After more than 20 years as a radio programmer, Keith Stover (better known in the industry by his radio name, Keith Clark), recently embarked on what he calls a "thrilling" new phase of his career - as a station owner. The key difference, he says, is that he now wakes up in the morning thinking first about revenue, not records.
Stover is best known in country circles for his long stint as vp programming at CBS Radio/Pittsburgh, where his duties included WDSY (Y108). In May, he teamed with business partner Kirk Litton and some other investors to form Midlands Media Group and purchase country WWNQ (94.3 The Dude) Columbia, S.C. Litton had been president and minority owner of the station under previous parent company Hometown Columbia, part of Davis Media. Midlands' acquisition, which also included local news site ColaDaily.com, closed in early August, and Stover took on the role of managing partner, with a focus on programming and operations.
In his previous experience as a large-market programmer, Stover had long been involved in the revenue-generation side of the business, and said at that level "you think you really understand it. But it is a totally different understanding of the business side of the radio business when you actually get to see the bank account every day." As a programmer, he adds, "I never woke up in the morning saying, 'I wonder if we have the right amount of money in the bank to pay the bills.' That was somebody else's responsibility. Now I wake up and say, 'I wonder how much money we're going to be able to put in the bank today.' That's a dramatic change ... It's acutely on your mind all the time. It's been a real learning experience."
He laughs while noting that when people congratulate him now for making the rare transition from programming to ownership, he jokes back, "Don't congratulate me yet. Give it a year!" But this has long been an ambition. He says that six or seven years ago he put together another investment group and unsuccessfully tried to buy the very same station.
Columbia is Stover's hometown, and the place where he got his start in radio after stopping into local station WQXL on a whim one day while in high school and befriending an air personality. That friendship fueled a career path that derailed Stover's original pre-med intentions. Two years ago, he and his radio veteran wife Marie (now Midlands' vp marketing and client services), moved back to Columbia while Stover was working for Vallie-Richards-Donovan Consulting. He still holds that consultant position, along with jobs as vice president for MARC Radio's Gainesville, Fla., cluster (including gold-based country WDVH) and executive producer of the weekend show RedCup Country, syndicated to about 40 affiliates by United Stations. Stover refers to the latter as "my fun project." While that's a few more jobs than most people manage to juggle, he says, "I get bored very easily, so I have to stay busy."
At Midlands he has plenty to keep him busy too. Stover and Litton have long-term plans to grow the "Dude" brand outside of Columbia, as well expanding the concept of a radio station paired with a local news site, as WWNQ is with ColaDaily. (Cola is a common nickname for Columbia.)
"Our goal is to design a radio/hyper-local digital news service platform," he says, noting that ColaDaily is patterned after the Patch Media network of sites, which at one time was owned by AOL. "If we can perfect that combination, that would be something we'd look to take to other markets," says Stover, who explains that in Columbia one sales staff sells both the radio station and the news site. Among other ways they have found synergy: The ColaDaily staff prepares local news updates that air on the station hourly between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
"The radio station is a promotional megaphone for the ColaDaily service," says Stover, noting the site has "done very well for the couple of years it's been in operation." He adds, "We also look to do co-branded events in 2017, and we want to embellish the reporting for the service and make it more robust over the next year as well."
For now, Stover is also handling the day-to-day programming for WWNQ, which uses the slogan "Undivided Country," in addition to its "Dude" branding. "The -evelopment of the Dude brand is something I have a real passion for," he says. "Internally, we call it 'developing the Dude 'tude.' There's an attitude to it that I have a vision for, so I want to be very hands-on in the development of that in the early stages."
While he says music would be customized for each market if the Dude concept spread, in Columbia the station ranges from late '80s through mid-2000s era music, with a heavy emphasis on '90s country, but also spins four currents an hour, representing about 20 percent of its programming.
"Country needs to have a format [lane] that is able to blend the newer music with the older music," says Stover. "Everybody's not a fan of every bro country song that comes down the pike. Even though the new country has been so hot and wonderful for the format over the last few years, at some point the 35-plus crowd might want to hear a Garth Brooks song."
He calls the Dude "a modern version" of the already syndicated Hank-FM brand, and says it's more closely aligned musically with what Cumulus is doing with its NASH Icon brand nationally.
As for the slogan, Stover says that Undivided Country means "you don't have to go to multiple stations to get flashbacks and today's country favorites. You can get them all on one radio station. NASH Icon has kind of led the way on this. There is some evidence in some markets that that approach has worked.
"The time has come," he continues. "In a lot of markets we've got two or three country stations all doing basically the same thing. It's wonderful that we've got that much interest in the format, but at some point somebody's got to differentiate themselves."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.