The idea that Ken Maness would scale the heights of business success to reach the pinnacle of the JA Business Hall of Fame is not surprising to those who have known him along the climb. They've seen him work his way up from pirate radio DJ to multi-million dollar deal-broker, all on the strength of his own self-propulsion and hard work. In fact, the idea of a cyclist climbing a mountain isn't a bad metaphor for Ken's career.
Ken Maness, the oldest of eight children, was born into humble beginnings. His mother, Bea, was from the Beech Creek community in Hawkins County. His father, Jim, was from the Blackwater community in Lee County, Virginia. His parents met when his father returned from World War II. "He saw my mother working the candy counter at Kress' in Kingsport. He told her if she'd tell him her name, he'd buy a dollar's worth of chocolates," says Ken. When she refused, he came back the next day and upped the ante. Persistence pays - after a few days, she relented and gave him her name. After a few more months they were married!
Ken's mother encouraged his voracious appetite for knowledge. "Mom didn't finish high school, but did get her G.E.D. She was one of the most well-read people I've ever known," Ken says. "One thing I always remember about my mom is she would look at you while we were sitting around the table at dinner and ask, ‘What did you learn today?' It didn't have to be out of a school book but you had to tell her something that you learned."
His father, meanwhile, fed Ken's curiosity about things electronic. "I'd go up and watch dad work and he'd put projects off to the side and say, ‘While I'm building this, you build this.' And I'd get my little resistors together and make my little projects," remembers Ken. In fact, Ken got so good that at age 13, he had a circuit published in Popular Electronics magazine.
At one point, Ken's father brought home the carrier current system that Carson-Newman College used to send audio signals around campus. Ken decided to see if he could send the signal through a transmitter. And just like that, he became a pirate radio DJ. He and a friend played Columbia Record Club albums on the air and became something of a local sensation. They probably would have gone on for a while longer, but Ken decided the station needed some advertising. Suddenly, the federally licensed local station took notice. Within a couple of days, Ken had the station manager in his basement, explaining that federal prisons were full of people who violated these kinds of laws. So Ken's first foray into pirate radio ended quickly.
Later at ETSU, his second pirate radio signal went live. Ken knew enough to use a carrier current signal rather than broadcast over the air, so it wasn't technically illegal, but his signal was unsanctioned by the university, so once again, he was sought out by the powers that be.
This time, however, he was given a more suitable outlet for his passion. He was allowed to join the staff of the campus radio station. From there he quickly caught on as a morning drive-time deejay at WKIN, his first job in radio…well, at least his first paying job.
During the Vietnam conflict Ken volunteered for the Air Force and spent two years on the west coast. A knee injury laid him up long enough to effectively end his career in the service, so he returned to Kingsport to take back his job at WKIN.
Lou Sadler, who was running WKIN at the time, said, "Ken, I know you just got out of the military and I welcome you back. We are obligated to give you your job back, but there's a different guy doing the morning show now and I can't just fire him. So we're going to let you be a salesman while we're waiting for an on-air position to open up." Sadler tossed Ken the yellow pages and said, ‘Here's your account list. Go get ‘em.' It was the best thing that could have happened.
Ken discovered that on commission, he could make as much money as he was willing to earn. He had the training to write and record his own spots, so he could literally go from the client's office and have a commercial on the air in 20 minutes. In fact, at the Revere Street Pal's location in Kingsport, you'll see a radio DJ in the mural. That's young Ken Maness, doing a remote broadcast from Pal's on the radio.
Ken quickly made his way into sales management, and then into station management. At the same time, the computer boom was starting.
"Companies like IBM were bringing out mini computers that radio stations were buying to do the accounting and other things," remembers Ken. "But nobody was doing anything with computers having to do with programming or engineering." Ken, by now working at a station in Chattanooga, changed all that. Writing his own code and using a program called VisiCalc, Ken married audience research with database management.
"I wrote a bunch of programs, then we hired college interns and had them make phone calls" he says. We asked folks what stations they listened to, what music they liked. Through that we began to learn what the audience liked and disliked, ran that through VisiCalc and began to produce programming impetus. We even used it as a predictor for Arbitron. That station literally went from the worst to first, just like a rocket. Ken then returned to the Tri-Cities and replicated that success with WQUT, turning it from an acid rock AOR station to a broad appeal market leader. Over the next few years, Ken was a mainstay speaker at many national industry conventions and conferences, championing the role of PCs in radio station programming and engineering, and sharing his programs with the broadcast industry.
Ken had risen through the ranks at Bloomington Broadcasting, working closely with CEO Tim Ives. "Tim wanted to step back from the day to day operations and he needed someone to run the company and I was asked to do it," remembers Ken. "So I handed the day to day operations of Tri-Cities Radio over to Don Raines and started running Bloomington Broadcasting."
Bloomington was a family-owned company, but growing quickly. As the ownership began to move from the older generation of the family to the younger generation, the board's desire to sell the stations grew. Ken knew this was a bad idea, but as he describes the situation, the company was in the business of selling eggs, while the new generation had a taste for fried chicken. Ken knew station values were about to rise. Big chains were beginning to consolidate as the FCC relaxed regulations. He worked furiously to put together his own offer for the company. "I wrote every shareholder a letter and I said, ‘I think now is the wrong time to sell this company, but it appears, sell it you will. Therefore, I wish to make an offer.'
Ken had known Bill Greene of Bank of Tennessee for many years. The two were golfing buddies. When Ken had gone to Chattanooga, Greene had made the calls that introduced Ken into the community. Bill had helped Ken arrange that first Bloomington deal. So it made all the sense in the world for Ken to take a seat on Greene's bank board. "I've been on Bill's board since about '95," says Ken. "We've had a great run, and I love working with Bill Greene."
At the same time, Ken's dedication to his home community has been unquestioned. Ken was recruited into the Vision 2017 process in Kingsport and was involved in the creation of Kingsport Tomorrow. He became the inaugural chair of the group and was responsible for hiring its first executive director. ‘So, I'm sitting with Jeanette Blazier and I offered her the job and she said, ‘I'll take it.'" Ken remembers. "Then I told her there was one thing I forgot to mention: ‘I have plane tickets, leaving Monday morning for a bike trip in Europe and I will not be back for six weeks.'
"Jeanette said, ‘So, what am I supposed to do?' I just told her, ‘That is why we wanted you. We didn't want somebody that we'd have to hold their hand. By the time I get back you'll have it figured out.'"
Ken was asked to run for a seat on the BMA around the time Kingsport was beginning to consider the idea of a convention center. He was elected in 1991.
Ken worked hard to help get MeadowView approved and built. "I was asked to be the liaison to the construction process about the time for me to run for my second term," he remembers. "I only intended to run for one term but I really wanted to see this thing finished and it would be great to be standing there and a part of cutting the ribbon."
When asked about the greatest success in his life, Ken quickly singles out his marriage to Judy and the raising of their two daughters, Brittany and Brooke, who are now grown and living in Alabama.
"I really do think that there are people who are meant for each other and I think we were and are," says Ken of Judy. I think that our marriage is probably a great part of why I've been successful. Judy has always been right there, and she had her own career in advertising, at which she did really well."
Ken does have one other passion. Remember we mentioned the cyclist climbing a mountain? It's not just a metaphor. Every year, Ken takes part in the Assault on Mount Mitchell, cycling 103 miles from Spartanburg to the top of the highest peak east of the Mississippi. "It is a rush like you cannot believe."
And it's a rush that's entirely earned. It's not a game where luck is involved. You get there because you do the work. And that suits Ken's sensibilities well. "I feel like successful people generally know how to take advantage when luck comes along," he says. "You can allow luck to play a role but never depend on it to replace hard work."