Local Radio Spotlight: Koser Radio Group

December 10, 2014


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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The original monitor speakers loom large over the tiny WJMC(AM) control room

Radio: So you must be following the NextRadio project then?

TK: Exactly. We''re in the process of getting involved with NextRadio and TagStation as well. As long as radio continues to adapt, I think the future for local radio is bright ... and as long as we focus on localism. I use the term hyper-local. Our focus here is to be hyper-local. Anything that''s happening in any of our communities within our 50-mile radius, we''re all over it and we''re involved as much as possible.

Radio: Along those lines, what does the phrase “live and local” mean to you?

TK: It means people, first of all. Number one, you have to have people to be live and to be local. Is that an investment? Yes. There''s no question that we have maybe 2–3 times as many people as a typical operation in a market this size. Some operators would look at that and say that''s crazy — you''re spending so much money on all those people, but I say we make the money that we make because of the people. All of our morning shows on all of our radio stations are live. Do we utilize voicetracks? Yes, absolutely we do, but not at the key times ... Morning shows, some midday and afternoons. If you really want to provide the content that makes you local, you need to have the people. So that''s the first thing ... Live and local means people. Good people.

The station's original McMartin audio console is still used to record stories in the newsroom

Radio: What percentage of programming would you say is live vs. voicetracked or satellite?

TK: It depends on the station. Our AM information station, 1240 WJMC is kind of like the WCCO of our local area. We''re probably 70 percent live. The other 30 percent is either syndicated programming or sports, whether that be the Brewers, or the Bucks, or the Badgers, or the Packers. On our FM stations it''s probably about 50/50 between live and voicetracked.

Radio: But you don''t use any syndicated music satellite services?

TK: We don''t. We generate all of our music locally, and it''s all customized for each station. In fact, we do all of our playlists internally. We don''t use playlists from any particular service. We monitor a lot of services, but generate all of our playlists kind of the way it used to be done — it''s not like monitoring Billboard all the time but it''s pretty close. Occasionally we''ll be in touch with some record labels and things, but there''s so much information that''s available now via the Internet that you can monitor what key stations in key markets are doing and then customize it for each format. We do it locally.

A large whiteboard in the station's newsroom tracks story assignments for the programming staff

Radio: So what do you see as the role of local radio in the current media marketplace? Consumers are flooded with choices now — you kind of touched on that earlier.

TK: I think it depends on the size of the market. The smaller the market, the more local you need to be. But then again, look at a market like Minneapolis. The more and more I listen to Minneapolis radio, the more I hear local involvement. The fact that they''ve got FM sports talk now I think is a really good example of how important it is to be local. For us, a small market like we are, local content is really vital to our success. What I mean by local content is interviews and talk shows with people in organizations that make a difference. Every day we have a half hour on one of our AM stations designated to public affairs programming, which includes school superintendents that come in and talk about the last board meeting, village presidents and mayors who are coming in after every city council meeting or county board meeting--you know, talking about issues and things that are being decided at those meetings. We also cover organizations that are important to the area for other reasons. The deer-hunting opener was two days ago. We had the Department of Natural Resources game warden on the air answering questions live about deer hunting regulations and those kinds of things. Our news department is kind of unique. We have one full-time news guy, but we have three others who are participating and generate local stories and features every day. We''ll generate four features every day about various things that are going on in the community and things that are happening in our region. We don''t spend a lot of time on investigative reporting, but our stories are a reflection of things that are going on in our community. Instead of simply viewing ourselves as announcers, we view ourselves as content generators. It''s all about content. You can''t have local content if you don''t have the people to be able to generate that local content. I think local content is vital to the success of any broadcast operation.

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Radio: How have social and digital media impacted what you do as a broadcaster? What about other Internet-based outlets like Pandora? Do you see that having an impact, particularly on your music formatted stations?

TK: We''re such a hybrid with all of our stations. We''ve got a classic hits FM station, we''ve got a today''s hits FM and we''ve got a country station. Those three FMs are here in Rice Lake and the same in Escanaba, but we also combine it with a unique mix of local news and information in the mornings in particular, and local sports. We do high school play by play on all our FM stations. That''s interesting because there is always a pushback from programming types — “Boy, you''re going to stop your music and put 2–3 hours of a high school game on the air?” I say yes, because one of the greatest forms of live entertainment, local entertainment in the area is local high school sports. We aren''t just a music station playing 56 minutes of music an hour — even our commercials are viewed as being information. I''ll never forget a listener that came up to me while I was doing a live broadcast from a furniture store. She thanked me for all of the great information that we give out to tell her where all the sales are, because she would never know where all the great deals are otherwise. It struck me that people view commercials a lot differently than maybe the broadcast industry does. Listeners view it as helpful information — if it is done correctly. If we do it creatively, if we do it innovatively ... we''ll even do two- and three-minute infomercials on our FM stations.

Morning show host Ryan Quinn in the WAQE(FM) studio

Radio: I see a lot of the industry talking about reducing spot load. Clearly that''s not the case here.

TK: We''ll run up to 20 minutes an hour in commercials on our FM stations. Again, if we do it correctly, the listeners will stay with them. They need to be creative, they need to be innovative and they need to be informative.

Digital media has had some impact, but we''ve embraced it. We''ve got our own Facebook pages, the station Web pages, and some of our announcers are tweeting. We try to use social media in some of our contesting and those sorts of things to make radio and social media partners.

Radio: Have you been following the trend in the auto industry of the connected car and the digital dashboard?

TK: Again, I see it as an opportunity for radio. We need to stay ahead of this. iHeartRadio was kind of a pioneer in all of this with all of their stations. People need to be able to find you. When it comes to the connected car, you need to make sure you''re there and that you''re a part of it. Car listening has been a huge boon to the industry and we need to make sure that listeners stay connected to us in their cars! The traditional two knobs on the dashboard with the dial in between are going away very quickly, so the ability for listeners to find you on that screen is very important.

We need to stay involved with dealers and the auto industry. I think something as simple as getting together with your local car dealers and asking them to show car buyers how to find your stations on AM and FM radio in that center screen as they are showing them how to use the other features in their new cars can be extremely valuable. Make it a partnership with those dealers to promote both your station and the dealer. I think that''s important so that radio isn''t left in the dust when people can''t find it anymore. The number one asked question by car buyers today is where''s the radio? How do I get my radio stations?

Radio: Overall, what would you say some of your biggest strategies for success in a rural market have been?

TK: Number one, finding, hiring and training good people who want to live in your market. Turnover is the biggest thing that hurts any operation. It isn''t just the broadcast industry — this applies to any business. If you''ve got constant turnover of your employees, then you are constantly putting a lot of time, energy and effort into finding, hiring and training good people. If you''re continuously doing that, then it means you''re not accomplishing the other things that you want to do. Find local people who really want to live in the area. This is where they want to be and where they want to raise their families. It may not always be cheaper. You might have to pay more to find those kinds of people, but that investment I think is worth it. Invest in people and find good people.

Second, be involved in the communities. That means not only the ownership and management being involved, but all of your people being involved in organizations — whether it''s the Rotary club, the chamber of commerce, the Kiwanis, churches, schools or anything else. We''ve had school board members; we''ve had city council members. Be the president of the chamber, be the president of the Rotary. If you''re going to be a member of an organization, be the best member and contribute the most. Don''t just be there in name only. Be involved and be leaders. Being a leader in your community is a huge thing. It''s a lot easier to give money than it is to give time. Those that give time end up getting back so much more in return than they have given — at least I have, personally. I''ve been president of the chamber; I''ve been a past chair of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and on that board for a number of years. You think about all time, the meetings, the fundraising ... What we get back from that is so much greater than what we''ve ever given.

Radio: Finally, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the industry as a whole going forward? If you could communicate something to the industry as a whole, what would that be?

TK: I would say continue to adapt. Technology and the world around us are changing rapidly every day. Embrace that change instead of being resistant to it. Any opportunity that we have to innovate, to be different, to be new, we''ve got to embrace that. Don''t be afraid to change. Every time we change it''s uncomfortable, but we grow. Any time you''re out of your comfort zone it''s not fun, but you get better. That''s the biggest challenge we face. Can we change quickly enough in order to adapt to what people need. We''ve got to be able to give them what they need.

Radio: Thanks for your time, Tom, and thank you for your contributions to local radio.


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