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Ergen Chats Draw a Crowd

EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen is a man who draws a crowd. At the old Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association conventions, satellite dealers would crowd around him. His company’s Dish Network Team Summits pack the retailers in every year, coming for the entertainment (Vince Gill, etc.) but also drawn to hear Ergen. His “Charlie Chat” call-in shows are a hit with Dish customers.

Wall Street analysts and reporters also expect a certain entertainment value from EchoStar’s quarterly conference calls, or at least Ergen’s blunt assessments of the relative strengths and merits of his business and that of his rivals, DirecTV and especially cable.

Last Wednesday’s call was no exception. Coming off a quarter in which EchoStar drew praise for strong per-subscriber revenue and overall cash-flow strength, Ergen said the right things about focusing on improving margins — analysts love that.

He also got philosophical, saying the company was in a holding pattern, transitioning into new technology — MPEG-4 compression adding bandwidth for lots of HDTV channels — and coming up with the right formula to combat cable companies expanding service and phone companies coming into video. He called it a “transition year.”

At appropriate moments, Ergen accepted personal blame for missteps. Like not marketing harder in areas where Dish has a partnership with telco SBC Communications Inc., because he knew SBC was going to lose interest owing to its own in-house video plans. The CEO was asleep at the wheel there, he said.

He took partial blame for EchoStar’s not coming up with the next great business idea, the next Google or eBay. Actually he wondered aloud why EchoStar hadn’t come up with those two. “Part of that was because the CEO was asleep at the wheel.”

Really, he was setting the table to praise his two latest key hires: Michael Neuman, a former Canadian telco and satellite executive, as COO; and Carl Vogel (you all know Carl) as vice chairman and strategic planner. Earlier he had hired David Rayner as CFO. “Initially I was doing all three of those jobs at the beginning of the year, not very well I might add, so these guys really have nowhere to go but up,” he said, drawing laughs in the background from perhaps Vogel, Neuman or Rayner.

He said he’d barred Neuman, who signed on in June, from speaking on conference calls with analysts until he’d moved into his house, and that the movers had only brought half of the goods so far. Later he asked his vice chairman — who last worked at Charter Communications Inc. as CEO, mostly in Denver — if he’d moved into his house yet. “Never left, Charlie,” one-time EchoStar president Vogel replied.

The last question was whether Ergen, who made such a big deal out of hiring these people, would still handle the conference calls. “I plan on doing one more and then — I might do the annual one or something like that,” he replied. Or weigh in if something huge happens.

Is this the end of Rico? Nah, can’t be. He’s too much fun to listen to.