LA radio titan’s new book is a total roller coaster ride – Orange County Register
Never ride a roller coaster upside down.
That’s good advice, and it’s also the title of a new book by Jeff Smulyan, founder and CEO of Emmis Broadcasting, Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down: The Ups, Downs, and Reinvention of an Entrepreneur.
The subtitle may describe the technical content better, but the imagery of the roller coaster ride fits, as many entrepreneurs will surely confirm. Things are certainly not always smooth. (And I have some personal experiences with the author and his company, which I’ll detail below.)
This is not a radio book in the traditional sense, nor is it a book about broadcasting. Definitely staying true to its title, it focuses on the trials and tribulations Smulyan experienced as he built his radio empire, branched out into owning a professional track and field team, and in many ways attempted to help grow an industry he loves Staying on course and profitable … unfortunately no success.
Within its pages, the book explores all aspects of his multifaceted career and is at times brutally honest with himself and others. He gives praise when it is due and ridicule when it is necessary. And while it’s not a difficult read, it’s lengthy just for the detail presented and the passion behind his words.
Not that I always fully agree with him. As you know, I’ve long believed that AM station owners and programmers have been pushing listeners toward FM through poor programming – and other – choices. Yes, FM can sound better, but it doesn’t have to, and had the programmers come up with something people would appreciate, they would have stayed with the band. Smulyan actually proves my point with the initial failure of WFAN — a formerly successful country music station before transitioning it to Allsport, which took years to catch on and how conservative talk radio became a popular format to showcase – if not heard until – on the AM band, ultimately to the band’s demise.
As Smulyan also demonstrates, FM’s current demise is due to the same kind of forces…content that doesn’t appeal to listeners and a commercial load of nearly 25 minutes per hour on some stations. But I digress.
Reading the book makes you feel like you’re there. In my case during an example I have was there: I was an intern at Magic 106 (now Power 106, 105.9 FM) working with on-air personalities like Sonny Melendrez, Brian Roberts, Laurie Allen and the great Robert W. Morgan.
Emmis had spent a lot of money on Magic, but it never had the power they hoped, largely due to what I felt (and felt even as a college intern) of an overly restrictive mix of music. Never wanting to break songs, Magic instead relied on KIIS-FM (102.7) to do so until its eventual demise.
Smulyan and his executives, including Rick Cummings, who I believe was running programming for the entire company at the time, let me listen and even take part in some of their nightly strategy sessions, which was a tremendous opportunity for a radio geek like me. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and it helped me not only to understand the inner workings of radio, but also to develop a peripheral understanding of Emmis herself.
In fact, my experience with Emmis aligns with what Smulyan describes as the corporate mindset within the company – a company that values people; They treated me – an unpaid intern and radio geek – like a valuable employee. No wonder the same executives I sat with in the mid-1980s are, for the most part, still with the company.
So I was there when the decision was announced to drop adult contemporary music and move to a rhythmic top 40/dance format. I remember thinking at the time it was going to be a difficult step; KIIS-FM was firmly established as the top-rated music station in the United States, setting records for listenership and revenue. Emmis executives developed a format intended to appeal to young, hip listeners across cultural boundaries (sound familiar? Chuck Martin did the same on KHJ 930 AM). Ultimately, Power was the only station ever able to oust the unstoppable KIIS-FM from the top spot, at least for a while.
Smulyan later describes the Seattle Mariners purchase — what went right and what went horribly wrong, including a thoughtful analysis of how he completely misjudged the Seattle professional baseball market. This chapter in the book may change some opinions about Smulyan being a “terrible owner” of the team, although that’s not the intention.
He discusses good and bad competitors, talks about initiatives he was involved in that may actually have helped expand the reach of radio, and talks about the problems – including one short-sighted competitor in particular – that led to that Emmis ended up becoming less of a “radio” company and more of a media company… a move you guessed it makes him a little sad. Smulyan is indeed a radio guy, and it’s his first love.
As I mentioned, one thing I found interesting about reading the book is that Smulyan’s attitude and the corporate culture he allegedly fostered at Emmis aligns with my limited experience from my time as an intern, which only a few years later Emmis was founded. Over time, I watched the company’s rises and falls and was struck when, unlike so many other companies, Emmis actually worked to pay off debts by selling stations, including one that Smulyan loved, Power 106.
As I said, it’s not a real radio book, but it’s definitely worth reading for both radio fans and anyone interested in starting a business. Smulyan imparts knowledge that successful business owners learn through experience; Perhaps his experience will help others avoid mistakes…or at least understand what entrepreneurs often go through.
Richard Wagoner is a freelance columnist based in San Pedro. Email to email@example.com
https://www.ocregister.com/2023/02/20/an-la-radio-titans-new-book-is-a-total-rollercoaster-ride/ LA radio titan’s new book is a total roller coaster ride – Orange County Register