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Kindred Communications celebrates milestone, relocating

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Mike Kirtner believes things happen for a reason.

Even when he spent several years out of state, he always kept his ties to West Virginia. That paid off when he had the opportunity to team up with financial partner Tom Wolf to found a locally owned media company, Kindred Communications.

This year, Kindred celebrates 20 years in business and this week the company is moving into a new location at 555 5th Ave. in Huntington. Formerly the WOWK building, it's now the Kindred Capital Building.

"I've never wanted to do anything but be on the radio," Kirtner said. "I never dreamed that I would be in ownership and that I would do it here in Huntington."

His aspirations go back to his childhood. Kirtner remembers making tapes and pretending to be a disc jockey as young as the fourth grade. By college, he was working 48 hours a week at WKEE-FM while studying at Marshall. He started out making $110 a week and asked for a raise, to which his employer responded by bumping his salary up by $2 a week. He still managed to graduate in four years, and described those years in radio as fun.

By age 27, he was general manager at WTCR. He was the youngest person on the staff, he said, and described himself as being "aggressive and too young to know what not to do."

Before long, Kirtner was off to general manager positions in Allentown, Pa., followed by Louisville, Ky., where he became regional manager over the Charleston, W.Va., and Nashville, Tenn., markets.

Kirtner watched as the industry started changing -- less local autonomy, more corporate takeover.

He didn't like what he was seeing. He wanted to go home and to be his own boss.

He talked with Wolf, who for a few years had owned WRVC in the Huntington market.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'I don't want to sell the radio station,'" Kirtner says with a laugh.

Over the next two years, they talked about it. They found middle ground. They team up on a media company and Kirtner could come back to Huntington to run it.

The two friends both liked the idea of doing something for the community, and Wolf once described them as kindred spirits. Sounded like a pretty good name for a company, they decided.

"His whole thing was that he just wanted to do something good for the community, and it's turned into a good investment," Kirtner said, adding that he didn't foresee the company's growth.

Just last year, the company purchased two Huntington radio stations from Connoisseur Media of Connecticut. Kindred now owns 93.7-FM The Dawg; 92.7-FM The Planet; 94.1-FM Super Talk (also heard on 930-AM as WRVC); Magic 97.9-FM; Big Buck Country 101.5-FM; and 1340-AM. It has 44 employees.

"We've put it together smart. We've paced ourselves," Kirtner said. They've also bucked the national trends of downsizing locally. In fact, they've hired a lot of folks who have been laid off from other stations and turned out to be wonderful additions, Kirtner said.

"We're kind of like the 'Land of Misfit Toys,'" he said.

Paul Swann, program director of AM talk stations, started working at Kindred after being laid off from another company. What he likes most about working for a locally owned company is the speed.

"If I have a question, a problem, an idea, anything I need to discuss with management, I can walk down the hall and get a decision," he said. "I don' thave to wait for someone to think my idea is good enough to call corporate. (At Kindred), they make decisions because they can. ... We dont sit and wait. We do."

The same goes for community involvement, Swann said.

"They can be involved (in the community) because we still have local staff," he said. "Sometimes, you can plan things ahead and sometimes, we can do them in a moment's notice because we have local staff to react to the needs of the market."

Contributions to the community are many, including bringing back an Independence Day fireworks display to Harris Riverfront Park -- an event that had gone by the wayside before Kindred decided to pick up the bill and host Dawg Dazzle Days each summer. This year, fireworks will be July 3, following a concert by country singer Craig Morgan. That will be a particularly big fireworks display, in celebration of Kindred's 20-year anniversary, Kirtner said.

Another event funded through Kindred is the "We Are Marshall block party" on the street. While these sorts of things do provide good publicity for the company, they're not-for-profit events done for the good of the community, he said.

It's all about keeping it local.

They've also brought on a lot of Marshall students for internships, including athletes. Kirtner -- who once was named West Virginia Sportscaster of the Year for coverage of the Ceredo-Kenova Wonders and who still announces Herd basketball games -- said he strives to make sure the athletes know that he isn't going to enter their world. They have to enter his world because there is life after athletics, he said.

"I hope I can have an impact on their life," he said. "Life can be good if you put work into it. You can't leave things to chance."

Up until this week, Kindred have been divided in the Coal Exchange Building and the Huntington Bank Building. The $1 million renovation of Kindred's new building has been done in partnership with developers Philip Nelson and Jim Weiler of Capital Venture Corp.

Kirtner described the new facility as a tech center for various media.

Space will be leased to other tenants besides Kindred, including WOWK-TV. Within the past year, West Virginia Media moved most of its Huntington WOWK-TV operations to its new Charleston office, but it still has offices on the ground floor of the Kindred building.

Trifecta Productions also has offices and a studio there, growing from 1,800 feet in their former space in the Morris Building to about 2,500 square feet in the Kindred facility. That includes a large sound stage that already has attracted national interest from the film industry, Kirtner said.

That space also is expected to be used for live performances and broadcasts of musical groups, such as gospel groups, he said.

There's a lot of potential on several fronts, and he's happy it's going on in Huntington.

"West Virginia is having a rebirth, and people want to be here," Kirtner said. "Things are changing, and I'm glad I'm apart of that."

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