Oh, how times have changed in the Denver radio market. Back in 2000, KXPK/96.5 FM, then known as the Peak, sold to Emmis Communications for $36 million -- a price tag that didn't seem outrageous at the time. Cut to December 2008, when CBS peddled three high-profile Denver FMs -- KWLI/92.5 FM (known as The Wolf) , KIMN/100.3 FM (The Mix) and KXKL/105.1 (KOOL 105) -- to Wilks Broadcasting, a firm based in Alpharetta, Georgia, for $19.5 million. For all three stations.
Jeff Wilks, the company's CEO, still hasn't gotten over the shock of pulling off this deal. "It's absurd," he says. "It was just one of those right place, right time kind of things."
Now, of course, Wilks has to find a way to make money with these outlets in an economic climate that's choking off profits for just about everyone -- hence CBS's decision to dump its entire Denver cluster at a fire-sale price. And he thinks he can do it the old-fashioned way. "I'm super-excited about bring back radio to what it used to be instead of what it's become," he says.
Wilks has worked in this area before. The Massachusetts native is an avid skier, and upon his 1988 graduation from Syracuse University, "I packed my bags and moved to Boulder," he recalls. "I skied on the weekends and enjoyed the unbelievable Colorado lifestyle. It's really heaven on earth if you ask me." And how did he finance his recreational habits? By working as an account executive at KHOW/630 AM.
Four years later, in 1992, Wilks formed Wilks Broadcasting, and in the years since then, he's slowly but steadily been picking up radio properties. Prior to making his Denver acquisitions (which include the aforementioned FMs and their HD affiliates), he owned eighteen stations in five mid-size markets: Kansas City, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Fresno, California; Reno, Nevada; and Lubbock, Texas. He took over The Wolf, The Mix and KOOL 105 on January 1 under a local-marketing agreement with CBS, and shortly thereafter, his team visited the properties in order to "get some of our systems in place, get familiar with the operation and meet the people out there." And he liked what he saw.
"I think we have two phenomenal brands in The Mix and KOOL and an emerging brand with The Wolf, which I think just needs some TLC," he maintains. "We plan on giving it that."
More surprisingly (and positively), Wilks stresses the importance of having actual humans on the air, as opposed to relying heavily on syndication, voicetracking and other techniques that have been used by outlets in recent years to slim staffs. In his words, "We plan on having live DJs in all the major day parts. We need to do that to be competitive in this day and age -- promote them and get the full use of the brands we have.
"I've had syndicated shows on my radio stations, but there are still DJs there, and they're not voicetracking it," he goes on. "I think that's a huge thing from the listeners' standpoint -- a real benefit for radio, just having a person there. On TV, there's no person who can crack the mic and talk to people with the exception of newscasts. But radio can do that all the time."
Right now, Wilks is short on specifics about what he'll do with his new stations down the line, saying only that while there will be changes at the various signals, but "they'll all be to the good." Otherwise, "we're still wrapping our arms around where things are and where we want to get them to. But we're a private company, which is a big plus. We have a lot more flexibility in terms of planning and what-not. We'll be very promotionally active."
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As for the suggestion that terrestrial radio is on the road to extinction, he doesn't buy it. "I grew up around radio -- my father owned radio stations -- and people were always saying that it was dying," he notes. "In the '70s, they came out with the eight-track tape, and people said, 'That's going to kill radio.' Then they came out with the cassette tape, and they said, 'That's going to kill radio.' And since then, there have been CDs, and recordable CDs, and iPods, and satellite radio, and all of those things were supposed to kill radio, too -- but radio listenership has barely moved an inch through all this bad news. It's really a PR mistake on our part, because people are still listening. Radio is still alive and well."
Employees at the three new Wilks Broadcasting properties should get used to seeing the boss. "I spend a lot of time in all my markets," Wilks points out, "and I'm sure I'll spend a lot of time in Denver. When I was there, I looked out my office window and saw this beautiful view of the Front Range. It's such a great town."
His enthusiasm for Denver is refreshing -- especially considering how eager CBS executives were to get the hell out of town...