Paul Mann (l) with son Jason Mann
From Broadcast DialogueChristensen Communications Limited www.broadcastdialogue.com
VISTA RADIO: THE BIG FISH IN THE SMALL POND
by: SCOTT LEHANE
Less than a year out of the gate, Vista Radio — a group that specializes in small-market stations in western Canada — has been growing aggressively through acquisitions, investing heavily in new technologies, and filing applications for new stations.
It begs the question, what’s going on here? We haven’t seen this kind of aggressive movement in radio for a while.
Last spring, Vista Radio arrived on the B.C. scene taking ownership of Drew Media’s SUN FM in Duncan — a small market in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley.
In the short span of time since then, the group has been growing aggressively with the acquisition of 18 other small-and medium-market stations scattered around British Columbia, and looking east to Alberta with new applications for licences in Lethbridge, as well as Grand Prairie, Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat.
Driven by a seasoned management team of small-market veterans who believe that just because it’s a small market doesn’t mean it has to be a small business, Vista has been buying up clusters of stations in rural B.C. such as CFCP Radio, Caribou Central Interior Radio, Boundary Broadcasting and Valley Broadcasters, giving it coverage of such remote rural communities as Smithers, Grand Forks, Castlegar, Williams Lake and Nelson.
At the small end of the scale are its stations in 100 Mile House and Vanderhoof (each with a population of 5,000 or less). The middle of the spectrum would be Vista’s stations in Port Hardy, Campbell River or Powell River, and its larger markets would be areas like Courtenay/Comox, with approximately 58,000, or Prince George – Vista’s largest market where it now owns two FM stations with a potential reach of about 75,000. Prince George is its only BBM-rated market.
The company has also been investing heavily in upgrading its new properties and standardizing the technical platforms across the group, as well as re-branding and re-launching several of their new acquisitions.
“I think the properties we bought all had significant futures if they became part of a chain, and the chain had a vision which reflected back to the local communities,” explained Vista President Bryan Edwards. “I think one of the things we really strive to do is have each of the stations even more local than they were previously, if possible.”
“Local” is something of a mantra at Vista, perhaps even the company’s whole raison d’ętre. Vista aims to be the big fish in the small pond.
“Our focus as a company — because it’s what we do well and it’s what we’re passionate about — is small-and medium-market radio. Where we’re investing in a lot of our facilities and our plant, it’s to put a vision in a line; it’s to treat small-market radio like big business,” said Executive Vice-President Paul Mann.
The management team at Vista go back to the days of the Okanagan Skeena Group, where Edwards served as president and CEO. Paul Mann, as well as his son Jason Mann, VP of programming, Barbara Fairclough, company controller, along with CEO Margot Micallef are all veterans of the Okanagan Skeena Group, which was acquired by Telemedia Radio in the late ’90s. In 2002, Standard Radio acquired Telemedia’s B.C. radio stations.
And so, over the years many of Vista’s current employees have seen several different regimes come and go.
“I’ve worked for five different companies over the span of 10 years without ever leaving my desk,” quipped Jason Mann.
“We became quite a team and worked well together and it seemed a natural fit a couple years later, when we saw some opportunities in the industry, that we put the same team back together,” explained Edwards. “We operate as a virtual company, in that there’s really no head office. We’re scattered all over, and what makes that work is the fact that we know each other so well.”
Edwards is based in Terrace. Jason Mann is in Duncan and his father, Paul, calls Abbotsford home, although he admits that he’s basically been spending the year on the road, living out of hotel rooms, juggling projects and overseeing capital investments.
Paul Mann explained that over the years, the team has seen both the good and the bad side of acquisitions and mergers, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of working for a small company as opposed to a big corporate group.
Many of Vista’s senior management team, including people like Keith James, who came out of retirement to manage the group’s Duncan operations, and Sean Matheson, who oversees non-traditional sales, are also shareholders in the company, giving them a unique stake in its risks and fortunes, not to mention an incentive to get it right.
“The one thing about getting to do it for yourself, as opposed to someone else, is it gave us the chance as we crafted our own business plan, to look at what would do the same, knowing what we know from our past, and what would we do different,” Paul Mann explained. “We’ve worked for the large companies, and we’ve been part of the on-the-ground management team in terms of assimilation, and putting change together, and now we get to do it for ourselves.”
From a technical standpoint, bringing together and standardizing systems like traffic management, music scheduling, broadcast automation and newsroom systems was a job that fell to Jason Mann.
“Each one of them (the stations) was on different commercial scheduling software, from a very old and inflexible DOS DARTS program, to a couple of different versions of CDSI, and a Windows-based version of a system called Visual Traffic,” he explained.
“We did an analysis of what was available in the marketplace and came across an emerging technology called Wide Orbit. It’s been around for a couple years in the U.S., primarily as a television scheduling program but they had just adapted it to radio. It’s designed by traffic people. So we’re rolling that out across the company and we’re probably the first radio broadcast company in Canada to go on this system.”
He explained that Wide Orbit would serve as the financial backbone of the company, and that one of the key advantages of the system is that it allows account execs to log in remotely and write their own orders directly in the system, saving time and effort and giving accurate real-time inventory management.
“Typically, you would write out the order on a piece of paper and then have a traffic person/manager decipher that handwriting and enter it in a computer,” explained Jason Mann. “So the reporting that the system allows us as far as real-time inventory management is just phenomenal.”
In terms of music scheduling software the company was similarly confronted with several different systems. “We were on several different versions of everything. We were on Windows Music Master, DOS Music Master, Windows Selector, DOS Selector.”
The company inked a deal with RCS Sound Software and is standardizing on the Windows version of Selector.
The underlying platform that ties it all together is OMT Technologies’ MediaTouch. Company President Edwards was actually one of the first guinea pigs for the MediaTouch system, and in the early days helped push the company to develop features for the system that, nowadays, are taken for granted.
“Back in ’89 or ’90, I went to MediaTouch to ask them if they could do a multi-station platform with hard drives, because nobody at that time was offering that. People could do two stations, but not more than two,” Edwards explained. “They built a system for me and it’s evolved into something very sophisticated now. And knowing what you can do with that kind of a system, allows us to do a lot more with the technology. I think that’s one of our strengths.”
Jason Mann said that another key reason to go with MediaTouch was simply the fact that a lot of the stations were already using it, and it represented the least number of changes across the group.
“De-Networking” Is The Plan
But far from trying to build a radio network, Jason Mann explained the goal with all of this standardization is actually to “de-network” their stations and enable the smaller stations, that were mostly doing rebroadcasts, to stand alone and develop more local content.
“We’ve begun the process of de-networking as many of the stations that we’ve acquired as possible,” he said. “Our strategy is local. In the emerging technological environment, there’s going to be a lot choice with respect to national services, so I think our greatest strength and our greatest advantage is going to be in delivering the highest quality local product.”
For the newsrooms across the group, Vista has standardized on KLZ Newsroom’s Newsroom 4 for almost the opposite reason — it enables collaborative clusters of stations to share information.
“For example, on Vancouver Island we can tie all the stations together where there is some regional relevance and some sharing between the newsrooms,” said Jason Mann.
Edwards admitted that with all the technical upgrades there have been some “redundancies” in the company, particularly in the back office. But overall the company has gone from 130 to 144 employees — mostly by adding people in the news departments and other on-air talent.
In addition to standardizing and upgrading 19 far-flung stations, the company recently moved its stations in Powell River and Duncan into new facilities, and totally redesigned and renovated its Courtenay/Comox station.
And, SUN FM in Duncan has moved into a new facility — formerly an upscale Italian restaurant complete with hardwood floors and a fireplace.
“It will be one of the premier small-market broadcast facilities in the country as far as creative environment, and technology,” said Paul Mann.
With the launch of JetFM in Courtenay/Comox, a station that was previously operating as CFCP-FM, with an adult contemporary station, Vista has really found its groove.
Adjacent to CFB Comox, where the Canadian Force’s 19 Wing is based, the station was entirely redesigned with a “jet” theme (polished aluminum struts and all), as it re-launched under its new JetFM moniker as a classic rock station.
“JetFM has captured the imagination of the marketplace,” explained Jason Mann. “It’s hard to explain, but when you tap the vein of the community or when you touch the nerve in the community with a station and a format that is just firing on all cylinders, it’s just amazing what can happen. And it truly is one of the most exciting experiences of my programming life.”
The company has undertaken several other re-brands and re-launches, but JetFM is probably the most successful one yet.
“We use research to go into the market and find out what the market is looking for,” explained Jason Mann. “You can strike out, but if you look at it closely enough — and you use the anecdotal information that’s available to you — and all of your experience and all of your years of programming, sometimes you can hit a home run. And I dare say JetFM is a home run.”
More Tangible Branding
Re-branding and re-launching stations is always a delicate process, fraught with potential pitfalls. But for Edwards it was a key part of the original plan, “sometimes people get complacent in smaller markets... and we try to keep a fresh approach, because if you’re doing today what you did a year ago, then the audience is probably a little bored with you.”
Overall, the company is dropping call letters and coming up with more tangible branding.
“Giving communities their own identities, that’s part of our agenda,” said Paul Mann. So operations in Port Hardy, Port McNeil and Port Alison have been re-branded as “The Port.”
Meanwhile, Vista’s Powell River outfit became “The New Magic” and moved into a beautiful new facility across town.
“It really just operated on a set of call letters all these years. But giving it a soft rock brand known as ‘Magic’ has elevated it, and we moved it to a new location — a beautiful marine-drive ocean-view studio — that’s sort of helped to elevate the product and the perception of the brand in the marketplace,” said Paul Mann.
Even up in the northern tip of its reach, the tiny town of Smithers, which sits in the shadow of Hudson’s Bay Mountain, has had its station re-branded as “The Peak.”
“The people of the town identified with it because they related it to the mountain peak,” said Paul Mann. “And of course, we put fresh imaging and work into the music side, and the product, and try to put some fun in the station. When you start to do those things, people inevitably respond in the community.”
He stressed that the most important things to focus on were the morning shows and the local news, and the company has hired people in those areas.
“These are the things that give people ownership of their local station, so the re-brands have been quite substantial as part of the year-one effort, in addition to some of the physical plant and technology that we’ve been upgrading to,” he added.
Attitude goes a long way in radio, and Vista sees its aggressive expansion, and capital investments as something of a statement. Indeed, the company seems to be operating with a “build-it-and-they-will-come” philosophy.
“A lot of success in business comes from your attitude and the approach you take to business,” said Paul Mann.
But there is certainly a pattern emerging — a method to the madness — especially in the types of stations they’ve been acquiring so far.
“We’ve been successful in putting together a company that is formed from several small companies that were, in some cases, family-owned operations where these families were ready for retirement,” explained Paul Mann. “Norma Brown, for example, who owned the Coast Group of stations in Courtney, Campbell River, Powell River and Port Hardy — she’s 82 years old, so this was an opportunity, perhaps in her case, to put the company in the hands of hands-on operators who have a vision and a solid belief in small community radio.
“That’s the sort of candidate for acquisitions that we’ve been fortunate enough to find.”
“I think it’s the numbers of them,” Edwards added. “We were very fortunate to put a deal together that got us as many licences out of the gate and that gives us enough critical mass to make it work.”
The company hasn’t finished its out-of-the-gate growth phase yet. Edwards explained that, for now, Vista is focussed on its outstanding applications. Hearings for a Lethbridge station were held in Edmonton in February, and in June, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hears applications for stations in Fort McMurray and Grand Prairie, Alberta.
The new applications alone would represent a lot of work for a small operator such as Vista, but the company is still looking to grow through acquisitions.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re going to be involved with a few other calls, and we’re looking for other opportunities to buy stand-alone, or small groups of stations that are ready to sell,” said Edwards. “In the second go around, [acquisitions] won’t necessarily have to meet the same kind of criteria, now that we’re up and running.”
Still A Tough Sell
Generally, radio has been going through some tough times in recent years. Along with other “old media” such as print and TV, radio has generally been losing ground to “new media”.
And with the launch of satellite radio, many smaller stations feel they’ll be facing even more of an uphill battle.
However, many of Vista’s markets don’t have local TV or daily newspapers. In those kind of situations, radio takes on added importance as the only source of local information. But even so, it can still be a tough sell.
“Yeah, radio is always more of a sell,” said Edwards. “Both print and TV seem to be more intuitive to an advertiser, but when radio creates excitement in a community — or it’s relevant to a community — it becomes an easier sell. Our focus is in growing the market and growing the revenue, and the only way you can do that is by having the right programming,”
Overall, everything seems to be going according to plan.
“What we’ve agreed is that we’re very competent at turning small- and medium-market stations around and we’re confident with the technology that’s available,” Edwards added.
“We did our research and, so far, we’re hitting our business plan, which was a significant increase in revenue in the first year.”
Freelance writer Scott Lehane may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org