“There’s no business that can do the kind of things that we can do.”
What got you started in radio? As a young child, I lived in Detroit. Cloudy, miserable. I was sick an awful lot, and I was home an awful lot, so I had a chance to listen to that magic box called radio, and I just fell in love with it. Later, I had a chance to do some TV, but it bored the heck out of me.
My family then moved to Albuquerque. In high school, I started selling for KHFM-FM, but of course there were no receivers in Albuquerque at the time, so we didn’t sell much. Another guy across town who was an engineer from the power company wanted to build KHAM to pair with KHFM, so we could broadcast stereo radio. That’s not true, of course, but it did make it interesting.
I was in college by then, studying radio and TV. I didn’t get along with the professor at all; I was working in the field and he was totally out of touch. I showed them: I quit school and stayed in radio & TV. Then, Rex Tines, the owner of the AM, sent me down to Elkins Radio License School to get a first class ticket. He paid my salary while I was there, and then when I was done, he gave me a raise. I didn’t see the raise, though, until I had paid him back what he had paid me. It was a pretty nice deal.
Then, Rex Tines sent me to Truth or Consequences, NM, to manage the station there. I was 19 at the time. I asked, “What does a manager do?” He said, “I don’t know, go see.”
So, I went to manage the station. It was in what had been called Hot Springs, NM, but Ralph Edwards had made a deal that if any community would change their name to Truth or Consequences, then he would do a show there every year for 10 years. He brought in Bob Barker, and did the first Truth Or Consequences show from there. He then brought in June Lockhart, or one of those stars, and did This Is Your Life from there. I had small parts on those shows, too.
By then, I was 21 and fed up with Truth Or Consequences, so I quit to seek my fortune where I wanted to live: in Florida. A friend of mine and I drove to Florida. We spent a bunch of money getting there, but we had a great time! When we got to Ft Lauderdale, my friend became a beach boy, setting up chaise lounges and such. I found a job in an electronic plant, because every job in town paid the same: $1.50/hour.
On the weekends, I ended up working for WITV in Hallendale, FL, and doing news for several Miami radio stations.
I then decided to get married, because I thought she could cook and do laundry. She married me because she thought I could cook, and I couldn’t … so we were married on Christmas Eve. Christmas night, I started working for WEAT-AM/FM/TV in West Palm Beach. I was an announcer, did some TV work, and did all of the video for the news. At that time, video was done with little cameras, and they would develop themselves into a negative image, that you’d post on a bulletin board, reverse the polarity and get a positive image.
I worked midnight to 6, 3 nights a week. Midnight to 7, 3 nights a week. Did some TV news from time to time, and was the official news guy.
Burt LaBar was the manager, from WMGM in New York, so he knew everything. He brought in Ward Bond. In the old Movietone News, Ward did most of the sports. Big voice, great guy. Burt decided he needed each of us to do more work, because Ward couldn’t run a board. So, each of us picked up an additional 3 hours a week. When he told us this, I’d been working 15 hours straight. I didn’t do anything during the meeting, but afterwards I called him, and he was busy, so I called his secretary and asked she tell him I resigned. He called me back 15 minutes later, and said, “Lee, I’ve been meaning to have you over for dinner!” I said, “That’s very nice, but I’m out of here.” He asked where … and I told him I didn’t know. He had previously said that he had a stack of applications, and he could replace anybody … so I told him he had 2 weeks to replace me.
I then got a job working for KHMO/Hannibal, MO. That was a great radio company. Gerald Shepard owned 3 stations, one in Moberly, Jefferson City and Hannibal. My wife’s folks lived in Kirksville, so we went to Hannibal. We thought, if you can’t make a living in Florida, then you might as well go somewhere that you can make a living. That was a great job. They treated me well and paid me fairly.
I then got a job as a PD in Paducah, KY. Did that for a year, and then went to Roanoke, VA. After I had been there a while, I got an offer to go to work for the Rollins Corporation in Wilmington, DE. I was there for 5 or 6 years as a PD and the afternoon guy. The station just rocked. 1380 AM. We never had bad ratings … and, we made lots of DJ money off of record hops. They promoted me to be the National PD, and sent me all over the country. I really got to learn radio. I was on the road, and didn’t do anything but work for about 3 years.
Then, a friend told me that NBC was looking for help with a project in Ireland, so I applied for that job. NBC ended up talking me into going to work for them at WMAQ/Chicago, where I programmed for 5 years and was GM for another 5 years.
I had my experience, then, with a company at the top of the heap. NBC was owned by RCA at the time, but I just hated corporate stuff … but I met some great people. I ended up saying I didn’t want to do this the rest of my life. I didn’t like big markets, and I didn’t like living in big markets.
So, I soon met a guy that sold fishing reports for broadcast, living in Manitowoc, WI. That was Jack Severson and we became good friends. He said, “Why don’t you buy my radio station?” I said there was one reason I could think of: money! He said he could make it happen, and he was serious. I ended up buying the station with him and another partner, and I’ve had a wonderful career ever since in Manitowoc and Two Rivers, WI.
I just lucked out, because I got to work for some very neat people … and some bastards.
I love small town radio. Small markets, medium markets, you’re really in touch with the community. In major markets … you could stand on your head in the middle of Michigan Avenue and spit BBs, and no one would notice. In small towns, you can do some miraculous things and make life much nicer for a lot of people.
Who have your radio heroes been? Thousands of them. Some that come immediately to mind were in Chicago. John Rook. Ken Draper. Mike McCormick. Paul Gallus. Mattie Singer. Bruce Davidson. Dean Tyler. Roger Holmes. Bob Irish. Dean Lester. Clark Weber. There’s so many.
How did you transition from one of the biggest markets to small market radio? It was the easiest thing I ever did.
When I got up here, people just accepted me. Don Seehafer, who owns the other stations in town, was a friend to me from the day I got here. We have been personal friends ever since. We’ve competed with each other, and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but we’ve never knocked our competition.
We’ve done some huge things for this community, and it has been a delight.
Describe your stations. WCUB-AM covers 17 counties, 5 kw and a really good signal. It’s country primarily, with all kinds of current affairs and talk segments on the Breakfast Club. We’re very big in local news and community events. We do carry Fox News for 1 minute, but everything else is local. We do sport fishing reports – those same reports that eventually got me to buy this station – for 40 years now.
I’ve had calls from the fire department at 2 or 3 in the morning, wanting me to give an emergency traffic advisory. We do that.
We have 10 fulltime people. We pay them as well as we can. We work a bonus system, so that when the station is doing well, they get a benefit from there.
HD? No. We thought about it … I went down to the bank to ask for a $250,000 loan so we could have some more frequencies (the side channels). The bank asked if we were sold out, and we’re not. None of my stations have ever been sold out; we always find a way to do what the advertisers want! So, that made me think, and we are not broadcasting in HD. We didn’t do AM stereo, either.
Streaming? Not music. We do stream everything that isn’t music.
Website? We don’t make money … but we do think it’s vital for us to be there. We do things that are interesting to our listeners like contests … we want to be there for our listeners. We do Cub Radio Deals, a shopping show, that’s on the website. We do it on the air about once a quarter, but it’s on the site the rest of the time and it does make some money for us.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? Pretty heavy in Facebook. We aren’t that heavy in Twitter. We’re getting into texting, and we’re very serious about that.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I love to eat, socialize. Try new things. I love to travel and enjoy visiting my family. My passion is flying, but I haven’t been doing as much lately. I hope to get a sport plane when I retire and fly that much more regularly.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? The first thing, if you want to think about doing this as a career, I think you have to think outside of the box and think about why you want to do it. If you feel a real need to help and entertain people, I can’t think of a better thing that you could do.
I answered a call on our studio line one day. The caller wanted to know the time, and some of the other guys told me the lady called every day. I asked why, and they didn’t know. So, the next day, the call came in and I answered it. I asked her why she called, and she said, “I’m blind. I need someone to help me, and I just like your people at the station. They’re very nice to me.” That broke me up, and that’s the kind of feedback you used to get as a Top 40 jock, because you were a part of people’s lives. When you get it today, it’s really exceptional. And, it’s really important.
That’s the kind of thing you can do for people you don’t even know … like finding a dog. We don’t find them all, but when we do, you know that you’ve connected people to a part of their lives that’s really important to them. It’s a connection that might never have happened if not for you and your radio station. It’s a real celebration.
It’s about people. It’s about doing things for people, and having a great time doing it.
If that’s what you want to do, then I’ll give you 2 choices. You can either be someone who fixes things, because we’ll always need them, or you can be somebody that wants to make things change. If you do that, become a salesman, because you can make a very good living in this business, but the reason to do it is that you want to help people and grow with them.
There’s no business that can do the kind of things that we can do.
We’ve got 4 stations here. I’m sure about half of the people listen to our stations, and the other half listen to the other two. The reality is, it doesn’t matter. All of us have an audience. That audience is loyal to that station. If we are doing our job, we’ll have enough people listening – and we still do, with 97% of Americans listening to the radio – it’s an amazing medium.
Cub Radio has used Smarts automation for many years … in fact, Lee credits Smarts for making his company much more efficient in today’s rough and tumble media marketplace. Here’s what he said:
“Smarts are good people. I thoroughly enjoy working with them. In my book they’re the leader of the pack. Smarts automation is a lifesaver, and it makes us sound good.”