2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"There are four things that advance your career: excellence, integrity, teamwork, and attitude."
Roger Ailes, the middle of three children in his family, was born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio. His father worked in factory maintenance and supplemented his income as a house painter. “My dad was a good guy,” says Roger. “He was an athlete in high school and he had a scholarship to college, but he couldn’t go because his mother was ill and his father had deserted the family. He went to work to support his mother, and then he got married and had three kids. He worked hard to keep us all going.”
When he was 10, Roger’s mother went to work as a cashier in a grocery store. That’s when Roger got a paper route. He also helped his father paint houses after school. Until he was in high school, all of Roger’s clothes were hand-me downs. “We were pretty poor,” he says. “Not too long ago I took my son to see where I grew up. The people who live in my old house let us in to look around. My son was surprised at how small it was, but I assured him I lived there comfortably with my whole family and it all worked out fine.”
In his early years, religion played a central role in Roger’s life. His grandfather belonged to a small evangelical church, and he took his grandson to prayer meetings on Wednesday nights and services every Sunday. After his grandfather died, Roger’s mother moved their family to a Presbyterian church because she wanted Roger to get involved in their youth program. “My mother was tough,” says Roger. “She always wanted me to do my best, which meant she could be demanding. But I learned goal setting from her and the importance of achievement.”
Roger enjoyed school, scouting, and the YMCA. He played sports and was an especially good swimmer. As a young teen, he worked as a camp counselor. He also enjoyed dramatics and starred in a few school plays. When he was 16, he went to work for the county highway department. On his first day, his supervisor told him to get down in a culvert and start jack hammering. Roger had never used a jack hammer before. His supervisor told him to hold the hammer against his stomach and pull the trigger. Roger did as he was told, but as soon as he pulled the trigger, the machine knocked him to the ground. “I was lying in the ditch with cuts and dirt all over me,” he recalls. “The whole crew had gathered around and they were laughing at me. I asked my supervisor why he did that to me and he looked down at me with cold eyes and said, ‘Boy, I ain’t your mother.’ From that day on, I never looked to anyone else to help me. Today when things get tough, I just look at the facts and figure out how to deal with them. It set a course for me that probably made me a good executive and manager.”
When it came to a career, Roger’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer. Shortly before Roger turned 18, his father sat him down to talk about his future. “He asked me if I was going into the service or if I wanted him to get me a job at the factory,” says Roger. “He made it clear that if I wanted to go to college, he wouldn’t be able to help me since he was trying to help my older brother become a doctor. He wanted me to make a decision about my life because as soon as I turned 18, I was going to be on my own.”
Roger’s three summers digging ditches and installing sewer pipes for the county highway department earned him enough money to pay his first year at Ohio State University. He also signed up for ROTC, thinking he might go into the Air Force. However, once he learned his poor eyesight would keep him from becoming a pilot, he dropped out of the program. That’s when he discovered that his school’s radio station paid for writers, producers, and performers. He auditioned and landed a job on a show called Radio Digest. During his junior and senior years he served as the school’s student station manager.
During his freshman year at Ohio University, Roger’s parents divorced. He says, “I left for school in August, and when I returned in November for fall break, the house was sold and all my things were gone. It was rough.” Roger’s mother moved to California and his father was living elsewhere. From that point on, he spent school vacations with his best friend’s family or his grandparents.
During college, Roger did play-by-play sports announcing. When he graduated from Ohio University in 1962, he sent out résumés and received an offer doing sports announcing for a radio station in Columbus. He was also offered a television production assistant job in Cleveland. Figuring television was the wave of the future, he accepted the Cleveland job. The station was just launching the Mike Douglas Show, a talk/entertainment production. Roger’s job was to write the cue cards, work with the props, and go on errands. He quickly proved his abilities and was promoted to booker, researcher, associate producer, director, producer, and then executive producer by the time he was 25. Under his guidance, the show ran in 182 cities nationally and became the biggest hit in daytime television. When asked about his early success, he says simply, “I found something I was good at.”
Roger Ailes met Richard Nixon when he was a guest on the Mike Douglas Show. Nixon was impressed with Roger’s ease with television, a media that was new to the presidential candidate. He hired Roger to work as his media consultant during his 1968 bid for the presidency, which was ultimately successful.
In 1969, at the age of 29, Roger founded Ailes Communications in New York, which he owned until 1992. During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Ailes produced a Broadway musical (Mother Earth), and served as executive producer for a television special shot in Africa, The Last Frontier, starring Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He received an Emmy for his work as executive producer and director of a television special, Television and the Presidency. That same year, he returned to political consultancy and advised Ronald Regan during his successful presidential bid. In 1988, he wrote a book with Jon Kraushar, You Are the Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators. Also in 1988, he helped to guide George H. W. Bush in a come-from-behind victory over Michael Dukakis.
By 1993, Roger Ailes had sold his communications company and was looking for a new challenge. He became president of NBC’s floundering cable channel CNBC. During his tenure, ratings tripled and profits increased from $9 million to more than $100 million.
In 1996, Mr. Ailes left NBC and Rupert Murdoch hired him to start Fox News Channel for News Corporation. He created FOX News Sunday, and then created and launched FOX News Channel, which became the fastest growing news network in the country. Today FOX News is available to 90 million households in the U.S. and more than 55 countries worldwide. Mr. Ailes became chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group in 2005.
When asked to what he attributes his success, Roger Ailes says, “I believe in God, country, and family. I am always looking forward. I don’t spend time looking back and wondering if I should have done something differently. I have simple values. I probably got my strong work ethic from my father. I also have a desire for excellence, which I probably got from my mother. I take my job seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously.”
Although he relies heavily on his instincts, Roger Ailes is quick to give credit for much of his television success to a mentor, Chet Collier, who passed away a few years ago. “Chet gave me my his first television job,” says Mr. Ailes, “and moved me ahead of
others to make me a producer on the Mike Douglas Show. When I took over at CNBC, I needed someone in the room who wasn’t afraid to tell me I was wrong. Chet Collier was that person. I hired him when he was 72. I am somewhat conservative, and Chet was a Kennedy liberal from Boston. We didn’t always agree politically, but he was a great broadcaster and he stayed with me until he got sick and had to move to Florida. Even then, he put a big TV at the end of his bed and yelled at me every night. I will always be grateful for his guidance.”
Roger Ailes also credits his father for sage advice. “My father always said, ‘It’s not a matter of live and let live, it’s live and help
live.’ I try to follow that as best I can.”
When Roger Ailes talks with young people joining Fox, he tells them there are four things they need to advance their careers. “First,” he says, “is excellence. If you don’t do an excellent job, don’t take it lightly. Figure out what you are doing wrong, and try to do better. Second is integrity. It’s more than not lying, cheating, or stealing. For true integrity, it’s important to not take credit for someone else’s work. It’s also important to not blame others when you screw up. Third is teamwork. Sometimes you have to lead teams, and sometimes you have to follow. It’s important to know when you have to do one or the other. Fourth is attitude. If you believe you are a victim, you will be a victim. The same is true if you believe you are going to win, you will win. Don’t give up mentally because eventually things work out.”
Recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders in 2005, Roger Ailes was awarded The Media Institute’s Freedom of Speech Award. In 2008, he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.
Mr. Ailes is a recipient of the Navy SEAL Patriot Award as well as the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Award for his contributions to military families. “I am committed to helping the families of military personnel killed in action,” he says. “I do the same for law enforcement officers who are killed in the line of duty. You have to reach out and give back. It’s just a part of being a Christian, a part of who I am.”