From NBC to Hoops

Someday Paula Madison will finally be able to retire. She’s been trying for five years, but she’s discovered that there is still too much she needs to accomplish.

Madison, the first African-American woman to run a network-owned station in a top-five market (KNBC in Los Angeles), has a distinguished 30-plus-year career in TV management, largely working for NBC and NBC Universal.

In 2007, she was about to retire when Don Imus got in the way. The contentious radio talk show host made a racist comment on air, and as a result, Madison decided to forego retirement and take NBC Universal up on an offer to become its first chief diversity officer. Later that year, her family company, Williams Group Holdings, bought the Los Angeles Sparks franchise in the WNBA, and Madison, along with her husband, Roosevelt, became involved in the franchise on a day-to-day basis. Today, she serves as the chair of the board of directors. Williams Group Holdings also owns a cable network, the Africa Channel, along with investments in real estate, emerging media, entertainment, and communications.

Madison, 60, who was born and raised in Harlem, is of African-American and Asian descent. Her grandfather was a Chinese merchant who ended up in Jamaica and married a local woman. Madison has visited China four times, and this past summer she attended a convention in Toronto of descendants of Chinese who traveled around the world as merchants.

Diversity Woman talks diversity, hoops, and DNA testing with Madison.

Diversity Woman: In 2007, you were about to retire from a long career in television. Then something happened that changed your mind. Tell us about that.

Paula Madison: I was getting ready to retire from NBC Universal, when my then boss, Jeff Zucker, asked me if I would consider leading the diversity council as an executive. At first I turned him down, as I didn’t want to be in an advisory role, and I thought I had risen as far as I could in local television management. I was ready to retire and enjoy life.

Then [radio talk show host] Don Imus made his unfortunate statement about the Rutgers women’s basketball team [Imus called the players “nappy-headed hos”]. That statement affected me, and I decided to take the diversity role. I thought NBC Universal could benefit from a dedicated diversity executive.

That same year, our family got the offer to buy the Sparks, and we decided to invest in the team, to support women’s professional athletics, which as a field was not nearly as forthcoming and rigorous as it should be. So I went to my grandnieces and grandnephews, who ranged from 10 to 15, and asked them if they wanted to own a professional sports team, and they were like “Yes!” So we said, “Let’s do it.”

DW: What were some of the diversity initiatives that you launched at NBC Universal?

PM: We have seen over the years that in entertainment, the growth of diversity was incremental, not exponential, so we thought we should insert some sort of catalyst that would spawn bigger outcomes.

Among the things we did was build a department around diversity, so [we] had some quantifiable metrics.

We baselined where we were in terms of employment—number of people in various categories, such as people of color, women, and LGBT. Then, in our TV entertainment division, we thought we were not getting enough scripts that had diversity front and center. So we created a development fund, which was in the seven figures, to encourage the development of diverse scripts and script writers, and also to bring in senior writers and executive producers who were diverse.

In addition, we developed two shows with diverse leading characters: Undercovers featuring a married African-American spy team, and The Event, in which Blair Underwood played a president who was both African-American and Latino. We very much wanted a process by which racial and gender diversity were not adds-on, but integral from the inception of the project. I think we did a good job of that. And I finally got to retire, last year!

DW: Why did you buy the Sparks?

PM: Philosophically, sports is good for diversity, and financially, it was a good move for our family business. We felt we needed to get the Sparks to where it is a profitable team. We are now on the verge.

I have been in management my entire career, either with TV news stations or in entertainment, so for me, there is not a great deal of difference between entertainment and sports. Both succeed because whatever is put in front of the fans or viewers is what determines how successful you are. Success breeds success. Furthermore, what you put in front of viewers or sports fans will influence how they think of diversity.

For example, look at the huge positive impact that Jeremy Lin had for Asian- Americans when he became a starter for the New York Knicks and did so well. Just like when Obama became president and children of all different cultures and races were saying “I can be president,” now kids of all races were saying “I could be in the NBA.” My family is part Asian, so I can tell you all about the euphoria when Lin became a starter for the Knicks.

DW: How is the WNBA holding up? What is its future?

PM: Right now there are 12 teams, we have a rigorous schedule, and we are seeing women basketball players who are more athletic than ever. In recent years we saw Lisa Leslie dunk, then Candace Parker, and now Brittney Griner. That level of athleticism will only bring more viewers to the WNBA, and people will see there is absolutely a reason why Title IX passed 40 years ago. The outcomes have been spectacular. Girls and women are playing more sports.

Of course, the results could be even more spectacular. While several professional sports leagues have been launched for women, only one is still in existence. Where’s the sponsor advertising support? Players in the NBA get gobs more money than women in the WNBA. I’m not begrudging the NBA at all. I’m just waiting for that day when we can get there, too.

DW: How does one get more people to watch womenís sportsóbesides gymnastics and ice skating?

PM: You’ve got to do it with sponsorships and advertising support. If fans are told that this major sponsor is behind this team, and that sponsor puts that team on jerseys, yogurt, and cereal boxes, people will say this is really cool, I need to be there. One of the problems is that men tend to control the spending and marketing budgets in businesses.

DW: A few years ago, you had the idea to DNA-test African-American players in the WNBA to determine where in Africa they came from, and then develop a campaign to go there with TV cameras. Did that ever happen?

PM: We did the testing on some of the Sparks players. The goal of the initiative was to help African-Americans know where in Africa they hail from. Once you understand your history and legacy, that may spur you on to do even greater things.

We still plan on testing more WNBA players of African descent and take them back to the tribal villages they are from and connect with the residents there around basketball.

DW: Do you have any personal stories that were motivating factors in your life and career?

PM: When I was a junior at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, I wanted to talk to my guidance counselor about college. I told her I planned to go to an Ivy League or a Seven Sisters school. She laughed hysterically, and I was not pleased with that reaction. After she finished laughing, she said, “Students like you don’t go to a school like that.” I said, “We better tell the cardinal they are keeping the Catholics out.”

I ended up going to Vassar. Having said that, I am on the board of trustees for the school. I delivered the commencement address this year—my grandniece was in that class.

I got an amazing education and great values at Spellman. The moral of that story is that if you can stay focused and committed, you can get around naysayers who try to discourage you.

DW: What books are on your bedside table right now?

PM: I have about five books on my bedside table, but I have no time to get through them! One is Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life, by Dr. Ian Smith. Another is Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer, which is about innovative ideas. I tend to read two or three chapters of a book and then believe I know what it says and move on to the next book.  DW


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