Recently, former Susquehanna Radio Broadcasting CEO David Kennedy was inducted in the prestigious Giants of Broadcasting club. Formally known as the Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts and staged by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation (LABF), the honor is bestowed on distinguished industry leaders and celebrities for lifetime achievements. The award celebrates the creators, innovators, leaders, performers, and journalists who have blazed trails in the radio and television broadcasting industry.
David is “Dave” to me and others who had the good fortune to work with and for him, and I’m pretty sure Dave would prefer “with.” More than any other person, Dave had the greatest impact on my broadcasting career and personal life. I was 24 in 1986 when I moved from WSB AM/FM Atlanta to Denver to sell radio research for Surrey Research, where Susquehanna was a client. I was a typical radio nerd who was destined to change stations, jobs, and cities in pursuit of my radio dream job. Beyond my wildest dreams, Dave paved a path for me that allowed me to live in the same house for the past 38 years, raise a family in one place, and learn what’s important in life. When Surrey changed to Paragon in 1988, Susquehanna became our owner, and in 1993, Dave threw me the keys and I reported to Dave just as the radio market managers were doing. He taught me how to run a business by putting employees and clients first, being selfless, and taking the long view to everything. Throughout my journey until Susquehanna sold in 2006, Dave was more father than boss to me and taught me to trust my instincts and believe in myself.
Dave saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and while still in my 20s, he kicked me into the deep end of the pool at Susquehanna by allowing me to evolve into consulting his stations as he built arguably the greatest privately owned radio group in American history. He learned that I was fascinated with positioning radio station formats where market holes existed, creating new formats, and zigging when everyone else was zagging. Dave said, “Follow your passion Mike and everything will take care of itself.” Together and with an amazing group of broadcasters around the country, the collective “we” launched Triple A KFOG in San Francisco, Country “The Wolf” in Dallas, Alternative “99X” in Atlanta, and countless others. Over and over, Dave allowed the market managers in each market to run their stations like owners and without a group template. Every market was a different business model, and every station was decidedly local. This was not the norm, and in fact, opposite of the consolidated radio groups that were gobbling up smaller companies and creating cookie cutter radio stations. In August 2001, he “sold” Paragon to me for zero dollars and gave us six months trailing cash flow, money that should have been Susquehanna’s, and signed a group deal to keep working with his stations. One month later, 9/11 cratered the industry, but Paragon survived because of what he had done. Because of his largesse, the Paragon family and our business is a mirror image of Susquehanna.
Dave’s induction speech is a microcosm of what I learned from him: “What makes this possible is a wide range of people from different backgrounds, with different skills, who all want to be part of this, just like I did.” He urged others to repay the debt he owes his career mentors “to encourage you to ensure that we continue to appeal to and attract the next Giants and treat them well because they’re people who share our passion. It’s so important to embrace and collaborate with, and not ignore or deny, those who challenge us to new ways that it can be done. As our industry changes, we have to build bridges, not walls between us.”
I haven’t seen Dave in years, and we rarely talk, but recently he asked if I could help him find Taylor Swift tickets for his granddaughter (I failed!). Once again, Dave was trying to make someone else’s dreams come true. Some Giants never change.