On Air and Off Camera: Paula Williams Madison '74

By Laura Washington '88

It's May, and May is a "sweeps" month in the television business-one of three months every year when ratings firms electronically monitor viewership. Viewer numbers are tied to ad dollars for the broadcasters, and they offer audiences unusual melodrama and enticements to keep our eyes on their shows: stories about bears that maul children and thousand-dollar giveaways on local evening news programs.

Except, that is, at NBC's New York news flagship affiliate, where Paula Williams Madison '74 is news director.

"I don't go for wild and crazy things," she says, paging through the month's story lineup: fetal-cell-stem implants to treat incurable diseases; Alzheimer's patients denied in-home nursing care; insect repellents that fight the potentially deadly West Nile disease; male eating disorders; a millionaire returns to his old neighborhood and pays for students to go to parochial school. "These are the kind of pieces we do all the time," she says. "To me, every day is sweeps day."

In a glass-walled, television-lined office in NBC studios at New York City's Rockefeller Center, Madison keeps an eye on eight screens that silently broadcast news from various channels as she answers a reporter's questions. She has a commanding presence and a no-nonsense demeanor.Madison avoids getting caught up in ratings craziness and gimmickry by keeping a simple philosophy foremost: Leave the world a better place than how you found it. For her, that means airing news with journalistic integrity and creating a newscast that reflects the diversity of the community it serves.

The 20 million viewers in the New York, Connecticut, New Jersey tri-state area like the results. Under her stewardship, WNBC's newscast edged itself into position as the highest rated newscast in New York City-the largest market in the country-breaking ABC's decade-long choke hold on the spot. As news director, Madison, 47, earns much of the credit for the success. She has the final say on everything from editorial content to equipment purchases to employment issues. "If you're [watching] WNBC newscasts, you're watching what came out of my head," she explains. "Ultimately, I greenlight what goes on the air."

Her success in this post has lead to another recent promotion and additional job: Last winter NBC, Inc., owned by industrial behemoth General Electric, named Madison to the newly created post of vice president of diversity; her charge: to increase diversity at the media giant, which spans TV, cable, and the Internet.

Madison is adding these VP responsibilities to a schedule that is already full. Her workday begins at 4:30 a.m., when she starts reading and watching news at her Mount Vernon, New York home. By 8 a.m. she is at NBC headquarters in the heart of midtown Manhattan, where she typically works the next 12 hours. Her day doesn't officially end until the 11:00 p.m. news goes off the air at 11:30.

Into those hours she somehow finds time to squeeze more activities: she serves on the boards of Vassar College, the Vassar alumnae/i association, the New York Vassar Club, National Medical Fellowships, and the Maynard Institute (a group that helps news media reflect a multicultural society); she is an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists; she gives numerous speeches. Sometimes, she takes a break from it all and goes fishing with her husband. The schedule is grueling and there's not enough time in the day, Madison admits, though she adds, "I can't begin to express the elation I feel about having such a responsible role in my hometown. I can help make things better that I thought were not right before."

As a native New Yorker, Madison was intimately aware of what wasn't right in New York local news. One of her causes has been to create the type of newsroom and newscasts she didn't see as a young person growing up in New York. "Most black people I saw on the news were criminals," Madison recalls. "That bothered me. I grew up in Harlem in a neighborhood that was economically depressed, but not everyone was being arrested or breaking the law." Her goal is to create a news organization that truly reflects the diversity of the community in age, race, and gender. "I don't look for diversity just for the sake of fulfilling some trend," she says. "The more you have [reporters] who are connected to the people, the more you connect with the viewers, the more they will watch."

In New York's international community, this kind of representation goes beyond black and white; ethnicity is important, and Madison counts Haitians, Dominicans, Spaniards, and Latvians among her 160 staff members. "It's important to have people in the newsroom be well connected to the community-[the connections] should not be limited to officials in suits but also to the downtrodden, the homeless." Without those connections, she says, "you won't give voice to their plights or adequately represent society in newscasts."

Criminals, regardless of race, continue to be news staples on WNBC news in New York, but Madison's shows are not litanies of crime, murder, mayhem, and burning buildings. "She's made a strenuous effort to get us away from the shoot-em-up news," says veteran correspondent Gabe Pressman. "She has a strong moral sense." Madison breaks away from the clichéd spot news and does stories of depth; she sees herself as an agent of change when she provides viewers with information they can use to better lives.

For instance, in 1997, three months after Madison discovered a benign lump in her breast, one of her health reporters brought in a video tape in which women of various body types demonstrated how to more effectively perform breast self-exams. Madison dedicated nine minutes of the 11:00 p.m. news program-more than half the available news minutes-to the tape. "It was important to let people know Memorial Sloan Kettering was making these tapes available for free," she says. They'd given away 500 or 600 in the previous year and a half." Right after the broadcast, Madison says, the hospital gave away "6,000 or 7,000."

Serious programming such as the breast exam report is, in shorter duration, regular fare on Madison's news programs. WNBC ran a piece on Meals on Wheels, which serves the elderly, after Madison discovered, while on a panel, that seniors who participate in the program save half their dinner on Friday because Meals on Wheels doesn't deliver on weekends. "While we're running around eating fat-free food, there are people worrying about eating period," she says. "If you're not producing a newscast designed to serve society, you won't go out looking for those stories unless they are shoved in your face."

It was not until her senior year at Vassarthat Madison considered a career in journalism. A Vassar friend, Fleur Paysour '72, suggested that she look into it. "Paula had what fuels a good journalist-passion and a huge font of knowledge of current events and history," recalls Paysour, who now works in media relations at the Smithsonian Institute and is penning a book on African Americans in Washington, DC.

Madison studied jouralism at Syracuse University and went on to an eight-year newspaper career as a reporter and editor covering higher education, health, and doing investigative reporting. In the early 1980s, as newspapers started closing, Madison moved to television. She started out in the community affairs division of WFAA-TV in Dallas, Texas, but quickly worked her way up in the newsroom. "Paula felt you could be successful financially without dumbing down the product to the audience," recalls Marty Haag, senior vice president of news for Belo Corp.'s Broadcast Division. Haag was news director of WFAA when Madison first joined the station. "I've never known her to vacillate. She has passion about her work and is able to persuade people to her position." When Madison took news director posts in Tulsa and Houston, she was the first African American woman in a management position in those markets.

Madison arrived at WNBC in New York in 1989 and spent nearly seven years as assistant news director before she was finally tapped for the top spot. There were several leadership transitions during those years, and at one point she was named acting news director before being passed over. When she was named news director in 1996, Madison broke through one of the thickest glass ceilings in television. She was the first African American woman to head a commercial television news department in New York, the nation's top market. "It was a long wait," she says, dryly. "This is what I came back for." She had more than paid her dues.

Madison was born in Manhattan and raised in Harlem by parents who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. "They had the typical immigrant mentality," she says. "They were trying to make a better life for themselves and their offspring." Her parents expected Madison and her two older brothers to succeed and to help each other as well as the community.

Madison matriculated at Vassar in 1970, when the college was undergoing major changes. In the late 1960s, the college began to diversify its student body through the introduction of coeducation as well as a concerted effort to recruit black students. In 1969 35 African-American women seized part of Main Building and had a sit-in, demanding an expansion of black studies programs and stepped-up recruiting of African-American students from inner cities. The class that entered the following year was reflective of some of those demands. Some of the members of the class were not financially well-off; some were first generation college students.

The class that entered in 1970 was also the first to include male students. "We were the beginning of a 'new' Vassar, and we all knew that," says Madison, who attended coeducational Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

It's evident that Vassar means a lot to Madison; she still wears her sardonyx Vassar ring. Every year she has a slumber party with old Vassar friends, where they have been known to pump up James Brown. "Many of my best friends come out of Vassar," she says.

Madison has long been active with Triple A/VC (African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College), and is known as someone students can call on for advice, support, and mentoring. "The more active alums of color are, the better the experience of current classes," she says. Now an AAVC trustee of the college, Madison spends 10 to 15 hours a week doing Vassar board work.

She says she felt compelled to run for election to the Vassar board in 1999 (she is one of six AAVC trustees, who are nominated to the college board by alumnae/i election) because of her concern over the number of African-American and Latino students enrolling at Vassar. The high point in the last decade came in 1998, when 49 black freshmen entered Vassar, 7.7 percent of the entire class. The low was in 1995 when only 18 black students-2.8 percent of all freshmen-matriculated; just four of these were men. This fall, 5.3 percent of the class is expected to be black and the same percent Latino (according to figures from the Office of Admission at the end of June).

Madison wants to accelerate the advances that Vassar is making in adding more African-American faculty, staff, and students while boosting development and fundraising. "The better Vassar does in terms of having a wholesome, healthy climate for students of color, the more students of color will want to attend. As a trustee I hope I am able to assist in creating a climate where issues can be discussed and addressed and resolved, and at the conclusion we will have all learned something and made Vassar better."

Leave the world a better place: On air and off camera, the philosophy reverberates through Madison's life.

— Laura Washington '88

Laura Washington is a staff writer for Money Magazine.

Photograph by Linda Harris