Tight budgets, increased competition and mass technological and cultural shifts in the way viewers demand content and broadcasters try to deliver it — this is what Larry Unger confronts on a daily basis.
As CEO and president of Maryland Public Television, Unger, 68, juggles fundraising, technological updates, public appearances and ensuring diverse programming at the station.
This is not a position, however, he ever envisioned himself holding after leaving the banking industry more than 21 years ago.
“I have to be candid: Television was not one of the things I thought about. Public television was certainly not one of the things I thought about,” Unger said. “MPT had been going through quite a tumultuous transition at that time.”
In 1997, when Unger first joined MPT — headquartered in Owings Mills — as a consultant, he brought nearly three decades of expertise in the local financial services industry with him. This made him an ideal candidate to deal with the reorganization MPT was going through at the time with a new president and CEO, Robert J. Shuman, not to mention dwindling government financing.
“[Shuman] told me he was interviewing [Unger] and asked me what I thought of him? I knew we were looking for a chief financial officer at the time, and I had known Larry and told [Shuman] I thought he would do well,” said David Nevins, CEO and founder of Towson-based public relations firm Nevins & Associates and former chairman of MPT.
Unger, an Owings Mills resident, worked directly under Shuman, keeping the station financially solvent while enhancing leadership skills needed to oversee a staff of more than 150. Together, Shuman and Unger continued to help MPT produce award-winning local and national content and grow its online presence and community outreach efforts while offering an array of education resources for children, teachers and daycare providers.
But when Shuman opted for retirement in 2011, after more than 15 years at the helm, a search committee was put together to conduct a national search for MPT’s next CEO and president. The search, which lasted several months, ended with Unger being promoted.
Edward Kaplan, chairman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission since 2007, said Unger possessed a unique set of traits and invaluable experience with the station that made him the best fit for the position over several other high-profile candidates.
“You don’t often get that from someone in a nonprofit organization when they come in from the outside and apply their knowledge of business and finance to making your organization financially sound,” Kaplan said. “He really had all these background factors that helped him do the best job.”
For Unger, who said he was mostly involved in MPT’s finances up until his appointment to the No. 1 spot, it was an adjustment that took some getting used to.
“If I have learned anything, it’s that management is management,” Unger said. “A lot of it is the way you treat people and the way they respond to that. I think I learned after a little while that it works pretty much the same at [MPT] as it did in banking.”
Once he got his feet wet in the position, Unger, the first Jewish CEO and fifth overall in MPT’s more than 40-year history, hit the ground running. Just last year, he was named one of Maryland’s 32 most admired CEOs for 2015 by The Daily Record, comprising officials from private companies, public companies, nonprofit organizations and government entities.
George Beneman, senior vice president and chief technology officer at MPT, said the new and innovative ideas Unger has brought to the forefront have MPT in a healthy place for years to come.
“I would say that Larry is — and has always been into — new technology,” said Beneman, who has been with MPT since its launch in 1969 and is the company’s current longest-serving employee. “He truly is an early adopter of whatever is new in technology, and he encourages what we’re doing. When the industry moved to high definition, it rolled a lot faster than most of us in technology thought it would, which Larry had a part in before he was CEO.”
MPT, with an annual budget of approximately $32 million, averages more than 1.7 million viewers on a monthly basis and reaches more than 3 million households in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. It is the eighth-largest public television station of 161 PBS member stations, with such shows as “MotorWeek,” “Chesapeake Collectibles,” “Artworks,” “Direct Connection,” “Your Money & Business” and “State Circle.”
A little more than seven years ago, Unger, as executive vice president, helped MPT balance an expensive transition from analog to digital as part of a Federal Communications Commission mandate. A big portion of that undertaking included replacing four of the station’s six outdated antennas on the transmitter towers located throughout various cities, which Unger said costed as much as $1 million per antenna.
Today, MPT offers three channels, MPT-HD, MPT-2 and V-me, the first national Spanish-language television network in association with public television stations. By the end of this December or January, Unger said, MPT plans to add a fourth channel, NHK World, an international broadcasting service of NHK Japan’s public broadcaster, to broaden its offerings. As part of the move, MPT-2 will switch from standard definition to high definition, giving the station a pair of each.
Unger, who served six years in the Coast Guard Reserve, was heavily involved in an MPT production that paid tribute to Vietnam War veterans from around the state.
In its largest initiative ever, MPT aired a three-part documentary series, “Maryland Vietnam War Stories,” featuring the stories of Vietnam-era veterans from Maryland and their families, presented in their own words. “Maryland Vietnam War Stories,” which cost $2.5 million and took about a year-and-a-half to complete, is exactly the type of programming Unger hopes to continue in order to separate his station from commercial networks.
Rhea Feikin, longtime host of “Chesapeake Collectibles” and “Artworks,” has been with MPT for more than four decades and said Unger has done a lot to rekindle the spirit of the longtime employees with projects such as “Maryland Vietnam War Stories.”
“Larry is a real mensch in the best sense of the word,” Feiken said. “MPT has been a really great place to work, and it’s never been better than it is now. Larry is a wonderful leader, and his door is always open. You can talk to him about anything, because he’s great at listening. He’s just made a real difference in the general feel and tone of the building.”
John Davis, who came to MPT in 1973 and is the host and senior executive producer of “MotorWeek,” now in its 36th season, said Unger has a knack for getting the most out of his employees.
“He came in with a very good idea of money, how it should be spent and how it should be conserved,” said Davis, who worked for a Wall Street investment firm before joining MPT. “He’s been on top of the numerous crises we’ve had in the state, during the recession, and he navigated us through that. Frankly, I can’t think of anybody else doing it better, and I think he’s doing it better than any of his processors could have, in my opinion.”
Because MPT only receives a combined $11 million from state and federal funding, Unger often meets with prospective donors for social lunches to solicit contributions. This is something he had not done much of in the past, but he has come to embrace that aspect of the job.
“I kid people by telling them, ‘You really don’t want to go to lunch with me, because I will ask you for money,’” Unger said with a laugh. “Most of the people who I’m making these asks of, they know why we are there.
“But I have found it very rewarding. I make the joke all the time now that it’s been a number of years, and no one has thrown anything at me at lunch yet. So I feel like I must be successful.”
Unger has also been pivotal in expanding MPT’s membership list to more than 65,000, meaning the station receives a monthly contribution from those people. In March 2015, the station set a new high in voluntary paid members that included 10,928 sustainers.
“We have a very, very loyal viewership, and Larry works extremely hard to make sure that particular group continues to grow,” said Howard Rosen, who has sat on the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission board for the last 10 years. “We measure those figures very close, and we think Larry has us in a great position for the foreseeable future.”
His relaxed demeanor is also something his employees relish because that, in turn, allows their creative juices to flow to the surfaces.
“Larry isn’t a micromanager, which is something I think the employees here can all appreciate,” said Jeff Salkin, who hosts businesses and political shows “Direct Connection,” “Your Money & Business” and “State Circle.” “It really is a family-like atmosphere around here, and I can’t stress how important that is to him and in his work.”
Outside of MPT, Unger has been an active participant in many Jewish community service initiatives around the Greater Baltimore area and is a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He was an advisory board member for the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, formerly Baltimore Hebrew University, which is housed at Towson University, and served on the Jewish National Fund board.
He and his wife Sherry have been married 48 years and have three children and five grandchildren. Sherry stressed Larry has always been driven.
“He’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known,” Sherry said, “and Larry has always been very goal-oriented. Every goal he’s ever set, he has always reached for as long as I’ve known him.”
She added that Larry takes great pride in attention to detail. Even after Larry comes home after a long day of work, Sherry said, one of the first things he will do is go to their bedroom and catch up on all of the MPT programs he prerecords on their DVR.
For his part, Unger is so consumed with everything he has going on in his life that he really hasn’t considered the thought of retirement.
“I haven’t given much thought to that,” Unger said. “I plan to be here for the foreseeable future and continue to see through all the new projects we have in the works. I’m very fortunate to have this job and will continue to do it to the best of my ability for as long as I can.”