There’s much to admire about Ron Duncan; we’ll begin with his candor.

Our Independent Strategic Thinker of the Year could have told us about how he and his partners literally built cable in Alaska from the ground up into the powerhouse known as GCI. Or how GCI recently bought a half-dozen local broadcast channels and subsequently provided Alaskans with their first taste of local content in HD. He might have mentioned the recent merging of GCI’s wireless unit with another local wireless entity so the two could realize economies of scale and better compete against AT&T, which is in Alaska presently, and Verizon, which is about to flip the switch there.

Any of those accomplishments would have nicely laid the foundation for Duncan’s profile. Instead he tells us a beauty, with himself as the punchline. Born and raised in ‘the lower 48,’ Duncan decided on a lark, between terms at Harvard Business School, to visit Alaska one summer “to see what it was all about and further postpone finding gainful employment.” While in Fairbanks, he noticed the North Pole “was a classic cable market, but there wasn’t a cable system.”

He returned to Boston determined to change that situation. While still a grad student, he and a few local Fairbanks businessmen applied for a franchise license and eventually brought cable to the city. Duncan eventually sold the system, in 1979, thinking he was done with cable. He headed downstate to Anchorage. His plans changed as he and his partners founded GCI. Years later GCI acquired the Fairbanks system that Duncan started—“for about 1,000 times the price I sold it for. If you were to look at the worst financial decisions of your life, selling Fairbanks cable system is probably number one,” he laughs.

More color—one of the first places Duncan lived when he came to North Pole, Alaska, was “downstairs in the Santa Claus house.”

But let’s get to why we’re honoring Duncan, now GCI’s Pres/CEO: the aforementioned acquisition of six broadcast channels, which began last November. Broadcast is a losing proposition, right? Duncan agrees, to a point. “The situation is a bit different for us,” he says. “The broadcast market up here is relatively small and had been relatively laidback, in almost lazy [mode] prior to our entry.” Many stations were “economically challenged… and most decided they could make their living on retransmission fees.”

Duncan spotted an opportunity. “We realized that if we owned some of them and used a common content-gathering structure to support local programming we could enhance the local experience and provide content that would be exclusive to cable.” GCI invested heavily in HD facilities and “very significantly” in studio and remote local production statewide. Much of what is now filmed is highlighted on GCI’s broadcast channels, but shown in full exclusively on GCI’s cable Channel 1, giving the system a competitive advantage over satellite. Sports is a significant share, including games of the Alaska Aces, who were ECHL champs this season, college and native events, like Iditarod and the Arctic Winter Games. While it has been less than one year since the stations were acquired, Duncan says “so far, so good.”

Fortunately he doesn’t restrict his sharp thinking to Alaska, where amateur pilot Duncan says “you can fly for hours without seeing people.” He’s active on a bevy of industry boards, including C-SPAN, NCTA and ACA. “He’s involved in every aspect of cable,” says ACA VP/Chief of Staff Rob Shema. “I really like strategic thinking, solving problems,” he says, so this Cablefax honor suits him. Still, considering he brought cable to the North Pole, where he lived once, we think Duncan  qualifies for a much higher honor: Santa’s Helper.
-Seth Arenstein

Fast Facts
GCI has 140K video subs, 110K local service lines and
130K cable modem subs, equating to 65% of high-speed
data and about 80% HD penetration statewide. It’s one of
Alaska’s largest employers, with 2K employees.

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