Company: Mt. Wilson Broadcasters
Birth: Cheboygan, Mich.; 1929
Education: B.A: from University of California at Berkeley; law degree from UCLA
Career Turning Point: Obtained license to operate FM radio station in 1959
Most Influential Person: His father, because of his business ethics. When others declared bankruptcy during the Depression, his father
preferred to pay off his debts incrementally.
Hobbies: Hiking, tennis, raising golden retrievers
Personal: Lives with his wife in West Los Angeles; both children work at the company; he built the station's offices near home for convenience
He may not look like a radio maverick, but Saul Levine has bucked industry trends since he entered the business in 1959. He recently garnered headlines by switching his FM station from a classical format to country music. The station is now known as KKGO-FM (105.1), while his AM station KMZT-AM (1260) carries on the classical tradition. Born of parents who fled Eastern Europe, Levine grew up in a small town in Michigan. He spent nine years in college and attended four institutions, finally earning a law degree from UCLA: He practiced law part-time for about 20 years to support his radio career. During his 48-year tenure as a station owner, he has switched formats only three times from classical to jazz, back to classical and now to country. Along the way he also bought XESURF-AM (540) in TijuanA: At one point Levine had several radio outlets and a TV station in Honolulu, where he still owns an antennae tower. His company, Mt. Wilson Broadcasters, has offices in Santa Monica where 30 full-time employees work.
Question: You say obtaining the FCC license for 105.1 was the turning point in your career. How did you get it?
Answer: I just asked for it, because no one wanted it. FM went through this strange period when all the channels were filled after World War II, and then TV came along. Everyone said radio was going to die, so why pay the electric bills to keep this thing going when all the money was going into AM? I just had to ask for it. That really defined the rest of my life.
Q: What did you get just the license?
A: Then I had to build the station, but I had to practice law to support it. There was absolutely no money in FM.
Q: Why not?
A: It was a new medium and there weren't many sets. When I went on the air, about 30 percent of radios could pick up FM. If you can't reach 70 percent of the people, advertisers aren't too thrilled. So it was a terrible struggle.
Q: How long did the struggle last?
A: The first 20 years. I didn't really turn a profit during that time. That's a message I'll give to other entrepreneurs: Be patient, be focused, and if you believe in it, stay with it. I would go to court in the morning and then sell advertising in the afternoon, everything just to keep the station going. There were many Fridays when I had to scrounge to get money to meet the payroll. And sometimes I really didn't have the money to cover the payroll until Monday. I would sweat out the whole weekend.
Q: When did it turn the corner?
A: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the FCC said that all the AM stations that were simulcasting their FM stations had to air separate programming. It began the eventual diminishment of AM. The advertising agencies began to realize FM was there. The non-duplication of programming and going stereo in the early 1960s those two events turned the corner for FM and it became the dominant medium.
Q: You've lived through several cycles of hearing that radio is dead. Today, people say the iPod and Internet will kill it. What's your take?
A: I was apprehensive when the 8-track came out. Then cassettes, CDs, the Walkman. It was all the same old story: People listened to it, but they wanted to relate to somebody, the human element. To me, that's what has saved radio and will continue to save it.
Q: Some classical stations are almost Muzak no announcer, just one Bach concerto after another. I guess you don't see much competitive advantage in such programming?
A: I love classical music and switching was very painful. This is only Day Eight, but it seems like eight years already. I can tell you, with all due lack of modesty, that we had the greatest classical music station in the United States. We developed personalities. We were beating KUSC-FM (91.5) two to one, because they were the typical public radio station where you get this esoteric approach. We didn't take that approach we took this down-to-Earth, human thing, with a person talking to you like a neighbor.
Q: How about the advertising side of the business?
A: We never had outstanding advertiser support. Never. And we noticed in the last couple years, a diminishment of support for classical radio. In the 1990s, we were getting as much as $8 million in revenues. Last year we were down to $4.8 million, barely breaking even without my drawing a salary. The coup de grace came in January when you look for annual renewals from advertisers. We were off 80 percent. That was a shock. I would keep this going as long as I could pay my bills and draw a modest salary, but I was looking at a deficit of $1 million.
Q: When did you decide to go country?
A: This format dropped in our laps when Emmis Broadcasting cut country radio in August 2006. Emmis walked away from $28 million in billings it wasn't enough for them.
Q: Did you explore other options?
A: There were few formats I would have been comfortable going to. Not hip-hop or rap very difficult, although profitable.
Q: The competition is ferocious.
A: And here we have a country station with no competition. We are sitting on one of the most powerful FM facilities in Los Angeles.
Q: How is the L.A: country fan different from country listeners elsewhere?
A: I've found that all the people who listen to country are not Republicans. They're not rednecks driving around in pickup trucks. These are educated professionals with high incomes, based on their occupations.
Q: During your career, how has the radio market changed in L.A:?
A: To the detriment of good radio. I'm a big opponent of consolidation. Right now I'm taking a lot of dollars to pay Washington attorneys to fight Clear Channel. They want a lot more stations in this market. We're fighting it and hope we'll prevail. If we don't prevail at the FCC level, I'm prepared to go to the Court of Appeals.
Q: What's the issue?
A: They are destroying radio as we know it. They have taken all the spontaneity, the creative qualities gone. We're just delighted to be a family-owned broadcaster, trying to serve the needs of the public. So I'm not going to sit back while Clear Channel gets four or five more stations. It's all dollar motivated. They do about $300 million with their station cluster in L.A:; CBS-Infinity does about the same. I don't consider that acceptable.
Q: What would you like to see?
A: I would like to go back to the days when nobody was allowed to own more than two or three stations in a market. Now you have clusters of six to eight stations with one program director, maybe not in this city. Someone in San Antonio is programming for here.
Q: What has been the reaction to your going country?
A: The switch has been written up in newspapers across the United States. We were the talk of the convention (Country Radio Broadcasters Seminar) in Nashville last week. It's one of the hottest stories in America today, that we have brought country back to Los Angeles. I must say, I love the recognition after working in obscurity all those years. Not only are we going to make money, which is secondary to me, but we are doing something creative and making people happy.
Q: Those big conglomerates have they approached you about selling your station?
Q: And you consistently refused?
A: Why would I sell my child? About 1998, Cox Broadcasting came to me. The predecessors of Clear Channel sent their high-ups. They were dangling huge sums of money. The interest on that money was more than I was grossing at the station. It was tempting, but I didn't want to sell. I liked what I was doing.
Q: You don't regret selling for those huge numbers?
A: No. I think today the station is worth $100 million less than what I could have gotten during that feeding frenzy in the 1990s. It's OK the only one to get hurt, someday, will be charity.
Q: So you didn't do this for money?
A: I just love what I'm doing. I feel sad for those who go to work everyday and don't enjoy it.
Q: What do you see in the market for high definition or so-called HD radio?
A: Every FM station in Los Angeles will be able to put on one or two more formats. They will be little niche formats that you couldn't do before because there wasn't money to support it. But if your main analog channel is bringing in $30 million or $40 million, you can subsidize an extra channel or two. So you're going to hear a lot of unique programming on the air.
Q: Maybe that's the future home of creative radio?
A: I see a renaissance, but it's going to be slow because of penetration. I put HD now at about 1.5 percent. I foresee it taking five to 10 years before you get real penetration.
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