Hanlon Is Live And Local

GRAND RAPIDS — Matt Hanlon truly enjoys leading and managing, and he has plenty of opportunity to do both as regional president of Citadel Broadcasting Co., where he oversees 33 Citadel radio stations and more than 350 employees in the Midwest region.

Hanlon set out with a degree in communications and an eye on a career in broadcasting, but wasn’t exactly sure what kind of broadcasting job would suit him. In 1985, he took what was supposed to be a summer job in sales at the Lucky 99 radio station in Atlantic City. The sales and marketing end of the business must have been the right fit because that’s what he’s been doing ever since.

“I never went to college and said, ‘I want to sell radio spots for a living.’ I never said that,” he joked.

Hanlon went on to work for New York ad agency Backer Spielvogel Bates Inc., which is where he learned the agency side of the business.

“What I learned from the agency side is what I use every day here, because we’re in the marketing business — we’re not the radio business,” Hanlon explained. “We’re very much in the entertainment business, but we use that to aggregate an audience and use that audience to help people market: That’s our business model.”

Hanlon spent 15 years in media sales and management in New York, working for such companies as Katz Media Group, AMFM and AOL. He worked as a national sales rep, manager, vice president of stations and general sales manager for Katz Media, which was later acquired by Clear Channel. He visited markets all over the country and was responsible for improving radio station operations. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the doors for communications businesses to compete against one another in any market. The act, intended to foster competition, led to historic industry consolidation. At Katz, Hanlon served as “the merger guy” for newly acquired stations. He did the same at AMFM.

“What would happen was that we would buy Gannett and Bonneville, and we were AMFM,” he recalled. “Well, we’d have three cultures that we were jamming into one building, and it was three cultures that had fought against each other their whole lives. Your enemy became your partner, your very culture. We actually hired a behavioral psychologist. … We would spend a whole day brainstorming. We had a very deliberate plan in place, but we let them come up with the ideas on how to structure the station and how to cooperatively create marketing campaigns for all their new products.”

Hanlon eventually moved on to AOL. He didn’t know what a URL was. In fact, he knew very little about the interactive world of the Web, but thought it was something he should learn.

“If I was going to learn it, I decided I may as well go work for the best, so I got a job as a vice president with AOL,” he said.

His job at AOL was to merge the Internet and Time Warner Cable, which had 8 million subscribers in New York City, and with Time Life products such as Time, People and Sports Illustrated magazines.

In his one year with AOL, Hanlon was inundated with offers to get back into radio. In the interim, Sept. 11 happened. Hanlon said he started thinking that if he was ever going to live anywhere else in his life, perhaps it was the right time to make that move. His wife, Debra, had graduated from University of Michigan, and her former roommate was from Grand Rapids. Hanlon had five job offers scattered across the country, including one in Grand Rapids with Citadel.

“As soon as Debbie said ‘Don’t rule out Grand Rapids,’ I knew exactly where we were going, and that was the end of that,” he said, laughing.

Hanlon said the Citadel Broadcasting offer was attractive because the company had a lot of maturing ahead of it in the Michigan market. Citadel is the fifth largest radio broadcasting company in the nation based on net broadcasting revenue. He joined Citadel in January 2002 as market manager and within two years was promoted to regional president in charge of overseeing multiple markets in the Great Lakes region, including market manager responsibilities for the Citadel stations in Grand Rapids, a cluster that now includes WLAV-FM, WTNR-FM, WKLQ-FM, WBBL-AM and WHTS -FM. In the past six months, Hanlon’s purview has expanded to the entire Midwest region.

As Hanlon recalled, once he got to know the Michigan market, he thought it would be a great idea to aggregate assets in Citadel’s contiguous markets. Grand Rapids touches Muskegon; it also touches Lansing, and Lansing touches Flint, which also touches Saginaw, he explained.

Since joining the company, Hanlon has grown the Citadel-Michigan coverage area by purchasing six radio stations, adding another market and launching a sports regional network and a news regional network.

“When you look at the contour maps of our properties, we put a string from coast to coast right across the state and in the most heavily populated areas, as well,” Hanlon said. “Citadel Broadcasting radio group in Michigan covers 85 percent of the population of the entire state outside of metro Detroit. That was my objective, so I spent a lot of time buying radio stations over the last four years in order to ramp up and give us more assets. The winner has been the listener, because we’re taking stagnant or stale formats or signals that didn’t exist before and providing the community with brand new options.”

Hanlon said his objective in Grand Rapids was to secure the best talent in the marketplace “because the power of radio is that it’s local.” There are entertainers in this market that have gained a wide audience over time, he noted: Tony Gates, Bill Simonson, Dave and Geri, Kevin Matthews. The goal was to line up the best talent and put it on radio formats that people demanded. Thunder, Hanlon said, is a good example. This market had only one country radio station before Citadel launched Thunder (WTNR-FM 94.5) three years ago. Some 100,000 listeners tune in to the station each week now. With every station, the objective is to keep it local and relevant, but it helps when the radio talent has equity in the marketplace, too, he said.

“People grew up with Tony, Kevin, Dave and Geri; that’s equity. Radio by nature is a personal medium; you shower with it, you drive to work with it and you become friends with the person on the radio. The power of our medium is that it’s one-to-one. So, if I can get people who have equity in the marketplace and give the market what it wants, I know I’ll have that. We’re always fine tuning it, but we’re bringing to the marketplace a portfolio of formats that we’re really happy with right now.”

What’s it like working with radio personalities? “They’re all crazy,” Hanlon kidded. As he sees it, he’s lucky to have “such extraordinary talent” — talent he says could work in any market in America. Bill Simonson of The Huge Show “could do radio in New York City tomorrow, without question,” he said.

“I think the best part of the job is interacting with really creative people,” Hanlon reflected. “Kevin Matthews is a brilliant creative mind. This is not a job for me; this is what I like to do. I feel really fortunate to have the job that I have and work with the people I work with.”

Community fundraising is a big part of Hanlon’s job. Citadel sponsors a variety of events to benefit local charities, and Hanlon and the radio personalities at his stations work regularly with local organizations to draw attention to and garner support for both charitable and community causes.

“That’s really one of the true benefits of the job. You’re doing something for others, but you’re also doing something for yourself. I love it when we can make a difference.” 

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