“It was the most important question I was ever asked.”
What got you started in radio? I was just a kid that grew up enamored by radio. I loved listening to the local radio station. I can vividly remember the radio being on around the breakfast table. I can remember listening to severe weather reports as a child, and how calming that was that you had the information about what was going on. I loved DXing radio stations, particularly WLS/Chicago as a kid, waiting for nightfall so you could hear the personalities on that station, or even the local Top 40 station. I was just really attracted to the relationship radio had in the lives of my family and others.
How did you become an owner? I worked part time at radio stations through high school and then college. I was a political science major, and thought I was on my way to law school. I had a dinner one night with my older brother, who challenged me with what I wanted to be doing in 20 years.
It was the most important question I was ever asked.
That was the first time I ever said I wanted to own a radio station.
I expected my path to be a communications attorney, and that would be my path to ownership. That’s what I left that dinner thinking. Thanksgiving break of my senior year, I was home for the holiday and working an air shift at the local station. It was a 250 watt AM in a double wide house trailer. I simply asked the owner what he would take for the radio station, and he said, “Don’t even ask if you’re not serious.”
I thought about it, put together a bit of a business plan, went to the bank over Christmas holiday to borrow the money, and closed on the station in April of 1984, a month before I graduated from the University of Kentucky.
That was the beginning. I struggled immensely, but I learned an awful lot about radio.
And you kept going from there? I grew to 4 stations, and then in 1986 I was approached by the outgoing governor of Kentucky, a gentleman by the name of Brereton Jones. He was interested in getting into business, and that was after the Telecommunications Act. My original company was Newberry Broadcasting, and I rolled that into our new company, which was Commonwealth Broadcasting. That’s when the growth really accelerated.
Who have your radio heroes been? I’ve had two professional mentors. One was an educator, well I call him Chuck, but he is Dr. Charles Anderson, who was a consulting engineer. Another fellow, who has since passed, but he was a television broadcaster in Lexington, Ralph Gabbard. Those two really taught me; they were great advisors. From a pure radio standpoint, listening to Jon Landecker, Jeff Davis and all of the great jocks on WLS back in the ‘70s … those were the ones that really captured my imagination.
I figured out at an early age that I was a decent air talent in Glasgow, KY, but if I was going to make a career out of radio, it was probably going to be doing things besides being an air personality. I love radio, but I tried to assess what my skill sets were, and I was mediocre at best for Glasgow, KY.
Have you lived there your entire life? Yes. I still have a home on the family farm that I grew up on. I’ve been very fortunate to have that base and still be able to travel a lot within the industry.
You never considered yourself a farmer? I spent enough time on the farm to know I did not have a natural aptitude for that. I have great appreciation for agriculture, but I knew that radio was my passion.
How is it to have relationships with your customers and your listeners extending over decades? In our size market, you have to approach every relationship as a long term, repeating relationship. The pool of prospective clients is not so large that you can afford to alienate them. You have to work to build long term, mutually successful relationships.
If you gain a reputation of working with clients that you will help them grow their business, and if you gain their trust, it is incredibly rewarding.
I’ve got clients on my station who were on the air with me in December 1984, and I’ve been able to maintain those relationships all of these years. 31 years later, they’ve gone through ups and downs, and they’ve certainly see us go through ups and downs, but it’s very rewarding to have those long term relationships.
How have you replicated that success as you’ve expanded into other markets? The most important thing that we’ve found to enable stations to be successful in our size markets, is those relationships are critical. The business people in those communities want to feel that they have a relationship with the radio station, and that they have a relationship with the people at the radio station. Our most successful efforts have been where we’ve had a manager who, as far as the community is concerned, has the ability to say yes, the ability to say no, the ability to engage the station in community activities, and is a real driver in that community.
We tell our managers that we want them to be seen at the level of respect of a president of a local bank. They can’t be seen as a fly-by-night business person in town. Sometimes that works out if you can keep the right people in place, and sometimes, unfortunately, you have to back up and re-start building relationships when it doesn’t work.
What I learned, is that my role is to be supportive of those managers, and give them the guidance and resources they need to be successful. The key relationships … I can be a part of that, but for the stations to really be successful, that business owner in town A, B or C must feel like they have a relationship with the decision-maker at that radio station, and that has to be our local manager.
What kind of formats work, what doesn’t work? The personality of the community really dictates what the station is going to be. It’s not a one size fits all. Some communities depend on their stations for breaking news. Others depend on it for entertainment with some information as a part of the package.
I believe that a radio station should be involved in the community, whether that’s leading a Boys & Girls Club campaign, or a strong local news department, or participating in a Relay for Life with the American Cancer Society, or broadcasting the Christmas parade. It all depends on what each community wants.
What are some of the successful events you’ve done? It’s like the old adage, “find a parade and get in front of it.” You can start a lot of activities, but we tell our people to do is find a good event, and add fuel to it. Make sure we take the power of our radio station and help them super charge something that they’re doing. We don’t have a pride of ownership in a particular event, but we take a lot of pride in community spirit.
Events could be anything from a Relay for Life that started as a fairly small event to one that has grown to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in one evening. Getting together with a group of charities that do a concert and share the proceeds.
One of the things that we’ve had a lot of success with is one of our stations in Bowling Green goes all Christmas music, and we identify that as North Pole Radio. Watching the connection that that product makes … it’s not just playing Christmas music; it’s capturing the spirit of Christmas. We have Santa Claus in the studio. We spend 90 minutes giving toys to needy kids, and every kid in every family, even with multi-family homes, gets a toy. Hundreds of calls fly in. Those are the kinds of things that I love. I loved the power of radio when I was a kid, and I still do.
How many people are on your staff? Not as many as used to be, unfortunately. 2008, 2009 and 2010 really forced us to look at the way we were operating our stations. The romantic in me, the old school radio guy, really loves the idea of one guy pulling carts for a 4 hour shift, and handing that off to the next guy. There’s that energy with the studio being occupied all of the time.
But, in our size markets, that business model meant that you had a lot of people that did radio as a hobby. They couldn’t afford to make it a long-term career, and the stations couldn’t afford that kind of turnover. We use a blend of live/local personalities, satellite, voice tracking, in studio … we use a blend of whatever we need to make sure that we stay focused on our programming and stay connected to the community.
It’s a challenge. It’s much easier to stay connected to the community while you’re in the studio at 10:30 in the morning that it is at 7:30 on a Saturday night when no one’s in the building. You have to make sure you maintain that trust with the community 24/7, not just during business hours.
HD? We have 2 stations that are HD stations, and they each 3 sub channels. Like a lot of people, the best for us has been the blend of the HD2 signal with a translator. That’s been very effective for us.
Are the stations connected technically? They are. We started doing that back in 1998. I got together with John Schad of Smarts with the idea of sharing audio over the internet, and we were sharing production resources group-wide in 1998. To my knowledge, we were doing it with Smarts before anyone else was doing it. The system was called Spider. We really made it a way of life, and we continue to share production across all of our platforms.
Streaming? We stream a lot of our non-music programming, like ball games. We stream a few of our music stations. With the unpredictability of cost for music streaming, as set by the Copyright Royalty Board, it’s left us paralyzed. I’m hoping that some of the proceedings this year will show some relief for the broadcast industry. It’s hard to see a business model there.
Electronic media? That’s an area … I’m not trying to put my head in the sand, but we don’t need additional inventory. We’re trying to put more focus on our core products. That doesn’t mean that I think the people that are developing their electronic media are wrong-headed. We’re focused on our core products and maintaining our customer relationships in our communities.
I don’t know if station websites are as vital as they were 10 years ago. We had them then, and we still have them, but I think that Facebook, and particularly twitter and Instagram are rapidly evolving and more new technologies will emerge that we need to stay on top of.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? Different stations have different strategies, but we have an AC station. We challenged that station’s staff to make sure that content shared on social media was relevant to the core audience, and that you’re not just reposting pablum. Make sure that what you do informs people, and keeps them connected to the radio station. And, skills ebb and flow. Some are better with social media, some are better on-air … and as you lose people and gain people, those efforts seem to peak and valley.
When we do things, if we have visitors in the studio, let’s make sure we post good content and not just post another picture on Facebook. Like everybody else, I get an onslaught of social media, an onslaught of emails. I have those places that I feel put more value on my time, and I depend on those sites more.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I love spending time with my son. I’m on a little bit of an old movie binge with Netflix. I am watching more black & whites these days … I used to go to movie theatres more, but now I often find myself at home, eating my own popcorn.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? Radio is the most rewarding career that I can imagine. It has been so rewarding for me emotionally, and it’s served me well financially. I think there’s a balancing act between the technologies of today and the romanticism of the past … and by that I mean the personalities that made radio such a great medium.
You can’t see a radio station as just a computer program that plays one file after another after another. If you do that, you’ll have a very functional, clean and perhaps error-free station that doesn’t generate any emotion from your listeners. We’ve got to be in the emotional connection business.
If you’ll study what it takes to be a great personality – not just a personality on the air, but a great personality – and use the technology to make radio more efficient and do more things for the listeners, then you’ll have a great career. But, it does take an investment into the art. I don’t want to use the word art, we’re not painting a Rembrandt here. The skills, the emotions … it’s hard to explain what makes great radio, but if you love radio, you’ll know it when you hear it.