Interview Date: December 4, 2014
Interview Location: New York City, USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: I am Seth Arenstein, I’m here with Phylis Eagle-Oldson, who is the president and CEO of the Emma L. Bowen Foundation. It is December 4, 2014 and we’re here for the Cable Center’s Oral History Program.
Phylis, welcome. It’s so great to have you here.
Eagle-Oldson: It’s a true honor to be a part of the Cable Center’s Oral History.
Arenstein: You know, it’s interesting because your career, your background, encompasses so much of cable. And you are sort of a living cable center, cable museum. You started when it was a mom-and-pop operation and of course, we know where it is today in 2014, almost 2015. But then when you sort of semi-retired, you took on another great role and we’re going to talk about all that. So let’s start at the beginning.
You were born (and I’m going to have to say this) in Amityville, New York.
Eagle-Oldson: Yes, I was.
Arenstein: Which is not far from where I grew up. So it’s good to have a Long Islander here. Where did you go to college?
Eagle-Oldson: I started out in Brandywine College just outside of Philadelphia. I transferred to St. Joseph’s to finish up my degree. I went at night because I worked as a billing clerk for a rug manufacturing company during the day. They offered me the opportunity to go to classes at night, tuition fully paid, if I worked as an assistant to one of their executives during the day. So it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. That’s what I did. The company decided to move to Georgia and I said I had always wanted to go to Washington, D.C. I headed off to D.C. and that’s where I met Marty Malarkey. Just to finish answering your question—I went to George Washington University and earned a second degree in accounting several years later.
Arenstein: So you were in Philadelphia, you were in Pennsylvania, which many considered the home of cable.
Eagle-Oldson: The heart of cable, absolutely. Marty Malarkey got his start in Pottsville, PA.
Arenstein: I believe Pennsylvania to this day still has the oldest state cable association in the country.
Eagle-Oldson: I wouldn’t be surprised, yes.
Arenstein: So tell us about meeting Marty Malarkey, who is a legendary name, and anybody who goes to the Cable Center is going to see his name. What was he like, how did he hire you, tell us about that.
Eagle-Oldson: Marty was …first of all, very tall, very charming, a debonair type of man, and had a consulting firm in the cable television business and was the first president of the NCTA, as a matter of fact. I really didn’t know much about cable. Where I lived we didn’t have it. Just a quick funny story: I had come to visit a friend in D.C. I had the Washington Post and looked at the want ads and saw an ad from this agency, Executive Search. I called them on a Sunday to leave a message and the woman happened to be working that day and she said, “Why don’t you come in right now?” So here I am in my jeans going in for a meeting and she said, “I’ll set you up with ten interviews.” And I was living in Philadelphia, so I had to come back. Marty was one of the people I interviewed with that day. I got to town at six in the morning. The interviews lasted all day and when I met Marty, I said, “OK, this is who I want to work for.” He just was a wonderful and charming man and the fun thing about working for him was that not only did we do everything in cable, but he was so involved in Washington, DC social scene … the Redskins, all kinds of charities. I got to do all of that. I went to the Meridian House Ball, which is a wonderful ball for all the embassies, and I got box seats for the Kennedy Center because he always had box seats and when he didn’t want a ticket, he would just give them to me. Then he had this phenomenal twenty-eight room home in Georgetown. When he and his wife would go out of town, I would house-sit in this semi-mansion. I always laugh because—it’s a funny story, but Walter Cronkite and he were very good friends. So when the Cronkites came, they stayed at the Malarkeys’ house, but when I stayed at the Malarkeys’ house, I stayed in the Cronkite bedrooms. Martin was a wonderful person to work for.
Arenstein: You said when you first him, you didn’t know anything about cable. In your defense, how many people knew about cable at that point?
Eagle-Oldson: Unless you came from a small town, probably not very many. And of course, part of the Malarkey-Taylor team was Archer Taylor, who was just another prince of a man. Really a wonderful man. In his honor—this past weekend at Thanksgiving— I made big batches of Archer Taylor’s wife’s pumpkin bread. Laverne Taylor, who was a lovely, lovely lady, had given me a recipe for pumpkin bread many years ago. Sadly they are both gone now. I miss them a lot. They made a great team.
Arenstein: It’s funny because memory, if you have something concrete like a pumpkin bread recipe that you make every year, you remember the person who gave it to you.
Eagle-Oldson: That’s exactly right.
Arenstein: It’s a great memory…
So what was cable like? What was cable doing when you first got in the business? It was principally what? To get a better picture.
Eagle-Oldson: And that really in essence was it. I mean, it was mom-and-pop. I think you’re exactly right. A lot of entrepreneurs. My first cable show was in D.C. We all fit in one hotel.
Arenstein: Wasn’t that the first cable show, too?
Eagle-Oldson: No, it wasn’t quite the first because this was 1971 so they’d been around a little while. But all the exhibitors fit in one ballroom. There were no programmers then. It was all hardware. And Milton Shapp was the honoree that first year. It was a very different kind of a convention in those early days.
Arenstein: Do you remember anything more about that convention, anything that went on or…?
Eagle-Oldson: Malarkey-Taylor had a suite. My job at that was really to man the suite. To be honest with you, I didn’t go to any of the sessions. I did get to see the floor, but that was my first experience. I was twenty-two, naïve to say the least, and very wide-eyed about the whole thing.
Arenstein: I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question and you certainly are prime for this question. At what point—and I know we’re jumping in the story here—at what point did you realize, oh, yeah, this cable thing, this could actually be a real going concern.
Eagle-Oldson: You know, it’s interesting because I really have, as you’ve said, seen it from its infancy to its maturity and all the iterations in between. It’s probably not until I came back to work for NCTA that I really had the full feeling of it. When I left Malarkey-Taylor, there still were no franchises in large cities. They were just in the process of making that happen. There was no HBO. It was still mom-and-pop systems around the country, so it really didn’t have the feel to it that it had a few years later when I came back and went to work for NCTA.
Arenstein: Talk about some of the personalities in those mom-and-pop days that you met, that you encountered at Malarkey-Taylor.
Eagle-Oldson: Malarkey-Taylor did a lot of feasibility studies in those days. They also did the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy Blue Sky study. This was in the early QUBE days of Time Warner and Gus Hauser…QUBE was an early test-bed for innovative services that could be provided by the cable industry.
Also, there was a—I’m struggling to think of the name now—it was a cable equity firm that was put together; Marty was a part of it. As you may know, in those days it was impossible to get money to expand systems. Cable operators had a difficult time getting loans to do much of anything in those days. The banks were really tough on them. So this equity firm was put together with a fair amount of money to lend. I don’t think they ultimately did many deals but I do remember that financing expansion was a major issue in those days.
Arenstein: Let’s talk about your role in all this. You are a finance person, you’re an accounting person. I have to ask: in an era or at a time when there was a mom-and-pop, a lot of handshake agreements, not too many signed things—did that make it hard for a finance person who probably wants to see paper and things like that?
Eagle-Oldson: In fairness, I didn’t get involved in industry finances when I was with Malarkey-Taylor; I was Martin’s assistant. At NCTA, my responsibilities focused more on the association’s finances rather than industry’s finances.
Arenstein: This kind of segues to what you’re doing now or what you’re just about to retire from, but how many women, and what were the roles of women back then in business? Forget about cable. In business. What was it like to be a woman in business?
Eagle-Oldson: It’s interesting because I think that’s probably where some of my empathy comes from, being part of the Emma Bowen Foundation, to have fought a little bit of that battle myself. I won’t say the name because I don’t want to do that but I was in a job where I was really making some inroads, very significant inroads, in a job between my days at Malarkey-Taylor and before I started at NCTA. The man was a wonderful man who ran that company, but he literally sat me down in his office and he said, “Phylis, you have brought more business into this firm than anyone else here, but I’m 75 years old and I can’t change now and as I’m getting ready to retire, I can’t have a woman run my company.” That was it; he said that. And I had a similar experience a couple of years later. While working at NCTA, I got an offer from a law firm, a major law firm in downtown Washington. One aspect of my job at NCTA was to oversee the construction of the 1725 Massachusetts Avenue building in DC. The law firm that had helped us with that whole process was getting ready to move to new space, and the attorney that we had worked with at NCTA, said, “Phylis, we want to hire you to come and do our construction, get our whole building moved.”
I had talked it over with Jim Mooney and he agreed that it sounded like a really great opportunity and encouraged me to accept the offer.” So I’m all set to go and then the managing partner of the law firm, who was, I guess, very instrumental in the whole real estate deal, said, “There is no way I’m letting some woman run the construction and renovation of this project.” So now I have to go back to Jim Mooney, who was incredibly gracious and said, “Your desk is right there. We haven’t replaced you and you’re fine.”
Had I seen those experiences? Absolutely.
Arenstein: And you bring up Jim Mooney. Of course that’s a name we really want to talk about so let’s skip to about 1980, I believe, and you’re at NCTA. Tell me how that happened.
Eagle-Oldson: I had been working for an organization called Trade Associates. They managed the NCTA trade show before Dan Dobson. It was time to move on to new opportunities and Chuck Walsh, with Fleishman and Walsh, was a very good friend who I had known for years. He put in a word at NCTA to Kathryn Creech and Tom Wheeler and said, “I think you should talk to her about coming into NCTA.” And they took a huge leap of faith because they wanted me to oversee the management of the move from 16th Street to Mass. Avenue. I didn’t have a background in construction but they knew me from working on the trade show. I was a very determined person and I lived with my hardhat on the construction site. The plumbers and the electricians and the drywall guys taught me everything I needed to know to get that building done on time and under budget. When it was done, they said, “Why don’t you stay and manage the building. Later they asked me to create an HR department. When their comptroller left, I took over accounting. When we set up a local area network, Data Services became a responsibility as well. It was sort of an evolutionary thing. It just started out as one thing and then grew over time.
Arenstein: So you we’re literally standing on Massachusetts Avenue and the building went up around you and you had a job.
Eagle-Oldson: That’s exactly right.
Arenstein: OK, all right. That’s great. And you spent almost thirty years at NCTA.
Eagle-Oldson: Nineteen years.
Arenstein: That’s why I’m not in finance and you are.
Tell me what you did at NCTA. We could probably sit here for weeks talking about the personalities, but let’s talk about people like Tom Wheeler, who’s now the chairman of the FCC. A fellow named Decker Anstrom who was just a…
Eagle-Oldson: Phenomenal man.
Arenstein: Phenomenal guy. Then Jim Mooney…I know you were a big fan of his but he was sort of a controversial subject.
Eagle-Oldson: He was?
Arenstein: I think so.
Eagle-Oldson: You know, it’s funny. I was thinking about this interview and I was thinking about those three personalities. I think if I had to categorize them for myself, I would say when Tom came in, things were, I think, a little loosey-goosey. So Tom came from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a very dynamic personality, and he came in and I think he organized. You know, you had all these factors. You had the start of MSOs plus those mom-and-pops. Now you had programmers, now you had vendors, and all of this had to come together because they had a battle to fight. So Tom, I think, really helped to build the board, build that sense of camaraderie. If you think about a group of personalities sitting around the NCTA board table, these are all entrepreneurs, all these early guys. Every one of them: “I’ll do it my way.” And yet, they managed to come together as an industry to do great things together, and I think that says a lot about every CEO, every president of NCTA who could meld those personalities together. In thinking of Mr. Hauser, I can remember sitting in board meetings, everybody was expressing opinions and Gus would sit quietly. Then, at the end, he had this amazing gift of summarizing all the key points and saying, “Based on input from x and y, this is what I think we should do.” And everybody stopped and just listened to Gus. He really had a gift for that and I remember seeing that a lot.
So saw Tom was the organizer. He brought the industry together. Jim Mooney—brilliant strategist. I think he was the Jimmy Cagney of the cable industry because you needed a fighter in those days to get something done. And you needed somebody who’d lived on the Hill, who knew what was going on. Sure, he rubbed people the wrong way on occasion, but he played a key role in the evolution of the cable industry. Let me tell you, it wasn’t always easy to work for Jim, but if you had asked me who was the most influential person in my career, I would say Jim Mooney. He made everyone in that organization stretch way more than you ever thought possible because he never settled for less than 110% . If you didn’t walk into this office fully prepared he’d say, “Get the heck out of my office and come back when you’re prepared.” It only took one of those experiences for you to never show up for a meeting without “doing your homework!”
So here’s the story: Remember Jim totally focused on government relations. I have all the administrative stuff: the budget, benefits, blah-blah-blah. He doesn’t want to deal with that much. He wants to know it’s taken care of; just come in and tell me your recommendation. I’m going to trust that you know what you’re doing. And if he asked you a question and you didn’t have an answer…
Arenstein: God help you.
Eagle-Oldson: That’s exactly right. What I learned to do before I ever went in with a recommendation was to go through everything again and say, “What would he ask me?” And then sometimes, based on that, I would say, “Oh. I’m going to change my recommendation.” So he trained me in a way that nobody else ever would have because he was intimidating—let’s face it. And you just never went into his office unprepared. For the rest of my career—I can remember going into audit committee meetings with Amos Hostetter (in those days, it was Bud), and Bud’s another person who you don’t want to disappoint, or Bob Miron. So NCTA had whatever it was $20-30 million, so you better have your act together. I would have notes on the side of our audited statements for every single line item. God forbid they would ask me a question and I wouldn’t have an answer. And usually there would be only two or three questions—you know, I’d studied for a month. But I knew no matter what they asked me, I would have an answer. And that was because of Jim Mooney.
Arenstein: That’s great training.
Eagle-Oldson: It was phenomenal training. And I really tried to pass that on to our students at Emma Bowen, too. I tell that story all the time.
Arenstein: Talk a little bit about one chairman that I interacted with many times, Decker Anstrom.
Eagle-Oldson: So Decker was the peacemaker. Tom was the organizer, Jim was sort of this fighter/tough guy/Jimmy Cagney-type guy. Then after Jim had accomplished what we needed for the industry, but ruffled the feathers in the process, Decker came in with his very calm approach—he had great people skills—he came in and smoothed all the feathers. I don’t know whether this story has been told, but I will say that I think one of the smartest things that Decker did was hire Torie Clarke. Do you remember the name?
Arenstein: Sure. Of course I know Torie.
Eagle-Oldson: Torie came in as head of communications. She had been with a PR firm before she came to NCTA. At that point in the industry, everybody hated us. Rates were up, customer service was poor, we had all these new channels that had some things on it that parents didn’t like. We were the bad guys of the media industry. Torie came in and I remember her sitting in a board meeting and she was a very gutsy woman—and she was in everybody’s face. She essentially says, “What are you guys thinking? You’ve got to fix this.” So that was the birth of the parental controls, reaching out to the National Education Association, all the rules we had about being responsive with customer service within so many hours. She was such a very critical part of getting people to really get outside themselves and focus on what the rest of the world was seeing. And she said, “When you solve these problems, a lot of your Hill problems are going to go away. So Torie Clarke was, in her own way, very influential in turning things around—at least in my opinion—for the industry.
Arenstein: I think we also really have to talk about legislatively what was going on during your nineteen years at NCTA. It was a bit of a roller coaster. There was re-regulation, deregulation…talk a little bit about that.
Eagle-Oldson: I am always a little hesitant to because that was not my area. But certainly one of the great things about being at NCTA in those days, there was esprit de corps. People worked half the night. I was just at a birthday party for Brenda Fox a couple of weeks ago, and all of our old friends were there. We were part of this “it’s us against them” spirit. Everybody hung in there to really fight the good fight. It was a very interesting time, but you’re exactly right. It seemed like if it wasn’t Congressman Wirth, it was Senator Gore. There’s a funny story about Senator Gore. I was on a flight going home to visit my parents and I think it connected through Charlotte, NC. It was the old…one of the airlines that no longer exists now. So I’m sitting next to this blond woman and we’re yakking. So she said, “What do you do?” I said, “I work for the National Cable Television Association.” In those days, you really were a little hesitant to say that you worked for cable because somebody was always complaining about service, pricing or programming. Lo and behold, it was Tipper Gore. Ooh. And I got such an earful. And I thought, why did I say where I worked?
Arenstein: It was a long flight.
Eagle-Oldson: Exactly right. Clearly she was doing her husband’s bidding. It was an interesting time.
Arenstein: One or two words about some of the other personalities that you met during your time at NCTA. I know you wanted to say something about Bill Bresnan.
Eagle-Oldson: The best. Bill Bresnan—I was looking on the Cable Center’s website and I was very familiar with the Ethics in Business Award. As a matter of fact I was one of the judges in the first award. Bill was a class act from the word go. I don’t know anyone who was more successful but doing it in a way that he could look himself in the mirror every day. Just a great man. My favorite personal story (I get emotional about Bill because I think he’s just somebody that it was my privilege to know.) Bill had a system up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. So we were yakking one day and I said, “Oh, you know, my dad was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, and he’s going up to Michigan for his whatever-it-was—fiftieth high school reunion” That’s all I said. So a couple weeks later, my dad calls me and he says, “Who’s Bill Bresnan?’ And I said, “Why? Why are you asking?” He said, “Well, I got to my hotel today for the reunion and there’s this big gift basket in here and it said, ‘Welcome back for your high school reunion and the card was signed ‘from Bill Bresnan’”
So here’s this man who’s a multi-gazillionaire who thinks enough to go find out what hotel my dad is staying in and sending a fruit basket. That to me is the quintessential Bill Bresnan. For as successful as he was, he was a great friend to the common man. He was a huge supporter of Emma Bowen. He was the one who brought Emma Bowen to the NCTA board. That’s how I got involved. He was very instrumental in my going there as CEO, and Bill and I would have regular conversations a couple times a year. We’d talk for an hour on the phone about where the Foundation was going. He was also involved in another nonprofit for underprivileged children, so we worked together on that. He always made time to help me develop strategies for the Foundation.
The other person that does that on a regular basis is Rob Kennedy. I could not run Emma Bowen without Rob Kennedy. As for those who may not know, Rob Kennedy is co-president of C-SPAN.
Arenstein: And a very good piano player. I can tell you that from experience.
Eagle-Oldson: Rob has been with C-SPAN for many years. He understands nonprofit operations and he has been the chair of our finance committee for years. He is my go-to person when I don’t know how to do something. Rob’s been a great friend
Arenstein: I know you mentioned in passing Glenn Britt. What do you want to say about Glenn?
Eagle-Oldson: Glenn, another great person. He was very involved with the Kaitz Foundation early on. I know he was friends with Spencer [Kaitz] and I’m sure Walter [Kaitz] before that. So when the Kaitz Foundation switched from sponsoring their own associates, they decided they were going to put all of the proceeds from their annual gala into organizations that focused on helping to diversify the industry. The Emma Bowen Foundation, along with Women in Cable and NAMIC were all beneficiaries. I remember a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel with Spencer Kaitz and Glenn Britt. We had a long conversation about the Emma Bowen Foundation and of course, I knew them from my days at NCTA and that’s when they said, “We think we want to support you in your initiatives.” $4 million later over fourteen years that they’ve donated to the Foundation. It’s huge.
Arenstein: Let’s get right to Emma Bowen, but let’s talk about how you left NCTA and then went to Emma Bowen. How did you leave this organization that you’d been at nineteen years and loved and were loved? How did you do that?
Eagle-Oldson: You know, it’s interesting because I was there for nineteen years. The majority of the staff has been there a long time. Bobby Thorpe has been there 50 years. Jadz Janucik has been there almost as long. Barbara York is another staff member who has quite a history with NCTA. It is an amazing place to work in an industry that is constantly reinventing itself! It’s almost as if they make you sign in blood that you’ll never leave until you die.
Arenstein: It’s like from the Sopranos…
Eagle-Oldson: That’s right. But Decker Anstrom was getting close to leaving (to head up the Weather Channel) I had worked under a few CEOs (Schmidt, Wheeler, Mooney and Anstrom) and I was looking for something a little different. So in the same year I finished the second degree at GW, I got married, turned fifty and I changed jobs. It was truly a new chapter.
I had been on the board of the Emma Bowen Foundation for five years as the representative from NCTA…and I loved the organization. I could see that the passion was there but not the infrastructure. I was really concerned that the students would suffer because money wasn’t going to come in. My experience at NCTA really helped as I began building the infrastructure and using my network to add corporate support. When the Kaitz funding came through, it was a boost we needed to move the Foundation to the next level. The last fifteen years has just been amazing.
Arenstein: Let’s talk about who Emma Bowen was and what the Foundation does.
Eagle-Oldson: OK. Emma Bowen—you talk about women before their time. She comes to New York, her husband passes away, she’s raising her family, an African-American woman who gets her Master’s at Fordham in the late 50s, early 60s. So she’s already unique to start with. She’s working for Mayor Lindsay in New York in the mental health area. That was her specialty. She’s watching TV—and this is right at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement—and she’s seeing a very one-sided view of African-Americans. Emma was close friends with Senator Jacob Javits. She said, “We have to do something because the mental health issue in our city and what they see on media are very connected. Perception is very important.” So she forms an organization called “Black Citizens for a Fair Media” to encourage media companies to hire African Americans as reporters and news directors in the hope that stations would have more balanced reporting.” She was formidable. I knew her later in life and when she was in a wheelchair, and everyone still said, “Yes, ma’am.” You know that type; she just commanded respect. And she had a passion. I’ve talked to former FCC commissioners who’ve said, “God forbid you did not show up at Emma’s annual meeting of BCFM at the Apollo Theatre, because if you didn’t, you’d hear about it later,
She was very instrumental in the early careers of a lot of people of color as generalists in the industry. And she also was responsible, along with Senator Javits, to get the first African-American page in the U.S. Senate. So Emma was doing Black Citizens for a Fair Media, and then when she retired, Dan Burke—Steve Burke’s father—was then head of ABC-Cap Cities. Emma knew all of the top network executives because she had worked very closely with them. So they said, “Rather than giving her a gold watch and a pat on the head, let’s do something that will really stand for what Emma believes in.” That was the early beginnings; Dan Burke gave the first $50,000 to start what was then called “Foundation for Minority Interests in Media.” We didn’t name it the Emma Bowen Foundation until after she had passed in her honor.
But Henry Rivera was there; Dennis Swanson was there and Bill Bresnan was there. All of those early players. Now Bill came into it because of Dr. Everett Parker and I don’t know if you know that name.
Arenstein: No, I don’t.
Eagle-Oldson: Dr. Everett Parker was part of the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communications. We’re in the Civil Rights era—he’s heading up this separate arm of the United Church of Christ and he’s doing radio broadcasts. He finds out that there’s a TV station in Jackson, Mississippi that is blocking all coverage of Martin Luther King—any of the Civil Rights coverage because they don’t want to rile the people in their town. So the UCC documents the fact that the station is blocking information and goes to the FCC. It took them multiple attempts before the FCC said to the station, “We will pull your license if you don’t stop blocking civil rights related news.” So the first African-American news director was hired at that station to give more balanced reporting during those days. Dr. Parker came together with Emma Bowen and that’s really how the Foundation’s internship program was started.
Arenstein: What does the Emma Bowen Foundation do today? How many employees does it have?
Eagle-Oldson: We have a huge staff of five.
Arenstein: And one of them is sitting here.
Eagle-Oldson: We have somewhere between 250 and 275 students in the program at any one time. We recruit students as rising college freshmen and they are placed in any one of forty media companies. They work four summers as paid interns and they also get scholarship money on top of that. A multiyear internship is very unique because not only does a student learn the basics (how to run the copier, how to work the phones, and where the restrooms are) but by the second summer, he or she is doing substantive work, developing mentoring relationships, becoming an integral part of their company’s corporate family, and learning the culture. So while you’re in classes during the day, you’re also able to relate what you learned to what you do and vice-versa.
At the end of that four year period, you have this very sophisticated young professional who has had four years of direct work experience, four years of attending Foundation conferences which provide a broader perspective on the industry, participation in an industry mentoring program (Link), four years of being held to a high standard both academically and professionally, and the opportunity to build an enviable network of senior executives through our board, mentors and speakers. I think probably the most important thing they come away with is confidence … because knowledge is power and knowledge and experience build confidence. So you can think about when somebody interviews for a full time job at the end of four years as an Emma Bowen student, they have sat with executives, they can name drop a little bit, they really understand the industry, they understand the culture. They’ve had a total hands-on experience and so the likelihood of them getting hired and starting to move up the ladder is significantly higher. From a diversity standpoint, if they had to do it totally on their own, it would be a much more difficult fight. So that’s what we do.
Arenstein: The interesting thing here—I know that you are sort of a world record-holder. I know you have grandchildren, but you have a thousand children. This woman sitting here has a thousand children. You look great! Somebody said to me, “If you talk to Phylis, just save a few minutes and say, ‘talk about your children.’” And then just sit back and let you talk.
Eagle-Oldson: There’s no off button when you do this so it is like a grandparent. We have just amazing students as you can imagine. Because we’re so hands-on with all of our kids the relationships last long after they complete the program. To this day I get the wedding announcements, baby announcements, “I got a promotion!” “I got on the Dean’s List!” And you are like another member of their family. So there is this amazing sense of pride and joy that you get—I’ve said this to many people. There is no executive perk that’s better than what I get at Emma Bowen. I have saved every single note and letter from students. And you just say to yourself, “Wow.” They all say, “This changed my life. I’m the first kid to go to college in my family.” And you know that will just start a chain going forward. What an influence that has. An obvious example might be Gio Benitez who’s on Good Morning America and many other ABC news shows (evening news and 20/20). Gio was at CBS in Miami, had two Emmys before he graduated from college. This kid was a superstar and he will do great things for many years to come.
Then you get a young shy person. I think about a young woman that’s at HBO in compensation. I won’t say her name because I don’t want to embarrass her. She was at NBC in Florida and she’s Asian-American, and boys were much more important to her family. She’s very shy. So she came to me and said, “There’s an opportunity for me to go to work at 30 Rock in HR compensation. And I’m so concerned about what my parents will say.” And I said, “You know what? Sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.” She went, she did phenomenally well, and she now is at HBO doing amazing things. But it was so gutsy of her to make the leap to go out on her own. Now her family all moved to New York to be with her, which is wonderful. And there are so many great stories about young people who just took the chance.
I can remember this young man, it was his first time ever on a plane when he came to conference, first time out of his hometown and he came to me, towards the end of the conference, and he said, “In my neighborhood, I’m the only kid who goes to college. I thought I was a pretty big deal. My father said to me, ‘When you go to work, you put your head down, don’t make any noise, don’t make any waves,’ I came to conference…I’ve got to change this. If I don’t up my game, I’m not going to be competitive. I look around me at all these other students and what they’re doing…my father’s great, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
And there’s another girl I can think of who works in Connecticut. And she handed me a note after her first conference. Michael Powell spoke; Michael was amazing with the students. I think we were all sort of dewy-eyed after he finished. Just so inspiring. And she said, “My dad told me that only rich people get to live their dreams. After hearing Michael Powell speak, I know that that’s my dad’s experience but it’s not going to be mine.”
There are hundreds of these stories of kids and they’re great students to begin with because you have to have a 3.0 to get in to the Foundation and we collect transcripts every semester so you really have to keep up with it. But there’s a whole new generation of young professionals coming into this industry with a lot of talent and smarts and hopefully what we’ll see in our industry—and audiences will benefit from that.
Arenstein: Let’s talk a little bit about diversity in cable today, or even broaden it out and say your views about how cable has approached diversity.
Eagle-Oldson: I think cable is working very hard at diversity. They are very supportive of organizations like Emma Bowen, like NAMIC, like Women in Cable. When you start to look at the ranks of people moving up in the industry, there are clearly a much greater number of people of color that are taking positions of authority in the industry. Are we done? Not close. Do we have a lot further to go? Absolutely. Because I think it’s one of those things that you have to constantly keep on the front burner…otherwise you’ll lose ground. So organizations like Emma Bowen, organizations like NAMIC, anything that says we have to constantly look at this. And we can’t just say we hired, but we have to say we developed and we have to say that we’re creating leaders at the C- level, at the board level. It’s so important because otherwise you don’t get that broad perspective. And it makes good business sense. I mean you’re not just doing it because it’s a nice thing to do. When you look at the demographics of our country, if you don’t do it, you’re not paying attention to what the business model is.
Arenstein: Can we drill down just one more step? How about women in cable technology? That’s a big area…
Eagle-Oldson: You probably know Chris Lammers from CableLabs. Chris is on our board and a couple of years ago, he and I were having lunch together in D.C. On the back of a napkin we designed the Foundation’s New Media & Technology track. We got huge support from the industry. People like Kevin Leddy and Bob Zitter, Rich Wolf, Preston Davis—tons of people said, “We love this. We really want to do this.” So what we did was we designed a track within Emma Bowen so that the students that intern are either engineering or computer science majors. They will rotate within their companies and their internships each summer, but they will stay in a technology track. This program has been hugely successful and it’s about half female. Which is great. And HBO, who has been just phenomenal in hiring Emma Bowen grads. They have quite a few Emma Bowen grads there. They had one of the first tech-track students and she graduated in May and she’s already working full time there now. I think that’s a track that is of interest to virtually everybody in the industry so that will continue to grow.
Arenstein: Cable’s influence on the country. Socially, let’s say.
Eagle-Oldson: It’s interesting for me to have the perspective of looking over all of these years and being involved in the industry all these years. I think some of the best things about cable—I have two things to say. One is the thing I’m most proud to say now that I’ve been part of the cable industry. I think because it started with an entrepreneurial spirit. You can only go so far before you have to make changes. No industry goes without change. But think about what they’ve done. So they went from mom-and-pop to just providing a good signal to satellite-delivered programming to telephony to Internet to security to who knows what the next thing is. They have kept themselves flexible and innovative—they’ve changed the model to make the industry continue to grow. And I think that spirit is terrific.
What I hope that doesn’t get lost because we’re now a big industry and you almost hope that it doesn’t get too corporate that you lose that flexibility and particularly as the early generation of entrepreneurs is slowly going away, sadly. You hope that there’s still some of that spirit and that innovation and creativity. And then when you think about, if you turn on the TV, you can watch the Smithsonian Channel or a cooking channel. I was in the room when Ted Turner proposed CNN to the NCTA board. I remember that day when he was sitting there. And only in Ted-style, it was just so amazing. And of course he got industry support in the same way C-SPAN got industry support. Now everybody has 24-hour news but Ted was the one who really brought it to the table. And the Weather Channel. Who would have thought that people would sit around and watch the Weather Channel, but my husband, it’s the very first thing he puts on in the morning. So I think that Dubby Wynn (that name pops into my mind), I think the cable industry has been innovative, it has been creative, it has been gutsy. It took chances. Also it stuck together in a way I think—I can’t analyze all other industries—but despite their differences in big vs. small cable company or operator vs. programmer, vendor, whatever, they still have stayed together and spoke from one voice and that probably has been one of the important things, too.
Arenstein: Phylis, I can’t ask you about your legacy because you have a thousand kids who are going to be your legacy. But what do you want your legacy to be?
Eagle-Oldson: I think the Emma Bowen Foundation is. I have to thank Marty Malarkey, Trade Associates and NCTA for giving the opportunity to learn and develop an industry network. I was able to take that experience and end my career with the Foundation. If I can pass on what I know, along with, the importance of creativity and excellence to the students and graduates, that will be a perfect legacy.
Arenstein: When I was getting ready to do this interview, somebody told me that you’re so good at Emma Bowen, you’re such an asset, that it’s going to be really, really difficult to replace. But I’m glad you’re retiring, enjoy your retirement…
Eagle-Oldson: Thank you.
Arenstein: …and this has been a pleasure. So much fun. What a great story you have. What are you going to do in retirement?
Eagle-Oldson: As you said, I have eight grandchildren and I married late, so I have this prince of a husband, just a prince. So what we hope to do is to focus on each other and our families and grandkids and travel and…
Arenstein: And keep up with your thousand children.
Eagle-Oldson: Exactly. Well, I told all the kids. I said, “You know, I’m used to getting up in the morning and turning my phone on and watching emails pour in. And if it doesn’t do it right away, you know, you’re kind of hitting the phone, like, where are my emails?” I told the students, “If you care about my phone at all, you won’t just stop emailing me. So I hope I can continue to stay in touch with our graduates and help in any way possible.
Arenstein: I’m sure you will. Thank you very much.
END OF INTERVIEW