Craig Eckert: Why Don’t You Buy It?

First Radio Job: I was the morning guy at “Kicks in the Sticks on East Highway Six” in Hastings, NE. It’s one of the stations we now own. Roger Gelder was my PD and followed me on-air in the afternoons.

Current Job: Part owner, Vice President & General Manager of Platte River Radio, which owns  5 stations here in central Nebraska:

Hastings, NE

KHAS-AM

KICS-AM

KLIQ-FM

Kearney, NE

KKPR-FM

KXPN-AM

Your school? Brown Institute

Typical work day: The stations are just under an hour’s drive apart. My wife and I live in Kearney. On my Kearney days I come in and get something updated on the website or Facebook. I go through email. I do production … I still do that, I still write copy. I still have some local direct clients. It’s your typical mash-up of anything that might arise. I kid people that know me, “I got in to this business to say “Hey, it’s 6:12 and here’s the Beatles.” Now I’m dealing with the implications of Obamacare and I wonder what happened.

When I go Hastings, 2 or 3 days a week, I deal with the same kinds of things. Technology makes the situation way better that it has been. I put a lot of mileage on the cars and trucks.

What are you reading? I always read a couple of books at a time. I read a lot of music industry books, like biographies of the Wrecking Crew, Keith Richards, Clapton and things like that.  As far as more realistic, I’m currently reading a book written by a Times magazine journalist that spent a cruise on the USS Nebraska nuclear submarine. It’s called Big Red.  It’s the 6th largest nuclear power on earth. It has 24 nuclear missiles with 5 or 6 warheads on each. It’s interesting to me because you realize, even in the military where you think it’s “Yes, sir!” and “No, sir!” and no questions asked … when you’re on a nuclear submarine, it’s no place to have a bad attitude. It’s interesting to read how the officers relate to the chiefs, who most people will tell you really do run the navy, and then how the chiefs relate to the enlisted men.

Prior to that, I read Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography. When you think about all of the management tools and skill sets he needed to make his way through the US military and to get to the position he was in, I find it fascinating. And then, when he was in the Middle East, he had to garner favor not only from his own generals and colonels, but he had to bring along the allies as well.

The fiction I’m reading now is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s the 2nd one I’ve read; Stephen King did one about a time traveler going back to try and stop the assassination, and now I’m reading one by Stephen Hunter: Third Bullet. It’s really out there, but when Kennedy was assassinated, I was at a time in my life when I was just coming to realize how the world worked, and it affected me, and a lot of baby boomers, a lot. I keep coming back for more.

Best vacation you ever had: We did a road trip around Wyoming. We kind of followed our noses. It’s a magnificent state with so many wonderful features, from the thermals, to the Gran d Tetons, Old Faithful … I’m not a good traveler, especially now with all of the airport hassles. We’re empty nesters. We take off on road trips. A couple of years ago we went down to Table Rock Lake, and just kicked back and unplugged.

We had one vacation where one of the transmitters blew up, and I was on the phone every other hour trying to find viable alternatives. I was talking to a vendor or an engineer constantly … those kind come more frequently than those where you can turn it all off and shut down the jets.

Favorite restaurant: San Pedro Mexican Restaurant, Kearney, NE

Favorite beverage:  Beer. We’ve got a micro-brewery in town that I really like, especially in the winter time. Thunderhead Brewing is getting some regional distribution now.

Website:  www.platteriverradio.com

Contact Info: generalmanager@kppr.com, (308) 236-9900

“…all I had was cotton mouth and sweaty palms…”

What got you started in radio? I was born and raised in St Paul, MN. I enrolled at the University of Minnesota for about a semester plus. All the way through high school, I was all about print media. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and loved writing.

I went to an orientation at the University thinking that I would join the MN daily newspaper staff. I toured the Coffman Memorial Union, and found this little bitty carrier current radio station, and I just fell in love with it.

Eckert, CraigI had visited radio stations, doing articles about local twin cities disk jockeys. I remember going to WDGY when I was a senior in high school and doing profiles of Jimmy Reed and the late Larry Rivers.  So, I’d been around radio but never really connected the dots until I got inside this student radio station. That’s when I realized that this would be fun.

I never made it to the Minnesota Daily newspaper offices. I went to the student station and decided that I would rather get on-air. I checked out the Brown Institute, and decided that was the way I wanted to go.

One of the guys I went to school with was Jim Prange. He called and said that he got a job in Hastings, and they were looking for another person, and did I want a job?  I said sure … but I thought it was Hastings, MN, where I was from. I didn’t even know where Nebraska was at the time.

I’m the guy that used to sit in his room and listen to the radio. I never said I wanted to be on the radio. I had the moment that a lot of people had … I did the morning announcements at the high school. Every once in a while, I would throw in a one liner, and you could hear the hallways chuckling as everyone came out, and that was good.

Small Market StoriesWho have your radio heroes been? The WCCO staff were celebrities. Roger Erickson, Charlie Boone, Maynard Speece and all of those guys. As far as the Top 40 jocks, True Don Blue was on-air at the time. Steve Cannon, who was an immense talent. Chuck Knapp was another guy I got into later on. John Landecker, when he was on WLS in the evenings, I would listen to him and just laugh out loud. Brilliant stuff.

When I got to Hastings in the early days, we could pick up WOW/Omaha which was evolving from an MOR into kind of a chicken rock station, and they had a guy named John Earling, who I thought was smooth as all get out. Sandy Jackson was on there, too.

Chicken Rock? I first heard that from Bill Miller, at KGGF/Coffeeville, KS. He does his own syndicated show. At the time, he worked for KELI/Tulsa. It was everything that was rock and roll, but not horribly offensive. When I listen to some of the shows now, like on Classic Hits we carry the classic American Top 40 with Casey Kassem, and I hear “Go All the Way” by The Raspberries. That was never played before 7pm on a chicken rock station.  Allman Brothers, no way.

How did you transition into station management? I was never blessed with the big, deep, basso profondo pipes. I just tried to be as smooth and articulate as I could be, and throw in a witticism here and there, and I really enjoyed it.

When I got into markets with ratings, my wife Carol and I had a house and kids. I was really not liking the thought of flipping book to book or PD to PD, and I started thinking about what the alternatives might be.

I was in Fargo/Morehead as a PD for KQWB and got a job as OM for WNFL/Green Bay. I was there less than 3 months, and they put the station up for sale. A new company came in with their GM, but he didn’t work out and I got kind of a battlefield promotion. So that’s how I got into management.

There’s another set of radio heroes then, the ones that helped me as successful managers. People like Dick Chapin, who still at 90+ is just amazing. Dean Sorenson.  What I learned from Mr. Chapin and Mr. Sorenson is that they returned phone calls! I never forgot that. If someone calls about a job or a position  … I may not have one, but I’m going to call them back. If something works out somewhere down the line, fine, but if not, at least I extended them the courtesy and respect of visiting with them about what they wanted to have happen.

How’d you end up back in Kearney? I had hoped to find a way to get some equity in the deal with the company I was working for in Green Bay, but they  were so heavily leveraged, it just wasn’t going to happen.

So, I answered some blind ads in Broadcasting magazine, and one of them went to a friend of the owner of the company I was working for, and I got put on the beach.

Platte River RadioThat’s when I did my biggest sales job. I learned about prospecting. I learned to call people like brokers and owners. One friend was Jerry Hinrikus who worked at KICS Radio about the same time as Gelder and I … he ended up going down in to Salinas. He called and said he had just talked to Ingstad Broadcasting, who needed a GM in Kearney. I went to work for them in March of ’91. By September, I found out they were selling the station. I was driving to a remote in Grand Island when this was going on and I had an epiphany. I drove by the tower … and I thought, “Why don’t you buy it?”

There’s no user’s manual for trying to put together an investor group. I got together some people that were willing to give it a shot. We made an offer, but they had already sold. Gene Koehn was to become the new owner. My balloon was popped. I worked for Gene for one year. He then decided to get out, and he pulled me in the office, saying he wanted to sell me the station. He gave me a price $100,000 over what he paid for it. He said he wasn’t going to list it, but if I could meet his price with my investors, then he would sell it to me. He was a man of his word, and that’s how it happened.

That was my 2nd biggest assignment, putting together presentations, pro forma revenue and expense charts … an ex disk jockey is doing this? It was an eat or don’t eat kind of thing.

I’m enough of a control freak that living book to book me feel too out of control. Being a GM was the same, if I didn’t have a piece of the action. Dave Oldfather and I have been business partners now for 20+ years, and he lets me run the operation.

So how did you develop local business relationships as a new owner? This was a double pronged operation … there was the phase when we were Kearney only. It was more difficult because the relationship between the stations and community was not great.  The previous year, KKPR changed formats to oldies from hybrid rock, and a lot of listeners were not happy about it. One year later, there was still a smell of sulphur in the air. The place was the mess. The copier didn’t work. Ceiling tiles were stained from nicotine and a dripping roof.

Roberts and CarlsonI should have left, but didn’t.  I always say, I used to drive around in the car and long for the days when my mouth was moist and my hands were dry, because all I had was cotton mouth and sweaty palms for the first several months.

I did the same old thing, got in the Rotary club, met a few people. I realized that an opportunity existed with high school sports. A lot of people think that local radio does local news … and I agree, but that niche is filled with our competitor. We chose a different path that didn’t compete. We paid attention to the music, added the local high school sports, and between the two we established a viable business.

We had been running a memories station, on what was KKPR-AM, and changed that to ESPN in 2003, so that was consistent with the drift towards sports. At about that time, we started talking to the guy that had the Hastings stations about LMAing his ESPN format.  One thing lead to another, and we ended up buying Hastings and another station in Hastings, all within weeks of each other.

It’s really a challenge not to have one central location. It’s a management nightmare, but you play the cards you’re dealt. The culture in the Kearney stations are slightly different than in Hastings, but I try to stir the drink the best I can.

What are the different stations and their programming? KXPN/Kearney and KICS/Hastings simulcast ESPN sports talk. They have some local programming, sports call-in as well as a huge number of high school athletic events. High school sports is really the fifth format we have; it’s huge here in central Nebraska. We probably do more high school sports than anyone else in the state. It’s a huge part of our involvement.

Craig preparing to broadcast via Skype from the Adams County Fair. July 2013.

Craig preparing to broadcast via Skype from the Adams County Fair. July 2013.

KHAS-AM is not far from what it’s been doing for decades … community involvement, block news programming, a party line show. We broadcast from the Adams County Fair.  We’re live there every afternoon. That may be the most fun station we have from the standpoint of getting to do stuff on our own without having to worry about syndicators and networks and things like that.

KKPR is Classic Hits 98.9. Some 60s, but more 70s and 80s now. Off hours during the scholastic year we do a lot of high school football, volley ball, basketball, even wrestling. We cover state track and cross country and that kind of stuff. It’s primarily music driven, but we do a lot of sports programming, too.

KLIQ FM is the AC. It’s evolving more and more into a more vibrant, more contemporary version of AC. We had it positioned as Soft AC, but more and more we’re chopping off the 70s music and now seldom go back farther than the 90s. We’re putting a larger emphasis on more current and recurrent music. No one else in the market is doing that right now.

We’re not the biggest; we compete against a couple of other companies that have a lot of properties, and we feel like we have all of our stations positioned so we’re not head to head with anybody. We’re pretty uniquely positioned as far as the four formats we carry.

The Eckert Family: Craig, Carol, Ike and Zack.

The Eckert Family: Craig, Carol, Ike and Zack.

What are you doing on the tech side? The ability of our Smarts automation systems to talk to each other is huge. We have one pool of commercials, that updates automatically. With Skype and a few other things, you can put up a studio sound from one location to the other without problem. We simulcast the ESPN stations using a Barix box through the internet.

Some of the best ideas that have come up in my career , which now spans 41 years, have come from around the coffee machine at 6:30 in the morning, or after 5 o’clock when you’re standing around shooting the breeze. When you have 2 different locations, it’s very hard to get a solidarity between the 2 staffs. Technically, we’re pretty seamless, because we can control one from the other, share audio, and it’s all accessible from either location.

Without the younger broadcasters we’ve employed, we would be a fraction of what we can be right now. The young broadcasters I’ve gotten from Central Community College in Hastings, or the University of Nebraska – Kearney … it’s no drama when you say go cut a commercial and then go update the website. It’s not a culture shock to them; they’ve been doing it that way all along. They’re training me as much as I’m training them.

HD? No. That whole deal reeks of what AM stereo was in the early 80s. I don’t have any evidence at this point that there are enough HD  receivers out for me to put down that kind of money.

Streaming? We stream every locally produced thing that we do. We have smart phones apps for all of the stations. All of the games stay on the site as podcasts. We do sell a pre-roll on the podcasts.

We aren’t making money hand over fist. I feel like it’s research and development. We’re certainly not losing money, and the service that we can give … our AM stations don’t have great signals at night. Luring a translator to mitigate that is a daunting task. That’s where it doesn’t pencil out. What are you selling on an AM station after 7 o’clock that will pay for a translator, that won’t penetrate a building anyway? Now that we can stream it … you can’t sit in a stadium and keep up with the stream in the same way that you could a transistor radio because of the 18 second buffer, but ….

Craig & Carol Eckert

Craig & Carol Eckert

I still do some high school football and basketball broadcasting. I’m the 3rd string, but I’m there doing it. I was in Giltner, NE, and a representative of the quarterback comes up at halftime, and hands me a note asking me to give a shout out to his grandparents down in Arkansas. After the game, the QBs dad came up to me and told me that his folks heard me talk about them. He got the cellphone call telling him that they heard the stream.

We stream Hastings College broadcasts on KHAS, and you can get the numbers back for listener sessions, and it’s in the thousands over the course of the school year. It’s not an insignificant thing!

If you’re using it, you can learn how to use it better, and you’re already providing a useful service, you’ll get better at monetizing streaming. We heard a lot of touching stories service people during the Iraqi war who would listen to their HS brothers or former players when they were overseas at war. It meant a lot. It’s huge for our listeners.

Website? We’ve got one website for each format, and then we put up a high school sports website called PlatteRiverPreps.com, which is a portal for all of our online streaming.

That idea came from one of the young people working for me, who had the idea and knew how to implement it. He figured out the content we could use. There are 114 high schools in the state of Nebraska, and each of them has their own page. We publish links to local newspapers and such … it’s a fulltime job for him during the season. It’s such a nice portal for the HS coverage that we do, we are very happy with it.

We had an on-air show called “Wheeler Dealer.” Then the RAB came out with their EZ-Auction, and we were doing two things that were the same, but different. I decided last year we would merge the two. Big Deals Media came along with a website matrix that is basically the same concept, and that made the merchandise available to the listeners all of the time, and made payments easy. So from that we made Shopwheelerdealer.com. We promote it on all of the stations. It’s not a shopping show; it’s a website that produces revenue from small clients that can’t afford advertising on the station. It’s a cool deal; it’s grown. It’s entertaining. We’ve got well over 600 registered customers, and the views are huge.

Do you have a full-time webmaster? No, a lot of in-house people help manage the day-to-day content, and then I have an outside company that does the design and hosting. The prices for web construction & streaming have really gone down over the years.

How many station employees? We cut about 2 dozen paychecks a couple of times a month, and about 15 are fulltime.

How many help on the website? About half of them. Even the sales people help; they can input their own merchandise on the wheeler dealer site.

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? Facebook & Twitter. Each entity has its own account for each.

Are you active on social media yourself? I didn’t get into radio because I’m a normal social person. I got into radio so I could lock myself into a room and talk to myself and entertain people. I’ve about communicated myself out. I have a Facebook account, but I never look at it.

Sante Fe 2012What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I work out at the YMCA. My youngest son is a gear head. We both own Mustangs. He does the work and I enjoy the heck out of the cars. I thought this was a buying signal. Carol said, “if you’re going to buy a Mustang, can we at least get a convertible?” And I said, “ … Yeah, if that’s a condition of the sale!” I’m a current events junky. I have been the chairman of the Nebraska Broadcasters, and I’m going to serve another term next year.

What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? We need you! If you’re good and you’re dedicated, you can still make yourself a success on the air. The reality and the skill set if going to be different from what I faced … you might have to be voice tracking 2 or 3 stations, but you don’t have to cue records with a nickel on the tone arm. It takes a special person to want to be on air. The opportunity for women is much more than it was when I broke in to the business, and that’s good.

We need RF engineers like crazy right now. Young people need to know that kind of opportunity exists … there’s still a lot of naïveté about that with young people … they have to be reminded that we still have transmitters.

Radio is the best combination of free, entertaining, accessible and mobile that you’re going to find. Period.

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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