The following is an interview with John F. Dille, CEO of Federated Media in June 1996. It was published in the book “In the Public Interest” a history of radio broadcasting in Indiana. This article chronicles much of the broadcasting history of Federated Media.
The office of John F. Dille III is on the second floor of a downtown commercial building at the edge of Elkhart’s business district in Northern Indiana. Like his father before him, Dille heads a small group of media companies. Dille began his career in journalism as a copy-boy for the Washington Post and then became a reporter for Thomson Newspapers Ltd., with assignments in England, Scotland, and Wales. After a tour in the service, Dille returned to Indiana, where he worked for the Mishawaka Times and the Elkhart Truth, both of which were family-owned. While his father was primarily in the business of operating newspapers and television stations, Dille became involved in radio in 1971 when he was sent to “see what to do” with WMEE and WMEF in Fort Wayne, Indiana (the former WKJG stations). Success with the Fort Wayne stations led Dille into acquiring other stations.
In 1971 John F. Dille III became the general manager of the newspaper in Elkhart. And along with that came these two stations in Fort Wayne. The stations were not really doing anything. We hired a fellow named Bert Sherwood, terrific guy. I mean, a terrific guy who was briefly in Fort Wayne, who really put us on the air in the form of WMEE and WMEF. Top 40 and beautiful music (industry terms) were the formats at the time. WMEE was Top 40, and WMEF was beautiful music – “easy listening” was a term developed later. [We changed the call letters because] believe it or not, it’s hard to say WKJG. It’s easier to say WMEE, WMEF (actually, they’re not particularly easy to say either, but that’s why) and because the television station was keeping its call letters. We wanted a separate identity for these rock-and-roll stations. We were, from the product point of view, competing with another radio station, WLYV, for the Top 40 audience, the kids.
WMEF was beautiful music, and there had been no beautiful music station in Fort Wayne. It was a relatively new format, which is the Montovani and Hollywood Strings and stuff that’s gone south since. But those were very successful formats in Fort Wayne in the early 1970’s. WMEE – it’s call letters are alive today, although now over on the FM side. Those two call letters (WMEE and WMEF) came from two Coast Guard ships, hulls that were assigned but never built.
We had two [radio stations in Fort Wayne] and they were stand-alones; so they required the attention. The radio station in Elkhart (WTRC) is the WIBC or WGN of Elkhart. It is the daily public record for radio for this market.
My very first acquisition was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We bought WJEF from John E. Fetzer. Soon thereafter we bought WCKY from the Washington Post. WCKY stands for Covington, Kentucky. It was put on the air by L.B. Wilson, who was a longtime, famous broadcaster. That acquisition was followed by an FM acquisition in Grand Rapids, and a second acquisition in Cincinnati – this time and FM, WWEZ. In those days you had to declare your format as a part of the license transfer procedure and CKY had been acquired by the Washington Post from the L.B. Wilson estate. They were really after the television stations in Jacksonville and Miami. They had this little radio station, which L.B. had put on the air many years before in Cincinnati. They didn’t know what to do with it and really weren’t radio people. So, they sent a guy out to Cincinnati, said, “Just keep us out of trouble.” So, he had put a huge amount of news and public affairs like 25% (you had to describe your percentages in those days) which is an extraordinary amount – twice the normal, maybe three times the normal – and music which wouldn’t offend anybody.
It was actually a format which subsequently might have been referred to as “music of your life” which is big bands and Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como, and Rosemary Clooney, who, of course, was a Cincinnati local. Nick Clooney was our morning guy at WCKY when we took over the station. (His son is now the popular television star and movie actor …George Clooney). Anyway, we said that we’d like to play country music. We thought Cincinnati needed some country music. This is 1974 that we made this decision. WMAQ in Chicago had just gone country, and it was the first of the new generation of country radio station. Urban Cowboy was about that time – hadn’t yet happened, but was about to. So WMAQ was the first really big AM station to change formats to country music. There had been some before – WJJD and others around the country that had done really country western music – Sons of the Pioneers, and western. Country-country is guitar in nature and not so much banjo. Country western is like Sons of the Pioneers, and Gene Autry, Song of the Purple Sage and all that kind of thing. It was great stuff, but different.
In telephone research you could say, “Do you like country music?” The answer would be, “No,” but you knew there were lots of people listening to it. It was not cool; it was not hip; it was not okay to be a country listener. Urban Cowboy changed that.
So, we thought we’d try to be a clone – we didn’t use those terms – of WMAQ, which had really met with some significant success. But this was very offensive to people who had enjoyed Frank Sinatra. The notion of hearing Waylon Jennings instead of Frank Sinatra was just absolutely an anathema. There was a newspaper columnist who just stirred and stirred this thing. We didn’t know it but the disc jockeys were on the air saying. “If you don’t like this proposed change” (which is another way of saying that we’re not going to be a part of this sort of thing, because we’re probably going to get fired) “write to the Commission.” So, fifteen hundred people did. So many letters and so much commotion that Bill Gradison, then congressman, called for a congressional hearing of the matter of WCKY’s format. Well, it is preposterous. Anyway, it was out of that case and a couple of others akin to it that the Commission concluded privately [that] they had no business in the content regulation portion of broadcasting activity. But I recall Dick Shiben, the bureau chief, then called me up and said, “How would you like to take this case to the Supreme Court?” And, I said, “Well, it scared the hell out of me.” Anytime you get a call from the Commission it’s frightening, at least to me. But I said, “No. I don’t want to; we can’t do that.” Anyway, about that time they decided they had no business doing that, and they removed those questions. They subsequently granted the transfer on Valentine’s Day of 1976.
WOWO’s Bob Sievers
I didn’t complete the list of our acquisitions but they include one of our original stations WBYT licensed to Elkhart, WAOR and WNIL in Niles, Michigan, and we have a partnership with WRBR and WUBU in South Bend. We also added more stations in Fort Wayne through swapping. WBYR and WFWI. We now have several [talk shows]. We now own WOWO, for example. It is all talk. WTRC is all talk. Our AM in Tulsa (until we sold it) was all talk and so was our Grand Rapids AM and the one in Cincinnati. But while there was news-talk before at WINS in New York – “Give us twenty minutes and we’ll give you the world” was the phrase that really brought all-news radio into the forefront and then derivatives followed. That was news. It was Rush Limbaugh who really is the easiest benchmark to the rebirth of AM radio and the birth of talk radio. And now, there are a number of stations across the land that are news-talk and stations that are just talk; not so much news. In the talk format listeners are listening to what’s being said, as opposed to the music formats where sometimes it can be a bit of a background thing.
Actually there may be people in Fort Wayne who hate us, because they blame us for the signal restrictions, which have been placed on WOWO. But for anybody who’s been in Indiana, particularly any broadcaster, WOWO is one of those stations, one of those granddaddy stations that people grew up with. WOWO went on the air in 1926 – it was one of the first stations in America (not the first of course, but one of the early ones) and has had only four owners in all of that time; the people who put it on the air, Westinghouse, there was a ten-year period with Bob Price, and then ourselves. We are the second Hoosier owners, the first being the people who put it on the air, Main Auto in Fort Wayne. So we were pleased to return it to Hoosier hands for whatever that might account for. So, it was both an emotional decision and a financial decision. We thought that news-talk was a worthwhile format and provided a genuine public service and therein a business opportunity. [WOWO] was sold – but only briefly – to a second New York company, which had a radio station in New York. WLIB on the same frequency. Price sold it to a company call Inner-City Broadcasting. They bought it for the purpose of really turning it off so that they could increase their power on their station in New York, as I say, on the same frequency. I called them up when I learned this and said, “Wait a minute. Why should we do this? Why don’t we work out some arrangement so you raise your power enough to cover New York, but we retain enough in Fort Wayne to cover our market, which is really Ohio and Michigan and Indiana (if your think about the agricultural folks) and maybe forego listeners in New York and Massachusetts and places like that since there really aren’t many there now anyway.” It’s a fun thing to do, but it isn’t really like it was in the 1930’s. And they said, “Okay.” So, that’s what we’ve done. The curtailed our signal headed on a line from Fort Wayne to New York. But we’ll pull back in that direction. And they will fill the void left by the departure of our signal.
In the 1970’s… talk began, but it didn’t find its way to fruition till the early 1980s, and you’ve heard this discussion from others called Docket 80-90 wherein additional radio stations were created? Had the effect of increasing inventory which had the effect of decreasing, in the end, profit. Profit is not a dirty word. Broadcasters were then so squeezed, some of them lost money. I should say, many of them lost money by the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s …In this country, we thrive on competition. It’s a very good thing. But there comes a point where – and it’s hard to, given the way that we’re geared [with our] capitalist economy – but there really is too much competition. Because there are licenses that the marketplace can’t really behave as freely as it could. We’re in a free market because of the structures of government.
When you could only own one station, and the FCC created more of them, this caused more people to come into the business. If there was a license, it was hard to get; that led to sort of a fanaticism to get into the business. That overpopulated the business. So there wasn’t enough money to go around – not enough of the advertising revenue to go around to the radio stations. So there wasn’t enough revenue per station …That squeezed profits and caused people to automate via satellite – less local – and that was in many ways a degradation in quality of the product. In some ways it’s and improvement, but that’s another discussion.
Because there were so many stations trying to survive, they sought every smaller niche, and in some cases it drove the creative juices to present a product that super-served a smaller audience, but it did super-serve them. Anyway, that then led to a rules change. You could own two [stations], which had the effect of some synergism, some savings, so that one operator could operate two stations as efficiently as one and for almost the same cost. That was the first step. It also in its way reduced the ferocity with which the competitors attacked each other. The subsequent Telecom Bill, which was February of 1996, now allows operators to own three or four stations, and in some cases five in a larger market of any one service, FM or AM. That further consolidates the business. Doesn’t reduce the number of radio stations, but it does reduce the number of owners which further reduces the ferocity. Doesn’t change the competitive aspect but it does make a more sane approach to business, which I think will have the effect of – because profits will return once again – allowing the operator to be more creative in his product, if he can afford to do it. The government, in setting up their rules, really ought to assure that the public is served by a range of services – which they have done and which they intended to do – but not constrain the owners. In reflecting on the role of broadcasters in the community. Dille said, being involved in the community is simply good business. I don’t just mean being involved in the United Fund and United Way and all those charitable organizations or service organizations, but providing that informational source to the community is good business. It costs more, but I believe if you do it right, you will enjoy the benefit of increased revenues, such that it covers any increase in cost. That’s certainly what we’ve done in Fort Wayne at WMEE, and K105. We have the advantage of being able to share in the data from the news gathering organization with WOWO and the community benefits from that.
At WOWO …they billed themselves as “The Voice of a Thousand Main Streets.” I always liked that line. An in that way WOWO did bind together those listeners from across the land in a common experience of listening to the radio. As today, we can – setting aside your views of a person – listen to Rush Limbaugh. There is a common experience listening to him across the land, as there is in television. I mean the Johnny Carson Show, everybody was, “Did you hear what Johnny Carson said last night?” And Letterman’s Top 10 lists are repeated on the radio the following morning. I don’t think radio wants to be the one thing to all people. I suppose on one hand, each station] might think it great if it could have all of the listeners. I’m not sure that’s really a very good idea, as an economic argument. Radio is local, that’s its value.