Originally created 10/02/00

Radio station manager stalks success



In two years, Gary Pizzati has turned a struggling cluster of radio stations owned by Cumulus Media Inc. into a revenue powerhouse. But in doing so, he also has made his share of enemies.

The local general manager at Cumulus compares himself to a tiger - a ferocious animal that silently stalks, violently attacks and quietly kills. He likes the animal so much he had one tattooed on his shoulder.

During his stint as general manager, he has cut unprofitable programs and changed unprofitable formats. He's raided competing stations for talent. And he's made the group of stations a leaner and, some outsiders say, meaner place to work.

And by bottom-line standards, he is a killer.

He works six days a week. He pushes the stations to return profit margins greater than 45 percent. And his stations control nearly 50 percent of the radio market's advertising revenue.

The employees who love him do so because he is a hard worker and a performer, they say. He's a genuine tough guy who makes them work, but also has a heart.

"We have high standards of performance," Mr. Pizzati said. "I'm telling them every day: Let's make some more money! Let's make some more money!"

And they do.

When Milwaukee, Wis.-based Cumulus brought Mr. Pizzati to run Augusta, he started making changes - fast.

"There is a wind that follows Gary," said Lois Dismuke, a receptionist at the station since 1988. "It's a strong, busy wind. You can feel it when he walks by. He whips things into shape."

He is 6-foot-5, and 212 pounds of mostly muscle.

But there is also a subtle kindness to him, Ms. Dismuke said.

"When I first met him, he didn't know me from Adam's house cat," she explained. "But he greeted me as if he knew me for a long time."

And one time, when a visitor yelled at her, Mr. Pizzati admonished him in a way that did not offend the visitor, but indicated to Ms. Dismuke that he would not tolerate such talk in her presence. He didn't have to do that, she said.

Augusta has been an important market for Cumulus. Changes in Federal Communications Commission rules have allowed broadcast companies to own multiple stations in a single market.

Because of this, Cumulus started with an ambitious plan to acquire as many stations in each market - mostly mid-sized ones - that it could. The thinking was this: the more stations under control, the greater share of the market it could sell to advertisers.

There also would be cost savings associated with multiple-station ownership. Instead of duplicate management in a market, one office could do the job.

Cumulus' stock soared as it bought more and more stations.

But about six months ago, the company's success began to evaporate, and its stock price fell to new lows. The company was hit with lawsuits alleging fraudulent financial performance reports, and it couldn't buy all the stations it had agreed to.

Many analysts stopped covering Cumulus. Its stock price plummeted. Rumors swirled that the Augusta cluster of stations, among others, were for sale. In early September, Mr. Pizzati confirmed that Cumulus was talking to Clear Chanel Communications about trading some stations, including the Augusta cluster.

A Brooklyn, N.Y.-native of Italian descent, Mr. Pizzati broke into the radio industry as an intern. He attended St. John's University and, after the internship, took radio jobs all over the country - including in Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma.

At 31, he became the general manager of a radio station in Ohio. Just before moving to Augusta, he was a vice president with Barnstable Broadcasting, overseeing five stations in Des Moines, Iowa.

Mr. Pizzati has been married twice and divorced twice. The unions failed, he said, because he worked too much. He has no children and has no plans for any.

The general manager has a rigorous daily routine.

He awakes at 5 a.m. He has six egg whites for breakfast and goes to Gold's Gym to work out. He drinks a Myoplex protein shake at 10 a.m. He eats rice and a grilled chicken breast for lunch. He has another shake at 3 p.m. And he dines on lean meat or fish at night. He's in bed by 10 p.m.

The company he works for, the people he works with, are his family.

"When you become part of the family, you are treated like family," he said, sitting in a big leather chair in his office. It is his den, with poster-size photos of lions, tigers and eagles on the walls. "Our sales people love the company they work for, and they love their manager. Everyone outside the building is the enemy. The enemy wants to see you fail."

Mr. Pizzati speaks quickly, in energetic bursts as if he's always on the run. He has little patience for anyone who doesn't get what he is saying the first time.

"He doesn't beat around the bush," his operations manager John Shomby said. "He looks you in the eye and tells you the way he feels."

Since he's been in Augusta, Mr. Pizzati has attacked Davis Broadcasting, now Radio One.

He hired away the company's on-air personalities and sales associates and has made inroads into its urban music market.

"I went after them with my fangs out," Mr. Pizzati said.

Radio One general manager Bill Jaeger declined to comment on his rival.

At 42, Mr. Pizzati said he is pleased with his success. He measures it the same way he evaluates the success of his stations, by the bottom line: He earns a six-figure salary. He drives a new Cadillac. He owns a home in West Lake.

Yet he still has greater ambitions.

"I'm obsessed with success," he said. "I'm very afraid of failure."

Mr. Pizzati plans to stay in Augusta awhile, if he can work out an agreement with Clear Channel, he said. But someday, he wants to run an even bigger cluster of stations, or own his own company, he says. He wants to retire a rich man at 60 or so, and travel across America in a luxury motor home.

"This, is not," he said, with his tiger eyes narrowing, "the final destination."

Reach Frank Witsil at 823-3352.

Name: Gary Pizzati

Born: Nov. 30, 1958, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Title: General manager

Education: St. John's University, bachelor's degree in business

History: WN Broadcasting, Barnstable Broadcasting, Price Communications

Awards: Nominated General Manager of the Year in 1999, Barnstable Broadcasting Presidents Club, Barnstable Sales Manager of the Year

Hobbies: Physical fitness, riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle