Don't think of William Dilday, the general manager of WLBT in Jackson, Miss., as a showcase man. Although he is one of the two black general managers of commercial television stations in the country, and his station is one of the few that are black-owned, he never accepted the public relations of that dubious honor, though the pressures are very much a part of the job.
"When I first started going to the NAB meetings and to regional affiliate meetings, I had a lot of the other management ask me things like, 'I have this problem with this black worker who doesn't do this or doesn't do that, what should I do?' And I would say, 'I don't know, call my community affairs director, she handles those things for me,'" says Dilday, a frown ebbing its way across his generous face at this past annoyance.
"After four or five times of that, they came to understand I was not there to handle equal-employment problems. Now when I go they say 'How's national, are your national sales holding up, is local bad, how did you do with so and so programming?'
"What I found out was, because I refused to deal with that EEO stuff which they weren't dealing with on a day-to-day basis, they started to talk to me as a general manager. Now I am a general manager who happens to be black in their eyes, instead of a black who is general manager."
If he has passed the oddity stage in that circle, Dilday remains a hero for the members of the National Black Media Coalition, a collective of blacks in broadcasting who are finishing up three days of meetings today. When he arrived at his panel, straight from the flight from Jackson, his leather shoulder bag draped over his ample, six-foot frame, he received some goodnatured ribbing from the other panelists, who called out, "Now the meeting can begin."
That homage is underscored by the success of the station, an NBC affiliate that is the leading station in the state, and its ownership, which this year, after a 15-year battle and a court and Federal Communications Commission order, passed to a majority-black group.
Yesterday the reality of being viewed as a general manager and as a black representative in an underrepresented field was illustrated. He used smoothly the language of the executive, but when one questioner said people should be trusted as people, not blacks and whites, he fairly shouted, "The white people out there don't accept you until you prove you can make them some money."
Reexamining this perception is a constant exercise. "Never will I forget the fact that I am black, but the truth of the matter is that 98 percent of the day when I am working, don't think black or white. I think television, ratings, cost per point and sales," says Dilday, who now has eight years' experience in Jackson. "But it does come into play on certain issues. I think I made a difference on programming, on some of our employment practices."
This week he refused to air the controversial "Beulah Land," citing racial tension in Jackson, a decision corporate NBC understood. But he ended up being picketed by blacks and whites who had acted in the film. A few years ago, it was his gut inclination about the unethical practices of a powerful state senator that led to the station's receiving a Peabody Award and also to the politician's indictment, conviction and ouster. His overall staff is now 40 percent black, up from 17, the management staff is about 45 percent black, and his newsroom staff is about 50-50, with a black male anchor at 6 p.m. and a white female at 10 p.m.
A native of the South End neighborhood of Boston, Dilday is the son of a father who was a Pullman porter and a maintenance man, and a mother who was a nurse's aide. His two brothers are lawyers. He went to Boston University's business school, worked for IBM for five years, and as personnel director for a local station for three years before a friend sent his resume to the Jackson station. "The opportunity to be the first black general manager in the country," says Dilday, when asked to name the factor that convinced him Jackson was adoptable. While Dilday had never been south of Washington, his wife and two daughters had never been south of Tarrytown, N.Y. "My one real trepidation about going to Jackson was: There's no professional baseball team, no football team, no jazz clubs. What am I going to do for entertainment?"
At that time the station was embroiled in an ownership dispute, stemming from a discrimination charge in 1964. Within six months, he fired the white male sales director, a move he says the local business community did not resent. Later, he was unsuccessfully sued for racial discrimination in a union contract dispute.
During his eight years, the station has remained the leader in ratings and revenues, but when he looks around, he is still virtually alone. Actually, Dilday and the Media Coalition feel that black presence in the broadcasting industry and the availability of showcase men is shrinking, not expanding.
"There's a backlash in America. One of the biggest declines is in black males," says Dilday. "Well, look at it, if I were a white man, I would hire a black female, I would get two."
And Dilday cites what he regards as the white male manger's "psychological fear" of the black male. "I haven't sensed that fear," he says, "but we must realize, I am the one person many times, the only black face at these conferences.
"There's not that much fear because," and here he smiles, "I can only take one job at a time."