Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Robert Conrad
When Robert Conrad walks in the room, people notice. No, we are not talking about the actor of Wild Wild West fame.  We are talking about the kid from Kankakee who went on to a glorious career in classical music radio broadcasting. In many ways he invented it.

Today Conrad is President of WCLV, Cleveland, the classical music radio station owned by ideastream, an independent nonprofit organization that also owns PBS station WVIZ-TV and NPR News/Talk station WCPN. Conrad and WCLV took a challenging road to get to where they are today.

Robert Conrad on WCLV in the mid 1960s
Conrad and his business partner, at the time Pat Patrick, founded WCLV 95.5 FM in 1962. At that time there were a growing number of commercial FM stations signing on across the country.  FM broadcasting was on the rise in the early 1960s but it hadn’t yet become the dominant part of the dial.  Conrad and Patrick were able to acquire the station for pennies compared to the cost of buying an FM stations now.

WCLV quickly became popular and was profitable almost from the start.  For three decades the business grew.  Then in the 1990s changes in the radio industry caused an upheaval for WCLV and hundreds of other owner operated stations across the country.

In the 1980s the FCC began to “deregulate” broadcast station ownership. The Commission first ended the “three year rule” that required station owners to keep licenses for at least three years before selling it. This change made radio stations a popular investment for financial speculators because they could be resold any time.

The FCC continued deregulation through the 1990s into the early 2000s.  For many years broadcast station owners were allowed to own only seven licenses nationally and one station per market. Then the FCC expanded that number in stages to the point where there were (and today still are) almost no “caps” on license ownership.

Each time the FCC raised the ownership limits, it set off a frenzy of station sales at ever-increasing prices. Big companies were sold to even bigger companies.  Some companies merged with other companies. This consolidation made it possible for deep-pockets owner such as iHeartMedia, Cumulus and Entercom to own hundreds of stations nationally.  In some cases, big consolidated operators own every station in a market.

For owners such as Conrad, the value of stations like WCLV 95.5 FM had skyrocketed. Because the demand was so high, stations sold for unbelievable prices. 

A downside of consolidation was that the new owners of “specialty” stations dropped their formats and replaced them with mass appeal sounds. Formats such as Classical music began to fade from commercial radio. However, Classical music didn’t leave the radio dial in Cleveland.  Conrad switched WCLV to noncommercial ownership and preserved Classical music on the radio in northeast Ohio.

WCLV’s move to noncommercial status was the final step in a long-term plan to keep a Classical music station alive in the Cleveland area. Many other commercial classical station owners sold their station for $100 million or more in the go-go days of consolation. Conrad told us many operators cashed in when their stations were more valuable dead than alive.

However, selling commercial Classical station had a cost greater than money: The community lost its Classical music on the radio, a loss that has proven hard to fill.

“We’ll drive a truck with loads of money to your door”

In the early 90s, the ownership of WCLV 95.5 FM changed somewhat. Pat Patrick had retired, and Conrad brought in Rich Marschner, who had been President of WFMT in Chicago and an experienced radio station broker, a talent that would be very useful.

WCLV’s move to become a noncommercial, public radio station was partly luck and partly timing, but it was always powered by a love for Classical music. Conrad told us told Spark News the story in his own words:

Conrad on WCLV
Conrad: In the late 90s, Clear Channel [now iHeartMedia] had six stations in Cleveland, and AM/FM [now part of iHeart] had six.  WCLV was the only locally owned station at that time in the market. WCLV 95.5 FM was a class B 50,000-watt outlet that had one of the best signals in the area.

When Clear Channel bought AM/FM in the late 1900s, they had to sell off six stations. So there was a lot of brokerage activity.

At WCLV, we started getting calls from brokers saying they were bidding on such and such stations and they would like to add WCLV to their cluster.  And I would say, “You’ll kill the format!” 

One of the brokers told me: “Yes, but we’ll drive truck loads of money to your door.” Another broker said:  What would you do with several million dollars?”  It was a staggering amount. I said, “ I would gulp a lot”.

That told us something we already knew – no one wanted to buy WCLV and its Classical format; they wanted WCLV for our frequency and good coverage area. We realized we were going to be able to bargain.

In 2000, we began to make arrangements with Clear Channel to sell 95.5 FM and acquire 104.9 FM, a Class A station in Lorain, Ohio that had a construction permit to double its power and move closer to downtown Cleveland. This was a win/win for every one.

Then Salem Communications, the large religious broadcaster, entered the picture. Salem wanted to own 95.5 FM and they were ready pay a substantial amount for it. So, we worked with Clear Channel to arrange a three-party deal in which Salem got 95.5, and in exchange WCLV got a pile of money, more than we had ever been offered at any time in the past.

Plus, we were offered Salem’s AM station at 1420. It covered an area on the east lake shore that our new FM station did not have good coverage, and we planned to duplicate our Classical music format on 1420.

This complicated deal was to become even more complicated before the settlement date July 3, 2001.

Five weeks before the deadline, Salem announced they were moving their "teach and preach" format, at the time on 1420, to their station at 1220 AM. 1220 AM had a sports format.  The sports programming would move to 850 AM WRMR.

Than Salem announced publically that WRMR would drop the Big Band music on July 3, 2001.

Bang! The next day there is a front-page story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer with the headline: Senior Citizens To Lose Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. OMG!

We started getting calls from WRMR’s listeners saying we should put the Big Band format on 1420 AM. The current air staff of WRMR contacted us and said they’d come and run the station for us. Advertisers called saying they’d move their business to us immediately if we would adopt the Big Band format.

Then, just four weeks before July 3rd deal was to be completed, we bought the intellectual property of WRMR. In this new arrangement we got WRMR’s complete library of big band music and the computer that operated it, the call letters W-R-M-R, all of the ongoing advertising contracts, plus a station truck, the transmitter and the tower. We couldn’t pass it up.

On July 3rd, 2001, six Cleveland radio stations changed either their format or place on the dial at the same time. Of course, the best part of the deal was saving the Classical format on WCLV. That was accomplished when WCLV’s signal moved from 95.5 to 104.9 on the same day. WCLV continued to operate as a commercial station.

Four years later, Salem called us and said they wanted to buy 1420 AM back.  We said we didn’t want to sell.  They said, "Yes, you do, because we’re going to give you a lot of money." Salem offered much more than what the station was worth. We took the windfall cash and Salem got 1420 AM back.

In the meantime, Cleveland's public broadcasters, WVIZ-TV and WCPN 90.3 FM, which had been separate corporations, merged and became ideastream. They built fabulous combined facilities on Cleveland's historic Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. The area is the second largest theatre district in the country.

ideastream came to us and suggested that we move WCLV into their facilities. It took ten years, but we finally decided to do that.

In the meantime, we changed WCLV’s ownership into a non-profit foundation, patterned after WFMT (Chicago's non-profit commercial station). But IRS said that they no longer allowed such a combination, although they had grandfathered WFMT.

So we turned to The Cleveland Foundation for their advice. They
encouraged us to merge with ideastream.  We felt that it was going to happen sooner or later anyway.  So Rich Marschner and I, the owners of WCLV, donated the station to ideastream. On November 2, 2012 – WCLV’s 50th anniversary as a commercial station – we became a noncommercial public radio station.

Many of our commercial sponsors became underwriters. Since then our listeners  in northeast Ohio and around the world via our online streaming audio, have stepped up with generous donations.

There's talk that Classical music radio is a dying format. This is not so in Cleveland. Classical music on the radio thrives when licensees nurture Classical music in their communities and operate stations as fiscally responsible nonprofit organizations.

© Ken Mills 2018

1 comment:

  1. Some say Jazz is dying as well. Are they right? Classical has done better than Jazz, and I am not counting the NAC/Smooth Jazz format allthough it has not been the viable commercial format that it once was.