Gray’s Prather Betting It All On Broadcasting

Gray Television President-COO Bob Prather turned early lessons, a grad-school thesis and an investment in a former gold mining concern into one of the larger pure-play broadcasting groups in the U.S.

Bob Prather received his first lessons in running a business while working in a drug store during his college days at George Tech.

“The owner was a real believer in customer service,” says Prather, now the president, COO and front man for Gray Television, the nation’s 18th largest station group, according to the TVNewsCheck-BIA/Kelsey Top 30 ranking.

“I saw in that little small business the right way to run a business. He was a great businessman and did real well. He spent a lot of time with me. He had some crazy ideas every once in a while that didn’t work. The idea was if you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail cheap.

“That’s what I tell all the new media people.”

Prather was in grad school at Georgia Tech trying to figure out his master’s thesis when his adviser suggested he do a study on Atlanta-based Fuqua Industries, a conglomerate that happened to include television and radio properties.

Prather, who was interested in mergers and acquisitions, wrote the thesis and accepted a job with Teledyne, a defense contractor. But Fuqua got a copy of Prather’s thesis and liked what they saw.

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“They called me up, asked what [Teledyne] was going to pay me, [and] said we think we can do better,” Prather recalls.

After a requisite six-month active tour of duty with the National Guard, part of his six-year enlistment, Prather went to work for Fuqua.

He rode that pony until 1980, when he left Fuqua to buy a steel fabrication and distribution business in Norcross, Ga. During that time, he met J. Mack Robinson, a businessman involved in the insurance industry.

In 1992, Prather and Robinson teamed up to buy Bull Run Corp., a former gold mining operation that had sold the mines and was sitting on a bunch of cash. Around this time, they became interested in Gray, a company with TV stations and one newspaper that had been mired in intra-family litigation since the death of founder James Gray in 1986.

Prather and Robinson seized the opportunity and in 1993, put in a bid for 44% of Gray, controlling interest. They closed on the deal in 1994.

That was just when broadcasting’s wild ride was starting. In the intervening years, Prather and Robinson oversaw the company’s transition to one of the larger pure-play station groups.

A key point on the company’s timeline was the acquisition of a number of Benedek Broadcasting’s stations out of bankruptcy in 2002, effectively doubling Gray’s size.

Another important inflection point came in 2005 when the company made the decision to shed its newspaper division, which had grown to five small dailies. If that wasn’t prescience, it was a big stroke of luck as the Internet-driven decline of newspapers that was just beginning then has only accelerated.

Prather lives in Buckhead, Ga., only about 20 miles from where he grew up on his family dairy farm and received another early lesson. “I used to load hay bales and one thing I learned was that I didn’t want to be a farmer.”

As head of a major station group with little front-office help, Prather has little down time. When he does, he enjoys watching youth baseball and football and reading.

Prather and his wife have two sons and his enjoyment of youth sports stems from his involvement in their teams when they were growing up. Both sons played college baseball and the oldest had a five-year run in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.

His oldest son, who has two children, lives only five miles away. The youngest, who has three children, lives in Nashville.

“I still go to a lot of youth baseball and football games,” he says. “I’ve got grandson [age 4] coming along that looks like he’s going to be a real good.”

Prather’s bullish about broadcast television’s future, but the decline of newspapers has colored his thinking.

Are there parallels for newspapers and broadcasting? “I wake up thinking about that every day,” Prather says. “I hope not but I don’t think we should be naive enough to think that couldn’t happen to us, too.

“As the TV and the computer come together, there’s got to be disruption there. Advertisers are going to look at a screen as a screen. Just the competitive nature of the Internet is going to cause prices to go down.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in the middle of it and be prepared for the new world down the road.”


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