J. Michael Early, longtime WWL-TV president and general manager, dies at 99

J. Michael Early, who guided WWL-TV to decades of ratings dominance as president and general manager during a broadcasting career that spanned the early 1960s to the late 1990s, died Wednesday (Aug. 26). He was 99.

In an August 1998 story marking Mr. Early’s retirement from the station at age 82, Times-Picayune TV columnist Mark Lorando described him as “a revered figure not only in New Orleans but the TV business as a whole.”

For 27 of the 37 years Mr. Early managed the station, “WWL has had one position in the ratings: first place, a dominance that is universally attributed to Early’s loyalty inspiring leadership, uncanny programming instincts and people skills, and unwavering commitment to local newscasting excellence,” Lorando wrote.

“Mr. Early” is this publication’s style on secondary references to an obituary subject, but it was the only way he was known to his staffers �- a measure of their respect, bordering on reverence, for him even long after his retirement.

“There was not a person in the building that referred to him any other way, whether it was (star anchors) Garland Robinette or Angela Hill or production assistants,” said Keith Esparros, WWL’s news director, who started his broadcast-news career answering phones at the station in 1980 then moved on to newsmanagement jobs there, at WVUE and stations in San Diego and Los Angeles before returning earlier this year.

“More than anyone I have ever encountered in this business, Mr. Early was incredibly  successful at creating the culture here that excellence was simply expected, and that you would be excellent and you would succeed if you followed the WWL way,” he said.

“When you walked in this building, you realized you were on this big team and that no one here was going to let the team down,” Espartos said. “That was just the culture. No one told you this was what was expected. It almost just oozed through the walls, and it was directly from him.”

Tod Smith, WWL’s president and general manager, also started on the ground floor at the station, working stints there in the 1980s and 1990s before returning as general manager of WWL and sister station, WUPL-TV, in 2012.

“I have never seen somebody who just personified leadership the way he did,” Smith said. “Totally unselfish. It was always about WWL-TV and its people, never about him. “It was a marvel to watch him manage.”

A New Orleans native, John Michael Early was a Jesuit High School graduate who received undergraduate and law degrees from Loyola University.

After working for two decades as a lawyer, he started his broadcasting career at age 45, when WWL’s then-owners, the Jesuits of Loyola, gave him management of the local CBS affiliate at a time when local NBC affiliate WDSU was the legacy local ratings champion. WWL’s broadcast partners at the time were WWL AM-870 and WLMG FM- 101.9.

Mr. Early eventually led WWL-TV to a ratings winning streak unparalleled in the TV industry, which continues today. According to WWL’s obituary, awards won by the station during his time there included two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for overall excellence, and five George Foster Peabody Awards.

In that time, WWL reporters traveled internationally to cover news of importance to local viewers, and WWL newscasts featured daily editorials written and distinctively delivered by Phil Johnson.

Personal honors included 1993 induction into the New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame, a Press Club of New Orleans Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, and Jesuit High School’s 1990 Alumnus of the Year, the station said.

One of the keys to Mr. Early’s success was a remarkable eye for news talent.

“If he had been an NFL general manager, he certainly would already be in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “When you think about the people who’ve come through here …”

Smith began to list names — Hill, Robinette, Hoda Kotb, Chris Myers -� then stopped. “The list goes on and on,” he said.

Sally-Ann Roberts and Eric Paulsen, mainstays of WWL’s longtime ratings-juggernaut morning newscasts, were hired by Mr. Early within days of each other in 1977.

Hill, who worked as a reporter and anchor at the station for nearly four decades before her 2013 retirement, was hired at WWL in 1975 after Early traveled to Harlingen, Texas, to watch her work on the air there. He carried video equipment on his trip, taped  her performance on a 10 p.m. newscast, then returned to New Orleans, she said.

Hill did not hear the story until the end of a later eight-hour job interview with Early and Johnson, then the station’s news director.

“He didn’t send someone,” Hill said. “He wanted to see for himself.”

Mr. Early had “instinctive feelings about people, allowing them to be who they were,” Hill said. “There was something magical about him about the understanding of television and the audience.”

To Hill, his defining moment at WWL was when Loyola decided to sell the station in the late 1980s and he engineered a rare employee-ownership deal, creating Rampart Broadcasting, a reference to the station’s longtime French Quarter location, where his portrait was installed in 2013.

Elevating station employees into shareholders demonstrated “his fight and tenacity once Loyola decided to sell,” Hill said. “To save it and the employees was his defining thing.”

The station was later sold to Belo Corp., then Gannett, the broadcasting division of which is known as TEGNA.

“He had an enormous family,” Hill said, “But his really enormous family was all of us he picked up along the way.”

His wife of more than 65 years, Leah Cohen Early, died in 2006.

Survivors include four sons, Mike, Robert, and Brian Early, all of New Orleans, and Thomas Early of Folsom; six daughters, Leah Held, Maureen Dehon, Colleen Hoover, Kathleen DeVaughn and Patricia Laird, all of New Orleans, and Therese Larrabee of St. Paul, Minn.; a brother, Judge Thomas Early of New Orleans; a sister, Jacqueline Garic of Folsom; 30 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.

A Mass will be said Tuesday (Sept. 1) at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, 3368 Esplanade Ave. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. Burial will be private.

Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.