Renda signals growth in radio

| Sunday, March 13, 2005

Tony Renda's entrepreneurial passion started with a radio station in McKeesport. For his Italian immigrant parents, it was their neighborhood grocery store in Indiana, Pa., above which he was born.

But where his parents confined their aspirations to that one store, Renda has grown his investment in WIXZ-AM into 24 radio stations in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Florida -- including WDAD (AM 1450), the station he grew up with in Indiana.

With the next generation of the family business ascending, Renda Broadcasting Corp. is hungry for growth.

Tony Renda Jr., the youngest of Renda's three children, recently became general manager of the company's three Pittsburgh stations. He is leading the company's efforts to swap frequencies of the former WIXZ, now WPTT (AM 1360), to a more powerful signal at AM 910, currently operated as a Christian rock station by a church in Butler County.

And with the big national players rethinking the industry's feverish consolidation of the late 1990s, Renda Sr. senses an opportunity to pick up clusters of stations in smaller markets.

"In the last almost three years, the amount of facilities that I am now being called on (by brokers) is amazing. These are some good properties in good markets," Renda Sr. said from his winter offices in Naples, Fla.

Industry analyst Robert Unmacht, an investment banker at In3Partners in Nashville, says it will be difficult for Renda Sr. to pick up more stations in Pittsburgh.

"It would be expensive, and I don't think (Renda Sr.) would overpay," Unmacht said. He said more realistic pricing of stations in smaller markets following the recent $22 billion in radio asset write-downs by industry giants Infiniti and Clear Channel last month could lead to some deals.

Jack Coyne, president of Jack Coyne Advertising, said he would not be surprised to see Infiniti sell or swap one or more of its four Pittsburgh stations. If so, he said there's a good chance Renda would be involved.

"When Tony senses daylight, he makes an opportune move," Coyne said.

Renda Sr. has built his company through opportunistic buys, although his first purchase, WIXZ in 1974, might not be the best example.

"I was so darned smart. Here I was buying an AM when they were dying," he said.

Renda Sr. began his broadcasting career in 1961 as a salesman for WIIC-TV, the predecessor to WPXI. He became general sales manager before being fired in a house cleaning in 1972.

He spurned an immediate job offer in New York to pursue the dream of being his own boss. He and a friend bought a radio station in East Liverpool, Ohio. After learning the business for two years, Renda Sr. sold his interest to his partner to buy WIXZ.

Renda Sr. says the 1984 purchase of his first FM station, WSHH (FM 99.7), "launched the company."

"Tony (Sr.) is one of the most astute radio businessmen there is. He develops his niche in each market he's in. He's done a remarkable job buying stations at the right prices and has improved every property he has acquired by a quantum amount," said Jim Roddey, a broadcast industry veteran who sits on Renda Broadcasting's advisory board.

Renda Jr. said that while overall revenues at radio stations in the $110 million Pittsburgh radio market as a whole was down 3 percent last year, Renda Broadcasting outperformed the group.

"In Pittsburgh, you've got to roll up your sleeves a little more, but we're still bullish on Pittsburgh," Renda Jr. said.

Renda Jr. grew up in the family business, working the control board on weekends and holidays. He even worked on the construction crew that built the company's corporate headquarters and broadcasting studios in Green Tree in 1994 while attending Syracuse University.

After graduation, Renda Jr. worked as a national sales representative for Katz Radio in New York for five years. He said he enjoyed competing against Renda Broadcasting in Pittsburgh.

In 1999, he joined Renda Broadcasting as national sales manager, and after a few years in the company's Jacksonville, Fla., stations, including a stint as general manager, the same job came open in Pittsburgh.

"This is our biggest market. I wanted this job, and I was ready to scrap for it," he said.

Renda Sr. said it was important for his son to earn his spurs at another company and then for Renda Broadcasting in Florida before returning to Pittsburgh.

Renda Jr. said he doesn't feel pressure to try to escape from his father's shadow.

"I don't know anyone who has done what he has done in the radio business," he said. "I always try to use him as much as I can. He's built up some tremendous relationships in the business. Why would I not try to use that to my advantage?"

Renda Jr. said he is aware of the competitive threats to radio, including the subscription-based satellite radio services, where there are currently two players attempting to develop the market, XM and Sirius, which charge $10-$13 per month for their programming.

He is researching the phenomenon for his masters degree in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh.

"I see satellite radio impacting traditional radio down the road. But an even greater threat is Wi-Fi," he said. Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, is the ability to connect to electronic information, including music and news, over wireless networks on devices like laptop computers, digital music players or even cell phones.

Despite the big players' woes, Renda Sr. said his company had its best sales year yet in 2004 on a same-property basis.

WPTT has sales of about $1.5 million. Roddey says that after the move to AM 910, expected to take a year to accomplish, it will be able to double that amount, especially because it will likely be able to deliver a stronger night-time signal, as well as increasing its daytime power to 7,000 watts from 5,000.

While still much less powerful than KDKA's 50,000-watt signal, it will become the second most powerful AM signal in the Pittsburgh market, Unmacht said, and will greatly enhance the ability of local listeners to tune into the signal, particularly north of Pittsburgh and into southern Butler County, around Cranberry.

Most AM stations must curb their power at night to avoid interfering with other stations on the same frequency. This hurts WPTT because it loses most of its audience after sundown -- a major negative, Unmacht said, because many radio listeners wake up with the station they had on the night before.

"All I want (for WPTT) is a level playing field, and we'll do all right," Renda Sr. said. Additional Information:


Renda Broadcasting Corp.

Revenue: $41.1 million

National rank by revenue: 31

National rank by listeners: 28

Listeners: 1.3 million

Source: M Street Publications Corp. weekly 'Who Owns What' survey

Figures as of 131/05

Ranking radio

Top Pittsburgh-area radio companies by market share:

Clear Channel Communications, 38 percent

WBGG (AM 970)

WDVE (FM 102.5)

WKST (FM 96.1)

WPGB (FM 104.7)

WWSW (FM 94.5)

WXDX (FM 105.9)

Infiniti Broadcasting, 31 percent

WZPT (FM 100.7)

KDKA (AM 1020)

WDSY (FM 107.9)

WRKZ (FM 93.7)

Renda Broadcasting Corp., 7.4 percent

WPPT (AM 1360)

WJAS (AM 1320)

WSHH (FM 99.7)

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