the hell are you doing in downtown Durham?' " he says. "I wasn't experienced enough to know I couldn't do it. What I did learn is that we had to have tenants before we started construction."

He signed up Duke University, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and McKinney & Silver, a Raleigh advertising agency. When he made an informal pitch to the owner of the software company Compuware and the Carolina Hurricanes, Peter Karmanos said he would take 50,000 square feet. He told Goodmon that when he got out of college, he drove his car to campuses with the trunk loaded with American Tobacco cigarettes to give away.

Soon after the ink dried on the deal, Goodmon hired a company to stabilize the Lucky Strike smokestack. Then in mid-2003, ground was broken for the property's renovation. Goodmon's younger son, Michael, 24, is helping to oversee the real estate.

Goodmon spends Tuesday afternoons at American Tobacco. On one walk-through, he enters a trailer housing Michael's office, where blueprints, maps, photographs, drawings and signs cover nearly every flat surface. Goodmon says the project is not a redevelopment but the construction of the Triangle's next hothouse of ideas.

"What is the future? The future is innovation," he says. The area's universities and the Research Triangle Park already have established the good soil for creativity, he says, "and guess what's in the middle of that?"

He wheels around, lifts an index finger and pokes an aerial photograph of the American Tobacco property.

The Goodmons put on hard hats, and Michael tells his father that only days before, the first restored section had been turned over to GlaxoSmithKline. The east windows of those offices face the ballpark, and Goodmon laughs as he ponders the cube dwellers gazing at the emerald field on a sunny summer day.

"Maybe we'll have hooky tickets," he says.

The whole project awakens powerful memories in Goodmon -- watching his mother and grandmother talking over coffee and cigarettes at their breakfast table; visiting Durham and taking in the toasty aroma of brightleaf; eating lunch with his grandfather in the American Tobacco cafeteria.

"To see the buildings come back to life is really fun," he says. "I'm gonna be sad when it's done."

'None of that is OK'

Even as Goodmon tends to new growth in the Triangle, he stands against a change in his industry that he says will further reduce communities of viewers into collections of eyeballs and wallets.

In 1996, Congress deregulated radio ownership and directed the Federal Communications Commission to review other rules governing broadcasting. Consolidations knocked a third of radio station owners out of the business. In 2003, TV broadcasters, chiefly the networks, pushed for a similar relaxation of ownership restrictions.

Network officials argue that the only way they can compete with cable TV and satellite companies is to own more local stations, with their millions of dollars in yearly advertising revenue. With the networks' muscle pushing for the rules change, and the FCC voting to acquiesce, local owners such as Goodmon could expect to see the value of their properties climb.

So while he would become even wealthier, at least on paper, Goodmon has been fighting the rules changes with a special lobbyist, frequent trips to Washington and unvarnished public accusations that the networks and the FCC are trying to choke off the flow of democracy's most precious resource -- information.

"Under the new rules, in our area, one company can own WRAL-TV, The News & Observer, Time Warner Cable and eight radio stations," he says. "That would be absurd. Who thinks that's OK? None of that is OK."

Goodmon says network officials and FCC Chairman Michael Powell are incorrect when they apply the economic term "market" to broadcasting. He points out that no one can just throw up a tower and send a signal. A broadcaster must have an FCC license to operate, and for TV there are only 1,300 licenses available.

"Chairman Powell actually said once that there isn't any difference between the broadcast networks and a soft drink. He's wrong on both counts," Goodmon says. "We do need regulation. The media are different. They control what people know. It's very reasonable to worry about that and make sure you have as many owners as possible."

Though Goodmon is a force in North Carolina, he is small fry in TV land. In the Triangle, he faces entertainment giant The Walt Disney Co., which owns WTVD-TV in Durham, and General Electric, owner of WNCN-TV and No. 5 on the Fortune 500.

But his local competitors do not write Goodmon off. They admire him.

"He's not focused on today or the household rating of tonight's evening news. He's focused on the future," said Michael R. Ward, president and general manager of WNCN-TV. "If I could grow up to be like him, I would."

To the big guys, though, Goodmon is a pest. The president of CBS, owned by the Viacom conglomerate, recently called him "a rabble-rouser" in print. The remark makes Goodmon laugh.

"It shows how arrogant they are," he says.

Yet broadcasters with family legacies also disagree with Goodmon. Stanley Hubbard is president of Hubbard Broadcasting Co., which operates the only locally owned station in Minneapolis. Hubbard calls Goodmon "a very principled person, a very decent person, a man of integrity."

"But we don't think it's the end of the world if they deregulate to let the networks own more stations," he says. "If the networks do own more stations, they're going to spend more money on programming, and those that are not network-owned will benefit."

Goodmon "is worrying too much," Hubbard says.

In 2003, FCC officials convened a hearing in Durham on the rules changes, where Goodmon spoke. But local singer-songwriter Tift Merritt also testified about her difficulties breaking onto local radio playlists that are generated by a corporation's computers hundreds, even thousands of miles away from the Triangle. After the hearing, to Merritt's grateful surprise, Capitol's WRAL-FM put her music into rotation.

Merritt says her experience with radio led her to share Goodmon's fears for TV broadcasting.

"What I don't want," she says, "is for the television stations, the radio stations and the newspaper to control the media in one town and all be owned by one person."

She pauses. "Unless it was Jim Goodmon."

The noisemaker

Everyone who knows Goodmon says he will never retire. But once more, he is preparing for the future. The next generation of Capitol Broadcasting's ownership already has put in six years with the company.

Jimmy Goodmon, 27, first embraced "the magic of it all" by operating a camera for WRAL-TV's 5 a.m. news. His title now is special projects and programming manager, but he knows there is more to his job than that.

"I've heard a lot of this all my life, you know, 'Poor Jimmy, you've had this real successful dad; how are you going to live up to this?' " he says. "If I could have two or three attributes that my dad has when I die, I'll be a good guy. That's all I'm really worried about. I don't want to outdo him. In fact, I just want to figure out the best way to honor him. How can I make my life meaningful enough that I can carry on his legacy? That's my goal."

On an early December afternoon, as rain pounds the asphalt around the RBC Center, Jim Goodmon collects his noisemaker at the sign-in desk for the 2003 luncheon for long-term employees. Anyone with five or more years of service is eligible, so about half of Capitol Broadcasting's work force attends.

As employees settle into lunch, Goodmon congratulates them, lifts his noisemaker and raises some hell.

He announces that the class of 48 five-year employees is about the biggest in company history. When each name is called, the worker comes forward to accept Goodmon's handshake and a gift pen. Finally, a photographer wants everyone to squeeze together, and as the group maneuvers for space, Goodmon steps back until he just about disappears.

The photographer takes aim, and everyone poses. Then the man who long ago fell in love with the future jumps in place, his grin bobbing above the crowd.

Staff writer Anne Saker can be reached at 829-8955 or asaker@newsobserver.com.

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