“Since 1982, I haven’t worked a day in my life.”
What got you started in radio? I love music. I knew my job had to have something to do with music. I was in a band for several years, and that wasn’t all roses. We slept in some pretty scary places, and ate in some pretty bad dives.
I love radio. I grew up listening to Casey Kasem and American Top 40. I would call in to win contests. I’ll never forget the time I called in to win a box full of records. I thought that would be the greatest thing. Of all of the records in the box, only two were worth anything. The others were just records that they’d been sent that were never played and never heard from again.
The station we listened to all of the time was KKLS-AM. I worked in construction with my Dad, and we always had a radio on when we were working. It was always on the local station, KCOW, or KKLS, the Black Hills Best, from Rapid City, SD.
At night, I grew up listening to WLS/Chicago … loved that station at night on my transistor radio. I also listened to KOMA/Oklahoma City. I had the transistor radio under my pillow. Sometimes I would fall asleep with the radio on, and in the morning the battery would be dead. When they invented the pillow speaker, I thought that was pretty cool. A small, plastic speaker, so you could listen without putting the bulky transistor radio under your pillow.
Where’d you go after being a board op? I went to KPNY in Alliance, NE; I did overnights, and then nights on that station, which was AOR. Moved to KOBH in Hot Springs, SD, doing sales and an on-air board shift. From there, I moved to Tracy Broadcasting in Scottsbluff, NE, where I worked for KMOR. We bought a station, KEYR, and turned it into an oldies station. Our main competition, KOLT, ended up going dark, and we bought them. I was OM, and we ended up with four stations there and were about to take on 2 more when I took a job as GM in Grand Island, NE for KLRB, the Killer Bee, and KMMJ. Worked there, and then was brought over to York, NE to be the OM for KAWL and KTMX.
I started a small sideline business, doing sound support for festivals, outdoor events and weddings. I ran it all out of an old ambulance. I put the equipment on a gurney, which made it very easy to take it in and out of events. My wife wasn’t sure about this when I told her what I wanted to do, but it worked very well. I parlayed it into a very nice part-time job, and was earning quite a bit of money when the boss’ wife said I had to stop doing it because it was interfering with my day job.
I had a large number of bookings in place, and I couldn’t just give that up, so I went looking for another job. I was interviewing for a job at KFRX/KFOR/Lincoln, when my interviewer offered me a sales job on the spot, and then went on to ask me what had I always wanted to do? I told him I had always wanted to own a radio station. He asked how old I was, and I told him I was 40. He then asked, “What are you doing about it?” I said I had done some things, but had not done much lately. He then said that if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it.
I thought that was an odd thing to say in an interview for a sales job, but I went home and thought about it. I had another job, I thought, so I asked the GM in York, “Are these stations for sale?” The GM didn’t want to buy them, but asked the owners, and they asked what I would pay for the stations. I hadn’t really thought it all through, but I had to name a price right on the spot. I quoted a price that I thought was fair, and they accepted it. They gave me 90 days to get the financing. I went out and found the investors with me as majority partner.
I ran the company for 4 years, and then I bought out my investors.
Then, 3 years later, I had a broker approach me saying he had some stations that were a nice match for me if I wanted to branch out. I looked at those, and bought them. The owner agreed to continue working for me, running the stations. He mentioned a station in a neighboring town, a 100 watt water tower station that had an option to go up to 100,000 watts.
I started on that project in 2012, and on June 5, 2014, the Governor of the great state of Nebraska came to flip the switch on the last 100,000 watt station available in our state.
Now, we have 5 stations … but I’m still doing all of the books, and payroll. The stations are all within a 2 hour drive of each other.
Who have your radio heroes been? I owe a lot of my management skills to Mike Tracy out in Scottsbluff, NE. I was impressed by Larry Lujack, Charlie Tuna, Robert W Morgan … people like that really stood out to me as larger than life. They are amazing.
Our weather coverage is 2nd to none. We stay on the air without interruption while a warning is in play (and we have severe weather warning sponsors that help pay for that). We cover not only our home county, but the surrounding counties as well. We have been on the air live as long as 6-7 hours at a time. You wouldn’t believe the amount of letters we receive. A local newspaper ran a feature article about a listener that heard our weather coverage online, and then went to their basement shelter because of our warning. Local TV had no coverage, but we told her about the weather in her area … and then 1/3 of her barn blew away. She credited the station with saving her life that day.
I have managers that focus their attention on giving back to the community. I ask them to get involved, to join organizations. They do that, but they also gather local news, provide local weather coverage, and create promotions and events that people can attend and enjoy. They do non-profit work in the community. That’s marketing, sales, on-air, out in the community, emceeing different events, raising funds for organizations.
That’s what I did when I first came to York to work in the community, and continued when I became the owner.
For example…. In August, we’re putting on the 20th KAWL Community Steak Fry where we raise funds for the Band Boosters & FFA. It’s a one-night event, and they’ll walk away with about $3,000 each for a one-night event. All they have to do is serve and clean up, and it’s done.
Do you devote most of your time to York? Yes. I’m GM here. The other cities have their own GMs.
There’s a challenge today to put up a tower. The environmental issues are amazing. I spent 7 months getting the environmental approval for a 753’ tower. That was going through all aspects from historical, cultural, Native American, Fish & Wildlife … the whole 9 yards. I submitted a 96-page report just on the tower site alone. The site we chose is in the flight path of the crane migration, and I could not construct the tower from April 1 – July 15, based on the 3 different varieties of birds that do nesting in tall grasses. We were actually erecting the tower from November through the end of March. We were 3 days from the deadline when we got it completed.
Were these endangered birds? No. The process also required me to hang bird diverters on the guy-wires. Those are plastic pieces with glow in the dark sticker on them. That added $5,000 to the project for absolutely no reason.
These birds are nesting in tall grasses. Are you destroying habitat? No. The habitat is still there, on top of a hill. The challenges we faced were poor ground quality, which required a 25’ x 25’ pad, 3’ deep, as a base for the tower. The challenges of getting a concrete transmitter building up there, which weighed 53,000 pounds, and then getting a crane up the hill to lift the building off of the semi and place it, was a challenge. But … the station does have a great sound now!
I was so happy that we were able to put this station on the air. We’ve had an incredible response. In many locations, people could never get radio before. They’re so grateful now not only for the entertainment, but, more importantly, the weather coverage and news. I walked into the station this week with an agenda for the day’s tasks … and there were 3 people in the waiting room to buy advertising. I had things I wanted to do, but I didn’t ask them to leave!
I’m blessed. I’ve got a good crew; there are good people at all locations. That’s the most important thing about ownership of a radio station is the quality of people you have working for you.
Take me through each of your stations. KAWL is a Classic Hits satellite format. KTMX is AC, also satellite.
V103.9 is Country, with new and older Country. The Mighty 1060 is an Oldies station. K Bear Country is a hot, new Country format. These three are live 24/7.
Employees? 28 today; I’ll have 30 when I’m done.
Sales? 12. It takes a lot to run 24/7 stations.
How many communities do you serve? Almost all of eastern and central Nebraska is covered.
You’ve used the Smart Touch system extensively. The Smart Touch system is extremely helpful to a small market operator. The ability to send out a play by play announcer who can go to the site, dial in and take control of the station, operate the entire game, close out, record highlights for broadcast the next day, and not have a part-time person on the board is simply amazing.
The greatest gift I’ve gotten from the Smart Touch system was a time when most of my staff was out of town. I was shopping and heard that a nearby bank was being robbed. I went over there with my cellphone, called into the Smart Touch and gave an update on-air. I was on the scene when the CEO of the bank arrived. He owns 33 local banks in the region, and I was able to interview him to broadcast what had happened. The robber had left a box in the bank, which he said had a bomb in it. I was there, live on the air, describing the state patrol operating a robot to go inside the bank and X-ray the box and bring it outside. Having the ability to interrupt regular programming with your cellphone to cover a serious story is priceless.
I’ve used Smart Touch numerous times driving on the interstate when the State Patrol had closed the highway due to an accident, and given my listeners tips on how to avoid the miles and miles of gridlock caused by the accident.
I can’t say enough good things about the Smarts Broadcast tools. They have not only saved my company lots of money over the years, but they’ve also made it a lot easier to operate a radio station. When I leave the facility, I know it’s operating properly. I can’t remember the last time we had problem. It runs that seamlessly.
One week, I had a meeting with the staff to explain procedures they should follow if a serious storm came that made them leave the building: what switches to throw to begin a remote AM/FM simulcast, etc. Also that week, I checked on our generators. I had to clean them out, add oil, replace the battery. And just days later, we had 5 tornados on the ground in our area. I’d sent everyone home but one other staff member that wanted to stay with me. The phones lit up, and we had spotters calling us telling us that a tornado was right behind us. The spotter was yelling at us to get out of the station and get to shelter!
I was able to take the staff member with me to shelter, then call in on the Smart Touch and do live updates from the storm shelter. When the storm passed, the generator was running, keeping us on the air. It all worked, because I trained the staff that week and checked on the generator to make sure we were ready. If I didn’t have the Smart Touch, I wouldn’t have been able to continue the alerts that I had when I had to abandon the station.
Do you combine admin for the stations? Traffic is all separate; with each location having their own traffic director. Production is tied between the locations, and we do have different voices from each location that help out the other stations, but each location does its own thing. We do live programming in York at different times. I try and do an hour-long talk show as much as I can; the staff covers if I’m not available.
I was up in Broken Bow the other day; the GM was off due to a death in the family. I actually ran a morning show to cover on the Country station. I hadn’t done a morning show on a Country station before. I had a blast with it. I kept saying it was my first and last day: that I was going to be fired. Then I went out and made some sales calls, and clients told me I didn’t sound that bad … “there’s no reason for him to fire you.”
Sports? All stations carry local games. We do quite a bit of play-by-play. That’s key in small markets. We have 5 main high schools, and then we have a bunch of others that cover on a game of the week. Each station probably covers about 5 schools.
HD? Not yet. We’re still waiting to see if the market will make it worthwhile.
Streaming? We’re streaming our local programming: talk shows, games. We’ve had requests for streaming of the music, especially on the new station, but at this time we only do the local programming.
The games live on as podcasts? Yes.
Website? It depends on the location. The communities that don’t have a daily or weekly paper, then those sites are huge. Obituaries and such are items that we shine with. We make money off the sites, but not nearly what we would like to.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? We are all over Facebook, and we do use Twitter. Facebook is how we get stories out … when we go live on the air with a prominent story, we hit it on Facebook as well. It’s amazing how much you can drive information on everyone’s smartphones with Facebook. We do that a lot with our storm coverage as well. We get people posting, asking us for weather reports for a specific area. We read that while we’re on the air, and respond directly.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I love going to our cabin on the lake … which just happens to not have good cell coverage. Jet skiing, hanging out with family. I love pulling the kids around and just relaxing. I do collect antique radios and microphones; my wife says I have enough.
I love radio and the history of radio; I have learned the history of each station I own, and have posted those stories on the walls of each station.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? If that’s their true love, then they need to get involved in all aspects to understand it. Work their way up from public service director to on-air to sales to management.
When I bought the radio station, my wife used to call me at 7 o’clock to try and find out when I would be home. You lose track of time. You don’t realize what you are doing is work, because it isn’t to you. It’s love of an industry that’s been very good to me and I’ve in turn am grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to be in this business. I love people.
In this business, you touch a lot of people’s lives, often people you don’t know. I was on the air at KOBH/Hot Springs, SD. I’d been there about a month, and I was on the air one night talking about how beautiful the area, and what a great area it is to live in and smell that pine … truly, God’s country.
Two days later, a letter came in from a lady thanking me for being on the air that night. She had turned on the radio that night while thinking about committing suicide. She heard me talking, and decided not to do it. Her letter thanked me for talking about the positive things in life. In this business, even if I have done nothing else, I can hang my hat on the idea that I touched one person’s life in a meaningful way.
Mark has used the Smartcaster automation system with Smart Touch for the last 10 years, and has just switched to a new Skylla automation system for all of his radio stations.