The Ultimate Word-of-Mouth Business
When I met with Hub City Radio owner Brian Lundquist for this story, he showed me a video on his phone of an Aberdeen Christian High School volleyball game. It was streaming live at that moment on his website, even though the match wasn’t being broadcast on the radio. “We do that for the grandmas and grandpas who can’t get to games,” he said.
Offering a variety of locally focused programming is central to Hub City Radio’s business model. “We want to be part of the fabric of the community,” Brian noted. Employing lessons he’s learned over more than 30 years in the business, the 2021 South Dakota Broadcaster of the Year describes the relationship, “We rely on the local community, and they rely on us.”
From DJ to Owner
As in many careers, there’s some irony that Brian has ended up owning a company with 14 stations around northeastern South Dakota. To begin, the career wasn’t totally his choice. He “attended” Northern State College. “I didn’t go much,” he explained and had a “really good time.” As a result, his parents made a what-are-you-gonna-do-with-your-life visit, complete with an answer. They had enrolled him in Thief River Falls Broadcasting School because, his mom said, “You mentioned it once in high school.” So, he attended the one-year program in 1987.
A year later, he was at a Volga radio station, playing records during the 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM timeslot. It was a “pretty rustic station,” he smirked. “It didn’t have a copier, so we had to re-type things—and no fax machine.” His next job, in Bottineau, North Dakota, reversed his hours to 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, but he soon noticed that a very small number of commercials were being played, a sign that the radio station was not doing well.
When Brian’s fiancé landed a position in Aberdeen, he called KGIM’s owner many times. “When they finally had an opening, I didn’t need an interview. They told me the on-air position was mine, if I stop calling,” he laughed. So, in 1990, he came back to Aberdeen. A couple months into the job, he had an opportunity to go into sales.
“I didn’t like sales,” he said, “but the ‘opportunity’ was sales or no job.” Satellite delivery was becoming popular, allowing stations to cut DJs, so he moved to radio’s business side but sensed a disconnect with the new technology.
The Ingstad family from Valley City bought KGIM and in 1998 chose Brian as general manager. While at lunch, “they told me we need to make this cash flow. I don’t remember the dollar amount, but it was a lot! Thus, I didn’t eat lunch,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what cash flow was at the time, but I achieved it.” He started with two more stations. Others would come.
When the Ingstads bought more stations from Clear Channel Radio, Brian’s Berkshire Plaza offices and the Clear Channel offices in the KKAA building south of town moved into the KSDN building on South Highway 281. Despite being under one roof, the two separate sales staffs “competed with each other, both on the street and in the building. It was horrible.” He learned something about running multiple stations with more people.
In 2006, Armada—a Wisconsin company—bought the stations. Brian got to name the station group Hub City Radio, which may have planted an unexpected seed. “I never had a vision of owning when I started in radio, but I kept telling the owners if an opportunity came up to buy, I’d like to make an offer,” Brian said.
Persistence paid off, much like when he landed his first Aberdeen job. Hub City Radio became available. “It took over nine months to put the deal together after the offer was accepted,” he said. Local investors helped him create Prairie Winds Broadcasting, which took ownership February 1, 2014. Prairie Winds continues to do business as Hub City Radio, and it recently purchased another Armada property, Big Stone Radio (which also kept its name), whose six stations serve the Britton, Milbank, Ortonville, Sisseton, Watertown, and Webster areas.
Crediting former owners, Brian said he “learned how other station groups ran their stations. I made plenty of mistakes and still do, but some decisions do turn out, with good fortune.”
One lesson of what not to do came from a former competitor. Clear Channel Radio, one of America’s biggest media companies at the time, seemed to fall out of touch with smaller markets like Aberdeen. “They planned to bring canned, out-of-market programming from the Cities and Fargo,” Brian said. “I thought that was a big market idea that doesn’t work in small towns. It’s not local.”
And local has become Hub City’s mantra.
The Who of Local
“That’s why we have eight stations for listeners to choose from, each with its own flavor of programming,” Brian said. “We’re expanding on what we can deliver to meet local interests. In addition to news, weather, and sports, we support our advertisers as well as local fundraisers, and more.” Hub City Radio aims to listen to its audience and put a local stamp on what they hear—and with evolving technology, what they watch and read as well.
Ultimately, Brian credits Hub City Radio’s 20 employees for implementing the local focus and producing programming that responds to local interests. “We have a combined experience of nearly 300 years in radio,” he said.
At the same time, he owns up to some programming miscalculations. A few years back, “I decided to change KSDN 930 to all 70s and 80s country on a weekend,” he said. “By Monday, we received around 500 calls on ‘what happened to KSDN?!’ So we changed it back on Tuesday!”
The What of Local
Established in 1948, KSDN 930 is Hub City’s oldest continuously operating station—Brian calls it, “our heritage station.” An early Aberdeen source for rock music, KSDN was named to South Dakota’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. After some format changes over the years, it now focuses on news and talk. With several national talk shows, it may air a lot of syndicated programming, but it’s also the most local station, connecting with its audience through live, locally produced news, talk, and call-in shows.
On other Hub City Radio stations, the programming may sometimes come from somewhere else, but those decisions are made locally. Still, upwards of 90% of music programming is locally produced, either live on the stations or pre-recorded by Aberdeen announcers. “I could have everything satellited in and no local guys,” Brian pointed out. “Our staff, after living in town, knows what the town wants.” Six stations focus on different genres of rock, pop, and country music, including Aberdeen’s newest stations: 94.5 The Reason (Christian rock) and 107.1 Pure Country.
After music, sports arguably receive the most attention on Hub City Radio, and it’s an area where Brian confesses to another mistake—once preempting a Twins regular season game in favor of a Vikings preseason game. “We got lots of negative feedback for that one,” he said. Lesson learned.
While KGIM 1420 has been an all-sports station for years, all eight stations carry sports on occasion, as they cover more than 350 area sporting events a year. “Sometimes we have colleges, high schools, and Wings hockey all on the same night,” Brian said. Most broadcasts also offer live stream video. In sports, local has gone larger, as Hub City Radio covers games for many area communities.
Sports talk is a feature on KGIM 1420 (known as Fox Sports 1420), and while most is nationally syndicated, the station airs a weekday Sports Hub talk show. “We don’t pretend to know more than the national guys,” Brian explained, “but we know more about Aberdeen area sports than they do.”
Advertising pays the bills, but it’s also another way of connecting locally. Nearly 100% of Hub City’s advertising is South Dakota-based, most from the Aberdeen area. Brian described the basic equation for radio and advertisers: “They support us, and we support them.” This goes beyond just running ads. Early in the pandemic, for example, Prairie Winds Broadcasting stations launched a radiothon, selling nearly $1 million in gift cards to support local advertisers.
The How of Local
Other media platforms have become a major part of Hub City Radio’s local connections. Using their website and social media to promote programming, advertisers, and local events, they communicate with their audience by sharing information and asking locally oriented questions to get feedback—like how much rain people received.
Hub City Radio also offers mobile alert services on a variety of topics, and nearly 10,000 subscribers receive text messages about news, weather, sports, school closings, and other topics. “Even if people aren’t listening to the radio,” Brian said, “we’re part of their day, through texting, social media, and so on.”
They also promote businesses in the three-dimensional world with their branded vehicles. Parked at advertisers’ locations with speakers blaring broadcasts and LED displays running messages, the Hub City Radio Van and Boombox demand attention. As Brian put it, “When the Boombox is rockin’, people are talkin’.”
Hub City Radio also supports local charity fundraisers. “It’s another way to be local,” Brian said. “We donate time, talent, and treasure.” He added a practical observation, “When we give locally, it returns many times over. If we can buy in town, we’ll always do it.”
The Tech of Local
Brian remembers a clever gimmick KGIM used when its 1420 AM and 106.7 FM stations aligned with each other on the dials of older model cars with push button AM/FM radios. If you switched bands, you still had a KGIM station. Fast forward, and High-Definition technology allows up to four stations on one FM channel. On an HD radio, you’ll find additional Hub City stations at 94.1, 94.5 and 107.1. “We could carry up to 20 stations with HD, but I don’t think the market is ready for that yet,” Brian said.
Technology has also helped Hub City Radio do local globally. Besides audio and video web streaming, “Wherever you are, you can say ‘Alexa, play Sunny 97.7,’” Brian laughed. And, he insisted, even distant listeners like the local commercials.
Yet even as radio’s competition has expanded in quantity and variety, Brian asserted, “We survived the competition from TV, cable, MTV.” He added ironically, “The first video MTV played was the Buggles’ song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ but today MTV hardly plays any music.”
It’s Still Local
Returning to the local focus, “With most other advertising—like newspaper, cable, broadcast TV, or satellite radio—when listening or reading them, it’s like you’re shopping out of town,” Brian said. Plus—as he reminded me multiple times—radio is still free, unlike its primarily subscription-based competitors.
A long way from that rustic Volga station with no fax machine or copier, Brian marvels at the changes. “We’re on your phone and smart boxes. We’re more intrusive. Twenty years ago, no one outside our signal coverage could hear us. Now that’s expanded worldwide and changed how we deliver content.” But not necessarily what they deliver.
“The music might change over time, but we’re still doing local news, weather, and so on,” he continued. “We still want to report the cancellations, water shutoffs, where the games are being played, where the potholes are.”
Brian concluded, “Radio was the original and still is the word of mouth that tells people what’s going on. It’s still a people-based business. There have been changes in the technology, but it’s still about the local relationship with the community.” And that relationship is what drives Hub City Radio. //