Perry Sook knew growing up in western Pennsylvania that his future was in broadcasting. The radio station down the road was just about the coolest thing in a dusty backwater marked with strip mines and transportation warehouses, Interstate 80 rumbling by. He dreamed of a future where his smooth baritone was announcing lofty home runs and daring diving catches.
“I grew up as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and my dream was to be the play-by-play announcer,” says Sook. “But the road to the majors is full of very small towns, and I moved to another path.”
Sook gave sportscasting an honest shot, calling Little League and schoolboy baseball, but eventually moved into sales, and management, and then ownership. Yet the Nexstar Broadcasting Group founder—who often speaks in baseball metaphors—never lost that sense of small town localism.
“My parents always said, don’t you want to be a doctor or lawyer?” Sook says. “But this was destiny for me.”
The glory may be in the Top 20 markets, but Sook has built a booming business in the Green Bays and Amarillos and Terre Hautes; Nexstar netted over $500 million in revenue last year. In the process, he’s redefi ned the way a local broadcaster operates, and laid the groundwork for Nexstar and other groups to tap a critical revenue stream they’d long been denied.
Along the way, Sook has earned the deep respect of his peers. “He’s built a heck of a company by going after a niche that had been overlooked,” says Vincent Sadusky, president and CEO of LIN Media. “Perry has figured out a way to make a very profitable broadcast company.”
Running a giant station group from an office looking out to the Dallas skyline is a far cry from Sook’s modest upbringing. His father was a construction engineer and his mother a homemaker. There wasn’t much going on in Dubois, Pa., but Sook did pass by a radio station in Punxsutawney on the way to school, and at 16 was on the air—spinning Top 40, country, a little polka on Sunday mornings. “It was AOR—all over the road,” Sook quips.
The teen was too, selling spots and pouring just about every penny he made back into the gas tank of his parents’ enormous Chrysler New Yorker. But he loved being involved in all aspects of local radio. “We’d sell a commercial, go back to the studio and record it, and then play the commercial during my air shift,” Sook says.
At Ohio University, Sook worked on the school TV and radio stations, and got to know another aspiring broadcaster named Matt Lauer. After both graduated in 1980, the men reconnected at WOWK in Huntington , W. Va.—Sook was a rookie sales guy, and Lauer a news producer. “He went on to other things,” says Sook. “I’m still selling.”
But Sook parlayed that skill to bigger jobs. He ran a station in Dallas, and in 1990 joined Seaway Communications as president; the group’s objective was to get minorities involved in broadcasting. A year later, he created Superior Communications— amassing a pair of stations that he sold to Sinclair in 1996.
Nexstar was spawned with a lone TV station in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and some daring dealmaking helped Nexstar grow, and grow, and grow. Sook saw the bigger picture, and was adept at selling it to his board, his backers, potential hires.
Tim Busch was on the fast track at Gannett, until meeting with Sook. “I saw the vision Perry had in his mind,” says Busch, now Nexstar’s executive VP and co-COO.
Sook made broadcast history late in 2004, when he demanded cash for carriage from subscription-TV operators in four markets. The stations went dark for subscribers, but Sook stuck to his guns. After a months-long stalemate and many millions in lost revenue, Nexstar got paid, and a lucrative revenue stream was created.
Local broadcasters are grateful for Sook’s foresight—and fortitude.
“Perry has always understood broadcasting’s importance in serving the community, and has advocated for its value,” says Rebecca Campbell, president of the ABC Owned Television Stations group. “He was a pioneer in getting retransmission consent dollars and we’re all very grateful to him for leading the way.”
Retrans wasn’t the only thing Nexstar did differently. Sook was an early champion of virtual duopolies, and community-centric Web “portals,” as opposed to traditional TV station websites, a strategy that has made Nexstar an industry leader in digital revenue.
As the group grew, Sook assumed a broader leadership role in the industry. “Perry has become a very thoughtful, very positive contributor to the industry at large,” says Dave Lougee, president of Gannett Broadcasting. “His contributions have really helped the entire ecosystem on important issues.”
The father of three, Sook unwinds by traveling with his family—they’re recently back from an African safari—or watching endless hours of football. But all the while, he’s thinking about his next deal. A recent one involved selling stations to an African-American owner, with Nexstar guaranteeing the funding, to address the industry’s weak record on minority ownership. Nexstar too has a working relationship with Mission Broadcasting, where a female holds the licenses.
Building an expansive station group is a good legacy. But sharing the wonders of local broadcasting with a diverse array of operators may be more meaningful. “The older you get, the more you think about what you’ll be remembered for,” says Sook. “If someone says, Nexstar incubated the largest group of television licensees controlled by a woman and by an African-American, I think then we’ve done good business. But we’ve also done some good.”