The military jet flying over the Norfolk Naval Air Station was in trouble. On the ground, Steven Soldinger, then 14, made a dramatic entry into the media business: He grabbed a 16mm camera and filmed the midair explosion. His film made the evening news on WTAR (now WTKR) Norfolk, Va. Later that year, the station gave him an award for spot news.
Today, Soldinger remains on the alert for similar opportunities . "Like everyone else, we are looking to expand our business and offer synergy to what we are presently operating," says the CEO of Little Rock, Ark.-based Equity Broadcasting, which owns 11 radio stations, two professional sports teams and 75 low-power TV stations. "Each station we consider has to fit that special niche, and it must fit within our specially developed mode of operation. It's a far different business than in those early days of three networks and black-and-white video."
Equity has attracted the attention of other industry players. According to Soldinger, executives from The WB, AOL Time Warner, Pappas, UPN, Cascade and others have come to the company's headquarters to see its central automated satellite hub (CASH), which allows Equity to operate more than 10 stations from one location.
CASH "allows us greater efficiencies of operation; we don't have to build and maintain staff with elaborate buildings to house equipment in every location," he says. "We control our destiny from corporate headquarters and operate as a 'sales office and TV station' in one. After all, we are in the business of sales."
He learned that at an early age. With his spot-news award in hand, the young Soldinger worked as a disc jockey and performed news, production, promotion and sales tasks at WNOR(AM)/-FM Norfolk, Va. He attended the University of Richmond School of Business while working full-time as a news reporter/photographer at WWBT(TV), the Jefferson Pilot NBC station in Richmond. Later, still in college, he turned to sales and joined WTVR(TV), the Park Broadcasting station in Richmond, as an account executive.
"We thought sales was competitive back then," Soldinger recalls. "How naive we were. There was no cable, only three networks, and we had 23 of the top 25 shows. Today, you have to do more and add more value for the advertiser."
By the time he graduated from college, he was the station's top sales rep and was sought after by Hearst Corp.'s WBAL-TV Baltimore. Soldinger not only sold spots but also produced them. He shot 200 commercials a year for a local car dealer and got the bulk of the dealer's ad dollars.
A few years later, Soldinger bought WVAB Virginia Beach, Va. "I was the small guy competing with the big conglomerates in the market," he recalls. "Anytime we became successful, the big boys would steal our ideas and force us to do something different."
He eventually sold the station and went on to manage several in major markets.
His involvement with Equity began when he met Equity President Larry Morton. Both were filing construction permits for full-power TV stations in similar markets and, though bidding against each other for some, became friends and even merged some of their interests. Later, as Equity grew, Morton contacted Soldinger to be his chief operating officer.
When Soldinger joined the company, Equity had only one full-power station on-air. A year later, under his direction, the company had grown to nine stations. Today, he has 14 stations on-air and another 16 under construction. By this time next year, Equity will have 30 full-power stations, covering more than 10% of the country.
"There is more to it than just getting stations on the air; they have to be profitable in a very short time," he observes. "We're building too many to sustain losers."