News Column

Man Behind the News

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The first thing visitors to the office of Rolando Santos invariably notice is the massive, glass-encased Mexican flag that seems to loom over his desk. It’s an exuberant touch, as office furnishings go.

The imposing tricolor flag – a gift from former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo – also serves as a pointed reminder of Mr. Santos’ heritage, and all that he’s had to overcome professionally because of it.

“I was part of the first wave of Mexican-American reporters in television, and I’ve been called a wetback, a spic, and a greaser,” he says matter-of-factly during a rare break from the din of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. “I’ve been told to get that greaser off the air and to change my name from Rolando Santos to Ronald Sanders, which I never did, by the way.”

Today such slights are a distant memory. In February, Mr. Santos was named executive vice-president and general manager of CNN Headline News, capping a remarkable career at Cable News Network and industry-wide.

Mr. Santos joined CNN in 1993, first as executive producer and then as director of CNN Spanish and special programming, which produced Noticiero CNN Internacional. On the heels of organizational successes in those roles, he was later named vice-president, executive vice-president, and ultimately president of CNN en Espańol.

Mr. Santos in fact helped launch CNN en Espańol, playing a key role in the development of the network’s business plan and programming and overseeing the integration of new technology. He later did the same thing for network launches in Spain and Turkey before being tapped for his current assignment.

“A lot of the server technology today is commonplace but back then it was brand new,” says Mr. Santos, who ascribes his steady rise at CNN in part to his aggressiveness with unproven technologies.

“We created the technology. We built the network [CNN en Espańol] around the business model and were able to avoid a lot of problems that way. Instead of trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, we in effect made a square hole to fit a square peg.”

In Headline News, Mr. Santos inherits an established network that is clearly surging in several areas. Total viewership is up 50 percent this year. Among adults age 18 to 49, viewing levels are up 72 percent. In primetime, the network’s total viewer ratings have increased 59 percent, and its primetime take of the 18-to-49 demographic is up 75 percent.

“My job is to continue the story that we have, and it’s a phenomenal story,” says Mr. Santos, who succeeded Teya Ryan as executive vice-president and general manager of Headline News. “More than half of our audience is in that 18-to-49-year-old demo, and a third of the audience is in an almost unheard-of 18-to-32-year-old demo. And that’s all kinds of people, Hispanics and African Americans and white folks and all the other kinds of people, that we’re talking about.”

Yet for all the praise and ratings share that Headline News has garnered in the past year, the network continues to face formidable challenges from the likes of Fox News Channel (which currently leads in overall cable news ratings) and MSNBC. The ubiquity of the Internet also is being felt. A year ago, Headline News debuted an on-screen format that was suggestive of a Web page. The network plans to revise the format this month, according to Mr. Santos.

“The whole world is competition right now. The reality is, we’re competing with many more sources of information. The proliferation of not just cable but the Internet has affected all of us,” the 45-year-old broadcaster says. “But it’s also opened up some opportunities. I’ve launched three networks in three years in three different parts of the world, and every one was launched with cutting-edge technology that in most cases didn’t exist before we went to a manufacturer and said we need to develop this to be able to do that. So I’m very much used to being way at the forefront of things rather than following trends. That’s what Headline News is all about.”

Mr. Santos has spent a lifetime straddling the cultures of Mexico and the United States. The second-oldest of four children in Eagle Pass, Texas, a city of about 25,000 across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico, he spent equal parts of his childhood on each side of the border.

He got his first broadcasting gig as a bilingual 15-year-old, when he was hired to sweep the floor of a local radio station in Eagle Pass. The opportunity to fill in for a DJ eventually presented itself, and he went on to do English-language newscasts in the morning and Spanish-language in the afternoon.

From the outset, however, his goal was to become the general manager of a television station, and Mr. Santos managed his career accordingly. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas A&M, he filled a succession of reporter, news anchor, bureau chief, and producer positions at KMOL-TV in San Antonio, KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, and KPIX-TV in San Francisco before being named assistant news director at KTTV-FOX News in Los Angeles.

From there, Mr. Santos went to KVEA Channel 52, Telemundo’s flagship station in Los Angeles, where as new director he oversaw international news coverage for all of the network’s U.S. stations. Under his leadership, KVEA won the 1992 Emmy Award for Best Newscast – a first for a Spanish-language newscast.

Mr. Santos was subsequently named executive producer of network news for Telemundo and the newscasts it produced jointly with CNN under a partnership agreement, before joining the latter network.

He says Hispanic and Anglo newsrooms require different management styles.

“I think the difference between a Hispanic or Latin American newsroom and one that isn’t is the way the senior manager is usually seen as something of a father figure instead of just a manager,” Mr. Santos says. “For example, if you haven’t seen somebody for a while, it would be perfectly all right in a Latin American newsroom to give a quick hug, the way Hispanics do, and ask how they’ve been. If you don’t, they think you’re mad or something’s wrong. Whereas on this side [CNN Headline News], because it’s more of an Americanized newsroom, that’s just not part of the culture and therefore would be seen just the opposite.”

He also says there is a pronounced difference in world outlook, as seen in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I have to tell you, it actually didn’t affect CNN en Espańol as much as it affected other networks. The reason is that the CNN en Espańol workforce comes from all over Latin America, and to one degree or another most of them have been exposed to terrorism or bombings or something like that in their countries or during their lifetimes,” he says.

In keeping with company policy, he won’t discuss the size of his budget or staff at Headline News, other than to say that both are significantly larger than what he had at CNN en Espańol.

That Mr. Santos has been able to negotiate two such dissimilar newsroom cultures is a testament to his skill as a manager, according to those who know him best. As the Mexican flag in his office attests, he is occasionally flamboyant, yet always disarmingly direct, they say.

Mr. Santos is in fact an accomplished magician. His specialty is card tricks, though he also dabbles with coins. He contributes to and is an associate editor of The Linking Ring, the official magazine of the international brotherhood of magicians. He’s also a member of the Magic Circle – a society of magicians based in London – and has written for Magic magazine.

He says magic helps him satisfy the impulse to perform – built up over several years of on-camera work – and connect with people.

“Laughter and entertainment are universal. In any country that I’m in, I can do a magic trick almost without speaking and it’ll get a laugh or a smile,” he says.

“This is a great example. I went to Turkey to launch CNN Turk a couple of years ago, and I went into this mall area. I happened to see a guy who was there with a little kiosk that had magic tricks. Of course, I collect these things, so I went up. I didn’t speak any Turkish and he didn’t speak Spanish or English, but I did a couple of tricks that would be considered classics among magicians, and he smiled and did two of his own. He and I couldn’t talk, but the next thing we knew we had eight or nine people around us just laughing.”

Mr. Santos has even been known to spring a trick or two on his colleagues at CNN, says Chris Crommett, executive vice-president and general manager of CNN en Espańol.

“There have been times when I’d get a call over the intercom, and Rolando would say, ‘Chris, I need to see you in my office right away.’ I’d go in and close the door, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong?’ And he’d say, ‘Sit down, I’ve got a new card trick to show you.’ ”

Others, such as news anchor Chuck Roberts and Headline News senior executive producer Herb Sierra, say Mr. Santos has a remarkable knack for remembering the details of and showing genuine interest in his coworkers’ lives, which they say fosters staff cohesiveness. Mr. Santos’ own personal life revolves around his wife and their twin 10-year-old daughters.

But Mr. Santos did not receive his impressive array of professional honors – he was named a Hispanic Business Influential in 1996 and 1999 – for being a nice guy. He is, he will tell you, first and foremost a journalist, whose hiring had everything to do with solidifying the standing of Headline News and nothing to do with personal elan.

“Supposedly, Hispanics couldn’t do this. I broke that rule,” he says. “When I took over as the news director at Telemundo Channel 52 in Los Angeles, they had a .1 rating. Six months later it was better than a 3.5. And that had never been done in Spanish-language [television]. We won an Emmy in Los Angeles for best newscast, competing with ABC, CBS, and NBC. I had a staff of 35; they averaged a staff of 150 in each of those newsrooms. Again, supposedly it couldn’t be done. Hell, I did it.”

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