Mickey Luckoff: Radio's Top Dog [11/18/02]
Mickey Luckoff has fans. Lots of them. And once again this year they have selected him as Radio Ink’s Number One manager in the radio industry. No wonder, either, if the words of Luckoff’s peers are any indication: “Simply the best in the business,” one industry executive told us during our exhaustive selection process. “Mickey has no equal in the radio industry today,” said another.
Part of this praise has to do with the consistent Number One ratings enjoyed by KGO, the ABC flagship station he manages in the San Francisco market. In an almost unparalleled feat of consistency, the station just finished in the top spot in its 97th straight Arbitron book; interestingly, while its closest competitor is KSFO, which Luckoff also oversees. In fact, defying all Bay Area logic, Luckoff saw a huge void in the San Francisco market back in 1995 and convinced ABC to purchase KSFO. He turned the station into Hot Talk 560, a bastion of conservative thought in an otherwise ultraliberal community. He also supervises KMKY Radio Disney, which the company acquired in 1998.
Luckoff has served as President and General Manager of KGO for more than 27 years, and serves in the same capacity for KSFO and KMKY. Under his leadership, KGO attained its number-one ratings position in the market and has held the top spot in each consecutive Arbitron ratings book since summer 1978. The National Association of Broadcasters has honored KGO with more Marconi Awards than any other station in the U.S., including three awards for “Major Market Station of the Year,” two for “News/Talk Station of the Year,” and one for “Legendary Station of the Year.” KGO also has won with two Crystal Radio Awards for “Outstanding Community Service.”
Luckoff would be the first to say that these achievements have come only because of the people who work for him. But over the years he has established a management style that motivates people to do better than their best, to go that extra mile to ensure that the stations they work for consistently turn out a quality on-air product that not only achieves top ratings but that also means something within the community to both listeners and advertisers.
A native of Detroit and a 1958 graduate of the University of Michigan, Luckoff began his broadcasting career in local radio sales for the Storer Broadcasting-owned radio station in Detroit. His six years with Storer were followed by seven years with Metromedia in Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles as a national sales representative and general sales manager. In 1972, Luckoff joined KGO as a sales manager; six months later he was promoted to general sales manger and in 1975 he was named president and general manager of KGO.
Luckoff is the past two-time Chairman of the Arbitron Radio Advisory Council and serves on the NAB Board of Directors. He is a two-term past president of the California Broadcasters Association, and is the past president of the Northern California Broadcasters Association and the Bay Area Broadcast Skills Bank.
Like we said, “Mickey has no equal in the radio industry today.”
INK: Once again this year you’ve been selected as the best manager in the radio industry. Why do you think a jury of your peers selected you for this recognition?
ML: I guess because I’m old. I’ve been at this a long time—when I started I was one of the youngest to have a major station in a major market. I hope it’s not just because of ratings, because we’ve been on top for so long, and not just because KSFO—which we started as kind of a blocker and has now become a top-challenging station—is now a real market challenger.
In fact, KSFO challenges KGO, your market leader…
It absolutely does. It’s one of those very strange but delightful dilemmas. You start a station to dominate the field as best you’re able to and the next thing you know it’s your biggest challenger. I guess that’s good, but there are days it makes us nuts.
What qualities does it take to effectively manage a major market pair of stations like KGO and KSFO?
Let me qualify that by saying it’s not just my qualities but also those qualities of people who can work with me. I give the people a tremendous amount of autonomy, and I encourage them to take chances. I have said many times I’d rather they make a wrong decision than not have tried something new. I reward them well, and part of that reward is that to give them an enormous amount of autonomy to run their areas. They have to be willing to get asked a lot of questions, but when I get the right answers I’m happy to let them try what they want to do. I also make a very concerted effort to let them get the credit.
How have your responsibilities changed over the years as you’ve been at the helm of these properties?
I definitely had to learn on the job. I was young when I came into this position, and I probably wasn’t quite ready for it when I did. I was very fortunate that things fell the way they did for me. It’s been an on-the-job experience. When I was young I wanted to get an MBA and be an international diplomat, but when I graduated college my father said “That’s very nice, but now it’s time to make a living.” So my career has been in radio ever since, and a lot of the lessons I learned were from bad managers. I really learned how not to do things by observing what they did
What’s the difference between being a good manager and being a good leader?
A good manager is a good leader, especially in these challenging days. You can be a fantastic, dynamic individual, but these days—and we see it all the time, with the way our responsibilities have been spread out—you can’t do it all yourself. I don’t care how dynamic you are, if you’re not delegating and if you’re not hiring well, then you’re not going to succeed. You can set your example, you can be a good leader, but you have to hire well and then give those people room to grow.
How do you find new, good qualified people who can fit into your stations?
What’s proven best for us is if we can home-grow them. We’re a little different from most stations, in that KGO is almost 100 percent local, so we really have home-grown it. Very often what we’ve been very fortunate doing is rehiring some of these people who have left us to go to bigger jobs. That’s worked very well when someone has gone up to a certain level and been hired away. I’m at a point now where I’ll say to them, “You’ll be back.” That’s happened in a lot of cases, and we have a couple people out there who could very well come back one of these days.
Still, you have to bring new talent in. Where do you look for new people?
I look in all fields. I certainly don’t restrict it to the radio business, or even the broadcasting business. I’m not opposed to hiring television people, I don’t think vice versa is necessarily the case. We’re always looking. It’s one of the main reasons and why I encourage my people to go to conventions and meetings, even non-broadcast meetings. It is amazing when you’re in a situation how someone can just break through and say “that’s a sharp one.” We hire people who have a real love of the industry and an insatiable desire to win. You don’t have to do a helluva lot of motivating when you hire people like that, and hopefully they’re going to enjoy what they do. You have to have the ability to perform in an art form—which is what broadcasting really is—and still be able to capably produce the margins and the profit.
Do you find that many people don’t really think of going into radio as a solid career move?
It’s interesting how, for so many decades, people have grown up and not even thought of our business. Those of us in radio know there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of money to be made in it, but it’s always disappointed me that we’ve never attracted the MBA crowd. Fortunately, as I’ve said, a lot of our people stay, and that’s a wonderful problem to have. We’re very fortunate to have attracted and hired well, and people stay here a long time, and that has encouraged others to do the same. As a result, there are a lot of people who want to come work here.
A lot of people pay lip service to training, but then provide only a minimal amount to their people. What sort of training do you provide to your people?
We do a lot of different kinds of training. We bring people in, we buy training tapes, we send people to the RAB academies, and we have them serve as apprentices. We don’t have any particular type of training, but we do believe in it. I supposed the ideal answer to this question is “we have everyone go through the KGO school,” but that doesn’t exist. We do believe in it, and before we put people out on the street or give them a tremendous amount of responsibility, we really school them in what KGO is—and what it stands for.
How have your structured your sales departments’ responsibilities? Do your salespeople sell just one station or both?
Our salespeople’s basic responsibility is for the entity they represent. Having said that, they do have some broader goals. They have a goal for selling Radio Disney, they have a goal for selling web advertising, they have a goal for selling 49er advertising, and they cross over to sell the other station, as well. They each have a specific focus with alternate goals where they can make more money.
What do your people expect from you as their leader?
They like to be recognized. They like to know that you know their name. They like it when you ask about their spouse or their kid or ask them how they’re doing since they lost their mother. That’s really appreciated. They know I am always available to go on a call with them, or help them crack an account. After all these years of belonging to chambers of commerce and attending all these luncheons and banquets you develop some entrees that are incredibly invaluable. They also want to know you remember their birthday, and I like to feel it creates an awfully nice environment to work in.
You have the top two stations 12-plus in the market. What’s involved in maintaining these positions?
It’s a helluva challenge. We have an enormous fight against the clusters. We’re a two-station operation and that musters very, very formidable competition, and it’s one of the reasons we stress the importance of the product more and more all the time. The radio industry, like so many others, has become much more difficult. As you know, this is the third company that has owned these properties. Everyone has a different culture, and we’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to be successful under 3 different owners, all with different rules and different goals. People take enormous pride in this place. There’s nothing like having a winner, and those things help sustain you at being a winner.
KGO is one of the top-rated heritage AMs in the country. Does this make your job any easier, or is it difficult to live up to expectations year after year?
It’s like wearing a four-by-four target on your back 24/7. Bud Wilkerson won 42 consecutive football games and one day someone said to him, “Coach you finally lost. How does it feel?” And he said, “You’ll never know how relieved I am.” Well, I don’t know how relieved I’ll feel if that happens, but it’s been a helluva run and we have some awfully good competitors here. In some ways I often feel I’m public enemy number one, but I don’t intend to let up.
What if you knock yourself off?
If that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it has to be.
What key element makes your stations stand out from all the others among your advertisers and listeners?
Devotion to the product is key. You do a lot of it by having good marketing and research, having very good program ears, and not being greedy as far as spot loads are concerned. That’s incredibly important, and very difficult for broadcasters to get away from. But we have never increased our spot load, and that’s incredibly important. Especially with AMs. Sure, you can make the station more profitable at the snap of your fingers, but once these AMs flip on you, it’s very rare that you can make them come back. KSFO happens to be a rare exception, which we’re very proud of. You just have to guard and protect that product all the time. And guarding your spot load is important in that regard.
How important is it to be local in a format that increasingly is turning to syndicated product?
KGO is totally locally and, since day one, we’ve really avoided getting into syndication on it. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not some damned good syndicated product out there, because there is. But keeping KGO local and balanced has paid huge dividends for us—it sells well, especially in a market as chauvinistic as the San Francisco Bay Area. One of our biggest concerns, and one of the things we fight against the most, is that with the evolution of KSFO it makes KGO appear more liberal. KGO got to where it is by being balanced, and we fight to maintain that balance. KGO also has a really fine news department. We’re involved in almost every event you can mention in this marketplace; we appear at hundreds of places every year. We get ourselves involved in the biggest possible events like 49ers, the Bay to Breakers. You name it, we’re there. We’re all news eight hours a day, and give the all-news station a pretty good run for their money. It’s balanced in its localness, and it’s a very good news operation.
Yet KSFO mostly runs network programming…
Yes. KSFO is mostly syndicated, except for a very good local morning show which ranks third in the market. Michael Savage, who is our afternoon guy, is now syndicated but he started out as our local personality, and still rates as a local entity. By and large that station takes the best of what we feel is available on a syndicated basis, and it does have a particular bent to it. It’s not as high a cumer as KGO but it has an incredibly loyal audience. It has the longest time listening of any station in the market, and that includes the classical and jazz stations.
While you keep KGO balanced politically, there’s no question that much of talk radio slants to the right side of the political spectrum. Why do you think this is?
There are a lot of conservatives in them thar hills, and KSFO is their only real outlet. When anyone thinks of the Bay Area they think it’s ultraliberal, and when we first told the company what we were going to do this they thought I’d completely lost my mind. They said “Conservative, in the Bay Area? Are you nuts?” Well, I knew out in them thar hils there were a lot of conservatives. I didn’t know they were as devoted as they are, but because KSFO is their only outlet, they listen. There’s a slogan we use on KSFO: “News you won’t hear anywhere else.” And that really brings them in. It’s their home. We did a survey recently to find out who else they listen to, and they don’t listen to much else. They’ve found a home and they’re fiercely loyal to it.
Talk is a very expensive format to produce. Does the value of the talk audience outweigh the expenses associated with the format?
Absolutely. Talk is more expensive to operate than almost any other format, but it’s definitely worth it. I’ll probably pay for this, but you know, I run ‘em pretty rich. I think that’s one of the ways we’ve been able to sustain ourselves year after year and not fall prey to some quick profits. When we had this dot-com boom I told my people repeatedly, “You’re never going to see anything like this again. Enjoy it, but don’t forget who your friends are. And I can’t tell you how many advertisers have told us, without them knowing we ever said that, “you were the only station that didn’t stick it to us during those particular times—and that’s one of the reasons we’re still with you.” I’ve always said that if I owned a station—and I wish to hell I had—this would be the one I would advertise on, but Beautiful Music or Smooth Jazz would be the one I would want to pay the expenses for.
How critical is it to have play-by-play sports, such as KGO’s rights to the San Francisco 49er games?
It’s not critical. I refer to the 49ers as the crown jewel. They have always been the leading franchise in this marketplace and certainly for many years they were one of the top franchises in the NFL. Weekends on talk radio can sometimes leave something to be desired, so it’s good to have the crown jewel. It’s also one of the few chances you have to reach out and grab hold of listeners who ordinarily would never tune you in, and suddenly you have a chance to have them put you on their dial. That means Monday mornings you’re going to be there, if they have six buttons in their car you’re going to be one of them. It’s has a sampling effect, and it has a cume effect. Yes, it’s a very expensive way to go, but if you can have the crown jewel in the market and not take a beating on it, I recommend it.
>b>Does baseball operate the same way?
No. We’ve never sought baseball because it’s terribly interruptive of your format, especially if there are days games or east coast games that will cut into your program schedule, and that causes people to go look elsewhere.
How might any merger between ABC News and CNN affect your programming?
That’s difficult to project because I don’t really know what they have in mind. I happen to like the ABC news product, so I would hope it wouldn’t be compromised in any way.
News is a very important element to us, and we would certainly hope that our product would remain very professional and exclusive.
Is talk radio primarily news or entertainment?
Talk has got to be informative and entertaining in order to be successful. You must have both of those elements; one without the other doesn’t work. When we try out people it is so evident who is the cream at the top of the bottle. If they can do both—be informative and entertaining—they’ll be great, but if they can only do one they’re never going to be top-drawer.
Has the dot-com implosion affected your station’s bottom line over the last two years?
It has affected us financially. The San Francisco Bay Area was the number one recipient of increased billing during the dot com era, and likewise the market has been the number one victim since then. The economy has been very slow coming back. This fall happens to be the first quarter in the last dozen that exceeded the same quarter the previous year. However, first quarter of 2003 is still looking very anemic.
Are you expected to budget for a certain percentage annual increase, or does ABC give you some latitude on what your budget projections should be?
Like any business we’re expected to do better than the year before, but the radio division has good management and they recognize individual market situations. We’re always encouraged to exceed what we’ve done in the past and we always want to do that, but it’s only real that those things be taken into consideration. It’s certainly a fair operation.
Can talk radio benefit from In-Band, On-Channel digital radio as much as music-oriented FMs might?
I think IBOC can only help. First, it will bring more people to the AM band, and it will make voices sound better. It can only improve the situation. The only thing they don’t have worked out is the nighttime AM, and that’s important in the AM band and hopefully that will come about. Still, it’s going to be awhile before you get a huge number of receivers out there. Overall, IBOC is a very positive thing, especially with all the competition that’s constantly coming on, and that can only help us.
How much of a threat do you see in new, emerging media and technologies?
I’m going to give you a very simplistic answer. Much like radio was expected to die when television came on, all we can do as operators is do the very best we can do. So far, with all the encroaching media that have come about, we’ve all been able to succeed. I’m not so sure satellite radio is going to be that much of a hit. The numbers we’ve seen so far are all that impressive, and I don’t know how quickly people are going to start paying subscription fees to start listening to the radio. So I don’t see any great cloud of doom up above, and there will always be a market for good, solid, local radio.
What are your thoughts on Arbitron’s Portable People Meter?
It ain’t ready. I served on the Arbitron board for six years and I know there are a lot of bugs in the tests. They have sampling problems, and the broadcasters have let it be known that they have to do a lot more testing before they’re going to throw their fortunes on these little boxes.
What effect—positive or negative—has deregulation had on the radio industry?
Because of deregulation, radio companies have been allowed to operate outside their communities. Now. I don’t want to sound like an old fart and say “gee, things aren’t the way they used to be,” but there’s a lot less pressure on diversity, which is something we have always pushed. We feel it’s such a great thing for our type of business and our type of industry to promote. We still push for diversity at every level, for every hiring. We feel that better helps us represent the community that we’re in. We still do ascertainments, and we still invite groups in so we can listen to them and ask them how we can serve them better. The government has taken the focus off these things, and a lot of broadcasters like that fact. But we’re still really into that because we feel it helps us be a better part of the community in the long run, and it pays dividends for us as business people and as part of the community.
Once again, from all of us at Radio Ink, congratulations on being selected the Number One Manager in Radio…
Thank you. I’m in the twilight of my career, so this comes at a very nice time for me. I’m very appreciative, and I’m really flattered in the way that this recognition is selected. It’s not just an editor or a writer—it’s really my peers and probably a lot of people whom I don’t even know, and it’s very gratifying. And I am most appreciative for it.
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
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