Saturday, December 15, 2007

Public Radio needs a Sugar Daddy

So I had a idea the other day. I'm relatively sure that it's too obvious for someone to not be doing it, have done it and stopped, or there's some reason you just can't do it.

The idea is simple: a public radio station buys a commercial radio outlet. This outlet is operated to minimize costs first and then maximize revenue after that. Then the revenue is used to support the public radio side. That's it. Even a weak-performing commercial license in a medium (or even a small) market typically bills into the six figures' profit every year (I think...admittedly I don't KNOW that, but I'm pretty sure it's true). That's not much for a commercial operator, but it's a helluva lot of money for a pubradio station. Hence, your pubradio outlet has a sugar daddy!

To get more into details...

Preferably the station would be FM, but AM will certainly do. I feel the key is that it must be purchased and operated on the cheap. Well, okay, commercial radio licenses typically go for several million dollars, so "cheap" is a relative term. But anything over $5 mil is probably too expensive for this to work.

Take the commercial license and program it with a minimum of expenses and a maximum of revenue. Have as little regard for quality of programming or ratings as possible; this station isn't meant to be "successful" in terms of getting more listeners or serving listeners better. It's goal is simply to make as much money as you can while spending as little as possible.

I envision one or two salespeople (max) and no other staff. Don't have a separate main studio unless you absolutely can't avoid it. Don't bother investing anything beyond the minimum to the engineering plant. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap.

What to put on the air? Not your regular pubradio programming. This is a "filthy lucre" source and while you don't want to lie about owning it, you certainly don't want to draw attention to it; might upset the delicate donor/station relationship. So instead, you want to find a cheap format that's currently underserved in your market. Foreign-language immediately comes to mind. Maybe even selling your soul entirely :-) and just leasing out airtime to the highest bidder. If that's too distasteful, there's probably an underserved audience in your market...something that's profitable but not profitable enough to satisfy a growth-obsessed Wall Street.

That's something I want to call special attention to: many commercial stations are owned by publicly-traded companies. That means they answer to Wall Street. Wall Street wants growth, period. I think this is the main reason why there are so many underserved demographics in many markets; it's not that they're unprofitable...it's just that they aren't profitable enough for a publicly-traded conglomerate. But they'd be plenty profitable for the purposes of this idea.

I have to think the threshold here is that the station has have net annual profit of at least 10% of the purchase price. Preferably 20%. That way you can pay off the purchase price in a few years, and the rest is pure profit. I've never run a commercial station before, so I don't know if an annual net profit of $100k - $500k is reasonable for a small or medium market...but it certainly seems reasonable.

Let's call special attention to that as well...$100k in net profit would make a substantial difference in pretty much any small or medium market public radio station! Okay, you might have to defer that profit for a few years while you're paying off any debt incurred in purchasing the station in the first place. But by carefully structuring things, you shouldn't be making debt payments for more than a few years.

With Clear Channel selling off so many properties...a lot of stations' selling values have dropped down to more "reasonable" levels, so it feels like this idea should work. Perhaps it's overly audacious, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work.

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