Maybe he never became a game show host, but 40-year radio and television veteran Gary Cocola has television in his blood.

Cocola is Fresno State's third Entrepreneur in Residence. He recently shared his success story with the Collegiate Entrepreneur's Club, the Central Valley Business Incubator and students in entrepreneurship classes.

Cocola admits he has been fanatical about television since 1953. His enthusiasm paid off-his stations serve the Fresno, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande television markets. He also operates a home shopping affiliate in Boise, Idaho.

The Entrepreneur in Residence Program was established in 1998 to coincide with the launch of the Entrepreneurship Option and Entrepreneurship Minor within the Craig School of Business. It provides students, faculty, and the Valley commuity with opportunities to interact, learn, and share ideas related to the entrepreneurial process. The program is hosted by the Institute for Developing Entrepreneurial Action (IDEA) at the Craig School of Business. Funding is provided by the Coleman Foundation.

The weeklong program exposes the selected entrepreneur to the resources and facilities that promote and support entrepreneurship at Fresno State. Candidates are selected based on their entrepreneurial achievements, their commitment to supporting young entrepreneurial achievements, and their desire to promote entrepreneurship throughout the Central Valley.

Timothy Stearns, entrepreneurship professor and director of the university's Entrepreneurship Program, said Cocola demonstrates the spirit of an entrepreneur.

"Cocola's success is an example of how an entrepreneur can find a successful niche even in a mature industry."

Now president of Cocola Broadcasting Commpanies, Cocola explores nontraditional uses of television. Like a true entrepreneur, he neve stops thinking of new ideas. He saw low-power television as the wave of the future when he started Channel 66 (KHST) in Fresno. It soon became one of the largest revenue generators in the Home Shopping Network.

Cocola started out far from the television lights. At age 11, he worked in a fruit packing house for 50 cents an hour.

"Dad really wanted me to have a good work ethic," Cocola said.

But even though at age 18 he saved enough to buy a brand new Thunderbird convertible, Cocola wanted something more. In high school he worked for Al Radka at Channel 12 (KFRE-TV), on a program called "Open House", judging popular records on the Wednesday portion of the "Traffic Pops" show. After that he hosted a local dance party program called "TV Record Hop," in a format similar to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." That gave him the itch to pursue television.

A meeting with a crusty old Los Angeles agent made 22-year-old Cocola rethink his plans. The agent told Cocola to consider where he wanted to be when he was 40 years old and whether he really wanted to compete with Hollywood's perpetual supply of new talent.

So Cocola got into selling fresh produce for his father. At 32, he owned his own business and was chosen to be on the board of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. It still wasn't enough. Cocola wanted his own television station.

In 1977, since he couldn't afford the $5 million price tag of an existing station, Cocola applied to have a new one allocated to the Fresno market. Seven years and $350,000 later, he bought out the interest of four other applicants, and the rights to the station were his.

But only the rights. He still had to find $1 million to build the station. By getting various ministries to commit $500,000 during a National Broadcaster's Association convention, Cocola got funding to build Channel 59 (KMSG) in 1985. Later the station became an affiliate of Telemundo, that's when Cocola started Channel 66, which began broadcasting in 1989.

After his divorce, Cocola took the proceeds from the sale of his half of Channel 59 and started Channel 34 in 1991. Soon after, he started Channel 43. Now he owns 20 television stations and sells affordable advertising spots to local businesses through his Internet site,

But entrepreneurial success isn't easy, according to Cocola. He compared his struggle to chipping away at a brick wall until it cracks.

"You just never give up," Cocola said. "You always look for a way to keep going."

Stearns agrees.

"It took Thomas Edison more than 1,000 times before he got the light bulb right," Stearns said. "Imagine if he'd stopped."

As Entrepreneur in Residence, Cocola visited campus Nov. 13-17. Former Entrepreneurs in Residence were Bruce Musick of Skyline Concepts in Malaysia and William Lyles of Lyles Diversified Inc. in Fresno.


Fresno State University Journal article by April Schulthies
reprinted with permission