Media Manager George Miles Talks Career Pivots, Doo-Wop and the Need for Black People in the Newsroom
Despite being called a “servant leader” by his peers, media executive and CPA George L. Miles Jr. has also been told he’s not “academic material” at a early age. He proved his doubters wrong, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in 1963, followed by an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1970. On the first day of the Miles’ first job after college at the New Jersey Department of Defense, his grandmother asked him to come to her house because she wanted to see the first person in the family to wear a tie to work.
In 1969, Miles took a management position in New York at the accounting firm Touche Ross and Company – the company’s first black hire. Later, he moved into the broadcast business as a manager and controller at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. He then joined WBZ-TV as station manager in Boston, and in 1983 served as executive director of National Public Radio (NPR), where he was called in to resolve tax issues – a trait for which he is quickly became known, earning the nickname “the flip guy.”
Between 1984 and 1994, Miles served as executive vice president and CEO of WNET/13 in New York, then was named president and CEO of WQED multimedia in Pittsburgh, the production station of the beloved Neighborhood of Mister Rogers. Under his leadership, the WQED team won a number of Emmys and other broadcasting awards.
Miles has also served on numerous boards including Chester Engineers, Harley-Davidson, WESCO International and AIG. He has received numerous accolades, including Farleigh Dickinson University’s Pinnacle Award for Outstanding Achievement as an Alumnus, Seton Hall University’s Most Distinguished Alumnus Award, and honorary doctorates from ‘Robert Morris University, La Roche College and St. Joseph’s College. He was also named as one of the “Fifty Most Influential African Americans” by the New Pittsburgh Mailone of the oldest and most prestigious black newspapers in the country.
Today, at 80, Miles, who is also a Vietnam veteran, is an active member of the Boulé fraternity, a trustee emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh board of trustees, and a member of the board of trustees of the Ringling College of Art & Design and WEDU. He and his 56-year-old wife, Janet, moved to Sarasota in 2002 and now live here as full-time residents.
What was it like growing up in New Jersey?
“My dad grew up in Orange and my mom was born in Georgia. His mother and six siblings moved to New Jersey in the 1920s to escape the lynchings that were taking place at that time.
“To this day, my brothers and I talk about my father’s life-changing decision to change where we lived. We lived in a railroad shack in Orange, which had four bedrooms where we We were nine – seven kids and our two parents.My dad moved us to a white housing estate in Jersey which was mixed with all sorts of people.
“That decision was the foundation and the articulation of many things that I have drawn on in my career. He could have moved us to other low-income housing, but he made a commitment to his family and he stuck to what was best for us.
“My dad’s dad wanted nothing to do with him since he was a kid. So my dad swore if he ever had a family, he’d never do what his dad did to him. When I think about it, I get emotional. He had his flaws – we all have them – but I have incredible respect for him. That’s why I call myself by my full name, out of respect for my dad.
Was your father the most influential person in your life?
“My father was influential for the whole family. He was strong-minded, a good provider, and he was always there for us. He taught us that when you hit a wall, you know how to get around it.
“When I got out of college in 1963, I wanted to be a CPA. I applied to many companies. But many told me right away that they couldn’t let black people look in books. [the companies they worked with] because these companies looked down on black people. So, I had to find a way around this wall.
“Ultimately, I rose to the highest levels at major accounting firms. I draw on that experience when asked to be chairman or board member of companies like these. I make it clear that I want to be sure they have a diverse set of people. I don’t want to hear that they can’t find black people to hire. I expect to see diversity, and it has paid off over the years. I encourage other board members to have the same expectation, not just an intention.”
Tell us about your guiding principles.
“I’m serious about what I do, but I don’t take myself seriously. However, I respect and embody these principles in everything I do.
“Be patient. If you’re not patient, then you won’t get where you want to go. There’s a proverb that says, ‘Wait on the Lord and you will renew your strength as patience.’
“Forgive. If you can’t forgive, then you’ll be in the same place you’ve always been. I’ve learned more about this than anything else in my life, and it was my wife who taught me the the most about forgiveness
“Have a vision. As the Bible says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
“Learn from your mistakes. Don’t make the same mistake over and over again. Learn from it and move on.
“Get out of your comfort zone. When you settle down and do the same things, you won’t move forward.
“Be yourself. Don’t let others define you. You have to define yourself. It’s not up to others to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.
“Enjoy the trip.
“Don’t forget your roots. That’s where you are planted.
“Never give up.
“Laughing, crying and thinking – every day. In 1993 I heard Coach Jim Valvano say this about ESPYs. It brought tears to my eyes at the time, and it still does today. I’ve been using it ever since.
“And for extra credit: always put yourself in a position to win.”
What was it like serving in Vietnam?
“When I boarded the ship in San Francisco, the neighborhood of Watts was rioted and burned. Like I said, I couldn’t get a job as a CPA, so I had to decide whether or not I was going to join the military. I decided to serve, even though I could have died for my country, because I had family and wanted to make sure they were safe in America. I was the only black in my unit of 13.
“I realize that the white people cannot understand what we had to do to survive. We go to war for this country and for freedom, then we return to segregation again, where people spit on us. Yet, we still made progress. It’s spiritual, everything comes from within.
As a former journalist, what do you see as the gaps in reporting on the black community?
“The media needs more black people in the back room. It’s so simple. A black person will receive a current situation regarding the black community and explain it to their colleagues. That’s when an open dialogue leads to a good conversation about how to report it. But it goes beyond writing. The only way to understand is to open a conversation.”
How did you put doo-wop back on the US radar?
“Doo-wop was the music of my generation. I hired a young man named DJ Lubinsky to be my hired producer. He also happened to be the grandson of the president of Savoy Records. He knew all about doo-wop, and he was only in his twenties.
“Lubinsky asked if we could try something different and produce a show called ‘Doo-wop 50,’ which we ran as a pledge program where we played music and asked for donations. The Phone Lines lit up like wildfire, and I even got a congratulatory call from Jack Benza, the father of the popular “Great Performances” show.
“Typically, [these types of pledge shows] raised $15 million in four years through appeals. We raised $20 million in one show. It became the highest-grossing fundraising program in PBS history. It’s still airing nationwide.”
What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to do right now?
“All I want them to do is continue to be open-minded. And I ask black people to also be open-minded to what white people tell you.
“I have to understand you, and you have to understand me. That’s what this country needs: a dialogue, not a monologue. Otherwise, we will never learn from each other.
Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill