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Radio Executive John Lynch Keeps Focus Strictly on San Diego

February 21, 2006

By Rachel Laing, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Feb. 21–If they’d happened to someone else, some of John Lynch’s life stories might be woeful tales of disappointment.

Like when he was drafted out of college to be a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a knee injury ended his career a few weeks into his first season.

Or the time he and his boss prepared an elaborate, knock-’em-dead sales presentation for New York media buyers, only to have the 1977 energy blackouts scuttle the event.

Or just recently, when his Broadcast Co. of the Americas was first to launch a radio station aimed at the hot “youthful Latino” market, only to have better-funded competition come along six months later and blow past his station in the ratings.

But for Lynch, the president of the Broadcast Co. of the Americas, no story ends with a disappointment. There’s always an epilogue, and it invariably closes with him on top.

The injury? Lynch knew he was never going to be a superstar player, so he got an earlier start on the career he knew he wanted. He was a radio executive within a few years.

The blacked-out presentation? After they found the doors locked, he and his boss sat at a table on the patio of a pub next door and called over more than a dozen of the media buyers. They wound up networking with the buyers over beers the bartenders had put on ice.

And the flagging radio station? It opened up a spot on the FM dial for his all-talk sports station, whose Mexico-based AM signal wasn’t reaching listeners in East County and downtown high-rises. The dual-band station is being rebranded from Mighty 1090 to XX (Double X) Sports Radio.

As Lynch sees it, a setback is an opportunity to regroup.

“I always tell my sales team, even the best hitters fail seven of 10 times,” Lynch said. “You’ve got to have a hard skin. You have to be able to take ‘no’ and let it roll off your back.”

People who know say Lynch’s can-do attitude infects everyone around him and allows him to build successful enterprises where others don’t sense potential.

Lynch, who was raised in suburban Chicago, arrived in San Diego with his high-school sweetheart bride and their two toddlers in 1972. Lynch had convinced Paul Palmer, who’d been his boss at Westinghouse Radio in Chicago, to send him west and make him sales manager at Midwest Television’s KFMB radio.

Hiring Lynch was “quite a leap of faith,” Palmer recalled. “John at that time was 25. I said, ‘John I need someone with more experience.’ But I felt he had a lot of ability, and he had tremendous enthusiasm.”

Palmer was not disappointed. Despite having ratings losers in the “music just for the two of us” format, Lynch was undaunted.

His enthusiasm translated into strong ad sales. When he saw the first small bump in the stations’ ratings, Lynch called clients and invited them to Midwest’s radio and TV studio complex, Palmer said.

Upon finding cold duck spilled on the typewriters and traffic logs, the general manager of the TV station wondered what all the fuss was about.

“He checked the ratings book and saw the tiny bump and said, ‘What are you getting all excited about?’ ” Palmer said with a chuckle. “We had definitely overstated our accomplishment, but looking back it was the start of people getting excited about what we were doing.”

Five years later, KFMB AM/FM were the top-rated stations in the market.

About that time, Lynch was approached by candy mogul Ed Noble who offered him 5 percent ownership to start a San Diego-based broadcast company.

Noble Broadcast Group bought XTRA AM/FM. The AM station became one of the nation’s first all-sports talk outlets, XTRA Sports 690, and launched the career of one of sports talk’s most visible personalities, Jim Rome.

The FM station struggled with its album-oriented rock format.

While in Los Angeles on sales calls, Lynch became intrigued by KROQ-FM, one of the first stations to play punk and edgy, alternative rock. Tired of having an “also-ran,” Lynch said, he decided to make the switch to alternative rock on Noble’s FM station.

The new format began in the middle of the day in 1983. In the midst of rock anthem “Stairway to Heaven,” the station played the sound of a record scratching and switched to the song “Sex” by alternative band Berlin. And 91X was born.

On 91X, Southern California bands such as Oingo Boingo and Social Distortion found their place and gained a following. Oingo Boingo was so grateful that they played at the Grad Night celebration at Lynch’s daughter’s high school.

Noble Broadcasting launched the careers of people who have succeeded on the business side. Mike Glickenhaus, who owns the three-station Finest City Broadcasting, got his start as a salesman with Noble Broadcast Group in 1980.

He called Lynch “charismatic and demanding.”

“He expected everyone to perform at high levels, and he always let you know this was his expectation,” said Glickenhaus, who counts Lynch as a mentor. “At the same time, he led by example. He didn’t just say, ‘Go do it’; he led you there.”

When Ed Noble died in 1985, Lynch bought out his partners, and over the next decade built Noble Broadcast Group to 20 stations across the United States.

In 1996, the Telecommunications Act expanded ownership limits for radio stations, and Lynch had his eye on two similar-sized broadcast companies, Jacor and Clear Channel.

As Lynch tells it, the three companies sat down in a room at a broadcasters’ convention to hammer out who would buy whom. Lynch had found an equity partner to help fund an acquisition, and he expected to walk away with at least one of the companies’ stations.

Instead, Jacor offered Lynch a better deal than he was prepared to offer, and Noble sold for $152 million. Clear Channel gobbled up Jacor soon after in a buying spree that gave the Texas-based company considerable presence in the local market. Clear Channel owns 11 radio stations in San Diego.

After a short time with Clear Channel, Lynch left the company and started an investment operation, LMS Inc., that bought and sold media properties in smaller markets in California and Idaho.

In the late 1990s, he learned the hazards of ignoring his gut instincts. He was approached by Catholic Radio Network to lead the company’s effort to go national. Lynch, a devout Catholic who is on the board of trustees at the

University of San Diego, was ambivalent.

“It was after I sold my company, and I said ‘no’ a hundred times, but I sort of got guilted into it,” Lynch said. “I thought I’d do it as my give- back.”

Monsignor Daniel Dillabough, who knows Lynch well through USD, said he warned him about the project, predicting Lynch’s vision and that of the network’s ultra-conservative founders were on a collision course.

Lynch envisioned reaching listeners who tuned into evangelical Christian broadcasts with programs about family values, but the network was more interested in dogmatic programming. Lynch walked away from the enterprise — and his unspecified investment — after less than 18 months.

Lynch kept searching for an opportunity to get back into the entrepreneurial side of radio. That day came in 2003, when Lynch got a call from his daughter, Kara Guthrie, who was head of sports sales for Clear Channel. The company had decided to move XTRA Sports, the only local sports-talk station, to Los Angeles. The move left a void in San Diego sports radio, and layoffs made a staff available.

“In effect, we had a ready-made radio station,” Lynch said. “It was a very unique situation.”

Lynch and a partner from his Noble days formed the Broadcast Co. of the Americas. The company bought XPRS-AM 1090 and turned it into “The Mighty 1090″ sports-talk radio.

A year later, Lynch bought the Mexico-based XBCE-FM 105.7 and XKTT-AM 1700 signals. Market research indicated a good opportunity in radio for a young Latino audience, so they turned the FM station into Spanish talk radio “La Pantera.” But shortly after La Pantera launched, Univision and Clear Channel launched similar stations.

“I had made a pledge not to get into competition with big players,” Lynch said. “We were going to be the hometown players.”

Lynch instead decided to use the FM station to simulcast his sports talk programming, which he said would help reach the 20 percent of potential listeners that market research shows never tune into AM and quell complaints from listeners who couldn’t get the AM signal.

The newly branded dual-band station, XX Sports Radio, has contracts to broadcast San Diego Padres baseball, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hockey and San Diego State Aztecs sports.

This time, Lynch is keeping his focus strictly on San Diego. He’s also shown a willingness to use the station to advance his political views, which include strong support for a new stadium for the Chargers.

During the mayoral primary last year, in which Lynch backed Republican businessman Steve Francis, he prepared an on-air editorial that described Democratic contender Donna Frye “to the left of Mao and so unbelievably anti-business that she will destroy our city and its business environment.”

Lynch, who backed Jerry Sanders in the general election, said editorials are part of the responsibility of a broadcast station — one his fellow broadcasters have shirked.

“None of the mega-companies allow their on-air personalities to do editorials,” he said. “So this is an opportunity to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace. But I also feel people need to speak out.”

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