COVER- Sold! Clear Channel stations change hands
In 2002 it seemed broadcasting behemoth Clear Channel had an iron lock on the Charlottesville radio market. The corporation– which owned more than 1,200 stations across the country– had purchased five local stations in 1998 and had swiftly deep-sixed numerous drive-time programs featuring local hosts.
Charlottesville was not the only city experiencing such changes. In fact, the local radio market was following a national trend– bemoaned in the 2002 Tom Petty song "The Last DJ"– moving away from local radio programming with live DJs toward syndicated shows tweaked ever so slightly to make them seem local.
That tide may be turning with the sale of 448 Clear Channel stations, including the six in Charlottesville now under contract with the newly formed Monticello Media LLC for $7.75 million. The sale will close once the FCC approves the transfer of licenses, something Monticello Media brass say could happen in the next few weeks to few months.
George Reed, the Florida-based CEO of Monticello Media and a media broker who helped Clear Channel negotiate the purchase of the Charlottesville stations back in 1998, says he didn't expect to be buying a station– much less six– but the Charlottesville market was too good to pass up.
"The main appeal is that it's very strong economically," says Reed, who owned one Chattanooga FM station in the 1980s before selling his shares to his partner in the early 1990s. Charlottesville, Reed says, is "a great market in that it's far enough away from Richmond and D.C. that you don't have those signals coming in."
Though the deal hasn't yet closed, Monticello Media has taken over station operations and hired a staff. While some have moved into the area for the new jobs, others have a history with local radio. Dennis Mockler, a 30-year radio veteran who served as vice president and general manager of the competing Charlottesville Radio Group (Saga Communications) for about 18 months before leaving earlier this year, will resume those titles at Monticello Media.
Mockler says the fact that Monticello Media is a small, privately held company holds great appeal.
"Despite what anybody says, you truly can be local," Mockler says. "We don't have to worry about answering to Wall Street or analysts every quarter; we just focus on doing what's best for the community."
Saga general manager Renee Quisenberry did not return the Hook's call for commen on this story by press time, but the former owner of the Saga stations, Brad Eure, says there are pros and cons to the sale of the Clear Channel stations.
"It's positive that it's not Clear Channel anymore, since they don't know how to operate small market stations," says Eure, who sold Saga three stations– WINA 1070AM, WWWV 97.5FM, and WQMZ 95.1FM– that were its original backbone. (Saga has since added WVAX 1450AM and WCNR 106.1FM, known as The Corner.)
Since Reed doesn't currently operate other stations, "Whether he'll have success is to be determined," says Eure.
Eure had his share of success in the radio biz, but also felt the sting of failure when he unsuccessfully fought Clear Channel over its right to purchase WUMX 107.5 for just under $6 million in 2002 and 2003. (The FCC eventually permitted the purchase.)
Eure says Monticello Media's purchase price of $7.75 million (about half what Clear Channel paid for the stations in 1998) marks a bargain for Reed, but also might signify slumping revenues for the stations.
Mockler says he's confident the stations– with new ownership and his management– will prosper. "My concern is to make sure each of our radio stations is filling a need of the community. If we do that," he says, "we'll be in great shape."
"Pensive" describes Mockler's feelings about going up against his former employer. "It's not something that would be my preference," he admits, "but this was a great opportunity."
Mockler says Monticello Media will also make certain programming changes, but not immediately.
"All I can tell you and the community is 'Keep checking us out,'" says Mockler. "Exciting things are coming up."