This story was originally published Sept. 7, 2006
Walk into Jerry Lee's handsome office in Bala Cynwyd, and a framed portrait of a patrician-looking man is the first thing you see.
Who is he?
"Nobody I know," says Lee, chuckling. "I could make up a great story, though. "
Lee's own story is far more interesting.
Jerry Lee owns WBEB-FM (101.1), the soft-rock station that is Philadelphia's highest-rated radio outlet, according to the most recent ratings.
Today, as mega-corporations control all tentacles of mass media, Lee stands alone. He's the biggest solo operator of a radio station in a major U.S. city.
No shareholders, no Wall Street. All his – the 14,000 watts, the $32 million in revenue. And the ears of Philadelphia, particularly its women.
B101 owns nearly 15 percent of the female audience during middays, double that of its nearest competition.
Lee, a fatherly 70, doesn't exude suave. But he seems to know women. "No," he said modestly. "Just check with my wife."
B101 comes off lite – the grinning Bee mascot, the friendly disc jockeys, the jaunty adult-contemporary playlist. Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" yields to Bo Bice's "The Real Thing," which segues into the Four Seasons' "December 1963. "
It really was 1963 when Dave Kurtz, a young engineer for the Philco Corp., won Philadelphia's last FM radio license. In those days, the Federal Communications Commission all but gave FM licenses away. Total setup costs: $28,500.
Lee, who had knocked around in radio sales in Ohio and management in Maryland, told Kurtz over dinner that the station, not yet on the air, should begin broadcasting in stereo 24 hours a day, a first for Philadelphia. It was known then as WDVR-FM, playing a lush format known as beautiful music.
On the back of a napkin, Lee said he drew up a contract: "Three years, cancellable after one year, if we weren't the No. 1 FM in Philadelphia. "
Instead of a high salary, Lee accepted a high sales commission and started selling.
"We were No. 1 in 4 1/2 months," Lee said.
The station is believed to be the first FM to bill $1 million a year in advertising, in 1968. In 1980, it started calling itself Eazy 101, with Patrick O'Neal as its TV spokesman.
By 1988, Lee called an end to instrumentals. So began an evolution to B101, which was completed in 1993.
In 2004, the National Association of Broadcasters named B101 its major-market station of the year.
After Kurtz died in November, the station that started with $28,500 in 1963 was appraised at $185.4 million. Lee bought out Kurtz's share and became the sole owner. Lee said he would never sell. The conglomerates have stopped calling with offers, he said.
B101 may ooze sweetness and light, but it flourishes in an environment of wonkish research.
Lee, who frequently praises his own luck ("I can stand on a street corner and something good will happen"), spends heavily on research.
Every day, thousands of calls go out to businesses: What station is on? If B101 is not top of mind, more TV ads may follow. Other calls go out to listeners, who are asked to hear snippets of songs. A song tests low, and out it goes. B101 hires out ballrooms and invites women to rate music.
Lee even gives away research. For a project called Spot Q, Lee lets advertisers and agencies – even those who don't buy time on B101 – test their spots on his listeners, for free, through a Web-based system that cost $250,000. The concept: Better commercials get better response, and make radio advertising more valuable overall. Everyone wins.
"He's a terrifically smart guy and savvy entrepreneur who's willing to do something unusual – to surround himself with other very smart people," said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, a trade publication.
"There are not many independent operators who put as much time, effort and money behind their product as Jerry has," said Bob Burke, vice president-managing director at Friday Morning Quarterback, also a trade publication. "He's consistently consistent, and he gets it. He understands what it means to be top of mind – even when he's winning. "
Joel Denver, publisher of the trade site AllAccess.com, calls Lee "amazing. He shoots straight from the hip. "
Lee has won virtually every award the industry has to offer.
Even competitors don't fault him. Manuel Rodriguez, who runs Clear Channel's six Philadelphia stations, said he met Lee only once. "The visit was inspiring," Rodriguez said. "His passion and commitment serve as a road we should all follow. "
Lee, married to his second wife, Ellen, for seven years, has combined his love of research and social causes. He has given millions to diverse projects, including the Abramson Cancer Center at Penn; a learning program for Philadelphia schools; and a study to determine the cost-effectiveness of technology in learning. In 2000, in a bid to get a handle on crime, he founded the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I'm not a doer," Lee said, simply. "I'm a catalyst. I know my strengths and weaknesses. "
Lee confides that owning a radio station "gets you into places you don't get into otherwise."
Lee keeps two computers on his work desk. Two, he says, "because I think so fast, I have one set up just to throw ideas into. "
Some creative people yearn for a quiet room.
When Lee needs to think, he flies to Las Vegas and sits in a casino. "I need distraction," he said. "There are so many things going on, constant stimuli. "
"He's not very productive unless he has 16 balls in the air at once," said Chris Conley, B101's program director.
Lee picked up this notion – "controlled distraction" is what he calls it – 30 years ago from a creative director at the station who did nothing but sit in front of a TV all day.
"I'm a scientist at heart," Lee said. "I picked five cities – New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. And I hated Las Vegas. I don't gamble. I spent a week in every city. " In Las Vegas, he said, he cooked up a five-year plan for B101. "There's a piano at the Bellagio," Lee said. "I can sit there, grinding out ideas left and right. "
Lee's chief lieutenant – the guy who executes the radio ideas – is B101 general manager Blaise Howard, with him for nine years.
"It's the most invigorating job I've ever had," Howard said. "I've never worked for anybody who's made me think like Jerry. He is one of the few people in the world that not only understands how to do good research but how to interpret research. "
One time, Howard said, research told Lee and his team that they were wrong. "That was the best piece of research we've ever done," Lee told Howard. But, Howard countered, "what we were doing was wrong. "