Originally published in Business Digest, December 1996

Talk of the Town

by Craig C. Bailey

A [cover photo]small, black message board greets visitors to WKDR 1390 AM's office and studios in Burlington. In case anyone ascending the stairs above Emerald City Bedrooms on Shelburne Road begins to suspect they've accidentally entered a frat house the morning after a 50-0 win on the gridiron -- a pardonable suspicion considering the condition of the place -- the message board at the top attempts to put them at ease. It reads, "Welcome" -- a brief message for a company that has built its business on words.

WKDR is the Burlington area's only full-time talk radio station, and one of Vermont's few free-standing AM broadcasters. Unlike many stations where outspoken on-air personalities clash with management for the right to speak their minds -- or to speak at all, considering the pervasive trend toward liner cards and strict rotation clocks -- at WKDR those personalities are the management. That's because WKDR holds another distinction: It's employee-owned.

Jim Condon, Mark Johnson and Louie Manno own approximately 50 percent of Hometown Broadcasting Inc., the parent company of WKDR. The other half is spread across nine investors: Ray Pecor of Lake Champlain Transportation Co.; former state legislator Bill Mares; Rob Swanson, a photographer with The Burlington Free Press; Gregg Neavin; Susan Parsons; Bob McGill, the former owner of Mountain Cable; Herb Bloomenthal; Gov. Howard Dean, Johnson's one-time personal physician, who signed on while lieutenant governor; and the family of the late McDonald's franchise owner Harry Wallace.

Condon, Johnson and Manno make no secret of the fact that they're happy to be captains of their own ship, albeit, a messy one; proud to be offering local news and programming; truly appreciate their listeners; and could all be making more money if they'd invested in a donut shop instead of a radio station.

Manno and Condon first formed a morning team at WFAN-FM in Mystic, Conn., in the early '80s. Condon would go on to the flagship stations of Hall Communications in Norwich, Conn., before being offered the news directorship at the firm's Burlington stations, WJOY-AM/WQCR-FM, in early 1984. Not long after Condon's move, Manno relocated to Vermont to join WQCR, again teaming up with Condon.

Manno and Condon weren't the only staffers from WFAN who would migrate north. Other alumni of that station include Dan Dubonnet, now general manager of WJOY/WKOL-FM/WOKO-FM; and Phil Maglione, now regional sales manager for WVNY-TV in Burlington. WFAN broadcasts at 660 AM in New York City, after WNBC-AM purchased the call letters in the mid '80s. It seems call letters move around almost as often as personalities.

In 1988, Manno was the first to join "the old WKDR," as he and the other two continually refer to the station before they purchased it from Roger Jakubowski and moved it over to its current frequency in 1993. Condon describes WQCR's short-lived rock format at that time, before it made the switch to country and to the WOKO call letters, as "Less talk, more music."

"So they got rid of me as soon as they made that decision," says Manno, clearly the most talkative of the three. (He brags that he was also "fired for talking too much" at WIZN-FM in Burlington, where he worked briefly, before that station created its unapologetically verbose Corm & The Coach morning program.)

Soon after, Manno was hired at WKDR, then broadcasting at 1070 AM. "I was trying to convince them to hire Jim, and they just weren't prepared to pay the money. So I had to split my pay with him just to work with Jim again," Manno says. "And then after about three weeks, we put the screws to them and they finally gave us both full paychecks."

Johnson came on board about the same time, signing on as morning news person after working five years as a City Hall reporter at The Burlington Free Press. "Shortly thereafter is when the paychecks started getting smaller and smaller, and we put together a group of people to buy out Roger," Johnson says.

"This was right at the beginning of Rush Limbaugh, and people started to pay more attention to talk radio," says Manno. "We saw that it had a lot of unrealized potential."

With a belief that there was a local news and talk niche to be filled, the three assembled a group of investors, obtained financing from The Howard Bank, and inked the deal in November 1990.

What the three bought was a daytime-only operation, with a tower in Peru, N.Y., being operated out of a small studio next to the Peking Duck restaurant in Winooski. (They moved the studios to their current Shelburne Road location in 1991.) The old WKDR was restricted by federal law to broadcasting only during daylight hours. AM signals travel much farther at night, and can interfere with other signals at the same frequency great distances away. (At night it's not uncommon to pick up AM stations from as far away as New York City, or even Chicago, here in Vermont.) The restriction was part of an agreement with Canada to protect that nation's 1070 frequency in Moneton, New Brunswick. This put WKDR at a competitive disadvantage. Depending on the season, the station had to sign off the air as early at 4:15 p.m. During winter, the station had to wait until 7:30 a.m. to sign on.

That practically abolished a viable morning show, the financial anchor for any station. It also ruled out evening sports broadcasts. Furthermore, Manno says, "You only have so much inventory, so much time available to sell." The station clearly needed a 24-hour day to remain solvent.

The solution came in 1993. Ken Squier, owner of Radio Vermont Inc. in Waterbury, had purchased WDOT 1390 AM and 96.1 FM from Nichols Broadcasting. He put the FM frequency, broadcasting from Warren, to work simulcasting his company's WDEV-AM. In May, he sold WDOT's AM frequency, some equipment and the tower site property at the Burlington Intervale, to Hometown Broadcasting. Hometown Broadcasting in turn sold its 1070 frequency to WZBZ-AM, and the old WKDR was reborn as a 24-hour-a-day operation broadcasting 5,000 watts at 1390 AM.

The significance of the company's Burlington tower isn't lost on WKDR's ownership. After the recent news about out-of-state companies buying up Vermont media outlets, Johnson points out that WKDR is the only station in Burlington that has its tower in town, hence is the only station "that's paying taxes to the city of Burlington." Condon chimes in that their station is "the only locally owned, non-religious, Chittenden County radio station," with a respectful nod to Family Broadcasting Inc. in Essex, owners of WGLY-FM, WGLV-FM and WMNV-FM.

"It's really important that some of the media be owned by people who live and work in the community and really have the community's best interests in mind," adds Manno. The trio aren't afraid to play up their ties to the Burlington area.

"We've all lived in this community for at least a decade," says Johnson. Though he and Manno are natives of Connecticut and Brooklyn, respectively, both live in Burlington. Condon, a native of New London, Conn., lives in Colchester with wife, Ginny McGehee, morning personality on WJOY and WKOL, whom he met while working for Hall.

Johnson sees the real danger of out-of-town companies buying up stations as businesses that "come in and try to make as much money as they can, spend as little as they can, and give as little as possible and take as much as they can. That's not what we're into."

The three say part of their "hometown" moniker is about making radio affordable to local advertisers. "The illusion that you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have an effective radio campaign is not true at this radio station," Johnson says. "We've been able to really help the small businesses out there sound big." He points to many WKDR advertisers who have been with the station from the time Hometown Broadcasting bought it as proof the station gets results for its advertisers.

Furthermore, Condon, Johnson and Manno believe their company's small size is partly responsible. "It's not that we're more creative or more talented. There's a lot of great people out there. They'd love to do what we do," says Manno. "But they have to go through 20 different departments to do something. I'm the guy who sells the ad, I write the ad, and I'm also buddies with the guy who owns the business." In addition to pulling air shifts and managing the business affairs of the station, Condon, Johnson and Manno sell advertising as well. "During commercial breaks mostly," jokes Johnson.

"It's easy for me to encourage people to go to a place I like to go to. When I do an ad for Shore Acres Inn and Restaurant, it sounds like I really like the place. And that's because I go there and I really do like the place," he adds.

"And then when we're ready to sell out, we'll be able to phony that up for things that we really don't like," Manno adds with a laugh.

"We will go to any length to get a contract with our clients," says Johnson, before going on to tell the story of how WKDR employees -- the station employs two other full-time positions in addition to the three owners, and several part-timers -- moved rocks for Bob Chittenden of Chittenden Cider Mill and moved furniture for Nino Cruz of the Cruz Insurance Agency Inc., all to grease the advertising contract skids. "We're here to serve," Johnson adds, dryly.

If the station's method of attracting clients is unconventional -- Manno once snatched a flier from a paver working on the driveway outside the station, ran upstairs, pumped out an ad, returned with a cassette player to spec it for the paver, and got a signature on the spot -- it's all part of a larger scheme to debunk the myth of radio in general.

"We don't take being on the radio all that seriously," admits Manno. "It's not Mideast peace. It's not the cure for cancer. It's not as big a deal as a lot of radio stations seem to project in their attitude."

He adds, "We love mentioning other radio stations" on the air, a taboo in broadcasting. He and Johnson then tell how Condon once boarded the WVMT-AM remote broadcast facility, mic in hand, and did an impromptu tour, live on the air. Or the time they lowered their mics into the furniture store beneath their studios to catch the supposed behind-the-scenes banter of WOKO jocks who were there doing a remote broadcast from Emerald City Bedrooms, and were more than happy to play along with the gag. "I'm sure their management was horrified at that," Johnson remarks.

But while many people might have the impression that working in radio is nothing more than fun and laughs, the truth is that many broadcasters work six-day weeks or longer. "When we started out, the first two or three years, we were literally working seven days a week," says Johnson. Now the trio tend to take one day off a week, often running the sound board for part-timers who host weekly shows on the weekend. But, as Johnson says, "We love what we do, so it's not that big a deal to be here as much as we are."

"What's it like to be with friends every day in a business?" was Manno's biggest concern when venturing into Hometown Broadcasting. "We're better friends now, six years later. ... These are my friends, my family and my co-workers."

"And we all realize that we're living right now, probably, the best periods of our lives," adds Johnson. When asked about the notorious long hours and short pay of the radio business, he offers "We could all make a lot more money and have a lot less fun."

"We could have bought the Dunkin' Donuts and all be driving around in big, fancy cars, going to the club and having other people shave us," Manno says.

"But there wouldn't be anything to listen to on the radio," adds Condon.

WKDR's Weekday Programming Schedule

6-9 a.m. The Manno and Condon Show 9-11 a.m. The Mark Johnson Show 11 a.m.-noon The Dr. Dean Edell Show Noon-3 p.m. The Rush Limbaugh Show 3-5 p.m. The Alan Colmes Show 5-6 p.m. Live at Five with Jeff Nichelson 6-6:30 p.m. WPTZ-TV News 5 Simulcast 6:30-10 p.m. The Tom Leykis Show 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Bruce Williams 1-5 a.m. One on One Sports 5-6 a.m. First Light with Dirk Van

Addendum: In September 1997 WKDR struck a two-year local marketing agreement with Burlington Broadcasters Inc., owner of Burlington stations WIZN-FM and WBTZ-FM. On Dec. 8, 1998, Radio Vermont Inc. of Waterbury announced intentions to purchase WKDR. Radio Vermont owns WDEV-AM, Waterbury; WDEV-FM, Warren; WLVB-FM, Morrisville; and WCVT-FM, Stowe.

(Cover photo: Jeff Clarke)