Every day, radio stations around the country function as pillars of information and entertainment in their communities. We''re starting a new column here at Radio magazine that will highlight stations, owners and groups serving their communities with their own unique flavor of live and local programming.
This month, we visit with Tom Koser of Koser Radio Group in Rice Lake, Wis. Koser owns 11 stations: five in Rice Lake, Wis., five in Escanaba, Mich., and one in Hayward, Wis. All are locally programmed and operated. I sat down with him to chat about his perspective on the industry and his approach to radio.
Radio: Tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you get your start?
TK: Well, I went to UW Platteville in their broadcast management program with a minor in business. It was my goal at the time to own and operate radio stations. I''m one of the fortunate few who are actually doing what they set out to do. I feel really blessed to be able to accomplish that. From Platteville, my first job in radio was with Midwest Family in Madison. I started out in sales at WISM(AM). I was with them for about 8 years, and then I moved down to Midwest Family''s two-station property in Springfield, Ill., as their sales manager. I managed a sales staff of 10 people. That was interesting because I was 24 at the time, and I was managing staff members that were twice my age. It was a great challenge and a great learning experience. Tom Kushak was really a great mentor for me.
After a couple of years in Springfield, I became the general manager of their two Rockford, Ill., properties, and was there for four years. I was a partner with Midwest Family. With that organization, the key players in all of their markets were also shareholders, and so I was a partner with them during my last four years there.
As Midwest Family was looking to buy more radio stations, I was designated as the person to go out and identify new potential markets and stations. As I kept looking at that, I thought I could probably do this myself. This is my home. I grew up in the Barron County area. What I was looking for at the time (whether for Midwest Family or for myself) was a regional signal, like a 100,000-watt FM that could be the “big fish in the small pond.” I had seen others employ this technique in other markets, so I felt it could work here as well. WJMC, the AM and heritage call letters, had been here since 1939. They also had a 100,000-watt FM which was fairly underutilized, really only marketing to Barron County. As I looked at that, I felt perhaps it could be a good opportunity and could really be turned around. I thought it could be a regional operation and cover all of Northwest Wisconsin, even though we''re based out of Rice Lake.
The main WJMC(AM) transmitter delivers news and entertainment to the area
The Janesville Gazette printing company owned the stations at the time. I was in Rockford, only 30 miles away, so I visited them and asked if they would be interested in selling the radio stations. WJMC was not for sale, but I brought the idea up to them. Fortunately, they said “sure.” I bought WJMC in 1989, so those were my first two stations.
Two years later, I bought two stations in Rhinelander, then a year after that added WRLS in Hayward in 1992. Shortly after, Midwest Family asked me if I would be interested in buying their Escanaba, Mich., stations. Things were going pretty well, but the stations really didn''t fit their model after selling their Traverse City stations. They were more interested in larger markets, so I bought those two stations in 1994. After the 1996 Telecom bill that enabled ownership of multiple FM stations in one market, I went to work expanding my Rhinelander market, and put another FM station on the air. I had 14 radio stations as of 1997. After that I bought two more stations in Escanaba, so I had a five station group there, then in the fall of 1998 I bought the competition across town in Rice Lake, WAQE(AM/FM), and simultaneously put another FM on the air here in Rice Lake, 50,000-watt WKFX. We really quickly grew to having five radio stations based out of Rice Lake, one in Hayward, three in Rhinelander, and a five-station group in Escanaba. In order to finance the five-station group here in Rice Lake, I sold the Rhinelander stations and consolidated into the Rice Lake market to be even more productive. So that''s how I ended up with the current 11-station group. We''ve operated at 11 stations since 1999.
Radio: Who were some of your biggest influences and mentors in broadcasting?
TK: I mentioned Tom Kushak in Springfield. He taught me a lot about management, but also a lot about involvement in the community. You take your living from the community, and you need to give back. I learned a great deal from Tom. My biggest mentor in broadcasting was Bill Walker of the Midwest Family group. Bill taught me so many things. He taught me that people make the difference in broadcasting. At a time when everybody was moving away from and trying to eliminate as many positions as possible in broadcasting, the Walkers of Midwest Family invested in people.
Phil Fisher is another one — both of them are in the Wisconsin broadcasters hall of fame. Phil was really the sales guru of the Midwest Family group. He taught me a lot about the sales and marketing systems that we still use today. Chuck Mefford is another. He''s one of the top sales consultants in the country. He and I have been partners for many years. The real key people in the Midwest Family group have been tremendous and I wouldn''t be doing what I''m doing today without those guys.
Radio: What are your thoughts on the current state of the radio industry? You mentioned earlier investing in people when other stations were trying to consolidate and minimize the human element. You guys kind of took a different approach.
TK: I think the industry future is very bright, because radio is so flexible and radio continues to reinvent itself. That''s its history. When television came in, people predicted the death of radio. All the big radio shows like “The Lone Ranger” and the soap operas moved over to TV and everyone said radio is dead. Radio reinvented itself as a music entertainment medium. When FM came along, the prediction was that AM would die and it would hurt the radio industry overall. They said nobody is going to want AM radio stations anymore. Along came personalities like Rush Limbaugh and talk radio was born. Now, talk radio is the number two format in the nation next to country music. It saved AM radio. The digital revolution came in with all of the new places to get music and other audio. They said, “Who''s going to need radio anymore?” Radio has reinvented itself with localism. Yes you can hear all of the songs from other sources, but you can''t get the other things that radio delivers, whether that be the local news and information, school closings, severe weather, news during natural disasters and other tragedies ... Hurricane Katrina was a perfect example of that. When the disasters hit, everyone including local law enforcement turned to local radio because it was still on the air with emergency backup facilities. The cell systems and other communications went down, but radio was still there. I think radio now is positioned very well because we''ve reinvented ourselves as the perfect complement to the digital age. People can be using their smartphones and other devices, accessing whatever content they want and at the same time listening to radio. FM radio is still one of the most requested apps on cell phones
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