Making waves: Saga buys Eure stations

Over the past decade, local radio listeners have heard munching noises. That was the sound of $18 billion media behemoth Clear Channel Communications gobbling up six of Charlottesville's nine commercial stations.

The other three commercial stations– WWWV, 97.5FM; WQMZ, 95.1FM; and WINA, 1070AM– are owned by Eure Communications, a family business headquartered on Rose Hill Drive.

So when Saga Communications, a Michigan-based broadcasting corporation valued at roughly $350 million, last week announced the planned purchase of all three Eure stations, local ears pricked up: This purchase, after all, marks the end of locally owned commercial radio in Charlottesville. Will it spell the end of 3WV's Big Greasy Breakfast and other homegrown fare?

An unequivocal "no" is the answer, says owner Brad Eure.

"Saga," he says, "allows all the decisions to be made in each individual market."

Not only will the stations' staff remain, says Eure, but he himself will also stay on.

That, says Saga spokesman Samuel Bush, was the most important consideration in the decision to purchase the stations.

"We would not have bought it except that Brad agreed to stay on as president and general manager," says Bush. "Far be it for us to come in and say we can do a better job than Brad."

Indeed, Eure has kept his stations afloat in the battle against Clear Channel– though he endured a few setbacks in the process. In the late 1990s, the Justice Department, in an anti-monopoly maneuver, requested that Eure sell two little AM stations, WCHV and WKAV, in order to assemble his current powerhouse roster of three. Ironically, the Justice Department's slap at Eure wound up helping Clear Channel, one of America's biggest radio conglomerates, gain control of those six local stations.

But today, Eure says that ended up being a good thing.

"We're doing very well with three," he says. "It may have been a blessing, instead of having five or six."

Mike Friend, founder of noncommercial WNRN, now the lone locally owned station, says he doesn't expect any changes listeners will notice as a result of the Saga sale, which is slated to be complete sometime in first quarter 2005, following FCC approval later this fall.

"This is a company that has a little more sense than Clear Channel," says Friend of Saga, which has made Forbes' list of top 200 small businesses for the past three years. "Saga's not going to screw with things just for the sake of screwing with things," adds Friend.

Clear Channel market manager Hank Kestenbaum says it's unfair to say his company hasn't supported local programming while Eure has.

A significant number of WINA's shows are syndicated, he says, while Clear Channel has popular local programs, including the Thomas and Thomas show on country station WCYK, and the Vinny Kice morning show on 102.3, WSUH.

"You get into this local and syndicated ballyhoo," says Kestenbaum, "and most of what is done at Clear Channel is done locally here in Charlottesville. Most of what's done at Eure is done locally in Charlottesville."

Saga's Bush believes his company's purchase of Eure will make the three stations even more competitive.

"We can bring significant resources financially, program wise, operations wise," he says. "We'll be advisors to Brad as he continues to grow what he and his family have already accomplished."

Indeed, Eure's stations have succeeded in attracting a broad listener base, says Friend. That, in turn, attracts advertisers.

"They do a pretty good job over there of getting adult men and women who buy cars and drink beer," says Friend. "They get the husbands with 3WV, the women with 95.1, and the nursing home crowd with WINA."

That may be the sweetest music for Saga's ears.

"It all works together," says Friend, "like a money-making machine."

(From left) 3WV's Max Hoecker and Rick Daniels with owner Brad Eure