#29 – Home Sweet Home

WIRT+ROWLAND+77+MONROE+CENTER

It has occurred to me while preparing to write about my 11 years as Market Manager for Clear Channel in Grand Rapids, that it would probably be very boring to the reader.  After all, upper management isn’t as fun as being on the air.  There really aren’t any funny stories, practical jokes, and all the other things that makes programming so damn much fun.  I’ll try and make this interesting.  I began what would be my longest held position on April 8th, 1996 and presided over what would become one of the company’s most successful markets.

The interesting thing about writing these blogs is that you hear from people you haven’t heard from in years.  And that’s what happened to me today.  I actually got a  message from Stan Webb.  Stan was the person who hired me.  As Lowry Mays grew the company, he depended on his two most loyal Texas managers to be Senior VP’s.  Stan Webb from Austin and Jim Smith (Smitty) from Oklahoma.  I reported directly to Stan.  Stan and Smitty were best of friends too and there was a real sense of comaraderie in those early days of what I’ll call the old Clear Channel.  Despite reputations as being cheap (they really weren’t) I loved working for them.  You always knew were you stood with these guys.

By the time I occupied the mnager’s chair, Clear Channel had purchased 2 more stations.  WCUZ and WCUZ FM were longtime foes.  I competed against them back in the 80’s when I was program director of WOOD.  And Country Giant WBCT (B93) had a rather brutal war with WCUZ when they came on the scene a few years earlier.  Tales of programming espionage were already legendary by the time I arrived on the scene.  And there, on day 1, was Lowry Mays and Stan Webb to announce the purchase of WCUZ.   Lowry walked into the lobby where the staff was assembled and proclaimed “The War is Over”.

Jumping in to manage 5 radio stations from two different locations was akin to putting your mouth over the end of a fire hose and turning on the water full blast.  I felt like the guy on the Ed Sullivan show who would come on and spin plates.  But I knew I could do it if I just focused on the job.  And the job was simply this.  Get the right people in the right positions and then get the hell out of their way.   I was blessed.  I inherited a fairly solid staff, like Paul Boscarino, Gary Allen, Don Missad, and Kate Folkertsma.   Many I had worked with years earlier so we knew each other.  Many were either new to me, or former competitors.   As I was building our sales staff, I knew I had to have one person on the team in a management position.  Henry Capogna had been the sales manager at WCUZ for years but when we bought the stations, Henry was not clear if he would come with us.  He indicated he had other opportunities.   So I contacted Stan Webb and told him I needed his help in closing the deal with Henry.  Stan flew up, met with Henry and afterwards told me “that guy is a sales animal”.  It wasn’t easy.  Henry played hard to catch.  But we eventually got him on board.

B93 was the big country station in the market.  It had toppled WCUZ in the ratings a couple of years before and it enjoyed ratings superiority over everyone else and, of course, it was a money machine.  The staff of B93 were renegades.  They didn’t like doing things the Clear Channel way per se, and they really didn’t like being in the same building as WOOD and WOOD FM.  The previous owner, Bruce Holberg, had purchased B93 and moved them from their Ann Street location where they had the entire building to themselves, and crammed them into the WOOD AM/FM facility in downtown Grand Rapids.  There was no question they resented it – and I didn’t blame them.   And now, with WCUZ in the stable, it became a question of where are we going to put all of these radio stations?  They sure wouldn’t fit at the WOOD facility.  The WCUZ building was deluxe in every way.  Nice location on Monroe Mall,  nice studios, conference room, lunch room, etc.  But it was too small.  So, for a period of time, we operated out of two buildings which was hardly ideal.

About one month into the job, Stan Webb to tell me we had purchased one more station.  WAKX was licensed to Holland Michigan with a great lakeshore signal but a deficient signal in Grand Rapids proper.  Now there were 6.  And it was time to move.  Stan had given me the marching orders locate all of the stations into a new facility.  He outlined for the parameters like needed sqaure footage and budget.  And so I went to work looking at properties.

One day Doug Montgomery came into my office and said he found the perfect place for us.  Doug was the program director of B93 (more on Doug later).   It was the former Michigan National Bank Building in Downtown Grand Rapids at the corner of Monroe and Ionia.  Doug and I walked over and met the owners of the building and took a tour.  Doug was right.  It was perfect.  We both could envision what would go where.  We brought others over to check out the place including our chief engineer, Don Missad.  After all, a lot of the build out would fall squarely on his shoulders and I had to make sure the building could support all of our roof gear like satellite dishes, antennas, etc.  Don said it looked good to him too.  So, with negotiations on rent, contractors, and parking for staff to our satisfaction, the build out began.  Clear Channel Grand Rapids would occupy 18 thousand square feet on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.  Several months later, we all moved in.

I managed this one big happy family from 77 Monroe Center for over 11 years from 1996 to  September, 2007.   During these years, we not only completed a build out of the new facilities, we added a 7th station (WSNX), commanded the top 4 rankings in the market,  took the biggest piece of the revenue pie, rolled out a profitable internet component, and took WOOD from 5,000 watts to a brand new transmitting plant cranking out 20,000 watts.  In 2005 Clear Channel Grand Rapids was recognized as the top Midwest Medium Market cluster for the company, generating over 22 million dollars in revenue and returning 51% of it to the bottom line.  I was named VP of the year.  It was one helluva run.

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