By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON, PA — Fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, and concerts will all be in festive abundance this weekend as our glorious country makes room for 239 candles on its proverbial birthday cake.
Waves of patriotism will be demonstrated by suddenly omnipresent American flags; “Support our Troops” stickers/banners will likewise be even more noticeable; and a virtually limitless number of often times nondescript items will be saturated in red, while, and blue.
This special Independence Day weekend profile not only isolates one fiercely proud former military officer, it also focuses on a (still relatively new) independent station owner.
Given it is the same person — this makes for an especially fascinating twofer.
Won’t be slain by pure-plays
Instantaneously, one cannot help but be genuinely drawn to, and impressed upon meeting, Bold Gold Media Group’s dynamic, resourceful president/chief executive officer Vince Benedetto, who credits his father for the budding entity’s moniker. “He is a songwriter and he thought that would be a great company name,” Vince states. “It sounds like a company you have heard before – even though you haven’t.”
Rather than fronting a radio-only company – and believing the medium was going to “transform dramatically” — Benedetto added “Media Group” to the title of his “Bold Gold” company, which began coming to fruition in 2004.
Innovation on both the ownership and on-air side tops the list of what radio requires in the eyes of this fresh executive, who participated as a session panelist in last month’s “Talkers New York 2015.”
College students interested in media tell Benedetto they are concerned about radio and they ask him about its future. “The broadcast business surrendering to startup pure-plays would be like the U.S. military surrendering to a small, island nation,” he profoundly exclaims. “It is cool to have an algorithm to play songs and it is probably superior to yesteryear’s music collection, but it has not yet replaced local, engaged, communication content. I happen to like pure-plays, but to me, they are not all that intimidating.”
Amazed that so many are concluding the industry is in trouble, Benedetto asserts, “There is an explosion of audio consumption because it is even easier to consume. It is so strangely un-entrepreneurial to live in a world where audio demand and consumption is exploding, yet so many in our industry act as if it is the end of the world.”
It is Benedetto’s contention that the inverse, in fact, should be the case. “We are in the audio business and we are content creators,” he insists. “The debate centers on platforms – – not art forms. It is ridiculous to think this is a time to roll over and panic. Radio has more ‘touches’ than it has ever had. There is no reason that, with some good old-fashioned hard work, we cannot continue to grow business revenue every year. Cume is great, but I always tell people to think in terms in ‘influence.’ It is better to have 5,000 – 10,000 passionate, loyal fans instead of 100,000 people who have casual glancing contact with a station.”
Inspired by history
At the tender age of nine, Benedetto was developing a strong interest in American history and political science.
Strongly encouraged by his father to watch a videotape of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, the youngster was captivated by the then-newly elected chief executive’s speech. “That was my first cognizant moment of being impressed by things that have happened in our nation’s past,” recalls mid-1970s-born Benedetto. “Our country’s history is worthy of study.”
From there, he went on to read JFK’s “Profiles in Courage” and “PT 109,” which helped to generate his fervent desire to serve this country. “I had made up mind by my early-teens that, in some capacity, I was going to go into the military,” he details. “It was for one reason – love of my country and the freedoms we have.”
Visitors to Benedetto’s present-day home will find his vast library collection is well represented by works written about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.
Constantly pushing up the total
Popularity of CBS-TV’s “NCIS” franchise made it possible for many to become familiar with the Navy version of OSI. “I went through my four years at the Air Force Academy as a political science major, specializing in American government,” Benedetto explains. “After graduation, I went into OSI, where my disciplines were counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism.”
What was learned in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Air Force Academy is difficult for even Benedetto to summarize, but it is apparently akin to being in a leadership laboratory. In addition to receiving a tremendous education, he studied military tactics. “You are pushed, pulled, and challenged in all sorts of ways,” he reports. “Attending one of the military academies is almost like a light prison sentence: They are highly regimented with very restrictive freedoms.”
On the very first day Benedetto arrived at the Academy, the flight commander who was putting students through basic training got right in his face. “He asked me how many pushups I could do. I had only been there a couple of hours and it was something I had not thought about before. I was in good shape and I said I could do 50. That was how many he made me do – and he did them with me. It was tough, but I got to 50. Then — he said we were going to do 10 more.”
Next day, the same query was posed to Benedetto, who responded he could crank out 60, only to have the flight commander order 70. Twenty-four hours later, they each did 80 and Benedetto opines, “The moral was that many limits are self-imposed. Six days after I thought I could do 50 pushups, I was banging out 100 of those suckers. My entire four years there was like that; they throw the kitchen sink at you. You are almost overwhelmed as you run on little sleep and you are doing so many things. You realize you are pulling together as a team and you are forced to become incredibly resourceful. In the end, you discover you can do much more than you thought you could.”
Therein lies a nugget for business with Benedetto advising to subscribe to the attitude that, “Come hell or high water, you are going to figure it out and you are going to get it done. Failure and quitting are not options, so you do not think of them as practical outcomes. You spend all your energy figuring out how to get the job done.”
Day-to-day existence at the Air Force Academy though was very different from Benedetto’s actual military service. “Once you graduate, you have considerably more freedom and a lot more control over your life,” he points out.
After his military career had taken him to such locales as Bosnia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, 27-year-old captain Vince Benedetto was discharged from the Air Force in the spring of 2003. “I did not have a specific plan the day I separated from the military,” he admits, although he knew he wanted to build a private sector business. “It was a tough decision to leave the military. I loved my actual hands-on job of running investigations, but I turned in my credentials and security clearance; got on a plane in Europe; landed in Philadelphia; and I was unemployed. The hardest thing was not having a day’s worth of work in front of me.”
Having learned music and audio production from his father — Creative Arts Recording Labs owner Robert Benedetto (the voice of national auto body/repair shop, MAACO – “Uh oh, better Get MAACO”) – Vince was torn between going in music production or doing something in corporate espionage with a private security firm. “I had a creative itch on the music side that I felt I wanted to explore,” he reveals.
Commencing what would become 18 months of due diligence, Benedetto realized he was becoming a partisan of the radio model. “There are things about radio that other businesses do not have as strengths,” he comments. “One is that you are not warehousing things, so you get to refresh your inventory every day. Radio’s margins are very good and you can get involved in many businesses all at once. If you do it correctly, you learn about many different kinds of businesses. It was exciting to me that I knew radio was about to go through many changes.”
Right place – right time
Enamored with a chunk of land in northeastern Pennsylvania that he has been visiting since his early youth, the greater Philadelphia native learned that several area stations were coming up for sale. “It was perfect timing,” proclaims Benedetto, who worked on a business plan to structure the financing. “Many people said it wouldn’t be possible to get local lenders involved in broadcasting properties, but I was able to do that and I brought in some limited partners. I personally guaranteed everything and I put every penny I saved during my time in the military to put this together.”
Acquiring four stations in the Catskill Mountains and Pocono Lake Region was a monumental investment for him and as “excited” as Benedetto was with the enormous task of becoming a radio station entrepreneur, he concedes he actually had “more anxiety” when he did not know what was ahead when he left the Air Force.
Concurrently, and as Pennsylvania was about to legalize gaming to generate tax revenue, several Wilkes Barre-Scranton radio properties became potential investments. “As the process was unfolding, Mohegan Sun – great gaming operators out of Connecticut – bought the Pocono Downs Race Track in Wilkes Barre,” Benedetto notes. “I got to meet Bobby Soper, Mohegan Sun’s brilliant young chief executive officer. Once they were given approval to do so, he was tasked with building a casino. He and I were able to get to know each other as two young businesspeople.”
Reason for the Wilkes Barre-Scranton opportunity stemmed from the highly unfortunate incident where Doug Lane, who owned three stations in the market, was convicted of child molestation. The district attorney was working to seize Lane’s stations and Benedetto’s FCC attorney said buying them was probably quite unrealistic. It would most likely be “a very ugly process” in every imaginable way since the seller could not benefit monetarily from a transaction.
Moreover, there was considerable debt associated with the stations at the time; furthermore, there was no billing. “Working with the DA’s office and the FCC, we actually made a successful case that, if we bought the stations, the money would not go to the seller,” Benedetto recollects. “Some would go to creditors and some would go to victims and/or nonprofit organizations that would help kids who were abuse victims. Our thought was it would be more beneficial to the community to have these local stations stay on the air rather than to have them go dark. We were exactly the correct company to give these stations a renaissance. It might have been naive, but I pushed headfirst into that. After a lot of time and work, we were able to get that deal done and it came up before the closing of the stations in the Poconos.”
Owing to the Soper-Benedetto friendship, the two agreed that, if Mohegan Sun could get a casino in the area and if Benedetto bought a station or stations there, at least one of the facilities would be housed inside the casino.
Of course, that is precisely what transpired, and Benedetto, who has a home recording setup, where he writes, produces, and performs original music, put the broadcast studio of classic hits-oldies WWRR “The River” right off the gaming floor. “Approximately 15,000 people walk by the studio every day, so it is radio you can see,” he enthuses. “Think of all the synergies between a popular station in the #1 entertainment destination in the area.”
Over and above being a casino, that specific venue has a hotel, restaurants, and performance areas for music acts and comedians. “We do big events out on the racetrack,” Benedetto beams. “‘The River’ is one of the most engaged and ‘Liked’ stations on Facebook. It has a huge social media presence; that is the kind of thing that excites me about the industry.”
Today’s harsh “fax”
Among the lessons Benedetto has gleaned in his decade of radio station ownership is that leadership is far more challenging in the private sector than in the military and he is very proud of his radio team. “It is the best in the industry and I have some wonderful generals,” he remarks. “You must be able to trust your people. Issues are going to come up when you are pioneering and innovative so it is okay that they are going to make mistakes. If you want to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit amongst your team, you have to give them room.”
Describing radio as a “fun business,” Benedetto hastens to add, “It is not for the faint of heart. I can see how it can chew people up and spit them out; it is intense and constant. This is such a deadline-driven business and people are always zipping along. Particularly in small and medium markets, we have to stop treating our business as a commodity. We even talk in that inventory language but it is not healthy. We are not selling widgets: Your team must be smart communicators and educators who solve problems.”
Attrition — among both station employees and advertisers — has not been a problem for Benedetto, who analogizes the broadcast business to the United States military, in that, they are both, “huge, powerful, and diverse. It was an honor to serve this country. I owe so much for what I learned, and the people I met. My military background weighed heavily on people who were willing to invest in what we were doing. When we closed on our first four stations, I was 29 years old, had not previously been in business, and was not in radio. Towers and licenses are not the only barrier-to-entry to local broadcasting. It is a lot of hard work to have people in those communities doing good entertainment and providing relevant information. That is an enormous barrier-to-entry. I like the fact that there is change because it makes entrepreneurial opportunities possible in radio.”
Most would agree that today’s radio environment is much more challenging than in the “good-old days,” but Benedetto is adamant that there is nothing wrong with the local radio model. “People have told me that you could sit with your feet up and the orders would come rolling in on the fax machine,” he muses.
Such a scenario has not eventuated in his Bold Gold Media Group tenure. “I got into this business right before the economy collapsed and we had to deal with that. I have cut on my teeth on the radio business in an historically troubling economy.”
Anticipating audience desires
Despite encountering disbelief from those who find it a stretch that Benedetto would segue from being an Air Force counter-intelligence officer to running radio stations, he maintains there are similarities. “Counter-intelligence is about building relationships. You have to know what is going on in an area before anyone else does.”
Appraising the environment and posturing accordingly are critical, and in a “threat assessment,” Benedetto indicates you have to identify allies; the area’s politics; and capabilities of your counterparts. “Good business plans for radio stations involve a great deal about what makes a community work and how a local radio property should have a symbiotic relationship with a community,” he suggests. “A good radio station gives the community what they want even before they know they want it. A great trick of entertainment is being a few minutes ahead of what people want. It is like counter-intelligence adapted for business, but not the dark, sneaky side of counter-intelligence. It is understanding the environment around you better than anyone else. It might not be you but the experts you assemble. My team is involved in the community on multiple levels. I encourage them to be on the boards of nonprofit organizations and chambers of commerce. I always tell them that broadcasting is a noble profession but it is not noble by default – you have to want it to be noble. You can be aloof and detached from a community or you can be fundamentally important to its fabric.”
Consistent with counter-intelligence practices is the decentralization policy Benedetto has instituted. “In a world of consolidation, simulcasting, and centralizing operations, we have done the opposite since day one,” he proudly cites. “We have three offices that are in close proximity to each other. They work independently and together. They have their own immersed team for the area that their signals are designed to cover. You cannot know a community unless you are of and in that community. You can’t make good, local, relevant, timely programming and centralize it at the same time because they are fundamentally at odds.”
Not yet quite out of arrears, Bold Gold Media Group — under Benedetto’s direction — has aggressively stuck to the original debt-paying schedule. “All my loans were 15-year commercial loans,” he discloses. “As you get past the six-, seven-, and eight-year point where you are whacking down that debt, it is very tempting to take on more, or refinance. I have not done that and probably won’t.”
Approximately six weeks from now (8/19) will mark the 10th anniversary of Bold Gold Media Group closing on its first station transaction, officially making it a radio company.
“Freedom lies in being bold” is a quote from one of Benedetto’s favorite poets – Robert Frost – and the vibrant executive observes, “We see light at the end of the tunnel to be debt-free, which is neat. Radio needs constant investment. Radio broadcasters in small and medium markets rely too much on the ‘big guys’ to innovate. Independent broadcasters are actually closer to what local radio needs to be. You can do a lot more innovation when you have the flexibility of being less leveraged. I am definitely not opposed to acquiring more stations and I always keep that door open. It is a fun time to be doing that. We are always receptive to something that will improve the overall capabilities and value of the company.”
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Bold Gold Media Group: Facts & Figures
In its now nearly 10-year existence, Bold Gold Media Group at one point owned 11 properties; however, the organization led by president/chief executive officer – and former Air Force captain – Vince Benedetto presently consists of nine full-power stations and six FM translators.
Five Wilkes Barre-Scranton outlets include sports trombo WCDL, WICK, & WYCK “The Game”; WTRW “The Talker”; and classic hits-oldies WWRR “The River.”
There are three Pocono Lake Region (Pennsylvania) facilities: hot AC WDNH “Best Mix – All Hits”; WPSN “Wayne-Pike News Radio”; and WYCY “Classic Hits 105.3,” while WDNB “Thunder 102 – Lightning Hot Country” is its solitary Catskills (New York State) holding.
According to Benedetto, “All of these stations are billing at historic levels for these properties. We have doubled, tripled, and in some cases, more than quadrupled the best years these stations ever had prior to Bold Gold ownership.”
An in-house Sunday morning Beatles show airing on the two classic hits-oldies facilities (WWRR and WYCY) is hosted by Robert Benedetto, Vince’s dad.
Of the three Bold Gold Media Group markets, only Wilkes Barre-Scranton (branch location of fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in NBC-TV’s “The Office”) is surveyed by Nielsen Audio. The only subscribers to that report in market #71, however, are four Cumulus Media properties.
By way of history, Bold Gold Media Group acquired WDNB, WDNH, WPSN, and WYCY for $4 million from deWitt Media Group on August 19, 2005.
Seven months later – March 13, 2006 – BGMG purchased WICK, WWDL (now WWRR), and WYCK for $2 million from Lane Broadcasting.
Roughly four years thereafter (February 2010), Bold Gold bought WCDL, WNAK, and WTRW from Route 81 Broadcasting for $500,000; WNAK was subsequently spun-off.
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@talkers.com.