Laurie Prax: It’s Not Like I’m Rich

First Radio Job: I bought KVAK-AM, with no radio experience whatsoever.

Current Job:  Owner & GM, KVAK-AM & FM/Valdez, AK. We built the FM in 1991. It’s like no other radio station, because I didn’t know how to do radio, and couldn’t hear any other stations where we’re located. I just made up things.

Your school? Chico State University.

Typical work day: Every day is wildly different. It depends on who’s working for me. I tend to take people and have them do whatever they’re good at, and then I do everything else. I sell, write, accounts payable, on-air. I interview the City Manager every other week, where I beat him up, and he thinks he wins and I think I win. On the opposite weeks, I usually interview the school superintendent.  We do a Good News section, where we do a feature on someone in the community.

What are you reading? I read prolifically, from cheap novels to instruction manuals. I just read a book that profiles a kid on the orphan train. I brought that home for my kids to read; they’re 11 and 13. Last night, I read through the Girl Scout manual to help get ready for camp.

Best vacation you ever had: Costa Rica. Two weeks, a family vacation. Incredible. We went zip lining, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding. We saw tarantulas. It was an awesome vacation with the family.

Favorite restaurant: We have 6 restaurants, and I’m so tired of them. Having anyone else cook for me is great!

Favorite beverage: Diet Coke and chardonnay (not together).

Website: www.kvakradio.com

Contact Info: KVAKLaurie@gmail.com, (907) 835-5825

I think sometimes I’d like to be someplace bigger, but then I see what kind of pressure those guys are under, and I’m still here having fun.”

 What got you started in radio? I didn’t know what I was going to do. We moved from California to Alaska. My husband and I bought into a sporting goods store as a minority partner. There’s one here in Valdez and another in Fairbanks.

I worked for the Visitor’s Bureau for a couple of years. I’d done marketing and international relations in California, and there were no such jobs here. The guy who had the radio station was getting older and was trying to get rid of it. My husband kept saying, “You could do this.” And, I don’t know, the next thing I knew we had a partner and bought the radio station.

Prax, Laurie2Before I bought it, it often went off the air in the middle of the night because the tape would run out. The owner’d come downstairs in his pajamas and get the tape going again. He was running reel-to-reel, and you know, “you put a toothpick here, and….” I thought I can’t operate that way. The station was running carts. We brought in a new computer system.

In three days, we installed the equipment with an engineer who flew down from Anchorage. I didn’t know what a stop set was, or that an ad had to be 30 seconds or 60 seconds. I had read the manual for our automation system (I had no idea what those words meant). I didn’t know how to do accounting.

The first time I was on the air was reading the weather for my radio station. I was 27.

When I started the business, I didn’t have a plan or a statement. I eventually came up with, “Make Enough Money To Entertain Myself.” 18 years later, that’s still what it is. I think sometimes I’d like to be someplace bigger, but then I see what kind of pressure those guys are under, and I’m still here having fun.

So you were in this isolated community with no resources beyond an automation manual. How did you make it work? I was blessed. My engineer, Van Craft, has been my engineer for 18 years. He works for Clear Channel, and took this contracting job on the side because he likes the challenge. He’s helped me every time I’ve asked. When he comes to town, he stays at my house, and begs me to make halibut. I pay him for his work, and he works like a dog on his two days off. He’s been a huge help to me.

Small Market StoriesI also had a friend, Cheryl Jacobs (who has since died), who came in and helped me set up QuickBooks, and explained accounting to me. So, since day one, I’ve had an impeccable profit & loss statement and balance sheet.

One of my advertisers, Laura Saxe, has a gas station in town. If I ever had a business question, she was great about answering it.

I read a lot. I bought books. I have a huge bookshelf about how to market, how to sell, start-up marketing plans, guide to creative radio programs….

It’s not like I’m rich. After 18 years, I have a business that’s worth as much as a small house. In most people’s minds, it’s not a huge financial success. But I’ve always made more money than I’ve spent. I’ve paid my bills. I’ve never had to take advertising I don’t want.

How did you become accepted as a part of your community? I met a lot of people when I worked at the Visitor’s Bureau. That was helpful. The business people were eager to have something in the community, but they’ve always been more interested in the fun and entertainment – the participation I can bring them, more than “I need to sell something.”

Prax, KVAK logoI was bringing them ideas, or opportunities as a sponsor, to help me do something for the community.

Things have changed a bit, and a lot of the business ownership has gone out of town, and that’s not a good thing, because they don’t have a vested interest in your community.

How many employees do you have? Three, part-time, and myself. One does traffic. One edits and does production. One manages a lot of PSAs and the email newspaper.

You’re the only one selling? Yes. Three of my four weather sponsors have been with me for 18 years. Unfortunately, they’re kind of at the same rate. I haven’t raised the price that much! I’ve got a core group of advertisers that really make the station go. My traffic manager is my telemarketer. And really, we sell at the beginning of the year. 80% of our business is the same people that are have been going forever. We work hard for the other 20%. It’s really difficult to run a business here, because the city and the state can pay $18/hour. The oil industry pays people $100,000/year for week on/week off just to tie up a boat.

Even with that, though, I don’t have a big problem getting employees; I find people that want to come here and learn something. I had one kid that worked for me all through high school, three of her four years while she was at college, and then she came back after she graduated and wanted a job. I said OK for two years, no more, and then she would have to go away and get a real job. She ended up getting a job at a TV station in Anchorage selling digital media. They created the job for her.

We do a local fishing report, and then it also airs on 3 stations up in Fairbanks. I sell it on my end, and make some money, because Fairbanks is 40,000 people, and Valdez is only 4,000. The program is great for tourism here.

We have an email newsletter we publish, as well. 1,300 people now get that every Monday. It’s a lot of work. We sell print combo packets with that, and it’s been really good.

Kids are a big part of what you do, right? Every month 4th and 5th graders come in and record PSAs for us. We have two different community service themes each month, like sportsmanship or bullying or whatever, and the kids record 18-20 announcements. They’re not perfect. I have kids come in who have speech problems – I’ve had the speech teacher send them to me, because they can be successful with repetition. They don’t have to be a great reader, they just have to get it in their head and say it well, and they can have success.

Kids Club awards party, 2011.

Kids Club awards party, 2011.

I’ve never had a complaint about a kid being on the air.

We do a Kids Club for kids from kindergarten – 5th grade. Kids get their birthday announced on the air, and they get a present in the mail, a little bag they can fill with jelly beans at a local store. Kids Club has won national awards, but I didn’t know what I was doing when I started it. I just did things that were fun.

We’ve had another show, where high school kids come in as part of a class and record a show for broadcast. We also interview every high school senior. We don’t have that many, between 50 and 70 kids, and we air 1-2 minute interviews with each of them in the month of May.

We do every basketball game, home and away. We have for 18 years.

And I do the kids’ fishing derby. The radio station sponsors the event, and we bring out a flatbed truck and sound system for the awards ceremony in a local park. I have kids from the Kids Club pick out the music and voice track liners to play at the event. People love that.

The first year, I thought the kids could help me do the event, so I wrote out some 3×5 cards for them to read some things … I never got on stage. They run the whole awards ceremony and do all of the prize giveaways. I think most people don’t realize how much kids can do, when you have high expectations. I think today’s station owners are missing out. They will say that kids don’t want to be on the radio, but when you look at their stations and ask what opportunities have been given to kids to be in radio, there are very few.

Station promotions? We put on the town’s Winter Carnival. We don’t have a Chamber of Commerce anymore … when we did, they put on the event. When the Chamber folded, then we fell into producing the event. We had been doing a button promotion: we hand out 1,230 buttons numbered 1 – 1,230 (our dial position), and we call out numbers throughout the Carnival for people to win prizes. Plus, if they’re wearing the button, then they get discounts at about 20 businesses around town during the Carnival. We also have people around town that when they see you wearing the button, you win instantly.

Now we manage the event and work to get non-profits involved. The fire fighters use it as a fundraiser to buy smoke detectors to install in people’s homes; they raise $10-15,000. We do an annual cake auction, and we raise $3,500 in an hour. It’s more than I collected in sponsorship for running everything! It kills me, but it’s all good stuff. We don’t make any money on the retail sponsorships, but we do get corporate sponsors to do a lot of things.

We have bear races in the summer. We do play-by-play with 10 bears racing through town. The whole event is tongue in cheek, and at the end somebody wins. Callers can win. It’s all pre-recorded. We’ve had tourists call us and ask where the bears are. They think we’re really lining up 10 bears! We have them swimming. We have them shooting catapults. We have them doing everything. And, it’s all sponsored. Each of the 10 bears is named after their sponsor. This wasn’t my original idea, but it’s a great promotion!

KVAK's Kids Club was one of the reasons Laurie won the NAB's Service To America award in 2005.

KVAK’s Kids Club was one of the reasons Laurie won the NAB’s Service To America award in 2005.

I do the marketing for our little fish derbies here in town. We spend a lot of money out of town to bring people in. My daughter did all of the voice overs for the TV ads. The tourists come in and buy a $10 ticket, and the first place halibut gets a $15,000 prize. Same with the silver salmon. Anyone who buys a ticket has a chance to win a Ford F-150 truck.

That’s huge! We do about $110,000 in ticket sales, $30,000 in corporate sponsorships and $20,000 in merchandise sales. About $80,000 in prizes, $60,000 in marketing, and only about $20,000 for employee expenses to run the whole shebang for the summer. Everybody volunteers to run it.

That’s a station-run event? It used to be a Chamber event, but when they went under, there were 7 of us that took it over, including my husband and I. We now do a women’s fishing derby that had 742 people that came to town for a one-day fishing event. Every hotel was full for miles and miles. The radio station helps in a lot of ways. I send out the press releases, and we post all of the videos of big fish on YouTube.

I’m not your typical broadcaster. I go to the Idea Bank conventions, and they talk about how “this has been in the family for generations” and “this is how we have to do this, its tradition” and I’ve got none of that.

I did just hire my 13-year old son to work for me for the summer. I looked at my pile of applications, and thought he was looking better than anyone else in the pile! I really never thought about my kids being in the business, but them wanting to be a part of the radio has really kept me in it.

My 11-year old daughter reads ads on the air. Her Girl Scout Troop just did a fundraiser. They did interviews and wrote their own ads to raise funds for a project they were doing for foster kids.

What’s your son doing? He’s done basketball … he started running a studio board when he was 12. I would sit here with him. He would get the game on while I paid bills or something. He’s very good at the board. I didn’t think he would read ads well. I told him, “You’ve got to be peppy! You can’t be a 13-year old punk.” And he surprised the heck out of me. He’s now read his first paid ad, and he reads the weather.

Are you broadcasting in HD? No. No one would have a receiver.

Streaming? We stream live events and meetings. We broadcast every city council and school board meeting. Having streaming with music … it’s about the same cost to me as having another station. I don’t have the revenue to justify that.

Website? People subscribe the email newsletter, and that really drives people to the website. The newsletter drives our content. It probably has more content than our local newspaper. We have a sports page, we have some great parents that will email us pictures, and send us the standings for the wrestling tournament. Any festival or event that has a schedule, we’ll publish. We have local contributors that help. We do a school page, and a back-to-school edition with all of the bus schedules online.

We do a lot of video, too. We had a big avalanche that closed off the road system to town for 10 days. So much snow came down … it was 40-50’ high and 1,200’ long. It fell onto the river that is right by the road, and dammed the river, so it was called the Damalanche. I was on-air that week keeping everyone informed about what was going on.

You could still fly in, and you could still take a boat or the ferry to town, but you couldn’t drive. The national news picked it up, and they called me and commented that no one was panicked. I said, “What are you going to do? It’s just a bad week to get salad here.”

We were emailing updates, and posting to Facebook. I think some of our videos got 10,000 views.

You sell the newsletter and website in combo with the station? It’s hard to sell the website, actually, but I do sell some banner ads. The newsletter is a much easier sell.

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? We use it, but it doesn’t really work for us. Facebook is social media. I’ll put up interesting facts, and public announcements. I don’t talk about trivia or entertainment. I don’t rely on that to get the word out. I don’t think people are sitting at their computers consistently to see everything. People that see everything are sitting on the couch, not getting out and buying things from the clients. I think the clients are beginning to understand that … if their ads are in the newsletter, then they are in people’s in box. And, if the ads are also on the air, then they are reminding people when they’re out.

Some clients think they can compete with that on Facebook … but I’ve also had a lot of clients come back to us, because they don’t have the audience that we have. I’m not a huge fan of Facebook. I think it’s a huge waste of time … I don’t see everything that’s on Facebook. People that are trying to use Facebook to announce things find it just doesn’t work well.

What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? My midlife crisis is playing guitar and writing songs. I’d done music as a kid, but hadn’t done anything for a long time. My daughter and I play a lot, and have taken up song writing.

What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? The kid I have that’s working for me all summer is going to community college here in town. He was one I interviewed when he was a senior, and he told me he wanted to get into broadcast. I said, “How about next week?”

I don’t think it’s a mystery for kids here, because they’ve all been in the station. They’ve all worked with us on our promotions, and Kids Club, and the Cake Auctions … they’ve been on-air. In most places, you just hear the sound and they don’t know what it is. Here, we’re out in the community and they’ve seen us. I think kids are more surprised when they get in here and they learn that you don’t just get in here and start on-air. You have to write stuff up. You have to think about what you’re going to say. You have to sell the ad and write the order.

Smarts Broadcast System

Laurie has been a long-time customer of Smarts, and has used our traffic system, Second Generation, throughout our association. A few months ago, she upgraded her automation system to our Skylla system.

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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