Greg Davis didn't know much about the radio industry when he bought two local stations 30 years ago.
Now, he's the owner of a broadcasting company with six radio stations in Columbus and four in Atlanta, providing urban contemporary, gospel and sports formats to a diverse audience. The six stations he owns in Columbus are: WFXE Foxie 105, WOKS AM 1340, WKZJ K92.7, WIOL ESPN, WEAM Praise 100.7 and WOKS AM 1340.
Davis sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his upbringing, broadcasting career and philanthropic work in the community.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
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Take us back to Fort Smith, Ark., and what life was like for you growing up there.
I attended Catholic school for 12 years. I graduated from St. Anne's Academy, and the highlight would probably be I was the first to integrate the athletic program in Fort Smith, Ark., back in 1962.
I was one of three children that my mother taught at the only historically black high school there in Fort Smith. I left Fort Smith and played basketball in junior college and college and then moved to Michigan after that.
So your mother was an educator. And what did your dad do?
My mother was an educator for 38 years. My dad was a baker who worked in the Colonial baking business for 20 years and later went into his own business ... at a shoe shine parlor at the Fort Smith Mall.
Who were your role models?
My father was my primary role model. My grandfather was my second, and family was always most important. ... It was family, church, in that order.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I grew up, there was no urban or black radio station in our community. Broadcasting was an industry that I knew nothing about -- television nor radio -- until I was approached by one of my schoolmates' father, who owned a TV station there in Fort Smith, Ark. He encouraged me to look at broadcasting. At the time, I did not give it a second thought. I was focused on education. ... As young black men, the only thing that we had as role models in our community were teachers and preachers.
Why do you think your schoolmate's father approached you?
I think, primarily, he wanted me to come and work for him. I had worked at his jewelry stores over the Christmas holidays and in between our high school years and got to know him very well, and his family. He always kind of took a very strong interest in me and encouraged me to see that broadcasting was a great field.
Why did you pursue biology in college?
That was not by design. At the time my curriculum consisted of so many courses. They were science-based, anatomy-based. I thought it made much more sense to have something more than physical education as a major. I had studied physical education and sports all of my life but when the curriculum came to fruition, I counted so many hours and said, "I might as well get my degree in biology." I had no desire, ever, to work in the biology field.
At that time what were your aspirations?
I was interested in, possibly, physical anatomy, human anatomy. At that point I really had thought the best thing was to get a job in teaching, coaching athletics, until Lane College my senior year -- they were having interviews from various states around the country. The interviewer who came in wanted math majors and science majors. I honestly said to him, "I don't want to teach. I'd like to do what you're doing. I'd like to go around and visit colleges and recruit students just like you're recruiting. How do I get your job?" ... He indicated that they had a program that was owned by Mott Foundation. The Mott Foundation was a program that started the community school concept. ... The college had so many parents with latchkey kids. They needed some place to come, a safe environment, a healthy environment, and also a curriculum that they could learn. They opened up the schools from 3:30 until 9:30 to 10:00 every night. As community school directors, we worked as kind of liaisons between the community and the schools in which we were teaching.
So how did you finally get into broadcasting?
... I had gotten promoted to assistant principal of an elementary school. We had a nurse who happened to share an office with me. ... We became very close friends and one day she said to me, "You do so well with people; you should talk to my husband. My husband works at a TV station. I've been telling him about you. You would be excellent in sales." ... We met playing basketball. He says, "Just come talk to my manager. ... If you will agree to come I'll double your salary in one year." That got my attention because it was about making money at that time. ... After much prayerful thought and consideration, I decided to try it. I started in television sales. As he had projected, I was able to do very well.
So tell me how you went about building your business?
... I originally came to Columbus (in 1986) with the intent to purchase a television station. It was an NBC affiliate that we had found was available for sale. We came down with the intention to buy the television station. ... When I got here we found out that, as things happen, the owner of the television company decided at the last minute that he didn't want to sell the station. He said there was a new program coming on ("The Cosby Show") that was going to take the NBC network from No. 3 to No. 1, he thought, which he was very correct. The station was taken off the market. I had invested a lot of time and money and due diligence into Columbus, Ga., thinking we were going to buy the television station. I found out later that it was no longer available. They said, "There are a couple of radio stations here in Columbus that may be for sale."
... I had never been in a radio station in my life but decided that I would take a chance because I thought sales was sales. If you could sell television, you could sell radio. We struck an agreement to purchase two radio stations here in Columbus -- WFXE Foxie 105, and WOKS. The company also owned two stations in Augusta, Ga. I told them I would buy the two in Columbus if they would agree to sell the two in Augusta at the same time. I wanted to have multi-markets of radio stations. We agreed to buy Foxy in Augusta and Foxy in Columbus in 1986. We started the company with four radio stations.
Your interest in Columbus was solely because of the television station?
Yes. ... I was living, at the time, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Never been to Columbus. My mind was all about market conditions. ... I had quite a few years -- at that time about 13 years -- in sales. I thought it was a time for me to try to start our own company.
Did you find sales the same for radio? Or was there a difference?
Sales is very similar to what we had been taught and experienced in television. We decided to come into a radio station for the first time buying almost sight unseen, having never been inside of one. It proved to be that the Columbus market was a very good market. ... The African Americans represented about 37 percent to 38 percent of the market back in 1986. I felt as though we could come in and hone that segment of the market and experience some real good success, which we've been very blessed to do so.
What percentage of the market is the African-American community now?
It's right up to about 47 percent, 48 percent.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced starting a business in an industry that you knew nothing about?
... The biggest challenge I think we experienced was getting involved in the community and getting accepted as an outsider coming in. Columbus was a very close-knit community. ... I had taken over from a very well liked individual who owned the station before. He was of Caucasian race, so it was difficult for me to come in as an African American and stand in the shoes in which he had been in before. The community accepted us very well, so we got involved with both the community as well as within the school system, since we had children. It worked out very, very well. No regrets whatsoever.
I read in a 2000 article that Radio One acquired Davis Broadcasting at one point. Can you explain what happened there?
Davis Broadcasting grew from 1986 to 2000. We started off with the two stations here and two in Augusta. We later purchased stations in Macon, Ga. We kept those for two years and we sold the two in Macon. We grew and purchased stations in Charlotte, N.C. ... In the year 2000, we sold the Charlotte station and the Augusta stations to Radio One out of Washington, D.C. We kept the stations here in Columbus, Ga.
Your hip-hop station Foxie 105, I read, had been No. 1 since 1993. Is that still the case?
Our station is still No. 1. ... We have been formatted urban contemporary since Day 1. ... We're rated twice a year. (Only) two books over the last 30 years were we ever defeated from being the leading radio station in the marketplace. We're very proud of that.
What's the secret to your success?
We've been very fortunate to have a good staff over the years. I tell them, "What you put into your community is what establishes loyalty and commitment." The community has been very receptive to our stations ... not just Foxie, but WOKS, who's still one of the older radio stations in the community. A lot of it is about involvement in the community.
... It's important that we put things back in the communities, whether it's needy children's Christmas party, whether it's women's empowerment, whether it's Family Day in the Park. These are events that we put on annually at no charge to the community. It's something that we do.
.... This is our 30th year anniversary. We plan to celebrate this year. We are very, very pleased to be able to have served this community for the 30 years.
Why do you feel that it's so important to give back so much to the community?
It really goes back to my upbringing. It also goes back to my experiences in education. My parents used to tell me, "The more that's given, the more that's expected." It's about serving. To me, it was easy to do that because people helped me, helped us, through the years. Many from my very childhood days -- Boy's Club and Boy Scouts and those activities -- someone reached back to help me to get where I am. So I'm very appreciative of that. I also know that in education, students -- kids -- they need guidance, they need support, and you never forget from whence you've come.
How many family members are on staff here in Columbus, and what roles do they play in the business?
My wife has been with me, been my partner, since the very beginning. She has been the office manager. She does all the things behind the scene that most people never ever see. She's been not only my partner for many years, but we couldn't have been here without her.
... My daughter, who graduated from here and went on to Spelman College, then went to University of Georgia grad school where she received her law degree, came to me about five years ago and said, "Dad, I'd like to come back and work for the company." ... She is my business manager and in-house legal counsel.
When (my son) graduated from Morehouse, he also said, "Dad, I want to come work." I said, "No, I think you need to go work for somebody else for three years." I sent him off and said, "You get a job and then you come back in three years." ... I really wanted to see if he was really committed, if he wanted to do it or just did it because of me. He went back and he came back three years on the date that I had told him. He had written it down. He said, "Dad, it's been three years. I'm ready to join the company." ... Sony Corporation gave him his first job out of college. I told him, I said, "They've been very good to you and these are very tough times. Why don't you work another year?"
Reluctantly he agreed and went off and worked for Sony for another year, which was just invaluable experience for him, till the day he walked back in. He said, "Dad, it's been a year. Can I come join the company?" I said, "Sure, come on in." He is now my director of sales in both digital, social media, as well as he works national sales with my stations up in Atlanta, Ga.
It's really nice to see a business where children want to help continue your legacy.
We are very blessed to have that. I feel so grateful to have them.
In your view, how are minority businesses doing in Columbus?
The doctor's and lawyer's professions, they seem to be doing very well. Unfortunately, we are limited with the number of minority businesses in Columbus. ... There are very few. ... I'd be remiss if I don't say the reason that a lot of the problems that exist is the lack of capital. ... It's just difficult for minority companies to get access to capital.
How do you go about addressing that problem?
There has to be a change of attitude. I read an article within the last month that Columbus, Ga., is now one of the top 10 United States cities that has African Americans making over $100,000. ... That, to me, says that our community may be opening up their arms to understand that there's a lot of money within the African-American community in Columbus, which I think is just good business sense to be able to go out and try to reach out and make sure there's inclusiveness in what we do.
What are some of the trends that you've seen in the radio industry?
The radio industry has changed dramatically. ... There are more media outlets now than ever before with the inclusion of social media, with all of the various aspects of our business, such as Pandora.
... They have so much diversity of music and outlets in which you are able to get your music from -- the iPods, the iPads, all of these.
We had a situation here in Columbus where we recently lost our only Spanish radio station. The managing partner at PMB Broadcasting, Mr. Martin, said that the community just never embraced it. I was just wondering what you think of that situation. You have a Spanish station in Atlanta, right?
All four of our radio stations in Atlanta is Hispanic. ... We put the very first FM radio station, Hispanic radio station, on in Atlanta in 2004. There was no other (Hispanic) FM stations in Atlanta. We put the very first on and it is still one of the top two radio Hispanic stations in Atlanta.
Why do you think the ones in Columbus haven't been successful?
I can't speak for PMB Broadcasting. I can tell you that we have found that Hispanic radio has been a very good business for us. The Hispanic community is growing around the state, around the city and around the region. I think that the Hispanic population here has grown to now support a Hispanic station. You really have to have someone that knows the Hispanic market.
Is that something that your company might pursue?
OK, I want to talk a little about our community and some of the issues that we face, one being the plight of young black men. A lot seem to be ending up in a life of crime. Why do you think that is? And what do you think can be done about it?
I think that's such a wide-open arena. A lot of our young black men, boys, still are being raised by one parent families. Education is always an issue. If we don't get them out of high school, where they can get out and support themselves and have opportunities to have decent jobs, to make decent livings, to raise their children ... it's just a snowball effect. I think there has to be more mentoring. I think there has to be more jobs available for young high school students that companies employ.
Do you think that hip-hop and rap music contribute to some of this?
I think it does. That's kind of a self-indictment. ... We specialize in hip-hop, but we do take ownership of that. We do not play -- and our staff knows it -- this vulgar hip-hop music. That is absolutely unquestionably a termination if that ever happens. Now, can you monitor all of the lyrics? It's hard sometimes to monitor all the lyrics that come through with these hip-hop songs.
Yes, it has an impact. ... There's this uncanny thought that if I can rap, I can become the next Usher. That's what they go to. I don't blame some of them. It is an industry where young boys, young men, have gone on to be very successful. It's just like athletes. How many of our students, how many of our young men, actually go to the profession -- or go to the league -- in order to reap the benefits of their high school careers, some college careers? Very few make it to the next level but it's that aspiration of being able to enjoy some of the finer things of life that they see their friends and other people enjoy. It's an educational process.
In a way you see yourself as contributing to that because of the type of music that you play, so is that something that you struggle with sometimes?
I don't struggle with the music, just the mindset that goes with the music. Whether we play it, someone else will play it. In fact, they don't even need our radio station. There's music they call underground that people have access to. Whether it's out of Atlanta, New York City, or LA, it doesn't matter. ... We understand that what they're saying is not all bad music. It's just the way people sell the music and participate in the music.
Name: Gregory A. Davis
Hometown: Fort Smith, Ark.
Current Residence: Columbus
Job: CEO of Davis Broadcasting
Previous Jobs: 12-year television career with marketing and sales management jobs in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and Flint, Mich.; national and local sales manager of multimedia broadcasting for WLW-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Education: Bachelor's degree in biology from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn.; a master's degree in educational leadership from Eastern Michigan University.
Military service: Two years in the U.S. Army
Family: Cheryl, wife of 40 years; three grown children, Geniece, Michele and Greg Jr.; two grandsons.