Media Watch

Katrina, Professional Experiences Lead Smith to Tucson, Belo GM Gig

Tod A. Smith may be a man with a common last name, but his journey to Tucson as the new general manager of KMSB Channel 11 and KTTU Channel 18 has been anything but routine.

From a personal standpoint, he's just 10 months removed from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans resident evacuated with his family along with most of the city, and it was a good thing: His home was hit with 8 1/2 feet of flooding.

"It was very interesting the first time you walked into any of the flooded homes, because it looked like a really bad decorator had come in," Smith said. "Things were just thrown all over the place. You realize the water wasn't slowly running; it was rushing water. Things that did eventually float to the top were deposited elsewhere.

"We have a love seat sitting on top of the bar. A coffee pot had floated from the kitchen and landed on the piano in the living room. (The water) would go from entire neighborhoods like that to parts where nothing happened--even ... right across the street. You might be on one side of the street, and there was little damage, and on the other side, there was tremendous damage. It just depended on the elevation."

It was the third--and clearly most dramatic--evacuation for Smith and his family, who also made their way out of the Big Easy for Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

"I've never seen anything like it. It looked like a war zone, especially early on, and in the evenings, when the traffic lights were out and street lights were out, parts of the city were just desolate," Smith said. "... I think for a lot of us who went back fairly early compared to now, you see there's been a lot of work done, but you also appreciate how much still has to be done. It was such a large-scale disaster.

"There's nothing you can compare it to. The comparisons to Sept. 11 are natural, but (Sept. 11) wasn't nearly as widespread an event as this was. We left that Saturday before the storm thinking we'd be gone two or three days. We were thinking we didn't want to be inconvenienced without electricity for two or three days, which is what would normally happen. Never in our wildest imagination did we think it would be months, and we'd still be watching things unfold so slowly. It reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath, because people just dispersed. Families were all over the place. It was a phenomenon I never want to see again."

Aside from your everyday life-changing uprooting, Smith's journey to general manager has been a bit unusual. Generally, the path is taken through a sales or marketing route, and usually while maintaining a relationship with the same company. However, Smith's experience includes time on the technical end.

"I started out in college working at WWL television, which at the time was owned by Loyola University (in New Orleans)," Smith said. "It was a great situation. If you were an employee of the station, you were an employee of the university, and consequently, you could go to the university tuition-free. I had the opportunity and started out as a production assistant, which means you mopped floors, you painted walls, you constructed sets, you moved furniture around. Whatever they asked you to do, you did it, but hey, I was working for TV. About a year and a half into it, they asked if I'd be interested in an engineering apprenticeship."

Smith was majoring in business and had a keen interest in marketing, all the while balancing a full-time job and full-time class load.

"I'd go in at 7:30 p.m. and work until 5:30 in the morning. I'd go home, take a nap, study a little bit, go to class and start the day all over again," Smith said. "It's one of those things you look back at and you think, 'Today, physically, I don't think I could do it,' but when you're 19, 20, you can do that kind of stuff. But I had a blast and learned so much about really working in a business enterprise."

Smith recognized that to move into the business side of the industry, he'd have to leave it altogether, and accepted a position with Shell Oil. During his stint, he worked in a variety of departments.

It was a wise decision. Eventually, WWL asked if he'd return, and Smith accepted a position as a research director with an emphasis on sales, which could justify a salary comparable to what he was drawing with Shell. It also placed him under the Belo umbrella.

"(It) allowed me to work with the news department, evaluating talent, doing news research and things like that," Smith said. "I got to work on programming. It was a nice position. It was a catbird's seat, because you worked with every department in the organization."

Yet Smith left television again in January 2005 to join the Peter A. Mayer advertising agency in New Orleans. He was working there when Katrina struck. When the general manager opening became available in Tucson, Belo asked if he'd give it a go.

"If the storm hadn't occurred, and this opportunity had presented itself, I would venture to say I'd still be sitting here," Smith said. "You get to a point professionally where an opportunity like this presents itself, (and you think), 'Yeah, that could be kind of fun.'

"And coming into a situation like this, these stations have done very well. They're the fastest-growing stations in the Belo family. In that way, it was a no-brainer. The people here are great. There's an upbeat attitude. It's such a positive vibe. It feels good to be here."

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