Bigfork radio mogul pins hope, savvy on Portland stations

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Larry Wilson, Chairman/CEO of Alpha Broadcasting in his home office at his ranch in Ferndale on Friday.

If Larry Wilson’s knee had held out, his life might have been very different.

The 64-year-old radio magnate, who sold his successful Citadel Broadcasting empire in 2001 for $2 billion, was hell-bent for a career in professional baseball as he finished high school in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“My whole ambition was to go to the major leagues,” recalled Wilson, who splits his time between his Bigfork and Augusta ranches and Portland. “I was planning to sign.”

Then his knee got in the way. An old football injury flared up and cut short his chances of a career in professional sports. He could have played in the minor leagues, perhaps, but Wilson is an all-or-nothing kind of guy.

Ironically, his injuries also played into his most recent decision to jump back into the radio business.

After Wilson’s wife, Claire, died in February 2008 following a 13-year battle with brain cancer, he began thinking about what to do with the rest of his life. Caring for her had been his focus for a long time. He had quit the business to be by her side, when her fifth brain surgery in 2001 left her in a wheelchair.

“She was a trooper,” he said. “It was a blessing when she passed away. So much of her brain had been cut out.”

As a widower, he began contemplating a return to radio. Then he accidentally tumbled down some stairs and was confined for three months while he recuperated. That’s when he once again tuned in to radio.

“I wanted to get back in,” he said. “I did a lot of research and talking to old friends and concluded it’s still a good business.”

In March he formed a new venture called Alpha Broadcasting and bought six radio stations in Portland — two from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and four from CBS. Allen’s stations, known for their outspoken radio personalities and coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers games, went for fire-sale prices.

Alpha Broadcasting paid $11 million for what had cost Allen roughly $50 million to acquire.

Wilson is almost giddy these days as he talks about the opportunities that he believes still exist in radio, an industry that admittedly has had a tough few years.

“I love it, and I love the results it gets for people,” he said. “I want to be out there talking to customers.”

Wilson’s strategy is simple enough: local content.

“It’s all about content,” he insisted. “It’s got to be entertaining. Radio got so dumbed down by cutting costs. It was just a rip-and-read deal.”

He also believes in investing in talented employees, a winning philosophy from his Citadel days. Radio-industry publications have taken note of how well Wilson treated his employees.

“The most important part is the people on air,” Wilson said. “And the powers that be [have been] cutting most of the talent. It doesn’t work. We’re in the process of bringing back real talent.”

Wilson says he’s a moderate politically, but he’s been known to get on the air himself to editorialize when he feels strongly enough about an issue. He remembers the time he spoke up in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election when a historic recount of Florida votes dragged on.

“I got so fed up with both of them,” he said, referring to Al Gore and George Bush. “I said Gore should give it up. I did it because I thought someone ought to say it.”

Wilson also is a big believer in talk radio.

“Talk radio is one of the healthiest things in America,” he said. “It’s a place to get engaged. It gives people a place to vent.”

He only wishes he could find more liberal talk-show hosts to balance out a conservative-heavy line-up these days. Liberal shows, for whatever reasons, haven’t had have the same audience appeal as the conservative shows, he said.

Wilson wasn’t always a radio enthusiast. In fact, the industry wasn’t on his radar screen until he had begun his law career at the prestigious Snell & Wilmer law firm in Phoenix.

He was both a serious athlete and a serious student, compelled to excel by his father, a truck driver for the Arizona highway department.

“My father drove me pretty hard,” he recalled. “I was the second person in my family to graduate from college.”

Wilson majored in accounting at Northern Arizona University and worked for Pricewaterhouse for a time before earning his law degree from the University of Arizona.

When he became the general counsel for Combined Communications Corp., he represented the company in its acquisitions and mergers. Then he was promoted to the office of chief executive. That’s when his love of radio blossomed.

Wilson’s hard-driving father didn’t live long enough to see his son become a billionaire, but he did witness his son’s success as a lawyer.

“When I resigned and went to [Combined Communications],

my dad thought I was crazy,” he recalled with a smile.

Wilson is considered one of the creators of the roll-up strategy — taking many smaller industry players and turning them into one big successful player. He co-founded Citadel Communications Corp. in 1984 when he bought a couple of Tucson, Ariz. radio stations.

When Wilson sold Citadel in 2001 to private-equity firm Forstmann Little & Co. for $2 billion in cash, the company had amassed 205 radio stations in 42 cities.

After he’d cashed out his success, there was the small matter of figuring out what to do with all of his time and money.

Wilson had bought a place on Whitefish Lake 25 years ago and spent summers there for many years. He and his wife lived in the Flathead Valley full time from 1989 to the mid-1990s, and during that time he purchased the Bigfork area property and developed it as a ranch where he raises quarter horses and cutting horses.

Wilson raises cattle at a ranch on the Sun River west of Augusta near Gibson Reservoir. Both of his Montana ranches are protected by conservation easements.

When Citadel was getting ready to go public in 1996, Wilson established company headquarters in Las Vegas, but still spent summers in the Flathead.

He also spent time fishing in Mexico and in 2002 formed a professional fishing team that competed in places like Catalina Island, Cabo and Mazatlan. It involved a lot of training, healthy eating and working out.

“I did that and that was a great chapter, but I got tired of living on a boat,” he said.

Wilson loves to ride horses, though his schedule now doesn’t afford much time for it. He proudly noted that his 9-year-old granddaughter, Brooke, shares his love of horses and is an up-and-coming barrel racer. Wilson has two sons, Mark, a Bigfork area family man and father to Brooke and Casey, 3; and Brian, a film editor in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wilson is a big supporter of the Humane Society and the owner of three rescue dogs that commute with him to Portland.

“I feel sorry for animals; they don’t have a voice,” he said.

The image of one of his rescue dogs, Bear, who’s missing an eye, is on the logo for Alpha Broadcasting.

Wilson has been generous in other areas, too. When the ALERT medical helicopter crash-landed and was out of service for some time three years ago, Wilson agreed to lease his helicopter to ALERT. And Flathead Search & Rescue has a standing invitation to use his chopper.

AS FOR radio, Wilson plans to buy more stations in the West, but his first chore is to make sure the six Portland stations are doing well.

“I’m pleased,” he said. “We need to make a cash flow of $10 million a year, and we’re about a year away from doing that.”

After years of keeping a “low profile” at his ranches and elsewhere, Wilson is tickled to be back in action in his beloved radio industry.

“This is where I need to be.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com

Larry Wilson, Chairman/CEO of Alpha Broadcasting with his three dogs, Lucy peaking out from the left, Bear, the mascot for Alpha, and Jenny to the right, at his ranch in Ferndale on Friday.

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