Last of his breed

Thom Mandel doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t in love with radio. Ask him how long he’s been in the business, and he’ll reply, “All my life.”

He saw his first concert, a show headlined by the blues band Canned Heat, when he was still an adolescent. And he began producing rebroadcasts of live performances by area bands at local bars for the John Carroll University radio station WJCU-FM before he graduated from Shaker High School in suburban Cleveland.

“Back in those days, WMMS-FM in Cleveland was doing their Coffeebreak Concerts,” he says. “We were doing our Teatime Concerts. I was taping those in town and bringing the tapes back to the station and editing them. … We’d just go around to wherever we could find interesting people to record.”

The kid who turned out imitations of one of the most popular programs ever launched by the once-venerable rock powerhouse is now at the helm of a fledgling radio empire. Mandel is majority stockholder and managing partner of Rubber City Radio, a small, privately held corporation that owns Akron classic rock station WONE-FM, country station WQMX-FM and talk radio station WAKR-AM, as well as four stations in Lansing, Mich.

The 45-year-old is a dying breed in a world where more and more radio stations are being snapped up by huge corporations such as San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications (owner of Cleveland radio stations WGAR-FM, WMJI-FM, WMMS-FM, WMVX-FM and WTAM-AM) and New York City-based Infinity Broadcasting (owner of Cleveland radio station WNCX-FM). According to the Spring 2001 edition of the Standard Rate and Data Source Radio Advertising Source, Clear Channel owns a whopping 768 stations in the United States and Puerto Rico; Infinity owns 159.

“The independent stations are few and far between,” says longtime radio consultant John Gorman, the former WMMS vice president and director of programming often credited as the architect of the station’s rise to national prominence. “He is one of the few small broadcasters left.”

Gorman explains that the Federal Communications Commission, operating under the theory that radio frequencies belong to the public, at one time limited the number of stations any one company could own to seven FM radio stations, seven AM stations and seven television stations. (The number was upped to 12 of each in 1980.)

That regulation, he says, promoted diversity of ownership.

“It allowed a lot of people to be involved in the process of owning a radio station,” he says.

Moreover, owners were required “to serve the city of license” by broadcasting a certain amount of public affairs, public service and news programming — the renewal of their licenses depended on it. During the renewal period, opposing parties had the right to petition to deny that renewal and file competing applications to obtain the license.

Anybody could challenge the license if they felt the station was not doing a good job,” Gorman says.

It was in this environment that Mandel bought his first radio station, WDBN-FM in Medina, with a group of investors in 1988. The Syracuse University alumnus had always wanted to own a place on the radio dial, and life as an on-air personality had lost its charm at country station WKSW-FM (now WGAR-FM) in Cleveland, where he landed a job after graduation.

“Putting 40 hours a week into sitting in a radio studio and playing the same records over and over gets tedious,” he says.

WDBN, a station that played what Mandel calls “automated elevator music,” had turned a healthy profit for owner Bob Miller.

“But by the late ’80s, the audience for it was pretty much all in the graveyard,” Mandel says. “It had to change. The previous owner knew it but wasn’t prepared to do it.”

Mandel renamed the station WQMX and changed the format, first to adult contemporary, then to country.

It just took off like a rocket,” he says.

In 1993, he acquired WONE and WAKR after the stations had changed hands three or four times in seven years.

“They were damaged in the process,” he says. “We were able to buy them at a very favorable price, significantly less than our seller had paid for them. Because we were local and in town, we knew we had the ability to catch them and turn them around.”

But the system under which Mandel and others had built their businesses changed dramatically in 1996 with the passage of a telecommunications act that eliminated the restriction on the number of stations a company could own (although it still prohibits owners from buying up an entire market); amended the licensing period from five to eight years; and eliminated a citizen’s right to file a competing application. The FCC still allows petitions to deny radio station renewals but no longer considers whether the public interest would be better served by someone other than the original owner.

“Now, if you own a license, you really own a license,” Gorman says. “It suddenly made a license far more valuable.”

As a result, many of Mandel’s independent peers have cashed in and sold their stations to the corporations which can afford to buy them.

“Many of us have sold out just because the dollars are so high,” he say. “That’s why so many stations have fallen into the hands of five companies that own virtually everything.”

Mandel doesn’t begrudge the big guys their holdings. He contends that the state of radio is similar to that seen in the ’60s, when each market was dominated by three or four operators. The only difference is that the single one-format-fits-all station each then owned has been replaced by a number of stations that cater to very specific tastes.

“We slice and dice rock six different ways, we slice and dice country two ways,” he says. “We have a couple of different adult formats, we have five or six different talk formats.”

Of course, he’s looking to add stations to Rubber City. The radio stations in Lansing — alternative rock station WWDX-FM, mainstream rock station WJXQ-FM, classic hits station WVIC-FM and all-sports station WQTX-FM — were purchased just last year. He likes medium-sized markets that provide a respectable return on an investment in the station, yet are small enough to “wrap your arms around.”

These markets, he adds, generally require fewer dealings with unions such as the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists.

What bothers him, however, is the fact that many companies are cutting costs by eliminating the local programming that made each station a city’s own and replacing it with a generic counterpart. He describes a scenario in which a disc jockey in Cleveland gets off the air and tapes breaks for sister stations in smaller markets, perhaps Findlay, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Ind.

“When the entire radio station, 24 hours a day, is made up of canned disc jockeys that phone their shows into a computer, the local community loses something,” he says.

In contrast, the importance of community service is stressed at Rubber City Radio. Mandel calls the stations’ participation in and sponsorship of events such as First Night Akron, the city’s family-oriented New Year’s Eve celebration, and the Jewish Community Center of Akron’s KidsFest “the most important thing we do.”

He spends considerable time and effort home-growing on-air talent, making names instead of hiring them. (“We don’t have a lot of people banging the doors down to come work in Akron,” he admits.) WONE did try running a syndicated morning show, “Bob and Tom,” for a year after Mandel failed to find local personalities he thought could turn in a consistently competitive show.

The Indianapolis-based duo was subsequently dropped in 1999 because many listeners complained they didn’t play music; others dismissed them as Howard Stern wannabes. One of Rubber City’s stations in Lansing, however, still carries “Bob and Tom.”

“In most towns, there’s room for one of those kinds of shows,” Mandel says. “The one that gets there first is the one that’s going to be successful.”

Mandel admits that advertising sales for 2000 weren’t “exactly to my satisfaction.” However, first quarter revenues are up 10 percent over last year.

“Nationwide, the industry is soft right now,” he says. “We consider ourselves very lucky.”

He says the price of ad spots was driven up in many markets by free-spending dot-com concerns, driving away traditional radio advertisers such as car dealerships, grocery stores and department stores. Rubber City never benefitted from the dot-coms’ spending spree (“They spent it all in Cleveland”), but it didn’t suffer when the dot-coms went belly-up.

“When all the regular advertisers went away, we got busy last year and started mining the local community to replace that business,” Mandel says.

Some may wonder why Mandel continues to come into Rubber City’s midtown Akron offices/studios and worry about advertising sales when he could follow other independent radio owners into a lucrative early retirement. The answer is simple: He’s not ready to retire.

“From where I sit, it looks like an awfully long time at the beach,” he says. “What am I gonna do? Take the money and buy another radio station that’s overpriced? I might as well keep the ones I have.” How to reach: Rubber City Radio, (330) 869-9800