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Getting through to the real Fred Parry

Sunday, May 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 4, 2009
From left, Steve Powell, Fred Parry and Kristi Powell socialize at Inside Columbia Magazine's Best of Columbia party on April 2; 2009. Parry is the publisher of Inside Columbia.

CORRECTION: Ed Heins was the general manager of the Missourian who hired Fred Parry as advertising director. An earlier version of this article misspelled Heins' name.

COLUMBIA — Fred Parry didn’t expect to get fired.

“Guys like me don’t get fired,” he said.

And yet last fall, Parry, then co-host of a popular talk show on KFRU, was told he no longer had his job.

It was October 21. He and his co-host, Simon Rose, had just finished another episode of “The Morning Meeting,” their show that aired from 9 to 11 a.m. every weekday on the Columbia-based AM radio station.

On the show, Parry and Rose, who say they have nothing in common, duked it out about thorny political subjects such as guns, abortion, what Parry calls “environmental issues, real or imagined,” and “the sexual prowess of certain politicians.”

Timeline

1964: Born in Liberty, Mo.
1982: Begins studying at Mizzou as pre-journalism major.
1985: Named National College Newspaper Business Manager of the Year
for his work at the Maneater.
1986: Graduates from Mizzou with degree in general studies, takes job
at Vance Publishing in Chicago.
1988: Returns to Columbia to work as advertising director for the Missourian.
1991: Takes job as advertising director for 15 Gannett-owned
newspapers in Washington, D.C.
1993: Studies entrepreneurial sciences at Robert Morris University in
Pittsburgh.
1994: Moves back to Columbia, establishes Columbia Business
Times.
1995: Starts Columbia Senior Times.
1996: Starts Jefferson City Senior Times.
1997: Starts Columbia Home and Columbia Parent Magazine.
1998: Starts Mid-Missouri Jobs.
1999: Sells 75 percent of his ownership of the six titles to locally
owned radio stations
2000: Starts Jefferson City Business Times.
2001: Becomes co-host of “The Morning Meeting” alongside Simon Rose on KFRU.
2005: Surrenders the rest of his ownership of the publications. Starts
Inside Columbia from his garage. Begins going to Woodcrest Chapel.
2006: Receives the annual Outstanding Citizen Award from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
2007: Baptized at Woodcrest Chapel.
2008: Fired from KFRU.


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After the show, Parry recalled being told that John Walker, the market manager of KFRU's owner, Cumulus Broadcasting, wanted to see him. Parry stopped by Walker's office and took a seat.

“We’re not going to renew your contract," Walker told Parry.  "In fact, today was your last show.”

“OK,” Parry said, without hesitating. “Any reason why?”

“We’re taking KFRU in a different direction,” Walker said.

A severance package was available, Walker added, but Parry turned it down. He thanked Walker, got up and walked out.

This week, Walker declined to comment about the conversation. In a story published the day after the firing, he told the Missourian the company does not comment on personnel matters.

Although the news took Parry by surprise, he would say months later, “the minute it happened, I had my peace about it. I knew that God had a plan for me. I didn’t cry. I said, ‘God’s opening a new door for me.’”

In the weeks after he was fired, Parry was reluctant to give the press any details, citing ongoing contract negotiations.

He came around last month after Inside Columbia, the four-year-old magazine he founded and publishes, was nominated for a prestigious national award.

It was named a finalist for a City and Regional Magazine Association’s general excellence award for publications with a circulation under 30,000. Excited, Parry began to tell people he was proud to be in the same league as the “big dogs” — Memphis Magazine, Berkshire Living, Madison Magazine and Martha’s Vineyard.

Turns out that Parry, 45, has spent the last six months making the best of a would-be downer.

He has lost weight and committed more time to the magazine.

He has also made peace with his gentler side, after finally realizing he could shed the rude personality he adopted for the radio show since he was no longer being provoked.

Rose, who still talks with Parry over coffee now and then, says his former co-host seems to have been more content with himself in the last few years.

There’s more: The prominent, well-connected businessman, who can be abrasive and is used to playing by his own rules, has uncovered a surprising new spiritual side.

“People see a persona on the radio, but they don’t see the depth. They don’t see the real Fred. And honestly, I don’t expose the real Fred to a lot of people,” he said.

Parry spent years in Columbia racking up his share of detractors. After hearing him on KFRU, or learning second-hand what he’d said or written, many came to see him as a self-interested, arrogant, rich, old conservative.

Jeff Stack, coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, calls Parry a likable person, but on the few occasions he tuned in to "The Morning Meeting," he found himself strongly disagreeing with Parry's opinions.

"As a political commentator, he ... seemed to relish divisiveness instead of broader compassion and understanding for one another," Stack said.

He's a big guy, even though he’s lost about 65 pounds. His size and swagger (he’s 6-foot-3 and weighs 255) suggest that he’s a man to be reckoned with, that if you don’t know him, you should.

“He’s bigger than life,” said Gary Whitaker, publisher of Springfield-based 417 magazine, who met Parry soon after he founded Inside Columbia.

“He’s got a big personality, he’s got big ideas — I mean, it’s just, everything about Fred’s big.”

Friends find his bluntness can turn them off. He likes to crack crude jokes to make people feel comfortable, but he ends up causing them to roll their eyes at his sophomoric humor.

His wife, Melody, says he needs an editor — someone to temper the man who likes to hear himself talk.

Yet, Parry said he has always been sensitive to people’s perceptions of him. “It’s not easy being controversial,” he said.

At an Inside Columbia party earlier this month, he appeared quite sure of himself, but for years, he said, he sorely lacked confidence.

He can be dismissive in an argument, but he has a soft spot for a troubled soul or a lost cause.

“It doesn’t take much to get me crying,” he said.

Rose cited Parry’s extensive history of working for charity and his continuous support for the Central Missouri Food Bank.

Norm Ruebling, a co-founder of the airport shuttle company MO-X, said he called Parry on air right after the company launched.

“He said some of the most inspiring and supportive things about MO-X unsolicited. ... ‘If you have a wedding reception or whatever, give MO-X a call.’

“We couldn’t afford to advertise with them. That particular show pulls a lot of weight. You can’t pay for that kind of advertising.”

Before Parry became a big name in Columbia, he had an even bigger dream.

“I was gonna be the world’s greatest reporter-writer, the next Mike Royko,” he said in an interview last month in his office at the slick new Inside Columbia digs at the corner of McBaine and Broadway.

After starting school as a pre-journalism major at MU, he enlisted as a reporter for the Maneater. Shortly afterward, he ran out of money.


His editor advised him to sell ads for the paper, and he fell in love with ad sales.

He was voted in as business manager. On his watch, the number of ad salespeople jumped from six to 30, he said. In the spring of 1985, he was named National College Newspaper Business Manager of the Year.

All the while, he’d been seeking to gain entry into the journalism school. He applied three times. But his grades kept him out. “In my first three years,” he said, “I was consistently below a 2.0.”

Each time, he appealed the rejection to George Kennedy, then associate dean and previously a city editor of the Missourian, which competed fiercely with the Maneater. Kennedy denied each appeal.

After one of them, Kennedy recalls, Parry said, “As a token of appreciation, I’m gonna make you a presentation of one of these highly sought-after Maneater T-shirts.”

It was a black shirt with gold letters that read “eat or be eaten.”

Parry characterized it as an institutional jab. “I was really putting salt in the wound so that I could tell the story 30 years later,” he said.

Never accepted into the J-School, he moved on. In 1986, he graduated, with a bachelor’s degree in general studies.

Parry landed a job at Vance Publishing, a trade publisher in Chicago. Not two years later, he said he received a call from Ed Heins,* the general manager of the Missourian, who asked Parry to return to Columbia as advertising director “and do for the Missourian what you did for the Maneater.”

“Why in the hell would I want to move from Chicago to Columbia, Missouri?” Parry asked.

“You would also have a faculty position,” Hines told him.

Parry confessed that he’d never gotten a degree in journalism.

“I know,” Hines said. “That’s why I want you.”

Thinking back on the idea, Parry laughed. “I wasn’t smart enough to be a student at the world’s foremost school of journalism, but I was smart enough to teach there,” he said.

Bob Humphreys remembers Parry. Humphreys was the Missourian’s general manager when Parry worked there, and they collaborated daily.

“He’s good,” Humphreys said. “There’s no way around that. He’s a hell of a salesman. … He made everybody feel like they were important and part of the process. Lots of salespeople don’t do that. They don’t know how to do that.”

Meanwhile, Parry fell in love with Columbia. As a teacher, he was building up a solid record, too. Thirty of his students were hired by Gannett publications after they graduated, he said.

In 1991, he said he got a call from Gannett saying they were interested in him, too. He was named advertising director of a group of newspapers the corporation had acquired that year.

He went from supervising a newspaper with a circulation of 6,000 to a group of newspapers with a combined circulation of 571,000 — 15 dailies and weeklies.

The 2 1/2 years he spent with Gannett burned him out, he said. He wanted to start his own newspaper. So he enrolled in Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh and took a class in entrepreneurial sciences.

For one assignment, he developed a business plan for what he describes as “a make-believe publication called the Columbia Business Times.” The plan earned him an A — thinking it was a “good, economically viable business idea,” he said.

In July 1994, he returned to Columbia. Five weeks later he started the Columbia Business Times.

Not all the money he invested came from his own pocket. His father had died a year earlier, and his mother was dealing with the estate. Parry called her and  learned she was planning to give him money after she died. She was then 50 and expected to live at least 30 more years.

“That money would mean a lot more to me today than it will in 30 years,” he told her. “There’s something I really want to do in my life — there’s something I want to try when I’m young.”

She gave it to him.

He would establish six more publications in the years to come: Columbia Senior Times, Jefferson City Senior Times, Columbia Home, Columbia Parent Magazine, Mid-Missouri Jobs and Jefferson City Home.

In 1999, he sold 75 percent of Parry Publishing Inc. to Premier Marketing Group, a group of locally owned radio stations.

In 2005, he surrendered the rest of his ownership in Parry Publishing Inc., thus severing the remaining ties with those publications.

He wanted a change of scenery. “Honestly,” he explained, “I was ready to try something different.”

After learning that city magazines were the fastest-growing segment at the time, he decided to launch one in Columbia.

It just made more sense to devote himself to one magazine than seven. And it made financial sense — “one printing bill a month instead of seven,” he said.

By that time, he had become well known around the community. He hosted a show on KFRU called “Columbia Business Times,” and in 2001 he became co-host of “The Morning Meeting” alongside Rose.

If people didn’t know him from the radio shows, they knew him in Rotary Club, or as a member of the Boone Hospital Center Board of Trustees, or commissioner of the Columbia Housing Authority.

Parry operated Inside Columbia with an informed editorial vision. He’d heard it was smart to place the city’s most famous figure on the cover of the magazine, so he chose legendary Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart for the front of the first issue.

Although Stewart was on a golf fairway in California when Parry called to set up a photo shoot, everything eventually worked out. The premiere issue, which contained 76 pages, sold out in three days, Parry  said.

Until he lost his job at KFRU, the magazine couldn’t have his full attention. When he was fired — he still does not know why it happened, though he believes the timing could be related to a diagnosis of diabetes and his rising medical costs — Parry's mornings were immediately open.

On the surface it was bad news, he said, but in time he came to see it as a blessing.
His faith may have something to do with his new perspective.

On the morning of Good Friday of 2005, Parry had just arrived at the KFRU studios for another episode of "The Morning Meeting." Minutes before, the radio station had been alerted to a possible plane crash on Nifong Boulevard.

Someone called to say the damaged plane was on the lawn of  Woodcrest Chapel. Finally, the pastor of the church rang the station to explain the wreckage: It had been a promotion for Easter weekend services.

Later that day, Parry told his wife the family should attend Woodcrest Chapel, a non-denominational Christian church, for worship.

"I was sort of intrigued by it, and I was a seeker," Parry recalled. He was dissatisfied with his own church, and the staged plane crash was enough to lure him to Woodcrest. He found the messages so relevant that he continued to attend.

In the fall of 2006, Fred and Melody Parry enrolled in a course at Woodcrest called Marriage Matters. There they met Kent Willett, a local dentist, who helped Parry "understand the benefit of having a personal relationship with God."

With Willett's encouragement, he was baptized at the chapel in October 2007. He had been born a Catholic and baptized as a baby in Liberty, Mo., he said, “but this was the first time I was choosing to accept Jesus Christ as my savior.

“That was an important step for me in my journey, ‘cause I was making it known very publicly that I was going with God and I was in a relationship with God that had not been previously present in my life.

“I think that surprised a lot of people, because … to this day, I have pretty colorful language for the most part, and people see the sort of hard-ass side of me because of what I have done for a living.

“Only recently have I become very comfortable — no, not very comfortable, but more comfortable — talking to people about it.”

Since being baptized, Parry said his life has been in what he calls transition.

“I really have started to love myself for who I am, and that’s just the past 18 months of my life,” he said.


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