10 Questions with ... Kerby Confer
May 29, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Confer has logged 58 years in the business, starting as an air personality at age 16. He became a station owner in 1975, eventually growing his portfolio to 250 stations; today he remains a partner in 70 stations. A 2003 inductee to the Pennsylvania Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame, Confer was a pioneer in branding radio stations with monikers such as "Kissn'" (KSSN/Little Rock) and "The Beaver" (WBVR/Bowling Green). The concept grew, with his first Frog-branded station, WFRG in Utica, NY. The idea spread to KFRG/San Bernardino, CA and WFGY/Altoona, PA, eventually spawning numerous Froggy stations - along with Bears, Bulls, and others. He will be inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame on Wednesday, June 22nd in Nashville.
1. Let's begin by asking what induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame means to you, and what you think it says about your radio career.
I really don't know how to answer that in a way that doesn't sound egotistical or fake. It's what people always say when they get awards, like "I'm humbled." And while that's true, I think the biggest thing about it is that it's a surprise to me. It's truly a surprise, because I basically thought the Country Radio Hall Of Fame was about radio people who were just on the radio. While my background is definitely being on the radio for a dozen years as a kid, compared to where I am now - I'm 75 - those years on the radio were Rock 'n' Roll radio years. What does it mean to me to be in the Country Radio Hall of Fame? Unexpected, thrilling to be included with air people - one of whom has been very close to me for many years. That is Bob Robbins. He had been a Top 40 Rock jock on the biggest Top 40 station in all of Arkansas, called KAAY, which is a 50,000 watt AM. When AM died, Bob Robbins' career died with it, because the new Top 40 station in town wanted 20 year olds, and Bob Robbins was a 40-year-old, and he just wasn't fitting the mold. My partners and I bought this FM - KSSN - with the idea that to go down, run it, change the format, and launch it with the call letters KSSN as "96 KSSN." We started going around town seeing who would be personalities, and people said that the good Country guys are all on AM. The iconic Country morning man is on AM, but he's almost retirement age. We asked what other DJs they knew and the first name that came up was Bob Robbins. I found him, and I said, "Bob, what would you think about being a Country jock?" And Bob was as Country as a cow. He was like, "Country on FM? Can you just imagine this? Country on FM?" And he said, "Yeah, Country is my music." And I thought, oh my God, here's a guy that just because he was a good local boy and he was good on the radio, he was doing Top 40 all those years, but he was really a Country guy in his heart. So I brought him in and put him on KSSN, and it was, well, as they say, the rest is history. But we stayed in touch all these years, and then he was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame. And I thought, there is your iconic guy who IS Mr. Country Radio in the state of Arkansas. So that's how I think of the Country Radio Hall of Fame.
2. What station or personality did you listen to most growing up, and how did either - or both -influence you in pursuing a radio career?
I'm a country kid from an Appalachian town in Pennsylvania, but the great gift of this town of Williamsport is that it's an all-American town. It's the birthplace of Little League and the home of the Little League World Series. I grew up there behind a 3,000-foot mountain, and it happens to be between Williamsport, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. You couldn't get television on an antenna in 1950 in Williamsport, PA. So I'm a nine-year-old boy, and we have two radio stations. And what do they play? Soap operas in the day and baseball on nights and weekends, and that's how it was. But at our house at night, when everybody got home from work and I got home from school, the radio went on, and it was Grand Ole Opry. I thought real music was Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and all the people of that era. Everybody else said, "Well Country music -that's for hicks," and I thought it was really strange, because we lived in a town. I couldn't get my head around it that I was a hick, because I didn't dress any different than anyone else. But that's what we did in my house, and that's what I thought was music. That remains unchanged until I'm 14 years old, and now the year is 1955. In a flash everything changed in Williamsport, PA. The first thing that changed was Elvis arrived - he arrived on TV simultaneous with our new cable system - and I see Elvis on TV, and I'm watching "American Bandstand." I'm a teenager, and Rock and Roll happens, and I'm like "Oh my god!" I'm 14 years old, and I discover out of town Clear Channel radio stations of my own - because there's one other thing that got invented - and I got a hold of my very own transistor radio. I kept it under my pillow, and my #1 station that I listened to almost religiously was a station called 'KB,' which was WKBW in Buffalo, NY. That's where my first hero was on the radio. It was a guy named George Lorenz, who went by the name "The Hound," and he was followed by Dick Biondi, who then became huge on WLS in Chicago. So my boyhood heroes in my teenage years were The Hound followed close by Dick Biondi on WKBW in Buffalo, which is a station that eventually I would own. So Elvis and a cable system and television set, a transistor radio that I keep under my pillow, and Top 40 is happening. And also, by the way, my secondary station starting at 11 o'clock was Randy's Record Mart on WLAC in Nashville, a station I would also eventually own in the 90s. Why that station and only in those hours, and why did it keep me awake until 2a? Because they played Rhythm and Blues, and it was race music, and it was not allowed to be played on the radio in Williamsport, PA.
3. Can you tell us about your first radio job?
By 1955, radio starts to die and television has arrived, and two years later I'm a senior in high school. And I see an article in the newspaper: "Local Man Gets Construction Permit For New Radio Station." Oh my God, I think, I wonder if this station could be like KB in Buffalo? I wonder if they'll play Pop music? So I ran over and sat on the steps of that empty building where this station would be built, and a man pulled up in an old car with his tubes and boxes of transistors and radio equipment. I'm sitting on the porch, and he says "May I help you?" I said, "Yeah. Are you the radio man?" And he said, "Well yeah," and I said, "Well I'm going to work for you." And he said, "I don't think so. I haven't even started to build the station yet, and I don't have any money to pay anyone. I'm just going to build it myself, and it's probably going to take me a year." I said, "Well that's okay. I'll just come every day after school and I'll be here all weekend. I'll just help you build it." He said, "Uh huh, what is it that you want?" "Well, I think if I work for you for free for a year, I ought to be your first nighttime DJ. You can pay me $1 per hour like the minimum wage. You've got to pay somebody." And he thought about it and said, "Alright. Deal." And that's how I got into radio. When the station went on the air, I picked the call letters. I was the first voice on the station, and I was the nighttime DJ six nights of the week. One dollar an hour, and before I knew it, the doors started to open. After I graduated from high school, the headlines were, "Harrisburg DJ Indicted For Payola," and I ran down there in my rickety old car and applied. They asked me if I had ever taken payola, and I told them I didn't know what it was. They said, "You're just the kid we want," and so that's how I got into my second job.
4. What were the call letters on that station you helped build and pick the call letters for?
They are WMPT, and they were an abbreviation for Williamsport. I used to climb the tower to change the lights - we didn't have enough money for a tower crew. Eventually Little League Baseball bought the land and shut the station off, because they needed it for a parking lot for the World Series. This was like 20 years ago when the station went bankrupt - and I went back and bought radio stations in that market and helped put it out of business. But a rung to that tower hangs in my basement, because my friend owned it and sent the rung on plaque when they dismantled the tower for scrap. Here's the fun part of that: the day that they had turned the station off and decommissioned it, they gave the call letters back to the FCC. The call letters were deleted from the FCC database. They were applied for the next day unbeknownst to any of us, and when I turn on my TV in Baltimore I look at it daily, WMPT: Maryland Public Television. So that's where the call letters have gone in sixty years. It's a fascinating business.
5. How did you get into ownership?
I gravitated through Susquehanna Broadcasting and I learned so much about programming and marketing from Art Carlson, who was the President and Chairman of that great company for many years. Eventually I gravitated down to Baltimore, got onto a station called WCAO, which was the Rock and Roll station of the '60s. I played The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Eventually, a TV show comes along and my intern on the show, John Waters, made it into a movie and wrote "Hairspray." All of the events that happened were all events that I lived through - The Kerby Scott TV Dance Show, which lasted the best part of five years. They were the confluence of Top 40, American Rock, British Invasion, Motown Sound, and the beginning of the Psychedelic Movement, all from '64 to '69. What a vehicle that TV show was. One day I've got Aretha Franklin, John Denver, and the English acts as they came through town. I'm in my late 20s, and a man called me up right out of the blue. He said, "You don't know me, but I own a radio station in Annapolis, MD, right near where you live. I heard a rumor that you want to own your own station." I said, "Well, yeah. Okay true. That's a someday thing." He said, "How are you going to do that?" And I said, "Well, I really don't know." He said, "Okay, let me have lunch with you. I have an idea for you." I didn't know what he was trying to sell me. I said, "Well, I don't know. I'm really busy. I produce my own show," and he said, "I think you'll take time to do this. Im going to show you how you can own your own radio station." Needless to say, I went to lunch with him. He said he had a heart attack and can't work anymore. If I'd leave television, he'll train me in not only managing a radio station, but how to buy them and sell them. So I did. I quit and went to work for him. He cut me in for ten percent; I walked out with a certified check for $130,000, and bought my own station back in my hometown. So if that's not serendipitous, I don't know what is.
6. If you were in your late 20s, when did it occur to you that you would like to get into ownership?
When I look back on it, there was a record by Harry Chapin called "W.O.L.D," and I heard it and it scared me. We had two DJs working at our station in Baltimore in their 40s and playing teen music. They couldn't hear it anymore, but we were a union and they were making a tremendous amount of money - so they couldn't wean themselves away to do anything else. I said to myself, "I'm 27 years old; I've got a PhD on the air and in programming. I've been doing this for ten years. I love it, but there has to be more. There has to be more to this." What about the whole other side of this thing? The management and people in the sales department started to take me on sales to help them close sales. "Kerby here will do the commercial. Give him your ideas for a spot." Then I started to realize that they were making three and four times as much money as I was, and there was a hell of a lot more to the station that I didn't know about. I thought, "If I'm not going to be the morning DJ, I need to be the one who owns it." That may sound crass, but I was 27 with three kids and a house payment. I didn't want to wake up some morning saying "What the hell is this I'm playing?" So it was a perfect time for that guy to call me.
7. You're the pioneer when it comes to branding stations with animal monikers - The Beaver and the Frog-branded stations - can you walk us through that evolution?
It was 1981 when I bought an Alternative Rock station in Russellville, KY. It's 100,000 watts and I'm believing that this should be the Country station for Bowling Green and Southern, KY, but everyone said no, that won't go here. Everybody listens to Nashville, of course. And I thought to myself, "Well yeah, Nashville is for Nashville. What the hell does Bowling Green have?" So I found the call letters WBVR. My partners at the time said, "I'm not doing the Beaver. You know what people are going to say. It will be a bad connotation." I said, "No, no, no! It's just a beaver with great big buck teeth. I got 'BVR; I can't pass this up!" The first promotion we did was "Show Us Your Beaver," and you had to put a sign in your car or window on your porch of our logo. (These are the stories you can't tell at the Hall of Fame dinner.) We've got a full-fledged great cartoon - and it's "W-Beaver Face-BVR" - and it works pretty well. Then my life changes. It's 1986, and I remarry. She has an eight year old boy who has never known his father, so now I'm going to be his dad. I'm working so hard - he'll call me Kerb, but he won't call me dad. So I finally said, "I want to take you both on a trip to Africa." A bonding trip - and when I'm done, he's going to call me Dad. So we go to Africa on a photographic safari for three weeks, and we get assigned to a Land Rover. It's three of us and two other people - and here's where serendipity takes over again - because here is Kathy Kirk and her husband Steve Kirk. Kathy is the head Imagineer of the Disney Company. Steve works for her, and he's the head of audio animatronics. He builds all of the robots, the talking presidents, the dinosaurs, and everything that moves in Disney World. One magic day in that Land Rover, we're swapping stories and Kathy says to me, "Kerby, you're in the radio business. What kind of stations are they? What do you play?" I say, "I play a lot of stuff," and she says, "Tell me about your favorite station." I said, "That's easy. It's the Beaver." The funny part about it was Kathy didn't get the connotation. She had no idea. She said, "That's really cute! Do you have any beaver stuff with you?" And I said, "Sure, I have my keychain." I show her the keychain with the beaver logo and she goes, "You're on the right track with this! I get it. Beaver. What's the pneumonic device?" I said "I don't know? What is pneumonic device?" She told me to close my eyes, and she said, "Hi kids this is Mickey!" and then had me open my eyes and asked who it was. I said Mickey Mouse. She asked, "What did you see when you had your eyes closed?" and I said, "Mickey's face. Three circles." She said the pneumonic device calls up the image - unfortunately I didn't have one on the Beaver. I thought of that the rest of the trip, and three months later I bought 50,000 watts in San Bernardino, CA, and I look for the call letters and find KFRG ... K-Frog. I've got the pneumonic device, and I call her up and I said, "Kathy would it be ok if I come out on my next trip?" So I go down and she says, "Tell me about the station." I say, "Well it's K-Frog." She says "What's the pneumonic device?" So I said, "Ribbit." She said great. I said, "No wait, there's more. I've got a Frog horn on the hour. It's 'K Frooooooog.'" And she said, "Uh huh, this is gonna be a smash." She says, "Tell me about your cast of characters." I said, "What?" and she said, "Kerby, it's a theme park on the radio. It's a nice clean place that mom and the kids can go and nothing bad is going to happen. There isn't going to be any Howard Stern, and there isn't going to be any hoes or bitches or rap. It's gonna be a place that mom feels comfortable. Just like Walt told all his animators: everything we do is about Mom and the kids - and don't worry about men, they'll come along. That's your assignment."
8. A theme park on the radio. Was that sort of like the mission statement overriding the philosophy for it?
I'm bonded to the Disney philosophy that if mom and the kids love it, the men will come along, and it's got to be fun and it can't be intimidating. It has to be warm and fuzzy and relatable and interesting and... So to Kathy I said, "Where do we start?" We had a morning team named Tad Pole and Polly Wog, midday lady named herself Ann Phibean, afternoon drive was Hoppy, and away we went. So now, one more thing happens in the evolution. Kathy says, "Let me whip out a frog face logo à la Mickey." It became K-Frog face-F-R-G. So KFRG goes to #1, and it's just a crazy rocket ride, and then we had a problem immediately. I had everybody branded on the station and we had a mascot - and we thought we were very clever in that we called him Jeremiah B. Frog, and we would say things like, "Frogman's going to be down at the mall with Jeremiah B. Frog! Come get your picture taken with Jeremiah B. Frog!" The problem was in the focus groups we'd say, "Well tell us about the station." "Oh you know we love TadPole and she's just like a tadpole and we love Hoppy hoppin down the frogways." And we'd say "Well tell us about Jeremiah B. Frog." "Well, we're not sure what time he's on, is he like a DJ? Cause you keep saying Jeremiah B. Frog?" We said, "Well Jeremiah B. Frog do you get what it its... no?" And then we'd sing "Jeremiah was a bull frog..." and they would get what it was when we told them it was from the song "Jeremiah Was A Bull Frog." They thought he was a DJ. Meanwhile, they are lining up at the mall to get their picture taken, and they don't even know what his name is, but he's the one from KFRG and he's fun, cute. I'm standing there watching this, and a little four year old girl comes out from behind a potted plant. She's inching over closer and closer to the big seven foot frog mascot. She's got her hand on his leg and she starts pulling down on his pant leg, "Mr. Froggy, can I be in it? Please can I be in it?" And I went "Holy shit. She wants him to be Mr. Froggy." The damn station should be Froggy. Well it's too late the station is "K Frog." In the next six months there's the bankrupt 50,000 watt station in Altoona, PA, and I find the call letters WFGY, and I buy it. It becomes the first Froggy, and for the first time the call letters, the mascot, the logo, and the name of the station are all one thing. The branding didn't all happen in a day. It happened over literally almost 20 years of figuring out. Those are some of the things I learned along the way. Some lady interviewed me from a newspaper, and I said I'd call it "stationality." It's the personality of the station wrapped up into the station's logo and its persona. It all rings back to Kathy Kirk saying to me, "Kerby it's a theme park on the radio. Nothing bad can happen on a station called Froggy. It just makes you smile."
9. What are you most proud of that you have done?
I'm most proud of the lives I've been able to influence and touch. The people in the radio stations that have gone on to great things that call me up and say, "Hey guess what? I'm GM of a cluster in Guam!" That actually happened to me. That's just an example. It's that kind of stuff. You know how it is - somebody comes with you, and they're with you for two or three years, and you see they're on the fast track. They're gonna go, just like you did. There's a radio talent institute out of a university here, and the biggest thrill I have at age 75 is, for example, last week one of the graduates who just now graduated has come out and got her first job in our Froggy in Cumberland, MD. It's blowing her mind that she's coming out of college and going to do middays on that station. Another lady said, "I can't stay in Pennsylvania - I have to go make something of myself. I'm going to San Diego." I said, "Honey, you're going to have a hard time. There are a lot of pros in San Diego." Surely enough, two years later, she's on the radio on 91-X. That's what I'm most proud of.
10. What is the most fun thing you have done?
I will tell you, the branding has been the most fun, because it's the most fun for the people in the station and for the listeners. Our commodity in the radio business is fun. We're trying to create an experience on the air that they can't get on Pandora or SiriusXM. And what is it? It's information, something they need that can make them smile and relate to. My first branding teacher was the infamous Art Carlson. He actually had very little to do with it himself, personally. It was just his vision for his company, which was the first station I worked for. He was chairman of Susquehanna Broadcasting, which was already a top ten company when Cumulus bought them. I saw how they marketed the station, WARM. Everybody signed all of the letters that went out to clients and listeners, "Warmly, yours." It was Warm Land. They'd say, "It's two below zero, but at 590 it's always WARM," and I thought, what an incredible brand. Who could say anything bad about "warm?" The station dominated the market, and I was lucky to get into a situation where I saw what happened when you could dominate a market and how you found out what you needed to do to dominate a market. So WARM was the beginning of the branding experience. So I realized there were some stations that spelled words. KISN was "Kissin'" and WYLD spelled "Wild," and I thought, how cool! I can remember that. One time I was in an idea sharing group and the speaker told us about a burr of singularity - which is the thing you want to imitate and emulate in advertising, because it's something that sticks in people's minds that they can't get rid of, like a song's hook. It's what stays with people through repetition, so I learned that. When I got to Reading, PA I bought WHUM and I call it "Hum." I'm doing bumper stickers that say, "I WHUM In My Car," and two years later at KSSN/Little Rock I did sticks that said "I'm KSSN In My Car" with a lipstick imprint. And we call people up saying, "Who are you kissin' today?" I thought about Whistle and Wiggle - they're fun good names, things that people do. So I got WSSL and WIGL. WIGL was the first one where I used a worm in the logo, and immediately people saw the worm and knew obviously WIGL is wiggle. That was the first little cartoon where I put a little animal in it.
Let me ask your perspective on a few things. How harmful is the imminent sale of CBS Radio and the financial woes of iHeart and Cumulus to the overall perception of radio as a business model? It already gets bashed for its content - now it looks like a bad business. Is it?
I do think it's dangerous. I don't know if you know this or not, but Forever Media has bought Cumberland, MD and York, PA. The two in York are #1 and #2, and the two in Cumberland are #1 and #2. Why would we do that? It's because we're either crazy or we know something that iHeart and Cumulus are just too big to get their heads around - the fact that radio works best when it's one-on-one communication. You can't just homogenize everything. So you're saying, well how bad is it? Will it get worse? It might before it gets better. I don't know. But here's what I absolutely know. Clear Channel and Cumulus got too big, and the business model for the future - for at the time they did it, it made sense on paper, but people are not on paper. That's the problem. Let me put it to you this way, I'll worry about everything you're talking about when Pandora can draw two hundred people to a car dealership like we did last weekend. We would be where newspapers were right now if people weren't saying something about radio - the comfort of it - maybe there's something of the fact that there's somebody here with me, but I like it. And I want it. And I want to keep having it. That's what we believe. I think iHeart and Cumulus were built on a business model dictated by Wall Street, but that business model - the public didn't care about it. The public didn't give a rat's ass that you have eight radio stations in a market. They just wanna know is this one filling my needs? And as they cookie-cuttered them, they made radio into utility, like a light switch. You turn it on, and you don't think about it; it's just something to have on, and that's the disservice they did to radio. The model of what's happening in the big markets is a lot different than what happens in Bowling Green, KY. It's all about the content, baby. Jimmy Fallon comes out every night through that curtain and he says the same thing: here's what people are talking about. All we need to do is crack that mic in Altoona, PA and say, "Guess what people are talking about." It's the gossip and local jokes and hearsay, but when someone local says it, it has validity. It's watercooler talk. And ask someone a favorite radio station - bam! Immediately and they refer to it as "my" station. And that is the greatest compliment that can be paid.