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The Jeff Smulyan Interview with Special Guest Rick Cummings (Part 1)

“Once you realize you can’t make a business grow anymore, and all you can do is hit your head against a wall, nobody can be happy in a business that doesn’t grow.”

Andy Bloom

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Over a holiday weekend last summer, I had the opportunity to do a telephone interview with Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan and Rick Cummings, Emmis President of Programming. Typically, it’s fortunate to get a 30-minute interview with a CEO, but these were unusual circumstances.

With Jeff’s permission, I will tell you that he was isolating at home. Since it was a holiday weekend, there must not have been too many people available for Jeff to speak to because the interview lasted two hours. Whenever I offered to wrap up the discussion, Jeff insisted he was having fun and said to keep going. Rick was probably thinking how he could fake his own death or wish for mine, but he was always patient.

What follows is a transcript of our extraordinary discussion. It’s been edited for clarity. The length of our conversation allows for a comprehensive range of topics. Because I was living in Indianapolis then, I have insight into the early days of Jeff’s broadcast career, which I don’t think he has discussed in previous interviews. Rick’s participation adds dimension as well.

I am confident that you will really enjoy this two-part interview, which will continue next week. If you do, consider getting Jeff’s book: “Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down: The Ups, Downs, and Reinvention of an Entrepreneur,” which will be released on December 6th. 

Andy: Jeff, let’s begin with your start with radio. As I understand it, you started as a kid listening to faraway AMs. Is that correct?

Jeff: Yeah, I listened as a kid to two things: Top 40 radio, which, by the way, started with the original WIFE, actually WISH before WIFE, and then also WLS and WCFL in Chicago. I was also a big baseball fan. I was a big San Francisco Giants fan when they moved west with Willie Mays. So I listened on clear channel stations all over. I could get the Giants on KDKA in Pittsburgh, KMOX in St.Louis, WABC in New York. WGN Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati. I could listen to the Houston Astros out of WWL in New Orleans. The Phillies on WCAU. So I could follow the Giants around on clear channel radio stations almost all the way around the country all the time.

Andy: How old were you when you started doing this?

Jeff: Probably, with Top 40 and baseball, probably nine or ten. I still remember all those years listening to ballgames and Top 40 radio.

Andy: Right. That sounds familiar. That’s kind of what I did.

Jeff: It was really common. I can’t tell you how many guys, David Kennedy, Dick Ferguson, Bud Walters, and on and on and on. Guys who grew up listened to the radio like that. I was listening to a ballgame under my pillow at night or Top 40 radio when I was supposed to be doing homework.

Andy: When you’re listening to Top 40 radio versus baseball, what is it you’re listening to? What’s drawing you?

Jeff: It was the sense of being a part of something that was big in your community. When WIFE was at its zenith, starting, I think, in 62. I was 14 or 15. I still remember Joe Light had 75% of the audience at night. Everybody listened to that radio station. You didn’t know anybody who wasn’t totally immersed in Top 40 radio. That was true of almost every teenage kid in the United States.

Andy: At what point do you start thinking, this is what I want to do? Does that come later, or did you know it at that time?

Jeff: Very, very early. I knew that by the time I went to college, that was what I wanted to do. I told my daughter I was an anomaly because I knew I wanted to be in radio by the time I set foot in college. Absolutely knew.

Andy: By nine or ten years old. You’re listening to the radio at night—speaker under your pillow. You’re listening to baseball. By nine or ten years old, would we have had a pretty good picture of who Jeff Smulyan was going to be when he grew up?

Jeff: That’s a great question. No. I think I grew up later. I’m a believer that you grow up when you’re away from home and you’re on your own. That really happened. I evolved as a human being much more in college than at any other time.

Andy: I want to talk to you about college because, I lived in Indianapolis. Most of the kids that I knew in high school were going to go to school in Indiana. IU, Purdue, Butler, and a handful of other schools in Indiana. The ones who weren’t were probably heading east. You went to California. You went to USC. Talk about how you ended up in California at USC.

Photo Credit PAC 12

Jeff: I had a cousin there at USC, but more than that, if you look at the United States in 1964, 65, that was really the height of sort of California, this endless possibility. I still remember watching the famous Rose Bowl game between USC and Wisconsin. I think it was January of 1963. I’m watching the Rose Bowl and USC, and I remember sitting there saying, boy, that’s where I want to be. Absolutely, that’s where I want to be. It always was sort of magical for me. It was what I wanted to do. I applied out there. To get into USC in those days, we used to joke, all you had to do was fog up a mirror, and you got two out of three tries to do it. That was what I wanted to do. I thought it would be an adventure. I thought California. I thought about the weather. I thought, I’m going to go out there for two years, and we’ll see. Then I’ll come back to Indiana like everybody I know. After a year, it’s like, I ain’t never going back. I loved it. But I think I grew up. I’ve got an 18-year-old daughter starting at Georgetown. I keep telling her you’re going to grow up when you’re on your own.

Andy: You end up going to law school. Was there anything that was a clue that you would go to law school?

Jeff: I wanted to get a Master’s in Telecom. I was going to apply to Stanford for a Master’s in Telecom. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. Andy, this is the most interesting thing. There was nobody at the time who said, if you want to be in business, get a Master’s in Business. It sounds crazy today, but if you wanted to get further education and be ready for the world, you got a law degree. Today, if you were in the same spot, a hundred people would tell you to get an MBA. I still laugh – we had one guy in my law school class who got a joint JD/MBA. We made fun of him and said, why do you want to spend an extra year and deal with the dummies in the business school? We had so much hubris; it was embarrassing. I’ll never forget what somebody said to me, get a law degree, don’t get a Master’s. If you want to be an entrepreneur, get a law degree, and you have instant credibility, and you’ll understand how the world works. He said when you get out of law school and want to go off on your own, and you’ll be ready to be an entrepreneur. It was actually pretty good advice in retrospect.

Andy: So you never had any intention to practice law?

Jeff: No, I’ve been a member of the Indiana State Bar for about 45 or 50 years. I’m on some sort of inactive status. I’ve always said that if I actually went to practice law and went on active status, I would be disbarred within the first week. I have never had an interest in practicing. Never, ever, ever.

Andy: There’s a CEO gene. It’s in the way CEOs ask questions as you do. If I sat down and talked with somebody, I think I could pick out people who have been successful CEOs of major companies. I don’t know if it’s that you have the CEO gene or if it’s the law degree. Certainly, you don’t do an inquisition the way some do, but you certainly have the CEO gene. The reason I wanted to ask about law school is that you do have a way of getting to questions and drilling in to get to the bottom of a matter. I’m wondering, do you think that’s the CEO gene, or do you think your law school training maybe has something to do with it?

Jeff: You know, that’s a great question. And I have no idea if I have a CEO gene. I know that I have an entrepreneurial gene. My grandfathers were entrepreneurs. My father was an entrepreneur. I’ve always said that I had to be an entrepreneur because I’m not employable in a free society. I do think the one thing I have, which I didn’t have as much in college or law school, is a great degree of intellectual curiosity, and that’s served me very well over time.

Andy: You returned to Indianapolis in 1973.

Jeff: I was looking at deals, and my dad had a cousin who had a small station. My dad very much wanted me to be back here, as did my mother. I had spent some time not finding that deal. A couple of deals fell apart. We had one station in San Bernardino that we thought we would get, but we didn’t. My dad said his cousin needed help, and the station was a mess. If you come back here, you run it, and it’ll give you some time to find the deal that you love, and you’ll be back home. My dad was very persistent and very persuasive, and I did it. For the first six months, I thought, what have I done? After that, I fell in love with Indianapolis, and I’ve really never been tempted to leave.

Andy: Is that before WNTS, or is that WNTS?

Jeff: That is WNTS. It was. WNIR, and we switched it to WNTS.

Andy: Again, because I lived in Indianapolis then, I know that WNTS stands for weather, news, talk, sports.

Jeff: That is correct. Right.

Andy: And I remember a guy called David Letterman who was on the air there.

Jeff: Right. But do you know who replaced David Letterman on the air? That’s the trivia question for today. It’s either Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or Rick Cummings. Pick one.

Rick: And by the way, no one else in Indianapolis then or now knew the answer to that either.

Jeff: Letterman went to California. Cummings replaced him.

Andy: Let’s spend a minute on Letterman. Tell me about David Letterman circa 1973 – 1974 at WNTS.

Jeff: Absolutely brilliant. David had a cult following of guys that I knew. My friend David Klapper, who ended up founding The Finish Line in those days, worked at his dad’s liquor store and had Letterman’s (show) on all the time. There were a lot of guys our age who did. The problem was the people who listened to Talk Radio were basically 65-year-old and up. While Letterman became a cult favorite of all the kids, the 65-year-olds thought he was a Bolshevik. I can tell you one story that I will never forget. I came back from lunch, and one of these people called me and said, Letterman’s a communist. I asked; Why? He said, Well, I called up today and said; the communists are all over Carmel (IN), and he said, I think you got to give them Carmel. The schools are overcrowded. The streets are torn up, and you can never find a place to park. So, I would give the communists Carmel, and let’s hold the line at Nora (a nearby suburb). I wanted to explode, but I was a very serious manager at the time. I said, sir, I’m going to check into this with David, and we’ll sort this out. That was David. He was brilliant. One day he announced that we had sold Monument Circle (The Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a 285-foot memorial in the middle of downtown Indianapolis) to Guam, and we were going to get a 150-foot celery stick to put in its place. Just bizarre and great stuff.

Rick: One of my recurring favorites – at the time, Otis Bowen was governor. Letterman called him Governor Bowman. Old folks would call in and go; You’ve got his name wrong. It’s Governor Bowen. He’d say right, Governor Bowman.

Jeff: We had Claudia Polley and Jane Pauley. Claudia was about a six-foot-two African-American woman who was one of our newspeople. She was a really good person, a great lady. Jane was an anchorwoman on Channel 8. Their names were spelled differently, but he would call Jane and Claudia the twins. Jane Pauley was everybody’s sweetheart. Claudia went to some remote in Greenwood (IN). People were thinking they were going to see Jane’s twin. Instead, here’s this large African American woman appearing in probably the heart of Klan country. Oh, my God, a lot of crazy stuff in those days.

Andy: Did you recognize that this guy was something special and could go on to be something?

Jeff: David was brilliant, but you never know. David hit it big in L.A right away. When David went out there, we gave him a stipend to do reports for us to help him out. I can still remember my favorite one. He did a bit on the Rose Parade. They ran out of roses, so they did the floats with pork byproducts. He said whatever money they saved, the stench of the pork sent so many people to the hospital that it didn’t help them. It was just crazy.

Andy: Does WNTS directly lead to purchasing what becomes WENS?

Jeff:  Over a few years, Letterman left, Cummings left later, and we switched. It was clear we were never going to get big ratings on a day-timer. NBC had an elegant solution where they switched all their FMs to All-News, and we decided to do that. They did it for about a year until, I think, in 77. Then they pulled the plug, and we realized the only future for a station at 1590, daytime, was religion. So, we went religion. That went well, and then about a year later, we bought Bob Gibson’s station in Omaha and went religion. By that time, I had found WSVL in Shelbyville (IN). That became WENS. Found it and made the deal in 79. It took us two years to get the tower up.

Andy: I want to ask you something about WNTS and see if my memory is correct. Did you have a contest where you gave away a boat, and somebody from WIFE, won the boat?

Jeff: No, WIFE had a contest to give away a boat, and I won the contest because it was a snippet from Della Reese. I was probably the only person in America that knew it. I’ll never forget it because Della Reese had a syndicated TV show that I think only played in L.A. when I was in school there. I called at like one in the morning and said the mystery voice was Della Reese. The guy said, Oh my God, you’ve won; this is unbelievable. And I said, when you find out that I’m the general manager of one of your competitors, it’s going to be more unbelievable. And when your people find out that you gave away your big prize at one in the morning on Saturday night, it’s going to be even more unbelievable. So I won a pontoon boat, but they had the last laugh because I stored the damn thing for three years. Now I could use it because I live on a lake. But in those days, I paid for all this storage. I finally sold it. I don’t know, three or four years later.

Andy: So you were the GM at WNTS and won a WIFE contest for a mystery voice at 1 a.m. Saturday morning?

Jeff: It may not have been Saturday morning. It may have been 1:00 a.m., Wednesday. I know it was in the middle of the night when no radio station ever wants to give away its big prize.

Andy: If that doesn’t prove you’re a radio geek, I don’t know what does.

Jeff: Honest to God, I can still remember the guy saying, Oh, my God. And I said, wait until you find out I’m a general manager of a competitor, and you gave away your big prize to one of your competitors in the middle of the night. And the disc jockey said, holy shit! That story made the (Indianapolis) Star.

Andy: I know it made the Star because I delivered newspapers in Indianapolis then, and I remember reading it. Let’s move on to WENS. It takes you two years, but you move it in and flip the format, and is it an overnight success?

Jeff: Yes, absolutely. Positively. Rick, did it go to a six or seven share our first book?

Rick: It was a seven share, 12 plus. Then the second book, it was an eight and a half. The third book was a ten-something. Then it slipped back to an eight and a half. And you had me in your office saying, What the hell is going on here? Why is it going down?

Jeff: I should have fired you for that. It would have saved 45 years of agony. (Laughs)

Andy: You’ve corrected something that I had wrong. I thought this was where Rick Cummings entered. In fact, Rick was there for WNTS.

Jeff: Yeah, well, Rick left in…what, 76 RC?

Rick: Yup. I could see where things were headed, and I had an offer to go to WTIC in Hartford. After some back and forth, because I really didn’t want to leave Indianapolis, I left, and I was there for three years.

Jeff: But you regret it, don’t you, Rick?

Rick: Yeah. (Laughs)

Andy: But you came back to launch WENS.

Rick: I remember I was out of work as I generally was back then. I was in New Orleans. I’d worked there for about a year. I was out of work, and Jeff called and said, I’m starting this FM; you want to come and program it? I really didn’t have any other options (laughs).

Jeff:: Wait a minute! I thought you were working at SMB! You were fired?

Rick: No, I was out of work. Didn’t I tell you that?

Jeff: No, this changes everything! I thought you were working. I thought I talked you into leaving WSMB.

Rick: I remember thinking, Oh my God, he’s starting this FM, and he’s offering me the job to program, and I’ve never programmed an FM music station in my life. I don’t know how smart this is, but all right, I’ll give it a shot.

Jeff: I did not know until this very moment that you were out of work. I am pissed. I had no idea. Really, I thought you were gainfully employed.

Rick: I’m sure it was a negotiating ploy. (laughs)

Jeff: All kidding aside, Andy. I told him, someday, I’m going to start my own company, and I want you to program the thing. But I had no idea he had no job at the time. I’m thinking I should get back all of the money I have paid for the last 41 years because I thought he was employed! (laughs)

Rick: It was quite an experience. I remember sitting at Jeff’s dining room table with the Joel Whitburn Pop Hits books. We sat there and picked the records at the dining room table – crazy.

Jeff: And we wrote the TV commercial, which was probably the most successful thing we’ve ever done. The TV commercial was called I Played Golf with the Governor, which satirized everybody. It actually struck a nerve – absolutely struck a nerve. It was an animated spot that started out with a guy who was clearly Gary Todd. He was the morning guy on WIBC. He was Mr. Indianapolis, and he had become a caricature of himself. Every single use of his show was name-dropping. We started by saying, tomorrow, I’m playing golf with the governor. Then we satirized the people at Q95 (WFBQ) and WFMS and ended with the WNAP Buzzard. It said we don’t talk at you: we let our music do the talking: after that was our logo. The spot absolutely took off. I’ll never forget one of my favorite moments. We’d been on the air for about a month. I’m standing in line at a movie, and four people in front of me are talking about the commercial and how great the station is, and it’s the greatest commercial they’ve ever seen. It was one of those times when you thought, Holy cow! We’ve hit it big.

Andy: WENS takes off, and that leads to expansion from about 81 to 1990. I think I read somewhere in an interview you called those the golden years.

Jeff: Absolutely. We bought LOL in Minneapolis in 82. We bought St. Louis and LA in 84. We bought the Doubleday stations in 86. We bought the NBC stations in 88. We bought a Malrite station in Houston in 89. That’s how we got into baseball. Because we were an FM music company, we wanted to just be in the top markets. We were in most of them by then. We were in New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, St Louis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Houston. There weren’t that many more stations we could buy. In those days, you could only own one station in a market. That’s when we said, what are we going to do next? We were sort of the turnaround guys. Somebody said baseball needs somebody to figure out Seattle; it’s a disaster. We had bought what became WFAN from Doubleday, who owned the Mets. That’s how we got to know all the baseball people. That’s how we ended up in baseball.

Andy: Let’s talk about baseball for a minute. So then, it was another turnaround project and not a childhood dream?

Jeff: I always wanted to own a baseball team. It’s a turnaround project. I mean, I love baseball. The one thing that we’ve always done, not always successfully, but we always said we wanted to own businesses that we could turn around, that we could make work. So it was a business plan, and well, I love baseball. If you’re doing something you love, you’re going to work harder, and you know more about it. It was clearly something that I loved. We bought it because we said this thing is the worst in Major League Baseball. If we can make it a little bit better. It should be economically rewarding.

Photo Credit Indianapolis Star

Andy: Talk for a minute about the experience of being a Major League Baseball team owner.

Jeff: It’s very heady. For the first six months as a public figure, you walk down the street, and people take your picture, put microphones in your face, and you sign autographs for 30 minutes every night after the ball game. You walk around the stands, and people cheer you. Being a public figure for the first six months is very cool. If you like it after the first six months, you’re probably a psychopath. Being a public figure can also be very difficult. I was the boy wonder my first two years there, and in my last year there, I was a pariah, which is a great lesson and preparation for the rest of your life. I went from being the boy wonder to the guy who said, “guys, this isn’t working. We’ve got to do something else.” It was like, ”what do you mean we’ve got to do something else? You’ve got to fund this forever.” But we couldn’t afford to fund it. The big problem we had is nobody thought anybody in their right mind would buy the team and keep it in Seattle. Baseball wanted it out of Seattle. I learned that we were sort of their lab experiment. They said these guys are great marketers, and maybe they can make it work, but we’re pretty sure they can’t. We won all sorts of marketing awards. By every metric, we did great. But you had no revenues, and you had no cable deal, you had no corporate support, you had no government support. Andy, you have to read the book to get all the gory details about Seattle.

Andy: I’m coming to the book. I’m going to ask about it. I’m just finishing up on baseball. How is baseball like radio, and how is it different than radio?

Jeff: Any business at its heart is an entrepreneurial venture. If you look at every component of a business and say, how can we make it better? How can we make the marketing better? How can we make ticket sales better? How could we figure out the broadcasting rights, and can we figure out the relationship with the community? How can we improve the roster of the team? And by all those metrics, we did better. We had the first winning team in the history of the franchise. The guys we had went on to finally win the division for the first time in their history a few years after we sold. We had some great young players: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez, who are all in the Hall of Fame and started their careers with us. Any business is attacking every area and asking, how can you figure out how to make that business better? I’ve said this about WNTS, and I’ve said it about the Mariners, you do your best management in impossible situations. Absolutely. Positively. Gary Kaseff, my dear friend and president of the team, asked me on the day we sold it, “What could we have done differently?” I said, Gary, you’ll look back at this, and this will be the best management of your career, but it was an impossible project. Unless we had $20 million a year to lose forever, this was not going to turn around because of the economics of baseball. It got much worse when we got hit with a $12 million collusion lawsuit settlement.

Andy: Was moving the team an option?

Jeff: Absolutely, I would have happily moved the team. Tampa wanted us. The American League desperately wanted us to move to Tampa, but we had a lease with Seattle, which we honored. The lease said that Seattle had the right to buy the team when it was put up for sale, but if there was no local buyer, we had the right to sell it to an out-of-market buyer or move it ourselves. The controversy around me was that the community thought that nobody in their right mind is going to buy this thing. So Smulyan is going to move our team. What’s interesting is the only reason Nintendo bought it is that U.S. Senator Slade Gorton had built his whole career on baseball. When he was the county attorney, he sued baseball and got the Mariners in 1977, which is another fascinating story. He got a hold of tapes of a baseball meeting where they said some very untoward things about Seattle and a few other things. He basically blackmailed them and said, either give us an expansion team, or I’m releasing the tape. That was the last time anybody ever taped a Major League Baseball meeting. He got copyright protection for video games for Nintendo, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars for them. Because he had done them such a big favor, he convinced them they needed to buy the Mariners. Even though Nintendo had never owned a ticket for the Mariners before 1992, they bought the team.

Andy: Are baseball owners much different than owners or CEOs of radio companies?

Jeff: I was astounded at the level of sophistication of baseball management. I thought radio was a more professionally managed business than baseball. I was surprised that some of the things that were second nature to us in radio were revolutionary in baseball. Especially the marketing, Andy. We did stadium stuff in baseball that had never been done before, whether it was indoor fireworks or funny movie clips, or singles contests. We had situational music that we played. We did all sorts of stuff that you see now that nobody had ever done before. I was very proud. You go to a professional game today, and all that stuff is standard today, commonplace. But it was all brand new in 1989. We did it. Revolutionary.

Andy: You have served as NAB’s director and RAB’s chair. Your list of awards is pages and pages long. Today you are out of radio. Do you consider yourself a broadcaster today?

Jeff: Yeah. I’ll be a broadcaster until the day I die. I love the business. I will rival my love for this business with anybody, ever. I believe in it. I care about it. It broke my heart when we made the decision that we needed to move on. Nothing is harder for an organization than hitting your head against the wall every day doing something that’s clearly not growing. And it wasn’t.

Andy: So when you started to sell stations, initially, was it to deleverage?

Jeff: Yeah, the major deleveraging is when we made the decision to get out of television. We had 16 stations, and we all voted. Everybody but Randy Bongarten (President of Emmis’ television division at the time) said sell TV and keep radio. We had beachfront properties in radio. In TV, our biggest markets were Portland, New Orleans, Orlando, and Honolulu. We thought, look, both businesses were challenged. It was kind of prescient because it was in 2006, several years before the economic collapse. We said we’ve got $1.6 billion in debt. It’s too much debt. So we sold TV and de-levered our balance sheet a lot. But then, in 2008 and 09, like everybody else, our world collapsed. If you had any debt, it was too much.

Andy: At what point does it switch from deleveraging to exiting radio?

Jeff: Even before NextRadio, we realized we needed to hedge our bets. First, we sold Movin’ and a few other things. I think the big recognition that it was time to transition out was selling Power (KPWR, Power 106, Los Angeles). Rick, would you agree with that?

Rick: Yes, I would. It’s interesting. Two days ago, a picture of you and I, Jeff, popped up on my social media timeline at a restaurant out here called Ca’ Del Sole, where we had had a going away party for the staff and handed out literally tens of thousands of dollars worth of thank-you bonuses to everyone from the part-time board operators to the market manager. For a year afterward, I would get calls from people saying I still can’t believe it when I opened that check. Holy shit! That was five years ago. I think LA sort of opened the floodgates for us. We were looking around and going, wow, look at Austin, where we have a full complement of radio stations, a full cluster, then look at Los Angeles and New York and other places where we have far less than a full cluster. Even though we’re driving ratings, it’s a completely different business. We sort of control the world in Austin, Texas, where we’ve got a full cluster. Even though we’re killing it in ratings in Los Angeles and New York, we’ve got one or two stations, and it’s just not the same kind of business. LA sort of opened our minds. After we started looking around, going, wow, it really is a case of go big or go home. That is when we started thinking about an orderly exit

Jeff: Andy, NextRadio was very illustrative to us. When NextRadio started in like 12 or 13?

Rick: Something like that. It was about ten years ago.

Jeff: More than that because it started with David Rehr, who was president of the NAB at the time. In those days, eight or nine of the biggest CEOs in the industry would meet regularly every quarter. David walked in and said, there’s this FM chip on the phones in Europe and Asia, and it allows you to get radio on a cell phone. This was at the very beginning of the smartphone era. It may have been even before the smartphone era. Somebody knew we had partnered with Nokia on an application in Finland and said, hey, Jeff, you know those guys. Will you take this on? I looked at it, and I started studying it, and I fell in love with it. I knew our portability had died. You go back 15 years, and every kid had a boombox. Five years before that, everybody had a Walkman. Radio’s listening had declined precipitously because there was no portability. We said, my God, if we could put an FM chip in every smartphone because by then, we were years into streaming, Andy. We had looked at streaming and said because of music licensing and data costs, nobody in those days made any money streaming. I submit that 15 years later, nobody still has made any money in streaming. We said if we can preserve the terrestrial signal in a smartphone, we can save portability for the industry. I fell in love with it. I became a missionary about it. Probably within six months, we found out that when we went to smartphones, this was at the end of the flip phone era; every smartphone already had an FM chip built in.

The phone guys didn’t want to admit that, but it was there. So all we had to do was get the damn chip turned on. Kevin Gage, head of engineering for the NAB, said it’s not enough to turn the radio on; you’ve got to build a visual presence that will compete with other visible presences on the phone. I think he went to iHeart, CBS, and probably others and asked somebody to build a prototype. Paul Brenner, who had worked with Apple on the original iTunes store, said, we can build it. So we built it. The NAB advanced us some money, and we built what became NextRadio.

What really changed my mind, and this is the heart of all my thinking: Paul walked in one day. By that time, we had launched in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. He said I’ve discovered something. If you run eight minutes an hour, people will stay with you. Most American radio stations are running 15, 16, 18 units an hour and usually at least 12 minutes an hour. He said there’s a breakpoint, and you drive them away. We looked at that and said we’re not getting the kind of listening in the United States as we are in other places. It became clear that the basic product of radio was flawed. We’ll probably never regain portability because when people have viable options, they’ll pick something else. When they’re captive in their cars, they’ll listen to you, and maybe they’ll switch around. There certainly were other reasons, but the over-commercialization, I submit that, was the death knell of the industry.

Rick: By the way, NextRadio started in 2013.

Jeff: But the FM CHIP project probably started a couple of years earlier.

Andy: I know you talked about it before the iPhone because I was using a Nokia phone.

Jeff: Right. We talked to Nokia, and they said, look, this is the rage in Europe and Asia. We’ll do a display in our stores, and for five extra bucks, we’ll put an FM chip in it. Phones with an FM chip were flying off the shelves. They said here’s your problem, the phone manufacturers love it, but the ecosystem in the United States is controlled by the carriers. They don’t want anything in their ecosystem, which is exactly right. So the carriers always fought it. The manufacturers were happy to turn on the chip. The chip was already there when smartphones came out a couple of years later. I testified in Congress in front of a phone executive who was willing to swear in front of Congress that the chip did not exist. I had one memorable meeting with then-Congressman Ed Markey and Gordon Smith. It was in Markey’s office, and Congressman Greg Walden was with us, an AT&T executive and the head of CTIA, their lobbying group. We talked about it, and the AT&T guy said, what you’re talking about is nice, but it is physically impossible to do in the United States. I swear, I pulled out a phone that was an AT&T phone that the NAB had found, and it had the chip in there, and turned it on to WTOP. I said, sir, this is your phone. He looked at it and went, “Oh” I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

Andy: You talked about people getting checks as you departed L.A. You’ve departed from a number of markets. Jeff, I know you and Rick; I certainly know you well enough to know that you have a relationship with your employees. Emmis has been voted one of the best places to work in Fortune Magazine and a number of other places. And I can testify to it myself that it is a great place to work. Let me get into your heads. The night before it’s going to be announced, what does it feel like? What are you thinking? What’s keeping you up? Rick, tell me, too, from your perspective. What do you go through when you know you’re going to break this news to people in a market?

Jeff: I’ll give you a quote from my daughter. When we sold Los Angeles, she said, I know you’re at peace with this decision, but how is Rick? I said, Cari, Rick, and I love this business as much as anybody, but the hard part, Rick, jump in here once you realize you can’t make a business grow anymore, and all you can do is hit your head against a wall, nobody can be happy in a business that doesn’t grow. Your employees aren’t happy. Your shareholders are unhappy. Your advertisers are unhappy. Your listeners are unhappy. I think that was the realization that we just couldn’t do the things that we loved doing and win. Rick, you’ve said it to me 100 times. I want to win again. And when you realize that what you love and you do, you can’t win, I think it changes your mindset. RC, have I said that pretty accurately?

Rick: Yeah, over time, you sort of get to peace with these things. It was a revelation probably to a lot of people in the company, but certainly to me, when we started parting with what were literally our babies, these radio stations, it wasn’t so bad. Life goes on, and I think we left the way we were supposed to leave. We left with our people feeling good about us. We left with our heads up, and that helped us get comfortable with the whole circumstance. Jeff is right. It used to be you go into a marketplace, get great ratings, the revenue would follow, and things just kept growing. When that stopped, getting good ratings and not growing the revenue became less fun pretty quickly. We went on that way for a number of years. We finally reached the point where we said, to quote Jeff, we’re banging our heads against the wall. What are we doing? That’s really what drove it. By the time we got there, we were at peace with it.

Photo Credit Indianapolis Business Journal

Jeff: Andy, I would use this example. What made Emmis, Emmis, is you had a group of very talented people who worked very well together, who looked at the hill and said, Here’s the plan. Here’s how we’re going to take the hill, and we took the hill. Over time, those same people lived in an environment where there was no growth, and nothing made any real difference. Those same people, over a number of years, looked at a hill and said, there’s a boulder on that hill that’s going to roll down and cause an avalanche and kill me. I’ve always said my job is to get us back to taking hills. That’s my job.

Rick: I would add one thing. If this comes off as negative towards the radio industry, we’ve not answered your questions properly because I won’t speak for Jeff, but this industry has been really good to me for decades. Really for all my life. I have nothing negative to say about it. We were just in a circumstance where our size, in particular, just said we cannot win the way we were accustomed to winning. Therefore, it’s time for us to go look for another hill to climb where we can do that.

Jeff: I had a great talk with Bud Walters, a dear friend, and he said, Jeff, big market radio’s different than small market radio. Small-market radio is thriving because it’s not doing the things that some of the big guys are doing. It’s not discounting the inventory. It’s not doing all this stuff remotely. It’s involved with its communities, and therefore it’s a different business. And I think that’s right. The business we were in, we just thought, was pretty tough to do.

Andy: Your experiences help clarify why you exited the business.

Part two of Andy Bloom’s extensive conversation with Jeff Smulyan and Rick Cummings will be released next week

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Radio Has an Overloaded Spot Block Problem and Here’s How to Fix It

Raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership.

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While the radio industry insists that our medium is still king, I’m skeptical. I hope the numbers are being spun properly, I just have doubts. In either case, we’re sweeping a lot of stuff under the rug. People may still be “sampling” radio but are they listening? Do they buy what you’re selling?

The typical news/talk station airs 22 minutes of commercials per hour. When you add in five minutes of network news and spots plus recorded promos (commercials for ourselves), we’re talking half an hour of content killer.

I’m a typical listener. With rare exceptions, I only listen while I’m driving. Behind the wheel, my habit is standard: punch around my presets until I hear something of interest or at least actual content and not commercials. When a talk segment ends, I listen to the tease and then punch out. I don’t sit through what I know will be a five or six-minute commercial break. If the tease was done well and it interests me, I’ll try to remember to come back. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

Here in Dallas these days, I mainly listen to our two excellent sports talk stations, The Ticket and The Fan. And I always smile when I hear them constantly trying to convince me that by choosing to listen to their particular station I’m part of an exclusive club. That’s nothing new really but the branding is ingenuous.

105.3 The Fan cleverly labels listeners “TOLOs”, implying people who wisely “Turn it On, Leave it On”. The Ticket merely plays the highest authority card, referring to their listeners as “P1s”. I know what it means but the average listener has no clue. It’s an inside joke. I’ve never heard the station explain it but their faithful listeners supposedly wear the badge proudly.

I’ve never seen any figures on shared listening but I expect the crossover between the two sports talk stations would be nearly 100%. People do what I do, punch back and forth looking for interesting content.

After hiring and inspiring great talent and setting the tone for a station’s identity, a news/talk programmer’s primary job is trying to navigate a sea of clutter. There are various ways to do it but anything short of reducing the number and length of commercial breaks is just rearranging the furniture.

One of the most common tactics is promoting a commercial-free segment. In my opinion, that’s just calling attention to the problem and admitting that commercials are a necessary evil. I’ll bet your clients love that.

I admire and pity radio salespeople who have always had to fight to survive in a dog-eat-dog world but now also have to sell clients on the idea that their money will be well spent even though their message might be buried in the middle of a five-minute cluster.

Are there too many commercials on the air? Hell yes. 22 minutes per hour for talk and news? Why do people sit through that?

They don’t. They pop around the dial as I do, and are increasingly learning that podcasts offer information and entertainment with far fewer interruptions. The RTDNA and the RAB don’t want to admit that. Nielsen puts a rosy spin on the numbers because broadcasters are their main customers. Even highly respected news outlets report the idea that radio is doing great but read this and see if you don’t share my skepticism below the headline:

Americans Listen To Far More Radio Than Podcasts—Even Young People, New Data Shows

“American adults still spend an overwhelming majority of their daily listening time on radio broadcasts despite the rise in popularity of podcasts and music streaming services, new Nielsen data on listening habits in the first quarter of 2024 shows. Though younger audiences are starting to buck that trend by choosing on-demand audio at a higher rate than their elders.” Forbes, May 1, 2024

I’m not the smartest guy in any room. I’ve never been a GM or Sales Manager. I have been an air talent and program director, though, and I can smell as well as hear the problem. There are far too many commercial interruptions for radio to survive this way for much longer.

Retired WGN morning legend Spike O’Dell agrees.

“Are spot breaks too long? Coming from the talent side of this issue my answer is absolutely. I’m a realist and understand that they’re necessary but a five-minute stop set is a show killer and a ratings killer,” he said. “Why in the world would a listener want to wait through that amount of time unless the content was the most fascinating subject ever?

“When I left the airwaves, we were at 23 minutes of spots an hour, and even I got bored with my own show. Spot breaks and amount of spots played per hour is a long-time sore subject to discuss or ponder. But, it didn’t take this talk show host very long to learn that I was never going to win this issue. Money will always win out. Sometimes management should do the wrong thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Journalist, former media exec, and USC professor Jerry Del Colliano agrees and has an audacious idea: do what every other industry does and raise prices.

“Charge more for spots and limit to 12 per hour.  If there is demand for more, stick to 12 and raise the price of an ad,” he said. “Programmers have known for decades that commercials don’t build time spent listening — and they aren’t doing advertisers any favors by crowding too many spots in and creating an impossible situation to help advertisers succeed.”

Guy Zapoleon is famous for his music radio expertise and innovations but he’s also a veteran radio programmer who has to deal with clutter. He agrees. Cut the spot load and raise the rates. He says it should have been done long ago.

“Telecom and the major companies becoming publicly traded companies along with overpaying for radio stations derailed that idea. Look, I’m a fan of what Now 102.3, a Hot AC type station in Canada, is doing. They only run six minutes an hour versus 12 minutes for most of the competitors but they charge more to meet budget demands. They also go overboard helping their clients with remotes and ideas to drive customers to their clients to increase their ROI value.”

Now, there’s a thought: raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership. Offer them more personal attention, and hands-on assistance than you’ve had time for while juggling a client list and spot load that would choke a horse.

Back to Jerry for a moment. I asked him how and when programmers should design breaks. He brushed aside quarter-hour maintenance and stayed focused on the much bigger consideration.

“Where you place them is less important than the total number per hour but the idea of loading up two-quarter hours to run all your spots obviously isn’t working, hasn’t worked, and won’t work.”

Cutting more jobs can’t improve profitability. Increasing your spot load chases away your audience and your sales strategy. The only thing left is raising rates and reducing inventory.

Explain to your clients that by paying more they are getting an exclusive opportunity to be center stage rather than being shoved to the back of a very crowded bus. Assure them your programming is the best in town.

And make that true.

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Libsyn’s Rob Walch Has Watched Podcasting Grow From Infancy to Audio Juggernaut

“When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

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A photo of Rob Walch and the Libsyn logo
(Photo: Libsyn)

Libsyn Vice President of Podcaster Relations Rob Walch is one of the founding fathers of podcasting, helping and inspiring countless people to start their very own webcasts.

“I’ve been in [Podcasting] since 2004. Got in it early on. I read it in an article in Engadget on October 4th, 2004 and it said, ‘If you want a podcast, just add this enclosure tag to your blog feed and you can podcast.’ I went, what the heck does that all mean?,” he told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

“So I figured it out and launched a podcast. There wasn’t many, maybe 100, podcasters at the time. And my podcast was about podcasting. So it was the first podcast specifically about podcasting called podcast411.” Getting the inside scoop from other podcasters, the podcast about podcasting focused on tech and promotions.

His hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Just three years later, Rob Walch joined Libsyn. He now runs podcasting relations, business development, “and a whole lot more.”

The former engineer turned podcaster has seen a lot change since the industry’s beginnings, most notably accessibility. “When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

A “convoluted method” of uploading, transmitting, and manually adding each podcast into iPod tracks and then syncing to iTunes was laborious, and finding a new podcast wasn’t any easier.

“There was not really any centralized directory. There was Podcast Alley and a bunch of other places. Then Apple, in June of 2005, launched iTunes and it supported podcasting and that really was like the first inflection point of podcasting.” Another change to amplify podcasting came two years later with the launch of the iPhone.

However, Walch noted the most notable change that amplified podcasting came in 2015.

“The real big one was iOS 8. When it came out, the Apple podcast app was native and people can tap this purple app on my iPhone, and ‘How come I can’t delete it?’ They they started learning about podcasting.”

Rob Walch believes Apple gave the podcasting industry so much growth because, “At one point in time it was six iOS downloads to every one Android download.” Today the ratio is less skewed with 3.2 iOS downloads to every one Android download.

“I think the other change that happened after — it wasn’t an inflection point, it was a slow burn — was all the apps that you listened to music on began to have podcast directories … I think that, combined with everything else that led to where podcasting became ubiquitous, where we are today.”

Rob Walch also noted no matter what you read, “Apple Podcasts, is the number one place where podcasts are consumed. It’s 50% of consumption.”

Today, Walch believes the biggest trend in podcasting might be hindering to the audience. “People overly expecting video to take them to the next level and finding out that that’s not really the case. I think there’s way too many people that think they can just convert a traditional audio podcast into a video podcast, and it’s going to flower and bloom. Some do. Most don’t.”

“Most people forget that the reason podcasting is popular is because there’s more time in the day to consume audio than there is video,” he later said. “And if your audience is more of a B2B audience and you’re not good with video, don’t do video. Concentrate on the audio.”

Doing this also puts your podcast in direct competition with every video maker on YouTube instead of just podcasters.

Walch’s passion for podcasting has been evident since the very beginning of his career.

“My goal has always been to help people get into podcasting and that was what podcast411 was about. It was the first that said, ‘Here’s how you podcast. Here’s how you get done.’ That was the whole idea of the podcast was to teach people how to do it. I wasn’t selling webinars, I wasn’t trying to sign people up into this mastermind group or any of that into any of those slimy, hyper-marketing type things. I just wanted people to be able to podcast.”

For those looking to take to the mic, Rob Walch has several words of wisdom.

“Anybody could do it. That there is no magic bolt. There’s no secret sauce. There’s no way you’re going to instantly grow an audience. You have to get lucky for a show, in some ways. But you also have to be dedicated to it.”

He also noted people do not ask the right questions when it comes to launching their own podcast. “You got to answer these two questions, which is: What are you going to call your show and what’s it going to be about?”

“When you go into search, it’s called predictive search results. As you start typing, it starts giving you the results. The first word in the title of your podcast is so important. So if you’re starting a podcast, the thing you really want to make sure is: What is the one word that you think people would be searching for your topic? And it’s not your name. If they know your name, they’ll find you. Put that at the end. But what’s the one word in the topic if you’re going to spend money on Google AdSense?”

Rob Walch suggests going to Google Trends and looking at the top three popular words for the topic you want your podcast to be about. He gave this example, “I had a friend whose podcast was called the Fifth Race Podcast, and people are like, ‘What’s that about?’ It was about Stargate because it was this obscure reference in Stargate to the fifth race. And if you were Stargate fan, you got it right. But that’s not what people would say, or even people that were into Stargate don’t search for the fifth race. They search for Stargate.”

“I just said to just put ‘Stargate: The Unofficial Fifth Race Podcast.’ He just changed his title around. He went from not being searched and not being found when you search Stargate, to being the number one show when you search Stargate. Just making sure you know what people are searching for and optimizing the title of your show really will help people stumble upon your show. And that’s so important to grow your show.”

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How Radio Personalities Can Be Both Likeable and Opinionated in Difficult Conversations

Don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast.

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We often talk about being as relatable as possible as a talk radio show host. Be present with where your listeners are. Think like they do. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to do on paper, but there’s always that push and pull as a talk radio show host. You’re interacting with business leaders, politicians, sports figures, and other prominent folks in your community to whom your listener may not have access.

That is part of what makes you credible in their eyes, and it’s part of what gives you insights on topics that the “average listener” cannot get access to. It’s why they listen to you.

But in the end, they — at least in part — want to listen to you because they like you and relate to you. Which means you have to relate to them. And please, don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast. Likable and wildly opinionated can, and ideally should, work in conjunction.

I bring all this up to discuss a topic that can apply to news/talk or sports talk radio hosts: stadiums and subsidies. It’s an incredible topic that can cross both formats. 

In Charlotte, city leaders are expected to vote next week on whether to approve the funding of $650 million for renovation projects at Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers.

In April, voters here in Kansas City rejected a ⅜-cent sales tax extension for the Chiefs and Royals. That topic is back in the forefront this week as the State of Kansas held a special session and passed legislation to use its STAR Bonds program to try to lure one or both teams to the Kansas side of the state line.

I’ve heard overwhelming media reactions suggesting stadium projects involving taxpayer subsidies are no-brainers. Cities or counties, a.k.a. Taxpayers, must help out where needed to fund the building, or upkeep of stadiums. Of course, the fear is that the team(s) will always leave their current city.

Sports media folks typically will support it because, if God forbid, a team were to move, their livelihood would be at stake. Plus, they deal directly with players, coaches, and team executives who can sell them regularly all the perks a new stadium can provide for the team and media members.

News/talk folks can fall victim to hearing too much from their political contacts who often promote and sometimes are the ones who vote on these projects. They’re influenced by lobbyists and others who are legally doing their job but are also on the payroll for the big-money entities involved. 

But who’s looking out for the little guy? That should be you.

While you may have the access and contacts in the higher-end social circles of your community, that’s not where most of your listeners live.

Political feelings always ebb and flow, but we are living in a country where populism is becoming more popular. The last few years have been hardest on those from the middle class on down. COVID’s economy benefited work-from-home white-collar workers, where one parent could stay home with kids who were stuck learning from home.

In contrast, the same economy hurt working-class folks, who were less likely to be able to work from home and certainly could not watch their kids daily as they tried to learn from home. On top of that, the stock market has gone gangbusters the last couple of years, while the working class has struggled to pay for its groceries.

The economy has been very different since COVID, depending on your socioeconomic level.

That said, as populism grows in popularity on the right and the left, understand where your radio listeners are at in their lives and their likely unwillingness, or at the very least, fair skepticism, to fund stadiums for billionaire team owners.

Don’t let your relationship with a player, coach, or team executive overly influence your opinion. Don’t let your buddy, the politician or a lobbyist, get into your ear on how amazing their plan would be.

I think back nearly 15 years, when the New York Giants and New York Jets opened MetLife Stadium to much fanfare. Then, the dreaded PSL (Personal Seat License) came into being, which simply gave fans the “rights” to purchase their seats.

It was, and remains, an all-time scam. Former WFAN host Mike Francesa obliterated the teams. To his credit, while he had relationships with the franchises going back decades and could easily afford nearly any ticket in the building, he never lost touch with where the “average fan” was.

So, as these stadium projects continue to pop up around the country—and they could be coming to a town near you soon—I’m not telling you how to think or what to say on your radio show. Just be aware of the political climate in the country today, and always put yourself in your listener’s shoes first and foremost. You’ll never regret it. And they’ll trust you even more for it.

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