Frank Wood, '67: Unusual Ventures
“I like to think of myself as a cattle egret,” Frank Wood, ’67, laughed. “A cattle egret hangs around fields of cattle and eats little bits of undigested materials and bugs—that’s the kind of venture capitalist I am.” Wood spent most of his career in radio and had to reinvent himself when ownership laws changed in 1996 to favor large public corporations and the consolidation of radio and television companies. “It was an ideal time to sell the stations and change the Wood family’s fortune,” he says.
After graduation from the Law School, Wood received an offer from a Wall Street firm, but convinced them to defer for a year so that he could revisit his roots in Cincinnati, Ohio. Around that time, his father started WEBN 102.7, an FM radio station in an era when virtually no FM stations were on the air. The younger Wood decided to work for the radio station, too.
At first, the station played jazz and classical. “A year into it, we were on a first name basis with all of our listeners, which is not a good thing,” Wood says. So, in 1972, he was forced to rob the station’s pop machine of thirty dollars worth of dimes, which was just enough to meet loan and payroll obligations for that pay period. He realized that change was needed if the station was to survive. His own passion for music became the primary inspiration: the station began playing rock and roll bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles. By 1975 it was a hit.
Working at the station in its early years was fun, Wood says. The station was “run by a bunch of overqualified, overeducated people who all loved music,” he says. The crew amused themselves by writing bogus advertisements for products like Tree Frog Beer “recommended by hookers and bookies” and Brute Force Cybernetics, which advertised fictional products such as Negative Calorie Cookies, the Lost Chord Generation, and 3-D TV. “The station was very, very funny and eventually gained a cult-like status in Cincinnati,” Wood says.
After selling the station in 1986, Wood ran Jacor Communications for four years then started Secret Communications, which had about twenty stations. As all of them sold in 1996 and 1997 and Wood was too young to retire, he drifted into venture capitalism. Initially, he invested other people’s money as well as his own, but says “I felt so bad the first time I lost someone else’s money that I stuck to investing my own after that.” He began making “small, but interesting” investments—thereby earning his cattle egret status.
On Target Media is one of the most successful of Wood’s ventures. The company specializes in what is called place-based media, or point-of-purchase marketing. One of On Target’s programs, for example, places advertising in doctors’ waiting rooms via flat screens that present health-related information. “People end up watching the screens instead of flipping through the two-year-old Field and Stream,” Wood says. The program also provides pamphlets about various illnesses and medications in the exam rooms to be perused while waiting for doctors to arrive, at which point the patient can ask immediately for a prescription for the new drug they have just discovered. Wood recently sold On Target Media for six times what he paid for it, even while retaining a ten percent interest.
Some of his investments are more about his passion for music than the bottom line. Wood knew his investment in Tracks, a magazine devoted to “music built to last”—created for baby boomers and Gen-Xers who no longer read Rolling Stone—was a risky one. The ’zine costs more to produce than originally imagined and the subscriber base has been too slow to build. Tracks has many committed readers, Wood says, but “time is money.”
These projects go forward under his venture capital firm, Secret Communications—a name which caused his partners some initial dismay. “I just thought about how radio is all about the flow of ideas and information, and thought it would be funny to name the company ‘Secret.’ It eventually caught on, and now everyone thinks it’s funny. We have secret memos, secret meetings, and secret business plans, says Wood with a laugh. “Life is too serious,” he observed.