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It was a different world back then!

WVMX - Stowe, Vermont

 

When the Grateful Dead sing about what a long, strange trip it's been, I think that they may have been singing about WVMX.

The station, as WRFB, was owned by Sage Broadcasting. The plan was to improve the station's penetration in the Burlington-Plattsburgh market. This meant a call letter change, facilities upgrade from transmitter site to studio with heavy promotion.

While still WRFB, Tim Hoehn, our General Manager, had made me the Sales Manager of one of the least responsive sales teams I have ever had. Without getting into the personalities, let's just say that there was a great sense of entitlement and not a whole lot of talent.

As the time for change approached, the corporate office sent Doug Shackett to WRFB to oversee the project. Doug was a good man. He had great success at another Sage property and it was time to work this magic again in Vermont. If you didn't know him, he could seem a bit intimidating. One day, I came back from being on the road and walked into the office that he and Tim were sharing. Doug had a homemade tatoo on his hand that said, "Red". Keep in mind that no one had seen him smile yet. So, I came in with a new order, sat down next to his desk, pointed to his hand and asked, Boss, is that the name of an old flame or something you used to smoke?"

I looked over at Tim and could almost see the the look of sheer disbelief in his eyes. Then, Doug looked at me and smiled. He said, "Neither, but there's a story to this." He proceeded to tell me that he had grown up in an orphanage. I think it was in Windsor, Vermont. He said that he was so poor, that he and a few other boys from the orphanage would "roll bums" to get some spare change. He laughed and said they all gave each other fake names so they couldn't be easily identified by their victims. To top it off, they tatooed those names on their hands so they wouldn't forget what they were. He laughed again and said that it had never occurred to them that the tats would make them easier to identify!

After Doug was with us a week or two, we all received memos with our paychecks telling us that Doug would be our new General Manager and that Tim Hoehn would transition into the position of Sales Manager. There was only one problem with this. Doug had never talked to Tim about it. Also, since I was the Sales Manager, no one had bothered to discuss any of this with me. So, I was expected to cheerfully become an Account Executive. It didn't affect my paycheck, but it would have been nice to know in advance. I am the only person I know to have ever been demoted via memo. (except for Tim)

Tim left very quickly. Instead of restoring me to the position of Sales Manager, Doug hired Jim Duncan. I liked Jim. Doug also hired Jim's wife. For some reason, unknown to me, she didn't like me at all. That was okay. She walked around the office with no shoes on. I didn't like that.

So, in light of the permanent demotion, I decided that I would become the top billing salesperson. I did. We had a sales competition for generating new business. I won.

The new format debuted on October 28, 1990. By December of 1990, I had established a new monthly billing record for the station. I had made up my mind that everyday, I would produce at least one of the following three things for my boss when I got back to the station; an order, a check on an unpaid balance, or a joke.

On the days I had to joke, Doug would smile at me, shake his head and say, "Price, I don't know what I'm going to do with you."

As time progressed, the format change essentially alienated most of the local business community. One of the sales people, who had been a former owner that had sold the station to Sage, spent each morning at the local Post Office telling others in the community that we didn't have our act together. I only phrase it that way to be nice. In short, he was badmouthing us. He was the last remnant of the entitled sales team. It was good to see him go.

The new signal created coverage in Burlington. The problem was, the station came in pretty well if you were driving on the streets from east to west, but it pretty much disappeared between the buildings from north to south. Our big promotional campaign was busboards. Sort of embarrassing to have people tell you that they couldn't pick the station up while sitting behind a bus in traffic touting our wonderful, new station, WVMX, the "New" Mix 101.7.

Paul Mitchell was the Program Director. Doug had hired him from Honolulu. Paul hired Mitchell Chase for mornings. They were both native Californians, good people and good broadcasters. They had both also worked with my mentor, RJ Harris in Sacramento! Paul performed with operational excellence. He was a stickler for details. Mitchell Chase, who sounded a heck of a lot like Rick Dees, did a terrific, well-prepped, humorous morning show.

The rest of the on-air staff consisted of Nancy MacDonald, Johnny B, Frankie Allen, and later included Lana Wilder as a replacement for Nancy. Chip Hobart, who had worked at legendary radio stations in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Boston was part of the staff. We had two strong news people; Bob Williams, our News Director, and Lauren, whose last name escapes me. Amy Kolb was a full-time salesperson and did some news as well and later became News Director. Newton Wells jocked weekends. I continued to do a weekend airshift myself.

Unfortunately, billing dropped way below what it had been as a yokel station and even though the station sounded very good, it didn't connect with it's intended target.

After almost a year, with declining revenues and tremendous overhead, Doug Shackett declared "mission accomplished". Jim Duncan had left the station and Doug handed me the keys to the kingdom. Virtually everyone imported from afar had exited. I revised the format. Especially the music and made a concerted effort to reconnect with the local community. I hired Art Shannon to replace Mitchell Chase when he left. Dave Johnson also joined the airstaff.

After a year, with new numbers in the Arbitron, we started to gain traction. The station had grown with the format change and we were able to increase those gains even more dramatically to the point where the station had the best ratings it had ever had prior to that or ever since. We started to be included on buys for targeted key accounts like Tri-State Megabucks. We were able to go to the disaffected and ask the question, which station would you think "serves the community better, the one (the old WRFB) with the 3.0 share in the county or the one (WVMX) with the 21.0 share?" After all the badmouthing, it started to open eyes and doors.

Sage was very hands off. I met the owners once for about 10 minutes. I think it was a way to write off that ski trip. I would get called periodically. They mostly cursed. Then, in the middle of 1992, the company sent a consultant from Nashville by the name of Frank Woods to "figure out what was going on in Stowe". They could have done that themselves, but would never reserve the time to talk with me. Frank was a very smart man and a gentleman. I don't think that I was what he expected. I explained the reality of the marketplace and my business plan for the station. He thought it made perfect sense. He went back to Sage and told them that I was the right guy for the job and that they needed to give me a raise.

I got the raise.

It wasn't the solution they wanted to hear. A month later, they sent Frank Woods back.

I got fired.

As far as I could tell, they never exceeded the monthly billing that I had been able to attain. With neither patience or foresight, they seriously trashed the momentum and hard work that the station needed to grow. They ended up selling WVMX back to one of the old owners for $450,000. That was exactly half of the $900,000 they had paid for the station.

So essentially, by the time they made me the General Manager, it was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

It was a long, strange trip.

 

 

 

 

 

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