NEWS

Ex-Radio Exec Buys Norfolk Studio

You may not have heard of the Studio Center but you've definitely heard from them over the years.

If the new owner has his way, you're going to hear a lot more in the future.

The Norfolk commercial production house, the largest one in the nation by volume, changed hands this week as its owner and founder Warren Miller retired after 38 years.

Miller sold the company Tuesday for an undisclosed sum to William "Woody" Prettyman, a former radio executive in Hampton Roads. The deal is being financed by investments from Florida-based Sunshine Wireless Co, the former owners of WFOG and WPTE in Norfolk.

Voices signed and recorded by the Studio Center are heard during Southwest Airlines flights, McDonald's new "I'm loving it" campaign and in Kraft's Nascar promotions. The company does in-store messaging for Lowe's and Eckerd's, greetings at ATMs and gas pumps and they're even in some of those stuffed animals whose labels demands that passersby "Press my tummy!"
"If you can hear it, we had a hand in it, or we want to have a hand in it," said vice president Robin Russ.

Prettyman, 42, wants to get the company's hands into plenty, and he said he plans to start with the revamped Web site, increased marketing sales efforts, additional staff and expansion into other cities. Studio Center already has offices in Las Vegas and Memphis but Norfolk will remain the company's headquarters.Prettyman also said he is toying with the idea of scooping up some up some smaller competitors and complementary businesses like ad agencies.

"We want to grow organically, but that doesn't mean we won't buy somebody," said Prettyman who was in the market for a radio station when he approached Miller about buying the studio. "We plan to grow tenfold and become a $50 million company."

Miller said he hadn't planned on retiring until he was 70, but when Prettyman walked into his office last year, he figured the time was at hand.

"You get to a point where it's time to move on and bring in some new blood with fresh thoughts and management ways." says Miller, 67.

Miller who lives in Virginia Beach, will focus on helping his son with Beale Street, the family barbeque restaurant they opened nearly two years ago in Virginia Beach. He also will retain a small block of stock and do some consulting for the company, which he started in 1966 doing commercials with three voice-over artists while recording music at night.

The company now does more than 10,000 radio and TV ads a year and has nearly 300 voice-over artists. Its clients cover 23 foreign countries.

Although they've used the voices of celebrities such as Robin Williams, George Carlin, and Charlie Sheen, plenty of Hampton Roads voices have graced their ads.

The Studios largest contract, a six-figure deal with AOL was completed last month. The new voice that will greet AOL users in the United Sates and announce "You've got mail" will belong to Pattie Walden of Newport News.

It will also be personalized, since Walden recorded the message at the studio using thousands of names. Walden is the first female and first black voice AOL has used.

Bob Iler, executive vice president of Sheehy and Associates ad agency based in Louisville Ky., has been working with the studio for years, and the company handles Sheehy's biggest account - grocer giant Kroger.

"There are studios all over the country that we could use, but they're right at the top," said Iler, a 40-year ad industry veteran. "We do the majority of our voice-overs because of the breadth and diversity of their talent makes them more attractive."

Prettyman admits that taking over "Miller's baby" will be a challenge, but he's ready to build on the legacy left to him.

"It's like moving into a house that someone lived in for 38 years," Prettyman said. "But we're all really excited about it."

Benita D. Newton
The Virginian-Pilot