From Harlem to the halls of NBC Universal
With TV series like Underground, The Office, Out Source and The Cape to brag about, the Harlem native and world traveler – talks about Harlem salt, NBC Universal’s and fun at Londel’s. ,
Harlem World: What’s been the key to your success?
Paula Madison: I believe a lot of people have paved the way for me. I’ve been driven to prove what I can accomplish, and what I should accomplish. My family came from Jamaica with a dream like many other families and people. We understood that we are black, and we can’t let anything hold ourselves back – that we can do that we want to do. It’s always been our drive to do whatever we want to do, no one can stop us.
I was raised by my mother in Harlem, she had instilled in us this drive, and she took our family’s life from where it was to one level to another and then another. We didn’t call ourselves poor, but we were. We took advantage of scholarships, community centers, and we took advantage of whatever we could, we saw murders, drugs, but we also saw the positive – playing stick ball, playing hop scotch, swimming, etc.,. We lived in a “village,” where everyone knew each other. We came to New York to make a better life, making a better neighborhood, we had drug addicts who looked out for us, and it truly was a village.
HW: You and NBCU are on the Terrie Williams Agency roster, what does that mean?
PM: I’ve known Terrie Williams from back in my NY NBCU days, over 21 years. Our goal in working with Terrie was to talk about diversity, the diversity work we’re doing at NBC, and the work we have planned.
HW: Do you agree with what Steve Stoute has called the “mental complexion” (the same based on lifestyle not identity) or is it just marketing?
PM: NYC being the most diverse city in the nation, it’s hard not see diversity as an issue. For years as a kid in 60’s, we danced to salsa music, played with our Puerto Rican friends, and hung out with our Jewish neighbors. We were moving around experiencing this complex diversity and the complexion of the city. Everyone lived next to each other, on top of each other and experienced each other. It’s not the case today; today with the internet everyone is listening to everything everyone has access to everyone else’s music from all over the world. A few weeks ago we were in China, people were wearing Nike sneakers, eating McDonalds, etc., the people were Chinese but being American.
HW: Some things change and some things stay the same.
PM: That’s true, but some things should change. As the world changes it feels like it’s getting smaller. I want to change those very serious issues that separate us: religion, churches, those fears that separate us, and I hope that changes. When everyone respects each other, I would settle for a world where I can travel as quickly and as effortlessly as possible and have people accept me as I present myself. This positive approach should be ingrained in everyone, but we’re still learning about each other and the great mixture that we are. I was in Ghana, Africa and I’m seeing people that are Chinese, Americans from all over the world taking advantage of African resources, they recognize the importance of Africa’s natural resources. One day I hope that Africa can exploit its own resources. It’s great to find out that Africa is where Jamaicans call home, I was happy to find out that 90% of Jamaicans are from Ghana, it’s our home.
HW: Why has “diversity” been part of NBCU’s agenda (“Undercover” with Boris Kodjoe, “The Cape” with Harlem-man Keith David)?
PM: Well, with CEO Jeff Zucker (Mr. Zucker resigned from NBCU on 9/24/10. Miss Madison was asked for a response and she declined the offer), we’ve known each other since he worked at the NBCU’s Today Show. We worked well together, when he ascended to the job he has now, I had been in the company 18 years with successes inside the company working with NBCU news, and Telemundo. He was committed to diversity and making it a lynch pin of what he was doing. He knew my work and wanted me to help him make diversity part of what he’s doing with me leading the push. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to do, but I thought about it and realized that he was right, that I had a legacy that connected to make diversity alignment to what he had planned. The goal was to increase diversity in front and behind the camera with writers, producers, actors, etc., the payoff is that it increases the diverse casts, writers, directors and makes the benefits higher than they were before. In creating that success, we have premieres like Out Source, America’s Got Talent, and The Office. We started the Stand Up for Diversity search, where the winner wins a fellowship, an award for 2-3 directors, with a guarantee of shows they will direct. They’ll create all scripted shows, some late night shows, these are over 25 shows that are real jobs. Also, we have created Writers on the Verge where those selected are staffed on our shows – some participants don’t know they are part of a diversity program. We have the Diverse Writers Program, which started out as something for writers who had the time. It created more opportunities, for more writers which employed more of them in the industry. When Magic Johnson spoke during our Diversity Meeting a few months ago, he said “We have to have a return on diversity and you have to receive a return on investment,” and that’s what we are doing.
HW: Are you getting a Return on Investment with the diversity program?
PM: Well, we don’t take it for granted. You have shows with Kudjoe and Keith where they have received favorable ratings. Before Nick Canon was host, it was Jerry Springer; Nick is cool, young and black. People of color are the biggest diverse racial group, you can have an all black shows, and all white shows, but people are listening to everything and everyone – no matter what their color.
HW: Okay, I have to ask, Keith David is from Harlem, did you hook up a fellow Harlemite with “The Cape” role?
PM: No, No, not at all, I didn’t know him when we were casting (laughter). They would know I was looking out for my homie.
HW: What is the goal of the NBCU Corporate Diversity Council?
PM: We’re doing it to make sure we’re accomplishing our goal of diversity in the industry, speaking about the realities to understand, and connect with what the viewer is seeing. We try to make sure that our plans and goals are affecting and the numbers reflect our viewers. We have diverse candidates coming into NBC in executive roles as marketing, advertising, directing, producers, etc. Across the board, we have to make our leadership team make it happen and look at where diversity plays a part and needs to play a role.
HW; Mergers sometime get a bad name, how will the merger with GE, Comcast, and NBCU affect your work in Diversity?
PM: It’s an acquisition, operated as a joint venture; the diversity program will grow larger than it is now. We have created a good foundation as far as diversity goes. We are committed to diversity to make sure we create a company that is reflective of the country where we live and work. We want this to happen across the board from theme parks, TV, commercials and the opportunities for people to access our company content. Employees can bring themselves to the company, they bring their whole self, and in exchange for the best support from the company.
HW: Do you think in 50-100 years, they’ll look back at diversity training and say wow, it was so 21st Century, so 2010 or will the legacy of slavery always be with us?
PM: 50 years from now minorities will be the majority, and in 100 years, I heard that 1 in every 10 marriages will be mixed. So 50 years in the future it will be a more multicultural world and community. I’m black, but peel back a layer I’m Chinese, peel back another I’m something else. The world is changing. How many people live where they grew up? A lot folks don’t live in the city where they grew up, they are moving all around the country. The folks who are uncomfortable with multi-culturalism will not have a choice. Look at Tiger Woods, he said he did not know how to describe himself as African American, but then he would be excluding his mother who is Phillipino – I understand that, he’s was right. There are millions of people who are in that same situation, overtime more people will become more cultural and will share more. The election of our president (Obama) is a good example of this, he described himself Black and left it at that.
HW: What advice would you give to young readers regarding success?
PM: Be prepared to take advantage of opportunities, you have to be the best you can be, and don’t let anyone tear you down. Sometimes opportunities are not given, they have to be taken. Sometimes it’s about being bold, sometimes someone may not see you in that role (you want), but you see yourself in that role. In my case someone said I should work in TV I didn’t see it, but they saw it. The president of the news department went on vacation and he asked me to cover for him. While he was gone, my fellow employees said, “You have leadership skills, you should be president of the news department.” I didn’t realize it, I was busy enjoying the job, but I realized that I can make that happen. Next thing I know when the president left the station he recommended me for the position. You have to consistent, learn from your mistakes, be wise to go to the right people, and don’t say you got it when you don’t have it. Conduct and manage your career so people see you as a winner, they’ll want to be on our team. Never forget where you came from, don’t forget that you have to help by identifying talent, and grooming talent.
HW: Where are some of your favorite hang-outs in Harlem?
PM: I have an apartment near Central Park, so when I’m in town, I walk to Mobay, and Londel’s to check out the jazz combo with wine and champagne. When I was a kid, I liked hanging out on 145th Street and Amsterdam, walking around 110th and 119th between Lenox where I used to live. I loved Edgecombe Avenue area and riding my bike up to Van Courtland Park, we didn’t lock the door, we’d layout during the summer on July 4th watching the fire works lying on the salt (used during the winter snow), and we’d walk down to the Museum of Natural History or Wallman Skate Rink. Many times, I would look down from my office at 30 Rockefeller Center and think about my journey from Harlem to the halls of NBCU.