“Everyone has to learn new technologies.”
What got you started in radio? A lot of my friends at DePauw worked at the radio station, and I had an interest in it. It’s why I’m in this business. I discovered that a radio station can make a big difference in a community if you do the right thing, and it is where I decided what I wanted to do.
My first year I got to do the farm news, because I had a southern accent.
What got you into ownership? I was a Junior at DePauw, and it was like a light bulb went off. I decided that I wasn’t a very good DJ, so to be in the radio business I needed to be either an owner or manager. After 4 years in the air force, I ended up going back to graduate business school at Indiana University, and one of the courses was how to fill out an FCC application. I thought, well, you might as well make it a real one! And that’s how I filled out the application for the station in Hawesville, KY.
I went to work at Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago, and worked there 3 years while the application went through the process. When it finally got approved, I had committed to go run the radio station. I took a leave of absence from Leo Burnett for a couple of years, and when the 2 years were up, I had to either return to Chicago, or keep at it. I liked what we do, so I decided to stick with it. I never thought I was going to own or operate more than one or 2 stations, but it did turn out that way.
How did you choose your markets? I live in Nashville. I have a single engine Cherokee airplane. When I started, you could only own 7 FMs and 7 AMs. My comfortable flying range at the time was 300 miles. So I just drew a 300 mile circle around Nashville and said if it was within that 300 mile range, I’d be interested.
We started building stations in central Illinois in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As the opportunity came about to add stations, we used the idea that if there was something where we were and we could improve ourselves, we would do that.
As a result of that, in Decatur, IL, we have 4 FM stations and an HD that has 2 translators, so we have 6 formats in Decatur.
In Matoon, IL, we started with 1 station in 1989, and we now have 3 stations and a couple of translators there.
Then we bought in Effingham, IL, have done some upgrades & improvements, and we have a couple of translators there.
Same in Vandalia, IL; we have an AM and an FM with a translator.
Here in Nashville, we have 2-100,000 watt FMs, an AM and an HD translator. All of which we developed, you know. In the case of the big stations, they were suburban, and we improved their facilities and upgraded their power, and now 20 years later we’re competitive in Nashville.
In Lexington, it’s the same situation, we bought a station, upgraded it.
It’s been evolving, but we’ve stayed in the same area, the same kind of markets.
Are you still looking to expand? If we can improve where we are, we’re doing that. I wouldn’t say that we wouldn’t buy something, but we’re not looking to go to a different market. Right now we’re looking at translators. We just received a couple of translators from the FCC that we were applied for in 2003, so it’s been a long wait, but we have some more in the hopper, and each of those will improve our situation and maybe give us the opportunity to repeat an HD signal on the translator and maybe add a new format to the places we are.
The real trick is to be better at what we’re doing. We’ve got apps for some of our stations, and a company app called IGoRadio, which you can get on your iPhone or Droid, and you can listen to all of our stations from that app.
Our objective is to be a part of the digital dashboard. We want to be where people want us to be, and we want to be important to our local communities – however they get us.
What are the big changes you’ve seen? The big change in our industry right now is the technological change with digital and the internet, and all of the opportunities that that creates. From a regulatory standpoint, when I started as an owner there were only 4,000 radio stations in America and most were AMS. Now we have 13,000 stations, and the bulk of them that were added are FMs. There are a lot more facilities than there were 40 years ago. We’ve gone through the ownership changes that allow clusters in multiple markets.
In the end, we have about the same number of owners we had 40 years ago, it’s just that there are more radio stations.
How has the business changed? Marketers have more opportunities and more choices. Radio listenership has maintained at 92-93% of the population. Our challenge is to be wherever people want us to be, and to have our programming to be what people want to hear. They think of us as a commodity except in times of emergency, and we we’re in a competitive world. It’s always been competitive, but it’s different today.
Who have your radio heroes been? A lot of the older guys, Cary Simpson from Pennsylvania, Dean Sorenson, now from South Dakota, Dick Oppenheimer from TX. We’ve had an awfully large number of good leaders in our business in both small and large markets. It’s hard to name them all.
How has the people side of the business changed? Historically, larger market people moved around with their larger companies. Smaller market people wanted to move up, but those opportunities have changed.
Today, in small markets, you have people that want to be there. I don’t see our talent thinking about how to get to the next larger market; they like where they live. Our challenge as owners and managers is to make a desirable place to work, so our people can make a living that supports their families, that they can be proud of what they do and make a difference in their communities. Everyone has to learn to use new technologies.
How do you manage the technical side of the business? We’ve stuck with suppliers that were helpful to us, including Smarts Broadcast. We started with them in 1989, and we’ve been a customer ever since. Our transmitters come from a small company in New York, Energy-Onix, they’ve worked for us for years. Our supplier for most equipment is SCMS in South Carolina, and we’ve worked with them for 35 years. I’ve got 5 or 6 suppliers like that. We’ve had good relationships, and when we’ve had a problem, we’ve got help!
HD? We have 5 stations that have HD, 2 in Nashville, two in Owensboro and one in Decatur. In Decatur, the HD is also operating HD2 and HD3, each feeding a translator with different formats. Here in Nashville, one of the stations is using its HD2 as an originating format. The other is actually is taking one of our main signals, re-broadcasting it to a translator and expanding the coverage of that signal.
I think HD down the road will start to get mass in 5-8 years, and then we’ll be OK. Right now, we’re using the HD to feed translators.
So many complain that the HD receivers aren’t out there … why are you going HD now ? We’re using the HD signal to be the program origination for translators. We are monetizing that. In a couple of cases, like Owensboro, we’re not monetizing right now, but we could. We have so many signals in Owensboro, it’s just a matter of us growing the business and then we’ll be monetizing there, too. In Decatur, having 2 translators using HD2 and HD3, that gives us additional formats, and they are real radio stations. Our translator that we call Magic 98 is rebroadcasting the signal of WYDS-HD2. It’s an Urban Adult Contemporary format, and it’s getting an 8 share in the market. And it does revenue!
How are you using social media? Every creative way we can figure out how to do it. In Nashville, we’re interacting with listeners, with push and pull participation. We’ve got ads on the websites … so many people are doing so many things better than we are, we just have a lot to learn.
Streaming? We are streaming all but an AM at Tell City, IN and the original AM station at Hawesville, KY. They will be streaming, but not now.
Twitter? Facebook? Sure. We are using them in all of our markets.
How are you selling your websites? We combine our sales staff. We probably aren’t splitting the revuenue out as well as we could, but we’re adding revenue. The biggest thing is we have just about everything we possibly could have on our websites. Now we just need to do something with them.
You’re very involved in industry organizations. Why? As a licensee, it’s important to see where things are going , and if you can make a difference, you should. I get more out of it than I put in. I’ve had a chance to be involved in some of the decisions over the last 30 or 40 years. I’ve always decided to be a small company in smaller markets. Sometimes the good stuff from larger markets rolls down hill and helps us, and sometimes the bad stuff hurts us. I’m trying to keep the bad stuff away from us, as best I can.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I play tennis, and fly my little airplane. To be frank about it, I love what we do. This is not work, it’s an avocation. There are days that it’s work – that goes with the turf – but I like the industry work we do. I see my broadcast friends in meetings more often than I see my friends here in Nashville, it seems.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? We’ve got a good business. It’s not just getting into the radio business, it’s getting into the marketing and advertising business. In our small company, if we do all of the right things in the digital arena, on the internet, and we are a friend of local business people, then we’ve got a good business into the future. That’s a good career.
In our small towns, we make a very big difference, and we’re going to make a very big difference in the future as well. We hope that we’re going to be the most valued resource in that community, and in the end the only local media.
We’ve got a great business, and a great opportunity ahead of ourselves. The regulatory environment is something we all have to keep our eyes on, and that’s the reason to participate in the NAB, RAB and the state associations. We need to make friends with the people that regulate us, and help them understand what we do and why we’re important.
It’s just like when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, or when the bomber hit Boston, the cellphone service went down, but the radio and television services did not. It’s imperative that these smartphone devices have an FM receiver in them so that when we have these emergencies, the public has access to information.
Bud Walters and his Cromwell Group are longtime customers of Smarts. After using our Smartcaster for many years, Bud has converted to our new Skylla automation system.