(By Eric Rhoads) On the phone one day decades ago, Transtar radio networks executive Gary Fries and I were chatting and I mentioned that he should apply for the opening for RAB President, and that I had assumed he had done so because the selection committee had closed down applications and were going to make their final choice. He told me he had not considered it but would like to and asked me to make a call on his behalf to the person heading the committee. I did. He became president of RAB. I have no idea if I really had any influence on Gary getting that job but no matter what, he was the right guy at the right time.
I had become tight with then CEO Warren Pottash, who was not well liked, but who was also the right guy at the right time. Pottash came into the RAB and straightened out its financial problems and got things cleaned up and moving in the right direction. Fries built on that freshly remade platform and built the RAB into the promotion machine it was supposed to become.
I remember calling Gary to do an interview and him telling me, “Give me a year to figure this out. I have no idea what the problems and opportunities are but you’ll be the first call I make.” He was a man of his word and came through much sooner than a year. He laid out an exact plan addressing each individual issue requiring attention. It was impressive.
Being in the role of RAB president is one no one in their right mind would want. (With respect to Erica Farber, current RAB president) because you not only have to be a visionary, you have to manage the politics of the needs of each member sector…. The big-market players like Clear Channel (now i-Heart Radio) as well as the small-market independent players and the needs of everyone in between. Gary handled them all masterfully, made them all feel as though their needs were being addressed, and set a clear agenda for the organization, got buy in, and set RAB on a path to success.
Gary made some controversial moves. The biggest being the move out of New York for the majority of employees to Dallas. Though it created more work for him needing to be in two places, it was a brilliant financial decision.
What I found most impressive about Fries was his ability to be everywhere. Radio was more present than it ever had been in my career. Fries was front and center at every advertiser event, every radio event, and had forged a great relationship with NAB, which ultimately resulted in the melding of the NAB and RAB shows to become “The Radio Show.” The writing was on the wall that radio could not support two big shows of its own.
Fries also managed to keep radio moving in a positive direction during its most challenging time, The Telecom Act of 1999 when radio stations merged with competitors. He played an important role in the melding of an industry and helping companies come together.
Gary gave his life to radio. Literally, I suppose, with daily travel, meetings from early morning and working the bars at events till they closed. Soon after his retirement as RAB president for 15 years he moved to Scottsdale, built his dream house and was ready for a life of golf and next stages. Soon after he learned he had cancer, which he fought as hard as he fought to bring advertisers to radio. I remember him telling me that if he had known what he had to go through during the treatments he would have never done it and would never do it again. His health after the treatments left him a changed man with a body that was never fully well again. Yet he managed to hang on for close to a decade under some difficult conditions.
I remember the first time I met Gary, which was at a Transtar party at a NAB convention. I had just purchased The Pulse of Broadcasting and was trying to convince people to advertise in the magazine I had just taken over. He took me aside and told me something no one else had the guts to tell me, which was that he had heard I had a good reputation and that it was going to be severely damaged if I did not make a couple of quick personnel changes. I listened, asked around, found out what he said to be true, and made the changes the following week.
Gary and I did not always see eye to eye. Though we were friends, business associates, and always cared for the industry deeply, there were times when I wrote things that were critical. To his credit he never hid like most people do. He stepped up, called me or requested a meeting, explained his take on things, and handled things professionally. Sometimes he changed my mind, sometimes I changed his. Sometimes we both remained with our positions, but the outcome was a deeper and respectful relationship toward one another. I also knew I could not hide and that if I wrote something I needed to be ready to defend it. It was an important lesson I learned from Gary and one I’ve tried to live by.
Time passes so quickly and the world Gary Fries managed for radio is a totally different world today, yet I have to believe his years of devotion, hard work, and excruciatingly difficult and constant travel had a positive impact on our industry. Gary had vision, had the ability to be tough, and yet managed his many different factions with kid gloves and respect.
Gary once told me that he knew that if he let the big consolidated radio companies control the RAB that the RAB would die a slow and painful death. He said it would become a fraction of itself and rendered ineffective as an organization because it would be doing nothing more than implementing the agenda of Clear Channel. It was a delicate balance because the big companies made up the lion’s share of the RAB budget and could easily threaten cancellation. In fact, he lost Clear Channel as a member at one point because he refused to allow them to control him. They came back. He knew that he had to offer the small companies and the big companies equal value and that if either perceived it being only about the other it would make the RAB weaker in its mission.
Fries built out a well-oiled team to implement his vision, and that team did some amazing and innovative things for radio because Gary gave them a mission and let them do their jobs.
I cannot claim that Gary and I stayed in touch since he left RAB. We did not. Our one scheduled meeting in Scottsdale was cancelled at the last minute due to him not feeling well. Others told me he did not want to be seen or remembered in his current state. I’m not sure what is true.
Still, I remain grateful for what Gary Fries did for radio. I was telling Judy Carlough, one of his key team members and one of the first women appointed to a major position at RAB, that due to Fries’ openness there is an entire generation of radio people who don’t know Gary’s name because he has been away from radio for over a decade. Yet today this industry is standing on the shoulders of a man they should know, who paved the way for where radio is today.
Gary was a true radio road warrior. He helped radio transition from old school to the new modern world and he did so with grace, with vision, and with conviction. He loved this industry because he had spent his life living its ability to transform businesses. He was passionate about seeing it grow, evolve, and remain relevant. Gary was a good role model as a RAB president, as a radio executive, and as someone who was transformational and innovative. He lead radio with unapologetic courage and we are all better off because of his leadership.
On a personal note, Gary played an important role in helping me launch and keep Radio Ink moving in the right direction. He would often send me notes, pick up the phone and let me know when I was messing up, or when I had done something well. I did not always love what he told me but I never thought he did it for any reason other than the love of radio and seeing this industry move in a positive direction together.
Gary Fries, thank you for your devotion to radio. You will be remembered fondly for your efforts.
Eric Rhoads is the Chairman of Radio Ink Magazine and Streamline Publsihing and can be reached at [email protected]