Finding, and then capturing, a growing audience in the rapidly-changing broadcast radio business can be tricky. One enterprising couple has found a way.
The radio station industry, with podcasts coming in every direction and satellite and internet radio eating into terrestrial radio's market share, isn't for everyone.
But a nimble entrepreneur who's had a diverse career in journalism and broadcasting is having a broadcast radio moment, finding success growing a radio station business on the west coast of Florida. That company is Sarasota-based Solmart Media, a partnership with Mercedes Soler and her husband, Tomás Martínez. Since founding the company in 2014, the business duo has expanded their reach to now nine counties in Florida across three stations — WTMY-AM, WTMY-FM and WZSP-FM.
A change in focus to expand into new markets during the pandemic and learning more about who its audience is led Solmart Media to where it is today — up almost 40% in advertising sales over last year, a number steadily growing since 2014. The company declined to disclose specific financials.
Soler notes nearly every media company today is expanding into podcasting, digital and event space in one way or another. Or attempting to find other new revenue sources in a fragmented industry. One example? Naples-based Beasley Broadcast Group, a $239 million publicly-traded company, expanded into esports in 2018. And while the family-owned Solmart Media doesn't compare itself in size to Beasley, which owns more than 60 stations in 15 markets, there are notes being taken.
"We do follow what Beasley does closely," Soler writes in an email. "We know and admire their CEO, Caroline Beasley, and hold them as a great role model to follow in our industry. We hope to one day grow to become the Spanish equivalent of Beasley."
It's that strategy of expanding into untapped markets that is comparative to how Solmart Media thrived during the pandemic.
Prior to 2020, the business partners had run the station how they had learned — hyper-focused on audience needs.
And Soler and her husband didn’t pause when COVID-19 came around. As soon as reports about the virus came about, Soler went back to reporting to cover the pandemic. As it crept closer, so did the media company’s evolving business strategy.
First the company offered two months of free advertising to any Hispanic-owned business or entrepreneur.
Next it expanded efforts to the St. Jude Church to include the Sunday Mass on air for free to reach its Hispanic Catholic audience. This is something the company continued to do— even though it takes a lot of production because it’s important to its audience to have access to the service. “We knew it was a dark time,” she says, “and people needed that.”
The type of content offered also changed as schools began going remote. “Our audience was declared essential workers,” she says.
So Solmart Media developed content that would help parents understand what was going on and brought in experts to reach the younger, still-in-school, audience.
As soon as stay-at-home came about, Soler was on it. She created the weekly program Nuestros Ninos, or Our Children. After speaking with friend Geri Chaffee for an interview about homeschooling, the program took off. Now, in partnership with the Dreamers Academy, a dual-language charter school in Sarasota Chaffee founded, the pair record interviews from various experts to help parents and students of their audience.
The podcast is still being produced and continues to be an instrumental teaching platform many districts have begun using, she says.
A Dream Come True
Since changing the strategy, the audience has continued to expand — evidenced by the growth in advertisement sales. Reflecting on the recent success, Soler credits the roots of her career at Loyola University Chicago. “We attended a university that teaches you to give back,” she says. “We were able to make changes by providing hope, information, companionship, entertainment and a friendly voice.
Since 2019, the company has been based in Sarasota. The reach that Solmart Media has now extends from St. Petersburg down to north Fort Myers, across nine counties.
A friend of the couple reached out about a year-long course in leadership training with the National Association of Broadcasters in 2013 before they took the plunge into their own radio business. Since Martínez’s career was centered around radio, Soler pushed him to pursue it. A lesson learned throughout the course was to seek out smaller markets to build up. And that’s exactly what they did.
“We started looking for stations,” Soler says. They kept the search to Florida, outside of the large markets, and ended up starting in Zolfo Springs and Arcadia, in Hardee and DeSoto counties, respectively. In 2014, the pair purchased two stations previously owned by Heartland Broadcasting: WZSP-FM and WZZS-FM.
The couple did extensive research into those counties to determine what type of radio shows would be successful. They found the younger audience spans from 18 to 25 and the mature audience is 25-35.
The goal of the research? “To offer something no one else is offering,” Soler says, in addition to creating a Gulf Coast Spanish media network. The challenge was not taking the census count to heart.
Soler says the number of Hispanic people in their coverage area is much higher than what’s noted on the census. “We knew the numbers were there,” she says. “After that, it’s just knowing our audience.”
Then around four years ago, the business duo petitioned the FCC for a license on the FM frequency for a new dial number for the WTMY station. They were given 99.1 FM.
Now, the couple couldn't be happier.
“Solmart Media is our American dream.”