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Alpha Radio is on an aquisition tear, but its six home stations set the tone.



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - From the shiny PacWest Center, Alpha Media President and CEO Bob Proffitt oversees the #4 radio chain in the country.

Alpha Media, which owns a chunk of Portland’s mainstream radio, has been gobbling up stations across the land. It’s now smaller than only iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel), Cumulus and Townsquare.

Its acquisition of Digity in February 2016 brought Alpha Media a new high total of 251 radio stations in 53 markets, making it the fourth largest broadcast company in the country in both station count and market count.

In a walk through the Alpha offices in the silver PacWest Center opposite Portland City Hall, you get a sense of what modern radio is like. The sixth floor is color coded and branded by the six Portland stations that form the core of the Portland market: KINK (101.9 KINK, Alternative Rock) KUPL (98.7 The Bull, country), KBFF (Live 95.5 Top 40), KUFO (Freedom 970, political talk), KXL (FM News 101, news talk) and KXTG (750 The Game, sports).

This much talent

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The apparently winking Alpha Media mascot is based on founder Larry Wilson's rescue dog Bear, who had surgery on a bad eye.

In one room a producer Mike/Sway-z is running the Live 95.5 morning show. Listeners of Brooke & Jubal, one of the funniest morning shows around, might be surprised to know they’re piped in from Seattle’s KQMV. The show that brings you the Second Date Update and Laser Stories is usually scrubbed clean of local references.

“I’m here to make them sound like they’re here,” says Mike/Sway-z.

“We are their very first syndicate,” says Randi P'Pool, VP of Marketing, “Brooke, Jubal and the entire morning team come to Portland every other week for local appearances, meetings and anything else that needs to be done.”

In another room, a woman is busy scheduling interviews with pop stars ahead of the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. Kelsey McDaniel, Promotions Director for Live 95.5, has a bunch of plastic trophies on her desk. They will be handed out by the talent, Dan "Huggie" Amsden, to his interviewees at Radio Row. This is a giant junket two days before the awards, where everyone gets a couple of minutes with the musicians. The clips will be shared and then spliced and diced.

“The content has generic backs, and all the Top 40 shows have access to the back log in the skimmer, the full audio, so it can sound as if they are live.” Translation: the interviews are uploaded to a server and can be repurposed by the five stations that syndicate Huggie. It’s sort of live, sort of local.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Producer Mike Sway-Z Munoz works the sound board for Live 95.5's Brooke and Jubal in the Morning. Most of it is piped in from Seattle, but if he does his job right you wouldnt know.

Dog food

Up on the seventh floor, things are more sedate.

“We’re sort of different. We call this the un-corporate office,” says Bob Proffitt, Alpha Media’s CEO. “Other stations have logos with a big fancy radio tower, but we’ve got a dog because we want to.” The logo is a dog who looks like he’s winking, but is actually based on Alpha chairman Larry Wilson’s one-eyed rescue dog, Bear.

Proffitt says his competition in Portland is iHeartRadio, Entercom, Salem (religious) and Pamplin Media (KPAM, Sunny 1550) which also owns the Portland Tribune and the Business Tribune.

Company culture is important. That means conspicuous charity work, such as coat drives, promoting the Waterfront Blues Fest for the Oregon Food Bank and Golfing for the (National) Guard on May 27, 2016. Proper care and feeding of staff — time off for family emergencies. A “fun, high energy, atmosphere” at work. And an insistence on excellent equipment, tidy studios and a cheerful workspace.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - 750 The Game sports update anchor Judah Newby gives the morning sports report. Alphas six core sations are the model on which subsequent  stations are run after purchase and rebranding.

Monopoly money

The business of corporate radio has always had something of a Pac-Man feel: stations are gobbled up and resold with little warning. Formats change, logos vanish and brands are rebranded more quickly than in print or TV.

Proffitt and his Chairman, Larry Wilson have done this before. In 2001 they sold Citadel, the radio company they built, for $2.1 billion or seventeen times trailing cash flow. That is, the last 12 months of cash the company has generated. The multiple used in buying and selling radio stations.

“We all got out and took time off,” says Proffitt. “Then in 2008, my partner Larry in Montana, his wife had passed away, we took a look around again.”

They reconnected with private equity partners in Endeavour Capital’s Portland office and decided the multiples were right to start buying stations again. So they bought their Portland six, and once they had them running efficiently with economies of scale, started expanding.

How do they extend their culture to these new markets? “We go in and do a PowerPoint presentation, the first time around we took them jackets, the second time around we took them T-shirts, for these new ones with Digity we gave them coffee cups and cookies with Bear the dog on them…”

Keep it local

From humble Lincoln, Nebraska, to toney West Palm Beach, Florida, the branding is set. That includes putting “live and local” in the name of each company. Live.local.Lincoln, and live.local.WestPalm.

“I say every market’s 80 percent the same and 20 percent quirky…maybe 30 percent for Portland,” Proffitt jokes. He later states by email, “We used Portland as a petri dish, to make sure our theory that live and local could still thrive.”

That 80 percent of samey stuff? Proffitt says car dealer ads are 16 percent of their business. Financials, grocery and retail are right behind that.

“Ad agencies that buy us are half of the local business, and the local economy is important, whether there’s high unemployment or not.”

For instance, Proffitt loves Peoria, Illinois, where Alpha has the top ranked stations. However, he recognizes local economies are delicate. “If (digging machine company) Caterpillar sneezes and lays off a few people, we have to keep an eye on that situation.”

Going digital

Print is still struggling to turn its prize asset — good writing — into saleable digital content. But radio has had it much easier in the digital revolution. It has always been run by engineers, and they embrace computers. The radio audience is still captive two-and-a-half hours a day in their cars and kitchens, and now in the office too.

Proffitt talks of Larry Wilson, who lives in Montana, as an old friend but also with a younger man’s admiration.

“Larry is a dealmaker, he’s an ex-lawyer, accountant and cowboy - and he loves radio. He’s a visionary, he put together Triad and started buying up these stations in Peoria and Biloxi…” They bought “a bunch of stations” then sold the ones in Fargo right back to an in-market person, making half the purchase price back immediately.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kelsey McDaniel, Promotions Director for Live 95.5, prepares trophies to be handed out by DJ Dan 'Huggie' Amsden, to his interviewees at Radio Row, a junket at the Billboard Music Awards.

Shopping center

“We did some onesey-twosies,” says Proffitt, in the casual parlance of a wheeler-dealer. Some were distressed such as San Antonio Texas, Jackson Mississippi and Columbia South Carolina.

“Our place in Biloxi that we inherited was horrible. Biloxi and Gulfport don’t have the best signals, and we were up against iHeart and Morgan Dowdy (owner of WGCM). They were in the tail end of a third-full shopping center, next to a pawn shop, a bad restaurant and a used clothing store. These guys knocked it out the park and made it work, and we moved them into a great place in Gulfport.”

Because of the wonders of the Internet, a Portlander can listen to Biloxi/Gulfport’s 107.1 The Monkey (WXYK) any time. But they probably wouldn’t, because radio is intimate and skews local.

Exit strategy

If the endgame of all these makeovers is to take Alpha public, Wilson or Proffitt are not saying. But since the private equity behind them is Endeavour capital — the people who put a rash of New Seasons supermarkets all over Portland — you can guess some sort of big payout is expected down the road.

The Digity deal was like two dogs sniffing each other.

“It was either they buy us or we buy them,” Proffitt says. “We had the capability to do it quicker than them. We think this business has a lot of legs, it’s an undervalued business.”

In yet another studio, you can see Steve Pringle, the daytime guy for rock station KINK, alone, talking at his mic, no producer in sight. It’s the blues specialist as one-man band.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Talk Show Host Lars Larson works in his KXL studio at Alpha Media headquarters. Larson loves the modern equipment and skilled engineers, and doesn't even mind sharing an office with liberals.

A few doors down, nationally syndicated talk host Lars Larson is racking up another 12 hour day with his producer.

Larson is effusive about working for Alpha. He likes rubbing shoulders with staff from the six stations, including Shelia Hamilton, KINK morning DJ whom he says is “on the left side of the building, as I am on the right.” He rates the Alpha engineering team as the best he’s ever seen, explaining how utterly dependent he is on every button, switch, cable and wireless link working perfectly for his show to even exist.

The six core Portland stations have been the platform on which a modern radio empire is built.

Proffitt, who lives in Lake Oswego, is a proponent of the keep Portland weird meme. “It’s an awesome place to live, we all love it here,” he says in an email.

And how is it, running a national company from the upper left side of the nation?

“Nothing like jumping on a plane and taking off at 5:10 am like I did last week in order to get to Lincoln before noon meetings start!”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Alpha Media President and CEO Bob Proffitt in his 7th floor office.

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