Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography
Featured photo: (Left) Scott Hennen, Partner, and Steve Hallstrom, President and Managing Partner, of The Flag.
Scott Hennen literally had a microphone on his birth announcement. This serendipitous sign was a calling for the rest of his life. After a lifetime in radio, Hennen and his business partner Steve Hallstrom have branched off into their own business with AM 1100 The Flag. As they dive into politics and cover Fargo-Moorhead, we talked with them about what launching a radio station in 2018 looks like.
*The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
You both worked for larger media organizations. What do you see as some of the biggest advantages of operating independently at a station like this?
Hennen: “I would say the flexibility, the nimbleness… Big is not necessarily better and, very often, it’s exactly the opposite: it’s bad.
“My joke is that there should be a humane society for former radio people. Because people are treated so horribly in this industry. And we don’t have a great reputation in Fargo-Moorhead at all with ownership changes and people getting fired one day and hired the next. So we knew there was that culture already, and we just have a really small, close-knit core group that’s growing, but Steve has built that culture. And that’s where it takes a president, a leader, and that’s what Steve is.
“I remember one day when he came to talk to me as we were working on the structure, and he was trying diplomatically to say only one of us can be ‘the’ boss. We can be partners, but somebody’s gotta be president of the company. And I’m finishing his sentence, saying, ‘Dude, it’s you. You’re the president.’ I don’t want that role anymore. I want to do these other things. Ask me if you need to, but you be the decision-maker.
“And his first decision was to say: we’re going to treat our people better than we ever have. I don’t think I’ve ever been the kind of person who treats people badly, but I would tell you, just from the culture that I came from, when you work for your father in the family company, the words ‘thank you’ are never said. You just are expected to do it. And I honestly never needed ‘thank you.’
“Scott Hennen as program director, that’s in my DNA. I don’t go around saying good job and patting people on the back. I’m like, ‘Isn’t that what a paycheck is for?’ But in today’s culture, you can’t do that. So I think I have as big a heart as anybody and empathy for people, but when I’m in the hunt and I’m at war trying to do a great talk show, trying to get a sale, I’m just focused on that and not on really what you need to do in this day and age to care for people. Steve does that very well.”
Do you think running a business yourself gives you a different perspective into the worlds of the business owners you talk to?
Hennen: “We both care deeply about the bottom line because if we don’t have that, we don’t have anything. Obviously, when you say the politics side, I do a talk show. We’re the Fox News of radio. Fox News is an economic juggernaut in cable news. We want to be the same thing on the radio and the digital space. As far as: Do we buy this? Do we not buy this? Do we hire this person? That’s Steve.”
Hallstrom: “Scott’s job is half sales, half on air. Then there’s a part where I need him to be a resource to me in making decisions. He’s got tremendous instincts, he’s been around the business way longer. So he is the radio mind of the place. So while I end up saying, ‘Let’s move this piece here, let’s move this piece there,’ it’s usually done after we visit about it. I need his input on a lot of things because I trust it, and there’s a lot of decisions I let him make just because he’s more qualified than me to make them. There’s probably five to 10 percent part of the time when I need his direction on certain things just so I know we’re going in the right direction.
“But I would tell you that even though we are both on the air and we enjoy doing our on-air work, what really drives us is building the company and we serve a purpose on air at our company, but we’re trying to make an organization that is the best place to work for our people.”
Hennen: “And I have to tell you how much better I am at what I’m expected to do to perform for the company when I know he is thinking every breathing moment about where we’re going next and what our vision is. That’s an awesome partner. He’s constantly thinking about where do the chess pieces go. Because we’re not sitting here thinking, ‘Hey, we doubled in size. Isn’t this great? We’re the cat’s meow.’ We’re going, ‘We’re toddlers and we want to get to grad school.’”
Both being pro-business, conservative guys, do you think running your own business gives you an even more steadfast belief in your ideals?. Do you think it gives you a different perspective?
Hallstrom: “No question about it. Conservative principles work. They just do. They work in a home, they work in a business, they work in a community, they work in a church. It’s not expecting other people to do your work for you. It’s that you get what you deserve. You treat people right. I laugh a lot of times when people talk about conservatives being all about money and just trying to make a dollar and break the backs of their people. Any good leader of any organization knows that you are only as good as the people who do the work. And so I tell people all the time: I work for you, really.
Hennen: “I would argue it’s a competitive advantage for us for this reason: What you see is what you get. We say it on the radio, we talk about who we are, we share this. Where that doesn’t happen necessarily in every transaction. So they know that about us, number one. And number two, I would argue that 90+ percent of CEOs and business leaders in this region are conservative, too. They may be a Democrat, but if you went down the list of: Do you pay your bills? Do you follow the law? They’re going to say yes. They’re a conservative, they just don’t like calling themselves conservative. I think it’s fruitful ground for us to have those conversations and have that full disclosure if you will, sitting across the table from clients.”
Hallstrom: “And it doesn’t mean we don’t have hard days and it doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate a favor from somebody else, but we’re able to live out the areas of watching your finances and making sure that your ducks are in a row. And guess what? It’s going to be hard. But you’re going to have to figure it out. And hopefully you’ve built alliances, friendships and partnerships where you can go to people where you can help them out and they can help you out.”
Zooming out a little bit, I just wanted to talk more generally about the industry and traditional media. How do you guys go about assessing new media opportunities and combining them with the more traditional radio? What’s your process for figuring out how to monetize that stuff?
Hennen: “Steve’s the best one to answer this because we’re methodically doing a number of initiatives that would explain it, but I would just say to you, in my mind, we in the media need to lose the hyphens. This traditional media versus new media, I mean, come on, what we’re doing is generating content and giving it to people in ways they appreciate consuming the content. And as far as social media, radio was the first.
“Radio was the one place that started. When I started KCNN out of Grand Forks, it was interactive radio. You didn’t like something you heard on the radio, you called and you said something about it. It’s today’s Facebook comment. So that interactive media is very rare, and yet we’re considered old, stodgy traditional media. Wait a minute, we were way ahead of the curve. I reject a little bit this idea that we’re in traditional media and we need to do a better job of getting into all these other media. To me, those are just ways you deliver the good content you’re doing.”
Hallstrom: “I think there’s a space for everybody. As long as there’s people waking up on a Sunday morning and the pace is a little leisurely, you’re going to have an opportunity to have a newspaper functioning and healthy in that town. As long as you have people waiting to go see the dentist, there’s going to be an opportunity to have a magazine in your hands. As long as people are driving to work, there’s going to be an opportunity for radio. Not that new media isn’t powerful and has changed some of those things, but businesses that are run well and know what they’re all about with great leadership and a product that stands out are always going to be relevant in any marketplace.
“Certainly, the smartphone has changed everything, the internet has changed everything, and so the technology becomes a little bit different, but to Scott’s point, we’re talking about: How do we deliver the content that people want to hear?
In an average morning between 6-11 a.m., I would put our product up against anybody’s anywhere, about how much good interesting conversation, how much content, how many new ideas, from key people in the community are generated and discussed on our airwaves. So we have this great section of time between 6-11 a.m., but if you were at work between 8-11 a.m., how do we deliver that?
“That’s where you need to be creative, you need to try to tap into all these things, but to Scott’s point: we’re getting away from saying we are a radio station, and we’re saying: We’re a multimedia content factory that happens to do radio and we hope does radio really well. But we’re also becoming a company that does email blasts and social media posts, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, things like that. And for the first time this fall, we’ve generated revenue through podcasts and live video, which has been a very rewarding accomplishment. It’s not much, but it’s something. And it gives us a bit of a playbook on how to develop revenue streams that have nothing to do with a 30-second radio commercial. So we build that recognition that maybe they get us for the most part off their phone or Facebook, but this happens to be the day that they need to drive to Grand Forks, and if they’re thinking, ‘Hey, the guys on The Flag are continuing to kick out good stuff every morning, I might as well listen to that.’ So there may be less consumption than there was in the old times, but if a business is run right and you have good salespeople and good managers, you’re always going to have an opportunity, even if you’re pushing your content across different platforms, which is kind of how we look at ourselves these days.”
“And guess what? It’s going to be hard. But you’re going to have to figure it out. And hopefully you’ve built alliances, friendships and partnerships where you can go to people where you can help them out and they can help you out.” – Steve Hallstrom
Maybe it’s overblown, but it seems like Millennials and Gen. Z are taking this extra-hard left turn that previous generations didn’t as some kind of maybe reaction to what’s going on currently politically. That doesn’t sound like it’s much of a concern to you guys going forward and that it’s more a matter of changing minds through persuasion and good ideas.
Hennen: “I’d say that’s not a North Dakota problem. That might be something we see on our TV screens on college campuses but I don’t find that being a big issue here. Are there some? Sure. I would just say, ‘Hey, we have two groups of people who we approach when the microphone is turned on: friends and potential friends.’ And if they’re not a friend yet, they’re a potential friend to us. And if I say educate, that’s going to sound like I want to brainwash them, I don’t.
“It is just to be who we are and just listen and participate and I think quickly you’ll find there’s maybe a better way to go.”
Hallstrom: “It’s really overblown I think both ways. The great part about social media – and if you have a camera and a phone, you can be a broadcaster – the great part about that is it gives a lot of people access, but what that also does is it allows a few people In the corner of the room to dominate the conversation, depending on how loud they want their volume level to be. So I think we see things happening where we see a group of people who are really inflaming a situation, and we think, ‘Oh boy, that’s how people are on that side.’
“And we’re probably guilty of it on the right as much as the left is of judging ‘everybody’s like this’ and that’s not right either, but you have this never-ending news cycle and now its not just the three major TV networks and the Washington post. It’s every blog, every e-zine and everything that’s out there, so there’s more chances for people to see the extreme behaviors and for both sides to be defined by who their loudest voices in the room are.”
AM 1100 The Flag
Hennen hosts “What’s On Your Mind?” every weekday from 8:30-11 a.m.
Hallstrom hosts “The Need To Know Morning Show” every weekday from 6-8:30 a.m.