Bill Binnie sets his sights on NH media empire
DERRY - The antique television studio camera, circa 1962, that graces the otherwise uncluttered lobby of TV station WBIN in Derry didn't get there by accident. WBIN President Bill Binnie saw it, decided he wanted it and made the owner an offer he couldn't refuse.
Other than an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 2010, there aren't too many things Binnie has set his sights on that he hasn't achieved. The Rye-based entrepreneur is now focused on building a coherent media operation from a series of acquisitions in 2011 and 2012 - his flagship TV station in Derry, an independent TV station in Nashua, along with a handful of lower-power TV stations and 17 radio stations.
He's also been buying up real estate to house the statewide media operation now under construction. He expects to close the deal on a former middle school in Concord in the first quarter of 2013, and another deal for the former police station in Laconia after that.
Once those deals close, Binnie's media operation will have a footprint in Derry, Laconia, Concord, Lebanon and Nashua. He will control radio and television airwaves that extend throughout New Hampshire and into neighboring portions of Vermont, Maine and deep into Massachusetts.
What's the end game? An integrated broadcast and new media-empire, with hubs in Derry, Laconia and Concord, from which consolidated news-gathering and entertainment operations will feed content to radio, television and the Internet.
The end game is several years down the road, Binnie said, but he has already expanded news and sports programming at his stations, and is building what he calls "a public affairs infrastructure that will attract people who are serious about news in New Hampshire."
On a tour of the renovated WBIN offices, he talks about the millions invested in technology, the clean and modern work environment and the high-end talent he's recruited to the operation. But he seems most proud of the broadcast studio that features seating for a good-sized, live studio audience.
It's designed for the kind of public affairs programming that Binnie hopes will become the signature of his news operation. The large theater and auditorium at the former middle school in Concord were part of what attracted him to the property, he said, as he attempts to build spaces for civic dialogue throughout the state.
If the past two years have been about acquiring the puzzle pieces, the next two to three years will be all about putting the puzzle together.
"We will launch a political show in the next 12 to 18 months," he said. "We will expand our news, both on television and on radio. Politics is an important venue for the media in this state, and we see ourselves being a player, through debates, political shows, town hall meetings and so on."
A business opportunity
Binnie is quick to dismiss the notion that his foray into media emerged from his 2010 campaign, when he lost the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to Kelly Ayotte. He sees it as a business opportunity, pure and simple.
He said the campaign opened his eyes to "the fractured nature of the media business, not just in New Hampshire but in New England in general. What I saw is a market where there is a real opportunity to build something."
At a time when many investors were souring on media properties, Binnie seized the opportunity. In 2011, he bought the Derry TV station, known at the time as WZMY, for $9.25 million - a lot less than the $28 million the previous owner had paid to purchase what was WNDS in 2004.
Binnie and a partner bid on 28 radio stations at a bankruptcy auction, with all the properties once owned by Nassau Broadcasting in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine on the block. Binnie got the 17 stations that fit into his business plan, while Jeff Shapiro of Great Eastern Radio of Lebanon ended up with 11 stations that he said "fit like a glove" with the existing Great Eastern group, in a deal that closed earlier this month.
Shapiro had never met Binnie before, but said the two emerged from the transaction with a "very positive relationship."
Carolyn Choate, former co-owner of WYCN TV-13 in Nashua and a well-known television news reporter in the Nashua area, became a reporter for WBIN after selling the station to Binnie in 2011.
"It was a great opportunity for us, and for him, too," she said. "It gave me an opportunity to stay in the business that I love. I'm in my second year as a field reporter, love what I do, and am hopeful for the future.
The radio and TV transactions and their aftermath reflect Binnie's basic business philosophy.
"Buy decent assets. Hire the best people you can. Get profitable and stay profitable, and take all your profits and plow them back into the business," he said. "You stay out of debt, and whatever debt you accumulate, you pay off. You pay yourself no money, and you subordinate your interests for as long as it takes. I have found that whatever business you are in, that works."
Taking the long view
Binnie said he learned early in his career to take the long view. As a young CEO with Carlisle Plastics, a manufacturer of trash bags, coat hangers and plastic sheeting, he pressed his chief engineer for a quick solution to waste problems at the company's overseas location.
A problem he thought could be solved in weeks was actually going to take years. "It was the best lesson I ever had in my life in business," he said, "because I had my paradigm, but the business had its own. So I never think about today. I don't look at numbers. I know my numbers, but it's not how I focus on my business. I'm working on 2013, 2014 and 2015."
That three-year vision, if brought to life, will significantly alter the media landscape in the Granite State and, according to Binnie, enhance discourse on public policy and civic issues while broadening entertainment options.
"We've been engaged here at the television station in creating a public voice, and I feel very strongly about that," he said, alluding to partnerships with the Washington Post, Dartmouth University and Bloomberg News to host the Republican presidential primary debate on WBIN last year, as well as gubernatorial and congressional debates in the last election cycle hosted in partnership with newspapers in the state.
"We think it's good public policy as well as a good business practice to be involved in those," said Binnie, who stepped down as chairman of the state Republican Party Finance Committee earlier in the year but remains active as a Finance Committee member.
He endorsed Ovide Lamontagne in the Republican gubernatorial primary this year, even though they were opponents in the Senate primary two years earlier.
Something for everyone
Despite his interest in politics and serious news, Binnie acknowledges that he is also running an entertainment enterprise that, combined with the news operation, has what he considers something for everyone. "We spend a lot of time breaking up and micro-marketing to a lot of our audiences," he said, "and we don't pre-judge anyone."
He can rattle off demographics for the popular syndicated programs on WBIN like Entertainment Tonight or The Simpsons, and list the characteristics of listeners for each radio station format, be it country or classic rock.
"Each audience we talk to is a 50,000- to 100,000-person sliver of 1.2 million people who call themselves Granite Staters," he said. "They are not monolithic."
The company is moving slowly into digital media and social networking, Binnie said, focusing on building proficiency first in television and radio.
"If you look at our company five years from now, seven years from now, you will find that there is a significant web, significant radio, significant television presence , among other things, and they will be in balance," he said. "But one flows from the other. For us, television starts first, then radio, then with that combined platform we have a much better likelihood of broadening our web and social medial platform."
It's an ambitious proposition, but not out of reach for someone with Binnie's resources, skills and track record. Just ask that station executive who was once the proud owner of an antique television studio camera.
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Dave Solomon may be reached at email@example.com.