At first blush, Orvon Gene Autry's office looks more like the showroom of a secondhand spurs-and-lariat emporium than the headquarters of a $150 million radio empire.
Strewn with cowpuncher paintings, a couple of gaudy silver saddles and even a dour-looking wooden Indian, Autry's surroundings reveal little of the kind of resources that have made the owner of the California Angels baseball team one of the major players in the high-stakes radio game of 1985.
"You can't always tell with a radio station, whether it's going to make a profit or not, just by looking at it," Autry mused recently. Usually, Autry has been able to tell. He owns half a dozen radio stations, and they all make money.
Lately, radio stations -- particularly FM stations -- have been selling the way Cabbage Patch dolls do the day before Christmas. The sudden glamor of radio as an investment opportunity has been something of a puzzle to some, but not to Autry.
Unlike television stations -- with their high-tech sound stages and back lots that would rival MGM during its heyday -- most radio stations are have their headquarters in studios that are as bland as a boiler room. They are often operated by disheveled deejays and underpaid executives.
But low-rent appearances can be very deceiving, drawls the 77-year-old Autry, casting a knowing glance at the wooden Indian seated to his right. Low rent, low wages and low expenses, he observes dryly, can mean fat profits for a station owner.
Autry bought himself a gold mine 33 years ago, for instance, when he picked up his first big AM radio bargain.
KMPC, the 50,000-watt Los Angeles powerhouse that Autry and his partner bought in 1952 for $800,000, is worth at least 50 times that today. It took a lot of work: The studios are now state of the art and everyone, from the deejays to the ad salesmen, is well paid. Over the years, the station's consistent positive cash flow paid for such Autry investment triumphs as the 1964 $12 million purchase of a Los Angeles television station (which he sold three years ago for $245 million) and the creation in 1960 of Autry's California Angels baseball team.
"You couldn't miss if you just stuck with it," he said. "AM radio went everywhere with you."
But America's original singing cowboy also thought he knew a turkey when he saw it. In the early '50s, FM radio could be served with cranberry sauce and stuffing and nobody would know the difference. More than once, Autry scorned the chance to own an FM radio station for a few thousand dollars.
In 1949, for example, he sold a Los Angeles FM frequency for $45,000. Today, that frequency is worth close to $20 million, radio-station brokers estimate.
"It simply makes me sick," Autry said.
A lot has changed since the days when you could pick up an FM license for $45,000 that couldn't be heard in the next valley.
"They figured it the FM signal couldn't be heard over hills then," Autry grumbled. "Everybody said FM would never be worth anything."
There were only about 400 FM stations operating in the United States in the mid-'60s. As of this month, the Federal Communications Commission had 3,839 FM stations licensed to operate and another 700 in the process of being licensed, compared with 4,799 AMs.
In recent years, prices of radio stations in general -- and FM stations in particular -- have skyrocketed. The bull market is explained in part by the fact there are only about 8,400 AM and FM licenses available in the United States. The competition for major-market licenses in such cities as Los Angeles and New York has always been fierce, but recently even stations in smaller markets have sold for more than $1 million.
After years of playing second fiddle to the more glamorous and lucrative medium of television, big business has finally recognized radio as the high-profit, low-overhead industry that it always has been.
"It's the only business I know where people come up to you and ask you to take their money," said Harry Spitzer, vice president and sales director of the Southern California Broadcasters Association.
According to the New York-based Radio Advertising Bureau, the industry will bill $6.5 billion in advertising revenue this year -- 12 percent more than last year. Television will bill more than $21 billion, but its production costs, payroll and capital expenditures are often 10 times that of radio.
"Your hard assets in a radio station you can put in a bag and throw in the ocean," said Roy Rowan of the broadcast brokerage firm of Blackburn and Co. "You won't miss them."
Low overhead and net profit potential have been radio truisms for years, however. By itself, it doesn't explain the sudden explosion in station prices which, for most of the 1960s and '70s, were undervalued, according to analysts and industry veterans like Autry.
"I've been following this industry for 20 years, and the way it's accelerated the last year or two seems slightly reminiscent of California real estate," said Fred Anschel, a media stock analyst with Dean Witter. "Radio has had its ups and downs, but it's basically been a good investment. I do think some people may be overpaying right now."
Experts like Anschel blame the FCC in part for the ballooning price of radio stations. Until now, a single company could own no more than seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations. The commission liberalized group ownership rules in 1984, allowing a single company to own as many as 12 AM, 12 FM and 12 television stations, as long as they did not own both radio and TV licenses in the same broadcast market.
A second reason for the current radio sales frenzy stems in part from the $3.5 billion merger of the American Broadcasting Companies and Capital Cities Communications. The merger, which becomes effective Jan. 3, forced both ABC and Cap Cities to sell several radio stations in key markets, such as Los Angeles, spurring the bidding wars that have driven up radio prices, according to several experts.
Two months ago, ABC and Cap Cities sold a Houston FM station for $32 million.
"I take a little different view of all this," said Jerry Del Colliano, editor and publisher of Inside Radio, an influential industry newsletter. "The ABC-Cap Cities merger opened the floodgates. They set the precedent. People began looking and saying, 'Maybe this is an excellent area to make an investment.'
"The state of the Federal Communications commission is the other thing. Under deregulation, they have said in essence that they don't want to be involved in much of anything. That sends a signal to investors that what might have been a red-tape nightmare before -- a real mess -- is now going to be easy. They can buy and sell licenses with a minimum of FCC interference."
According to Anschel, old standards of radio pricing no longer apply. "The old rule of thumb was 'Never pay more than 10 times operating cash flow,' " he said. "That is obviously out the window."
"What's happened is that the Wall Street guys -- the gurus -- finally got around to blessing it," said Radio Advertising Bureau Vice President Danny Flamberg. "For years and years and years, your strict investment types would only look at assets. They'd count up all the chairs before they'd buy.
Besides acquiring FM radio properties, new owners are going to have to find ways -- not all of them good -- to pay off the debt that comes with them.
One result of possible debt-induced cost cutting will be desperation programming, predicts Del Colliano. He advises audiences not to fall in love with their radio stations.
"The bad news is that if you get to love your station, in a couple years it won't love you," he said. "When ratings go down, you'll hear the 'new' this or the 'new' that. One lesson that radio stations will not learn is that you have to find a good format and stick with it -- not for the next two years, but a generation or more.
"In all candor, the switch-around is going to hurt the stations more than the listeners," Del Colliano said. "The generation of yuppies isn't loyal anyway. They're used to punching around the dial. They use media like toothpaste.
"In the old days, your radio station was like your girlfriend or boyfriend. You'd like each other, get married and stay loyal to each other. Now, you get married, divorced and there's nothing to it. We're a nation of users. We're not loyal to anything.
"Radio gets rid of formats rather than trying to fix them. I know radio is a business, but it's show business. Never forget that. Ten, 15 years ago, broadcasting was more show than business. Today, it's more business than show."