You only get when you give

They that govern the most make the least noise....

They that govern the most make the least noise.

- John Selden, 1584-1654.

Elmer Hildebrand is a very cool guy.

Don’t know the man? Until five years ago, I didn’t either. It was about that time that I began my term on the board of BBM Bureau of Measurement. During my very first meeting, I noticed how the president, chair, vice-chair and other senior executives would turn to Elmer – a small, quiet gentleman at the end of the boardroom table – for support, comment and approval. He was definitely exerting influence.

Elmer, when he’s doing his day job, is the president and majority owner of Golden West Broadcasting, which operates a chain of small market radio stations. He is successful, even though many radio broadcasters believe small market radio cannot make money. He exerts remarkable influence on the radio business, even though he does not own stations east of Manitoba. He is respected, because he dispenses wisdom efficiently and he uses this skill to help his industry neighbours.

Our media and advertising community can be a tough and nasty place. Barely a day goes by without more news of media amalgamations, without exhibitions of greed and fear, and without the ebb and flow of media company share values. Canada’s publishers and broadcasters continue to plot corporate takeovers in an attempt to increase their share of the media spend, advertisers aim their marketing cannons in a bid to increase their shares of sales, and agency folk continue to fight for expanded share of billings. One does not readily conjure up visions of good neighbourly behaviour on the media block.

But behind this front of aggressive capitalism, there is evidence of social democracy. Welcome to the hidden world of media co-ops, occupied by people like Elmer.

By media co-op, I mean tripartite, not-for-profit industry bodies that serve our magazine, newspaper and broadcasting industries. These operations have provided stable and affordable audience and readership measurement for Canadian media buyers and sellers for decades – operations sporting dry acronyms like BBM, PMB and NADbank.

Canada embraces co-op models such as credit unions, gas co-ops, wheat boards and media measurement organizations because our country is small and the outside threats are big and unpredictable. If Canada is to control its media destiny, it must control the measurement of its audiences. The socialistic media co-op survives because big business finds it useful.

But co-ops will not work if you can’t find people willing to volunteer their time and energy. Elmer started giving his time, energy and commitment to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters back in the mid-’60s. He gave two complete terms to the Radio Marketing Bureau. He has given three terms to BBM. He has given consistently over a long period of time. Elmer helps out. He hurts no one. He gets asked back.

Golden West is well managed and so Elmer can afford to help out. He’ll have 20 radio stations operating by spring of next year if two of his company’s pending licences are approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The signals are all in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. His biggest market is Moose Jaw – population 30,000. His corporate head office is in Altona, which is a small Manitoba town of about 3,000 people located south of Winnipeg.

Elmer was raised on a farm in that community. He worked for TransCanada Pipelines in the summer, played hockey in the winter and, when he graduated from high school, he joined the new Altona radio station as a copywriter. He moved up the ranks, bought into the station and now, Golden West employs 250 people.

Elmer runs a small market radio system that makes money. He selects markets that do not have daily newspapers. His stations provide the daily news the community needs to function properly. As the radio industry cuts back on expensive news and information programming, Elmer’s stations invest in news, weather, local sports, and information of interest to the community.

Elmer seems to get back when he gives. His radio stations give useful news and information to their consumer populations and the stations get healthy shares of tuning in return. His stations give employment to their respective communities and his stations get back economic health and prosperity in return. And Elmer gives freely of his time and energy to our media industry and he gets back a healthy dollop of respect and admiration.

And so this year, as we all focus on the day-to-day share grab in the spirit of becoming big, bigger, biggest, we might be well advised to take a moment to think about Elmer, his small-town success story, his neighbourly good deeds and his business creed – ‘You only get when you give.’

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations. Send your comments via e-mail to ryoung@hypn.com.