Overlooking the runway at Camarillo Airport amidst the streamlined surroundings of the Sun Air Jets executive terminal, Edward G. Atsinger III is a model of serene efficiency. A nearby hangar serves as home to many of the aircraft owned and managed by his passion project, Sun Air Jets, including one of their extravagant $40M+ Bombardier Global series aircraft. Sun Air Jets is a private charter company for air travel featuring a fleet of the aforementioned Bombardier jets, complemented by an array of Gulfstream, Hawker, and Challenger models.
The company specializes in boutique, turn-key aircraft management for other owners, including aircraft charter, hangar storage, fueling, and jet maintenance. As Sun Air Jets President and COO Brian Counsil explains, “We rent space to airplanes that we don’t necessarily operate that just want to live at the airport, providing rental real estate; then there’s our operational side of the house, where we operate airplanes.”
Sun Air Jets boasts a Camarillo campus of more than 11 acres encompassing 131,000 square feet of building space including a 20,000-square-foot executive terminal, a 60,000-gallon jet fuel storage facility, and premium hangar space. The Van Nuys Airport, through a long-term lease arrangement with Curt Castagna and his Aerolease Associates team, is also home to a Sun Air Jets facility, offering office space and 43,000 square feet of hangar space along with 24-hour aircraft dispatch and support.
Although Atsinger is on the Sun Air Jets Camarillo property for roughly 10 hours per week and retains the CEO title, he considers his position as CEO of Salem Media Group to be his “day job.” Counsil runs the company’s day-to-day operations with a relatively high level of autonomy.
“[Radio’s] an extremely stable format because once they establish that base of support – it’s almost like an annuity. The longer you’re there, the better that you do.”
Free Speech on the Airwaves
Despite Sun Air Jets’ large centers of operation, Atsinger is perhaps most well known as the CEO of Salem Media Group, a publicly traded media conglomerate, with millions of daily radio listeners. It is also a publisher of magazines and books and provider of Internet content. Salem Media Group, which focuses primarily on conservative and Christian audiences, was launched in 1986 and will commemorate its 30-year anniversary on December 31. Today more than half of the company’s 117 radio stations are in the U.S.’s top 25 metropolitan areas and media markets. Many of Salem’s stations focus on faith-based topics like Christian radio and other conservative news such as the Wall St. Business Network. Key on-air personalities associated with the company include Bill Bennett, Michael Medved, and Dennis Prager.
Remaining relevant to its targeted conservative audiences is important to the brand’s success, says Atsinger. “[Radio’s] an extremely stable format because once they establish that base of support – it’s almost like an annuity. The longer you’re there, the better that you do.” The company’s audience has evolved organically, with Atsinger and brother-in-law and co-founder Stuart Epperson evaluating the direction each step of the way as “new opportunities presented themselves and as doors opened,” Atsinger says. In addition to Internet properties such as Christianity.com and Redstate.com, roughly 30 percent of Salem Media Group’s 2015 revenue, reported at just over $226M, resulted from book publishing activities featuring conservative-minded authors like Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich.
The roots of what is now Salem Media Group lie in the early groundwork that Atsinger and Epperson put in place as young evangelicals in the ’70s. Atsinger’s sister Nancy married Epperson, whose family was in radio, before FM radio was much of a factor; most stations of any note were AM. California boasted only a small number of FM radio stations, and very few existed overall in the south due to years of reconstruction and lagging economic issues dating all the way back to the Civil War.
A USC graduate, Atsinger served as an associate professor of speech and director of forensics at Los Angeles City College for 10 years prior to starting his broadcasting career. He saw an opportunity to get in the back door with a modest proposal to the FCC for a station broadcasting country music in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. He took a sabbatical from his teaching position to launch his first on-air station and soon decided to focus his energy full-time on growing the media empire that would eventually become part of what is now Salem Media Group.
Although Atsinger and Epperson owned and operated radio stations separately as well as jointly until they officially formed Salem Media Group in 1986, one of their first joint ventures – KDAR in Oxnard, Calif. – could well be considered the beginning of Salem Media Group. “If you want to mark a beginning of Salem Media Group, KDAR was probably one of the milestones.” It also confirmed the decision to change focus from country music to conservative Christian broadcasting in 1974.
Atsinger learned the radio business, persisted, and grew into the largest metropolitan markets with Epperson – and the rest, one might say, is history. Their successful partnership is one that both Epperson and Atsinger enjoy to this day. “I’ve been in business with my brother-in-law for 43 years,” Atsinger says. “He brings some skill sets to the table and I bring a lot to the table that complements him. He makes me more effective and I enhance his talents.” Working together effectively with a family member can be difficult, but Atsinger knows from personal experience that “if you get a partner you can work with, it can be much more productive.”
Salem Media Group, which went public in 1999, continues to expand and grow to meet the needs of the communities they serve. “We love doing well financially by doing good at the same time – that’s been a guiding principle. We feel that all of our stations are making a positive contribution in the communities they serve.”
Setting His Sights Higher
Atsinger bought his first airplane in 1996, a Hawker 700. As he put it, the plane “flew high and fast” and allowed him to go nonstop to and from New York or Washington, DC. But at the time, there weren’t sufficient facilities or services in Camarillo for private aircraft. For travelers with heavy schedules and many stops such as Atsinger, the process needed to be more efficient. One of Atsinger’s more challenging trips included making meetings in four different locations throughout the West Coast in two days’ time, a journey that would have been nearly impossible through commercial airlines. Flying private also allowed him to conduct meetings freely while in the air, something that was also not an option when flying commercial. His ability to speak with his engineer about technical issues after each meeting was critical to improving business and moving more quickly.
Thus began Atsinger’s love affair with business aviation. As he continued to reap the benefits of truly efficient private air service, Atsinger realized it was important to open a 24-hour-a-day, full-service facility in Camarillo. He founded Sun Air Jets in 1999, and since that time, the overall fleet of aircraft worldwide has continued to grow, increasing by a significant percentage each year between 2000 and 2014. Yet in that same period, very few new airports to handle the larger business aviation fleet have been established nationwide. “The fleet has increased [significantly] in a 10-year period – it just keeps getting bigger.”
Standard operating process for a lot of [charter] companies was to be exploitive and there weren’t a lot of options. I thought, I want to treat other folks the way I want to be treated and be fair.
The planes are also getting bigger, says Atsinger. He points to the example of Gulfstream, which offers premier large-cabin aircraft starting with the G2. Then came the G3, with improvements like a larger wingspan; Atsinger personally owns a G3 (as well as a Hawker 800) purchased in 1999, that “still flies fast and high.” Gulfstream’s line of aircraft continued to evolve, with planes rapidly becoming bigger, faster, and more efficient, as evidenced in more recent models such as the G-V – which can go nonstop to London – and most recently the G650. “These new planes, these 650s, are bigger. They fly faster and longer, and there just haven’t been airport facilities to handle these. That’s the whole point – it’s taken a long time to get there, but now the bigger aircraft are finding there are places to go.”
The Golden Rule Above the Clouds
Atsinger feels that Sun Air Jets holds a unique place in the market for several reasons. His personal experience, coupled with that of his peers, taught him that many private aircraft owners feel taken advantage of by operators, many of whom lack transparency. “You get these gigantic bills constantly for a new this or that – it was ‘Buyer Beware.’ Standard operating process for a lot of [charter] companies was to be exploitive and there weren’t a lot of options. I thought, I want to treat other folks the way I want to be treated and be fair. I learned everything the hard way.” For example, many private aircraft owners sign contracts to cover their share of charter flights – which inadvertently incentivizes unscrupulous operators to fly faster, take less time, and burn unnecessary fuel. It is unfortunately a common practice to then charge the owner for 10 hours despite making the trip in 9, with a contract in place that still requires the owner to pay for the extra fuel.
Sun Air Jets not only protects customers from less reputable operators, but also provides customers with a full range of services, including sound tax planning and strategies. They pride themselves on doing more safety audits than almost any other management company (five bi-annually), on improving efficiency to save money, and on treating customers as they would want to be treated.
Salem Media Group benefits from its CEO’s connection to Sun Air Jets, which makes charter aircraft available at a discount to the media company. “Having the charter aircraft available at very attractive rates…has facilitated and advanced [Salem’s] business in ways we couldn’t have even dreamed of,” Atsinger observes. For example, Salem Media Group is co-sponsoring the Presidential debates with CNN and has exclusive radio rights and some of the streaming rights.
Atsinger, who personally flies between 100-150 hours annually, is excited about the future of Sun Air Jets and private aviation as a whole. He reminds CSQ that “Right now, you can be [in Camarillo] faster than you can be in Van Nuys, if you live in Malibu. So we’ve watched these airports that are located not necessarily immediately in the middle of the urban areas but adjacent, and we’re very bullish about their future.” The future indeed appears bright – for Atsinger, for his business ventures and for those whose lives are touched by Salem Media Group’s and Sun Air Jets’ outreach.