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The Voice Of Authority Former NFL star Willie Davis owns five radio stations

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

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April 6, 1998

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The Voice Of Authority Former NFL star Willie Davis owns five radio stations

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."

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue Original Layout

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.

One of Davis's long-term goals is to reduce the importance of
sports in the U.S. "We've narrowed to a point where almost all
the glamour in some parts of society is with athletics," he
said. "We need to know about more examples outside athletics,
more businesspeople and technical and professional people, so
that we can say, 'Aha, there's an African-American making a
difference.' I try to emphasize to people that I am an
exception. A lot of folks who are doing what I'm doing didn't
play football."

With that perspective, it's little wonder that Davis has been in
demand for jobs in both politics and sports. In 1989 he was on
the final list of candidates for both the NFL and Big Ten
commissioner positions. He has turned down offers from several
colleges to become their athletic director, and he has declined
a half dozen NFL assistant coaching positions. In 1977 he said
no to three Los Angeles citizens' groups that urged him to run
for mayor. "When I look back at some of those things, it's hard
to believe that I said no," said Davis. Then, waving his hand
across the WMCS office, he added, "But look at what I would have
had to give up. My business is important to me."

Minutes later he was speeding back to WLUM to make sure the
morning team and the station's general manager weren't locked in
fisticuffs. Davis is always on the move. He and his wife,
Andrea, live in Los Angeles, but their house is within shouting
distance of the airport, and it seems as if Willie is forever on
a plane.

"When I was growing up, I always thought if I was lucky enough,
I would end up driving a truck," he said with a hint of wonder
at it all. "But I've been places, done things, seen things. God
knows, I never thought I'd end up here."

--Grant Wahl

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER END GAME Hall of Famer Davis dominated on defense for Lombardi's Packers. [Willie Davis in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOE PICCIOLO MAKING WAVES Davis sponsors scholarships and gun buybacks at one of his stations. [Willie Davis at control board in radio station]