Emily Barr leaves ABC 7 on top — but doesn’t go far

Emily Barr, who ran the most successful television station in Chicago for 15 years, is moving on to new challenges. But she’s not moving away.

Barr, 54, resigned Tuesday as president and general manager of ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, a unit of Walt Disney Co., to become president and CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations. From offices in Chicago, she will oversee the chain of six stations owned by Washington Post Co. in Detroit, Houston, Miami, Orlando, San Antonio and Jacksonville. After a two-month break, she’ll start her new job in July.

From the moment she was approached about the job, Barr knew she would be staying in Chicago. Although it means she’ll be traveling a lot, she’ll still be able to raise her two daughters here and remain active in the community she and her husband have called home since 1997. “It will be very different for me because I won’t be coming in to a station with a big studio every day, but I’ll be visiting all those places regularly,” she told me.

There’s no doubt that Barr could have continued to lead the top-rated and top-billing station in the market for as long as she wanted to. But when she was passed over for promotion to head the ABC Owned Television Stations in 2010, colleagues understood that she had loftier ambitions.

“Her resume is outstanding and her reputation impeccable,” Ron Magers, principal news anchor at ABC 7, said of his longtime friend and boss. “It was only a matter of time before one of the offers that come her way would be too much to turn down. I'm just sorry that there wasn't a way to keep her with ABC. I've been around a while and she's the best boss I've ever had.”

Barr raised her profile in the industry nationally when she created Live Well Network, a 24/7 digital programming service now seen in more than 60 percent of the country. It also prepared her for the next step in her career.

“It’s been an unbelievable privilege to be able to say that I’m the general manager of this station,” she said. “But I think after 15 years, in all honesty, this television station deserves a fresh pair of eyes. In the course of my growing up here, I also have expanded my responsibilities. I nurtured Live Well to the point where it’s gone national. And in the process, I’ve learned a lot about the workings of television groups as well as television stations. So I think there was a very natural transition there for me, and I just needed the opportunity. So the opportunity came along in the form of Post-Newsweek.”

In replacing Alan Frank, who’s headed Post-Newsweek Stations since 2000, Barr expressed a "100 percent commitment" to the job: “It’s a great company [and] the TV stations are really strong. And they’re a lot like the ABC stations. They’re very committed to their local communities, and they do a great job in news. In that respect, I know that world.”

Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of Washington Post Co., said in a statement: “We are so fortunate to have Emily Barr join us. She’s been an outstanding manager in one of the greatest companies in the industry and a force for innovation everywhere she’s been.”

Barr’s successor at ABC 7 has not been named, but it’s likely to be someone from within the company, if not from within the station itself. In fact, Barr was the last general manager of an ABC station hired from outside — and that was in 1994 at WTVD-TV in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. She moved up to WLS three years later.

Over the years, Barr has been praised as much for her personal warmth and unpretentious style as for her serious work ethic, shrewd business acumen and savvy advance of new technology.

The secret to her unparalleled success?

“I didn’t do it by myself,” she said. “The most important point to make is that I couldn’t have done any of it without an incredibly talented group of people who work here and all their tireless effort. I really mean that. All those things had to be done by people. I mostly got out of the way. I think that’s the one thing I learned how to do — let smart people do what they do and get out of the way.”


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)