John Linder

No Static At All

Photo by Jeff Sliker

Only four persons from the nine-county area around Greater Mankato have been inducted into the Minnesota Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Of the four, three are Linders. Our cover story, John Linder, isn’t in the MMB Hall of Fame—yet, but he is creating lots of radio waves in our state’s broadcasting industry.

His waves aren’t tsunamis: they’re more a never-ending, behind-the-scenes ripple.

Linder, 49, is CEO of Minnesota Valley Broadcasting, and through it and other corporations he owns and operates 14 radio stations in Minnesota and Iowa. He is also a board member of the Linder-owned, $60-million Minnesota Electric Supply, which in terms of revenue is a Top 100 U.S electrical wholesaler.

Grandfather Harry, father Don, uncle Bill, and now John have created—and are creating—Paul Bunyan-esque business footprints. Though in all probability you aren’t familiar with the electrical wholesale business, at one time or another you must have tuned in a Linder radio station—either KTOE Mankato, KDOG Mankato, KRRW St. James, KXAC St. James/Mankato, KRUE Waseca, KOWO Waseca or others.

To communicate here, he beams his own signal to the business masses not by booming a deep-sea voice into a studio microphone; but by quietly receiving and sending via the antenna of a reflective mind—a style that has helped him master the art of buying low and selling high.

CONNECT: How did your grandfather Harry Linder get his start in radio?

LINDER: In the late ‘30s my grandfather was working out of Minneapolis as a salesman for what is now American Express Financial Corporation. One reason he decided to get into radio: during the Great Depression, he never had a problem selling his financial products to radio station owners. So he thought they must be making money.

He decided to build a radio station in the largest Minnesota town without a station, which he soon learned was Willmar. He obtained his radio license from a radio board in Washington D.C. because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) didn’t exist then. It was a tough sell to get a license for a city that small, but he was able to convince them Willmar could support a station—and it did. My father Don and uncle Bill began while in high school working at the Willmar station.

Marshall was his next station, then Montevideo and Redwood Falls, then Mankato in 1950. The call letters KATO were already taken by an Arizona station, so he had to settle for KTOE. Given the advent of television, many people didn’t think radio would survive.

CONNECT: And now what does the family own?

LINDER: Minnesota Valley Broadcasting owns various stations in Mankato, St. James, Marshall, Tracy, and Watertown. There are other corporations, owned by the Linder family in varying degrees, which own other stations. We have two stations in Ottumwa, Iowa, run by my brother Bruce. I also co-own a station in Olivia with my cousin Steve Linder. In the whole group there are 15 stations, which includes a letter of intent to purchase a station.

CONNECT: And your broadcast interests with Lynn Ketelsen?

LINDER: Lynn has been with us since 1977. He runs one of the premier farm networks in the nation, now on 28 stations in Minnesota, and he’s highly respected in the industry. We’re fortunate to have him.

He wanted to be involved in ownership. A license was available in Blooming Prairie, Minn., of a station that could be upgraded. When looking to buy, I want stations that I believe we can add value to. Blooming Prairie was only 3,000 watts and in a small town. With good engineering, we took the station to 100,000 watts and moved the studios to Owatonna, which increased the value of the station several times over. And it has been very successful.

Then two Waseca stations owned by Cumulus became available. In radio you call a group of stations in one area a “cluster,” from which cost savings and synergies can occur. Lynn and I have bought and sold two other stations.

CONNECT: There are four men from the Connect Business Magazine reading area who are in the Minnesota Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Of the four, three are Linders: Harry, Don and Willard. First, what was your grandfather Harry like?

LINDER: I remember him well. He was very dynamic, colorful, a great salesperson, and outgoing. If you read Tom Brokaw’s autobiography, A Man of Influence, you know that Brokaw tells of hitchhiking from Yankton, South Dakota, to Marshall, Minnesota, where he got a radio job. He said he was fired a week later because of a “station owner’s small-minded ways.” To set the record straight, the man who fired Brokaw wasn’t my grandfather. Besides, my grandfather wouldn’t have been small-minded by anyone’s definition. In truth, Brokaw was fired by a station manager who had being acting like an owner. Not surprisingly, Brokaw never used us as a reference later on. (Laughter.)

CONNECT: Your father Don—what’s his role today?

LINDER: At age 77, he is still active and enjoys the radio business, but he’s also involved in a Mankato travel agency he started in 1960, The Travel Center. Our family spends a lot of time travelling. Radio peaked his interest again in 1996, when industry consolidation was allowed.

CONNECT: What’s your role with the business?

LINDER: As CEO, I oversee operations and look for opportunities to expand. I try to keep us on top of the game for technology. I’ve been fortunate to be able to find stations that can be turned around—ones that weren’t maximizing their coverage.

Many people don’t realize that stations can be moved. The FCC began allowing it almost 20 years ago. We took advantage of an opportunity with a station in Pella, Iowa, when we moved it 30 miles to Des Moines, thus increasing the station’s value several fold. We had studied the FCC allocations, and could see some stations had ample space to move to larger population areas.

CONNECT: You’ve moved a station from Glencoe to near Minneapolis, another from St. James to Mankato, another from Blooming Prairie to Owatonna.

LINDER: The station that ended up in Minneapolis was originally allocated to Le Sueur, Minn. We moved it from Le Sueur to Glencoe, and from Glencoe to Minneapolis.

CONNECT: You have two stations in Waseca. Could you move them to Mankato?

LINDER: With space on the band getting tighter and tighter, moves are harder to do now. We are looking to upgrade the facilities in Waseca, and there are ways to do it. We wouldn’t move the stations to Mankato, though.

CONNECT: How many employees in all your radio stations?

LINDER: We have 85.

CONNECT: In 1999 you received a permit to build a 659-foot tower in Watertown. It would have beamed a 100,000-watt signal into the Twin Cities. Through it you could have become a player in the Twin Cities market. Why did you sell?

LINDER: I love Minneapolis, and it would have been interesting to have owned and operated a station there. But here was our reality: the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has created a move toward consolidation in the radio industry. In the near future there will likely be very few private radio station owners. The industry will be made up almost entirely of publicly traded companies. The prices for buying stations have risen so high. The marketing game has changed, too. We could have become a niche player in the Twin Cities with a 100,000 signal in Watertown. But we ended up in negotiations with Disney almost the minute we received our FCC upgrade permit. Minneapolis is one of the top markets in the nation for FM stations. The offers we received for our station were so high we had to sell.

CONNECT: It has been said that one of the not-so-wanted bi-products of the Telecommunications Act was to drive up the price of stations, which created a heavy debt load for those stations, which in turn caused cutbacks at the local level to pay for the debt.

LINDER: Clear Channel, for instance, which owns 1250 stations, lost $1 billion last year, I believe. Like other groups, they proved they can buy stations; now they have to prove they can run them. Cumulus, the second-largest group behind Clear Channel, lost $30 million last year. Clear Channel is the 800-pound gorilla in our industry.

The radio business is not like the hamburger business where you can successfully put an identical one on every corner. Some of these larger radio chains have gone wrong doing this. They thought they could buy a large number of stations and make them all the same. But each market has different sales people. Each market has different on-air announcers, each with their own ideas and egos. We know by experience that every station, and every community, is different. Each market and even each station has to be run, and treated, separately.

CONNECT: But you have 15 stations. It would seem logical to cut costs by developing a morning show, for instance, that could be piped to your other stations. You already do it with the Linder Farm Network. Why not with a morning or talk show adapted in general to rural Minnesota?

LINDER: Local flavor keeps our stations popular. KTOE, for instance, features on-air personalities that are well-known because of their longtime presence. Bill Smith, who died last year, was a KTOE announcer for 52 years. He also worked in sales and management. Barry Wortel has been on-air 30 years. Don Rivet, our morning personality, has been an on-air fixture 25 years. Pete Steiner, our news director and program director, has been on-air 15. Without the truly local flavor, our stations would be no different than those broadcasting off satellite. It’s our niche.

CONNECT: If you can’t or won’t syndicate within your own station group, what else are you doing to cut costs?

LINDER: The mere fact we have a number of stations helps us in negotiations with our service providers such as Associated Press and ABC. Our sales representatives sell our stations as a group. On a smaller scale, having a group makes for better buying with equipment manufacturers and insurance companies. When we get new equipment, we take the older equipment and move it down the “food chain.” And we share bookkeeping and engineering functions among all our stations.

CONNECT: Has the growth of Mankato as a regional center helped your two stations in that market?

LINDER: Absolutely. Mankato’s growth has been wonderful especially the last five years. Retail sales there are growing at a rate that is more than what we expected. Businesses are reaping benefits, and we’re providing them with the advertising reach they need.

CONNECT: But hasn’t the retail pull towards Mankato hurt your advertising revenues at your stations in St. James and Waseca?

LINDER: Some markets outside Mankato are flat.

CONNECT: Radio, in general, turns over on-air personnel quickly. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case at KTOE. Why?

LINDER: I believe our management style accounts for it. We have great people working for us. We probably have the longest longevity of a staff at a station or stations in southern Minnesota. We try to accommodate their needs.

In my opinion, many talented people in smaller markets such as Mankato really do belong in larger markets. They have the talent to move up. But with consolidation beginning in 1996, some larger radio chains have one personality doing an on-air shift and piping it to a number of other stations. Strategies such as that have eliminated or reduced the need in many larger markets for talent, and it has kept people who normally would have gone on to bigger and better opportunities here in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

CONNECT: You now have the sports contract with Minnesota State University. Why did you go after that business?

LINDER: Years ago, when we used to pick up some MSU games, we found that its teams didn’t enjoy much community support. The college seemed separated from the community. It was hard to sell. We could go to local advertisers and sell ads for Mankato East, Mankato West or Loyola high school sports, but not the college. However, with the hockey program, and with Don Amiot’s efforts, that has changed. The new Taylor Arena has increased interest in basketball. In addition, I think MSU sports have taken off in some part due to our marketing and promotional efforts.

CONNECT: You seem more like the “big picture guy” with your business. If that’s the case, you must give a great deal of control over to your managers. Could you explain how you keep your managers accountable.

LINDER: We put a lot of responsibility on them. We hold them to an annual business plan, one that we think is based in reality. We ask them what they think their market will do. With large radio chains, such as the ones based in Texas and Georgia—how can corporate executives there accurately determine the growth potential in cities such as Waseca and Owatonna? We know our markets.

CONNECT: Do you gauge the success of your stations in terms of ratings and share, gross revenues or net profits?

LINDER: We use a whole package in evaluating our managers, including all the above you just named—and we also evaluate what the stations have done for their respective communities.

CONNECT: Could you explain your ownership in Minnesota Electric Supply.

LINDER: Back in the ‘40s, there weren’t that many radios in rural homes. My grandfather started Minnesota Electric Supply to market radios and appliances in those rural areas. After the War he switched his focus to selling wholesale electrical supplies to electricians. It was a diversification away from just radio. Rural Minnesota was growing rapidly then.

The ownership of this business is a combination of my father Don’s side of the family and my uncle Bill’s side. We’ve worked well together. I’d always wanted it to have a Mankato branch, and with recent growth in Mankato the last five years we decided the time was right to open one. I’m on the board and am part of the decision-making process. With annual revenues of more than $60 million, we are one of the nation’s Top 100 electrical wholesalers out of about 1,000. We have 135 employees. Our branches are in Bemidji, Mankato, Minneapolis, Marshall, Faribault, Willmar, Alexandria and St. Cloud.

We also have another business, one we didn’t expect to get into. It happened by accident because of the sudden increase in wireless telephony. All our radio stations have towers—13 in Minnesota alone, and some in Iowa. So we have rental agreements for our towers with Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner and others.

CONNECT: Being in radio, no doubt you’ve had some very interesting people walk through your doors.

LINDER: That’s one reason why our family is in the radio broadcasting industry. In radio, we’re at the very center of news, and of entertainment. We are involved with nearly everything that goes on in our towns. It makes life interesting.

We promoted a concert that brought artists like Alice Cooper to Mankato. We also have the Twins—and we had the Vikings. But the Vikings were owned by Red McCombs, and he’s a major stockholder in Clear Channel. Since Clear Channel owned KYSM, a competitor, we lost our Vikings contract to them. We still have the Twins, though, which is probably the premier radio franchise in our state. Radio is a very good medium for baseball. When a Twin comes to town they usually stop at KTOE.

When the Vikings are in town we cover them with Rod Trongaard, who was the voice of Gophers football and basketball, and of the World Wrestling Federation. He has great rapport with coaches and players. When Rep. Gil Gutknecht or any other national politician is in town, they always stop in. It’s part of the fun of being in radio. Jesse made his stops here, too. Even back when he was a wrestler he spent time here.

CONNECT: You know Jesse, don’t you?

LINDER: Lynn Ketelsen and I went with him last November to Cuba. We had a great time with the governor, who I think is a good ambassador for Minnesota. He had presence and brought focus to our delegation. We were trying to extend the state’s agricultural base.

CONNECT: What did you think of Cuba?

LINDER: The people were poor, yet wonderful. The island has so much potential for trade with the U.S. It’s a shame we don’t have good relations with them. The majority of Cubans are extremely friendly. One day the opportunities for trade with Cuba will be numerous.

Alan Andreas, Dwayne and Lowell’s nephew, was also with us. He and ADM organized the food exposition in Cuba. We had a unique connection to him: he’s from Pella, Iowa. When we first bought the station in Pella our station manager there actually lived with Alan’s family for a while.

CONNECT: And you graduated from Wilson School in Mankato?

LINDER: In 1972. It ran kindergarten through grade 12 twelve months a year. Most of the students were connected in some way to the college. It had modular scheduling, optional classes, and you could do independent study. The teacher-student ratio was low because of its connection to MSU, which had lots of student teachers. There were 48 students to a class; two classes per grade. It was funded by the college and state, and had no tuition. Enrollment was limited. It was a great high school.

CONNECT: Your last question: Was two days truly long enough last year to give Garage Logic (a syndicated talk show originating from KSTP St. Paul) a fair shake on KTOE?

LINDER: We had been running Garage Logic on our Waseca AM and Alexandria FM, and were listening to it, and had heard good reports. Barry Wortel was going on vacation. So we thought it would be interesting to see if Garage Logic would play in Mankato. Every town is different—and our job is to provide what the community wants. We’re not going to force any town to listen to what it doesn’t want to hear. We had hundreds of requests to take it off the air and bring a live Mankato personality back on. We chose not to disrupt our listener’s habits.

Brokaw Rebuttal

A snippet from Tom Brokaw’s new autobiography simply doesn’t do John Linder’s grandfather Harry justice. The “small-minded station owner” Brokaw chided wasn’t grandfather Harry, but his station manager in Marshall, who John Linder explains, “had been acting like an owner.” The incident occurred in late 1960.

From Tom Brokaw’s A Long Way From Home: “…I hitchhiked to a small town in Minnesota, where I was hired as a nighttime disc jockey at a radio station. I rented a room and for five days straight I walked the two miles to the station, before I was fired for insubordination brought on by my own cocky attitude and the station owner’s small-minded ways. My one enduring memory from that single week at the station is of a visit by a young man with a crewcut who was a candidate for attorney general of Minnesota…Walter ‘Fritz’ Mondale.”

Get To Know: John Linder

Born: October 1953.

High School: Wilson School, Mankato, ‘72.

College Education: Attended Mankato State, U. of Minnesota, and Louisiana State. One-year program at Dunwoody Institute in electronics.

Board Memberships: Community Bank (Vernon Center, Amboy, Mankato); Minnesota Valley Broadcasting (CEO); Minnesota Electric Supply.

Trade Memberships: National Broadcasters Association; Minnesota Broadcasters Association.

© 2003 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine