(By Trey Stafford) My boss quit broadcasting Monday. Ed Christian, the President and CEO of Saga Communications, the company he founded in 1986, quit at the age of 78 following a short illness. He also died Monday. But, more importantly, he simultaneously quit the job, the career, the industry he had adored since he was introduced to broadcasting at age 14.
I knew that Ed would never quit before he died. At managers meetings over the years, we did an “anonymous question for the CEO” segment. Someone would always ask, “when will you retire, Ed?” He never wavered with his response. “I won’t ever quit. What would I do? I’ll quit if I ever start to embarrass myself.” That day never came. As late as Wednesday of last week he was sending his team of general managers he called “the brightest in the industry” an e-mail reporting that he was hospitalized, but he was getting better every day, and for his general managers to continue the Saga mantra and get things done. I am certain, up until his last breath, he believed he would be back, good as new.
Ed was a giant in our industry. Sometimes he seemed like the only one among the broadcast company leaders who still had a level head about them. The only one who still realized the power radio had for our clients. The only one who still realized the role we play in the communities we serve. He trembled with anger as we watched the big public radio companies try to manage their enormous debt, cutting expenses, cutting people, cutting and combining service to their communities. Ed demanded that we remain committed to super-serving our communities, maintaining radio stations who have local talent and provide local radio the way it should be. He never wavered in that commitment and only recently solidly and strong recommitted that to his team. And he leaves us with a company that is totally debt free with a huge amount of cash reserve on hand in the bank.
I personally met Ed Christian in the summer of 2002. The flurry of consolidating radio stations into market clusters was nearing its end. Our local competitor had sold to Cumulus. My partners and I weren’t looking to sell. But we were introduced to Ed, who flew to Jonesboro on a whim, met with us, and toured our stations. Within a few weeks Ed, CFO Sam Bush, my senior partner and I were seated around an ottoman in a condo in Jonesboro where my partner lived putting the finishing touches on our deal to sell to Ed. It was coming a terrible summer thunderstorm outside and two of our three stations were off the air. As we pushed our meeting forward, Ed turned to me and said, “I like this deal, the money is right (he never said that again, always badgering me about what our stations were worth vs what he had paid), and I want to do it. My only problem is my assets go home at night. How do I know you will stay and run these for me.” With a handshake, I committed to stay on. Ed told me to “run them like you still own them,” which I have done for the last 20 years.
During a company-wide manager call today, someone recalled the truth that Ed managed and treated every manager uniquely. Being close to several of the managers over the years, I would agree. I’m certain that he didn’t manage any other managers the way he did me.
There was the time he was trying to convince me to increase and believe in the metro (translator) stations he had provided in our market. He sent me an envelope full of little Smurf characters and a note that told me those were “spots” that needed a home, and he knew I would find them a home on my metro stations.
There was the budget meeting early in our relationship where Ed had decided we were paying more attention to two of our three stations. We literally had the third, weaker station’s studio in a closet. To make his point during the budget meeting, Ed talked and increased his volume and passion up and up like a TV evangelist, finally getting up, placing his hand on my forehead, and pushing me back in my rolling chair. “I heal you and command you to bring your third station out of the closet, create the three station trinity you deserve!” The moment only needed a bolt of lightning and a roar of thunder to make it complete!
There was the time in 2008-09 when he was asking all of us to cut expenses as we fought decreased revenue due to a nasty recession. He sent me a ceramic Yoda from Star Wars with a note that said, “There is no try, there is only do or do not cut expenses.”
In the twenty years I worked for Ed, we have had many phone calls. Most really enjoyable, always intelligent, some very challenging. I never believed that Ed wanted a “yes man” as a general manager. I believe he wanted a general manager who gave him their opinion using their radio IQ and experience. Sometimes I sold him. Sometimes I didn’t. At the end of the day, Ed was the big guy. The owner. The boss. The king. In fact, at the end of a discussion where a final decision was made, Ed has been known to say, “there is but one king, and he is I.”
I did not have a typical “boss” relationship with Ed. I told Ed’s son, Eric, in an e-mail today. “I didn’t work for your Dad, I loved your Dad.” At the conclusion of my last two conversations with Ed, I told him I loved him. And, he told me he loved me. That doesn’t sound like a manly thing to say. But it’s the truth, and the words spoken were never truer. Ed talked to me like a father and, at times, wanted to spank me like one. But I always believed he supported me, respected me, and had confidence in me. He didn’t say those types of words very often. He didn’t do much of the “positive motivation” thing. One general manager asked him about that one time. He asked them, “Do I beat you up when things aren’t good?” The manager replied, “No!” “Then don’t expect a lot of back patting when you do good.” I have one typed letter from Ed in my desk drawer he wrote me in 2005 congratulating me on a bonus I had received and told me I was doing a good job. I have always cherished that letter, even more today.
One of our former long-time Saga general managers, Alan Beck (Champaign, IL and Springfield, IL) summed up Ed in a message today. “Ed was brilliant, sometimes difficult, but always fascinating. A unique, wonderful man.” I couldn’t agree more.
Ed, I had a 31-year radio career going when I met you in 2002. The career could have continued just like it was. Instead, you invested in me, my partners, and our stations, and you made me a part of your team. As a result, you made my radio career matter. Matter to you, matter to Saga, and matter to our listeners and our communities in ways I could have never mattered without having the strength of you and your company with us. Thank you for your incredible contributions to our industry that are being noted by others as they write about you. Thank you for making our stations and our people part of your company, and for taking me along with you. And, thank you for being my friend.
Make no mistake. Ed Christian quit broadcasting, and radio, on the same day, at the exact same moment that he died. August 19, 2022. All of us in the industry are better off today because Ed Christian was a part of our business. Rest in peace, my friend. May God comfort his wife, Judy, and their family.
Trey Stafford is Saga’s President and General Manager in Jonesboro and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]