#30 – The View from the Valley

Fresno?! A lot of people asked how I ended up over 2300 miles away from my beloved Grand Rapids to the Central Valley of California. The story began in 2000 when change was in the air. Clear Channel merged with Jacor and Randy Michaels became president of the company. Now, for those of you that know Randy, you know that combining the staid and conservative culture of Clear Channel with the bad boys of radio was sort of like mixing oil and water.

A quick side on Randy Michaels. Around 1991 when I was programming WHAS in Louisville, I received a call from Randy. He was running WLW in Cincinnati. I’ll never forget the call. Randy first commented that I was still playing too much music on WHAS (he was right). And then he wanted to know if I had an interest in programming WLW. I politely thanked him for asking and I told him my lapels might be a little too wide for him. Randy chuckled and said “the trouble with you Skip is that you always use the sidewalk. You’ve got to learn to run across the front yard.” Yep, that pretty much summed it up.

Anyhow, faces at the top started to change. Stan Webb decided to retire. My new boss was Dave Crowl. Dave was a longtime radio pro with an impeccable track record. We were familiar with each other and I thought I’d be okay. And I was…at least until 2005 when after more mergers, Randy was out and John Hogan was in. I thought Dave Crowl should have gotten the nod.

New systems were implemented by Hogan. Big brother stuff like Best Rate, MERS (Media Star Executive Reporting Systems) all driven by the new battle cry, Less is More. Managers became tethered to computers constantly manipulating rates. If you failed to log on to the system, you’d get a call. They knew what you were doing. Going out and actually spending time with clients became more and more difficult with the never ending cavalcade of yet another conference call. And when, at a managers meeting in Dallas I was admonished in front of a roomful of my peers for not properly managing inventory, I decided then and there that this was going to drive me nuts. The Senior VP conducting the session chastised me for having all of our commercial inventory sold out. Imagine that. Being sold out! He put me on the spot and asked for an explanation. I shot back “well, I’m not apologizing for being sold out. That’s how I was trained. We’re getting high rates and we’re exceeding our goals. How many of your stations can say the same?” Dead silence in the room. A smattering of applause. I think I could hear someone humming taps. I was a marked man.

I decided to look for a job in programming. After all, who wouldn’t want me??!!! A great list of stations under my programming hat, 11 years in upper management. I mean..I was a real catch, right? Wrong. I went for big programming jobs. Like WGN and WLS in Chicago. I came close.

Then, I had heard about KMJ in Fresno. I threw my hat in the ring and the next thing I knew, I was invited to fly out and interview for the job. Todd Lawley had just bought the CBS cluster in Fresno which included KMJ. I was met by market manager Patty Hixson and Lawley. We had a nice lunch at the Elbow Room in Fresno and then convened at the station. They asked me to put a good ear to the station and write them a report. So, I listened to KMJ for a few days and then wrote a report and emailed it to them. It was brutal. I figured I insulted them and that would be it. But it wasn’t. I was offered the job with an excellent compensation package. Now I had to make a decision.

Several days later while vacationing on Jekyll Island, Georgia I made up my mind. I was taking the job. I called Dave Crowl and told him I was resigning. Dave was stunned. He asked where I was going. “I’m going to Fresno.” Dave replied “Fresno?!!! – Skip, have you ever been to Fresno??!!!”

The following Monday I met Crowl at the station and we announced to the staff I was leaving.

Fresno was good to both Sharon and I. We had 7 great years there. But there were some rough times too including the Great Recession that forced the company into Chapter 11. But nothing could have prepared me for a phone call I got in September 2012.

Premier Radio was the syndicator of 60% of our programming on KMJ. We broadcast the Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity shows as well as the popular overnight show, Coast to Coast AM. Plus a variety of weekend shows. Peter Trippe from Premier called and informed me they were pulling all of the shows effective the first of the year. Premier was owned by Clear Channel and, although Peter wouldn’t spill the beans, I knew this could only mean one thing. Clear Channel was going to launch a station against us.

I went back through my notes from 2007 when I sent my evaluation of KMJ to Patty and Todd. In it I told them the station needed to beef up it’s news department and develop local programming because I knew that one day something like this might happen. Here’s a portion of the original report.

Patty – here are some initial thoughts I want to share with you regarding KMJ.  These are in no particular order. As I told you when we met, this might seem a little too direct but I’m just being very open and honest with you on my “first ears” assessment.

Overall station branding – needs to be consistent and constant.  I would go with Newsradio 580, KMJ….Fresno’s News, Weather, and Traffic station.    I personally don’t care for the news/talk moniker.  Newsradio works well on stations like KMJ which have no all news competition.  By default, you are the all news station.  News is huge..it is content by which everything else revolves and it needs to be showcased in a major way.

Weather and traffic are surveillance elements that are, in most cases, number one and number two in terms of listener interests.  Now, I suspect that the weather and traffic in Fresno are very predictable but they are, nonetheless, critical.  When you absolutely control the news-weather-traffic hill, as KMJ does, it becomes almost impossible for a competitor to move in.  News, Weather, Traffic – this is YOUR turf and even if you get an FM “talk” competitor down the road, they won’t win.

Still, the call from Trippe left me stunned. I walked into Patty Hixson’s office. The look on my face pretty much said it all. We called Todd Lawley and I remember his response. “Well, I guess we’ll find out how good we are.”

Live and local was the only way to go. Period. 2nd tier syndicated talk shows were not an option. The radio waves are saturated with the Hugh Hewitts of the world. And frankly, the only show that really mattered was Limbaugh. That was the 600 pound gorilla. So we built our live and local lineup. And it was fabulous. John Broeske was brought out of retirement and paired with Jenn Lipp to host 9-11AM, Ray Appleton was expanded from 2 hours to 3 hours and was on 11-2, and Chris Daniel and Philip Teresi did PM drive. Since Ray also did the morning news, I took that over and went back on the air.

Meanwhile Clear Channel launched Power Talk with our former syndicated shows. We took a hit.. but they never beat us.

KMJ was taken over by Cumulus in 2014. The same year I dealt with prostate cancer. I had surgery in April of 2014 but was back on the job in 10 Days. In July of 2014 I received a corporate visitor from Atlanta. He fired me and I was escorted out of the building. It was the first time in my life that I was fired. And, at the age of 64, I found myself without a place to go the next morning.

I recall the words of Richard Nixon on the day of his resignation from the presidency:

Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

Boy, ain’t that the truth.

2 thoughts on “#30 – The View from the Valley”

  1. Skippy… Imagine how I felt, given the ax on my 60th birthday.. Should I assume you engineered that ?? After reading you blog I can assume, probably not.

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    1. No. That was the upper management. I wanted to move you to midday and go with an all news wheel in the morning. I had nothing to do with Gary Chases’ departure either. I know you guys thought I didn’t like you but that wasn’t true.

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