Bob Proffitt: Back to Local Radio!

W
hen Bob Proffitt started his career at Citadel Broadcasting as their general manager, they owned 5 radio stations in 3 markets. Fifteen years later, he left Citadel as the company’s president and COO, where he had helped them to amass a juggernaut of 206 stations across 42 markets while also taking the company public. Leaving that position in Las Vegas, he moved to Portland to become president and COO of Alpha Broadcasting, which holds just 6 stations in 1 market: KINK (101.9 FM), KXTG (750 AM The Game), KBFF (Live 95.5 FM), KXL (101.1 FM), KUFO (Freedom 970 AM) and KUPL (98.7 FM). With a love for local radio, Bob has finally gotten back to his roots.

How are Portland radio listeners different from those in other cities?

Well, they have more sophisticated taste. They are also more expressive and engaged. If they hear a commercial on KINK that they don’t like they will call and tell you.

What do you think it is about radio that inspires people?

It’s the entertainment business. I think once you get behind the doors and you see how it really works, it is truly about the people that are in it and their creativity. We facilitate artists, sports and different points of view.

In what ways do you think radio has changed the world?

It was the first social media—it was mass communication of the spoken word. It was fireside chats with President Roosevelt. When the country was bombed in 1944 at Pearl Harbor, it was all of us receiving that news at the same time as a nation. It went from there—from news and information—to entertainment. It is the theater of the mind. I think radio changed the world through what it’s done for music, what it’s done for the theater of the mind in entertainment, what it’s done for news and information. It is still a special medium. According to statistics, 91% of people in the United States listen to radio every day, several hours a day.

What is the best part of working in radio?

The energy and the people. They’re enthusiastic, creative and they are all sort of cut from the same cloth. It’s fast, moving, and different every day.

How do you think people process radio in their minds differently than television?

Thousands, if not millions of people, listening to the same thing, having a shared experience—but they experience it in their minds. The people that like KINK feel it’s their radio station. They feel ownership like they are part of it. If people are going to watch Modern Family, that’s what they are connecting to, they don’t really care what station it’s on. I just think there is a credibility there that TV doesn’t have. It’s live and it’s local—it’s about Portland. If our listeners hear Sheila Hamilton on the KINK Morning Show, talking about a mattress that she sleeps on at night, there is a connection. It’s not about the commercial that runs between Modern Family and whatever. I’m a Modern Family nut. I love that show. I think it’s great. But other than the local news, we just have a lot more local content within the nature of radio. People really feel like they know the different on-air personalities.

It’s companionship, it’s immediate and it’s happening in real time?

Exactly.

With the emergence of so many cable channels and so much content between satellite, Internet, radio and television—is this good or bad for listeners?

I think it does make it harder for consumers to choose. At the end of the day, we want to connect to our listeners and our advertisers in a real and transparent way. I think we have huge advantages there in terms of the choice overload because of the constant, real-time connection of radio.

How has this content overload changed the radio business?

In a couple of different ways. It’s made us all better because we have to work hard to put out the best product because there is a lot more competition. It has made us fight harder for the dashboard in the car. People are driving down the street out there and we are fighting for that dashboard, making sure they are listening to radio instead of Pandora or plugging in their iPod. Before that it was us being better than them, playing an 8-track tape, cassette tape, or CD. Now we have a lot of new electronic media to compete with.

What will radio in America look like in 20 years?

It will still be healthy. It will be listened to on a lot more devices—you will be listening to it on your iPod, your iPad, your iPhone, or whatever. And, I think it will probably be much like television in terms of shifting toward the DVR model. But people like the real time and local nature of radio, so it will have distinct advantages over television in terms of advertising.

Vegas couldn’t be more different than Portland. Now that you have been here awhile, how would you compare the two cities?

I think we are diametrically opposite. There is more community in Portland. Everybody is a lot friendlier. My wife and I noticed that when we first came here. People are also more insular at the same time—they have family here; people have their established friends. New people coming in from the outside, sort of have to earn the friendship and respect of Portlanders. The community aspect is astonishing. I have never seen radio stations so involved on a personal level. It’s unbelievable how much we do at Alpha.

More than other markets?

Much more than other markets. After running 42 markets as president, I would say as a radio group we are absolutely more involved. From the Oregon Food Bank to the River Front Blues Festival, we do more. Over $700,000 was raised for the Oregon Food Bank in a five-day period, and that is phenomenal. We were part of that as a media and radio sponsor.

Why did you leave such a huge job, running dozens of stations across all of those markets, to come to Portland and run six stations in one market?

It was a chance to create something new and to do it in a unique place.

Tell me something unique about Portland.

I was thinking that I’ve only seen one Hummer in Portland.

Oh, there is more than one out here, trust me. Do you think we need more Hummers in Portland?

I don’t think you need more Hummers in Portland, but they do need more bike riders in Las Vegas.

How has the emergence of satellite radio changed conventional radio?

Not as much as the dire prediction that we were going to die. We still reach 14 or 15 million people a week, compared to satellite’s 1 or 2 million. People will always want the companionship of live radio to feel connected in real time. We dominate the dashboard much more than satellite because of that.

Do you think satellite radio would be as successful if they didn’t have Howard Stern?

No, I think Howard Stern was well pretty good for satellite. That doesn’t mean I like everything he does.

How unique is Alpha compared to other broadcasting companies?

Very unique—plus the fact that we are live, local and independent. I can say that because I was on the other side with a public company with roughly 2,500 employees and 206 radio stations. We are only local, and our investors are right down the street from us.

As media has gotten more conglomerated, do you have an advantage because Alpha is owned privately and locally.

Yes. We can make quicker, more intimate decisions. Our CEO Larry Wilson and I can go talk to a car dealer and find out what they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. At one point we decided to take Jim Rome, the sports commentator, off the air. I got a bunch of emails and I looked at them—and the fact that I was here in Portland—I talked to people, I talked listeners, I talked to people that like to listen to Jim Rome, and they said, “Why did you take him off?” I said, “Well, according to the ratings he was doing better with younger men, not older men, and we wanted more of that demographic.” In the end, I was able to listen to our listeners and put the Rome show back on. I believe we are more connected; I live right here, I talk to people and listen to the radio station.

Do you enjoy running 6 stations in 1 market more than running 206 radio stations in 42 markets?

I do because I get to be with the people that are creating our content. I get to wake up and listen to the radio stations in the morning where I live, where I see us do some impactful things.

Do you have a favorite show across all your venues?

 

Ha! If I did I wouldn’t tell you—and I do.

 

Is Internet radio changing the conventional model?

To some degree it is, you know. It’s both the benefit and the detractor.

How is it a benefit?

Because you can listen to our radio stations on your computer, you can stream your favorite radio station when you’re sitting there at work.

Will satellite radio and Internet radio get into the local markets with live feeds?

Yes, but they will never have that live, local person that you connect to that’s right here, living in Portland. They look out of the windows and say, “Can you believe it is February 2nd, February 3rd, and it’s sunny today?” I really do love that.

What is the greatest radio show of all time?

I would say Beaker Street, in Little Rock, Arkansas. When I was younger they played these hippie, counterculture recordings, and you could experience and learn about the creative end of the music business.

Who is your greatest disc jockey of all time?

Probably Howard Stern, love him or hate him.

How has radio content changed over the last 20 to 30 years?

Talk radio has proliferated. Also, the speed of communication makes what is happening much more immediate.

You were born in a small town in the Midwest—how did you get into radio?

I decided to get out of the little town of Hays, Kansas, where I was going to college, and go to what I thought was the big city. I started knocking on doors, and I got a job selling advertising.

What is your passion in radio, and what drives you?

It’s the business part of it and the people I get to meet.

What do you like about the business side of radio?

I enjoy talking to the clients. I like when I’m talking to a small advertising agency and I get to see how they perform their strategy. I like talking to a car dealer and finding how their business is different today than it was 10 years ago, and how radio can be part of that. I like going in and talking to a restaurateur and finding out how they do their business.

You’re a genuinely curious guy. How much do you think being so curious about others has been a part of your success?

A huge part of my success is due to the fact that I believe curiosity is what makes a great salesperson. I tell everybody we are in this business together, we are all revenue agents— every single person. Like our receptionist—I hope she was amazing to you, because everybody tells us about how great Trisha is. She is so friendly.

She was amazing by the way…

She is unbelievable. I think the best salespeople ask the best questions and are genuinely curious and caring people by nature. This interview is a little bit uncomfortable for me. I’m much more interested in hearing about what you’re doing and your thoughts. I think I’m also very empathetic. I can understand people and where they’re coming from, and I think that has been a huge benefit to me.

What makes a good radio host?

They have to be an entertainer. They have to do their homework—they can’t just mail it in. If people knew how hard Lars Larson worked they would freak out. I mean, this guy is about the hardest working guy I have ever seen. He does his homework and he studies. They just have to be able to be concise, and they have to be able to really relate with the audience. When they open their mike, it’s not the tens or hundreds or thousands of people that are listening at any one time. A great host is connecting with you on a one-on-one basis. That’s what makes the difference.

What is the most difficult part of running a radio station these days?

It’s dealing with the new ratings system. Rolling averages every week tend to lend themselves to short-term decision-making. We have to fight that. It used to be quarterly and less neurotic. That’s why I was frustrated when the ratings system changed on KINK—because KINK is an iconic radio station in Portland. People love KINK and they have a passion for it. It went from being one of the top-five rated radio stations, down to 13th or 14th, just like that, when the ratings methodology changed. Now it’s worked its way back up. It had to be maneuvered within the system, and it’s taken two long years to do that. But now it’s consistently in the top five. It is still really a top-two radio station. It has always been a top-two radio station for advertisers. So if I was just looking at data and I was living in Las Vegas and I was this corporate guy and I said, “What the heck is wrong with KINK?” I eventually might have, say, given up and done something differently. Living in Portland, understanding that KINK is a great radio station, we stuck with it. It was the right decision. It’s one of leading radio stations in the marketplace for a good reason.

What is the Bing Lounge?

The Bing Lounge is a great venue where major acts will often play a live acoustic set for us when visiting Portland.

What’s the difference between the Bing Lounge and, say, someone doing a live set on a radio show?

The Bing Lounge has a live audience, so the artists appreciate it more. It creates more of an energy. We bring in listeners and advertisers; we get close to 200 people in it. Then we edit the music down and we put it on our radio stations, and we also give it to Bing, our partner.

Is there anybody that you would like to acknowledge for the success of Alpha Broadcasting?

Well, we are not where we want to be yet, but when we get to that point, absolutely— that’s every one of our employees. We have about 120 fulltime employees and they are passionate about what they do, and on top of that, they are great people. I’d like to acknowledge every single person that works at this radio station in some capacity or form, because they have a passion for it.

About The Author: Jamie Mustard