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Sarasota Magazine, March 1999, used with permission.


brainpower by Wayne Barcomb

Talking Heads

When publishing Hall-of-Framer George Allen retired to Sarasota, he
moved his famous Al-Media Executive Roundtable with him            .

If a bomb were to drop on Cafe L'Europe on certain days between 11:30 and 2 p.m., Sarasota's media world might never recover.

An overstatement? Maybe-but the fact remains that at least once and sometimes twice a month between October and June, the panel room of the St. Armands restaurant bristles with the energy generated by 36 past and present members of the media, enjoying lunch and conversation at the All-Media Executive Roundtable.

The brainchild of former publishing executive and current consultant to publishing management George Allen, the round-table has been lunching without interruption for 48 years. The unique gathering began informally in 1950 in New York when Allen, then with McCall's magazine, and two colleagues from other media companies decided to meet for lunch every month to talk shop.

Within a short time, the threesome had grown to 22 people from 22 different companies, representing magazine and book publishing, radio, newspapers, theater, movies-every conceivable form of media or communications.

Early in his career, Allen noticed that in every company he worked for, there were two or three people with what he called "peripheral vision," creative thinkers who could succeed in any role at any media company It was this kind of person who was invited to join the roundtable. The number of members was capped at 22, and the group soon had a long and eager waiting list.

For 18 years, the roundtable met in the wine room of a restaurant called Pierre's; then it moved to Giambelli's, where the group met for another 22 years. Allen was adamant about keeping out any interlopers who did not meet his requirements. Eligibility rules, then and now, require that members have been on payroll or on camera in any area of the media, and have had some executive responsibilities.

Unique, creative and unpretentious, the roundtable exactly mirrors its founder. George Allen is one of only a handful of communications executives whose experience spans nearly every medium-TV film, radio and print. In 1980, he was named Publisher of the Year, and was voted into the Hall of Fame of Magazine Publishing. Five years later, he was installed into the Hall of Fame of Publishing, along with Henry Luce, founder of Time, Inc., and Gardner Cowles, founder of Cowles Communication, which published such illustrious magazines as Look. Allen was the first to attain both Halls of Fame.

Over the years, he served as genera] manager of publishers of many major national magazines, among them McCalls, Better Homes and Garden, True, Road and Track and Woman's Day He served for 20 years as director of the Advertising Council, the premier national advertising organization. His most unique award, however, was the Silver Anvil (if the American Public Relations Society, which he won for creating the word "togetherness." Now, there's an award for a wordsmith!

Allen still exudes enthusiasm and good humor. It's easy to see why he's attracted to non-linear thinkers, since his own thoughts leap out in a torrential stream of consciousness that can be difficult to keep up with. He answers a question circuitously, sweeping from one topic to another, laughing as one thought reminds him of another, amusing but seemingly unrelated idea. Suddenly he's back on track with an incisive answer to the original question, now nearly forgotten by its poser

He confesses he got into publishing by "accident -I went to an interview I wasn't supposed to have." Fresh out of Harvard Business School, prowling around New York looking for a job, he was sent to the offices of 20th Century Fox, where he was told - they were looking for an MBA. His first interview was with the personnel director, who took a liking to him. After the interview, she said, "I shouldn't do this, but I'm going to send you to the general manager."

Halfway through that interview, Alien discovered why the personnel director had said she "shouldn't do this What are you doing here?" the general manager blurted out. '"You're not an engineer."

"Never said I was," Allen replied.

In fact, they were looking for an engineer with an MBA, but the general manager liked Allen so much he sent him on to the president, who promptly created a new position for him: assistant to the president. Allen was off and running.

He credits his success to his ability to spot creative people and then give them the freedom-and support- to realize their vision. "Hands-on delegation, I called it," he says. likewise, in recruiting for the roundtable, he always looked for clear thinkers with vision. He cared little for celebrity if it were not matched with the peripheral vision he so much admires.

In fact, the roundtable has hosted a fair number of celebrities, though Allen can't jog most of their names from his memory. (He's not big on names, he admits, especially those of so-called famous people.) Among those he recalls: TV's Barbara Walters, authors Arthur Hailey ("Airport") and James Michener. He doesn't remember, however, the name of one movie star who came as a guest of one of the members hut seemed to think the luncheon was being held in her honor. She appropriated George's seat at the head of the table and began holding court. Allen attempted to run the meeting, but she continued to grab center stage. Finally he managed to begin introducing the other guests, who, by custom, talked about themselves and their work, followed by questions from the others. After three or four such intrusions, the actress got up and flounced out.

The format of the roundtable has changed little from the early days. There are no dues, no officers, no bylaws and no stand-up speakers. Depending upon the backgrounds of the day's guests, discussion at a meeting might range from what's wrong with TV today and why to the launch of a new magazine to the impact of newspaper editorials. Two subjects remain taboo: politics and religion. If the discussion drifts into either of those areas, Allen shuts it off by declaring the speaker out of order. He tries to maintain a ratio of 60 percent members with current online operating experience, 20 percent second-career executives and 20 percent retired.

Allen and his roundtable moved too to Sarasota in 1989. Without skipping a beat, the roundtable has flourished in a town made to order for this kind of activity. The maximum number that can be accommodated has been raised to 36 (now 42), and there is always a waiting list. The roundtable has more than 300 members, and about 200 are active, meaning they attend on a fairly regular basis. Guests have come from all over the United States and many parts of the world. Allen is proud that people from as tar away as Alaska and Europe have first fallen in love with Sarasota at a roundtable luncheon and eventually decided to move here. One prominent journalist drives from Miami early in the morning of each luncheon day and return> home that afternoon. In his zeal to reach the meeting on time, he's received three speeding tickets on the last leg of his journey; a two-lane road.

Among those seated at the Sarasota roundtable have been Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News he regaled the crowd with stories of the colorful Edward R. Murrow, whom he had produced a newscast about;: Paul Duke. host or "Washington Week in Review"; Walter Mattson, president of the New York Times Company; Bess Meyerson, former Miss America and New York City Commissioner of Consumer Affairs; and Jack Perkins, host of A&E's "Biography" television show, to name just a few.

Despite Allen's strict criteria for membership, he reserves the right to occasionally make an exception and invite someone he considers a communicator. One such example Is the outspoken Marj Baldwin.

If anything, Allen's excitement about his field is rising. He points out how rapidly and completely~ all media are changing and believes that people in the field today have become provocateurs more than reporters. It's a trend he discusses with depth and passion and one that no doubt will be the lively topic of debate at an upcoming session of his All-Media Executive Roundtable.