Veteran radio exec Scott Mahalick’s roots with Alpha Media go back to the early 1990s. When Alpha founder and chairman Larry Wilson was leading another radio group he founded, Citadel Communications, he hired Mahalick as program director for a company station in Modesto. Within six months, Mahalick was elevated to operations manager, then GM—part of a great career climb.
After three years as general manager in Modesto, Mahalick moved to what was Citadel’s largest market at the time, Salt Lake City, as general manager. From there he moved into a corporate role within the company, transferring to Citadel’s base of operations, Las Vegas.
After Citadel was sold, Mahalick spent his three years of a non-compete at DreamWorks, producing film trailers. Entering radio again in 2005, he took a post with Entercom Seattle as operations manager/program director. When Entercom bought stations in the San Francisco market from Bonneville, Mahalick transferred there to oversee operations, while also splitting his time in Seattle. In 2009, he joined Wilson and president/CEO Bob Proffitt at their new startup company, Alpha Broadcasting.
Mahalick spoke to Inside Radio about the company’s rapid growth, its innovative view of the program director of the future, and where to find tomorrow’s radio talent today. An edited transcript follows.
Tell me about coming to Alpha and the early days of the company.
I came to Alpha in August 2009. At that time it was Alpha Broadcasting and was only six stations in Portland. We merged and consolidated into one facility. The company formed a separate fund with L&L Broadcasting and we began to expand and did 17 transactions over the next three years—during that time changing the name of L&L to Alpha Media, which gobbled up Alpha Broadcasting.
Your current title is executive VP of Content; how is that different from executive VP of Programming?
Initially, I was director of Programming and then became executive VP of Programming, which is now known as executive VP of Content. The history of the program director title goes back to the 1930s; the program director was the guy who worked the knobs on the control console to the programming feed. One of the things that we realized, the job evolved, and we looked at all the different platforms that we are on now, where we can reach an audience…socially, on mobile…we want to be where everyone is. It’s just important that you do use us. All these other elements to deliver content have become vastly more important and fast-growing, both financially, and in time, are going to impact ratings. It’s the future of our business. All of us, myself as the EVP of Content, my VPs of programming—Phil Becker is now VP of content and Ronnie Stanton is now VP of Programming. Our format captains are going through a similar change. We will be rolling it out to all the programmers in the company. The legacy PD is a thing of the past for us.
So all your program directors will now be content directors?
PDs are in some form of earning that title. We do have a very measurable criteria that we have set up and sent out—if you can do this and do it proficiently, we want to keep it going. If you can’t then we are going to recruit people who can for the new generation of our content directors.
The requirement and the criteria is pretty darn important. In fact we have established a position within the company that we call 51/49 and it’s a way to simply bring focus to what we are doing: 51% of what we are still doing is for terrestrial radio. The commercials, the majority of our billing and all that. But very quickly behind that, the other 49% of our focus and our time needs to be executing extraordinary digital content and social media engagement. That’s the fastest growing piece of our business. We now have a way to put an overarching umbrella together and to help make it digestible, which is why we set up 51/49. We have criteria...year-over-year listening, eyeballs, pageviews. I can run through a litany of that. It’s all-encompassing. We have included all of our market managers and sales managers, promotions and marketing people so that everybody is on the same page with our strategy as a company.
How do you split up programming responsibilities between you, Phil and Ronnie?
I have oversight over all of programming and content for all the stations. I have two VPs that work with me and we divide and conquer by format specialization and not necessarily by geography. We have [Becker] at the contemporary stations—the rhythmic stations, the CHRs, the hot ACs, everything in the contemporary world. [Stanton] handles anything with guitars—classic hits, adult hits, classic rock, rock—that’s his oversight. I have everything else—news/talk, sports, country, Spanish-language, urban, urban AC, gospel and anything else that no one else wants.
You also recently brought in veteran programmer Sean Demery to oversee KINK right there in the company’s hometown of Portland. What has the addition meant for the station?
The effect has been incredibly positive. We believe KINK is a unique and special station, both in the market and in the country. It is an iconic brand with a long history. Sean is one of those people that understands the format and the music and its special nature. [Adult album alternative] is the most art-driven format there is because you are pulling from four different worlds. It’s been amazing; the ratings results have been great. We are at all-time cume highs and things are heading back into a really good position. Portland, OR is one of those markets where this format can really thrive. We are glad to have one of the best in the business join us here. We are thrilled with what Sean’s doing. He is also on-air and so he leads by example. When you turn on KINK there’s a tremendous sound and spirit about the radio station and it’s a 2017 version of where I think triple A should be everywhere. I would have to say that we are probably the radio model for the nation in terms of innovation and leading the way in that particular format.
Where is Alpha turning to find the next generation of broadcasters or content creators?
We think with our 51/49 strategy that we can recruit and engage young people in our business and bring some youth back into what we’re doing. If somebody is in college and they’re thinking about a career choice, don’t just put radio in a singular box. It’s multifaceted. To that end I am on an advisory board with Mt. Hood Community College and there are four disciplines—video, visual arts, audio and graphic—that are offered. We want to be able to encourage and recruit people to come into the business and any one of those four pathways can get you here. We believe there’s a lot of talented self-expressionists—we call them podcasters—so we are going to be growing very rapidly in that space as one of the future opportunities for us. We think the next stars that could be on the air to entertain people are out there in the podcast space.
Bill Becker and I attended the Podcast Movement [industry conference], and shockingly of the 2,000-plus attendees, there were only about six radio people there. That’s probably the most under-tapped opportunity for our business in terms of getting entertaining artists involved. With all of these other assets and avenues radio has now, it’s an exciting time again. I think it could be a renaissance for what we’re doing in the entertainment space, in broadcasting as a radio company. I am very bullish on getting to the colleges and to the youth and looking for them. Our areas of recruitment are no longer just looking within the industry. We’re looking outside to those young podcasters or people who have thought about it. We spend a lot of time looking at and trying to create an environment that is one that would be an attractive place to work. That’s our challenge, but also the biggest, most exciting opportunity we have.
What has it been like to be with the company as it has grown from one cluster in Portland to what it is today, 228 stations in 50 markets?
It’s always exciting. Lots of challenges. Lots of opportunities. You learn a lot from the merging of cultures. It’s like social society, where you have a neighborhood of different cultures of people coming together who can help each other grow and learn. There’s been a lot of that. We have adapted some great ideas from the 17 different companies that we have acquired. We said “wow these things are really great” or “it could be better than what we were doing” in which case we embraced and enhanced it and made it part of the culture. Or we have brought in some tools and systems that weren’t there before. So it’s been a two-way street. But a tremendous experience.
When the company was acquiring stations as it was building, were there specific parts of the country, or specific markets, that were targeted?
Larry and Bob are brilliant in looking for the right kinds of opportunities where there’s an upside. If you look at the types of companies that we have acquired we have been able to improve and grow them and unlock their potential. As in all companies, there have been some that have done better than others. We just want to help the ones that have the upside potential through our support and guidance and leadership. And the others helped our one-plus-one-equals-three theory: When you get a collection of smart people and good ideas, there can be exponential growth.
There’s not necessarily any given size about the opportunity and the profitability. There are markets with a couple million dollars cash flow that aren’t rated. Guess what? That’s a great business to be in.