Jimmy Steal: Steal This Book [10/21/02]
Jimmy Steal literally is a programmer’s programmer. In Radio Ink’s annual compilation of the 40 Best Program Directors in America,” a panel comprised of the best PDs in the radio industry identified him as the best PD in the business this year. And for good reason: as regional vice president for Emmis Communications in Los Angeles, overseeing KPWR, KZLA, and KKFR, Steal recently took the company’s Rhythmic CHR-formatted Power 106 to Number One 12-plus for the first time in over six years. Additionally, in the latest Arbitron book (Spring 2002) the station ranked Number One in adults 18-34 and Number One in teens. The station also took home two Marconi Radio Awards at this year’s NAB Radio Show, for “CHR Station of the Year,” and for Big Boy, who received the “Large Market Personality of the Year” award.
Steal came to L.A. in the summer of 1999 from Dallas where, as Clear Channel’s Director of Programming and Operations, he had taken KEGL to its highest ratings in over five years, and brought KDMX its highest ratings in its 25-year history, with a 5.0 share 12-plus and number three in adults 25-54. Prior to that, as PD at WKRQ in Cincinnati, he grew the station to a 7.8 share 12-plus, the highest ratings it’s had since the mid-1990s. His first programming gig came at WXXL-Orlando, where he programmed the station to an all-time high 12-plus share—Number One with a 12.0 share—which subsequently got him fired. (More on that later.)
Unquestionably a top gun programmer with a resume full of successes to prove it, Steal is the first to concede that much of his current good fortune is due to the talents and passions of the people around him. Humble almost to a fault, Steal credits everyone from Emmis Sr. VP/Market Manager Val Maki and Emmis Radio President Rick Cummings to his programming staff to the sales department to the air personalities to the board ops for creating a consistent, solid product day-in and day-out.
Congratulations, Jimmy Steal, on being the best in the biz!
How do you feel, knowing your programming peers singled you out as the best program director in America?
Actually, I’m pretty surprised. If there’s one area of my skill set that I need to work on—and God knows there’s a lot of them—I’m probably not the best networker or self-promoter. The idea that other program directors have been gracious enough to honor me like this, despite my lack of profile, is pretty shocking. Obviously it’s because I work at an incredible platform. If you have to inherit a brand to take care of I don’t know that there’s one any better than Power 106. The platform by itself brings attention to your work—which sometimes is good and sometimes bad.
Still, there must be something you’ve brought to Power 106 that’s gotten you noticed…
I’d love to take all the credit for it, which is not a unique thing to do in this business, but this was a rock-solid station when I came aboard, thanks to Val Maki and [Emmis Radio President] Rick Cummings. If you’re asking what makes Power 106 successful today—going back to being smart enough to know what you don’t know—I think I’m blessed with a crew that is so passionate and emotional when it comes to our music and our culture. All I have been is the spark plug in the engine. I’ve been able to do that by implementing our strategic plan, conducting research where it’s needed, and focusing on things that are directly attributable to success in Arbitron and, in turn, revenue. I’m just the person who disciplines and focuses the tremendous amount of passion that was already here. If anything, I’ve just tightened up the mission statement of what the most successful Power 106 incarnation is supposed to look like, held it up in front of the crew, and said, “Let’s rock.”
How do you think your perception of radio programming has shifted from the way it was when you landed your first gig?
My first gig was at WXXL in Orlando. We changed it from an Adult Contemporary to a Rhythmic CHR. That was my first air shift as well as my first programming experience, as an assistant program director and music director. I was a lot more naïve then, and a lot of the things we felt in our gut back then—a lot of the passion and emotion we had—wasn’t quite as well-balanced with strategic planning and research as maybe it could have been.
What were your aspirations back then, and how have they evolved with the times?
At that point my aspirations were to stay on the air and make a lot of noise and be a great on-air personality. To this day I can honestly tell you I still have regrets about coming off the air, just because I had such a great time and was blessed with some pretty good ratings. But I got to that juncture in my career where I had that opportunity to program full tilt, and I took it. Who knows—if I was on the air today I might be doing a different interview in a different magazine and I might be saying, “You know, it just bums me that I never got off the air and devoted myself fulltime to programming.”
Do you think we all tend to look back on the early days as possibly the most fun days in our careers?
There’s a lot of truth to that. At that point in your career you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve progressed to the point where I know exactly what I don’t know, and in some ways it does make you gulp when you realize that a tenth of a ratings point means about $8 million. You just can’t think the same way you did the first day you got into radio. But if you can take that enthusiasm and passion and emotion, and temper it with good strategic skills that hopefully you pick up along the way, you have the best of both worlds. I’ve always thought of myself as a disk jockey at the station without the air shift, as opposed to the guy behind the curtain.
Do you think consolidation has constricted or expanding the programming opportunities in radio?
Consolidation has brought some good and some bad to our business. Now that some of us have to wear more hats, a lot of companies compensate their people who do remain in a better fashion than in pre-consolidation. But as for the “farm team” system radio once had, we’ve taken away that stream that in the past was a primary source for getting to the “big leagues.” That being said, some of the most dynamic hires here at Power 106, those people who have enjoyed some tremendous success, have not been traditional disk jockeys.
What do your listeners expect from Power 106?
They really expect an accurate reflection of their interests, their likes, their dislikes, and their communities—as well as the musical portion of the program. And we do that really well. We probably have an unfair advantage just because so many people on the staff at Power 106 are involved in the hip-hop community directly. Great radio stations do an excellent job of reflecting their culture and their audience, and Power 106 is blessed with really having a hand in creating the culture and music of our audience. We have several people on staff who mix and produce records for the likes of Mariah Carey, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Korn, Sugar Ray, and Limp Bizkit. Power 106 really is a part of what it’s reflecting, and that is extremely difficult to duplicate. That’s our Universal Selling Point: Power 106 is hip-hop. We don’t just play hip-hop; we are hip-hop.
How critical is it for a radio station to completely speak the language of the audience, rather than simply playing the right music?
In our format even more so than in many others it’s extremely important, because we have a young target. I have to credit Dianna Obermeyer for doing an amazing job keeping our marketing strategically on point. We have a 30-member street team called the Flava Unit, and they’ll do 30 appearances on a weekend. We really do an awesome job of being everywhere we possibly can, every day we possibly can. We also have the Knowledge Is Power Foundation, which is something Rick Cummings set up many years ago. Through a lot of our fundraising and concerts, every month we give away $5,000 to a school in the southland that has an immediate and deserving need. Essentially, we not only entertain you, we also live here. We’re your neighbors.
ow do you divide your time between all the different aspects of your job?
Luckily, when I arrived here, I already had attention deficit disorder, but I can honestly say it’s now only gotten worse. As as much as I love getting home to my wife and children at the end of the day, it really is a hard radio station to leave when the day is done. The pace of the station every day is very much addicting. I probably wouldn’t win an award crossing off all the things on my to-do list in order every day, but Power 106—and people who have visited this station or worked here in the past will tell you—has a rhythm to it. The majority of my days I do get all the things done that need to get done, but nowhere near in the time frame or the order that they originally were laid out. I could be in a music meeting with a two-way with Tracy Cloherty from our New York station and she could be sending me something via ISDN, and then I run down the hear it, and then I say it has to go right on the air, and then I’ll get pulled into Val’s office foir a meeting. If you wanted an actual percentage break-out of how much I do everything I’d say I do 100 different things every day and probably spend 1 percent of my time on all of them. It’s not the ideal way of doing things, but it seems to work at Power 106.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m not great at sitting in meetings. Power really moves at such a rapid pace that if I’m sitting somewhere for more than 30 minutes I know I’m missing something. And they’re usually top-tier important things.
How important is it for the programming department and the sales department to work toward a common cause?
I was taught very early on that ratings have one goal, and that is to generate revenue. After taking a radio station in Orlando from 12th in the ratings to first, the entire programming department including myself got fired, because we had a sales staff that couldn’t turn it into revenue. I came on board at Power 106 in June of 1999, and they billed $27 million for the year; this year we’ll do $47 million. Our crew understands that ratings are a conduit to revenue, because ratings without revenue doesn’t keep any of us employed. And Jeff Federman, who heads up our sales efforts, is the reason for that. You don’t put numbers up like that without being a great manager and having a great team, and he is awesome.
Is it tough to find good, new talent that can create strong entertainment on the radio?
Unfortunately, I find it pretty difficult. And it’s not from the lack of tapes we get in, or the lack of phone calls, or the lack of personal pitches in the lobby. Maybe this is a generation that was raised on liner-card jocks, or maybe they don’t have the same emotional bond with radio that maybe generations past had. Or maybe it’s a generation that doesn’t understand that this is an entertainment business, not a business of disk jockeys. We really look for people who can entertain and, honestly, most things that people learn in Disk Jockey 101 are the exact things I don’t look for. I remember when I was in Dallas and turned Mix 102.9 around—we got it up to a five share, third in 25-54, which it had never been in its entire history—at the time I hired a team named Cramer and Twitch, who unfortunately have been fired a few times since then, but they make noise. I needed to bring attention to my radio station and, while strategically they probably weren’t 110 percent on point, when you turned the radio on you actually heard these guys—and you’d listen to them. Which unfortunately you can’t say about a lot of people these days.
Is it sometimes necessary to look outside the rank-and-file of radio personalities to find good, solid talent?
Yes. If I’m a jock coming up reading this, hopefully this will really piss them off and get them focused and fired up. But unfortunately that’s dead on. You look for these people wherever you go: in a mall, in a bar, at a baseball game—you look for them wherever you live your life.
What guidance would you give to an air personality or morning team that loves to push the envelope in matters of so-called “good taste”?
I would tell them that they have to know who their audience is—they will let you know what is acceptable and what is not. That varies from station to station and format to format. People who don’t have the talent but just have either the salty language or loud mouth, that hurts the whole industry. But genuinely talented people who are what I like to characterize as foreground jocks—Howard Stern, Cramer, Mancow—these are very talented people. And some people don’t appreciate that there is an art form in the delivery of that product on a daily basis. Having been a jock for awhile I very much am a defender of that, but at the same time I can’t sit here and defend people who don’t know their audience and don’t know the basis and use that as a crutch or a scapegoat in lieu of content.
Are you concerned that other media are beginning to draw some folks—especially younger people—away from radio?
Younger listeners are not being raised on radio, so it absolutely is something to be concerned about. As America further fragments in ethnicity and other ways, it’s going to diversify all kinds of tastes in formatics, in music, in talk delivery—so it absolutely is something to be concerned about. It is the responsibility of those of us who are at the helm of radio stations to find the best people, to help the medium flourish, and to do our best. From the promotions we come up with to the tactics we employ, we need to make radio as exciting and fresh as it needs to be today. That truly is our responsibility—to
What advice would you give to young programmers who might aspire to have your job—or one just like it—some day?
The best advice I can give someone coming up through the ranks is this: you are the CEO of your own company, and your company is your name and your career. You have to manage it like you would manage other people if you were managing a staff. You have to sit down and figure out what you want to achieve, so you have to go and achieve it. You have to think in terms of your one-year plan and your two-year plan, and take little tiny steps along the way that ensure the big steps 18 months or two years later. I remember being in situations where I was about to be fired and I knew I had to reach out to people I had met in the past. It’s a chess game; you don’t get the king in two moves; just make sure you’re always moving forward to the other side so you can get your queen back.
Can you see yourself ever making the jump from programming to station management?
I’ve really gotten some on-the-job training with that right now because Rick Cummings, who was vice president of programming, is now the president of Emmis Radio. I’m watching him learn the sales side in greater detail, as well as the Wall Street side, and all that stuff fascinates me. It is an area where I certainly can stand to learn a heck of a lot more. But is it that something that’s in my future? I don’t know.
Are you having too much fun doing this right now?
I really am. I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve got a tremendous crew around me. If that opportunity presents itself, however, and the timing is right, I guess I would be all ears. If someone had told me four years ago that I’d be the PD of a hip-hop station in L.A., I would have toild them they were crazy. And a year from now—well, you just never know.
How is the culture at Emmis different from that at other radio groups today?
[Chairman/CEO] Jeff Smulyan has a human touch. He is probably has a higher degree of empathy for the people than anyone I’ve ever worked with, and that is so appreciated by everyone who works for him that it makes us all want to do even more—if that’s possible—to drive the enterprise forward. I’ve told myself before that if I ever reach a level of success that he has, I hope to conduct myself in a similar fashion. He does it because he’s just a great person; he really cares about the people who work for his company. And it all goes back to a major management tenet, which is that if you show respect for your people, they give it back. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone inside Emmis who feels any other way about Jeff.
Do you think some of that focus on the people has been lost due to consolidation or other market forces?
Radio is still in a great transition phase. I may have ADD but I am not change-averse. I love change. Life is short and it’s challenging. I am concerned, though, that some companies don’t fully understand the value of their people. Without the right people, no matter how much you pay for a station, all you’re really getting is a stick and a studio. I just hope that the owners of these billion-dollar companies really get their arms around the fact that, without the right people who literally breathe life into their brands, their return on investment will certainly be in question. Radio is now, always has been, and always will be, about people.
Let’s change direction for a moment. Are you ready to go digital with IBOC?
Digital is good. I’m very much looking forward to it. It could be a boon to the entire industry. As other people come at us and sell their digital products to compete against us, us being shored-up digitally is great.
What’s your thinking on the Portable People Meter?
I’m very intrigued by it. I don’t share the skepticism that some people have been expressing as of late. I’m very excited about it. It could take ratings measurement to the next step in accuracy.
What do you make of all the attention being given to independent record promotion?
I’m really ambivalent about it. My personal opinion is that the record labels’ biggest problem is A&R (artist and repertoire), not the very small percentage of their promotion budgets that their doling out to outside record promoters. If they fix the A&R problem, that problem won’t matter. I don’t think it’s a big issue, but every so often politicians need to be re-elected.
Is voicetracking a useful tool, or is it out to destroy radio?
When done right, voicetracking it can be an effective tool. One of the most entertaining things I’ve heard said about it was by Rick Cummings, my boss. He said, “after meeting some of the people in this business some of the managers should be voicetracked.”
Are spot loads too high?
I hate big spot loads. I like the revenue they generate, but at the same time I really want to make sure our entertainment quotient is as high as it can possibly be for our audience. Just like any program director.
How often do you think about all the new, emerging media—satellite, Internet, wireless, MP3s—that is competing with radio?
I’m constantly concerned about that, but I’m not upset by it. I try to focus on the things I have control over, and if I can make my radio station and my personalities as compelling as they can possibly be, I’m in control. The world obviously is changing, and it changes the way we do business every day.
How do you envision the radio industry might shake out in ten years?
If there’s one constant between now and that future date, I hope it’s that we have as many people—maybe more—in the driver position in this business. We need people who are passionate about radio. If we have people who are preoccupied with success and its symbols as opposed to creating great product and painting great pictures for their audience, we’re going to be in a dangerous place.
Will the role of programmer be the same, or will evolutionary forces change what you do?
Since programmers are the drivers of radio stations that communicate to America, it’s an important position inasmuch as radio is a great conduit. PDs aren’t necessarily great, but they do have a great and important responsibility. We should understand our responsibility and really do everything within our power to groom our staffs to be outstanding communicators and entertainers. That comes from creating a nourishing environment.
The most effective leaders—and I do look at PDs as leaders—not only are fulfilled by doing great radio, but they are fulfilled by their personal lives, as well. They can experience joy in connection with their own family and bring that great vibe to work every and let that come out of their radio station. Sometimes success and all its symbols replaces a person’s passions for their work. I think we’ve all seen many examples of where success has been just as dangerous as failure.
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