Interview Date: July 31, 2018
Interview Location: Anaheim, CA USA
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Cocoros: Hi, I’m Lela Cocoros and this is the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. The date is July 31, 2018. My guest here is Gary Shorman, who is president and CEO of Eagle Communications, and also on the executive committee of the NCTA [The Internet and Television Association] and treasurer as well as the chairman of the NCTC [National Cable Television Cooperative]. So, Gary, lots of responsibility on your plate.
Shorman: Sometimes it seems like a lot.
Cocoros: Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Let’s start with how you got into cable.
Shorman: That’s a fun story. I don’t know how far back you want to go, but—
Cocoros: As far back as you like.
Shorman: You know, it kind of took a different route. I started in cable back in high school, and kind of unintentionally. One of the goals—I grew up in a small community in Kansas, just north of Abilene, Kansas. They didn’t have a local radio station there. So in high school a buddy of mine started working on putting together a radio station, and the only way to get a radio station on without a transmitter tower was to go to the cable headend and hook up the wires and broadcast over the community cable system at that point in time. One thing led to another and eventually we were doing video programs over the cable channel, over the local cable channel, and doing that, I ended up going to school with the same buddy. And came back with a radio station on the air. Did the thing back in the hometown of Clay Center. Ended up on the radio side of things until I had an opportunity to join the company that I’m with now, Eagle Communication.
Cocoros: So what time frame was that?
Shorman: The time frame of high school was back in the mid-70s. So it was back in the day when you walked into the cable headend; there wasn’t all the security you have now. You had the old camera that would go back and forth on a little rail and do that. So we found that you could put photos up of things you were talking about and it would go, and it would show and now you may miss the time that revolution because your photo is up in front. We basically had the ability to plug into the video channel for that lineup and do that. That’s the mid-70s when there were seven, eight, ten channels that were on that local cable system at that point in time. But it really spawned the notoriety that two high school kids got when you became that local voice of that community.
Cocoros: It’s kind of a YouTube predecessor.
Shorman: Had we had YouTube, we would have been in real trouble with that whole thing.
My buddy, friend of mine that was there, started the same way, is now on Fox News. Steve Doocy, who is on Fox & Friends in the morning. So going to college, we did the crazy stuff there, and got on the radio first day at school. We’re on the radio, we’re doing these things and I ended up going the radio route. He’s on the TV side of it. The cable thing started when I took a job at Eagle as a radio manager and then moved into a job as vice-president of the operation, which included the cable television side of the business. So I sort of morphed into the cable side through my radio side of the business, and since that time it’s been fun. That’s been in the last—that was 1998 when I took over the role that I currently have at the radio station and the cable division as well.
Cocoros: Great. So tell me a little bit about Eagle.
Shorman: Eagle is unique in the sense that we are one of the very few employee-owned companies. Our employees—we have about 300 employees that go across the platform of 28 different radio stations and 60 different cable communities. Our cable communities are located in Nebraska, Kansas, and a couple of them over in Colorado, on the eastern side of Colorado. The employee ownership side of it, it makes it unique because everybody owns a piece of the cable system. A lot of times in the cable world, you have big companies own the cable system, and a whole group of employees, great employees. In our case, everybody’s part of the ownership aspect. So as you get into smaller and smaller communities, you actually have an owner of that system that if they’re engaged in a part of what’s going on. You’re in the grocery store line and somebody has a problem, you go fix their problem. So that part of it is unique. Growing up on a family farm, everybody had to work together to win and it just seemed very natural to me to see how we can get the employees engaged just as much as you would on a family farm or a family business where you’re trying to grow that and make sure there’s a responsibility there to have a great business.
Cocoros: That’s great. I don’t know if there are a whole lot of other companies that are 100% employee-owned like that. I don’t think there are a whole lot.
Shorman: There are other companies across different platforms. But very few in the cable and the broadcast side of things. I know in Kansas, we’re unique in Kansas. Maybe a couple others that are partially employee-owned, but not like that. So it gives us kind of a unique spot in the world of being really, really, maybe really close to the customers we take care of.
Cocoros: Who in the industry has influenced you? There are so many different people in the industry who are kind of role models in certain ways. Who inspires you in the industry?
Shorman: Initially, and probably top of the list, would be the founder of our company, Robert Schmidt. He was involved with a local radio station that got started. Ended up building the cable systems there in the communities. Like many early entrepreneurs in the radio/television, the next step was to bring a cable television system to those communities. And then we continued to expand from there. But in the world of what—the way I look at it, it’s not what we do as much as how we go about doing it. And so you find somebody like Mr. Schmidt, who really wanted to work with that local community, really wanted to be responsible to do that local community from first the radio side, then television and then the broadband side. So that ability to say OK, if we’re going to be in a community, we have to be responsible to that community and how do we go about doing that? So that bar was set a long time ago. Had a chance to work with him for almost thirty years, and he passed away last year. And you still go back and think, OK, how would he have gone about doing some of these things? So you have that model, not necessarily directly cable-related, but how to take care of people and how to take care of your community with your business, which in our case happens to be cable and broadband.
Cocoros: So in your career in radio and cable, what stands out as an accomplishment you’re most proud of?
Shorman: There are several things. One on the employee side. Being able to involve the employees of the company in the ownership aspect—that’s really unique. Because we have people here at the show, they’re all engaged. They all have their own area they’re working on, but they’re engaged in what they do, and that engagement then leads to a different level of responsibility back to our customers and everybody else in the company. So that part of it is unique, and we use it as a three-legged stool. We have radio stations, we have cable systems and broadband, but our employee ownership is really the third leg of our stool. And if we do that really well, the other two are going to succeed whether you have a great business environment, or not a great business, or looking for ideas going forward.
Cocoros: So given that you’re involved in both NCTC and NCTA, and obviously ACA [American Cable Association] as well as a member, you’re kind of touching all of those different types of businesses and companies within the industry. From your perspective, where do you see things going from here, specifically in the area of having a smaller independent cable system?
Shorman: If you look at just the business model in general, this show is a good example of that. You think, well, cable TV has been there, it’s old school. There’s the Googles and all the other things in the world out there—they’re the next generation of “cool product.” Then you show up here and you see 24 new booths/exhibitors here at the show.
Shorman: That’s a big percentage here. OK, what’s happening? It’s not that we’re putting more channels on the system. We’re not going from 50 channels to 100 channels to 200 channels. We’re building systems and expanding them to provide a broader bandwidth or faster speed or more Internet or more selectivity by our customers to be able to go out and pick and choose a certain product, or a different product. If they don’t want linear, 7:00 at night television where you watch the same show every night or whatever, every week, it allows us to really be able to take from one end of the spectrum and provide broadband on your iPhone or iPad to the other end, which I’ll put my mom and dad in that category. They’re in their upper 80s and Dad likes to sit down and watch the news. And he likes to watch the same news at the same time and that’s his life. So we’re able to really provide everything in between. Then you start looking at some of the new generation products coming out. Whether it would be those things involving home health, things involving home monitoring, family monitoring; you know, you get into a lot of different things that you can put into play. And what used to be that first place I went, the little shed that’s out underneath the tower, has now become a whole industry of helping people be able to view what they want, see what they want, learn what they want, and opens windows for people who maybe can’t do things to travel, to now be able to virtually go places. They can do things they really have never imagined they can do.
So that’s what makes it exciting. And what’s happening today is only the start of how that’s going to continue to grow. Because the bandwidth will get more and more and more, and the opportunities will be more and more…
Cocoros: You see it as kind of wide open for opportunity in all these different avenues of using broadband and technology.
Shorman: You look at the history; from an AM radio station, it took a few years and pretty soon there was FM, and nobody believed in that. And then you have the cable TV part of the world where you put a few channels on the air. I think our first package was four channels for five bucks. And people thought that was way too expensive. They still think cable and video is way too expensive. But you have hundreds of channels for 80, 90, 100 bucks. When you look at how that has changed and how that has grown, the complexity gets more and more. But with the complexity becomes the opportunity, and that’s where I look forward and see that happening. Whether we start now with 1 MB of service, and 1 GB of service, then the next is 5 GB, and 10 GB. We looked at a chart the other day that talked about a TB. You get a TB of speed to be able to do all sorts of things.
Cocoros: Do you have any favorite stories that you might want to share kind of about your experiences at Eagle?
Shorman: We had one not too long ago, and when you’re around long enough, you end up collecting some fun stories. But we have a small community in northwest Kansas. And without going into a lot of detail, we struggled trying to find a way to take an older cable system and upgrade it into a new fiber-type system that would allow us to bring not only broadband to the hospitals, but local stores, local businesses, and doing this. So we worked with the community over a couple of years. The community was very supportive. They were trying to find a way to do that; government funding was not available. So they said, “Tell you what, let’s all work together and see. What do we need for a customer base to be able to build this town into a next-generation of fiber-to-the-home?” They got together, we got together with them, and we ended up…saying, “If we can get 200 new customers, we’ll come up and build this town with fiber.” The next thing you know, that town is rolling, we have now 400 new customers, but we spent a day as a team—there were 25 of us, myself included—get in the car, five in the morning, drive two hours to get to this town, and started installing, and putting the fiber connections into all these homes. I ended up at a pharmacy with a giant drill bit, drilling through the side of this pharmacist’s wall. And I was with one of our techs that actually knew what he was doing, and I said, “This is more for you.” So he gets on and this drill bit is bending going through this wall. Finally we come chunking out the other side of the wall. We spent most of the day getting that set up. The pharmacist then takes us in and said, “This is what this is going to do.” And this is, again, a little town, about 1,000 people or so. They had an automated drug dispensing unit that the fiber was hooking into to be able to go and take the drugs, hook that up and do that, to really allow them to provide a much quicker, faster pharmacy service to the local people in that community. That’s what broadband is doing, is able to do that, and we as companies can make that happen. I’m not sure that putting a big drill and a drill bit in a CEO’s hand is that smart a thing to do. But we had fun doing that. By the end of the day, I think in that one day, we hooked up 40-some customers in one day, including a little old man that was in his chair, and his wife. We walk in the door, knock, and say, “We’d like to hook up this Internet for you.” And they said, “Well, sure. Come on in.” They don’t move out of their chair, we come in. We’re under their TV, and it’s not a flat screen. It’s one of those big giant—so we drag it out. It hadn’t been cleaned out in behind there in probably 30 years. We cleaned that out, run the fiber in, had the team in there, get that done, hook up their Internet, and they proceed to tell us why they want to do that. To share email with their son and photos of their grandkids back and forth. You’re going, boy, this is why we do this. It’s not that we can sell another customer. It’s the fact that it allows that customer to be connected with people in their world. And in this case, it was an older retired gentleman and his wife, who just really wanted to connect with their family.
Cocoros: That’s great. I think a lot of the time those stories are kind of lost in a lot of the noise, you know, around with all the whizbang things that are happening. But those basic stories of connecting people and people who are connecting to the people, as you said, within their own worlds and it’s so important to make sure that that continues, and you can bring the grandchildren to the home through technology. That’s wonderful.
How do you see the future for the cable industry as a whole?
Shorman: I’ll talk about what the NCTC is doing with that group. Because they are very much connected. When you go around the floor and talk to people, whether you have 100 subs or 100,000 subs, you’re very engaged in the communities you serve. That will make a difference
The second part of that that we’re going to have to do is make sure that as we bring technology forward, we also have to be able to work with those businesses, those people in the community to actually how do you use this correctly; how do you make sure that the people in the community, just because they can connect with the Amazons and Googles of the world, that that doesn’t become their supply source and become the local community, I guess, delivery system. So that local mom-and-pop business, that local store, doesn’t go out. So I see us going forward, we’re going to bring more and more broadband, we’re going to bring more and more information into towns, we’re going to bring more and more connectivity of people not only inside the town, but outside. But there’s going to be that responsibility for those of us as we do this, to make sure the community stays intact. How do you make sure those things are staying in the community? So that it just doesn’t completely go away in those smaller communities that we serve, just completely go away, or just become an endpoint for somebody’s data that they have.
Cocoros: Right. And it’s really important to keep them connected because the future of their community is at stake, really.
Shorman: It’s at stake on both sides because if you buy everything through Amazon, you’re not going to have a local business. But if you don’t have the Internet there, you’re not going to have the connectivity. So how do we as local and smaller cable operators really use that to our advantage because we’re there? And in our case, our owners are there, to be able to help grow that community in a way that is positive, grow in a way that keeps the community safe, because there are so many things on the Internet that aren’t. How do we make sure that we train and teach and coach and help build those communities that we serve?
Cocoros: So these associations really can help bring those resources to their membership.
Shorman: I think the resources and maybe even the collaborative effort of what’s happening in one part of the country, or one system over here. How can we adapt that to what Eagle can do better? How can some things that Eagle will do maybe be used in some other areas as well?
Cocoros: So sharing best practices.
Shorman: Best practices and even…
Cocoros: What doesn’t work as well.
Shorman: We have some of those out there. You know, in technology, you want to make sure you’re at the cutting edge, but you also don’t want to just be out there because most of us don’t have a public market that is funding us. So we have to make sure—I know in our company, talk about that, we have to be able to fund what we use and then get revenue back, so we can fund more projects to continue to grow. So with that thought in mind, we don’t have unlimited resources, we have to be really smart. And what I’m excited about in this particular show is some of the vendors are really working on ways to do that. Working on ways to navigate. It’s great to have an app that has 100 channels on it. But you can’t cut off your linear TV that my dad and mom watch and say, “OK, Dad and Mom, here’s an app.” And they’re going to go, “I don’t want an app, I want to be able to sit down to watch my news show.” So you have to be able to migrate from this side of the scale over to the other side. I think that’s what a show like this really helps finding ways to navigate. Eagle may be at this point in their path, somebody else over here may be over here in their path. Somebody else may just be starting from scratch and going, all we’re putting in the ground is fiber right now. But the NCTC and the group of members that they have, sharing ideas and you listen to stories that other people are using and can really use that to your advantage and use that to overall help the industry as well.
Cocoros: Anything else you’d like to add, any stories you’d like to share?
Shorman: You know, when you’re in a rural part of the world, one of the things that we do—and you don’t think about this. If you’ve driven through Kansas, you drive through Nebraska, really any state, you see the big grain elevators. Early on, we knew that a lot of our rural customers didn’t have very good or any Internet, so started using those grain elevators as a distribution point for Internet. That’s not a brilliant thing, but it’s a very practical thing. If you had unlimited resources, you’d put up a tower every five miles and do all the stuff and make it work, lay fiber in the ground and do this, but be able to set up and using, I guess, creativity and what you have to make it work. So many times government funding is the only way people look at how to build. But like our story in St. Francis, being able to use the energy of a community, the people in the community, a good team of employee-owners or a company to make things work, really can make a difference. And that grain elevator story is sort of—find a grain elevator, put something on, and now connect more people.
Cocoros: Because for me it brings to mind wireless as well, as wireless becomes more prevalent.
Shorman: In some of those rural areas, it’s going to be real hard to drag fiber through cornfields, etc. Whereas a really good wireless connection will give that person and that family the Internet they need to be able to connect to the outside world.
Cocoros: Right. It’s so important.
Well, Gary, thank you very much for sharing all your stories and it was great to get the chance to hear what you had to say. This show has been really fantastic. I haven’t been to an Independent Show for quite a few years, and it’s very energizing. I’m very excited about a lot of the opportunities that are out there.
Shorman: If you happen to drive through Kansas, we’d love to show you our place. We can even crawl up on that grain elevator or two and take a look over the plains and you can see Kansas from a different spot.
Cocoros: That sounds pretty cool. Thanks so much.
Shorman: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW