WCHL radio owner Barry Leffler leaving Chapel Hill for Texas

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Barry Leffler


— WCHL owner Barry Leffler says it was bittersweet to accept a new job in Texas, but the professional and personal opportunity was too great.

Leffler, 50, was hired recently as the new vice president of marketing and strategy for Tenet Healthcare Corp., based in Dallas. Since 2009, he has been the chief executive officer and managing partner of Chapel Hill radio station WCHL, broadcasting at the 1360 AM and 97.9 FM frequencies.

Tenet Healthcare, a Fortune 200 company, operates 77 hospitals nationwide, 176 outpatient centers and Conifer Health Solutions, a business health care subsidiary. The company’s 2013 revenues are expected to top $9 billion.

Both his current and future jobs are focused on how to best serve the community, he said. WCHL’s purpose is twofold: Help local businesses develop a marketing and growth plan, and tell the community’s stories, good and bad, he said.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for me to apply what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced, and apply that expertise now in a different area. I think the health care field is exciting, and it’s certainly going through a metamorphosis right now,” Leffler said. “As the population ages, health care is becoming even more important in people’s lives and the role technology is playing in the health care industry is exciting,” he said.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the news is great for Leffler but it’s a loss for the community.

“It’s hard to think about Barry and not think about his enormous contribution to our community through the radio station,” he said. “He’s had a hand in important issues that developed in the community ... in ways we didn’t think was possible.”

Leffler’s partner Jim Heavner said Leffler is “just a wonderful, remarkable man.” The station’s staff is also sad to see him go, but given Leffler’s professional background, Tenet Healthcare made him an offer that is “far, far greater than he could hope for here,” he said.

“It would be foolish for him not to go,” Leavner said.

He will buy out Leffler and become the station’s majority owner for a third time. Heavner also owns Vilcom Inc., the parent company of WCHL and Chapelboro.com. Former Vilcom employee Jan Bolick will lead the station until a permanent replacement is found.

“I did not want to decide what to do about a succession plan in a hurry or in private,” Heavner said.

Bolick, who came to Chapel Hill as a UNC freshman, is the founder and president of Business Class Inc., which provides businesses with leadership and team-building coaching and workshops. In her 18 years at the Village Companies, Bolick was a sales representative for the Village Advocate and general manager and executive vice president of University Directories.

Chapel Hill focus

Heavner started his career at WCHL in 1961, buying the station from founder and former Chapel Hill Mayor Roland “Sandy” McClamroch in the 1970s. In 1995, he sold it to Raleigh-based Curtis Media Group, which moved it to the WDNC studios in Durham and gave it a music-only format.

In 2002, Heavner brought the station and its focus back to Chapel Hill. Leffler said a massive ice storm that November showed how important local, real-time news coverage is in times of need.

“This community came together in a really difficult time all around WCHL. It was the glue that helped get the community through that very difficult time frame,” he said. “It was kind of fortuitous, because it really helped put CHL back on the map after Jim brought it back to town.”

In 2009, Leffler and other investors bought a minority stake from Heavner. He later bought a majority share and expanded the station’s reach with more local news time, the Chapelboro.com website in 2011 and an FM channel in 2012. WCHL also offers local sports coverage.

Chapelboro was updated this year and has grown from 25,000 visitors a month in 2011 to roughly 70,000 today. Leffler said the website was intended to be a digital town square.

“A place where people could come and gather and talk about not just the news of the day but all of the other things that are going on in people’s lives,” Leffler said.

The best move was building “an amazing team” that can keep going, he said.

“The same people are in place, the programming is going to continue, the steps we’ve laid out are still there, and we’ve got a great team of people who are ready to just run with it,” he said.

NBC veteran

Leffler started his news career at TV station WSVN in Miami and 14 years working at NBC. He moved to London and then New York, where he was NBC’s vice president for retail operations and consumer marketing. During that time, NBC’s revenues grew from $2 million to $17 million, and Leffler expanded the NBC Studio Tour and developed the NBC Experience Store and the company’s online retail site.

In 2005, he became general manager and president of TV station NBC-17 in Raleigh, leading one of the largest local expansions in the country.

Leffler has received numerous awards for his work, including eight Emmys, two NBC Golden Peacock Awards, and silver and gold Promax Medallions for outstanding promotional efforts.

In the community, Leffler has been an active supporter of many causes, serving last year as chairman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. He also is a board member with the N.C. Museum of Art and the UNC Health Care Community Advisory Board.

Leffler’s wife Donnabeth also had a long career with NBC; they met and married in Miami. She now works as a freelance communications strategist and writer, and is a Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation board member.

She will stay behind with their son until the school year ends. Leffler will spend weekends in town until they move, likely in June.

They didn’t expect to leave so soon but will stay in touch, he said.

“It really is bittersweet. We love living here,” he said. “I’ve gotten to live in some tremendous places, and we have loved living in Chapel Hill far, far better than all those other places. Some of the best friends we’ve ever made, we made here.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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