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It’s Always Independence Day at ‘The Surf’

Sure he’s got a website, ‘but our number one focus is still broadcast, just like old-school radio’

When one toils for a large radio group, one may take marching orders from the corporate office. When one is part-owner of a standalone FM, one enjoys considerably more freedom.

Take it from one Joel Garrett, age 24, known to his radio audience simply as “The Kid.” Joel and his partners own WLHH(FM), an oldies station in Hilton Head, S.C., branded “104.9 the Surf.”

Joel Garrett, 24, is co-owner of oldies station WLHH(FM) in Hilton Head, S.C. The Internet is fine, he says, but ‘it’s more fun to just turn the radio on and listen to it.’ “We have two full-time people handling the morning show, more live people on the air during the day, a news director and four full-time sales people. That doesn’t include the receptionist/traffic director,” said Garrett. “I have seen some owners that have just a handful of people running a whole market.”

He worked in programming for Clear Channel and Cumulus before relocating to the quiet coastal resort town of Hilton Head, where he and two former co-workers purchased the station about a year ago. Here he wears several hats, not because of cost-cutting, he says, but because he wants to.

Talk about fun

“I love being on the air every afternoon, but I have a passion for management,” he said.

“I know the directions we need to take. As a Cumulus program director, I didn’t get to make any of my own decisions. I was told by someone in Atlanta which records to add, what voice guy to use. It took a lot of the fun out of it. Radio is supposed to be fun.”

It was that aspect of the business that first attracted him.

“I was always excited about radio,” said Garrett, who grew up in Austin, Texas. “I used to follow DJs around at the remotes and I just thought radio was neat. When I was young I hung out at one radio station so much that some people believed I worked there.

“One day I didn’t show up and the sales people thought I was unreliable because I wasn’t around that day.”

“What are you talking about?” the program director responded. “That kid doesn’t even work here.”

Somehow his nickname followed Garrett around. Eventually he got on a radio station’s payroll at age 16. He was doing a night show in El Paso at XHTO(FM) at 17 and got his first PD job at 18 for Clear Channel station KMRK(FM) in Midland-Odessa, Texas. Cumulus hired him three years later and he went to Lake Charles, La., to program two of its stations, later moving for Cumulus to Fayetteville, Ark.

At WLHH, Garrett says, “fun” means being “live and local,” a phrase that once adorned so many station license renewal forms. “We have a big presence at anything going on in Hilton Head.” He is dismissive of stations that show up “with no tent and a junky radio van with five different logos on it.”

At a recent polo event, for example, WLHH sought to differentiate itself from other stations by bringing an upscale tent, free food, free wine and both of its station vehicles; it put live phone calls from the event on the air all day.

One of those vehicles is a 1956 Ford Ranch two-door wagon that has been restored and customized, a natural choice for a station that plays oldies. But does face time at local events pay off?

“We actually make money with our local approach,” Garrett said. “We took over this station in March 2010 and put the station in the black within six months. Unlike most of the other stations in our market, we focus on Hilton Head, rather than trying to be a Savannah, Ga., station. We are doing well, and 95 percent of our ad revenue is from local advertisers.” He says WLHH is “well on track” to bringing in more than $1 million in revenue this year.

He is one of three equal partners who purchased the station for $640,000 from JB Broadcasting. All had worked for Cumulus in Fayetteville. C.J. Jones is a former market manager and VP for Cumulus, and is former owner of group Jones Eastern. Joe Mule has been a GM and GSM for Cumulus and others.

“I add the young dynamic to this,” he added. “It’s been fun, a blast. And I learn from these guys every day.”


Garrett’s station does not subscribe to Arbitron ratings, nor do others in the market, according to Kim Myers, senior media manager for Arbitron. “We do well without using the numbers, which is good because our first book was taken right after we went on the air,” Garrett said. “More important to us is going out there in the community, being seen and shaking hands.”

One of those hands belongs to Karen Cully, owner/CFO of Harbor Health Insurance Solutions.

“We were opening our new office in the Hilton Head area in early 2010 when the radio station was just coming to the market,” she said. “We needed to brand our name and let the public know we were here to do business. Meeting Joel and seeing how passionate he was about the new station, I knew we would get great exposure.”

Cully’s firm was a charter advertiser, with spots on the air the day the station signed on.

“Our company has been very pleased with the response we receive from our advertising,” she said. “Every day we get comments about our live and recorded commercials. Joel is very easy to work with and keeps our live daily spots fun to do. His zest for radio makes everyone smile.”

There are six to eight stations in the market; Adventure Radio Group, owned by Triad Broadcasting, owns several, and many more signals can be heard out of Savannah.

“Our station covers Savannah as well, but there are enough people beating the streets over there,” Garrett says. He feels that even Hilton Head stations had left a gap for a “real local radio station for the South Carolina Low Country.”

Garrett laments that many radio companies have cut staff and are squeezing savings out of anything that doesn’t holler.

“It’s down to the bones now,” he said. “They have taken the heartbeat and the soul and the personality out of radio in every market that’s not in the top 10. They have gutted these stations and made part-time weekend guys program directors, and I don’t understand that. The owners have taken the community presence out of it because they don’t have the people to do it anymore.”

Surely Garrett has something good to say about large radio groups?

“Well, they have a few good people left; so good for them and I wish those people the best,” he said. “But we are proving here in Hilton Head that you don’t have to get rid of all the people. You can have a full staff and still make money.” He acknowledges, however, that large companies “gave me the shot to get where I am today. That, I will always appreciate.”

While many stations large and small are making social networks and mobile devices an increasingly large part of their business model, Garrett takes the opposite approach.

“We use the Internet primarily to stream our signal, but with our format I don’t see a ton of listeners getting involved in the Internet side,” he said.

“You’re talking to someone here who came from top 40; and when I was running that, we mostly had a Web page with a radio station attached to it.

“Our station now has a good website, but our number one focus is still broadcast, just like old-school radio. We’ll get on the bandwagon and ride with anything that progresses because you have to. But I feel it’s more fun to just turn the radio on and listen to it.”

Simple and free

One might think that between handling an air shift, being program director and running around to most local events, Garrett’s career would be in danger of taking over his personal life.

“Even though we’re out and about on weekends for the station, I still have to take some time off to enjoy life,” he said. “One of my partners stresses that to me, and I get the feeling that he didn’t always live this way.”

Garrett’s parents live in the area, and he and his girlfriend moved to Hilton Head before the station took to the air.

General Manager Joe Mule (“myoo-LAY”) said, “Joel has provided the enthusiasm and spark that made radio vibrant prior to consolidation. I was once told by a wise promotions director that you win your audience one listener at a time. Joel is doing that every day.”

You win clients that way, too. When Radio World first contacted Garrett on the phone, he interrupted the interview to take an incoming call from a car dealer client who wanted to talk about his commercials. The customer comes first.

Ken Deutsch, a longtime contributor, says he listens to AM radio, Pandora and the voices in his head.