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Former Westwood One Executive Takes Ownership In Small Town Radio — And In His Roots

After two decades out in the world, John Paul was drawn back to his hometown in Washington State. "I know my way around a transmitter now."

It is not, it would appear, a great time to be investing in the radio business.

Streaming listenership has bypassed over-the-air broadcasts among younger customers, local staffs have been trimmed to the nubs, and most homes no longer even have a traditional radio in a place of prominence.

And yet, radio vet John Paul is excited about the purchase of Washington Interstate Broadcasting, a three-station cluster in Longview-Kelso, Wash., that includes country KUKN

“I’m not bullish on radio as an industry,” he admits. “From what I hear when I listen to the radio in other places, whether it’s seven-minute commercial breaks or horribly executed syndication, I’m just not a fan. I think radio has shot itself in the foot at times with way too many cooks in the kitchen, way overmanaged. I’m not bullish on radio as an industry. I’m bullish on how we do it.”

Serving Cowlitz County — population estimated at 111, 524 in July 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — KUKN consistently leads the market, usually as the only station with a double-digit share in the Eastlan Ratings. The playlist generally avoids ballads, sliding a few ’80s and ’90s titles into its current-driven mix. Commercial breaks are limited to three minutes, and they lean toward local advertisers. And the staff of 15 — a larger workforce than some more sizeable stations — includes an all-local on-air crew. It’s a professional-sounding station, but it still feels personal: In a recent morning show, the squeak of host Pork Chop‘s chair could be heard as he shifted in his seat during a bit.

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“There’s no reason why, though we’re in a small town, we need to sound like a small-town radio station,” Paul says. 

That Paul and his co-owner, wife Nicki Paul, are back in Longview is a story that mirrors a country song. He grew up in the area and started at classic hits KLOG when he was 13. During his senior year in high school, he did a full-time afternoon show at the station, but he had larger aspirations and moved on in his early 20s to bigger markets, first as a PD in Portland, Ore., and eventually at Westwood One in Colorado, where he was vp of programming and PD of two 24/7 country formats. After two decades out in the world, he was drawn back to his hometown, a surprise full-circle development.

Johnny Paul at KLOG, where he had his own afternoon show by his senior year in high school. Courtesy of John Paul

“I would come back to the station and visit and see friends,” he remembers, “but I had no intention of coming back. Cumulus had bought Westwood One, and we were in the middle of restructuring, and I was laying off people. And it wasn’t what I got into radio to do.”

Paul had to cut a group of employees in Denver, then flew to Dallas the next day to let go of more. He anticipated he would have to continue chopping staffs until the day came that his boss would release him, too. When he returned to the hotel, he got a gin and tonic at the bar, then called Nicki to tell her he was done. On her advice, he called KUKN owner Joel Hanson, who offered a chance to return to Longview with an understanding that Paul would have the option to purchase the company a few years later. 

He checked with a few trusted allies, including Kansas-based Iola Broadcasting owner Tom Norris, who insisted he would thrive in ownership: “It’s not glamorous, but it’s great.”

So the Pauls followed the life-as-a-country-song path and returned to Longview in 2014.

“I basically spent the last seven years learning the business side of it — you know, all the stuff that I didn’t know or I had people [do] for me,” Paul recalls. “I had to learn it all. I know my way around a transmitter now. I never did before.”

Not all of it has been fun. He has burrowed in with his CPA on pro-rating the company’s taxes post-sale, struggled to interpret a clunky state government website, revised the paperwork on the employees’ health insurance and addressed company credit cards for some of the staff. Plus, the checks have to be signed.

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“One thing that’s surprising to me is how expensive it is to run a radio station,” he admits. “I had no idea. None. Just the IT costs alone, that’s been the biggest shock.”

Nevertheless, the cluster is, he says, on track for its best financial year ever, in part because of an expansion he helped engineer. The broadcast outlets are accompanied by the Cowlitz Podcast Network and Cowlitz Digital, companies that generate additional revenue in a platform that didn’t exist when he was emptying KLOG wastebaskets when he was 13. 

It’s a game plan that coincidentally matches a philosophy that Townsquare CEO Bill Wilson outlined during this year’s Country Radio Seminar. While large-market radio is struggling with the growth of digital competition, Townsquare is focused strictly on stations outside the top 50 markets, where local newspapers are dying. The void creates an opportunity for broadcasters to pick up advertising from local and regional businesses while serving the local audience — both on-air and online — in a way that national platforms do not. 

Paul thinks highly of his city’s paper, The Longview Daily News, but the station gives it a run with aggressive promotion and persistent local coverage. It has a three-person news team — an atypical manpower investment in current radio circles — and captures audio from city council hearings and school board meetings.

It’s all rather different from the large-market life Paul had originally anticipated, but he says there’s a security in Longview that he lost in Denver. 

“I control 100% of my destiny,” he says.

His small-town life mirrors the sentiments of the country songs he plays, providing a sense of community and a connection to his roots. In essence, radio management is everything that Norris had told him it would be:

“It’s an unbelievable life. It’s not glamorous, but it’s great.” 

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