“To me the free enterprise system is under attack,” Maness, a former radio executive and ex-member of the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, said. “It seems that thought leaders and some politicians feel like folks who’ve had success have to apologize for it, that somehow your success was gained at someone else’s expense. When I grew up, everyone wanted to work hard to do well. That was the American Dream. Now, when you have folks in Washington talk about ‘Fat Cat’ bankers (a 2009 comment made by President Barack Obama), or wealthy people not paying their share...it’s tragic. Wealth creation in this country caused us to be able to grow to where we are now.
“To me, the real message isn’t what Ken Maness has achieved, but what the American free enterprise system has allowed millions of people to achieve and grow in an economic environment better than the one before.”
Maness, 65, insists he is a product of that free enterprise system.
He was raised in Church Hill as the oldest of eight children. His father was an electrician and auto mechanic, and in later years, a Southern Baptist minister serving as pastor in small country churches in Hawkins County. His mother challenged him to excel in education.
The family was raised on a “very modest income,” said Maness, who developed an interest in electricity very early.
He built his first transmitter at age 13 and had his own pirate radio station a year later. In high school, Maness said he was “the go-to guy” for all things electrical, including public address systems, and football and basketball scoreboards.
After attending East Tennessee State University in the fall of 1966, he started a campus pirate radio station and got caught. “I was given a choice — either be kicked out of school or join WETS, the campus radio station. Easy choice, I was named program manager within a few weeks,” Maness recalled.
He joined WKIN radio in 1967 and became a full-time morning deejay. “After two years, the lack of money and love of broadcasting drew me away from college and I was hooked completely on broadcasting,” Maness said. “I did it all — morning show, engineering, tower climbing, announcing, programming, remote broadcasting, news reporting, weather forecasting, sportscasting, show promoter, emcee work, it didn’t matter.”
After a stint in the Air Force, he went back to WKIN in 1971 and sold advertising time. He also was learning about and working with computers.
In October 1981, Maness was recruited to join Bloomington Broadcasting, and became general manager of WJCW/WQUT. He brought computer-based audience and music research to the Tri-Cities, and WQUT became the highest rated radio station in America.
Maness later bought and consolidated radio stations within Bloomington, which was eventually sold to another group.
He has also been a behind-the-scenes political fundraiser, most notably for former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans. Maness has also served Kingsport on the Tri-Cities Airport Commission and successfully pushed for the airport to change its governing structure to an Airport Authority.
Maness called the Junior Achievement (JA) induction “the nicest award” he has ever received.
“It really means a lot,” Maness said of the award. “You think about your career in incremental fashion. It’s really the first time I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and kind of look back over my whole career. It’s very humbling and daunting to look back...JA is all about the perpetuation of the free enterprise system. I’m literally one generation off the dirt floor cabin. My mom was born literally in a dirt floor cabin, and I’m one generation later. Through luck, perseverance and willing to risk capital in America, the land of great opportunity, I was able to do pretty well. That’s why America has had wave after wave of immigration, because it is the land of opportunity. It is not a guarantee, just a chance to tee it up, take a whack at it and see how you do. I was one of those who did it...I did O.K.”
But Maness also acknowledges one of his great disappointments has been consolidating properties in the radio business.
“I bought radio stations with the intent to operate them long term, but it ended up my venture capital partner thought it was time to sell them. He was dead spot on right,” Maness noted. “Radio, tragically, has been harmed by the consolidation process. When the strategic buyers moved away and the financial buyers moved in and looked at it purely from a monetary standpoint, they stopped spending money in important areas and tried to reap profits from the business through advertising and reduction of expenditures and promotion...Radio is still healthy in our region but has languished across the country.”