The president of Food Network is someone who grew up in the kitchen, has worked in countless restaurants across the country, and climbed up the company ladder with a killer boeuf bourguignon recipe, right? No, not necessarily. Not Brooke Bailey Johnson.
Food Network president since 2004, Johnson was named the head of all Food operations at Scripps Networks in 2010. The Medill alumna spoke to students and faculty during her Crain Lecture last Thursday, reminiscing about her experiences at Northwestern, recalling her first jobs, and ruminating on the future of the Food Network.
“I’m not a passionate home cook, but I’m certainly a much better cook than I used to be,” Johnson said. “You can’t be surrounded by all these people and not learn a thing or two.”
And Johnson has never missed an opportunity to learn something new. After receiving her master’s degree from Medill in 1974, the California native returned home and began hunting for a job (“Much to my shock, my parents were implying that they weren’t enjoying having me live there.”). After sending out dozens of resumes she was offered a job at an Arizona television station. But not the grand job in television producing she had been hoping for.
“To be a secretary…was sort of shameful. And to be a secretary in Tucson, Arizona? How low can you go?” Johnson said. “I told everyone that I was an administrative assistant because I thought it sounded better than secretary.”
Finding this job incredibly unfulfilling, Johnson began looking for extra things to do around the station and volunteering for jobs others would not do. She moved up in the ranks and eventually transferred to the ABC affiliate in Chicago.
From there, Johnson went on to New York City to launch a new morning program that would become what is today remembered as “Live with Regis and Kelly.” After six years, a freelancer of a head-hunting company approached her with a position for the burgeoning cable network, Arts and Entertainment, today known as A&E.
“A recurring theme of my career is luck. And drive,” Johnson said. “I think (they) are the two critical elements to a successful career.”
After becoming General Manager of A&E and helping create both the Biography and History Channels, Johnson felt her time at the company was through. But her career in television was not, and her career in food was just beginning.
After fulfilling obligations of a three year non-compete contract from A&E, Johnson was approached by both Scripps Networks, parent company to the Food Network, and National Geographic. Johnson chose Scripps, and subsequently became the General Manager and Head of Programming at Food Network. Johnson gladly took the reins of the network when the former president left only four months after Johnson began.
Johnson is proud of the fact that she has kept the same team members at the network as the day she started, because according to her “all the key components for success were already there.” Johnson and her teams plan to continue growing the name and brand of the Food Network.
Throughout Johnson’s jobs and during the entirety of her career, she has found success by following one important rule: “Always be nice to people, always take phone calls, always be willing to meet with people. You can never be so important or so time pressed that you shouldn’t do things like that.”