True-Life Radio Tales

The Last Station

Finding myself in Syracuse, New York and out of work once again, I sent resumes out and networked very seriously. I did get a bite via a friend in Minneapolis. A group had purchased an FM station and was looking for a program director to launch the new station. It had no staff or studio – just the station.

The station was WCTS-AM, owned by the Christian Theological Seminary. Colfax, the new company that had bought WCTS, had recently purchased KQQL-FM (KOOL 108, an oldies station) and was looking to expand. As the story goes, they approached the Seminary and suggested they’d like to purchase the FM station, and give them (subject to FCC approval, of course) an AM station in return plus a check for $10,000,000. “Hallelujah! Praise God.” The deal was done.

So Colfax now had this FM station, which had previously featured a religious-programming format. Colfax then shut down the station while they researched the competition, did some upgrades, built studios and hired a program director to assemble a staff and give it direction. Several radio industry consultants assured success, but agreed it would face a highly competitive format war.

A format was chosen, as the two stations currently doing that format in the Minneapolis area were thought to be weak. A marketing person was asked to come up with ideas for the new property.  Apparently an entire book of ideas was presented, none of which would have worked – yet one slogan was brilliant and would subsequently be adopted.

Back in Syracuse, I had to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), which I happily did, before they would tell me the new name of the station, as well as its format and slogan. When I found out the new name, I laughed and laughed, and actually had to put the phone down to gather my wits.

The new station would be called BOB. The slogan would be “Turn Your Knob to BOB.” The format would be New Country.

Searching for the call letters WBOB-FM, they were found to be owned by a disgruntled ex-wife, who had won the station and call letters in a divorce settlement and was happy to part with them for cash.

A studio was built in the KQQL space, and I set about finding personalities, building the music-playback algorithms and so on. Six weeks later, we launched with a million-dollar marketing budget – heavy TV, prime “super” billboards (the really large ones) and more.

The WBOB-FM studio. When Bob spoke, people listened!

To make a long story short, one of our competitors dropped out of the race, and we subsequently beat the big country powerhouse station in the area.

But, change was in the air. Colfax had expanded across the country (bankrolled by a pair of industrialist billionaire brothers), radio was a hot commodity in the mid ‘90s, and they sold the company for a hefty profit. Our subsequent owners sold their company after a short time too. Our third owners already owned our competition – the station we had beaten – and after their research, decided to keep that one in the country format. In doing their market research and seeing the high – 80% – consumer awareness for Howard Stern, the new owners decided to kill BOB, put syndicated Howard on in the morning and play what they called “real rock” the rest of the day.

The company asked me to stay. I was given a choice: be the programming director for the rock station, or KQQL, the oldies station. I chose the oldies.

Later, that company was sold to Clear Channel, which eventually became iHeartMedia. The rock station failed, and the former BOB/rock station was now smooth jazz. I was then given responsibility for that station in addition to KQQL.

One day, at an industry gala awards ceremony for which we were nominated for something or other, the president of Clear Channel came up to our table and without thinking, signaled I should “speak with my manager” as I had been a topic of conversation at their budget meetings. The handwriting was on the wall. Back home I confronted my boss and he told me they were “absorbing” my jobs. I had a no-cut contract so I was paid until it expired.

My wife grew up outside of Buffalo and had endured the snow of Syracuse, then Minneapolis, and wanted out of winter. We decided to move to Austin, Texas and had a home built.

My radio programming days were over.

Snapshots:

Upcoming country artists would sometimes visit my office and sing a few songs from their new albums. As an audiophile, this was good ear training for the intimate sound of live, un-amplified music. (Eventually the station built a dedicated performance space.)

Despite the fact that some of the artists had real talent, few made it to a national level of fame or success.

Talent doesn’t guarantee success. I believe the truth is that there’s a simple three-part map to success:  talent, tenacity, luck.

I really enjoyed meeting so many artists, greatly respected their work ethic and wish that they all could have found fame, but only a few ever do.

Here she comes again! Dolly Parton and our man.

Next issue – Bob ends his radio career, begins another and has some thoughts on the state of commercial radio today. – Ed.]