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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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Sales Productivity Protects You From Hedge Fund Uncertainty

“The good news is that most radio station clusters are still very profitable. The bad news, the debt makes many clusters unprofitable.”

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Almost 30 years ago, Radio station ownership limits were lifted, and Wall Street saw an opportunity. But the hedge funds didn’t understand the business and created mayhem in a still vital industry.

I worked in New York City for over 6 years. I had the opportunity to spend time around the brain trust of Wall Street. These Masters of the Universe saw the weakness of the radio industry and thought that they had all the answers. 

Well, they didn’t. 

I will give you some history from my perspective. My first 16 years were spent working for family run operations. Both of these companies were managed by third generation operators who put people and community first. These were highly successful operations with large staffs. 

I am not looking back with rose colored glasses. No organization is perfect or without unique challenges. But people were first in these broadcast companies. Both of my first employers had top consultants to give strong outside the organization feedback. Both companies had General Managers that catered to both the programming and sales departments. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the biggest overhaul of telecommunications law in 62 years. It was widely thought that this would bring radio into modern times. Consolidation has been a landmark of American Business, so, Wall Street’s Hedge Funds saw an opening.  Radio station owners sold for insane profits. Longtime owners were able to sell stations for multiples of up to 30 times meaning that if an owner had a station earning 1 million dollars, they could sell it for 30 million dollars. Quite a return (Most stations didn’t go that high but multiples of 18-25 were very common during this period).  

Wall Street looked at radio like the pickle industry. Except there was an issue. Radio did not have hundreds of workers in each location. You couldn’t move all operations to a central hub and save HUGE money, that would justify strong ROI. So, radio ended up with several large owners (by the way, I am not criticizing iHeart, Audacy, Cumulus and the other large owners). 

When larger companies developed, they went public selling stock to individual shareholders and institutional investors. The market states that companies show a certain amount of revenue growth per year. Let’s say that number is 10%. Radio is interesting, we are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. You cannot just build new radio stations. So, companies were forced to merge or expand to meet revenue goals. Wall Street encouraged and even demanded it. 

Here was the problem – radio companies acquired an unsupportable amount of debt that could never be paid back. The Hedge Funds just moved cash around and demanded companies cut staff and consolidate management. It was a blood bath. Any of us who entered this business in the 90’s saw this. Great broadcasters, salespeople, managers were forced out because of unsustainable debt and micromanaging Hedge Funds.  

On the local level, new clusters were forced to protect the biggest biller in the group. This was not set to grow revenue; it was to protect the revenue and keep the spreadsheets looking right. I know of stations that were more successful brands in ratings in a cluster than the cash cow but if you were the Program Director who was consistently beating the cash cow, your job was in jeopardy.  This was a reverse hunger games caused by debt, fear and shortsightedness. 

So, here we are.

The good news is that most radio station clusters are still very profitable. 

The bad news, the debt makes many clusters unprofitable.

Even though a couple of the bigger companies have gone bankrupt, they’re not bankruptcy situations where assets were liquidated creating a market-based value of these properties. It was essentially a negotiation to lower the debt, and did not move these companies to become cash positive operations again. 

Why do the Hedge Funds not cut their losses and move on? Now that is a great question.  Hedge funds handle billions of dollars. They bundle bad deals with great deals and so their investors don’t seem to have a problem if they see enough of a profit at the end of the month, quarter or year. People remember the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. Hedge Funds were bundling bad mortgages with good ones. Soon the bad overcame the market. Thus, a crash.  The homes never went away. The value of real estate fell dramatically in many places.

Are people still listening to us? 80% of Americans do. Not the 93% of a decade or so ago (Pew Research). This is much better than local TV where only 63% of Americans watch local TV News.

But what is the future?

It is entirely up to Hedge Fund involvement. Will Hedge Funds cut their losses and move on?  If that occurs, will local broadcasters rise again? 

What can YOU do?

It is all about the billing. If you are billing a lot more than you cost, the company will need you, and indispensability is what corporate leaders will see. Make yourself available for Sales. If you are the morning talent, be dressed well enough for a sales call. Make yourself available a few times each week to meet clients. Let salespeople know about the products and services that you use. Radio personalities are influencers. They have huge audiences that listen every day.  Don’t forget your advantage. We cannot control the Hedge Funds, corporate debt or a fast-changing marketplace. 

This was not an exhaustive history, but it illustrates our challenges. Radio programming departments are filled with creative people who just want to entertain. Be aware of our weaknesses and strengths. The Market Manager and sales manager are under huge pressure.  Be that person who understands their concerns.

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Is The News Station Website Doing Its Job?

“There are plenty of markets and stations around the country who understand the value of their websites and the business and community benefits they can provide aside from being a corkboard for ad space.”

Bill Zito

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There was a mass shooting on Monday.

Certainly not the first time that sentence has been uttered in this country but in this case, I am referring to Memorial Day on the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk in Hollywood, Florida. Nine people wounded, including a one-year-old and a couple of people in custody with more to follow, I expect.

Now Hollywood and I have history, overwhelmingly good history. I lived there, made friends there and met my late wife there. I also worked there as a Hollywood police officer, as did she for those curious enough. So, when this shooting happened, I was naturally wanting to know more and to see those who wear the same uniform I once did as they went about their work.

For that, I did what I rarely do these days when I want the latest news and developments, I went to the local station websites. This was about two hours after the shooting was first reported and I was able to find something on virtually all the TV web pages and some quick blurbs on the newspaper sites, so I and countless others were able to get a preliminary idea of what was going on. And that was about it for a while and to me, that made perfect sense.

I say I rarely go to the local news websites because I personally find them generally lacking in information, slow to add or update details or to stream enough ongoing coverage to remain relevant to anyone above the very casual seeker of news and information.

That is not a blanket statement by any means. There are plenty of markets and stations around the country who understand the value of their websites and the business and community benefits they can provide aside from being a corkboard for ad space.

Once again, ignorance, laziness and a lack of imagination lead to lost opportunities.

The time was when those very websites and their subscription alerts to your email or cell phone were often the fastest ways to find out when things were happening. If you are curious how I found out in New England what was happening in South Florida?

Instagram.

So, the station Instagram posts do their job and take you to the station site but only after you’ve gotten at least a breakdown of what’s happened and what is going on. Are people continuing on to the website and then to the broadcast like all was once intended?

When the conversation centers around content, usually in job interviews or sales meetings it seems, the discussions often follow a pattern of; the broadcast/print content drives people to the website content which drives people to the broadcast/print content, etc., which means the audience member sets up camp and never leaves.

Ever hear people tout this philosophy? Sadly, many of them are still around. They extol the wonderment of the chain philosophy and then are shocked when it doesn’t yield the results they promised, and their clients start buying bus bench ads.

The chain philosophy, in this case the aforementioned broadcast/print content to the website which drives people to the broadcast/print content, etc., has a fatal flaw in it. Only one link in the chain has to disappear for things to go south. Which means if the website is no good or of no use, that volley back and forth ends and people go somewhere else.

If there is a good news product out there, every aspect of its brand must be equally good. It must serve the purpose and the audience. Newspaper websites are easier I guess because most of them are now literally the product. They are the destination. That is why the people who do are willing to pay for them.

I suppose you cannot put every bit of broadcast content on a TV news or radio station site, but you certainly can do better than a lot of what is out there now. Radio websites could do so much more if they really tried.

It’s the same with news coverage as a whole. There are choices to make how stories are told. Granted, when things are unfolding in real time those choices become quick decisions. But that’s the benefit of live hits number 2 through whatever, followed by the story wraps and packages. The stuff is supposed to get progressively better as we move along.

The reporters and producers can add and subtract on air and on the websites and on to social media. Toss out the earlier crap for what is better and more meaningful. I saw particularly good examples with the Hollywood shooting coverage.

I am one person in particular who cannot stand it when the media insists on showcasing a mayor when a tragic or violent incident occurs in their city. Who cares what the mayor has to say? Let us hear from the witness, the people who were there and were impacted by what happened. What does the mayor know about it except what the first responders told them? The police or the EMT’s or fire can tell us what happened, how it happened and who they’re looking for. The mayor will cry outrage and try their best to steer the tourists back to the beach. “Shark, what shark?”

TV news station websites have choices and options, what they often do not have nowadays is enough people to keep them current, active, and alive, frankly. Digital only reporters and producers have been assigned other duties in many markets. Websites are updated by the assignment desk in some places or a show producer at the end of their shift in others. The longest lasting proof of a broadcast day is often the last thing management considers as they’re walking out the door at night.

You make your choices and you deal with the result.

Last week, I urged the AM radio community to improve their product and their service if they want to keep AM in cars. It’s rather disheartening to listen to the cries of, “It’s not fair” or the claims of “You’re killing our industry” when nobody is considering the fact that not trying or simply doing a bad job is what leads to things like falling website traffic, declining viewership/listenership or even things like a major company getting delisted from the New York Stock Exchange while extending their COO’s contract for three years.

If we make things better things have a fighting chance to get better.

It is to wonder.

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Trump Town Hall Delivered CNN’s Biggest Audience Since March 2022

“It was CNN’s most-watched telecast in total viewers since President Biden’s State of the Union address on Mar. 1, 2022.”

Doug Pucci

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Photo Credit: CNN

The controversial May 10th town hall event featuring 2024 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was at the center of the news world during the week ending May 14.

The town hall, moderated by Kaitlan Collins and held at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire to an audience of Republican and independent voters who’ve previously voted for Trump, drew 3.308 million total viewers including 781,000 within the key 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research. Those figures could not top Fox News Channel’s five most recent Trump town halls — two from Mar. 2020, one in May 2020, another in June 2020 and one post-election (on “Hannity”) in June 2021 — which ranged from 3.54 millions to 5.11 million. Nor did they best President Biden’s first post-inauguration CNN town hall from Feb. 16, 2021 (3.64 million total/902,000 adults 25-54).

Nonetheless, it was CNN‘s most-watched telecast in total viewers since President Biden’s State of the Union address on Mar. 1, 2022. It also delivered their best 25-54 performance since their New Year’s Eve celebration with Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen from New York’s Times Square on Dec. 31, 2022.

A special edition of “Anderson Cooper 360” which followed the town hall on May 10 was cable news’ runner-up telecast of the week among adults 25-54 (as listed in the rankings at the end of this article.)

On the following night, for the May 11th edition of “AC360”, Cooper defended his network’s to carry the event, stating “the man you were so disturbed to see and hear from [on the night of May 10] — that man is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president,”

Cooper added. “You have every right to be outraged today, angry and never watch this network again, but do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”

The May 11th “Anderson Cooper 360” posted 616,000 viewers including 137,000 adults 25-54, placing behind MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” and FNC’s “Fox News Tonight” although the demo delivery was a mere 2,000 viewers (aged 25-54) behind “Hayes.”

These figures were also on-par with its usual levels: for Monday May 1 thru Thursday May 4, “AC360” averaged 604,000 viewers and 141,000 adults 25-54 within the 8-9 p.m. hour.

Cable news averages for May 8-14, 2023:

Total Day (May 8-14 @ 6 a.m.-5:59 a.m.)

  • Fox News Channel: 1.140 million viewers; 137,000 adults 25-54
  • MSNBC: 0.755 million viewers; 85,000 adults 25-54
  • CNN: 0.462 million viewers; 95,000 adults 25-54
  • Newsmax: 0.185 million viewers; 21,000 adults 25-54
  • HLN: 0.108 million viewers; 26,000 adults 25-54
  • CNBC: 0.107 million viewers; 24,000 adults 25-54
  • Fox Business Network: 0.101 million viewers; 12,000 adults 25-54
  • The Weather Channel: 0.082 million viewers; 13,000 adults 25-54

Prime Time (May 8-13 @ 8-11 p.m.; May 14 @ 7-11 p.m.)

  • Fox News Channel: 1.434 million viewers; 140,000 adults 25-54
  • MSNBC: 1.161 million viewers; 117,000 adults 25-54
  • CNN: 0.701 million viewers; 161,000 adults 25-54
  • Newsmax: 0.317 million viewers; 35,000 adults 25-54
  • CNBC: 0.141 million viewers; 37,000 adults 25-54
  • HLN: 0.108 million viewers; 24,000 adults 25-54
  • The Weather Channel: 0.107 million viewers; 17,000 adults 25-54
  • NewsNation: 0.091 million viewers; 15,000 adults 25-54
  • Fox Business Network: 0.060 million viewers; 13,000 adults 25-54

Top 10 most-watched cable news programs (and the top programs of other outlets with their respective associated ranks) in total viewers:

1. CNN Town Hall “Donald Trump and NH GOP Voters” (CNN, Wed. 5/10/2023 8:00 PM, 70 min.) 3.308 million viewers

2. The Five (FOXNC, Mon. 5/8/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.838 million viewers

3. The Five (FOXNC, Tue. 5/9/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.708 million viewers

4. The Five (FOXNC, Wed. 5/10/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.692 million viewers

5. The Five (FOXNC, Thu. 5/11/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.665 million viewers

6. The Five (FOXNC, Fri. 5/12/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.497 million viewers

7. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 5/8/2023 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.289 million viewers

8. Jesse Watters Primetime (FOXNC, Mon. 5/8/2023 7:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.210 million viewers

9. Jesse Watters Primetime (FOXNC, Thu. 5/11/2023 7:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.181 million viewers

10. Anderson Cooper 360 “Trump Town Hall Analysis” (CNN, Wed. 5/10/2023 9:10 PM, 50 min.) 2.152 million viewers

263. Eric Bolling The Balance (NMX, Mon. 5/8/2023 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.543 million viewers

428. Varney & Company (FBN, Mon. 5/8/2023 11:00 AM, 60 min.) 0.290 million viewers

450. Forensic Files (HLN, late Tue. 5/9/2023 3:00 AM, 30 min.) 0.267 million viewers

464. Highway Thru Hell “(1117) Know When To Hold Em” (TWC, Sun. 5/14/2023 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.259 million viewers

518. Squawk on the Street (CNBC, Mon. 5/8/2023 9:00 AM, 180 min.) 0.223 million viewers

731. Cuomo (NWSN, Thu. 5/11/2023 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.136 million viewers

Top 10 cable news programs (and the top  programs of other outlets with their respective associated ranks) among adults 25-54:

1. CNN Town Hall “Donald Trump and NH GOP Voters” (CNN, Wed. 5/10/2023 8:00 PM, 70 min.) 0.781 million adults 25-54

2. Anderson Cooper 360 “Trump Town Hall Analysis” (CNN, Wed. 5/10/2023 9:10 PM, 50 min.) 0.438 million adults 25-54

3. The Five (FOXNC, Thu. 5/11/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.338 million adults 25-54

4. The Five (FOXNC, Mon. 5/8/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.306 million adults 25-54

5. The Five (FOXNC, Tue. 5/9/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.298 million adults 25-54

6. The Five (FOXNC, Wed. 5/10/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.277 million adults 25-54

7. Anderson Cooper 360 “Trump Town Hall Analysis” (CNN, Wed. 5/10/2023 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.253 million adults 25-54

8. Gutfeld! (FOXNC, Thu. 5/11/2023 11:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.252 million adults 25-54

9. The Five (FOXNC, Fri. 5/12/2023 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.251 million adults 25-54

10. Gutfeld! (FOXNC, Wed. 5/10/2023 11:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.246 million adults 25-54

19. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 5/8/2023 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.210 million adults 25-54

316. Forensic Files (HLN, late Tue. 5/9/2023 3:00 AM, 30 min.) 0.076 million adults 25-54

400. Shark Tank “Shark Tank 728” (CNBC, Thu. 5/11/2023 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.059 million adults 25-54

402. Greg Kelly Reports (NMX, Thu. 5/11/2023 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.059 million adults 25-54

510. Highway Thru Hell “(1116) Triple Play” (TWC, Sat. 5/13/2023 1:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.041 million adults 25-54

575. Mornings with Maria Bartiromo (FBN, Tue. 5/9/2023 8:00 AM, 60 min.) 0.035 million adults 25-54

612. Banfield (NWSN, Mon. 5/8/2023 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.032 million adults 25-54

Source: Live+Same Day data, Nielsen Media Research

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