Remembering Steve Dodge: CATV, Radio and Tower Pioneer

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An entrepreneur, environmentalist, philanthropist and legendary broadcasting industry executive has died.


Steve Dodge passed away Wednesday evening as a result of a bicycle accident police believe he caused.

Dodge founded American Radio Systems after entering the radio business some 30 years ago with the 1988 purchase of eight radio stations with Atlantic Ventures’ Eric Schultz. Before that, he carved his teeth in cable TV. In 1995, he sprouted American Tower Corporation.


RBR+TVBR looks back at the achievements of Steve Dodge in this exclusive retrospective.


 

On Bonita Beach Road in Bonita Springs, Fla., a city between Fort Myers and Naples, 73-year-old Dodge was traveling on his bicycle westbound, using a sidewalk.

This time of year, the thoroughfare is busy, thanks to snowbirds from the Midwest and Northeast who have second homes in Lee County. Businesses line the street, which connects Barefoot Beach to the Bonita National Golf and Country Club east of I-75, touching the Everglades.

Witnesses told the Lee County Sheriff’s Office that Dodge attempted to cross the road illegally, at an angle in front of traffic. A vehicle also traveling westbound hit Dodge from the rear, sending him and his bike into the windshield of the car before sending them flying off the vehicle.

According to WINK-11, which first reported the story, Dodge was taken to Lee County Memorial Hospital, where he later passed away from his injuries.

FROM CABLE TO COMMERCIAL RADIO

On October 15, 1987, Dodge made a decision that would reshape his career.

Nine years after its formation, and just 17 months after an IPO at $14.50 per share, Dodge’s Beverly, Mass.-based American Cablesystems Corp. was sold to Continental Cablevision for roughly $482 million in cash and the assumption of more than $250 million in debt.

At the time, Continental was the No. 3 cable TV operator in the nation.

What did Dodge do? From the proceeds of the cable company’s sale, he teamed up with Eric Schultz of Atlantic Ventures to form a radio company by acquiring WEZO-AM (today WDCX-AM) and WEZO-FM (now WRMM) in Rochester, N.Y., from Malrite Communications.

In June 1988, Dodge gained the industry’s attention in a big way. For the exact price of $28,323,750, Atlantic Ventures captured WRKO-AM & WROR-FM in Boston as part of an FCC settlement agreement with former radio giant RKO.

Four other stations were snapped up by Atlantic by the end of the year. This led Dodge to receive the Most Successful Entrant Award at Americom’s 1989 Dealmakers Ball at the Virgin Grand Hotel on St. John, USVI — today at Westin property recovered from Hurricane Maria.

Dodge must have had the Five-Year Itch. Come June 1993, in an environment where the radio and recording industry were struggling, Atlantic entered into an estimated $115 million merger with Tom Stoner’s Stoner Broadcasting Systems and David Pearlman’s Multi Market Communications.

Keeping its headquarters in Boston, this merger saw the creation of American Radio Systems (ARS), creating an entity with duopolies in four of its eight markets and ranking
about 15th in the nation for total revenue. Pearlman was COO; Joe Winn was CFO.

Serving as CEO was Dodge, who now had properties including WONE-AM, WTUE-FM & WMMX-FM in Dayton. The latter station in 1991 evolved to WMMX from WWSN under VP/GM Deborah Parenti, who Stoner appointed in December 1990 following a two-year run at WDJX/Louisville. Parenti today is Publisher of the Radio + Television Business Report.

Taking to Facebook, Parenti was “stunned and saddened” to hear of the loss of Dodge.

“Dodge, who was CEO of American Radio Systems, one of [the best] — if not the best —radio companies ever, was an astute, brilliant business person and a magnificent human being,” Parenti wrote. “He assembled a team and instilled a spirit that made all of us a little prouder and radio a lot better.”

By the mid-1990s, Dodge was a radio industry force. In an August 1995 cover story in Radio & Records, Dodge engaged in a “Ten Questions” session with the former industry trade publication, admitting, “We’re trying to make sure we don’t outgrow the capabilities of our management. I think some radio companies … are running the risk of becoming overextended — financially or managerially or both.”

Dodge ranked No. 7 on Radio Ink‘s 40 Most Powerful People in Radio list in 1996 and No. 6 in 1997, a year that saw a $120 million swap with EXCL Communications that handed ARS the assets of KBAY-FM/San Jose and a Portland, Ore., 100kw Adult Alternative — KINK-FM. EXCL received a 100kw FM in Sacramento that is today Entravision’s Country KNTY-FM.

There would be no ranking in 1998. That’s because there’d be no more ARS.

A TRANSITION TO TOWER OPERATIONS

At the fall NAB Convention of 1997, the radio industry received a “shocking” announcement. Dodge’s ARS was to be acquired in a mammoth merger with CBS Corporation, creating CBS Radio — the entity now owned by Entercom.

The deal was valued at a whopping $2.6 billion and eventually approved on May 27, 1998. Closing came in early June 1998.

Top ARS executives Don Bouloukos, John Gehron, and Pearlman joined CBS as co-COOs.

Dodge departed the radio business with a pivot that created an entity far bigger and perhaps more valued than ARS. In 1995, American Tower Corp. began life as a subsidiary of ARS. With ARS’s 1998 sale to CBS, American Tower was spun off into a separate company. An Initial Public Offering of stock transpired, with the company trading as “AMT” on the NYSE.

American Tower then looked south, to Mexico. In 1999, it launched operations south of the border, and thrived. Today, it is the nation’s No. 1 independent tower operator, with more than 3,000 sites. Its Polanco offices, in Mexico City, are easily visible from a main periférico — the traffic-clogged beltway traversing through this mega-metropolis. In 2000, American Tower expanded to Brazil.

With business sputtering, American Tower in 2002 shifted its operational focus from acquiring and developing towers to improving operations. It proved to be a smart move.

After dipping to $1.41 in October 2002, American Tower went on an impressive growth spurt that continues today. As of 1:05pm Eastern on Jan. 18, AMT was trading at $164.56.

Dodge, however, opted for “retirement” well before American Tower stock motored upward.

In January 2004, Dodge — at this point Chairman of the Board of Directors — told them that he intended to retire prior to the company’s annual shareholders meeting held during the second quarter of that year.

Dodge wouldn’t necessarily disappear: he continued to have a part-time role, as an employee. He said at the time, “It’s been both satisfying and fun to watch … the management team grab hold of the company and really run with it. The results under their leadership have been rock solid, and I anticipate more of the same in the future. I also believe that at this stage the shadow of a founding chairman serves no productive purpose, and that in fact this very talented group will find it energizing to have its own space, with complete accountability for its own results. Surely, they have earned that opportunity, and as a large stakeholder in the company—both now and going forward—I look forward to benefiting from their ongoing efforts.”

Commenting on Dodge’s death, American Tower President/CEO Jim Taiclet told RBR+TVBR, “Our company’s founder was a true pioneer in three industries; cable, radio, and mobile and broadcast infrastructure. Even more so, he was a tremendous family man, mentor and friend. He blended incredible business acumen with a wonderful sense of humor and care for people. He will be sorely missed by each of us whose lives he touched.”

A DEVELOPMENTAL DECISION

While Dodge was “retired” from American Tower, he was far from packing his bags and moving from Boston to Florida. He formed a real estate development company in 2003 in the North Shore area of the Boston metropolitan area, forming Windover Development LLC. 

Windover is responsible for residential and commercial developments including university dormitories and the Beauport Hotel in Gloucester, Mass., described as “a quintessential New England seaside getaway.”

He then established Windover Development of Florida, which brought him to Bonita Springs.

In an April 2018 alumni profile in The Hotchkiss School’s online newsletter, Dodge — a member of the Class of 1963 — shared some of his family history.

“I grew up in the New Haven/Hamden area,” he said. “My father died when I was eight or nine, and my mother then married Donald Bradley, Class of 1925, who subsequently sent three of his sons to Hotchkiss. My oldest brother, Lowell Dodge ’58, was the next to go, and I was last up.

“I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to go to Hotchkiss, and I felt like I was sent there, more or less. Lowell was a hardworking student, had big grades, and won the Teagle Prize. His was a hard act to follow. I was less inclined than Lowell to work hard, at least then; I still thought I might redeem my standing with my worried mother if I won the Teagle, too. So, I went for it, but came in second. I can’t remember which classmate edged me out by a point!”

Dodge would go on to Yale University, where he received a B.A. in English before serving in the Navy, where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant.

“I did more real learning and growing up in the Navy than anywhere else – before or since,” Dodge said. “Actions produced tangible outcomes that mattered, and working hard became a habit. Still, my personal development really started at Hotchkiss, and continued at Yale, where a key part of my education was learning from what I didn’t do well.”

In 1978, Dodge landed his first conventional job at Bank Boston, where he was pulled out of the training program to evaluate a new industry — cable television. “I fell in love with it,” Dodge said.

As he looked back on his decision to leave Bank Boston to start American Cablesystems, Dodge said, “It’s clear I caught an early break by getting exposure to a young and promising industry. I’m damn grateful to my first boss for picking me out of a pile of trainees, which included MBAs from places like Harvard and Stanford, to lead the bank’s cable initiative. I loved competing with the business school guys, was told they were the best of the best, but I didn’t necessarily see it.”

Steve Dodge on the cover of Streamline Publishing’s Radio Ink, in July 1994

Speaking of his experience with ARS, Dodge commented, “I was drawn to radio because to win in that industry you have to do a lot of things well. From my perspective at the time, radio was much more management-intensive than cable, where we were basically distributers of video product created by others. In radio, we did our own research, found and hired the talent, created our own product, and had to figure out how to effectively market it – a whole different ballgame. And for the first several years we got our butts kicked. The radio business has never been kind to rookies, and it’s hard for me to recount all the mistakes we made in the beginning. But we dug in, found and attracted the right talent, and in time we got it all going on.”

RBR+TVBR