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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He has programmed legendary stations including WIP, WPHT and WYSP/Philadelphia, KLSX, Los Angeles and WCCO Minneapolis. He was Vice President Programming for Emmis International, Greater Media Inc. and Coleman Research. Andy also served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @AndyBloomCom.
The Only Path Forward For News Radio is Strong Personalities
Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than News/Talk
If radio wants to keep up, personality has to be the way. The format of choice is irrelevant, but personality has to be the biggest asset for the format and station.
It’s something I’ve written about before in this column, but when it gets reinforced by iHeart CEO Bob Pittman, it’s worth mentioning again.
In a great conversation with Talkers’ Michael Harrison, Pittman pointed out that “25% of iHeart’s stations do not play music”, and that more and more shows on the company’s music stations are “actually talk shows that play little or no music at all.”
Then came the best line of the conversation, when Pittman said, “Even on our music stations, you find us moving much more towards heavier personalities, because as we begin to say, If somebody just wanted music, they’ve got a lot of places to go. We’re probably not their best option, if they just want to dig through music. If they want somebody to keep them company, and hang out with them, and be their friend, and be an informed friend, and connect with them, there’s no better place. So we’re very committed to it.”
That’s it right there.
Radio’s competitive advantage is being a friend (ideally local), while using personality-driven content to develop that relationship with the listener to then drive listening occasions.
As has been discussed and addressed for years, music radio simply can’t compete with Spotify, Amazon Music, etc. if your goal is to listen to your music at the exact time that you want it.
Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than news/talk, where the strongest opinions and deepest connections often exist. That’s backed up by the Time Spent Listening for the format, which leads the way in many markets.
In many ways, news/talk is the best — and most exciting — place to be right now in the business, and none of that has to do with what is shaping up to be a fascinating 2024 election cycle. But rather because the industry’s biggest advantage to maintaining and growing its audience is its personalities, so if you’re already in the talk format, you’re ahead of the game. And then if you’re good, you’re a highly valuable asset.
As Pittman also noted in his conversation with Harrison, “For the first time ever, the radio business is bigger than the TV business, in terms of audience from 18 to 49 [year olds].”
National coastal media won’t write about that, because too many of them aren’t everyday American consumers. However, the data doesn’t lie. Radio is beating TV in a key demo and the leaders in the industry know that personality-driven content is their key to future success. That’s a great combination for those of us working in the business.
Granted, as we all know, it’s not all roses and sunshine. These are still tough times with continuing competition in the ad space and a soft 2023 shaping up.
However, the show must go on.
And as radio strategically prepares itself for not just the rest of this year, but the next five to ten years, there are plenty of goals that need to be achieved, but if growing and developing personalities is at the top of the list, that’s a win for the industry and an even bigger win for the news/talk format.
Pete Mundo is the morning show host and program director for KCMO in Kansas City. Previously, he was a fill-in host nationally on FOX News Radio and CBS Sports Radio, while anchoring for WFAN, WCBS News Radio 880, and Bloomberg Radio. Pete was also the sports and news director for Omni Media Group at K-1O1/Z-92 in Woodward, Oklahoma. He’s also the owner of the Big 12-focused digital media outlet Heartland College Sports. To interact, find him on Twitter @PeteMundo.
If CNN is For Sale, Here Are 5 Potential Buyers
CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.
It’s hard to run a cable news network like CNN these days. Just look at NewsNation. It was founded on the principle of being the first centrist cable news network to come into existence in years. But over the past couple of months, the network has peddled by coming from a slightly right-of-center angle with headlines. They’ve tried to steal left-of-center viewers from CNN with the hiring of Chris Cuomo. And now they’re literally going wall-to-wall with coverage of UFOs. I’m not even making that up.
In a world where a big chunk of its denizens believes the truth is a maybe while the other half doesn’t pay attention to the news unless it is bite-sized, does it still make sense to own a cable news network? Given the turmoil Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zazlav has faced lately with CNN it may not be for him.
The company was forced to let go of CNN CEO Chris Licht this week after a scathing profile from The Atlantic that went behind the scenes into how Licht operated the network post-Jeff Zucker. It was a circus, to say the least. After reading the profile though, you still come away feeling bad for Licht while considering the fact that there is a hand that might have been puppeteering him along the way that was used to having control over everyone.
Zazlav comes from a part of cable where it is necessary to operate like a dictatorship because the formula has proven to work with Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, etc…and because the shows that air on these networks create their own warped reality to spit out for thirsty reality consumers who want it the way it is served.
It’s impossible to have this kind of culture in cable news where the personalities aren’t really the star of the network — the news and facts are and they can’t be warped to fit all interested parties. They just have to be true whether it benefits one side or the other. The truth is the truth.
There are new ways to tell stories and there’s new technology you can use to tell those stories but at the end of the day, telling stories also has the same formula as it always has and can’t be changed.
Remarkably, Don Lemon comes away from Licht’s profile looking the most intelligent when he says that many critics of CNN like Zazlav are committed to Monday morning quarterbacking. CNN went a little too hard on various things happening in the Trump administration too many times, but at the end of the day, it was the job of journalists to hold politicians accountable to the truth just like it has been since the founding of television news.
This lack of realization on Zazlav’s part shows that CNN probably doesn’t belong in the same company as Warner Bros. Discovery. The cultures of Discovery and CNN clearly don’t align. Axios has already reported that because of the low ad market, cord-cutting, slumping ratings, and the run-up to the election having not started yet, WBD doesn’t plan on selling CNN any time soon. It also should be noted that CNN still makes almost $800 million a year for WBD so it is not the big loss of an asset that many in the media would make you think it is.
At the same time, unless Zazlav decides to change his mindset, he needs to sell before this situation becomes unmanageable. CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds democracy and the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.
The Mickey Mouse Club owns the news organization that already has the most trust among conservatives on television besides Fox News (ABC News), so they would help legitimize CNN’s mission of garnering more conservatives.
CNN’s library of content would bolster its digital platforms and provide an avenue to create new documentaries and films. ABC News’ own extracurricular projects would be on a platform that has consistent reach with the audience they’re seeking and wouldn’t get lost in the clouds like it currently does on Hulu.
National Geographic could move its content to CNN and HLN and help Disney get rid of one less cable network (NatGeo Channel) that doesn’t generate revenue.
CNN already has the largest news organization in the world. Their addition would bring NBC over the top. NBC’s ability to promote news offerings on Peacock would get some much-needed help as well since CNN has the number one digital news website in the United States.
Peacock would also be able to add CNN’s library to its app giving viewers who crave live news and sports another reason to subscribe to the app.
Regulatory issues may prevail due to past rulings by the federal government but this may have a chance to go through if the government believes the internet and streaming and the fragmentation of television has created enough competition for a CNN/MSNBC combo to not be too powerful.
The Emerson Collective
In a stroke of sheer awkwardness, could the owners of The Atlantic be contenders? Laurene Powell Jobs has constantly spoken about how much she believes journalism affects the balance of our society.
CNN, despite its ratings drag, still plays a vital role in shaping what we talk about as a society. Jobs’ causes like social justice reform, immigration reform, and the environment might get more attention from the general populous on a platform like CNN
The Washington Post or New York Times
Both entities were hand-in-hand with CNN reporting on the latest developments involving the Trump administration and both also faced public backlash about what they deemed as important with a Trump admin vs. a regular administration.
They all share the same mission and journalism ethos and, in the case of WaPo, have a very wealthy backer who could fund a potential deal.
The media mogul has become more deeply involved with the industry than he ever was before. He has a stake in the sports RSNs that are currently failing, he owns The Weather Channel — the most trusted name in news right now which is a remarkable feat to achieve in an era where so many deny climate change and he’s in the market to buy more.
CNN being black-owned could quell the accusations of the network becoming white-washed. A partnership with The Weather Channel bolsters coverage of climate change for the cable network.
And for Byron Allen, CNN gives him a seat on the table when it comes to power and influence in the worlds of Wall Street and Congress.
Jessie Karangu is a weekly columnist for BNM, and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for news and sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He also previously wrote a weekly column for our sports media brand, Barrett Sports Media. Jessie can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
What Chris Licht Got Right, and Wrong, During His CNN Tenure
Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
The departure of Chris Licht from CNN was abrupt but expected after a string of missteps. His criticism of his predecessor Jeff Zucker spilled into criticisms of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump and the Covid pandemic, which undercut his staff. Journalists who stood up to conspiracy theories and election falsehoods from the very top felt betrayed.
I’ve known Chris for 30 years, when he served as an associate producer at a KNBC/CNBC for a daily half-hour program centered on the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, we were colleagues at NBC and kept in touch while he was at CBS and I was at ABC. He is whip-smart, congenial, worked well with big talents like Joe Scarborough, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King, and, until now, had a stellar track record.
And in his latest and biggest post — despite being put in an impossible position — did some things right, which I will highlight in a moment.
But first that impossible position. His new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery wanted a restructuring and high ratings. They insisted on less calling out of misinformation and more “both sidesism”. So Licht had to derail the CNN train and then try to lift it back on the ratings track. No small job. Especially in a news climate that is in decline.
All the cable networks — who depended upon Donald Trump’s unpredictable, often treasonous and dangerous style — have suffered ratings decline. Fox numbers are down and so is MSNBC. The viewing public no longer has to tune in every minute of the day to see what the President is going to do or say. Life has largely returned to normal for most people.
So CNN, which could once depend upon airing and then fact-checking Trump’s latest absurdity, had to find new content.
Licht’s decision to emphasize down-the-middle news gathering seemed like a solid response to life without a bombastic — some say irrational — President.
Just cover the news, at which CNN is great. It’s the first place to turn during a mass shooting, a war, or natural disaster. But those are inconsistent events and cannot be depended upon for steady ratings. That’s the environment Licht stepped into.
He reacted with some good moves. His midday CNN News Central program, 3 hours of straight news, positions itself well to cover breaking news. It’s followed by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, also emphasizing news coverage.
However, unfortunately, the list of mistakes is a lot longer. Starting with Don Lemon. His “whole thing” in primetime was to be provocative and with a strong progressive bent. Licht attempted to turn Lemon into what he is not, an easy-to-watch, not opinionated host in the morning. A broadcast that was supposed to keynote the Licht agenda blew up in months. Lemon had an opinion on everything and could not get along with his co-hosts, which in morning TV is critical. The all-important chemistry was not there.
His meeting with Republican politicians on Capitol Hill to invite them back to CNN sent a message that they would no longer be challenged for disinformation. And Licht balanced the commentary panels on CNN with GOP election deniers who shouted over questions they could not answer, in turn sticking to talking points. A move that did little to attract viewers from Fox, and instead drove away legacy CNN viewers accustomed to progressive analysis and Republicans who respected opposite opinions.
Next, his attempt to normalize Donald Trump with a CNN Town Hall, somehow expecting the old rules of decorum would work became a disaster. Trump has to be covered. 30% of the electorate supports him, as do nearly 50% of Republicans. But a live Trump supporter audience overwhelmed Kaitlan Collins who was drenched by a firehouse of lies and deception.
And finally, there was Licht’s decision to make his criticisms of staff and their former coverage public in The Atlantic. A profile that made his gym trainer appear to be his top adviser.
To sum up: Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
It was an opportunity wasted and a good man self-defeated.
Jim Avila serves as a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. An Award-winning journalist with four decades of reporting and anchoring experience, Jim has served as Senior National Correspondent, 20/20 Correspondent, and White House Correspondent for ABC News. Prior to his time with ABC, he spent a decade with NBC News, and worked locally in Los Angeles and Chicago for KNBC, and WBBM. He can be found on Twitter @JimAvilaABC.