Ken Sutherland: I’m A Radio Guy

First Radio Job: Disk jockey, newsman and obituary writer at KOHQ/Hermiston, OR

Current Job: President & CEO of Ruby Radio Corporation

Elko, NV:

KHIX, 96.7, Hot AC

KZBI, 94.5, News Talk

KBGZ, 103.9 HD, Big Country

+ HD & a translator, 107.7, Z107, 70s/80s Gold

+ HD & a translator, 101.1, Coyote FM

Winnemucca, NV:

KHYX, Mix 102.7, Hot AC, 2 hours away from Elko

Your school? Career Academy in San Francisco for broadcast training, and then San Jose State for a business degree

Typical work day? 7a – 7p. It’s work intensive. It’s a lot of hard work to run radio stations, especially in a small market. My wife Alene does about ten times the work I do, and she’s the business manager. She runs the joint, tells me what to do, and I do it.

Sounds like a good marriage. We have a very good collaboration. We’ve been married for 44 years.

What are you reading? I escape into fiction. Mysteries, science fiction. A Dean Koontz and a Lawrence Block were 2 of my last books.

Best vacation you ever had? I don’t recall a best vacation. We don’t really do vacations; haven’t had one in 11 years … wait. Our daughter got married 10 years ago, and we went to that.

Do you work 7 days a week? We’re generally 7-day a week workers. We’ll take a weekend occasionally and go to Reno. When our daughter lived in San Diego, we went there, but now she’s in Tahoe. San Diego may have been closer because of the flight. It takes 6 hours to get to Tahoe.

Favorite restaurant: The one I haven’t been in yet. My favorite is the next one.

Favorite beverage: Good Earth Iced Tea

Website: www.rubyradio.fm

Contact Info: (775) 777-1196, ken@rubyradio.fm

“…and then I quit radio forever for the first time.”

What got you started in radio? The disk jockeys when I was a kid. I grew up in the bay area with the San Francisco jocks. Chris Borden, Buck Herring, Gary Owens, The Real Don Steele. Lots of others.

After high school, I was in the army as a medic. I met a guy that ran our local Armed Forces radio station in Korea. I was fascinated with it. One day, they let me play some records in the studio, off-air. I was hooked at that moment. When I realized that they would actually let me put a record down, put a needle on it and talk over it, I had to do it.

Ken SutherlandAfter the army, I went to broadcast school and then I sent tapes out everywhere. I got a job in Hermiston, OR. Then there was a guy down the road in The Dalles who hired me. I actually got hired because he heard me on the air. It was my first job change, and I thought that was how it happened every time, but I’ve never heard of it happening again.

Then I went to Salinas/Monterrey, then I was out of work, and I sent tapes out to everybody. I got a job in Tulsa to work overnights. That was really a fortuitous thing. That’s where I was able to pull it together, learn how to really be a disk jockey, learned programming, and formatics. Tulsa is where I figured everything out. I was there a couple of years, and then went to San Antonio, and then back to Portland, KROY in Sacramento, and then I quit radio forever for the first time.

I went to San Jose State to get a degree in business administration & marketing. Three weeks after I had quit radio forever, I was doing weekends at KSJO/San Jose. I stayed at KSJO for a good long time; they let me finish college at their place. I went into sales there; it was an incredible radio station. That was doing album rock in the late 70s; you just couldn’t do better.

Small Market StoriesI went to KMEL/San Francisco as a salesman. Then I decided I wanted to be a manager, and started the circuit again. I went to Sacramento, Santa Rosa and Fresno as a Sales Manager, and then got my first GM job in Reno. That was a home run; it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Then they transferred me to Las Vegas, and that was hell. I didn’t care for Las Vegas, and still don’t like it much.

Then I went to a company called Unistar, which in a few weeks became Westwood One. I was there for 5 years doing affiliate sales, and then a couple of years at UPI and then Jones.

Why did you switch to affiliate relations? From the minute I walked into my first job as a GM, I decided I was going to own radio stations. For the next 15 years, I asked everybody I met to buy me one. But no one would!

I took the job at Unistar, even though it was less money, because I knew I would meet owners and managers … people who might afford me the opportunity to either learn how to do this, or to put me into a position where I could do it. Eventually it happened. It took 10 years, but a guy called and bought some programming from me, and said, “You don’t know where I can get rid of this construction permit in Elko, do you?”

That was Dale Ganske, who’s still a good friend, who trusted us enough to carry the paper on the radio station. That’s where we started.

Ruby RadioWe built each of the 3 stations in Elko, and I had a fill-in translator. I won a second translator literally in a coin toss. Last Monday, we signed on our new station in Winnemucca. Every single one of our stations has been a start-up. We don’t do anything easy!

What do you do? I do programming & sales. I’m never on-air myself. I had to give that up. When I reached the age of social security, I got off the air. Well, I interfere with programming. We have a programming consultant that does a lot of the PD work, and the jocks split up the rest, and we get everything done that way without having to have a meeting.

Our News Talk has satellite programming with a live block in the mornings.

The other stations are all live in the morning and voice tracked throughout the day. For example, the morning Jock on Mix 96.7 is live, then he voice tracks the afternoon on Big Country. It’s just like that on down the line, with everyone on two stations

Do you do direct selling? I take the role of Sales Manager. I do national with our rep firm. I handle regional business and agencies outside of the market. I want my local reps to be local. I need another one if you know one!

Who have your radio heroes been?  Two people were super heroes for me. They inspired me even though they were polar opposites: Tom Donahue and Bill Drake. Tom invented album radio; he was my hero when he was a Top 40 jock on KYA, when he worked for Bill Drake, who was the PD of that station. Everybody knows that story, but both of those guys went on to do incredible things in programming in very different ways, both appealing to the same generation. They’re both super heroes in radio.

How did you become a part of Elko when you moved in? Well for the first 5 years we were in town, they referred to us as carpetbaggers. We were not from here. That was a real tough nut to crack. We had to build audience to do it. We had to serve the community probably more than our competitors did who were from here.

We had to make a very strong effort. Now we do all kinds of things routinely that I wish we would have thought of then.

Every morning, we do what’s called a 3 minute interview. Somebody who has something going on in the community – it could be an event going on at the library or museum, or whatever festival is happening that week – they come in and do a 3 minute live interview at Mix 96.7. Then we shuttle them down the hall and do the same interview on Big Country, and then we shuttle them over to Coyote and then it’s down the hall to KZBI and they do it again. In the space of 30 minutes, they’ve reached 95% of the people who live in the community. It’s a neat trick, and it ingratiates us to the community. When we do something, everybody knows about it. It helps us all feel pretty good about Elko.

Events? We have 3 we produce ourselves. Because of my wife Alene – who spent 40 years in the health care industry – we do a health & fitness fair. I figured we would pass out some band-aids, take a few blood pressures, make a few bucks and move on. She has turned this into a major event; we just did our 11th annual in March that drew 2,500+. It’s a huge event. We have the air-evac ambulance there, the helicopter. We have all kinds of stuff. It’s all money that doesn’t normally flow to radio stations. It’s doctors and dentists and guys that sell prune juice milk shakes. All kinds of stuff; it’s really pretty cool. We’ve been so successful with that we’ve never had a bad first quarter.

The MixWe decided to clone that, and do a similar event with a different theme in August. We’re in the middle of the great outdoors … sort of like saying we’re in the middle of nowhere. We decided to do a hunting expo, but not limit it to just hunters. It’s the Elko Outdoor Expo and we take over the entire convention center. We’re getting ready to do our 3rd annual. It’s got guys selling guns, antlers, telescopes, backpacks … anything to do with the outdoors, and they are there.

And then we do Safe Streets for Halloween. It’s sort of like Trick or Treat Street, but we do it with the theme of keeping your kids safe. We had 6,000 people last year on our 2nd annual. I think it’s going to grow this year, and I’m going to run out of chocolate! Our advertisers pass out the candy … they buy packages with a handful of ads. It’s a real community event. It’s got a glow. Listeners thank us for keeping their kids safe.

How many sellers? Three sellers plus me. Alene does some selling, too, but it’s mostly for the events. We are looking for a Sales Manager so I don’t have to do that and can just go build the empire.

How does recruiting work in Elko? Moving here is hard, because there’s a housing shortage in Elko. In Winnemucca, it’s even worse. I can’t find an apartment for me … 5,000 guys there are living in a mining camp. Unless somebody comes in with a shell on their back, it will be hard to find a place for them to live.

The Home Of Ruby RadioWhen I was coming up in the early 70s, I remember walking through the lobby of my radio station, and there were 3 or 4 guys coming in with 5” reels in their hand. Everybody wanted into radio; everybody wanted my job … and some of them got it. You can’t find that now. I’ve got a utility jock position open now, it’s full-time, it pays descent money, and I can’t find anybody to fill it.

People have to work their way in. We’ve had 4 broadcast school graduates that just didn’t make it. No work ethic. One guy blew off 2 shifts in a row. I talked to him … and he missed the next 2 as well. I fired him, and he was the star of his class.

We hired a local woman to do traffic, 4 hours a day, part-time at the front desk. She’s a young woman, a single mom. She asks if she can please learn how to voice track. I had nothing to lose, so I put her on 6 – midnight on Mix, where I don’t have a jock anyway. I told her not to say anything, just play the music. We brought her in one word at a time, basically. She learned so quickly, and was so good, 3 months later she was doing mornings on Big Country. Her real love was Mix, and when the morning guy there had to quit, we moved her there. She’s been on air now for 7 months, and she’s a star. Now she’s live in the mornings on Mix, voice tracking mornings for Winnemucca and afternoons on Big Country. It’s not because I’m a slave driver, she wants it, and we pay her extra for the extra work. (It’s not like all of those guys that I worked for!)

What are you doing on the tech side? We have an engineer, Larry Wilson, that I met at Unistar. He flies in and stays here about 2 weeks/month. He keeps a lid on everything.

HD? I don’t have any idea if anybody is listening to our HD signals, and I don’t really care. We only did it because we already had a translator that was designated a fill-in translator. I had a guy offer to buy it, so I needed to figure out what to do with it.

I called Erik Swanson at Hatfield & Dawson and asked, “What happens if I put a 250 watt translator on an 8,000’ mountain that’s right over Elko?” He said, “You would have the equivalent of a 25,000 watt.” That’s pretty good, like a C3 FM; I’ve worked for full stations that didn’t have that.

Streaming? I will soon, I think, because I see the technology moving in that direction. Right now, though, I don’t see any margin for us to do that. I don’t see any way to connect revenue to the stream.

Website? All of our stations have sites, but the one that makes money is RubyWantAds.com. It’s a classified advertising site. In a community with 50,000 in the county, we get 83,000 visits a month. We sell that.

Station websites, do you do sports and news there? Not yet. I plan to, but I’m not there yet.

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? Our music stations all use Facebook; our jocks all post on Facebook.

Local sports? We’re on a network to get the scores, but that’s it. We tried to do play by play one year, but we couldn’t make it work. When you’re in Elko, away games might be 200 or 300 miles away. There just wasn’t a way to get a clean signal back here for broadcast. Cellphones just don’t sound good enough.

What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I’m addicted. I read every night, but I can’t work on things other than radio. I don’t play golf, I’m not a sports guy. I’m a radio guy. If you leave me alone for too long, I’ll come up with an idea that’ll cost us money. That’s a quote from my wife.

What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? If you want to be successful, you have to work really hard at this. That scares most young people away.

My favorite quote is from Jay Thomas: “I like being a disk jockey. It’s not hard work. You don’t have to lift anything and you don’t have to push anything.” All of us could have ended up in a warehouse somewhere, driving a fork lift and pushing a cart, but we get to talk for a living.

About Henry Mowry

Henry grew up listening to the World's Happiest Broadcasters on WHB/Kansas City. He found his way to Los Angeles, where he did radio promotions for Six Flags Magic Mountain. From there, he had a 22-year run with Radio & Records, doing everything from national radio buys to regional night club promotions to eventually becoming Director of Sales for R&R. After a couple of years working with Radio-Info.com, he became Director of Marketing for Smarts Broadcast Systems.
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