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The Voice of Authority
Grant Wahl
April 06, 1998
Former NFL star Willie Davis owns five radio stations
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April 06, 1998

The Voice Of Authority

Former NFL star Willie Davis owns five radio stations

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The scene brought back memories of WKRP in Cincinnati. At half past 10 on a Tuesday morning, the executives at Milwaukee radio station WLUM met with their morning team, a motley bunch of tech guys and on-air personalities. It had not been a good day for disc jockeys Dave Justus and Chuck Summers. Their jokes hadn't been funny. They had talked too much. General manager Dan Manella had a suggestion—no, a directive. "From now on," he said, pointing to a diagram on the dry-erase board, "you will play at least five songs every hour."

Justus, who had been playing three songs, tops, thought that cutting back his patter would be like capping Tolstoy at 50 pages a book. It would ruin his art. "There's no way we're going to do that," he barked. After a lot of arguing and pointing to diagrams, the station's owner spoke. "It's like Coach Lombardi always said: Those who execute better will win, and people execute best what they believe in," said Willie Davis, the Hall of Fame former defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. "I don't know if playing more or less is better, but pretty soon we need to find out."

End of discussion, thus proving two things. One, Vince Lombardi still has the final word, even from the grave. And two, Davis can handle himself fine in his third career, as the owner of five radio stations, three in Milwaukee and two in San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif.

Not that this comes as a surprise, given Davis's success in his first two careers. He won five NFL championships as a player with the Cleveland Browns and the Packers from 1958 to '69, and though he never made more than $47,000 in a season, he used his MBA from the University of Chicago—which he earned during his off-seasons—to become a millionaire in his second career, as the owner of a Los Angeles beer distributorship.

Along the way he has served on the boards of several inner-city youth groups and 14 corporations. He also won the NFL Players Association Byron White Humanitarian Award in 1968 and was named the NAACP's Man of the Year for community service in 1978. About the only organization that may never honor Davis is the AARP, for at 63, he has no plans to retire. "I really don't know what slowing down means," he said while driving across town to another of his stations, WMCS. "It's how I live my life."

While he studied for his MBA he also worked part time for Schlitz, first in promotions and then as a member of a task force studying branch operations. That way, he said, "when I hung it up, I would have a chance to come into business on a fast track."

Toward the end of his last season with the Packers, in 1969, Davis got his chance when Schlitz called offering to sell him the company's distributorship in South-Central Los Angeles. "I hesitated," he said. "It was less than five years after the Watts riots, and I didn't know anybody who wanted to go to South-Central on a business deal."

He took the gamble, and three years later the Willie Davis Distributing Co. was a rousing success. In its first year his company posted a $500,000 profit. But while his business prospered, selling alcohol gnawed at his conscience. In 1985 Davis removed his name from his firm's title, calling it the West Coast Beverage Co., and in '89 he sold it for $8 million.

By that time Davis had established himself in radio. "There's one thing that's very different between the two businesses," Davis said. "With the distributing company, I could donate some cases of beer to a group or sponsor a Little League. That was all. But there is no medium that provides more constant information that's valuable to everyone in the inner-city community than a radio station."

In 1979 Davis purchased a Milwaukee station whose call letters he later changed from WMVP to WMCS, which stand for Milwaukee's Community Station. Every Christmas, in conjunction with the Salvation Army, the station provides a holiday dinner for several thousand people at the Wisconsin Center. Since 1993 the station has sponsored a gun buyback program. Over the past six years WMCS has awarded nearly $250,000 to Milwaukee high school seniors for college. "Willie has done tremendous work for this community," says acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers and is a founder, with Davis, of Athletes for Youth, a local mentoring program.

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