One of Mark Shirin's jobs when he was a teenager working in the family business of Ventura TV was installing television antennae.
A lot has changed over the years.
Today, Shirin is the second largest TV mogul in Fresno, running at present 18 over-the-air channels that provide programming ranging from international news to reruns of classic TV shows.
Growing up, he didn't watch a lot of TV, partly because he was busy working at the family store or dealing with class work at Sanger High School and then Fresno City College. The Fresno native even flirted with becoming a priest, but he eventually settled on a career selling appliances and TV sets.
"I had no aspirations to be in the broadcast business mainly because it was outside our financial ability to even think about doing something like that," Shirin says. "It was like thinking about being the president of the United States. That's how important and how distant the idea of owning a broadcast station was to me as a kid."
That changed in 2009 when the federal government made local television stations switch from analog to digital signals, which meant each channel could be split into as many as 10 channels.
Two years later, Shirin met with Gary Cocola, owner of Cocola Broadcasting Cos., which has 27 channels in six television markets including Fresno, to ask Cocola to lease a channel. Cocola generally had been leasing space to religious groups.
Shirin pitched an idea: He would fill the advertising slots on a channel with commercials for his business and material provided by a national buying group.
"I've always been interested in the marketing side of the business," Shirin says. "How to get customers into the store. How to have an appealing array of merchandise. The messages that drive customers to a store. So I've always been interested in the TV part of advertising."
The two men struck a lease deal and Shirin, who had been running Ventura TV since his father, Edward, retired in 1992, went from selling television sets to running KGMC (Channel 43.6).
One of the last elements was finding the right network to go on the channel. After considering sports and news channels, Shirin opted for the Me-TV programming that has become one of the success stories of the digital channel boom, reaching 91% of TV households across 161 affiliates.
That was just the start.
Late last year, Shirin worked out a lease-to-buy deal with Cocola for KVBC (Channels 13.1) and KBID (Channels 31.1), which he immediately split into 10 channels apiece to launch an additional 17 free digital television networks — with at least two more to come — devoted to movies, business information, hobbies, sports and cartoons.
Cocola has always championed over-the-air TV and is excited Shirin is continuing that tradition.
"In the television industry today with major corporations replacing the small local broadcaster, it's refreshing to see a local retailer enter the fray," says Cocola.
Shirin has combined his merchandising and TV station worlds into a small building in southeast Fresno.
In the warehouse, rows of TVs, stoves and refrigerators are just feet away from the base of the antenna where the satellite signals are fed to the airwaves. One corner of the showroom floor is dedicated for filming a local TV show and producing commercials.
Steps away from Shirin's office is the control room, which had to be built to deal with all of the incoming signals. Everything associated with running the Ventura Broadcasting Co.'s 18 stations is done via computers. That's a major reason the takeover was possible without having to hire any new employees. So far, Shirin has been able to run both the store and stations by dedicating three members of his full staff of 28 to the TV side. More hires could come if production and sales grow.
Shirin estimates that if he had built his TV hub like a traditional TV station, it would have cost him five or six times more.
"We are the only broadcast company in the Western states right now that designed their system from the ground up on the Internet protocol," Shirin says. "Stations that are going to be built in the future are all going to be built the way ours is built. We just happen to be on the beginning of the curve."
Commercials aren't the only thing being added to the channels. Former KMPH (Channel 26.1) anchor John Malos hosts "Connect With Me," a locally produced weekday talk show on the Me-TV Network. And in keeping with his practice of building his TV empire from a central location, the talk show originates from a set built in the Ventura TV showroom.
The launch of the stations has been a good business decision. As the price of cable TV rises, consumers are looking to the free over-the-air options. There are between 75 and 80 channels available via an antenna in Fresno.
A recent study by Gfk Mediamark Research & Intelligence — a leading producer of media and consumer research in the United States — found approximately 59.7 million people in 2013 got their TV via over-the-air broadcast television. That's an increase of almost 6 million from the previous year.
Shirin says he sees proof every day that local TV watchers are turning back to over-the-air options. When he was a teen, putting up 20 antenna in a year was considered a good mark. Ventura TV now installs more than 1,500 each year, with that number growing. Shirin says that's just what his company's doing and doesn't reflect other businesses — such as RadioShack — that sell antennas.
Shirin is proud to deliver so many channels to TV watchers, the biggest service he feels he can provide. He says he wants his tombstone to read: "Mark Shirin provided free TV to the community."
"Seeing someone smile after they get all these free channels tuned in gives me a real joy," Shirin says.