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Behind the Screens: Nancy Johnson Sets the Tone at KTUU

by Apr 1, 2024Magazine, Media & Arts

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business

Inside the master control room, Nancy Johnson watches monitors that flicker with the live feeds of Anchorage’s KTUU Channel 2 and KAUU Channel 5. As vice president of Gray Television and general manager of the local TV stations, Johnson prefers to sidestep the limelight and work behind the scenes. She has helped keep the NBC affiliate on the air since 1981, the year the former KENI-TV adopted its current call letters, making Johnson its longest employee—not to mention one of its most influential, even though she will rebuff this second descriptor.

“My successes aren’t my own,” she says, pointing to colleagues who assist with broadcast productions, news segments, and advertisement sales. Johnson classifies her efforts at KTUU as supporting and empowering others.

“I grew up on the East Coast. Work there was about who you knew and what you could get away with,” Johnson recalls. “Alaska wasn’t that way. Here, what mattered was your talents, how you’re contributing to the community.” This sense of belonging and feeling like she was making a difference motivated her to remain at KTUU.

Up from the Basement

What brought Johnson to this community was a graduation gift, according to Doris Tronstad, KTUU’s national sales manager and director of operations and HR. “When Nancy graduated from college, her present was a ticket to Alaska to visit family,” Tronstad recounts. “Like so many folks, once she got here, she never left—and we’re all better for it.” Tronstad has worked alongside Johnson for thirty-five years.

As for how Johnson ended up at KTUU, “I wanted to work for Al Bramstedt, Jr.,” she says, “so I went after a job.” Bramstedt, an Alaska Broadcasting Association Hall of Fame recipient, had a reputation for fairness, honesty, and good business. His father had owned the TV station since 1966 but sold it to an out-of-state owner in 1981. At that time, Johnson brought to the organization her degree in journalism and experience at two other media outlets, not to mention her integrity and resolve.

Johnson worked her way up from the station’s old home in the Fourth Avenue Theater basement to a role in leadership. “I started as a salesperson and moved to sales manager,” she shares. “Then they said, ‘We need a marketing director,’ so I said I’d do that.” Her lips turn up slightly while recalling her professional trajectory. “Soon we decided we needed to do more with programming, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do more,’ and tackled that next. It was fun. It still is.”

Sweet Touch

Johnson’s colleagues echo many of her fond memories, an overlap of significant moments that reinforces the tightknit community at KTUU.

“We had an employee survey a couple years back about things that would make their days happier, better, and easier,” says Tracy Sabo, KTUU’s director of news and content. “One was, ‘I need help with my afternoon sugar rush.’”

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Sabo laughs as she elaborates: “Nancy took that task on herself. Now she goes to Costco, gets us snacks, and fills up a table with them every day.” When Johnson is going to be away, she arranges for someone else to put the treats out. “These little acts speak to who Nancy is and how she cares,” Sabo says.

Replenishing the snack bin while saying good morning to her staff is one of Johnson’s first daily tasks as general manager. “I just want to connect with everyone,” Johnson explains. “Then, since I’m the interface with corporate, I look at things that are coming from them. I make sure all the bills get paid, contracts get signed, the business sort of things. I have one-on-ones with managers to talk about their departments. I work on the flow of communication between the teams, keeping everyone talking to one another and coordinating. That’s the core of my job.”

Nancy Johnson

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business

When asked what parts of her job she loves most, Johnson replies resoundingly: “The people.” She repeats for emphasis, “Absolutely the people. They’re the greatest joy… and greatest heartache.” She chuckles and her eyes sparkle.

Right People in the Right Room

Each month, Johnson convenes team members from KTUU’s departments to coordinate their efforts on strengthening their digital platforms, which includes anything beyond broadcast, such as streaming, podcasts, OnDemand, and all the other evolving ways people consume media.

“Nancy excels here,” says Tony Freije, KTUU’s general sales manager, precisely because Johnson knows when to step back. “She forms committees, starts them in a good direction, and moves aside.”

At the digital platform meetings, for example, “It’s an instance of her putting the right people in the right room and letting the magic happen,” Freije says. The meetings provide opportunities to hear from the newsies—Freije’s word for the TV station’s journalists—and find ways to monetize their projects and serve the community.

“A great example is ‘The Last Frontier Honor Flights,’” says Freije. “We were like, ‘Oh! That’s going to be cool!’ Can we find a sponsor to make the coverage better?” Sure enough, they did. The project was well done and well received. Freije says, “Good journalism and good entertainment—Nancy made that happen.”

Johnson would credit KTUU’s team, though. “I watched our ‘Honor Flights’ special three times and cried every time,” she says. “When we pull off a live broadcast or a big story, so much work has gone into it. I get goosebumps.”

The Public Interest

Since her first day at KTUU, Johnson has stayed on the business side of KTUU’s operations. All these years have solidified one of her principles: support services—like finance and marketing—help a free press succeed. “I believe so deeply in journalism and its importance to democracy,” Johnson says. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Here again, Johnson mentions community. “If you can do both sides well,” referring to support services and journalism, “while making a positive impact in your community, then you’ve got the best of both worlds.”

As a broadcaster using federally licensed airwaves, KTUU is obligated to serve the public interest, but it is also a for-profit business, and the general manager must balance both duties. “KTUU as a news organization and its employees have benefited from the smart programming decisions Nancy’s made,” Tronstad says. “As she works to balance making and spending money with providing news to our community, she’s always guided by her answer to the question: how will this help people?”

Johnson’s concept of community extends to the economy, nonprofits, athletes, and students. Her service on the boards of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and the Alaska Broadcasters Association has advanced those causes. Her involvement with the Alaska Run for Women, the Alaska Ski for Women, and the Kenai Run for Women has united others. Her efforts to generate sponsors for “Fund the Future” have provided thousands of dollars in scholarships to Alaska youth.

“One thing I’ve really celebrated is developing people,” Johnson says. “Like when I was a sales manager, there was this young woman I oversaw. She was ready and good at her job, so I moved to something new to let her grow.”

Switching Channels

More recently, Johnson assisted Victoria Taylor, a previous KTUU weekend anchor and producer, in her professional advancement. Johnson says, “News can wear on a person, and Victoria was trying to decide whether to make a switch.”

“I was looking to make a change,” recounts Taylor, “but I wasn’t entirely sure what that was.” She worried whether her skills in shooting, writing, and editing were transferable. When KTUU’s marketing director position opened, Taylor evaluated the opportunity. “I knew our branding, work, and team. I knew I could lean into the creativity, which felt like a good move for me. But I needed a push, one way or the other.” She decided to confide in Johnson, trusting her honesty to either dissuade or encourage her.

“Victoria is a wonderful and creative person, so I offered her the position.” Johnson’s eyes twinkle as she says, “She took it, and it tickles me.”

Taylor was, in a way, retracing Johnson’s path from journalism to sales and administration. “With Nancy’s experience having been our marketing director before and being able to bounce ideas off her and get guidance from her, well…,” Taylor pauses before saying, “Nancy got me where I am today. She recognized something in me when maybe I didn’t.”

Souls on Board

This approach applies to how Johnson treats all of KTUU’s employees, whom she calls “souls on board.” There are eighty-two of them working at the Northern Lights Media Center, the Anchorage outpost of Atlanta-based Gray Media. In 2020, the building absorbed eleven staffers when the KTVA newsroom dissolved, and KAUU Channel 5 (also known as KYES-TV) was brought under the same roof in 2016.

Being able to help each one of those souls feel valued, empowered, and connected cannot be an easy feat. However, to hear her colleagues tell it, Johnson succeeds.

“Nancy cares—truly, honestly,” says Yvette Morales, KTUU’s local and digital sales manager, adding, “I wish there was a better word for ‘cares’ to attribute to her.”

As an example, Morales cites Johnson’s management during the COVID-19 pandemic. “She mailed these packages to every employee. They had stickers, candy, some hand sanitizer—if I remember correctly—and even handwritten notes, saying things like, ‘Thank you so much, I appreciate you,’ and, ‘I know it’s a weird time.’ No one expected them. They just arrived one day and made us all so happy.”

Johnson also called every employee, just to check on them, Morales recalls. “She wanted our homes and families to be good and healthy—and us too,” she says. “It wasn’t an empty statement… Nancy wouldn’t give that.”

Others reiterate Johnson’s drive to “chase excellence,” which happens to be KTUU’s motto.

“Nancy does that. She leads by example every day,” says Sabo.

“Not only does Nancy lead by example,” Morales says, “she lifts people up.”

“Nancy has resilience. She finds the positive and cheers us on,” says Freije.

Nancy Johnson says she’s most proud of KTUU’s 2019 Regional Emmy Award for Overall Excellence.

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business

Connect the Community

Having achieved so much, why does Johnson stay at KTUU?

“The job is never done,” she says. “That’s why I stay. There are people to mentor, stories to share, challenges to overcome.”

Morales corroborates that assessment. “For her, it’s about our team. Nancy points to someone else and steps back,” Morales says, laughing while adding, “I call her our fearless leader.”

Her boss “hates it” when Morales uses that title, she admits, “But the reason I do is because it’s true. Nancy is our fearless leader.”

Indeed, Johnson overcame a fear of the spotlight by agreeing to be the subject of this article. By illuminating her long career and how she has supported her crew, she shares the glow by showing how they, in turn, support Alaska.

“The most important thing we do is connect with our community,” Johnson says. “I wish I could go door to door. I wish I could bring everyone together. We’re part of the same community. We’re all in this together.”

Alaska Business April 2024 cover
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April 2024

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