Jerry Lee

Jerry Lee's goal in life is not merely to serve the listeners of his radio station, Philadelphia ratings leader WBEB(FM). He's intent on ridding the city of crime and poverty. And while he's at it, he just might change the rest of the world.

Lee is well known for his generosity to his community, academia and the broadcasting industry. "Jerry Lee is one of the most forward-thinking owners in radio," says Eddie Fritts, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters. "His station combines cutting-edge technology with a strong commitment to community service, and his track record of success speaks for itself."

Indeed, Lee led the station to No. 1 among Philadelphia listeners age 12 and older this past summer, according to Arbitron. [wbeb took first place overall in the market for the first time in spring 1999, when the soft rocker finally topped arch-rival kyw(am).]

When it comes to cash, wbeb is No. 3 in Philly, with $24 million in estimated 1999 revenue, according to BIA Research. Nationally, the station ranks 66th. But Lee is fond of pointing out that Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based wbeb is the only non-corporate-owned FM among the 66.

Lee is not shy about using his position to pursue his social goals. His philosophy is to "serve the community off the radio station." And "because I have a radio station, I'm able to pick up the phone and make things happen."

For example, while wbeb offers the typical slate of PSAs and Sunday-morning public-affairs shows, Lee takes community service further. The station has been honored for its outreach, including a "Kids for Kids Holiday Stocking Program" and Kindervision, which teaches children to protect themselves from random abduction.

Lee is "a visionary-type person. He's always way out in front of everybody else. He always sets big goals," says wbeb's founder and 51% owner Dave Kurtz. Kurtz brought Lee in as sales manager two weeks before the station went on the air in 1963. But because he couldn't afford to pay Lee his full salary, he gave him interest in the station, which amounts to 49% today.

With the proceeds of their success, Lee and Kurtz jointly fund the Jerry Lee Foundation, which provides software and teacher training to help some 10,000 Philadelphia students improve their reading skills. The foundation also helps fund "The Philly Project," which works to reduce prison recidivism.

Lee himself donated $25,000 in 1997 to create "The Jerry Lee Online Archive" of historic radio and TV photographs at the University of Maryland, according to the university's Web site. And last year, the foundation launched an annual program to award $2,500 in cash to the radio or TV station with the best news series, PSA or community program addressing local crime. The second winner is to be announced on Friday.

The Jerry Lee Foundation also funds programs at UM, where Lee chairs the advisory board of Maryland's Crime Prevention Effectiveness Program. The foundation pays for a "Jerry Lee Research Professor of Criminology" and two assistant research professors in the university's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. And it supports the new Washington office of the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Center of Government.

Although Lee declines to disclose specifics of his wealth, UM says it has received $100,000 to $500,000 from the foundation.

On Dec. 5, Lee plans to unveil what may be the culmination of his life's work. A foundation endowment "in the seven figures" will create the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at a major university, which he declines to name as yet (see Airtime, page 85). Lee is one of the last of the independent broadcasters who not only take an interest in their communities but also strive to improve them.

Besides Lee, there are only three "non-group" owners in Philadelphia. Of the city's 28 radio stations, there are just 13 separate owners. Clear Channel dominates with six stations, followed by Infinity with five (including kyw) and Greater Media with four.

While the number of independent stations dwindles, Lee crows that wbeb "couldn't be No. 1 today without consolidation."

That's because, as big companies rack up huge debt to buy more stations, wbeb is debt-free. And because of that, Lee says, he can spend whatever it takes to keep the station on top. "It's suicidal to try to come up against us. I'm willing to spend now to get the payoff down the line."

Although he has had offers for wbeb-a recent one was for $250 million, he says-he refuses so vociferously that would-be buyers generally leave him alone. He did sell wbeb sister WBEB(AM) to Salem Communications in 1993, netting $4 million.

Lee opts to spend most of wbeb's money on research and promotion. "We research out every song that we play against [wbeb's] target" audience of women age 25-54. (Advertising is likewise studied for its effects on that group.) Using the results, wbeb refines its 400-song playlist. That doesn't sound like much music, but "people never get tired of hearing their favorite songs."

Lee got his first taste of broadcasting while organizing dances at Ohio's Youngstown University. After graduating in 1960 with a BA in economics, he turned to management consulting in an effort "to go straight," he jokes. But, "I hated it."

He ran into a college friend who owned a radio station near Akron, Ohio. The friend needed a sales rep for his early version of syndicated programming, a precursor of the Beautiful Music format. The problem then was, "nobody [had] ever heard of a program service," Lee says. "Nobody would buy it." He was fired after nine weeks.

He surfaced as manager of WAQE-FM (now wlif) Baltimore, one of the stations that had rejected his pitch for the service. But Kurtz, who also had declined to be Lee's customer earlier, had a hankering to start a 24-hour stereo station in Philadelphia.

Four months after going on the air, the FM, then known as wdvr and playing Beautiful Music, was ranked No. 1 in the market. One reason for the rapid success, he remembers, was that, "in those days, everyone [else] went off the air at midnight." Wbeb was Philadelphia's 24-hour FM.

Anyone hoping to launch a successful operation like wbeb today had better start in a much smaller market, Lee advises. "Single stations cannot survive in a major market with debt." Better yet, "if you really want to start a radio station, start an Internet radio station." He considers wbeb's Web site "an extension of my radio station..The Internet is going to make me a fortune."