Starting A Career, and Company

Part 2 of conversation with Emmis’ CEO.

The early years: discovering David Letterman, from Shelbyville to the big city and more!

Over 30 years ago Jeff Smulyan got started in the radio business and has since led Emmis Communications to be the 9th largest radio group in the U.S (based on listeners).  After being honored with the Indiana Broadcasters Association’s Lifetime Achievement award, he sat down with Radio Indiana and reminisced about launching his career & Emmis.

Radio Indiana:  Talk about the first radio station you operated, WNTS…

Jeff Smulyan: Well, it was fun.  My dad invested with my cousin in small Beech Grove station and asked me to run it.  It was news, talk, and sports.  We had Lou Sherman on in the mornings, David Letterman was our first midday guy and Jerry Baker was our first sports guy.  Rick Cummings was just out of Butler University and was sort of a part-time production guy, and when David left to go to California to pursue his comedy career, Rick became our midday guy.

Radio Indiana: (Emmis’ President of Radio Prorgramming) Rick Cummings hosted a talk show?

Jeff Smulyan: Absolutely. Rick hosted a talk program… I also hosted talk programs and together we did sports talk on Saturday afternoons many times. I always told him, “I wanna start my own company someday and when I do, I want you to be there.” And lo and behold, he was the first person that we hired.

Radio Indiana: When you first launched Emmis, how many employees were there?

Jeff Smulyan: Oh gosh, maybe 10. You know, we had 2 or 3 salespeople, a chief engineer, Rick was the morning man and the program director.  It was a pretty thin crew for a radio station.

Radio Indiana: And you were the de facto sales manager?

Jeff Smulyan

Jeff Smulyan: (chuckling)  I was sales manager, and I was assistant program director, and I was a lot of things. I used to say, in those days, I delegated nothing. Today, I delegate everything.

Radio Indiana: The first station that you bought, 91.7FM, actually was and still is licensed to Shelbyville, though.  Such signals licensed to smaller communities which then “move in” to a nearby major metro area has become fairly common but that was borderline pioneering in the late 1970s, correct?

Jeff Smulyan: It was kinda pioneering, yes.  And it took us about 2 years to get the first tower built.  It was at Fairland, which is now famous because it’s the exit where I think Indiana Downs Racetrack & casino is.

Radio Indiana: Talk about Emmis’ growth pattern over the next handful of years after launching WENS…

Jeff Smulyan: Well, it skyrocketed.  The first station did incredibly well. It led us to buy a station in Minneapolis around 1981.  That also took off like crazy. Then we bought Los Angeles and St. Louis. St. Louis we built up very, very nicely. And Los Angeles took us about a year and a half. And we switched to what became Power 106. That was really the engine that grew the company. From there, we bought TV stations, got into baseball, got into magazines, so a lot of good things have happened.  And a few bad.

In upcoming posts Smulyan talks about other topics including: WIBC, first trying to compete against it and now owning it; and sports talk radio, owning Indy’s top one now in 1070TheFan & pioneering the format in New York over two decades ago.