Remembering Mike Fezzey and the Media-Community Connection

B99256315Z.1_20150328132245_000_GKMFLRBV.1-0There’s no business in a community that has enough potential to do good for the community than the media business. While reflecting on the sudden loss of friend, client and role model, Mike Fezzey, who ran Detroit’s WJR radio for nearly 20 years, it’s easy to see the stark contrast between those who “get” that potential and those who don’t. The bad news is, so many don’t.

Fezzey often made statements along the lines of “what’s good for the community is good for business.” In WJR, he realized that he had a 50,000 watt asset that could bring the community together and make money for its parent corporation at the same time. It was not one or the other, as it seems to be so often in this age. WJR was a very high-billing radio station and a very community-connected one. That feels like an endangered species today.

Here’s an example. More than a decade ago, I represented a national corporation that had formed a national partnership with an anti-drug organization. They wanted Detroit to be a pilot market to host a local “town hall” meeting on “keeping our communities drug free.” They wanted local broadcast media as partners. I called Mike, who I didn’t know as well at that time as I would later, and he immediately said “yes,” on the phone, to WJR giving up an hour of time to air the forum, with one of its talk personalities as its moderator. There were no corporate approvals needed and no meetings to plan meetings about it. Could that happen today? It doesn’t seem like it.

In this age of corporate mandates, syndication, automation, voice tracking, cost cutting, click baiting and ratings grabbing, how much community involvement do we really see from local media? Not much. How many local media executives do we see sitting on community boards, as Fezzey did so passionately? Very few. How many local media executives can pick up the phone and put coalitions and projects together, as Fezzey did so often? Very few, if any.

After Mike surprisingly (even to him) left radio and became a regional president of a bank, because he saw an opportunity to “do more good” helping Michigan out of The Great Recession with business access to capital, he went “off script” and spoke about his values, rather than just a company pitch, to a business group session I helped put together for him. In the October 2011 speech, he credited former Capital Cities Communications executive Dan Burke with teaching him how business and community can go together. I remember Mike saying, “If you focus on doing business the right way, the profits will come.” I related that to our values and culture at Tanner Friedman and it felt validating and reassuring. Later that day, Burke passed away. Now that we have lost both Fezzey and Burke, who will fill their void in media? If trends continue the way they are, it will be a missed opportunity for so many.