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It Was Hard To Be Gone But Harder To Stay For Emmis Communications

“Emmis still owns WLIB-AM and WEPN-FM in New York City. The Walt Disney Company currently operates WEPN under an LMA. Emmis will eventually sell both.”

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If you’ve never met Jeff Smulyan, you don’t know one of the nicest people ever to occupy the CEO suite of a major broadcast group.

If you have ever worked for Emmis, thus worked for Jeff Smulyan and, by proxy, Rick Cummings, you know why the company has been included in Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Because Emmis is such a great workplace, it’s been heartbreaking for radio people to watch the company sell off its radio holdings. For all practical purposes, Emmis exited broadcasting by selling its Indianapolis cluster in June.

Emmis still owns WLIB-AM and WEPN-FM in New York City. The Walt Disney Company currently operates WEPN under an LMA. Emmis will eventually sell both.

Recently, I had an extended conversation with Smulyan and Cummings. It was a wide-ranging discussion covering Jeff’s life, from his childhood days listening to Top-40 radio and baseball at night from a speaker hidden under his pillow to the book he has coming out in October: “Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down.”

I’ve worked for and know many CEOs. There is no other head of a Fortune 500 company with whom I could speak with such familiarity. Both men were remarkably candid about industry trends they have seen develop over the past 20 years.

The origins of Emmis’ exit from radio date back nearly a decade, according to Smulyan. He told me the story of his love affair with what became known as Next Radio, an effort to put an FM chip in cell phones, and how it led to his realization that Emmis would eventually transition out of the radio business.

2013 was the end of the flip-phone era and the beginning of smartphones. At a NAB board meeting, the group’s president David Rehr was excited about the latest rage in Europe and Asia, a cellphone with an FM chip. The group asked Smulyan if he would spearhead a US version of the project because Emmis had recently partnered with Nokia, at the time the largest manufacturer of cell phones, on an app in Finland. “I looked at it, and I started studying it. I fell in love with it,” Smulyan said. He added, “if we could put an FM chip in every smartphone…we could save portability for the industry.”

For Rick Cummings, President of Programming, selling Power 106 (KPWR), Los Angeles, in 2017 was the defining event. He said, “I think LA 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 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 (radio) world in Austin, Texas. 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 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.”

Lacking full clusters in the largest markets meant Emmis either needed to buy or sell. The business climate dictated the decision. Smulyan elaborated on why they decided to sell. “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. We realized that we couldn’t do the things we loved doing and win…When you realize that, I think it changes your mindset.”

Whether or not a group has a full cluster in a market, it would be refreshing for other companies to reach the same conclusions and get out of the business rather than trying to cut their way back to growth.

Jeff Smulyan made the most profound statement I’ve heard from the head of a broadcast group. “The over-commercialization, I submit that, was the death knell of the industry.”

Talking about radio’s death knell is one thing, but Smulyan didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He explained, “we voted with our feet over the last five years. We loved it, but we felt that it wasn’t growing, and that wasn’t fun.”

If the here tone seems negative, it belies the entire conversation. Both men are upbeat and jubilant. Each made it a point to state their affection and affinity for the industry. At one point, Cummings said, “this industry has been really good to me for decades and all my life. I have nothing negative to say about it. We were just in a circumstance where our size, in particular, said we cannot win the way we are accustomed to winning. Therefore, it’s time for us to look for another hill to climb where we can.” They made a business decision over time.

My interview with Jeff Smulyan and Rick Cummings is eye-opening and educational. I look forward to sharing more of it with you soon.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have stunned people when Emmis sold its Indianapolis cluster, the last market where it actively managed radio stations. Smulyan summarized the company’s departure this way, “I think people knew that (Emmis was leaving radio). I don’t think it surprised anybody that we sold Indianapolis. Maybe it was to some people. It’s hard to be gone, but it was harder to stay.”

For people working in radio and people who used to work in the industry, it’s harder with Emmis gone.

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BSM Writers

Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different

I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Brian Noe

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Radio

Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.

With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?

I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?

Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.

It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.

A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?

Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?

Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.

It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”

The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.

It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.

Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.

Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.

One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?

That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years

Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.

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In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.

“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”

I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.

The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).

The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.

The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.

I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.

Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.

ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.

The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.

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BSM Writers

The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media

Brady Farkas

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Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3A7FJ4a

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3bZ7NgG

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3dB4FrO

Google: https://buff.ly/3JVC5NG

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3STupzF

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