“And frankly, I like business. It’s not work. It’s fun.”
What got you started in radio? I first came to WY when I was 3 years old, when my family went to a dude ranch near Buffalo, WY. We came out every summer until I was a senior in high school, when my family bought a cattle ranch near Sheridan, which my family still has.
After I finished college & the army, I decided to move to Wyoming, run the ranch and get involved in politics. That was in the early ‘70s, but neither campaign was successful.
One day before I started with a 2nd campaign, a guy wanted me to fly him over to Gillette, WY. I had gotten my pilot’s license. While we were driving around Gillette, we were talking with another guy about what businesses would be fun to get into, and we talked about radio.
A month or so later a radio station in Sheridan had come up for sale. The manager of the radio station got an option to buy it. He looked for investors, and he went to a law firm and met my friends from Gillette. The manager went to Hot Springs, AR on vacation, but left his power of attorney.
I was sitting around with the attorneys on the final day that the option was valid, and we had to exercise it, or it would expire. We decided to do it.
It was a lot more complicated to transfer a license than it is now. You had to do community ascertainment; you had to have someone in management talk to community leaders in many categories, like agriculture, religion, education. You could do a telephone survey with the general public, and then your application would address all of the issues that you’d found.
At that time, the manager of the radio station delegated the responsibility of this survey to his secretary. The FCC bounced the application back for that reason. It took some time, but we were able to redo the application properly and get the transfer made.
The manager began lobbying for a raise, which we weren’t willing to do before we’d begun to run the business. He quit. Then the FCC approved the transfer, but the station had no manager. The son of the owner was the morning guy, and the 2 attorneys weren’t going to give up their day jobs to manage a stand-alone AM radio station located in a used double wide trailer located a mile out of town.
I knew that ranching was not what I wanted to do, so I volunteered to manage the radio station. I didn’t know anything about radio, but I did know something about selling, so I started knocking on doors of all of the accounts that weren’t on air to sell them advertising.
No one told me that a stand-alone AM station was a 2nd class radio station.
The other station in town went on the air in the ‘30s. Their call letters were KWYO. In radio, if you live in Wyoming and your call letters are KWYO, you didn’t go on the air yesterday. The previous owners had done a terrific job. They had served their community well for decades. They owned the market.
I did a survey when I started the radio station, and I think I had 5% of the market in a 2-station market. So, there was no downside and plenty of upside.
How old were you? 27.
Sheridan’s former mayor worked for me when he was in high school, and he laughed that when he walked down the hall in the trailers, he had to walk very softly, because if you walked hard then the needle would bounce off the record.
But, we’ve grown. Now we’ve got 9 radio stations, a couple of websites and a shopper newspaper.
You decided to sell the business? Who wants to buy a radio station that’s done about as well as it can do in a market this size? There’s not a lot of upside potential.
If someone wanted to buy it, they’re probably going to fire all of the long-term employees to cut expenses. Frankly, I’ve got guys who have been working for me for 20 or 30 years. I just couldn’t sell the stations to put a quick buck in my pocket, knowing that it would put my employees out of a job. So, what I did was set up an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan).
I’ve appointed one of the guys who’s worked for me for 30 years as GM. I still go in part time to do my talk show (except on Wednesday, when I play golf). We’ve sold 51% of the company to the ESOP, and the plan is to sell 100% so the stations will be employee owned.
We’re doing it over a period of a time so the deal is not over-leveraged. Deals like that can get crushed by debt service – if you can’t work hard enough to make your note payments, then it just can’t work. So, I’ve spread the deal out over several years to help make the ESOP work.
Now, we’re several years into it, and it’s doing very nicely.
So you’re just part time at the stations? What else are you doing? I did a certifiably stupid thing: I opened a restaurant. People asked, “Have you ever been in the restaurant business?” I said no, but I had worked in been the kitchen manager at my fraternity.
There was a vacant building on the key corner of downtown Sheridan. There had been a restaurant there, but it had failed because the previous owner, quite frankly, wasn’t as good of a business person as he needed to be. I took a lesson from my radio experience, and hired a very good restaurant manager to run the place.
I had bought a couple of small market radio stations several years ago, and they were not successful. I discovered too late that it was a lot different when you were the manager and willing to knock on the doors of all of the advertisers, and work with them to make it work.
When I got the radio station, it didn’t take any time to figure out you had to go around and talk to people. We had one guy that had been there for a while and he had his list. That didn’t cover the community by any stretch of the imagination.
After the previous GM had left, the son of the previous owner, who was working for the station as the engineer and morning man, was supposed to be selling, but you could tell that he hadn’t been in there. The clients didn’t even know who he was.
So, I started calling on those clients and asked if they wanted to buy spots. They’d say no, and I’d ask if they’d ever consider buying ads. “Well, we’ve got a Father’s Day promotion coming up….”
So, I’d call them back in May and sell them a schedule. That’s not the most sophisticated approach, but with a little persistence and organization, it will get you started. I regularly attended sales seminars with the RAB. Over the years, I went to seminars put on by the RAB, Jim Hooker, Pam Lontos, Jason Jennings, Jim Williams and others.
That helped me make my presentation a bit better.
A lot of people will try to build a sales staff, and give them the Darwin list. They give them all of the accounts that are soured on the radio station and expect them to make a living. I was the owner of the station, so I’d build up a list, hire a sales person, and then give them the accounts that I had stabilized. I’d give them accounts that would give them commissions of perhaps 80% of what their salary was, and figure they should be able to take it from there.
That’s worked so well, I can’t even remember the last time we hired a sales person. I’ll bet most of the staff has been here over 20 years or more. They’ve got deep relationships with most of the people they’re calling on.
How did you transition from sales to on-air? I’m a news junkie. I love current events. The only on-air thing I do is my talk show: I interview people. I don’t want to give that up. That’s fun. We did the State Treasurer this morning, and I’ve got the State Superintendent of Public Instruction tomorrow, so I have to do the reading and keep myself up to speed on the issues that pertain to their offices. I’ll do our state Senators next Monday … it keeps me active.
Our county just his 30,000 people, and Sheridan has 17,000 people. We have 2 guests almost every day of the week on the talk show. I’m looking ahead … I don’t have an opening for weeks.
Do you make money on your website? We do.
SheridanMedia.com is our original website. Recently, our new GM decided that we needed a separate site geared specifically to tourists, and that’s SheridanWyoming.com.
I’m very proud of our sites. So many people have said negative things about maintaining websites, but we embraced ours early on as a vehicle to compete with a newspaper.
Frankly, there’s a lot of things that a newspaper can do better than radio. I know you can paint a picture with words, but you can’t take a picture of the high school football game and put it on the air. On our website, you have unlimited amounts of pictures. On the website, you can put complete obituaries with pictures.
For many years, we only had one news guy on our stations. Now, with our website, our news team is 4 or 5 people. We’ve expanded our on-air news coverage because we can use them on the site and on-air. You can send a reporter to a city council meeting, and link a document that they were talking about so your listeners can read the whole document. You can link weather reports so they can get the whole story exactly when they want it. Websites allow you to compete very well with a newspaper. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they don’t subscribe to the newspaper anymore because they get everything they need from our website. That doesn’t disappoint me in the least bit.
Do you have a dedicated web sales team? Our sales staff sells all of the products we have. In a bigger market, when you try to have one person call on a client for one station and another person for another station, you run into a couple of problems. One is that the clients in a small market ask to speak to one person. If we had every station, website & the shopper newspaper, we would have 12 people calling on clients. Clients would not listen to that many people. I know that some don’t get as well represented
I don’t really care if they only sell one product, and their sales increase, I really don’t care … that much. They’re going to have sell more than one product to make their sales grow, and if they still don’t make their sales grow, then we just trim their list and make them work with a smaller list.
How many sellers do you have? 11. That includes the SM & GM, who started as the morning man over 30 years ago. 25 years ago or so, he came to me and asked if he could sell on some clients that are off air. I said I love that! He was at the point that he wanted to start a family, and the money he was making on air wasn’t enough to move out of rental housing and get his own place. It turned out that he was our best sales person, and that’s worked out very well over the years.
Frankly, the people that won’t let programming people sell are missing it. They already have an advantage when they walk into a client, who’ll say,” I heard you on the air yesterday! When you made that joke about….” Compare that to sending in some kid that promises to make radio sales their lifetime job, and then they’re gone in a couple of months. Not every programming person can do it, but if they want to, it’s a terrific combination.
How are you set up physically? We built a new building after about a year in trailer. We eventually had 4 stations in it, and then we doubled the size of the building to hold everything except the newspaper.
Now, all stations have their programming facilities under one roof. Both AMs have their transmitters in our studios. Other than the mountain tower for the FMs, it’s all co-located.
We’ve got 3 live morning shows with different studios. We do some voice tracking, some satellite programming. We’ve got one all talk. One AM station is more of full service format. That station has been the station of the year. Our stations win large market station of the year in Wyoming almost every year. Actually the WY Association of Broadcasters must have decided we’d won it too often, so they changed the rules this year … and we won it anyway.
We got a very nice compliment from the judge of the awards, who said that we do radio the way it should be done. We’re very proud of the fact that we do radio very well. We’ve got a terrific operation that I’m very proud of, and I’m happy to be handing it over in great shape. I hope it will continue that way for a long, long time.
HD? Any benefit from being in HD, or is because you’re allowed to use additional translators. The advantage is that we can generate additional original programming that you can pick up on your car radio.
Streaming? No. The only things we streamed are the shows that we locally originate. I don’t think there’s a big benefit to streaming our programming for people around the world. Big markets, big groups, maybe. But a local business in Sheridan, WY? It’s hard to monetize additional listeners on the stream.
We do stream our local high school games, and that works very well. My talk show is streamed, but that’s all local people.
Do you different advertising on the things you stream on demand? No, just original advertising.
Do you make money streaming? I’m not sure, but it does keep us relevant. There is so much competition these days. Between social media and all of the things going on, you need to have a big footprint. Our streaming of local programming maintains the relevance of our radio station, because people can listen to some of our key programs over the internet, and that gives us our identity in the community.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? I’m not doing anything. You have to talk to somebody that’s younger than me. I don’t. I’ve got younger people that are all in to that stuff.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? We like to travel. This year, I’ve been to Cuba, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Serbia and England on 3 different trips. This last weekend, we did horseback riding, and then played 9 holes and went to a party. We’ve got a place out in the country, and I like to go out there and read.
And frankly, I like business. It’s not work. It’s fun.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? Do you want to be in radio, or do you want to market yourself to businesses in the town that you’re living in? If you want to limit yourself to just radio, that’s probably a narrow footprint. You need to network in some of the traditional media that exists so you have enough arrows in your quiver to get the job done.
Radio’s still a terrific business in a small market. For as far as I can tell in the future, there’s going to be a need for businesses in our town to reach out and get a message to the local customers. We’re a little bit insulated from some of the things of the bigger markets. Radio can be a cornerstone of that communication in a small market. I’m not sure, long term, if you want to be just radio, but if you mix in the internet, our shopper, social media, then you’ve got something.
That’ll get me in trouble with some of my radio purist friends.
It’s a multi-media world. I interviewed Jason Jennings last week about his new book, High Speed Companies. He was talking about some of the companies that are on the scrap heap. Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, Sears, K-Mart … if you told someone in 1970 that Kodak was going being to be bankrupt after inventing digital technologies….
I look at companies that get their clocks cleaned by being too complacent, that’s one of my biggest fears. You’re Sears or K-mart, and then some shtoop out of Bentonville, AR comes out of nowhere and cleans your clock.