Local Cable Ad Sales With a Personal Touch

St. Joseph, Mo., operator depends on tight hometown bonds in the Show Me State

Not every cable system is owned by a mega-giant, nor does every cable customer live in a major market. With consolidation now a matter of course in the cable industry, tiny St. Joseph Cablevision (SJC) is an anomaly, and of course, selling local cable advertising is a different business than it is in large urban areas.

Independently owned by the same family that launched it in 1965, SJC is nestled in an agricultural area 50 miles north of Kansas City in northwest Missouri. St. Joseph is home to 26,000 subscribers in the nation's No. 201 DMA.

Building personal relationships are paramount in a small town—especially one that has a sluggish economy. B&C contributor Steve Raddock talked with Nancy Black, general manager of the sales arm of SJC's business, about local cable ad realities in a small market.

I understand St. Joseph's economy is still fairly stagnant. How does that translate in the cable business?

We had been consistently growing until the past couple of years, and then it leveled out. We've lost about 1,000 subscribers in the past two to three years. Part of it is due to satellite, and we've also had some pretty big unemployment problems—prompting many people to move out of town.

Right now, we have the highest unemployment rate in the state of Missouri. Quaker Oats was one of our pillar employers, and they've closed. Their Aunt Jemima brand originated here. Stetson Hats and Mead Products also closed their area manufacturing facilities within the last few months.

That's got to create a sales challenge.

We're trying to be as creative as we can in coming up with targeted packages for our advertisers. We are not raising our rates very much at all. In 2003, we had a tough year. Last year, we had a good year, even without political [ads]. We're showing an increase so far this year. In January, we were up 11% over the year before.

What's your primary competition?

Broadcast. We have one ABC affiliate in town, and they're our stiffest competition. We also have some spill-in from network affiliates in the Kansas City market. We don't spend a lot of time positioning against them. We just really go out and tell our story. We have advertisers who've been with us for years. We're one of the few mediums where a small advertiser can afford to be. The broadcasters, however, have been cutting their rates over the past couple of years and going after some of our clients.

Have your ad sales efforts benefited from any public-affairs initiatives?

We took on a project to run a campaign to save a small community lake just south of town to raise funds to dredge it. Recently, we received a $15,000 contract from an advertiser because of what we did to help that project.

Are there advertising categories that have been bright spots for you?

Furniture stores have done well. And we've received substantial business from a large furniture company in Kansas City. Having the large furniture operation on board, in fact, is an incentive for the smaller stores [in St. Joseph] to continue advertising.

We're optimistic about the future. A new shopping development will be bringing in Kohl's, Target, Sam's Club and Home Depot. That's not going to help us a lot, because those chain stores mostly buy network television. But it's helping the attitude of the community at a time when things seemed to be looking bleak.

What ad sales advantages come from being an independently owned-and-operated system?

One advantage is that I can get on the phone and call the owner and say, “I really need to talk to you.” We feel like our control is right here.

We don't have the big money to spend on national promo spots like Time Warner does. Everything here has a local feel. And we like to know the people we're doing business with. Everybody in town knows who owns the cable system.

Being part of this community—what we make stays here, we employ the people who live here—helps make our sales pitch stronger.

B&C and Multichannel News produce a twice-monthly newsletter on local cable ad sales in communities big and small. For a free subscription, e-mailcablenewsletters@reedbusiness.com.