The first thing to know about Ginny Morris is that she’s a Hubbard, which means she’s no pushover.
The Hubbards, after all, are Midwest broadcast pioneers who built a lucrative empire that includes KSTP radio and TV and cable’s Reelz channel.
A Minnesota radio powerhouse, she is unrattled by the $85.5 million purchase this month of 10 stations — her second major buy in two years — at a time when some believe radio is as antiquated as the telegraph. She’s unfazed by being a female boss in an industry still run mainly by men. She’s not intimidated by the news that, in September, she’ll receive the National Radio Award, an honor previously bestowed on Larry King and Howard Cosell.
If there’s one crack in the armor, it’s the story of how the CEO of Hubbard Radio almost lost her way on the path to forging one of the top 10 chains in the business. It’s the day in 1988 when she was fired.
By her father.
Morris, 50, didn’t intend to join the family business. As a teenager, she was content being a hostess at a Mr. Steak restaurant.
But in the summer of 1982, right after her sophomore year of college, her dad, Stanley S. Hubbard, pushed her to take an internship in KSTP-TV’s promotional unit. If you don’t like it, he said, I’ll get off your back.
She loved it.
Morris ended up working full time at the station. By 1985, she was manager of the promotions department.
Then Dad came to her with some new advice: Get out.
“He took me aside one day and gave me this strange lecture about how not everybody is good at everything,” she said.
He moved her to marketing, telling employees she had been promoted.
“Everyone knew I had been fired, except my father. He thought everyone was buying into this,” she said. “Being fired wasn’t painful. Pretending that I hadn’t been fired was painful.”
The family business
Morris’ spacious office on the second floor of the Hubbard building, which straddles the border between St. Paul and Minneapolis, once belonged to her cigar-chomping grandfather, Stanley E. Hubbard. He started building the family’s empire in 1923 by playing live dance music on the radio.
“I remember being 19 and coming in and talking to him,” said Morris. “I yawned and he called in his secretary and asked her, ‘What do you say to a young woman who yawns?’ The secretary replied, ‘I’d ask her what she was doing last night.’ ”
Across the hall are her brothers — Rob, who runs the Hubbard TV stations, and Stan III, who founded Reelz. Her dad is right next door, and pops by her office four or five times a day to shoot the breeze.
Stan Hubbard has always made time for family.
“My dad was the one always taking kids on bike rides, taking them to the movies, teaching them to water ski,” Morris said.
He returns the compliment, praising his daughter’s friendly attitude and sense of responsibility. “One time when we were out of town, she had a party at the house and when she caught a couple of kids drinking, she chased them out,” he said.
Not that she was the perfect child. Morris still winces about the time she brought home a report card and was caught trying to change a D to a B.
She remembers a loving childhood, and parents who taught her to play well with others. Dad insisted on sending the children to public school so they would interact with people from other backgrounds. There was always room for friends at the dinner table or on road trips in their two big Cadillacs.
Morris has maintained that tradition with her own two kids. It was not unusual to see friends sprawled on the three couches in the living room of Morris’ home, a block from the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
Both children have gone away to college. Morris, who got divorced a few years ago, said it can be “sad and lonely” in a tone that let’s you know she’s only half joking.
Her idea of a hot night is staying in to watch “The Good Wife.” An ideal getaway is gunning her speedboat down the St. Croix River. Her guiltiest pleasure appears to be downing two unsweetened iced teas every day before lunch. After much pestering, her son, Wheeler, who just wrapped up his first year of college, finally coughed up his mother’s deep, dark addiction: playing the video game Fruit Ninja.
“I’m a bore,” she said while making potpie for her daughter, Savannah, who was feeling under the weather during a break from school.
The challenge Morris took up after being fired by her dad was anything but boring.
Stan Hubbard had made her vice president for corporate affairs and public relations, one of those titles that sounds fancy, but amounts to a lot of community outreach. Morris craved a genuine task — and got one when she took over the floundering radio division in 1990. By then, the family had sold stations in Albuquerque and Florida, and its flagship, KSTP-AM, had been losing money for a quarter century.
In essence, she was handed the wheel of a sinking ship.
Morris soon discovered that she was better at creating content than marketing it.
“When she came to the radio side, she really started to prove her stuff,” said former KSTP-TV executive Mendes Napoli. “She understood the importance of strong personalities and working with people who are fun or off the wall or crazy.”
KSTP-AM was a station without an identity, a hodgepodge of programming that tried to serve everyone. Morris focused on a conservative talk format, though she wasn’t afraid to stray from the formula if she found a bold individual, like former host Barbara Carlson.
“She was your boss, but she was also your friend and was very emotionally involved,” Carlson said. “I would almost say I love her.”
Morris’ strengths are her instincts and her ability to listen, said Dan Seeman, vice president/market manager of Hubbard Radio. “She leaves you alone, but she’s there when you need her,” he said.
Learning on the job
Those qualities did not develop overnight.
Morris admits that she micromanaged in the early days. Her biggest shortcoming, she said, was “not failing fast enough” — sticking with personalties such as Carlson even when ratings were flat.
One of her biggest lessons came in 1995, when American Indian groups boycotted KSTP after some insensitive remarks on the air. To mend fences, she did a tour of reservations, even dancing in a powwow. She realized how powerful words can be.
Bobby Whitefeather, chairman of the Red Lake tribe at the time, remembers Morris as cordial and curious. “She was very open to listening to the challenges we face,” he said.
While Hubbard Radio’s fortunes improved, the game-changer was its 2011 decision to spend a half-billion dollars to buy 18 stations from the Mormon-owned Bonneville International Corp., a bold move.
“A lot of people were surprised it was Hubbard,” said Paul Heine of the trade publication Inside Radio. “But Bonneville was not interested in selling to just anyone. They wanted to make sure their stations were well cared for and run by a company with high values. Ginny embodies that.”
A big purchase is often accompanied by big changes. Morris, however, insisted on keeping Bonneville executives and not tinkering with formats.
“She’s continuing to do things the way we’ve always done it,” said Bruce Reese, who was president of Bonneville and now holds the same title at Hubbard Radio.
The day after her latest deal, Morris visited the 10 stations in Seattle and Phoenix to assure staff all would be well. In fact, her team plans to add 65 to 70 employees in each market.
The deal cements Hubbard’s position as the eighth-largest U.S. radio chain, according to media consultants BIA/Kelsey. While that investment in “old media” might seem foolhardy, the numbers tell a different story. Nationally, the industry has nearly bounced back after a disastrous 2009, when revenue dropped 18 percent.
Hubbard is poised to succeed because it’s ahead of the curve on how to expand on the digital side, and it bought strong stations, said Tom Taylor, former executive at the trade website RadioInfo. Those include talk station WTOP, the nation’s No. 1 station in ad sales, based in Washington, D.C.
A reluctant role model
Morris is radio’s most powerful woman, says the magazine Radio Ink. But nothing seems to irk her more than being labeled a “woman executive.”
Steve Newberry, president of Kentucky-based Commonwealth Broadcasting, praised his longtime friend as a trailblazer for women — then paused. “She’s going to beat me down for describing her that way.”
The first female board president of the National Association of Broadcasters, Morris has a mixed reaction to being seen as a role model.
She’s not just a woman; she’s a Hubbard.
“I think everyone has a responsibility to hire the best people regardless of gender,” she said. “But then I remember I’ve had more opportunities than even most men in the industry.”
Compliment her on the National Radio Award, to be presented Sept. 20 in Orlando, and she rolls her eyes.
Would she rather skip the whole thing?
“I wouldn’t say I’d rather not go,” she said. “I’d rather go and support somebody else.”