With WCNY’s move into the city, Bob Daino continues to transform the public broadcaster
As a 15-year-old, Robert Daino mapped out his life plan: “I want to work at a company like General Electric for 10 years. I want to start my own software company. I want to be in a position to retire when I am 35.”
At 47, the Syracuse native has met almost all of these goals—except one. Daino spent a decade working at several GE plants in the Central New York area—Court Street, Baldwinsville and then Liverpool—and soon after founded two software companies, Promergent and ServeCentral LLC. But in 2005, the software developer veered from his teenage blueprint to become president and CEO of WCNY, the Syracuse public broadcast station that reaches 1.8 million people through its television and radio programming. His perseverance and creativity guided his climb, in just three years, from phone volunteer at a pledge drive to the not-for-profit’s general manager.
From eliminating the traditional PBS pledge drives to adopting a new slogan for the capital campaign to raise money for the new building, Daino has reinvented WCNY’s image to reflect a more community-involved and self-sufficient model. That slogan? “Building a Connected Community.” Daino helped activate social networking sites, host fundraising events for its nearly 15,000 members to interact more with the broadcasting station, and purchase the outside video production company, AXXESS Productions, which enabled the nonprofit to generate income by providing video services to outside entities.
His newest venture: moving the organization from its location on Old Liverpool Road to the corner of Marcellus and South West streets on the edge of Armory Square and the Near West Side. The peeling white paint and boarded windows of the old Case Supply building will house a fully renovated broadcast and education center, slated for completion in November 2012, by Syracuse’s King King architects and Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Santa Monica, Calif.
The 57,200-square-foot, $20 million structure will include larger video and radio studios at street level, and feature elements like a walk-in café, an interactive education center for school groups and an auditorium available to the community for special events. Its open courtyard literally connects the Near West Side and Armory Square, which Daino views as a huge benefit to the community.
“I believe that a PBS station such as ours belongs in the middle of a neighborhood,” Daino says. “I want to be a venue, a destination. I want to really be involved in something and have the right platform, which we do at WCNY, with our mission to truly make a difference in people’s lives.”
Moving WCNY from its home of almost 45 years into what the Census has deemed one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods was not the most conventional decision. Nor was it readily accepted by the board. But from the moment in 2006 that Daino sat down with the nonprofit Near Westside Initiative, which works to revitalize that community, the two organization’s missions aligned. “We’re not just a TV or radio station, but an economic development engine for the city, the county and surrounding areas,” Daino says.
“WCNY’s move to the Near West Side can be catalytic,” says Mark Robbins, dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University. “It marks the importance of communication in contemporary culture, and is a cultural anchor for the neighborhood.” Robbins believes that like SU’s downtown move into the nearby Warehouse five years ago, this project can bring activity and collateral benefits to the area.
The move benefits more than just the urban core. The project includes building a joint master control center for all nine New York state PBS stations that will stream out all 34 channels from one single location. According to Alice Recore, president and CEO of Mountain Lake PBS, based in Plattsburgh, the concept of using a single master control system to feed and distribute programming information is not new to commercial television companies, but is unknown territory for public broadcasting.
“I was a little apprehensive at first,” Recore says. But after discussing the precise stages of the project’s development with Daino and the other general managers, she realized moving forward with this was the best decision for everyone involved. “We as a PBS station need to become as efficient and cost-effective as we can and this is one way of doing it.”
A single control center that sends out a combined 34 television channels will save the stations a combined $25 million over 10 years. The cost to update this equipment every three to five years will not cause additional financial strain, as the escrow fee paid by each channel to the newly created Central Casting LLC, the PBS conglomerate company, will cover those expenses.
Daino was the only PBS manager that expressed interest in housing the control center, and initiated the loan process with Corporation for Public Broadcasting to see this exploit actualized. On Oct. 13, CPB confirmed a $6.6 million grant to go toward the effort. With the formation of an additional company staffed by WCNY, Joint Master Control Operating Co, Inc., each service necessary will be based out of the new building. PBS hopes that this will not only be a model to the New York stations, but also to stations at the national level.
Learning to be resourceful and independent was a major part of Daino’s childhood. Daino’s father, Peter Daino, trained his youngest and only boy to be innovative before the age of 9. “Way back, he was one of the first kids to get a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer,” his 79-year-old father says. “At the time, I wouldn’t let him buy any software and so he was self-taught. That was my goal—to have him learn on his own—and he did that very well in a very short period of time.”
By the time he graduated high school, Daino had taught himself to build his own compiler, word processor and assembler. During college at SUNY Oswego, where he majored in computer science, he began working part time as a software engineer at GE. Daino’s knowledge grew and he soon became immersed in a specialized configuration management program that led to the development of his own companies.
When he first joined the board of WCNY in 2002, Daino took a similar tack. Lacking broadcast experience, he spent three years working his way through the hierarchy. His commitment to learning the basic operations of the organization had his peers voting for his placement as interim president and CEO. Four months after looking for a permanent candidate for the position, the search committee had one person in mind: Daino. He took the challenge, but with a stipulation of his own.
“What’s going to happen is complete and utter change,” Daino recalls saying. “I’m going to run it like it is a startup. We’re going to go from a maintaining organization to a fast-paced, growing, passionate business that has a mission and whose owners of this wonderful organization are the 19 communities and counties that we serve. And it’s going to be uncomfortable because it’s going to be outside the comfort zone. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, then you’ve got the wrong guy, but if you want that, that’s what I’m willing to do.”
The board agreed. Daino cut the board down by over half in order to find members that matched this level of dedication and did more than just write checks. He also began eliminating other components of the nonprofit, including phone-bank, cut-away pledge drives, being the first PBS station to do so.
WCNY chair James Burns of J.W. Burns & Company was easily persuaded by Daino’s enthusiasm for the organization’s progress, even though he initially intended to turn down Daino’s offer. Burns was not new to the world of nonprofits, and was not sure that making another commitment to a board was in his best interests at the time.
“I’ve met a lot of CEOs and have been on a lot of not-for-profit boards, so I do not say this lightly: Bob Daino is the best,” Burns says. “He has a business growth mindset that is very progressive and very collaborative, and is always thinking of the best interest of WCNY in a way that I have not seen before.”
Critics weren’t as convinced when it came to the station’s split from conventional revenue streams. Many believed that WCNY would have to go back to the old model in six months. Four years later, however, WCNY has continued to be pledge-free and is dependent on 28 percent less public funding than it was in 2005.
“I love what I do; it’s not work to me,” Daino says. “I’m a fixer in my life, so when I see things that are not working that’s where I like to put my attention. Whether if I’m developing software for my software companies, it wasn’t like, ‘How do I develop something where I’m just going to make a bunch of money?’ I always looked at it like, ‘What can I develop that will have a large impact on those that need something?’”
The ultimate test of his commitment to others and his work came in the form of a jet ski accident in July 2010 that landed him in a hospital with a fractured spine. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital Daino asked for his cell phone and laptop to contact his WCNY staff.
“He had meetings and had his senior leadership team actually come to the hospital,” says his wife Pamela. “As soon as they cleared him for driving, he was back to work in about a week.”
That motivation, in part, drove Daino’s vision for WCNY’s move into
the Near West Side. Despite Daino’s confidence in this decision, he
admits that building a consensus between the Near Westside Initiative,
J.P. Morgan Chase, SU and WCNY was a challenge—especially financially.
SU originally partnered with the Near Westside Initiative to funnel
money into a community effort rather than directly pay the state the
remaining $14 million it owed for building a roughly $28 million
dorm on campus. Although the University of Pennsylvania also did something similar, Near Westside Initiative director Maarten Jacobs explains that SU is unique because, unlike Penn, the neighborhood’s location has no direct relationship with SU. Yet, SU has contributed $2.5 million to the project.
The building’s location motivated J.P. Morgan Chase to invest $6.2 million into the development—a decision that, per an IRS regulation, provides investors a tax credit of 39 percent over a period of seven years. The Near Westside Initiative and WCNY helped fund the remainder of the $20 million deal, for which WCNY has borrowed $7 million from the state.
Thanks to the launch of a capital campaign slated to raise the remaining $4.1 million, all four sides successfully closed the deal last August. With the move solidified, WCNY Family Literacy coordinator Sue Butler is optimistic that her role of engaging local schools with literacy through PBS programming will only continue to grow. “I’m hoping to bring more people in the community into the building,” Butler says. “I would love for more school groups to come into the station than me going and giving outreach to some areas.”
Daino says connecting to the community in such ways is crucial to WCNY’s rebranding scheme. But recently, the impending move has brought an unexpected kind of fulfillment that surpasses what this new building originally signified to the organization. At the second annual Westside Multicultural Block Party in August, residents and incoming businesses like WCNY and Pro Literacy joined together to celebrate the community’s transformation with a day of food and inflatable games. Daino explains that although the building is under construction, kids ran up to him, smiles plastered on their faces in thanks for what the PBS station will bring to their lives. To him, this endeavor is already a success and will be even greater when WCNY’s doors finally open.
His prime inspiration for using WCNY to benefit the Syracuse community is rooted in his love for the city he grew up in. Daino has stayed close with his family, and wants to create the same incentive for his four children, ages 8 through 23. Their complaints about having nothing to do are what drive him to make changes in Syracuse.
“I’ve worked really hard, I’ve created multiple successful companies,
but I don’t think that I’ve ever had the opportunity to truly be in a
position to do what I know it’s going to do, and that is to touch deeply
so many lives in such a positive way,” Daino says. “And that really
gets me up in the morning.”