The Anchors’ Man
Richard Leibner ’59 put himself at the top of the industry when it comes
to finding TV talent. By Jeffrey Jones
Like many of us, Richard Leibner ’59 turns
on the news soon after waking up each morning. But unlike even the most avid
newshound, Leibner flips on three television sets in the bedroom of his New
York City apartment, where he keeps an early morning eye on some of the hundreds
of broadcast professionals whose jobs and salaries he’s negotiated.
Tapped for the second straight year as one of the “10 Most Powerful in
TV News” by Television Week magazine, Leibner, the head of the
high-powered New York talent agency N.S. Bienstock, lives and breathes TV news.
“When I started, local evening newscasts were a half hour and Cronkite
and Huntley-Brinkley were 15 minutes, in black and white,” Leibner recalls
of his nearly 40-year career. “I was in the right place at the right time
when the business began to explode.”
One of several guest speakers at Meliora Weekend last October, Leibner received
the Meliora Citation for Career Achievement, the University’s most prestigious
alumni award for professional excellence.
While Bienstock is not the only agency in the profession that represents TV
and radio anchors, correspondents, and producers, Leibner’s dominance
has made his name almost synonymous with the occupation.
His company’s clients include household names like Rather, Safer, O’Reilly,
and Zahn, newer stars like Aaron Brown and Chris Matthews, and newsies at local
stations around the country. The staff of 30 includes his wife and partner,
Carole Cooper, and his sons, Adam and Jonathan.
A master of persuasion, Leibner is known for his business acumen and drive.
But he’s also a person of singular charm. Although he makes and receives
up to 60 phone calls daily, he has a knack for making those on the other end
of the line feel like the most important person he’s spoken with all day.
As one writer put it: “Leibner with a phone is like Mantle with a bat,
Child with a spatula, Perlman with a bow.”
Being a broadcast agent is a vocation Leibner virtually created on his own a
few years after graduating from Rochester at the age of 20. Son of an accountant,
he took an auditing job and then served a hitch in the Army Reserve. When his
father’s health faltered, Leibner joined the small family firm.
One of his father’s associates was an insurance agent named Nat Bienstock,
whose clients included the now legendary CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid and
a handful of other broadcast journalists. On the side, Bienstock helped negotiate
their employment contracts.
When Bienstock took a medical leave, Leibner filled in. “And I became
a news junkie,” he recalls.
The Leibners eventually acquired Bienstock’s business, and Richard launched
himself as an agent.
In 1980, Leibner supercharged the industry and his own career when he slipped
his client Dan Rather into the anchor chair of the retiring Walter Cronkite
with a dazzling 10-year, $22 million contract. Leibner recalls the negotiation
with a poker player’s sangfroid: “You strategically played your
cards until the hand played out.”
Over the years, Leibner has seen the simon-pure luster of broadcast news fade.
“The success of 60 Minutes as a cash cow changed attitudes toward
news as something you do for prestige and public spirit,” says Leibner.
“Dick Salant (former president of CBS News) used to ask at the morning
meeting, ‘What does the public need to know?’ Now it’s become
more ‘What does the public want to know?’”
Leibner, who has endowed a scholarship that’s earmarked for students who
graduate from public high school in Brooklyn, says his Rochester years were
“an invaluable experience.”
Among the highlights was being a debater with the forensic society: “It
really taught me how to use my mouth.”
Is he thinking of retirement?
“No,” says Leibner, after pondering the idea for a millisecond.
“It’s too exciting, too much at the center of things.”
That’s clearly where he enjoys being.
In an occupation known for toughness and shrewdness, Leibner’s secret
weapon is his natural ebullience.
“Rich is one of the most energetic and enthusiastic people you will ever
encounter,” says Robert Witmer ’59, a senior partner at the Rochester
law firm of Nixon Peabody and chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees.
Witmer, who played basketball as a Yellowjacket, got to know Leibner as a cheerleader.
“He is wonderfully gregarious, a lot of fun to be around.”
Jeffrey Jones is a Rochester-based freelancer.