By Michael Harrison
LONGMEADOW, Mass. — One of the most compelling stories in the radio industry has been the personal and professional journey of New Jersey Broadcasters Association (NJBA) president Paul Rotella. He is thankfully on the mend after suffering a terrible health struggle with meningitis that took him to the brink of death.
Seeing Paul Rotella at this past Friday’s TALKERS 2022 bravely walking with the help of a cane and enthusiastically watching, absorbing, cheering and delighting in the comradery of the experience of being with his people was SO moving to me that I pulled together my sources, resources and data to pay tribute to him as quickly as possible – and that means TODAY.
You see, I consider Paul Rotella to be a spectacular human being, family man, broadcaster, attorney and spokesman not only for the broadcasting community of the Garden State – but a force of nature in spreading a prideful image of the State of New Jersey in general across America — not always an easy task.
Paul Rotella became president and the executive officer of the NJBA in September of 2008 and immediately walked into a financial crisis triggered by the stock market slowdown in October of that year.
My sources indicate the NJBA lost approximately $250,000 of the $400,000 it had in reserves almost overnight. Rotella also inherited missed employee payments to the NJBA pension account for two years, which required an immediate cash infusion of approximately $135,000 in the following 12 months.
Shortly after starting with the NJBA, the NAB lost its president and CEO and the broadcast industry was slightly adrift in a challenging time with the performance tax threat growing in Congress.
Rotella fought tooth-and-nail alongside fellow broadcasters across the country to forestall this destructive legislation.
Rotella became a familiar figure in Washington in the halls of Congress and the FCC as the NJBA played a crucial role over the past 14 years maintaining steadfastly vigilant in protecting against any performance royalty fees charged to broadcasters.
Rotella helped secure a new emergency alert system (EAS) for New Jersey as its legacy system was antiquated and prone to failure – which placed many New Jersey residents in unnecessary danger.
Working closely with the governor’s office, the legislature, state police and emergency response agencies, as well as the federal government, Rotella was instrumental in securing this vital emergency support system… this after many years of others failing to do so.
This proved an important step in aiding New Jersey in preparing for Super Storm Sandy and informing the state’s residents of the damage and remedial measures needed in the powerful storm’s aftermath.
Rotella has forged a positive, tremendous bipartisan relationship with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the FCC, which allowed him to gain access to the FCC chairman’s office as well as the commission and staff. As a result, to this day the state’s broadcasting community enjoys cordial relationships with this bipartisan leadership in the agency and Congress.
On top of all the fiscal challenges, shortly after Rotella took on the role of NJBA president and CEO, New Jersey’s state government entered its own fiscal crisis and all funding for the Public Education Programs (PEP), the primary source of funding for all state associations, dried up almost overnight.
This resulted in Rotella having to scramble for new funding for Public Education Program campaigns that would fit the criteria of the program and to help secure new cash infusions that would be crucial to help the organization survive.
The economic roller coaster never stopped for several years and then the only national PEP campaign – the Army National Guard – ceased to fund their program overnight because someone in Washington failed to renew the ongoing contract with the ad agency placing all PEP ads nationwide.
The NJBA, along with its sister state organization, lost this PEP program support until it finally secured new funding about three years ago. During this time, Rotella actually utilized his own personal resources, credit cards, and credit accounts to fund the NJBA – having personally infused over $100,000 into the organization himself as a loan for over two years.
Rotella met these substantial and unrelenting fiscal challenges, while still managing to very successfully fulfill one of his chief functions, which was to promote the broadcast industry in many ways through promotions and visits around the state to community leaders, service organizations and tremendously successful NJBA annual conferences, which have become well-known around the nation, highlighting New Jersey’s vibrant broadcasting industry.
Rotella attracted many celebrities and radio personalities from outside New Jersey to the conferences to visit with its membership and he reached out to several neighboring states who service New Jersey and featured a number of their disc jockeys and hosts the conferences. At one time it was commented that going to the NJBA conference had more broadcast leaders and former chairmen of the NAB than the NAB conference itself. Many attendees referred to Rotella’s conferences as “the NAB conference of the East.”
They also resumed doing a trade show in which new technologies and innovative broadcaster resources brought sponsorships into the NJBA, contributing to its financial growth and successes.
Rotella also recognized many industry executives with awards and recognition, giving NJBA members access to their cache, insight, experience and broadcast knowledge. He further reinvigorated a student division and provided scholarships for student broadcasters in the Garden State.
They also had special panels bringing sportscasters and sports celebrities to give exclusive training opportunities that allowed student broadcasters to meet and interact with the national and historic personalities.
NJBA membership always enjoyed their crystal awards program known as “The Best of the Best” where the NJBA would organize celebrity judges who were leading broadcasters across the nation to judge this annual contest.
Rotella enhanced the NJBA awards ceremony by creating a “Broadcaster of the Year” award, the initial and only recipient to date being Harry Hurley.
He established the NJBA Hall of Fame at the beginning of the second decade of the millennium as well as a NJBA “Chairman’s Circle” to recognized current and long-standing members of the industry making an impact in New Jersey and the nation, further heightening the presence of the NJBA.
Rotella’s marketing expertise and success in sales has generated substantial revenue for the organization and the NJBA is now debt free with close to a million dollars in savings and pending revenue to be generated in 2022.
Moreover, they have cut expenses substantially and Rotella’s move of their headquarters from Monroe to Point Pleasant has yielded a net savings of close to $30,000 a year over previous occupancy costs.
Everywhere Rotella would go, he promoted the broadcast industry and would not miss an opportunity to speak at local, state, and national stages to highlight the crucial services the industry provides.
This amazing individual has received several community service awards including the Partnership For a Drug Free New Jersey’s Angle of Hope Award and the Armed Forces Community Service Award, the Hometown Heroes Citizen of the Year Award, and he was the recipient of the Boy Scouts of America Distinguished Citizen of the Year.
Rotella’s lobbying efforts on several issues including radio interference challenges, regulations, regulatory fees, and other such burdensome legislation have been effective and recognized across the industry.
Rotella loves New Jersey and the radio industry and he tells TALKERS that he looks forward to continuing to serve the broadcast industry and its members in any way possible.
The following segment of this article is composed of Paul Rotella’s own words describing his health battle:
Part 2 in Paul Rotella’s own words:
I went into the hospital on September 30 of 2020 and came home on February 18 of 2021. I was in a coma for over two months and in a severely debilitated state for approximately three months.
As soon as I came home, I begin rehabilitation and physical therapy. I am still doing the same to this day however, I have been trying to do some work to keep active in the Association and keep current with industry news and trends. I do make some phone calls and occasionally meet with some people to help keep the Association solvent. This is been an ongoing struggle since I started work in 2008 with the Association. To this day, I am still not fully recovered and doing my best to get better every day. It’s not easy and there have been an amazing number of unfair challenges that I have been forced to endure, which are both unfortunate and very disquieting.
I remember playing golf at the Harry Hurley charity golf tournament in September 2020 and coming home after a wonderful trip. I was feeling ill at dinner and decided to go to bed. Apparently, I passed out while I was in my bedroom my wife found me on the floor and called the ambulance, which took me to the first of several hospitals in this ordeal.
I was in and out of consciousness with fever and ultimately fell into a deep coma sometime thereafter. After some time passed, I was ultimately diagnosed with a rare form of meningitis which completely debilitated me for several months. During that time the vegetation from the meningitis began to settle in the aortic valve in my heart requiring me to have life-saving aortic valve transplant emergency open heart surgery while still in a deep coma. Sadly, the doctors diagnosed my condition as terminal and indicated to my wife and children that they should prepare for my ultimate inevitable death and say goodbye. My parish priest was summoned and unfortunately he had COVID so he requested the Bishop’s office send the vicar down to perform the Catholic religious sacrament of the anointing of the sick, commonly known as last rites, to me because I was not expected to survive. During this time, COVID was raging and no visitors were allowed to see me except my wife for only 45 minutes a day. While she was there, she told the nurses and doctors that the cooling blanket that was placed on me to control my fever made my legs feel icy cold and she asked if this was normal on several occasions hoping to have a cooling blanket removed. We later found out the cooling blanket was supposed to be removed every couple of hours but unfortunately because of COVID, it stayed on my legs for several days which caused me to get acute frostbite on my left leg calf requiring the removal of much musculature and other tissue in my calf that was killed by the frostbite. Concomitantly, I started throwing embolic strokes perfusing throughout my body and as many as 36 emboli were seen on the MRI. I was in a very tenuous state and it was touch and go for many weeks. Literally every hour for a new and worse indications of my overall condition in mortality.
During this time, my family had to suffer with constant updates that often were heart rendering and difficult to hear. Many times, I was on the brink of death’s door, but God had other plans!
Sometime in the third month of my debilitating coma, I regained consciousness and fell in and out of a conscious state several times an hour for several days. When I woke up and couldn’t understand what was going on, I found out that the doctors wanted to amputate my left leg and my wife, thank God, stopped them just in the nick of time on of her 45-minute visits. She ordered that no one be allowed to touch me without her express written consent from there on out and was advised by the medical staff to get her husband out of that hospital before they killed him!
Because of the vegetation situation, the open heart surgery became an imperative medical procedure requiring me to find a doctor who would take a chance of operating on me because doctors don’t want to operate on someone who could die because it would affect their overall records and insurance coverage protocols. My son, Billy, who is who is himself now in his fourth year of medical school consulted with his colleagues and his now fiancé Jackie who knows of this remarkable thoracic surgeon in Philadelphia and after several conversations with her she agreed to accept my case and I was flown by helicopter in a life flight capacity, still unconscious, to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia for the emergency open heart procedure. This while I was still in a coma.
Over the process of regaining consciousness, I realized that I was in a supine flat position on the hospital beds for over three months and this caused atrophy of my musculature throughout my back and legs. I literally could not sit in a normal position for even a second without excruciating pain and bending my knee was unquestionably a torturous process to be avoided at all costs.
I was in acute rehab for a month in Philadelphia before being stable enough to be transferred to an intermediate facility where I learned how to sit up, walk, feed myself, and do basic human hygiene activities. Sadly, I did not have a shower for about four months and believe me it was not pleasant. When I woke up, I found out that I had tubes sticking out of every orifice of my body – literally every orifice! I had a nasal pharyngeal tube as well as a port for medical and medicine therapy just off of my sternum, a urinal catheter, as well as a special apparatus for solid waste – as well as a series of wires attached to my chest to monitor my heart and respiratory function – it was remarkable to see – and simply put, I was a mess.
Remarkably, because of the damage done in a series of six operations to clean up my calf muscle you could literally look through my leg and see my calf bones – the tibia and fibula – being exposed to the air and constantly needing dressing and therapeutic treatment. You can see through my muscles and look deep into the inside of my calf while the other side of the same calf required a tremendous number of rehabilitative surgeries and a fasciotomy to try to save the leg itself. Perhaps that was the most tenuous and distressing part of the rehabilitation process into the stay. I am extremely concerned and hyper-sensitive with the possibility of losing my leg because of the trauma impacted upon it from the debridement surgery caused by the frostbite. In addition, my legs suffered from a neuropathy that has caused me to feel a loss of sensation in many areas of the left leg to the point where I cannot feel anything on my lower leg until you reach the lower part of my left ankle. There is also a problem with my right leg that still remains in his uncomfortable and distressing.
After much painful therapy and excruciating rehabilitation I went from being lifted out of the bed with a Hoyer lift into a specialized wheelchair and downgraded to less intense wheelchair apparatus three times before I was ambulatory enough to use a walker in my therapy, ultimately progressing to the use of a cane upon which I am currently dependent.
The emotional and physical trauma to my body and mind was quite substantial and still takes time to understand and process. Unfortunately, during one of the intubations they hurt my vocal cords in some way requiring me to take several months of speech therapy lessons so that I could use my voice in a more normal sounding way.
I still go to PT regularly and have a rehab fitness regime weekly. Balance is still a problem and I’m constantly aware of the potential for a serious fall that could set me back months! It’s tough but it could always be worse and I thank God – and my family and friends – for their most ardent support and love!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Rotella has made remarkable progress and, as evidenced by his participation in the TALKERS 2022 event, has every intention of resuming his work on behalf of the NJBA and the broadcasting community in general. We support him and applaud him in that effort.