It’s not often you come across someone, even in cable, who’s been with the same company almost his entire career. Then again, Gene Hager is not your average executive.
With retirement pending, Hager, president/GM of Antietam Cable, is in a fitting position not only to receive our Lifetime Achievement Award, but to look back over his career of 40-plus years.
An electrical engineering major who obtained a general radio and telephone license from the FCC while he was still in college, Hager came to Antietam soon after graduation. The system was run by Bob Zitter, who would go on to become HBO’s CTO and a Cable Hall of Famer. Hager started as a technician. "In those days, as a technician I did service calls to the home, and if there were trunk or distribution problems, we took care of those, too. We did it all," he says.
Eventually he moved up the ranks of the system that now serves 39,000 customers from its Hagerstown, Md., headquarters. When making programming deals in the mid-80s, Hager noticed "there was a lot of consolidation, and the smaller operators did not have the market power to get the rates the big guys were getting. I’d gotten the name of Mike Pandzik, president of the NCTC, and I called him and said I was trying to find someone to partner with so we could get our rates down. And that was how it all started," Hager says of his long relationship with the co-op.
As well as revolutionizing indie operator deal-making, Hager is known for other innovations. In the early ’80s, Antietam was one of the first systems in the area to roll out addressable technology and local advertising sales. More recently, it teamed with a local newspaper, also owned by Antietam parent Schurz Communications, to share content, including classifieds and news.
Though there have been offers over the years to jump to a bigger pond, Hager never seriously considered leaving Hagerstown. Why? "Our parent company has always allowed the local manager to make decisions locally," he says. "We don’t operate like one of the major MSOs, where a manager has a book of things he can do and can’t do."
Hager’s legacy? "When I first got into this business we had 12 channels. Period. Now we have all this HD, digital, a two-way plant, high-speed Internet, digital phone," he says. "The biggest thing I was able to do was bring the company from a one-way cable system to a fully functioning telecom company. That’s huge." Agreed.
1974: Starts as a technician at Antietam
1981: Becomes Antietam’s director of engineering and oversaw a system rebuild
1985: Becames president/GM
1998-present: Serves on the board of the Cable Telecommunications Assn. of MD, Delaware and DC/chairman from 2002-03 and 2005-06.
1993-1999: Serves on the board of NCTC; chairman 1995-1996