At River City and Sinclair, where he became chief executive after the merger, Baker is famous for orchestrating lavish and imaginative junkets for advertisers, taking them sailing and on trips to Hong Kong and Greece.
He and his second wife, Amy Bluestein Baker, a former NBC programming executive, host 200 media buyers, 50 at a time, at their ski home in Park City, Utah, every year.
"He is a Clinton-like personality, without the flaws," said Beverly Harms, Baker's first boss and now a senior vice president at Communications Equity Associates, an investment banking firm in Tampa, Fla., that backed River City. "When he walks into a room, he has to say hello to everyone."
Harms, who said Baker is like a son to her and described him as a dedicated husband and father to two children, added, "He's always looking for the next guy coming into the room--but never in a way that makes people feel slighted."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 26, 1999 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
USA Networks executive--A story in the March 21 Business section about the new president of USA Networks Inc., Barry Baker, misstated the start-up capital he used to form River City Broadcasting. Baker raised $5.5 million to start the company, which he sold in 1995 for $1.5 billion.
Baker had humble beginnings as the grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants and the son of a Bronx meat cutter and salesman. He ran his own music booking agency as a student at Syracuse University, and upon graduating in 1973 sold cable subscriptions door-to-door and then ran a radio station for Harms' media company in Syracuse, N.Y.
Harms said Baker's networking skills are a foundation of his success. She said she never expected to hear from him after he left in 1977 to manage radio start-ups in Houston and St. Louis, and was surprised when he called every few months, keeping in touch through her transition into investment banking and remaining in contact today.
Baker formed River City in 1989 with the purchase of KDNL-TV in St. Louis from Cox Broadcasting, though his first choice was another St. Louis station, owned by Koplar Communications. Harold Koplar had lured Baker to run his two stations in 1983 but died seven months later. Baker was fired by Koplar's mistrustful heirs in 1988 after trying to buy the St. Louis station, which he had tripled in value. Though lenders were down on broadcasting because of a looming recession and cable's promise of 500 channels, Baker and a partner scraped together the $5.5 billion to buy the Cox station and expanded River City over the next six years to 10 television and 24 radio stations.
River City was an early champion of a practice that allowed TV broadcasters to sidestep federal laws barring ownership of more than one station per market. Through local management agreements, River City radio and TV stations operated weaker rivals, enabling them to cut costs by centralizing news gathering, advertising sales and marketing.
Baker also found clever ways to increase revenue by persuading advertisers to draw money from other budgets, such as marketing. He was one of the first group owners to centralize marketing and program buying, cutting costs and debunking the conventional wisdom that what works in Omaha won't in Tampa.
If the centralized structure gave River City clout in negotiating programming deals with Hollywood, it gave Sinclair, a family-owned broadcaster, even more. Baker expanded the group from 14 TV stations to 64 TV and 54 radio stations with a reach into 26% of the nation's households.
Anyone launching a syndicated program requires clearances from Sinclair, whose willingness to use that leverage earned it a reputation in Hollywood as a bully. Sinclair created an uproar recently with demands for payments for carrying programs, spreading a practice previously restricted to New York and Los Angeles.
Said Baker: "Sinclair was a tough place before I got there and became tougher, with a smile, after I came."
Baker's charms have endeared him to many in Hollywood. "In the end, Barry makes deals work for everybody--and always finds ways to work with the people who helped him when he was a little guy without any clout," said Rick Jacobson, the syndication chief for Fox Television. "He's fun, charismatic and built his success on the strength of his personality. He's an irresistible force."