EMF: Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Game

Educational Media Foundation Air1 K-Love Growth Evil Empire

I originally wrote this last September after the purchase of KSWD Los Angeles, but after today’s purchase of 97.9 WLUP Chicago it bears repeating. EMF is just taking advantage of the weaknesses of the remainder of those capable of buying radio stations in this current landscape.

Some have likened them to Star Trek’s Borg, others to Star Wars’ Galactic Empire. As Educational Media Foundation assimilates radio stations into its collective leaving nothing but a transmitter in its wake many have begun to wonder how they got to this point and how to stop them.

To look at how EMF has gotten to this point you have to first look back to where they came from. What would become the national “K-Love” brand started out in Middletown/Santa Rosa CA in 1982 as “FM 92 KCLB“. The K-Love brand and new KLVR call letters would come in 1988 as would translators expanding the station’s coverage to other markets surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area such as Monterey and San Jose. Expansion to other markets would begin in the middle of the 1990s bringing K-Love to places like Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Portland. The group’s first big acquisition would be what is now 91.1 KLDV Morrison/Denver CO and its network of two additional stations and eighteen translators from Colorado Christian University for $16.6 million in 2000. The 2003 translator filing window would bring 250 new licenses for EMF to utilize or eventually lease out in deals to help feed other markets.

Educational Media Foundation’s business model portends well to constant expansion. Multiple federal rules allow EMF to take advantage of loopholes that commercial operators do not have the opportunity to do so. As a non-profit EMF can take advantage of tax credits and loopholes. The networks take on the majority of their revenue through listener donations and as the group expands to more markets that brings more potential listeners and donors. With the main-studio waiver that each EMF license holds, the local stations do not exist as anything more than a rack of equipment at the translator site as programming currently all comes from a pair of locales. They don’t need to have a local studio or maintain local staffing cutting down costs.

Propublica lists EMF’s tax records for 2011 through 2015. Over those five years, total revenue has increased each year as EMF continues to grow. In 2011 EMF’s net income was $34,678,623. By 2015 that increased to $57,217,989 (or pretty much the amount just paid to Entercom for KSWD Los Angeles). Of the $167,459,850 in total contributions EMF received in 2015, 84 percent was invested directly into the business through operating costs and further acquisitions.

The value of Educational Media Foundation has doubled over those five years. The valuation of its assets in 2011 was $206,563,650. By 2015 that had increased to $408,830,206. What helps is how transparent and clean EMF operates. Charity Navigator gave EMF a 96.56 score (out of 100) with its only negative score for not having a Donor Privacy Policy on its website.

For that growth to continue EMF must continue to expand. The only places left for that to happen are in the biggest markets. EMF owns the “K-Love” trademark in most of the country, however areas including and surrounding Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles were excluded due to grandfathered stations already using the brands in those markets. Two of those still exist: CBS Radio Classic Hits 98.7 KLUV Dallas and Univision Spanish AC 107.5 KLVE Los Angeles. Univision has yet to reach out to our request for information regarding EMF’s impending expansion into Los Angeles. In those three markets EMF’s secondary Christian CHR “Air 1” brand does operate on rimshot stations.

Since the 2007 economic downturn and the financial difficulties facing the largest radio group owners, companies like EMF are the only ones with the money to reach the asking prices of sellers. This has led to many heritage stations like WABB Mobile, WCCC Hartford, and most recently WBRU Providence being acquired by EMF. The combination of loopholes they used combined with the shrewd operation and quality programming bringing in listeners and turning them into donors is what allows EMF to continue to grow at the rate it has. It’s not evil it’s simply best suited to take advantage of the current circumstances facing other radio station operators.

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  1. Ben Ditzel says

    Thank you… Putting it back in perspective and explaining the real situation is key ?
    ‘It’s not evil it’s simply best suited to take advantage of the current circumstances facing other radio station operators.’
    Very disappointed to see all the reactions on the web screaming in rage and shaking their fist at the sky when this is not an excuse to badmouth Christian Radio but a time to look at what is happening and, if change is to be effected, beginning working along those lines vs just expressing distaste at a genre you happen not to appreciate.

    1. stats says

      Beautifully said, both Lance and Ben. Thank you.

    2. Lance Venta says


      To be fair the majority of the people bemoaning EMF’s growth are not upset with the Christian programming, but rather what it replaces in each circumstance. It could be a Mongolian Polka network and people would be just as upset.

  2. Eric Jon Magnuson says

    It may have been implied, but one other word jumps out right now: “cash”. EMF is able, when needed, to pay for some purchases with cash–while a lot of other folks can’t. Also, I really get the feeling now that standalone stations aren’t as attractive to commercial operators–even those with an existing local cluster–as they once were. That’s probably in large part due to all those financial issues; however, it may also be because those commercial operators wouldn’t have a plan for how to program the new station. (Taking it even further, is it just me, or have Rock-formatted standalone stations–e.g., WCCC, WBRU, KSWD, and WCAD–been particularly vulnerable here?)

    Separately, I lucked into this page about how Cedarville University framed the sale of its stations (WCDR et al.) to EMF some years ago: https://www.cedarville.edu/Advancement/WCDR.aspx. As it mentions, financial difficulties haven’t just affected commercial outlets.

    1. Eric Jon Magnuson says

      Regarding my “Rock theory” above, I should also mention KPRI.

      1. Lance Venta says

        I tie that in with the state of radio today. These standalone Rock or Alternative stations were much more viable in the past than today. They were able to survive as standalones for much longer than others because of the ability for owners to acquire FM’s much cheaper in the 1970s and jump in with AOR. Had there been a commercial owner able to purchase these standalones it is still likely that WCCC, KPRI or even KSWD would change formats.

        1. Brammy says

          I heard that Connoisseur and K-LOVE were in a bidding war for WCCC and that’s why K-LOVE ended up paying around $9 million for WCCC and it’s low-power AM station, while Connoisseur ended up paying $5.6 million for WDRC-FM and its 4 AM stations. It’s my guess since they have since flipped WDRC to Classic Rock, they would’ve kept the Classic Rock format in place had they gotten WCCC. One has to wonder if Connoisseur had gotten WCCC would they still have bought WDRC?

  3. Joseph_Gallant says

    I don’t think EMF is done acquiring stations that CBS Radio/Entercom will have to divest in their pending merger.

    As an example, I expect that assuming the combined CBS Radio/Entercom will have to spin-off two or three FM stations in the Boston area, EMF will buy one of them to bring “K-Love” to Boston.

    That may also be the case in a few other places, too.

    1. Nathan Obral says

      Entercom will divest their existing Boston cluster — as a whole — to a commercial chain operator. It’s the cleanest, safest move that will get the least amount of scrutiny.

      1. aaronread says

        THAT, is utter nonsense. They now own both of the two most profitable stations in market #10: WBZ-FM/Sportshub and WEEI. They have all four of the major sports teams’ games locked up in a town that is utterly sports happy. They have a Presidential administration highly sympathetic to allowing them to avoid any problems with the DOJ. AND, going further, they have the bulk of the best signals in a top 10 market: besides WBZ-FM and WEEI, there’s WZLX, WODS, WBMX, and WBZ-AM (sure, it’s AM but it’s also one of the biggest and best AM signals in the CONUS).

        Plus they own a large, expensive building for all their stations inside city limits in Brighton.

        It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for Entercom to exit the Boston market.

        What DOES make (somewhat more) sense is to iHeart to leave the Providence market and to exchange all their stations in Providence (WHJY, WHJJ, WWBB, WSNE) to expand their footprint in Boston: WAAF and/or WKAF at a minimum. Possibly WRKO and WEEI (AM). I wouldn’t be surprised to see another FM in there, perhaps WEEI-FM (at which point Entercom would move the format to WBMX, WODS or WZLX…something I’d expect regardless). That would put iHeart over the cap in Boston but iHeart could easily ditch WKOX AM and/or WXKS AM, or choose to take only WAAF or WKAF.

        Obviously that’s speculation, I have nothing to back it up, but it makes sense:

        1. Entercom’s put some money into the PVD market lately.
        2. iHeart showed with the WWBB/WCIB/WBWL deal that they care about top 20 markets, and not anything below (PVD is #44).
        3. Swapping stations around avoids tax penalties. I don’t usually see enough appreciation on these boards of how seriously these companies take those tax implications in these deals.

        Of course, a good reason against the idea is that it moves Entercom more fully into a market that’s “below the threshold of caring”, and it also strengthens a major competitor in a “market that matters.” (shrugs)

        1. Beachguy says

          iHeart owns WBZ-AM, not Entercom.

  4. radioguy76 says

    I agree its possible EMF might expand into the San Francisco radio market even tho there is a signal on 107.3 tho its radio location is Livermore/San Jose market…either that or maybe perhaps having a country station finally in SF once the merge is complete with CBS/Entercom

  5. Tom Servo says

    When EMF entered the Mobile market, it was a huge shock to locals when the news got on it and reported the market’s beloved CHR WABB was going to CCM. But interestingly EMF didn’t wind up with WABB but for a short time, because they traded it to Cumulus for WDLT, a smaller signal that really only covers Mobile instead of the entire Mobile-Pensacola-Pascagoula area.

    I dunno how true this is, but the way it was told to me was Bernie Dittman refused to sell out his station to a big corporation like Cumulus or iHeart because they’d ruin the station’s legacy. So he sold to EMF, but behind the scenes Cumulus conspired with EMF to do a swap so that Cumulus could get the big class C while EMF could get a smaller signal that didn’t overlap with their K-Love station in Pensacola. Cumulus got the station they wanted and EMF still got full market coverage of both Pensacola and Mobile out of the deal.

    I won’t say that Cumulus totally ruined the WABB legacy, but if Bernie were still alive I can’t imagine he’d be happy about it. Today the station is WABD (which sounds the same as WABB when said quickly in IDs) and as far as I know it’s only local and live in the mornings now.

    1. Stelly says

      WABD is no longer live in mornings—they run the Zazza Mornings with Cheree program from WAIA in Melbourne. I don’t know about Jimmy Steele middays, but I’m pretty sure Sid Kelly is live and local in the afternoon; he’s the program director.

    2. thegulfcoast says

      EMF let go of WABB and bought 98.3 only because Cumulus threw a C2 in Nashville, TN into the deal. EMF has tried to get into Nashville, the mecca of CCM, for years. This was an easy choice for them. Now they have a blowtorch station and have all of their awards ceremonies in the Contemporary Christian capital

    3. Nathan Obral says

      The second deal with Cumulus and EMF saw K-Love enter Nashville and Air1 enter Houston on signals Cumulus had to get rid of (WRQQ/97.1 and KHJK/103.7, respectively). So it was a win-win for both parties.

      1. StogieGuy says

        But a loss for radio in general. Trading local commercial (mass appeal) music stations for generic, bird-feed religion. You can argue that it’s all in the name of the game and I’m not arguing that it’s beneficial for the entities involved in the transaction. But the continued growth of EMF by taking over commercial signals is yet another sign of the slow demise of radio as a broadcast medium.

      2. Eric Jon Magnuson says

        Cumulus did have to spin off that station in Nashville. However, it wasn’t because of any regulatory concerns that Cumulus couldn’t absorb the “Cumulus Media Partners” stations in Houston (despite being able to officially pick up the ones in Kansas City); it was because Cumulus was outbid for the Houston stations when they came up for sale in the wake of an earlier (and much more limited) prepackaged bankruptcy. In this particular case, EMF pretty much bought the station from Larry Patrick.


        1. Nathan Obral says

          Shoot. Gotcha. It was easy to confuse both transactions as one and the same because they took place within 48 hours of each other.

          Interestingly, KHJK kept their callsign when it flipped to Air1, and WLUP will keep their calls when it becomes K-Love.

  6. Nathan Obral says

    EMF is a shrewd, smart operator. K-Love is not my cup of tea, but it has a loyal, faithful following. They also proved that a true nationwide radio network can succeed in the US, where individualization of stations and locales have long been the norm.

    If EMF acquires a stand-alone AM/FM duopoly, usually the AM is spun off. A notable exception is WPAY/1520 Toledo, which ran K-Love for several years (alongside WNKL/96.9 Wauseon — W281AL 104.1 Harbor View) and now runs the paleo-conservative “Urban Family Talk” but remaining in EMF’s stable.

  7. aaronread says

    My biggest beef with EMF is that they’ve provided a blueprint for commercial radio should the FCC eliminate the Main Studio Rule and its related staffing requirements.

    If the MSR gets eliminated, I guarantee you you’ll see major operators like iHeart, Cumulus, etc immediately start gutting their local presences down to zero people in every market below #50, and probably every market below #10 or #15. All that’ll be left is a website, a toll free number, and a single equipment rack with a satellite dish. They’ll have about ten or twenty engineers spread out to cover the entire country (why not, EMF has one engineer covering all of New England), a similar setup for salespeople (albeit probably a larger total number of those) and all programming will be done from a centralized location.

    How do I know this? Because of the obvious: it would be much, much, MUCH cheaper to operate that way. And that’s what iHeart and Cumulus desperately need right now: a way to drastically cut costs.

  8. borderblaster says

    I would disagree on the effects of ending the main studio rule. If iHeart, Cumulus, et al wanted to close all of their offices and studios, they could do so under the present rules. I’ve seen it done. They could make arrangements with an insurance agency or even the public library to be the “main studio”. Store the public file there, have the insurance agent or head librarian be “management” and the receptionist be the “other staff member”. There needs to be the capability of going on the air (a cellphone would do) but literally not one word has to ever be spoken from the “main studio”. Sales and air staff still need a place to work, and I doubt most employers of sales people would be that trusting of a sales staff all working from home. In the case of K-Love, their listeners and donors don’t care that the DJs aren’t local, and they like being able to hear the same programming when they travel. Most of the markets K-Love is in never had contemporary Christian radio, because it is difficult to sustain done locally as a standalone.

  9. evantman says

    if anyone is the bad guy here wouldnt it be iheart? they took a great station in two texas markets that have been around for 20+ years then just one day flips them to hip hop! it feels like they dont care about what the listeners want.

    1. Stelly says

      Are you talking about 93.7 in Houston? The station that had a 2.5 (6+) and was ranked 16th in the market for its final book as the Arrow, but last month was 6th with a 4.6?

      If listeners don’t want hip-hop, they sure have a funny way of showing it.

      KZEP in San Antonio wasn’t faring much better. Hot 104.5 may have eventually fizzled out after a strong start, but something had to be done with that signal.

  10. Joseph_Gallant says

    If iHeart goes bankrupt, hundreds of radio stations could get put on the market at “fire sale” prices.

    And EMF could conceivably pick-up quite a few big-signal FM stations in cities where they either don’t have any stations at present, or are on a class “A” FM outlet and/or low-power FM, and do so at a moderate cost.

    1. Nathan Obral says

      Oh good grief.

      Stop pushing this personal wish of yours around. Everyone and anyone keeps telling you, over and over, point-by-point, how it will not happen under any circumstance… and you refuse to listen.

    2. Steve Varholy says

      iHeart will not go into liquidation.

      There are two types of bankruptcy proceedings: liquidation and restructuring.

      iHeart has been shopping around a restructuring bankruptcy plan in an attempt to pre-negotiate how much of a haircut each debt holder will take. They will likely succeed on that because the option for the debtholders is to have the bankruptcy court tell them how much of a haircut they will be taking. The other option, and we are seeing this with Liberty, is the purchase of the debt from the holder and then a negotiation with iHeart for board seats and equity in exchange for a forgiveness of all or a portion of the debt and a rescheduling of payments on the rest.

      iHeart, no matter what you think of it, is in a good position outside of owing more money that it can pay back. It is in a much better position than Cumulus.

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