“It’s a lot tougher doing it that it appears to be.”
Did you have a driver’s license to get to your first job? I did. You could get an Idaho driver’s daytime license at 15 if you’d had driver’s ed. You couldn’t drive after sunset, so if I was working nights at the station, I rode my ten speed to the station.
What got you started in radio? An accident. A friend of mine wanted to be in radio. He hung around the station, and he would mow the lawn and take out the garbage, but he was afraid to apply by himself. So he drug me along. It was the ‘70s, when you had to pass the Third Phone with Broadcast Endorsement, and all of the testing. The PD very patiently explained that we needed licenses. They gave the test in Boise and Salt Lake, and there were field offices in Denver and San Francisco. He said that if we ever passed the test, we should come back and apply for the job.
Well Dan was bummed out by that, but my folks were going to San Francisco on vacation that summer. I grabbed my study guide and studied all of the way across Nevada, walked into the office on Battery Street, passed my Third Phone, came home with my license so I could apply for a job.
I had done speech and drama classes, but I was scared to death in the booth trying to read news copy and commercial copy. I’m sure I sounded awful, and I walked away thinking that was the end of that, they’ll never hire me. Two hours later, one of their part-timers quit, and the PD called me and offered me the job. I was working Labor Day Weekend, ’73. It seemed like a much nicer job than my friends had working at the burger joint or a gas station. I got to sit in a nice air conditioned booth, play music, talk to people on the telephone, and there was a vending machine down the hall. Everything I needed was right there! It was a great job, I thought, to get me through college. And then I got into college, and realized that I was fairly good at it. By that time I was making fairly good money, too, and it became my career.
Where have you been? Twin Falls, and then I moved to Salt Lake in 1975. Worked for most of the major rockers there into the 80s. Then, up to Idaho Falls for a year, and then to Boise for about 9 years. I programmed KQFC, which was the dominant country station – and the dominant 12+ station. Back to Salt Lake to launch a soft AC and a Classic Hits, then to Honolulu in 2001 as the OM for Clear Channel’s cluster. 6 years in Honolulu, then 4 years in Fresno as OM of Clear Channel’s cluster there. Then back to Utah to do mornings for about a year, and then we bought this station.
Why Mississippi? We looked everywhere, in about a half dozen states at a lot of properties. I knew what our price range was going to be, and I knew we would be in a small market. What I didn’t want was a station in a kit. So many properties needed a studio move or a tower built, or some major repairs done. This facility had the infrastructure in place. We had decent equipment, we had an on-the-air operation. It was a station that really could serve its community. WROX was the first station in this part of the Mississippi Delta; it went on the air in 1944. It had the only black DJ on the air in this part of Mississippi for 50 years. Early Wright worked here from 1947 until his death in 1999. His name was synonymous with this station. People had nothing but great feelings about this station. But, through a progression of owners, and absentee owners, and poor managers, it had kind of fallen on hard times.
We thought we could bring it back by doing radio the way it was done back in the 80s. Back before the Clinton administration, deregulation, LMAs and everything changed the industry, we could serve the community and do things the right way.
My wife and I are the principals in the LLC. It’s our money. It’s our money we lost in the first year. We lost a lot of money. Like a lot of people in their first ownership, I thought that if we put a great product on the air, then people would come flocking to the radio station to buy advertising. It didn’t work that way.
That year, we lost everything we had set aside to lose for the first two years. This year, we are on our way to a breakeven year, and hopefully we can start paying ourselves back for that first year loss with the profit next year.
There comes a point in this industry where if you’re a white male over 50, you’re not going to get the jobs you used to get. I realized that those opportunities were drying up. At the big companies, they would find someone half my age who would work for half my salary. I was expendable. If I didn’t figure something else to do, I would be selling used cars.
Wanting to stay in radio … I had the passion, the knowledge and the background to do this. Really, being on the air and selling are not that far apart. I’ve been selling myself and selling my station to the listeners without getting a paycheck directly for doing it for 40years. There’s no difference between doing that and asking for the order as a sales person. Frankly, I enjoy doing sales. Not to say that I’m fabulous at it, but I do get a kick out of delivering a product to the advertiser and getting them to sign on the dotted line and working with them as a partner. I just wish I had more time to do it.
How many employees? Just me and my wife. That’s our full-time staff.
You’re on air and doing some voice tracking, what does she do? She is sales.
After 10a, are you on the satellite? No, we have out-of-market voice. I have folks that I’ve known for years; they have pitched in to help us out. My midday shift is handled by a lady out of Fresno, my afternoon shift is handled by a guy out of southern Utah. We have the Charlie Tuna show at nights: syndicated voice tracks. And I have a local guy who does a weekend shift, who voice tracks those. He had been at the station for the better part of 30 years, and at one point had done mornings. Now, like everybody else in this town, he has 4 or 5 different jobs and one of them is doing weekends on the radio.
Who does your production? Me.
Traffic & billing? Me.
You’re a one man band … that’s a huge culture shift from being a part of a big corporation. Huge. But I was always hands on; there was never a job that I wouldn’t do. I had been on-air, production, news, promotions… I had handled every piece of equipment in every job function on the programming side and it really did serve me well in coming to this job. And, it’s not that I was unfamiliar with sales: I knew it was a hard job. I’d always had a great deal of respect for salespeople. But, it’s a lot tougher doing it that it appears to be.
I’m the one that has to write the proposals; I have to do double check everything. As a detail-oriented person, you can drive yourself crazy trying to manage every period and comma in the paperwork, but it is something I enjoy doing.
How was the culture shock, moving to Mississippi? It was the first time we had lived east of the Rockies. The culture shock wasn’t bad, actually. It reminds me a lot of Hawaii. Had we not lived for 6 years in the islands, I wouldn’t have been prepared for this move.
In Hawaii, there is no racial majority. White people are about a third of the population. A third of the population is Asian, broken down into the Koreans, the Japanese, Viet Namese, the Chinese … and another third are the Pacific Islanders, which can be anything from native Hawaiians to Filipinos to Tongans to you name it.
Living here, the white people are definitely a racial minority. In Clarksdale, it’s 75% black. You have to learn to play nice with others. I’ve always been very color blind in that regard. People are people, whether they are black, white, purple or green, you deal with them based on their skill sets and their knowledge, not on any other basis.
The way business is done in Hawaii, it’s real slow. It’s who you know, not necessarily what you know. Business is done the same way here. And there’s also a rather poor work ethic in some parts of the Delta, as there is in Hawaii. Lazy people have to be motivated certain ways.
In a lot of respects, I see a lot of similarities from living in Hawaii to living in the Mississippi Delta. If we hadn’t done Hawaii first, this would have driven us nuts.
You’re the first person to ever tell me that living in Mississippi is like living in Hawaii. No coconuts, no palm trees, and no ocean, brah, but in a lot of ways….
How did you help the radio station rebuild? Larry Fuss was the previous owner; he is a very good broadcaster; he did a lot of things right. The problem was that he lives in Las Vegas. He was an absentee owner, and he had some weak managers that lost the trust of the community. The advertisers began to think, “This guy is only going to last 8 months.” It was very hard; there was a lot of scorched earth underneath the radio station that we took time to heal.
We joined the Chamber of Commerce. We did as many face-to-face meetings with business owners as we could. We were seen in the community as much as we could be. That was the difference … the previous owner wasn’t here, and the managers didn’t necessarily follow that credo. That was a total about face for the radio station, right there.
Secondly, we put on programming that was designed specifically for this market – not a satellite format. I put the format together on my dining room table before we moved. I figured we needed at least one blues song every hour, because this is the birthplace of the blues. This is John Lee Hooker’s hometown. Many blues tourists come here. But the blues songs I picked were what I would call mass appeal blues. It’s Steve Miller, it’s Eric Clapton, it’s Stevie Ray Vaughn, it’s the Rolling Stones, it’s BB King. It is music that is accessible to the masses, not deep, 12-bar blues. We really tried to go broad with that, and now that we’ve done the first year and a half, I’m going a lot deeper into the blues stuff, especially in our specialty shows on the weekend. But, if you listen to the radio station, it’s still the hits.
We do support local artists. That’s the other thing that was a key to it. There are so many locals … again, similar to Hawaii, every man, woman and child in the Delta has recorded a CD. We try to support the local artists if their music has anything to do with the format. If it has a blues feel to it, we’ll throw it on and give them some spins. That had not really been done in any previous regime, because they had been running satellite programming.
There was a point last spring when I thought we were not going to make it. I was scared to death we were going to default on the loan. That we weren’t going to be able to make any money. That we would end up handing the keys back over to Larry, and walk away dead broke. And then, suddenly, we started getting call backs. We started getting unsolicited buys. We started getting “yes-es” from people. It snowballed from there, at the darkest hour. I really thought we weren’t going to make it, and suddenly, the flood gates opened up. We made budget two months in a row. We’re on pace to dig ourselves out a little bit this year.
When I tell people we’re billing $8,000 a month, they either say that’s fabulous, or they can’t believe we’re making it on that little .. . but that’s a big month for us! If we can get this thing into double digits, I’d be doing handstands in the street! At some point, I’d like to be billing $10,000 or $20,000 a month, and I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility.
Considering that we made $435 the first month that we owned the station, we’ve come a long way.
I got the thing from Larry with literally no billing on the books. None. He was simulcasting a country station, just to keep the license. The format was dead wrong, considering the population is 75% black. There was no localization. The doors were locked!
Ratings? How do you measure success? Financially. We’re in an unrated market. All that exists, really, is Arbitron’s county-by-county. With the population here, there are probably 40 or 50 diaries that get dropped into the market in the course of the year. We are in the Memphis DMA for television, and I have Arbitron PPM encoding just in case somebody does come down with a people meter, we’ll get a little credit. But, we’re such a small sliver of the Memphis TSA, there’s just no way we could generate any real ratings, especially if you’re only going to drop 40 diaries a year into this market.
Financially is how we’re going to judge. If we put an ad on for something, and people walk into our client’s store and say, “I heard that on the radio,” or “Let me buy what was being advertised,” then we’ll know we have been successful.
Who have your radio heroes been? I grew up listening to KFXD out of Boise, which was a phenomenal radio station back in the 70s. The PD was Fred Novak, who passed away a number of years ago. He and his staff were extremely good for a market of that size. Dr. Drew Harold did mornings; he was in Portland for a while. He’s now working for the state of Idaho as an insurance claims processor. He and I talk every now and then. Tom Scott was the MD there for a lot of years; he’s doing sports in Boise for one of the TV stations. Wayne Cornils, Radio Wayne, was the GM there for many, many years, so you can see what kind of bar was set at that station. People that worked at KFXD were my heroes. They were who I really wanted to be when I grew up.
Then, as I started listening to other stations across the country, the KHJs and KFRCs of the world … I could never get KHJ because there was a 930 AM in Pocatello, ID, that would block them. But, on a good night, you could get KFRC in southern Idaho. Hearing John Mack Flanagan or Don Saint John coming booming in at night was just a phenomenal treat. I always loved when I got close enough to San Francisco, going over Truckee Pass and being in the range of KFRC and hearing it live … long before the internet, long before American Airchecks, it was a great thing.
Like every kid, I think I did “Six Ten, K F RRR C” over every ramp that was playing in my head. I also listened to X Rock 80, the Border Blaster from El Paso. Jocks that you might not necessarily have ever heard of, not big names, but I thought they were pretty cool. I thought I could do that.
Talk about your marketing and promotion in the community. We’re in the middle of a promotion with Double Quick, which is the largest convenience store chain in this part of the state; they have about 50 locations in the western half of Mississippi. I went to them 6 or 8 months ago, with the idea of doing a window sticker promotion in the summer. At that time, I was looking for money from them, and I was going to fund the prizes ourselves. They liked the idea so much, they had a new marketing director who immediately got the concept, and he called me back about 2 weeks later and asked if I would be OK with him taking the idea to other markets, with me working with other stations, so we could do this thing state-wide.
The next thing I knew, we had developed into 6 markets, where every market has a core radio station that distributes their window stickers. We announce on all of the stations, at roughly the same time, a license plate number, where the listener can get a month’s worth of gas, or a month’s worth of Pepsi, or an iPad, or whatever. We have scooters we’re going to give away. We had a Coors “Refresherator,” which is basically a 5’ tall vending machine that dispenses beer at the touch of a button. It’s the coolest thing ever for a man cave, which we gave away in June. That’s what we’re pulling off; it’s a major-market sounding promotion. You would expect to hear this promotion in San Diego or Knoxville, not in a community this size.
It’s that major market presentation, that major market attitude that’s really set the town on fire. I can’t go out now without seeing more of our window stickers. It’s not re-inventing the wheel; it’s not a new idea – it’s basically the same promotion I did years ago at KSSK/Honolulu.
What other efforts are you putting into your community? We’re involved with the animal shelter, which had really had some negative publicity before we got here. With 18 months of hard work, we’ve helped to turn that around. The adoption rates are up. Pets of the Week are being featured. Pets are being spayed and neutered and getting their shots – which wasn’t happening before. The shelter is horribly underfunded by the city, but we almost single-handedly turned the public opinion around with our support.
We’ve tried to identify 3 charities that we really want to wrap our arms around and do a good job with, and the animal shelter was one. The Care Station is another, which feeds elderly and homebound people through the year, and does an annual Thanksgiving dinner which costs thousands of dollars and takes hundreds of man hours to put together. We’ve done fund raisers for them, and we’re about to launch into one for the St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which is just 70 miles up the road in Memphis.
That’s not to say we won’t help other charities, like the Red Cross, the Lion’s Club, or a local church that comes to us for help, but we’ve really tried to a gangbusters job for those three local charities that we saw as evergreen causes.
We try and be involved with just about every music festival, and there are tons of blues festivals up and down the Delta all summer long. We picked a few key ones we really wanted to identify ourselves with. King Biscuit Blues Festival over in Helena is probably the biggest. That’s in October, and we’re for the second year a sponsor of that. We get heavily involved with Juke Joint Festival, which is a Clarksdale event during one week of April. Many of the music performances that week are free. You can see, without really trying too hard, 75 or 100 artists performing at various venues in this town. There’s a music scene here that’s vibrant, 6 or 7 nights a week. It rivals what you see in bigger cities, and it’s fueled by tourists who come for the blues heritage.
Those are the areas we have tried to align ourselves with. We thought we would get the most publicity there without spending a whole lot of money.
You’re working alone … what are you doing on the tech side to make this work? God bless my friends again. We got struck by lightning earlier this year, and that took out our STL and part of the transmitter. A dear friend of mine, who is an engineer in Salt Lake City, flew out here at the end of June, and he spent a weekend helping me retune a lot of the problems.
We were fortunate when we bought the station; none of the components except for the control room board, were more than about 6 years old. The board was an old LPB from the 80s, which had been refurbed and was well maintained.
We’re automated, obviously, I lock the door at 5pm and go home. If it goes off, the transmitter calls me if there’s a problem. I keep the station on at home, and if there’s a problem I’m 10 minutes away. We stream the station, and my friends around the country listen to it and will call me if they hear a problem.
I’ve got EAS system set to automatically relay the emergency alerts that are critical to our area.
We’ve taken all of the steps we can to make this as seamless an operation as possible, without human hands touching it.
Every day, I talk to my wife and tell her we may actually be able to make a living with this. We may be able to get this turkey to fly.
HD? No. It’s an expense and there’s not a lot of market acceptance. It sounds great, but there aren’t that many radios in the field. I can’t afford it. If I were going to spend that much money, I would buy enough solar panels for the transmitter at the tower site. I’d run that off the city grid and be able to capitalize it over 10 years … I’d do that before I would spend money on HD equipment.
Do you carry any sports? Clarksdale High School and Mississippi State football. We’re in the 2nd year with both schools. I didn’t want to do basketball initially, because that’s another 30 games with play by play expense, and me having to be in the station running the board. I wasn’t sure if we could make money with football right up front. As things turned out, we lost a little money with football last year, but we’ll make money this year. We might consider expanding to basketball and a little high school baseball in future years. We’re in the south, we’re in the SEC, football is king.
The problem is, there are 4 high schools in a community of 20,000 people. It’s cut pretty thin. The public high schools are pretty much all of the poor blacks, the whites all go to the private high school. There’s quite a division between the two. We had Lee Academy, the private high school, on this station for a number of years, and they were so frustrated with the previous owners they took their ball to play elsewhere before I even walked in the door. I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them, which I would have welcomed. There are a lot of business owners in that group.
You play the cards you’re dealt. The fact is, Clarksdale High is the heritage high school. Charlie Connerly, who played for the NY Giants, went to high school here. He was a Superbowl level quarterback in the 50s and 60s. There are also 2 county high schools which even further splits the pie. There aren’t that many places to make money when you cut the pie that thin.
Website? Making money there? Big markets have trouble make money there. No, I’m not sure we ever really will. It’s one of those costs of doing business, like streaming. It’s an expectation of your listeners that you provide that content to them. If it costs me $50 for streaming, OK, that’s a bill I have to pay.
More than that, it’s a portal to introduce people to the radio station. We’ve got thousands of tourists coming to Clarksdale every year, and we’re often the first face they see. They come to our website to see what’s going on, to hear the music, look at the performance list and get a feel for what the town’s all about.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? We have Facebook and Twitter accounts. My wife runs the Twitter feed; my midday jock runs the Facebook. She and I primarily post on that.
What’s your next step for the business? If we can find one, we’ll acquire another station. Having an AM, in this day and age, unless you’ve got the powerhouse talk programming with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, et al, it’s an uphill battle. The translator makes it easier. We identify our station, first and foremost, with the FM frequency, but that’s also low on the food chain. There’s a real possibility that we could get bumped off if another class station comes along. Our goal, once we get ourselves out of debt and into the black, is to buy another station or stations. Also, when we get profitable, I’d like to launch another webstream, which is strictly a blues webstream. That identifies with this area, and I’d like to figure out how to at least cover the costs of that webstream. Expanding into other areas and products would be our next goal.
I think with the family we’ve got and the friends we have, at least for the foreseeable future, we’re OK until we pay off our radio station. We just need to find other things to monetize.
You don’t want to hire a salesperson? Finding the people who are available and willing to work hard is always the challenge. It’s not unique to us. The entire industry has shot itself in the foot by not cultivating and growing and maintaining its salespeople. The real problem with the big companies is that when a rep gets to a certain income level, they cut their account list or cut their commission rate. Where’s the motivation to do better?
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I sleep.
If I had a swimming pool, I’d be in it. I don’t. On the weekends, we’ve got season tickets for the Memphis Redbirds, which is AAA and the Mississippi Braves in Jackson, which is AA, and I try to road trip for a ball game at least a couple of times a month. I really miss major league sports! Watching it on TV just isn’t the same. Sitting in the stands on a sunny afternoon with a bag of peanuts and a beer is my idea of heaven.
We try and see live music at least one night a week. Getting up at 4:30am really puts a cramp in your lifestyle doing that, but if I don’t do it during the week I will do it on the weekend.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? It’s a lot of hard work, but the personal rewards are great if you can stick it out. You need to have computer skills. You need to work hard, and you need to have an open mind to think of new ways of doing things, because the game is always going to change. The idea of “we’ve always done it that way” or “that’s the way we’ve done it since we started” will kill you. If we tried to run this business the same way we did in 1995, we’d be out of business in a month. You’ve got to work with the new technology and take advantage of it. Work smart. Always be open and receptive to new ways of doing things.