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TV Review: Long Distance Warrior

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Long Distance Warrior | The Bill McGowan Story

Long Distance Warrior is a new documentary about Bill McGowan, a man who grew the telecommunications company MCI from a small operation to a global giant with more than 30,000 employees. In the process he paved the way for modern communications, including free long distance phone calls, email, and the Internet. It is one man’s story of triumph over adversity, and a modern day retelling of David and Goliath.

The documentary starts with a short history lesson on Microwave Communications Inc., better known as MCI, which began with meager roots in Illinois. MCI founder, Jack Goeken, imagined a system of microwave towers between Chicago and St. Louis, extending the range of radio signals between truckers and giving local businesses a cheaper alternative to long distance phone calls. But, when its progress was stymied for years by AT&T and the FCC, MCI reached out to touch someone for help, and that person was Bill McGowan.

McGowan, a Harvard Business School graduate, became the model for the modern day CEO. He was a more gentle warrior, and a boss who is in tune with the needs and desires of those in his employ. He had a magnetic personality, a strong work ethic, and the confidence to take on the biggest telecommunications monopoly in the world, AT&T. In doing so, McGowan facilitated the landmark anti-monopoly case U.S. v. AT&T, which ended in the breakup of the media giant in 1984, and paved the way for MCI to offer cheaper long distance phone calls.

The documentary continues with a mix of personal biography and MCI history, interspersing archive footage and current day interviews from McGowan’s family, friends, and associates. The project creators include Sarah Holt, an Emmy Award-winning television producer and editor who worked on several similar segments for public television, including NOVA and The American Experience; and Bestor Cram, who brings more than 25 years of experience as a director and cinematographer. In their able hands, Long Distance Warrior moves along at a good pace, from its very compelling first minutes to the closing credits.

Long Distance Warrior is, at its heart, the story of the most successful CEO you’ve never heard of, and it’s nothing short of remarkable. Thought provoking and empowering, Long Distance Warrior reminds us that one person, armed with enough determination and perseverance, can make a difference in our world, even when up against seemingly insurmountable odds and fighting against giants who want only to keep us down. And, when considering AT&T’s recent purchase of T-Mobile and its continuing re-consolidation of market share in the telecommunications industry, the documentary is both a history lesson, and a cautionary tale.

The program ends with this prophetic quote from McGowan, delivered more than 20 years ago, well before the proliferation of either the internet or digital cell phones: “Information is power…and it is being put into electronic form so it’s going to be available to everyone in the form they want. This is the new world… It will have a dramatic effect on my company, on all business, and eventually the way we live.”

Long Distance Warrior is an entertaining program, and I suspect by watching it you will come away with the same feeling I had-that if Bob McGowan were alive today, he would be standing at the forefront of technology, opening the door to an increasingly digital world, and inviting us all in for dinner.

Long Distance Warrior airs on public television stations nationwide in September, and on PBS World September 13, 2011.

You can also view the Long Distance Warrior trailer at WTTW.com.

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About Craig Grella

Founder and executive director OrgSpring.com, a nonprofit dedicated to helping other nonprofits achieve their missions online.
  • Debbie Appler

    Thank you for presenting such a great tribute to Bill McGowan. You did an excellent job of capturing him and the company we were raised in.

    Debbie Appler

  • Thanks for the kind words Debbie. It must have been very exciting working with him and for MCI during that time.