By Mike Kinosian
Cogitate though on some astonishingly classy, truly quality individuals who define(d) and epitomize(d) their organizations.
For openers, it is virtually unthinkable any level-headed person in our medium would conceive of offering less-than-flattering utterances about Emmis honcho Jeff Smulyan.
Remember though to include Bruce Reese’s name in that exclusive, exemplary honor roll.
Moreover, the former president/chief executive officer of Bonneville shared something else in common with the aforementioned heavyweight triumvirate, as Reese was bestowed the NAB’s National Radio Award at the NAB’s 2008 Radio Show in Austin. “I haven’t put in nearly as much time and ‘great’ [as those guys], but I’m honored to be on the list,” Reese remarked in his customary humility during an in-depth interview he granted when I was special features editor of Inside Radio.
Earlier this week, the 70-year-old Reese passed away. The above-cited quote as well as what follows are edited highlights of the conversation the two of us shared.
Chicago mainstream top 40 outlets WLS-AM and WCFL were Reese’s stations of choice when he was a youngster in West Lafayette, Indiana. “I’d thumb around the dial when the sun went down to hear what else I could find,” recalled Reese, whose father was a Purdue University faculty member. “I also spent two years in Huntsville [Alabama] when my dad was on sabbatical to help the Army build missiles.”
Longtime affection for music notwithstanding, Reese adhered to his plan to attend law school. “I had no illusions I could ever make a living [as a musician],” he quipped.
Vocational interest tests always indicated he was supposed to be a CPA but Reese “couldn’t stand the thought” of doing that as a career.
Princeton was his first choice for undergraduate school and he stayed there for one year before transferring to Brigham Young University, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree; in spring 1976, he was part of the Utah institution’s first law school class.
Hawaiian punch out
Working for the Justice Department’s antitrust division became Reese’s initial post-law school job. “I loved antitrust law because it’s like constitutional law with economics,” the former chair of both the NAB Radio Board and NAB Joint Board of Directorsexplained. “There are very broad principles. I was in the section that investigated patent abuse.”
Many cases were pharmaceutical-related and Reese found himself in a thorny political situation since, as he mentioned, “The person who ran our section was a brilliant lawyer [but] expanded weirder and weirder theories of liability at a time when the government wanted to keep things to the basics. We could never find any price- fixing, so our group began an exodus.”
Specifically concerning this highly-gracious BYU alum, Reese wound up at Washington law firm Wilkinson, Cragun, & Barker, which happened to represent a client named … Bonneville.
While it was the avenue through which Reese would become associated with the media company, it’s not why he went to work for WC&B. “[No one there] had any antitrust expertise,” he pointed out. “It represented Hawaiian Telephone and was involved with very early work of small telephone companies trying to break up AT&T’s monopoly.”
By the late-1970s, that is precisely what eventuated.
Pride of ownership
Shortly thereafter (1979 – 1982), things appearedto be going well for Reese in Denver where he did antitrust law, untilbeing told he was a “fine human being” but would never be a litigator and “should find something else to do” with his life. “You never think moments like that will happen to you but it [did to me],” he acknowledged.
Fate proved to be kind though as Wilkinson, Cragun, & Barker asked Reese to return; 18 months later, Bonneville courted him to become its first in-house associate general counsel.
Thus, his first day at Bonneville was more than 34 years ago (8/1/1984) and Reese favored that situation over toiling for an outside firm because, “There’s a sense of ownership of a problem. Somehow the solution is more important when you have to live with the outcome than when you’re the dispassionate attorney giving advice. I made sure we had the right lawyers working on things [but] did most of it myself [because Bonneville was] obviously paying me to reduce outside legal bills.”
When Bonneville founding president Arch Madson retired, he was succeeded by Rod Brady, who previously managed/led several different organizations.
According to Reese, however, Brady “knew nothing” about the broadcasting business. “I didn’t know a whole lot about it [either] and didn’t bring any real leadership or business skills, but I understood the regulatory scheme. Rod and I both learned the company. He tried to take what was a great [foundation] of Seattle and Salt Lake City television stations and big market radio stations and turn it into a business.”
Responsibilities over the entity’s Salt Lake City home base came Reese’s way in 1991 when Jack Adamson retired and Reese completed his lawyer-to-management transition by rising to company president in 1996.
You can’t beat L.A.
An extremely valuable lesson Reese learned in his first semester of law school was being able to identify all problems when presented with a set of facts. “That’s an important skill and has helped me to be more of a generalist,” he divulged. “I’m able to approach challenges we face from many different perspectives. My legal training taught me to see what all the problems might be so we can consider all possible solutions.”
Of the industry’s 20 biggest companies, 90% (18) were private when Reese first entered radio and he estimated that, “Maybe 25% on that list are now private. A real benefit Bonneville has is the ability to take a slightly longer-term look. We’ve been pretty creative with what we’ve done with some of our on-air products. We’re making good, smart investments in trying to convert audiences we have in terms of listeners and advertisers over to new media.”
Once included in Bonneville’s portfolio were Los Angeles facilities KBIG and KZLA. The former is now iHeartMedia-owned and still extremely successful in 2019 as hot AC “My-FM,” while the latter has long since flipped its country format as 93.9 Holdings-owned/Grupo Radio Centro-operated regional Mexican KXOS.
After an approximately eight-year absence, Bonneville returned to the world’s #1 billing market.
That scenario unfolded when it acquired Radio One urban AC KRBV “V-100.3” in March 2008 for $137.5 million with Reese enthusiastically proclaiming of the station’s transition to classic rock KSWD, “It’s great to be back. It was terrific working with [Radio One chief executive officer] Alfred [Liggins] and his staff on this deal. We’re excited about the product and hope we can build a station a critical mass of Angelinos will like – we think we have a good shot. I love all my children equally, but love this one moreequally – at least right now [because KSWD ‘The Sound’ plays] the music I love.” The station has since become contemporary Christian KKLQ, following its acquisition by Educational Media Foundation from Entercom in November 2017.
Other new property opportunities for Bonneville at the time of our conversation could have followed, although Reese didn’t anticipate bringing together huge mergers. “We may have a chance from time to time to acquire a station or two. It is nice having an owner in this financial environment who believes this is a good place to invest money in the long run and can get a good return on it.”
Unmasking the big lie
Multiple forces distressed the economy and it translated into tough times for Main Street, in general, and our industry in particular. “The housing market is probably the result of some pretty silly decisions,” Reese opined. “There was too much building and too much loaning of money to people who shouldn’t have [qualified]. We’re going to have to pay the price. People see a light at the end of tunnel and are reasonably convinced it is not an oncoming locomotive. Things are picking up a bit although I don’t see us going back to 8% annual growth anytime soon. If we’re smart in how we use new media opportunities, it will continue to grow our business and build our local franchises.”
Paying employees what they’re worth in a tight economy can prove to be a sticky wicket but Reese keenly, uniquely understood the medium’s people-intensive nature. “If we don’t keep the best people in the business working at our company, we’re not going to be here three to five years from now,” he warned. “The cost of equipment to put on a radio station is nominal. Value in assets we control are the people who put the products on the air and who sell the products. When co-workers thank me, I always say I’m just another salaried employee and am grateful to have a place that treats me as well as it does.”
Manifestation of Bonneville’s stellar industry image surfaced when it staffed Los Angeles property KSWD. “Some people seem to think this is a business that, in order to be successful, you need to own a whole bunch of stations,” Reese stated. “Some amazing people stepped up and put their names in the hat for those jobs. That says to me we’ve done some good things in terms of building a company where great broadcasters want to work.”
Lack of programming diversity within our medium was the “big lie” which deeply-disturbed Reese. “No objective study will ever suggest we have less diversity in radio products than we did pre-consolidation,” he maintained. “The richness of products available to us in terms of both spoken-word and music [formats] is remarkable. We need to appeal to [listeners’] tastes and find products they like. I’m getting on in years [but] my tastes are remarkably [similar to when] I was 17, much to the chagrin of my wife who doesn’t understand why I don’t grow up.”
Seriously upsetting merger
Despite the considerable amount of work that went into developing HD Radio, many feel it was and has been an arduously slow process when it comes to producing tangible results. “It’s easy to sit back and say, ‘I wish we would have done this or that’,” lamented Reese, who gave “Clear Channel” (now iHeartMedia) and “CBS Radio” (now Entercom) considerable credit for being “driving forces” behind putting together the HD Radio Alliance. “Peter Ferrara headed up that effort and did a phenomenal job. We’re supportive of that effort as we continue to try to figure out smarter and better ways of getting it done. Whenever you’re dealing with the automobile industry and particularly now with all the problems they have, progress will be slow.”
Terrestrial radio broadcasters have found themselves in a dilemma vis-à-vis satellite radio over the years. No stranger to the DOJ, Reese observed, “The Justice Department has apparently concluded you can let the only two people in a segment of this business merge and allow one company to control 250 channels of communications into every market in America. At the same time, if you own a newspaper [company] in this country, you can’t own any broadcasting operations – unless you’re in the top 20 markets where you own a bad TV station and one radio station. There’s something so messed up about the thinking going on here. I don’t know what to expect [but] the government should notapprove [this XM – Sirius merger].”
Seventeen months after the companies first proposed the union to which Reese alluded, the FCC did, in fact, approve the acquisition of XM Satellite Radio Holding by Sirius Satellite Radio(7/29/2008).
Meanwhile, anxious to see what would happen as the industry continued inching closer to electronic measurement and increasing accountability, Reese asserted that Bonneville was a reasonably-early PPM adopter. “We’re actually excited about the result although it will be painful for a few years to get there. We’re fortunate not to own stations in Houston or Philadelphia [where PPM was first introduced] so we haven’t had to be on the bleeding edge of the transition. We do have stations in Los Angeles and Chicago [so] we’re watching things very carefully as things are in the pre-currency stage.”
Among persons 6+ in Nielsen Audio’s February 2019 Salt Lake City report, perennial market leader – Bonneville adult contemporary KSFI “FM 100.3 Better Music Better Work Day” (7.4) – edged cluster-mate KRSP “Utah’s Classic Rock 103.5 The Arrow” by four-tenths (7.0), while news/talk sibling KSL ranks sixth (5.2, 6+).
Each Bonneville employee under Reese’s watch was provided with up to 40 hours a year paid leave to work on community projects. “We think it is our duty as broadcasters to do that and we also think it is good business,” Reese commented. “It gives our employees a better sense of the people they’re talking to every day.”
Actively involved in numerous community organizations, the father of seven was on the local United Way’s executive committee. “Some of that includes health reform for Utah,” Reese noted. “I’m also on the board of the state’s largest not-for-profit health care provider and involved in several arts organizations.”
Albeit the vast majority of Bonneville employees are not members of the Mormon Church, it was Reese’s contention that whoever sat at the desk he occupied probably should be Mormon, as he was. “I’d be more than excited if many [more of our employees were Mormon],” he admitted. “In terms of ownership, I think they’d probably look over here and expect the president of the company to be an observant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I see no difference in commitment from non-Mormons to the principles I think make this company as good as it is. They get it: This is about quality products delivered to the community and a commitment back to the community. Our ownership knows we have a remarkable level of commitment from all the people who work here.”
With nearly three-dozen stations under Reese’s purview at the time of our interview, he and the company he ran enjoyed sparkling reputations. “We can continue to grow Bonneville and give people opportunities in both traditional versions of our business and those that will develop in the next few years,” he predicted. “I think we can continue to deliver great products and great opportunities for people who want to work for us. Radio is a wonderful, relatively simple high-margin business. It’s been that way for a long time. We haven’t had to invest a lot in research and development to figure out what to do next. We have huge loyal audiences and we’re figuring it out as an industry. I don’t want to outstay my welcome but I’m really happy doing what I do.”
Following HubbardRadio’s acquisition of 17 radio stations from Bonneville roughly eight years ago, Reese became Hubbard Radio’s president. In a memo to employees, Bonneville president Darrell Brown writes that owing to Reese’s leadership, “Bonneville stations won more than 40 Crystal and Marconi awards from the NAB, through a philosophy of strong local talent and service to community. We are grateful for Bruce’s service to Bonneville and his commitment to community.”
NAB president/chief executive officer Gordon Smith adds that Reese’s accomplishments “were surpassed only by his commitment to charity and community service. Broadcasting is a better business and the world was a better place because of my friend, Bruce Reese.”
Funeral arrangements are pending for Reese, who is survived by his wife Lu Ann, their seven children, four daughters-in-law, two sons-in law, and 12 grandchildren.
Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com