George Beasley, a former high school principal who grew up in the Virginia tobacco fields before buying a Benson, N.C., radio station in 1961 and expanding it into one of the five biggest radio groups in the country, has died at 89.
“I was part of a small group of radio pioneers who were bringing smaller U.S. towns previously unavailable technology,” he said in 2008 of those early days, shortly before he sold his first station, WPYB-AM, to buy a larger one in nearby Goldsboro. “We broadened our geographic reach.”
For his first 500-watt station, Beasley leased the land for a radio tower at $19 per month, and bought $17,000 of equipment for a $1,700 down-payment. In 2016, the public, family-run Beasley Broadcast Group bought Greater Media for $125 million, giving the Naples, Fla.-based chain 62 stations overall. Although the chain competes against dominant rivals such as iHeartMedia and Entercom, it has 20 million weekly listeners and several top stations in major markets, including sports specialist WBZ in Boston and rock station WMMR in Philadelphia.
“George read the tea leaves well,” says Don Curtis, a longtime friend who is CEO and chairman of 25-station North Carolina radio chain Curtis Media group. “He looked ahead at all the trends and was not afraid at all to take big steps forward, and was always looking to get bigger and grow.”
Beasley, an Army veteran who earned Appalachian State University degrees in education through the G.I. bill, was “inspired by a commitment to provide a voice for the voiceless in his local community,” according to a company release, which cited his “humility, kindness, integrity, work ethic and love of family and friends.” Kraig T. Kitchen, chairman of the Radio Hall of Fame, which inducted Beasley in 2016, said he led an “outstanding radio broadcast company” and “the radio industry has benefited from his leadership and contributions for 70 years.”
For a broadcast pioneer, Beasley wasn’t flashy, occasionally giving spare and straightforward industry interviews. In 2008, when Clear Channel Radio, now iHeart, was taking over the business, he predicted his stations wouldn’t lose ground because they focused on different things. “Certainly, if you’re competing directly with them in a format, those stations are going to be favored,” he told Billboard. His son, Bruce, now president, and one of four Beasley children to join the company, added: “There’s 12,000 radio stations out there. Obviously, they’re going to have some control over what goes on, but they only have one-twelfth of what’s out there.”
In 2017, Curtis bought six of the group’s North Carolina stations for $11.6 million, helping Beasley to reduce its debt. “George was a man of his word,” Curtis says. “He and I did a couple of deals where I sold him a station, and another deal where I bought one, and it took about five minutes to conclude the transaction. He’s sort of a throwback. Our basic values were the same.”
Beasley stepped down as CEO in 2016, although he continued as executive chairman of the board of directors. His daughter, Caroline, who joined the company in 1983, is now CEO.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.