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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

How Don Curtis built a statewide radio powerhouse

Sun glints off windshields backed up on Interstate 40. It’s 7:08 a.m. and Research Triangle Park rush hour is building. Frustrated drivers tap apps on their cell phones and scan car infotainment screens for WPTF 680, an AM radio station. There, Triangle Traffic Network spells it out — an accident blocks the left lane just beyond Airport Boulevard, a 25-minute delay.

Ninety miles away in the serene fields of corn and soybeans of Pitt County, farmers in the cabs of $250,000 John Deeres listen to WNCT 1070 AM’s Southern Farm Network reports from the Greenville station. Today, they learn that corn is down 26 cents a bushel, while soybeans are off 9 cents.

The diverse networks, along with nearly 60 Tar Heel radio stations that broadcast them and other programming, make up Raleigh-based Curtis Media Group. Urban WPTF is the exception with most of the stations based in smaller towns and rural communities. Averaging 3 million listeners a week, it is the nation’s largest radio network owned by a single shareholder, says a spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.

Don Curtis

It’s not what Don Curtis, son of a Bessemer City druggist, imagined at age 15, when, with scrubbed face, gleaming grin, neatly combed sandy hair and black-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses, showed up with a homemade audition tape at a Kings Mountain radio station.

“I still listen to the tape,” he cringes. “I was terrible.”

He didn’t get the job, but the station manager sold the teenager an hour block of air time that he could broker to merchants in his hometown.  Curtis paid $20 and sold the time slots for $56 within a week.

Such was the professional debut of the broadcaster, now 86, who many consider the voice of North Carolina.

“I’ve known him for 30 years,” says Michael Walden, an economics professor emeritus at N.C. State University who has appeared on Curtis’ weekly Carolinas Newsmakers broadcast. “He’s a pioneer in the radio industry. It’s changed, but he’s managed to change with it, and that’s what has made him successful.”

So successful that his family foundation has become one of the largest donors at UNC Chapel Hill, with donations topping $21 million to the journalism and media school. The Curtis Foundation had about $10.5 million in assets in 2021, according to a federal tax filing.

Cable detour

Curtis’ climb in Tar Heel broadcasting could have been different. While he started his first radio station in 1967, he also joined several investors to build early cable systems in Gastonia, Dunn, Belmont and elsewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was the first president of the fledgling N.C. Cable Television Association.

He quickly learned that cable television required constant infusions of cash to remain competitive. He bailed, just as cable television was hitting its upward stride.

“It was capital intensive,” he says, “and the biggest transition of all — satellite TV — had not even come along then.”

He and his group sold the business to Greensboro-based Jefferson-Standard Broadcasting for about $1 million in the early 1970s. “I didn’t make the whole million,” he says. But he used his share to acquire Durham Life Broadcasting, which owned WPTF in Raleigh and stations in Fayetteville and other cities.

While assisting Jefferson-Standard with the transition, he met Barbara Hoffman, who was working for the Greensboro company. Six months later, they married. Over the next five decades, she had key roles in Don Curtis’ life and Curtis Media, from account executive and secretary-treasurer. She died in 2019.

“I had 52 great years with her,” he says softly on a late June afternoon. “I guess it’s helped me to keep busy since.”

Curtis, say industry watchers, has generally avoided hot water in the torrid world of mass media. That’s an achievement given his extensive, live programming of potentially unpredictable guests and his wide-ranging media group’s coverage of controversial
news topics.

There’s muted criticism that the news-talk offerings of Curtis Media’s flagship WPTF radio lean too conservative.  Curtis also mentioned offhand in a Facebook posting in 2017 that a classmate appeared in “blackface” as a maid in a school play, more than 70 years ago. Critics accused him of being racist, though supporters scoffed that the criticism represented hypersensitivity. He apologized.

“It’s not often you meet an individual like him who’s the same person as both a business leader and creator,” says N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who’s been interviewed by Curtis. “He’s objective, because like a lot of people he’s frustrated with how divided our society is. He talks to people like adults.”

Folwell, a Republican candidate for governor, says he’s heard only one criticism of Curtis. “That was from a preacher, who said one of his parishioners didn’t come inside for his Sunday morning service because she was sitting in the parking lot and didn’t want to miss the last half of his program.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, both AM and FM radio are thriving, say Curtis and officials of the industry’s trade association. A Federal Communications Commission spokesperson says 420 stations are licensed in North Carolina, the most ever.

Their formats range from Curtis Media’s news-talk, regional news like North Carolina News Network on 80 stations, to pop, classical, country,  gospel, urban and ethnic. Formats range from South Asian in Durham to low-power college FM stations barely heard beyond campuses.

“There are far more sources to pick and choose from than ever before,” adds Curtis, whose privately owned company doesn’t disclose its financial information.

The 175 employees include President Trip Savery, who has worked for Curtis Media for more than 20 years, excluding a stint with a large radio group in Charlotte from 2010-13. Curtis has a daughter, Donna, who is married to Raleigh multifamily housing developer Billy McClatchey of Chaucer Creek Capital.

“The only real setback has been in small-market radio,” Curtis says, referring to tiny AM stations known in the 1940s and 1950s for broadcasting swap-meets-of-the-air, early morning bluegrass music, letters to Santa and greetings to kids on their birthdays.

“Small-market radio was certainly more important than it is today,” he says. “It was part of the community, part of its fabric. Every community had one.”

FCC statistics show a steady increase in stations from about 10,500 nationwide in 1990 to roughly 15,200 in 2022. Studies by the nonprofit Pew Research Center and Nielsen Media Research show more than 80% of people over age 12 listen to some form
of radio.

Curtis Media studies show many Tar Heels listen to radio about 14 hours a week. “It’s the only media not connected by a wire,” Curtis says. “It’s really mobile. It’s in our cars, you multitask with radio, we’re expanding into podcasts and other forms of delivery. There’s a bright future for it.”

Automakers recently found out the hard way. Ford in May said it was dropping AM radio from its car entertainment systems, joining BMW, Volvo and others. Under pressure from customers and Congress, who noted that Emergency Broadcast Systems operate on AM bands, Ford reversed its decision by June.

Don Curtis’ lifelong love of radio has led to one of the state’s most enduring media companies. Nationally, local radio advertising revenue has declined 19% since 2013, according to consultants Borrell Associates. Stations are selling more digital ads to offset declines in traditional broadcast sales.

Change master

Here, 30 miles west of Charlotte in Gaston County, downtown Bessemer City, with its brick storefronts and diagonal parking, still bears traces of the 1950s when Curtis was growing up. It underscores the sweeping changes he’s harnessed in radio, spanning the medium’s history from staticky consoles nearly as large as washing machines to earbuds and subscription services like Spotify or Sirius XM, with hundreds of satellite-relayed channels, featuring sports, music, foreign languages and dozens of other programs.

In the 1950s, his father Richard was a druggist who compounded prescriptions in Curtis Pharmacy, the town’s corner drug store. Its shelves were crammed with cathartic Black Draught, castor oil and Rawleigh cooking spices and flavorings, staples in the medicine cabinets and pantries of Piedmont textile towns.

“I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder for Christmas when I was about 14 and began to record things,” he says. “I decided I wanted to be a disc jockey,” so he went to station WKMT in neighboring Kings Mountain with his demo tapes.  “I still listen to it today. 
Boy, did I have to improve a lot.”

By the end of the week, he’d cleared $36 from his $20 investment that the station manager sold him to broker in his hometown, selling ads to Bessemer City merchants, including his father. But he didn’t land a talking gig.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a radio announcer after all, that I wanted to be a radio salesperson,” he says. “In that day and age, small-market radio was certainly more important than it is today. Every community had a radio station. That was just part of being a community.”

Curtis enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school in 1965, though his initial plan was to be a pharmacist. He quit school five years later, three credits short of a degree. “I had far more than enough credit hours to graduate, but not in any one subject.”

The school awarded him a bachelor’s degree in media and communications in 2003, after he passed an oral examination. He’s a member of UNC’s journalism hall of fame.

In 1967, he started his first station, WCSL AM in Cherryville. He chartered Curtis Media Group a year later.

“In those days, you could buy a station, build it up, sell it, and use the profits to enter a larger market,” he says. “It’s a lot tougher now. You could never do that now.”

Middle of the road

While a first impression may suggest Curtis is homespun, that’s deceiving. He has been an innovator, including launching FM stations that stand apart from their AM counterparts. Curtis Media was the first in the Southeast to adopt a 100,000-watt Hispanic format.

More than 70 years after getting turned down for an on-air slot in Kings Mountain, despite running a major broadcast system, he’s living his teenage dream ­— sort of.

Curtis leans into a studio microphone dangling from an articulated arm. A crib sheet lies in front of him, and Walden, the economist, sits across a desk with a similar microphone.  They’ve not rehearsed, though Curtis occasionally glances at his notes. His questions are concise and informal, non-abrasive. He leans back and nods as Walden discusses the state’s economy.

“He’s really nonpartisan, and his questions reflect that,” says Walden. “He always comes prepared, and of course in radio, you have to watch the clock.”

In fact, both watch a clock that indicates how many seconds Walden has to answer — “the count-down,” he says.

This is Carolina Newsmakers, Curtis’ signature show.  His on-air personality?
He pauses.

“I don’t know that I have one,” he says. “I don’t express my opinion on the programs at all. I let the guests have freedom to talk about what they do, to discuss their problems and opportunities. I believe there’s a place for that kind of broadcast. One thing missing from the broadcast scene is the opportunity for people to hear views that may conflict with what they believe. We have Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives. I just try to stay out of their way.”

Curtis is not, of course, without opinions. He characterizes himself as leaning slightly left of center on social issues, slightly right on financial ones. 

He finds ways other than the airways to express his views. 

He served for eight years as a trustee at UNC Chapel Hill, where the $10 million Curtis Media Center opened in 2022. He had similar positions on the boards of Peace and St. Andrews universities. He’s also been a member of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation board of visitors and a director of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce board, and Wells Fargo’s Raleigh unit.

He has also amassed what he suspects is the world’s largest collection of 1970s transistor radios — about 2,100. They were trendy when he was starting.

He dismisses it all with a shrug. “I move from one thing to another, and keep my nose clean,” he says. “I love business and I love broadcasting.”

After 70 years in both, he says, he hasn’t decided whether he is a glorified disc jockey or tycoon. But he’s narrowing it down.

“My long-range plan used to be five years out,” he says.  “Now I think about one
year out.”

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