Rocking M: ‘Not A Radio Company’
Oct, 17 2016 First of a two-part series.
By Adam R Jacobson
In the U.S., there are two Manhattans most people are familiar with.
There’s the borough in New York City, home to NBC, CBS, and Publicis New York and Zabar’s.
Then there’s the city of 52,500 in northeast Kansas that’s home to Kansas State University, nearby Fort Riley, Parker Hannafin’s hose products division, and Varsity Donuts.
Manhattan, Kansas is also home to Rocking M Media, and if it hadn’t been Northwestern Mutual’s decision in 1972 to use the slogan “The Quiet Company,” it would fit Rocking M and its president, Christopher Miller, just fine.
Miller doesn’t readily agree to media interviews. “We’re just a small family company,” he said when initially contacted by RBR + TVBR. “We stick to our own knitting.”
But there’s a great story here, one that other small-market broadcasters may gain insight and learning lessons from.
That was enough to convince Miller to chat about his company’s latest acquisition – five stations in Kansas — from Alpha Media LLC. He also took the opportunity to correctly define his family business when asked to describe it.
“We’re not a radio company,” Miller says. “We’re a business development company.”
On Oct. 12, Rocking M Media agreed to purchase Class KSAL-AM 1150, Class C3 KSAL-FM 104.9; Class D KABI-AM 1560; and Class C1 100kw KYEZ-FM 93.7 in Salina, Kan.; and Class C1 KBLS-FM 102.5 in North Fort Riley, Kan., from Alpha for an undisclosed price.
KSAL-AM is a 5kw non-directional, two-pattern operation with 1 daytime and 4 nighttime towers; KABI has 1 tower and its non-directional, two-pattern signal uses 250 watts during the day and just 58 watts at night.
In a statement, Alpha Media CEO Bob Proffitt noted that the station’s Salina employees will be joining Rocking M Media – pointing to what is expected to be a smooth transition. “Rocking M Media is a strong force in Kansas radio and media,” he said.
KBLS isn’t staying with Rocking M, however. Even though the company is headquartered in Manhattan, it has opted to transfer ownership of the station to Manhattan Broadcasting Co. immediately after it closes on the Alpha deal.
The FCC has not yet posted details of the transactions. Alpha Media was represented by George Reed of Media Services Group, while Rocking M Media was represented by Gammon Miller media investment bankers.
Manhattan Broadcasting VP/GM Corey Reeves called the acquisition “a fantastic opportunity to bring the KBLS-FM signal, once owner by the Vanier family, back home to Manhattan. Adding KBLS to the Manhattan Broadcasting family of stations will allow us to even better serve and promote the local communities and businesses in Manhattan, Junction City, and the surrounding area by adding a heritage signal with an established audience.”
Given Miller’s commitment to best-serving the markets in central and western Kansas that Rocking M has served for nearly 10 years, the spin-off makes perfect sense.
Rocking M Media’s media holdings include 24 radio stations across the state of Kansas. Many of the stations reach parts of Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
But Rocking M has also seen revenue growth from the launch nearly five years ago of Wheat State Signs, a banner and vehicle wrap operation.
There’s also KanBids.com, an online auctioneer; employment search site WorkInWesternKansas.com; news-oriented TodayInKansas.com; RuralGrowth.com, a crowdsourcing platform for new business development that allows both investments and raising capital to the Wheat State’s smallest communities; and an events division that stages the annual Southwest Kansas Winter Expo and “HorseThief – The Festival,” a summertime camping/concert/outdoor activity weekend festival.
HorseThief is perhaps one of the more emblematic events that Rocking M has brought to fruition, given its growth and resulting community goodwill.
Miller explains, “HorseThief Reservoir was built as part of [the Pawnee Watershed] project, and they didn’t know how to tell people they were open. We thought we could help them out by hosting an annual music event, and by using all of our stations in central and western Kansas to help sell tickets.”
Now in its fifth year, the event has emerged as a major draw for fans “Red Dirt Country” music. “Last summer we had 3,000 people and that’s a lot for out in the middle of western Kansas. We need auxiliary campgrounds as it sells out. During the day we have events like a warrior obstacle course run, “nearly 5k” run across the reservoir dam, mud volleyball, and fishing,” Miller says. The food vendors pay us, the staff has fun working it, and people in the small towns out there take ownership of the event.”
While HorseThief, the winter expo and the websites are all components of a company that was officially established in 2007 by the Miller family, Christopher’s father and grandfather have a storied past. It explains why Rocking M’s marketing literature reads, “Developing Kansas businesses for over 100 years.”
Miller says, “I am fourth-generation in the media business, and my son is working at some of the radio stations.”
The Miller family’s media holdings date to the 1880s, with newspapers. The A.Q. Miller Family School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University is named after Christopher Miller’s great-grandfather.
In the 1980s, the weekly newspapers that remained were sold and the focus turned to television. The first station acquired by what was Miller Television was KMCI-Channel 38 in Lawrence, Kansas – home to the University of Kansas.
Christopher Miller recalls, “We were stuck in the days without ‘must carry’ rules and we couldn’t get contracts. The TV studios were happy to give us the contracts once we told them what cable companies we’d be on, and the cable companies wouldn’t give us the contracts until we could get a programming grid.”
KMCI started live as a non-owned Home Shopping Network affiliate. It then added more localized programming, and thanks to duopolies and the rise of market concentration in the late 1990s Miller relinquished control of KMCI to Scripps Howard Broadcasting. The company bought it outright in 2002, following a six-year LMA of the station.
Miller went to work with a media broker named Jim Gammon. Today, he’s a part owner in the company that served as Rocking M’s broker representative in the Alpha deal; Gammon Miller is a separate entity and not connected to the Miller family business.
The decision would lead the Miller family down the path to radio station ownership, providing the foundation for what today is Rocking M Media.
The second part of our interview with Rocking M Media president Christopher Miller will appear October 18 at RBR.com
AM, FM Fuel Local Business Growth In Kansas
Oct, 18 2016 Second in a two-part series
By Adam R Jacobson
By 2006, Rocking M Media president Christopher Miller noticed that the radio industry had splintered into two different types of businesses.
In a market like Dallas, there were quarterly earnings and ratings and other business realities that operators in nearby Tyler-Longview, Texas, didn’t need to focus their time and energies with.
“In Tyler-Longview, my time better be spent taking the auto dealer out for lunch, or the grocery store owner out for golf,” Miller says.
Sniffing an opportunity, he mentioned to his parents that adding radio stations may be a good idea. In late 2007, after looking in Arizona, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, Rocking M was founded with the acquisition of stations in Western Kansas.
Don’t mistake the purchase of the stations, and the formation of Rocking M, as a desire to own radio stations.
“We were looking at it as buying ‘electronic real estate,’” he explains.
In his eyes, a Construction Permit is a lot that hasn’t been built on yet. Similarly, a heritage station that might be struggling is an aging strip mall that needed a little bit of help.
With that mentality, Rocking M began its slow but steady buying spree, leading up to the company’s Oct. 12 acquisition of Alpha Media’ Salina, Kan., cluster.
“We are using radio as the base to grow our future businesses, whether they are internet or brick-and-mortar, or even pieces of another company,” Miller says. “This is our fifth transaction. Next year we celebrate 10 years.”
At Rocking M’s radio stations, there are no account executives. Rather, there are business development executives. These individuals are tasked with developing the businesses in their territory.
How does this work? By having the “BDE” share all of Rocking M’s media properties in a client presentation and having the buy assigned to the outlet that best works for them.
“Yes, there are budgets, but when it comes down to the rubber hitting the road, they have to do what is right for the client,” Miller says. “If a booth at our Winter Expo is better for the client than a radio schedule, that’s fine, although all along we would be pitching both. We happen to own both. But at long as his business picks up because of his affiliation with us, that is all that matters.”
LOCATION LOVE TRUMPS SALES STARS
Hays, Kansas may not be highly attractive to anyone unfamiliar with the small Kansas town along Interstate 70, between Colorado Springs and Topeka.
Thus, funding talent to work for Rocking M’s stations is based on community passion, and the desire to live in Hays or Salina is more important to Miller than if the individual has excelled in sales in another part of the U.S.
“We want to find people who want to live in those communities, and we then explain to them the business development opportunity,” Miller says.
Finding quality air personalities may prove more challenging, however. To help resolve the non-local nature of non-drive-time dayparts, the Miller family invested in Angola, Ind.-based Local Radio Network.
With playback equipment and many of Rocking M’s music formats tied to LRN, technology has helped the most rural of stations remain local.
“We’ll have a national jock on one of stations in Colby, Kansas, talking about the fruit in the baskets that the school kids were selling,” Miller says.
That’s because he wrote the copy that he sent to the host in Indiana to read on the Colby-based station.
“It’s a great new company, and we’re happy to be partnered with them,” Miller says. “This new technology allows us to be local when we want to be. It sounds like we have more people on staff. We’re also using Facebook Live so people can see what we are doing.”
As the fifth-generation of Millers learns about business development, the digital platform awaits. The TV station, along with the newspapers, are in the family’s past.
At front and center are the radio stations – the “electronic real estate” that is driving Main Street, Kansas.