It took Steve Wexler a long time to find the right man for the job when he was looking for a new PD for WTMJ and ESPN Milwaukee. He was in no hurry, and why should he be? The guy has as strong of a programming background as anyone.
Wexler came up in the radio business through the programming side of things. Now, he is the market manager for Good Karma Brands’ Milwaukee stations. He has experienced plenty of wins and a few losses too in one of the country’s most competitive sports radio markets.
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Steve and I talk about losing the Packers, serving advertising categories that have been forever transformed by the pandemic, what matters most in a station’s digital offerings, and so much more. Enjoy!
Demetri Ravanos: I want to ask you about your approach to working with programmers. Obviously that is how you came up in the business. So how do you balance sharing your own knowledge with letting the person you have hired now conceptualize and execute their own vision for a station?
Steve Wexler: Great question. I mean, I guess the quick answer is when I was a programmer, I know that the best dynamic I had with a general manager was somebody that could make me better, not to steer the car necessarily, but to make me better, which might mean ideas, it might mean critique, it might mean praise.
I hope what I’ve done over the years since I came up through the programing ranks is help the programmers around me think critically, evaluate programming, and provide ideas. I’ve worked pretty hard not to grab the wheel because when I was a young PD, I didn’t really want somebody grabbing the wheel, but I sure as heck wanted help driving.
I think the good programmers have a vision and they have a sense of the brand, but they also want to get better all the time. Hopefully, I help them do that.
DR: Because that leap from programing to sitting in the big chair is becoming more common, did you have guys reach out to you from other markets to ask about what the experience was and what it is like to go from solely worrying about programming to overseeing an entire building?
SW: Yeah, I’ve had the chance to talk about that with people at some of the industry conferences. I will tell you that I think that “big chair,” as you call it, has less to do with whether you came up through programing or sales or marketing or whatever. I think it has more to do with whether you’ve got a sense of strategy and at the end of the day, whether or not you’re a leader. There are great leaders in programming. There are great leaders in sales. There are leaders all over our organizations. Really good companies start there and develop and groom leaders who understand our business and aren’t too worried whether they came up as programmers or sales managers.
DR: So as a sports radio market, Milwaukee has a lot of options. Let’s put programming to the side for a second. In terms of standing out with clients, with partners, what is the strategy to make sure that when your sellers are on the streets, they can differentiate or they can tell people what makes ESPN 94.5 different from the Audacy and iHeart brands in the sports radio space locally?
SW: You know, it’s interesting. We don’t spend too much time in our company worrying about or thinking about the other sports brands. We have a ton of respect for them.
Our view is that the boats all rise with the high tide. So we like a very robust, active, successful sports marketplace. We think that’s good for everybody. And it’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever spent less time really thinking about my, “competition.”
We know they’re there. We’re aware of things that they’re doing, but our view is that if we overdeliver for our partners, if we give them tremendous value, if we give them great ideas, if we execute and activate seamlessly and flawlessly, then we know we’re going to be successful. So we really don’t spend time comparing ourselves to the others, not out of arrogance, but more out of a real sense of partnership with our advertisers.
DR: Speaking of those advertising partners, I am guessing it is no coincidence that WTMJ and ESPN 94.5 fit together like puzzle pieces when it comes to sports programming. Is that how you have sellers talking about what you can offer new clients?
SW: Well, we definitely like the fact that there’s so much we can offer in our portfolio. I mean, we have hospitality. We have the Tundra Trio, which are homes that we own and operate up in Green Bay. We offer our ESPN Digital exclusive products, our news talk on WTMJ, our play-by-play with the Bucks, Brewers, and Marquette. Of course, we have the talent that’s on these stations that all do the endorsements.
So yeah, I mean, we definitely have a market that is designed strategically to do what you just described, which is to really take partners’ needs and solve them in a big way.
It is our belief that to differentiate today, you better have content that is not easily replicated given the amount of choices people have. I mean, you were talking about competition a moment ago. The competition is worldwide, right? So we have an intensely local focus, a real laser focus on making sure that partners who we work with hopefully come away with such a great experience that they can’t imagine going anywhere else.
DR: Unfortunately, I do have to ask you about the Packers play-by-play deal. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the conversations you were having and the strategizing you did that moment you realized that the door was closed and that the team would not be back on WTMJ? How quickly did you start thinking about what this meant from both a ratings and revenue standpoint?
SW: Look, we’re huge Packers fans and we have been since 1929. We are today. We always will be. And quite frankly, we’re going to be doing some amazing programming around the team this year on WTMJ and on ESPN and with our hospitality at the Tundra Trio. All I would tell you is that the model changed from us running the network a couple of years ago to the Packers, obviously well within their rights, running it themselves.
Our view is that we love sports. We love all of it. We’re obviously going to be all about the green and gold this year. I think at the end of the day, we have to do what’s right for our partners and for our business and frankly, for our teammates. I like to say they lost us, not we lost them because, you know, the big signal is obviously going to be an issue. They’re going to do just fine, and the folks at iHeart will take good care of the franchise. And we’re going to be there with amazing programing, including Brett Favre. We just signed him to an exclusive deal with us for this coming season that we’re very excited about.
DR: So I want to talk to you about another station in your building, 101.7 The Truth. When you launch a format like that, what did you need to learn or maybe understand better before you could properly support that staff as the leader in the building?
SW: Yeah, what a great story that is. I’ve launched a lot of formats over the years in the different stations I’ve been involved in. This one was definitely the most unique for a number of reasons. One is we were right smack dab in the middle of the pandemic lockdown. So, you know, business conditions in the markets were not great. People really weren’t innovating and creating and building. At that time, we were all just sort of holding on for dear life.
We’re very fortunate to have a founder and CEO (Craig Karmazin) who really doesn’t play from a position of defense. He plays from offense and “what’s the best thing for the company long-term?”.
He came to me a couple of days after the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and said “Wex, shouldn’t there be a really well-resourced, local Black talk station in Milwaukee? There’s some different choices here, but there’s nothing that’s really local that has outreach, that’s resourced to really reflect the community.” And I said, “Well, I know people have tried it over the years.” And he said, “Well, look, we’re a locally owned company. We believe in being here in the long term. Why don’t we do that?”
I’m thinking, okay, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, right? And I’ve never built a Black talk station from scratch.
I said, “Well Craig, we’re going to need to start with a staff. We’re going to have to really get the people who can do this,” because I was concerned, if you do it wrong, it could be worse than not doing it at all. I didn’t want to come up with a poor version of this.
I was fortunate to be able to find an African-American general manager, Cherie Harris, and program director, Kyle Wallace. We went and found talent that we had to recruit either virtually or off-campus.
We didn’t even have a signal! I mean, I said to Craig, “You know, one problem is we don’t have a place to put this”.
DR: It’s just a small problem, right?
SW: Small, a small problem.
Craig said, “Oh, well, I’ll figure that out.” And of course, a couple of weeks later he says, okay, I got a signal. So, you know, we went and built a logo and a brand and we got the team together.
I remember the meeting where we were deciding on the name of the station and the team said, “we want to call it The Truth because we want this to be raw. We want it to be authentic. We want it to be real. Let’s call it the truth.” And I said, “Guys, we can do that, but we’ve got to be careful because that’s a big word. You know, we’re setting ourselves up here with ‘The Truth'”. And they said, “Well, it’s our truth and it’s going to be real and it’s going to be honest.” So we went with it.
That was, gosh, a year and five months now. And the station has grown. It’s winning significant awards locally and statewide and nationally. The business is really starting to gain traction. I couldn’t be more proud of that team and what we built from very, very humble beginnings. We didn’t have a signal, we just had an idea. And here, a year and a half later, we’ve got a bona fide, important voice in our community.
DR: We talk all the time on our site about the lack of diversity in leadership in sports radio. I think you could probably say the same for news talk. Certainly, you want The Truth to be able to continue to serve the Black community in Milwaukee, but I wonder if you’ve had conversations with Ryan Maguire and others in the company about maybe using that station as the incubator to then create that diversity in those other formats.
SW: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, we saw not only the opportunity to build that Truth brand, but we really did feel it was important to have a diverse workforce in our building. I’ll give you a great example. Not this season but the year prior, the Milwaukee Bucks go to the NBA Finals. We have a huge championship parade in Milwaukee. Our team, and I’m not sure we would have thought of this a couple of years ago, our team got together and put together a three-station championship parade, triple-cast. We mashed up The Truth talent, the ESPN talent, the WTMJ talent.
So imagine this. You’ve got a program where we’re providing live coverage of the championship parade for the Milwaukee Bucks, and you’ve got the morning team from the Black talk station on the air with the ESPN team on the air with the WTMJ team all at different locations around the city. I will tell you, it was one of the most amazing days that I’ve been part of. Not only did I think we did a really great job and captured the day, but you heard voices you would not normally have heard and perspectives that you normally would not have heard.
Remember when the Milwaukee Bucks wouldn’t come out of the locker room? That one night after the Kenosha police shooting? The perspectives we were able to share were just different from what we normally would have had.
The Truth team, it is not uncommon to hear them on WTMJ. It’s not uncommon now to hear the WTMJ team now on The Truth, which is really fascinating. So I love the fact that we can now, you know, whatever you want to call it, cross-pollinate, inform each other. I think we’re all better for hearing more diverse points of view and we’ve certainly created that.
DR: So I want to ask you about something that your colleague, Sam Pines, has said to me many times. Whenever we talk about ratings and the Good Karma stations, he’s very fond of saying that “a ratings point never bought a cheeseburger,” right? It’s something I’ve heard other Good Karma market managers repeat too. But there’s a difference for you. You guys in Milwaukee do use ratings. I wonder if that changes the standard for what success is at your cluster versus the rest of the company?
SW: You’re talking to a guy who came out of a more traditional world, right? I ran a radio group for E.W. Scripps, a large, publicly-traded company. Things like ratings and being more attuned to cost per point was definitely part of how I grew up in the business.
I do look at the ratings. I’m aware of them. I want to know, at least based on Nielsen’s methodology, you know, whether I’m growing or whether we’re stalling. I’m with Sam though. Our partners do not call me and ask me, “hey, what are the ratings at 3:00 in the afternoon?”. They’ll call and say, “Hey, do you guys have any ideas to help me grow my business or help me solve the problem or help me build my brand?”. And if I could do that and do that really well utilizing our digital broadcast and event assets, I don’t care what the rating was in the afternoon.
You know, I’m a fan of being smart about the market and being well-informed and knowing what the ratings maybe are telling me in terms of which way the wind is blowing, but we don’t rely on them to make our strategic decisions about the things we’re going to do.
DR: So I want to ask you about your advertising partners because a lot of businesses have changed with the pandemic. I wonder from an advertising standpoint, are there any sectors that you see that seem to be changed forever, business categories that you’ve had to completely change your strategy?
SW: I would say the health sector for sure. Not only was there a greater need that is continued, but I think for them that sense of information and helping the public just be smarter was a change that we saw during the pandemic that has continued. You know, what they tell us is “help us inform as opposed to try to sell you a colonoscopy.”
I think this plays to audio’s specialty. I mean, if we’re able to provide information, some of the other categories that are similar are like finance will see the benefits of that model. We’re in times right now where there’s a lot of head-scratching about savings and retirement coming out of the pandemic, especially right now with inflation and the stock market. A lot of our partners are saying, can you help us inform the market and help people be smarter about their money and their health? So I think any partner, any advertising category where information is power is definitely a change we’ve seen and stations like ours are in a perfect position to take advantage of that.
DR: So along the lines of things changing with the pandemic, obviously more and more listening has moved to streaming in the last two years than ever before. Have given any thought to what a station’s app needs to be now? Are there things that we can all be doing better or services that make sense to provide beyond just on-demand listening?
SW: I think I would say that there are always features and I guess other ways to engage that might be good. But I will tell you, sometimes we’re so quick to decorate the tree. I think it was A Charlie Brown Christmas where he’s got a little tree and he puts all those ornaments on it and the thing falls all over.
Early on, I think we all were like, “oh, we can have like instant engagement, we can have polls and we can create fireworks when you hit that button.” And what we’ve noticed is that when you make it really easy, it pays off. First of all, let’s assume the content is compelling and good. I’ve said for a long time, I worry to some degree that we talk a lot about the technology, as well we should, but if we’re not focused on the content, I kind of think the technology might not matter.
You know, a lot of us, years ago, realized that with ad insertion, I think the accountants must have come up with that idea, not the broadcasters in the room. The listening experience, at least in my world, was not very good. You know, shows would get joined in progress and you’d miss 20 seconds because we had these clunky ad insertions.
If I’ve got an hour, I’d rather spend 50 minutes of that on making sure our content is as great as it can be, and we’ll spend the last 10 minutes on making sure it is a great listening experience for the fan.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.