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  • Writer's pictureMatt Cundill

Rick Cummings: Radio Brands Built to Last

A few episodes ago, I interviewed Jeff Smulyan about his new book. As I read the book "Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down", I wanted to hear more about the construction of some of the great radio stations like KPWR (Power 106) Los Angeles, and Hot 97 in New York. Rick Cummings was apart of those and number of other radio success stories.


In this episode, Rick shares some great radio stories like what it was like to build Power 106 using a coalition of records from both pop, dance and Latino influences. You might think that the stories gets embellished along the way but no; there was true consternation amongst music and radio on how to handle a station like Power 106. (Check out the episode page for proof) You will also hear about Rick's favourite mistakes, (his three favourite to be exact) and how Emmis accidentally purchased a top ranked radio station in WLOL. Rick also shared his experiences working with great talent from David Letterman to Big Boy.

 

You'll hear Rick a few times say that they didn't care what people thought about the ads on television or to what chart they would report to... if any. It was enough to make the news locally in LA.


 

TRANSCRIPTION


Tara Sands (Voiceover) 0:02

The sound off podcast. The show about podcast and broadcast starts now.


Matt Cundill 0:13

This week I spent some time with Rick Cummings, who is the president of Emmis Communications. Rick has worked for some great radio brands, many of which were mentioned a few episodes back when I interviewed Jeff Smulyan. You know, as I was interviewing Jeff, I thought I can have an episode for each one of these radio brands. Now, I'm not going to do that. But today we're going to talk about stations like KSHE 95 in St. Louis, WLOL in Minneapolis, Power 106 in LA, and Hot 97 in New York. Just a reminder: to get the full effect for this show, check out the Jeff Smulyan episode either before or after you listen to this one. Now, Rick Cummings joins me from his home in Los Angeles. How would I get to Cloverdale, Indiana?


Rick Cummings 0:54

You would fly to Indianapolis, rent a car and head west on Interstate 70 for about 30 miles. And when you get to the junction with US 31 south, you hang a left and five minutes later you're in Cloverdale. But if you blink you'll miss it.


Matt Cundill 1:16

What was life like in Cloverdale?


Rick Cummings 1:18

Life was great. My grew up there Cloverdale at that time was population 800. I think I think it's now Around 2000 people, very rural area. In a less than flattering article decades later, the Indianapolis Star compared it to Appalachia. But I don't remember it that way. I remember people were either farmers or they hopped in their station wagon and commuted to Indianapolis to work in factories.


Matt Cundill 1:49

What was there to listen to on the radio?


Rick Cummings 1:52

There was a local station where I got my start, a Greencastle, Indiana station 10 miles north, an FM station, WXTA, that did lots of high school basketball games, etc. It's where I got a chance to cut my teeth doing play by play. But generally speaking, kids like me who were into the radio listened to WLS in Chicago, we listened to WIFE AM in Indianapolis, which was a great top 40 radio station. They were the hosts for The Beatles 1964 concert at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. And they had something like a 30 share of listeners. And those were stations that for me were iconic at the time.


Matt Cundill 2:37

What attracted you to radio in the first place?


Rick Cummings 2:39

That's a good question. I would love to tell you that. It was my obsession with play by play and my obsession with the imagination that is created by radio and that was part of it. But the true story is that my dad ran a station in Cloverdale, not a radio station, a gasoline station. And one day he was approached by an account executive for the station in Greencastle who wanted to sell him commercials probably for something like two or $3 a pop for the high school basketball tournament. My dad being always watching out for me said sure all by a schedule. But I want you to talk to my son. He's interested in sports broadcasting. And that led to an opportunity for me to do play by play on some of the local high school games. And I have my father to thank for that.


Matt Cundill 3:34

You went to Butler? It seems obvious given where you live, but why Butler?


Rick Cummings 3:39

I did. Well, I looked at two or three schools my senior year in high school. I took one look at Indiana University. I think the student population was like 25,000 or something. And it was just overwhelming for a kid from a rural town of 800 people. I took one look at the commons and said this is not for me. I can't do this. And I wound up visiting Butler and they had a great Radio Television department. I had dreams of being the next Howard Cosell at the time. And it was clear that as a student, you got a lot of hands on work at the radio station. And so I said this is the place for me. It's smaller. It's not as big as an IU or Purdue. And I think I'll be able to do what I want to do. And that turned out to be the case from the time of my freshman year. I was on the radio there and learned a lot.


Matt Cundill 4:34

Did you get to call any games?


Rick Cummings 4:36

Oh, yeah. Yeah, called college basketball and college football games for Butler for three years. And I think I had a great time doing it. But I think I about my senior year, I realized that there were probably 100 great play by play jobs in all of America. And the chances of me getting one weren't all that great. So I started to broaden my horizons and I went to work for a Susquehanna music station my senior year at college. And that was my first taste of commercial radio.


Matt Cundill 5:11

What was the format? And what did you do?


Rick Cummings 5:14

The format was, I guess you would call it beautiful music. I'm trying to remember the slogan. Oh, yeah, music for the good life, WFMS. And I did the overnight stint during my senior year at Butler and then I worked there for about another year before moving on to other things.


Matt Cundill 5:35

Those call letters seem very familiar, WFMS.


Rick Cummings 5:39

They are. About a year or two- Part of the reason I left was I kept saying to management, what we're doing here is not going to be effective. It's not an effective format. There's already someone in the format that is dominant, and we need to do something else. They didn't agree with me at the time. And so I left at their choosing. And about a year after I left, they flipped to country. And FMS is and has been one of the premier country radio stations in all of America for the last 35, 40 years, something like that.


Matt Cundill 6:13

Absolutely. Those are call letters that resonate. And what did you do after that, after they voluntarily exited you?


Rick Cummings 6:20

Yeah, after they exited me. I was on the beach for a couple of months. And a friend of mine who I had worked with at FMS called and said, Hey, there's this new news talk station in town. It's a daytime am radio station run by Jeff Smolyan. And Jeff has lots of job openings, including a production director. You have those skills you might want to apply. And I went down and applied on the southeast side of town and got the job. And that station W N TS was an all news talk sports radio station. And you got to wear a lot of hats at that radio station. So I not only was the production director, I was the Philippine sports host. I appeared on the afternoon guys show on a regular basis. That guy was David Letterman, about six months after I got there that made me program director. So I got a lot of experience. I got editorial experience, I got management experience, and I got to hang out with a pretty talented comedian who left about a year later for Hollywood and the rest is history.


Matt Cundill 7:30

There's an automatic de facto default question, I have to ask everybody from Indiana. And that's what makes radio in Indiana so different than the rest of the country? Why is it been such a breeding ground for creativity? For talent? And for listening? It seems to Scott the hattrick.


Rick Cummings 7:48

Yeah, you know, I don't really know the answer. You know, Johnny Carson had Midwestern roots, Letterman had Midwestern roots. I don't know what it is about Indiana, maybe, at least as far as NTFS is concerned, the ownership was willing to take lots of chances. Here's a guy in Letterman, who was probably 25 years old, and he's doing a talk show on a station whose natural demographic is 60. And he did some pretty wild, creative and pretty funny stuff. And I think part of the reason at least in our case, that we were doing crazy stuff like that is that we had to do things like that to get attention, because we were up against the Juggernaut WIVC. So that was part of it. And I think also, frankly, part of it was because we were all young guys who didn't know any better. We were out there doing crazy stuff, because no one had bothered to tell us that it wouldn't work. And in a lot of cases, that didn't work, but we learned a lot of great things along the way.


Matt Cundill 8:52

What did you learn from managing a young David Letterman?


Rick Cummings 8:55

I think what I learned with David was get out of his way. There was no coaching somebody like David, he didn't need a coach. He needed support. And so that's what I tried to give him and frankly, didn't need a lot of that he would drag me into his show every day for a segment called I remember Cloverdale a collection of recollections with your little buddy. And we would talk about my days living in Cloverdale in my high school years and that sort of thing. But David needed no direction, no help from anybody. The tough thing about David was he was bound for much bigger things. You could tell that from the minute he walked into a radio station that he was not going to be there long. He had bigger hills to climb. And he did.


Matt Cundill 9:46

Tell me about what went on at WENS because the TV commercials it was almost like you just said there was nobody there to say no when it came to marketing ideas.


Rick Cummings 9:56

Yeah, that's right. The early TV commercials worked sold around the theme we let our Music Do the Talking. And they were animated commercials where we basically did caricatures if you will impersonations of some of the well known better known talent in town at wy BC Gary Todd at W N AP the rock station Chris Connor at W F BQ. The harder rock station atom smasher, we basically went on and made fun of all those guys. And so the commercials would be Chris Connor saying I partied so hard last night. And Gary Todd named dropping tomorrow I'm playing golf with the governor and that sort of thing. And we did these basic impersonations of these personalities in town. And then the tagline was, aren't you tired of all of this? Wouldn't you like to just hear some music, we let our Music Do the Talking. And it was an immediate hit. Jeff tells his story in his book that he was standing in line as people did back then to see a movie. And the people in front of him. This was like, like maybe a month into the radio stations launch. And the people in front of him were talking about how great the commercial was that they saw for W E and S and how funny it was that we were making fun of all of these personalities in town and how much they talk. And that was a pretty good indicator that we were on the right path.


Matt Cundill 11:22

What else went into some of the marketing and branding of a radio station? Yeah, I


Rick Cummings 11:28

think that's a fair statement. And we did have a consultant a guy named Bob Hanbury, who was famous ABC Radio programmer back in the day and we had hired him. And the notion we had when WNS was launched was that there had to be a position somewhere between wy BC which was the big am juggernaut that we bought many years later, that was kind of a middle of the road radio station. And W N AP was was sort of the Rock Top 40. And there was nothing in between. And we were just hearing about these stations called Light FM. I believe in New York, I think there was one in Philadelphia, if I'm not mistaken, and maybe one in Los Angeles, these easy rock stations that were positioned to be more mainstream and more contemporary than the MLR am radio stations, but softer than the top 40 stations. And we said, well, let's do that. That makes sense. And we brought in Bob Hanbury, who was our consultant and Jeff and I literally sat at his kitchen table with Joel Wit burns, top 40 Pop book, and we picked out the titles and there was no research involved there. It was like, Oh, this Doobie Brothers song, listen to the music that works. That fits. Oh, this is easy top record now? Probably not. And that's how we pick the record library. And that's what we put on here.


Matt Cundill 12:55

And that's a story. I think that resonates with a few of the brands that I want to talk about here. Because there were so many great brands tied to Ms. When did you get to La


Rick Cummings 13:06

1984. Jeff bought the La radio station at the time, I think he paid $12 million for it. And people said this poor Midwestern rube he's stupid. He's paid way too much for this. It'll never be a success. But what Jeff had figured out in a very short period of time from the time he started ens in 1981, was that the city of Los Angeles? Yes, it had at some radio stations. But there were really 20 Full FM signals in the market. Everybody else was you know, either an am station on its way down, or an under signaled FM on the periphery of the metro. And so there were really 20 competitors. And Jeff said, you know, in a market this big with this much revenue, even if we're 20th, it makes sense for us to be there. And so we went in and we had a and this is typical amendments. We initially were doing what I would call hot AC magic 106. We had Robert W. Morgan and mornings, and we were kind of a soft top 40. We weren't an AC station, that traditional light FM, and we weren't a top 40 we're sort of in between, and it failed miserably. It did not work at all, we certainly wound up in 20th place. And it's interesting because 10 Years Later hot AC was a thing, but we were way ahead of the curve in 1984. With that, and so it failed. And we went through a couple of years of spending a lot of money on marketing and doing this hot AC with Robert W. Morgan and some other personalities and not succeeding at all. And we got to the end of 1985 and we said okay, we just spent another giant amount of money. I believe it was an incredible price catalog type a mailing contest and we said if this stuff doesn't help us in the fall ratings, we're going to do something else come January. And we had been talking about this notion that there might be some kind of a coalition contemporary format that appeal to not only Hispanics assimilated Hispanics, which were growing rapidly as a population in Los Angeles, but also to African American people who were underserved, and some of the Asian audience. And so we started talking quietly about that throughout the fall of 1985. And sure enough, the ratings came out, I think it was January 3, or fourth whenever it was, and we still sucked. And by then we had talked to a consultant named Don Kelly and brought him aboard and we said, we're going to do this coalition format. And we're going to launch it if the ratings are bad. And they were, we put the format on the air on January 11 1986. And by July, it was number one in the market.


Matt Cundill 16:05

Okay, so I just did some fast math. And that's eight days. So did you have the format sitting in a drawer ready to go?


Rick Cummings 16:13

Pretty much, literally, we laugh about it now. But it was literally a format in a box, we had the music assembled. And on the carts that people played back then we had everything sort of literally put together in a box, and the ratings came out and they were terrible. And we spent two or three days out there, it was obvious to the staff that something was up that we were going to change. And on that Friday night, January 11. During drive time, we switched the format, and we put on power 106.


Matt Cundill 16:48

How did you keep it a secret in the building? Well, I don't know


Rick Cummings 16:52

that we did, I think, yeah, it was obvious to people in the building that something was up because all of the quote unquote, suits were in town. We all wore suits back then. And it was obvious that something was up because we were all there. And I remember Robert W Morgan making a joke on the radio that the CEO Smolyan was flying into town. And he was probably stopping in Detroit to pick up the Curtis blow records. So there was some buzzing around that we were doing something. But they didn't know precisely what until we put it on the air. And I still remember bringing the Air Staff into the lobby at five o'clock on that Friday night, and telling them to the best of my ability, because I didn't exactly know. But here's what we're doing, guys, here's the playlist. Here's the music log, let's go get it. And we went after it and it worked.


Matt Cundill 17:47

What was your role at the station at the time?


Rick Cummings 17:50

Well, I was the program director for the first 12 weeks something like that. I was out there still living in Indianapolis. But I was out staying at the Mondrian hotel was just not a bad place to stay. And programming the radio station through its transition has changed to power 106. And then looking for a real program director, somebody who could really take it to the next level. And I had Jeff Wyatt recommended to me he was at power in Philadelphia. And I remember speaking with him at length one night for a couple of hours. And we flew him out and hired him. And he started I want to say maybe March or April of that year. And like I say within a few months, the station shot to number one, it was really a remarkable thing. When it was magic 106 All my friends in the industry used to say, well, your problem is your signal, your tower is on Flint peak, which is not ideal, and your signals not great, and a lot of areas and that's why you can't be successful. And so we put on this new format, and the legal ID at the top of the hour was 72,000 watts of music power k p WR power 106. And those same friends, six months later, we're saying Well, no wonder you are successful. You got one of the biggest signals in Los Angeles. Same same signal. Had nothing to do with the signal. But I do remember literally the first weekend that we put the station on the year, walking down Sunset Boulevard and hearing it coming out of cars. And I never heard that was the prior format anywhere. Never heard it. You had a really hunt to find us before we made that change. And after we made the change it was like station was everywhere.


Matt Cundill 19:41

I want to harken back to something you said earlier about you can take the records and you can put the Doobie Brothers here and you can put this that there and everywhere. And you mentioned finding a coalition of audiences. So I guess he had to do the same thing again, because the top 40 tracks at the time were all very strong 1984 incredibly strong, as good in AD Five, still very strong, and at six, even with a little more rhythmic bass, and then you could populate the rest, you know, out of really what you needed to do to shape the format. So I could see being scared going in. But yeah, I can also see how this worked.


Rick Cummings 20:14

Yeah. And we saw really, really quickly that we were on to something. And you know, I remember the trades, or the radio and records and billboard and set her reaching out and saying, We want to call you, we want to label you an urban station. And we said, No, that's not what we are. We're not a black radio station. Well, we can't call you top 40. And we said, we understand. If we don't fit your box, we don't fit your box. And they say, Oh, if you want to agree to urban, what are we going to call you? And we said, Don't call us anything. We don't care. And if you look at our playlists early on, kiss was pursuing kalo s. And so it was very Van Halen heavy. In between the Madonna records that were playing a lot of rock titles. All we did was play the rhythmic titles off kiss, and then we supplemented with some urban titles Sherelle, that sort of thing. Alexander O'Neal, Luther Vandross at the time. And then we were playing some crazy stuff. We were playing Don Quixote by magazine 60, because it sounded great. We knew it was what big in the clubs with Latinos, and no one else would touch that record. So every chance we got to play a record that we thought no one else would touch, we played the hell out of it. We played it every hour, we had a new rotation that literally played every single hour, 24 hours a day, because we said this was going to make us stand out, it's going to make us different


Voiceover 21:44

72,000 watts of music music KPWR in Los Angeles.


Rick Cummings 21:53

And those same friends, six months later, we're saying, Well, no wonder you are successful. You got one of the biggest signals in Los Angeles. Well, the same signal had nothing to do with the signal. But I do remember, literally the first weekend that we put the station on the year, walking down Sunset Boulevard and hearing it coming out of cars. And I never heard that was the prior format anywhere. Never heard it. You had a really hunt to find us before we made that change. And after we made the change, it was like station was everywhere.


Tara Sands (Voiceover) 24:34

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Matt Cundill 25:03

So I'm sure a lot of people were thinking, Oh, the Indiana guys got lucky in Los Angeles. But there was similar success stories in New York, and I'm speaking specifically of hot 97. And how did that station come together?


Rick Cummings 25:17

Yeah. And you know, I wouldn't disagree with anyone who said the end, you guys got lucky we did. We also were unlucky at times, as witnessed by our attempt to do hot AC and magic 106. But had we not made that mistake, it wouldn't have led to the big win that we had with power 106. And with hot 97 power had gone through a period after about three or four years where it slumped in the ratings, because it was really heavy with freestyle records by the cover girls and expos A. And suddenly, we found ourselves in 10th place, and we started doing some research. And I still remember sitting in focus groups somewhere in the Hollywood area. And all these young Latinas talking about hip hop, and one of our people, Sybil, what's hip hop, never heard of hip hop before. And I thought, okay, we're in some serious trouble here. If our own people don't know what hip hop is. And sure enough, we started looking into the charts and looking into what was happening in the clubs. And we frankly, just missed it, we were having so much success, we stopped innovating. And the minute we stopped innovating, it caught us. And so we had to fix that. And we did fix it. And the key component was playing all those rap records that nobody else would touch. And the urban stations would only play them at night because of pressure from the black community and church groups and what have you. And so there we were, once again, playing slam bionics at seven o'clock in the morning, pretty much by ourselves. And that worked. And when we started seeing it work, and the ratings were revived in Los Angeles, we turned to hot 97. And we said we need to do the same thing here. And hot took it even a step further. We were the first in LA to do it. But hot really went to town with Biggie and Tupac and all of those giant artists, Wu Tang Clan, Wu Tang Clan, but aren't 97 on the map. And the more we fed that machine, the bigger it got. So that's kind of how that came about.


Matt Cundill 27:31

And both radio stations have incredible relationships with artists. It feels my mind but somebody shot a video at power. 106. And you know, you'd have artists stopping by hot 97 I mean, continuously, forever since the dawn of time.


Rick Cummings 27:48

Yeah, the late Steve Smith told me a story a couple of years ago that I had forgotten about Steve was programming hot back then. And he said, Don't you remember we had a code Tracee, Florida. He was the music director. And he said Tracy and I had a code to avoid Jay Z because Jay Z was just getting started. And he would show up unannounced at the studios to beg for us to play his latest record. And we couldn't get anything done. He was there all the time. And so we had a little code where JC would show up downstairs and the guards would let Tracy know that Jay Z was way up. And Tracy would call Steve and they'd get behind closed doors to have a quote unquote meeting so they wouldn't have to hear Jay Z's latest pitch on his latest record. But that's how coveted AirPlay was back then on hot 97 and power 106 artists would do anything. I mean, they would play they play your shows for free. Those days are over.


Matt Cundill 28:49

Did they play your show for free when you did the big summer concert promotion at hot 97


Rick Cummings 28:54

They don't any more than a million dollar ticket these days. But yeah, back then they played those shows for free. And a lot of those special appearances special surprise appearances. Literally word that, you know, one year Michael Jackson showed up on stage there were the famous onstage beefs, Nas was involved in one of those. But yeah, we've got a video someplace circulating if I can find it. I'll send it to you. But it's Kanye West talking about riding the metro bus and dreaming about being on the Summer Jam stage. And yeah, back in the day, these artists they realized that we made or broke careers and they were willing to perform free of charge for those shows.


Matt Cundill 29:40

Tell me about the talent that you would put on the air and I'll think specifically a big boy at kp WR who just the longevity I think he went right through to 2015 it was still in the air before transitioning out. But what was the approach to bringing in talent and then having the talent stay around so long?


Rick Cummings 30:00

Well, early on before even Jeff Wyatt took over and started programming the station, it was really obvious to me that the Air Staff we had, which was a holdover from the magic 106. Time just didn't fit. They just didn't. They were really good disc jockeys, but they just did not fit the music or the culture at all. And as we tried to find people who did fit the culture, we found out that they weren't really radio people, you know, most of the radio disc jockeys were just not of that culture and did not speak the language naturally. And so we started to say, Well, maybe it's not important that we have polished disc jockeys, maybe it's more important that we have people who are of the culture, people who have lived the culture, who have a natural affinity for hip hop, and we can teach him where the microswitch is, we can teach them to say the call letters. I still remember when I sat down with big boy, I said, here are my instructions. Don't say fuck, can't do that. And say the call letters at the top of the hour. Otherwise, have fun. We gave them very few rules, because we felt like the more we gave them disc jockey rules, the more they would sound like disc jockeys. And we didn't want that we wanted people who sounded like they belong to the culture, and you can teach radio tricks you cannot teach personality, in my opinion, either got her, you know,


Matt Cundill 31:35

1996 was actually kind of the era that big boy went on the air. But this is also the time when that hot AC thing begins to really resonate. Did you manage to get that format on any market? And did it work for you?


Rick Cummings 31:49

No, we never did. We never did. But I thought blow up and a lot of places. It's funny because we bought the nationwide station in Houston, and we put on a station called energy 96.5, which was a terrible idea. And it was basically a version of power 106 Never did well. And then guys, the podium came in, maybe nationwide bought it from us, I don't remember now. But guys volume came in and put on what was hot AC called it MCs. And it was number one on the market and matter of months. I mean, it was huge. And that's what we should have done in Houston. But, you know, I've seen this man over the years, a lot of the mistakes we made led us to making really great decisions later. And I'm fortunate to have worked for a company for 42 years where if you make a terrible mistake, and I made many of them, you don't get shot for it. And so if you learn something from a bad mistake, you know, you can make a good decision later on. And I think a lot of our success came from a company saying, Well, you know, that was a bad idea turns out, but that's okay. Let's do something else. And usually when we got a second chance at something, we got it right, generally speaking. And so I think that was the great thing about working for Ms. But I will also say that Houston was a great example energy 96.5 was a great example of what I would call hubris. We had so much success in Los Angeles, and so much success in New York that I honestly think it affected the way we read the research and the Houston market. And we looked at it so well does Scott work here. Look at all these Hispanics in Houston. It'll work here. It worked in New York, it worked in LA, and it failed miserably.


Matt Cundill 33:47

What about the middle of the country? Think of a station like Kashi 95. That was all rock. It's been there as long as I can remember, my only relationship to it is seeing it on the boards because clearly you bought some advertising for the St. Louis Blues. What keeps that thing so durable? Because a lot of companies find a way to bail on rocket the first excuse.


Rick Cummings 34:07

I think well, first of all, St. Louis is a rock town. When we first bought KSHE and that was part of the purchase from Century broadcasting. We bought what turned out to be Power 106 Magic 106. Back then, in 1984. We bought KSHE in St. Louis. And I remember going to town and being told by the staff there that this is a rock town. And I had no reason to disbelieve that I'm from the Midwest too. And that made sense to me. But I would listen and think Yeah, but I don't know any of these Rock Records they're playing. They're like the ninth track on the album. And so we came in and we just said, Let's flash this list. I believe the library had something like 1500 tracks and we cut it in our minds back then to the bone to something like 752 racks now that would be outrageously heavy, it'd be more like a 300 song library on probably is. Hubbard owns a noun. I'm guessing that's close to the right number. But taking off half those titles back in 1984, meant that people actually heard the hit Van Halen record and the hit Rolling Stones record. And what we realized very quickly is that there was this tremendous affinity for the KSHE brand. It's the oldest rock station in America, still running, and just close to 60 years old, and people loved it, or wanted to love it. It was famous for the KC kite fly. It was famous for various other concert events. It was famous for the mascots we'd meet who had a joint in his mouth and the ring in his nose. It was famous for a lot of stuff. They just weren't playing hits while we put hits on and the station was, I remember, the station had something like a 14 plus share 12 Plus in 1984, because the internal slogan at the station was a one five in 85. We wanted to get to a 15 Share. We didn't quite get there. I think we finished it like a 14 eight or 14 Nine. But that's how big that station was how beloved it was in the community. And all we did was clean it up and do a little advertising and it exploded.


Matt Cundill 36:30

So many rock stations celebrated their 50th at KQRS in Minneapolis showman Montreal did a few years ago. And here you're talking about a station that hit 60 years. Tell me also in the Midwest, up in Minneapolis, WLOL


Rick Cummings 36:44

Yeah. Yeah, the story about WLOL was that was the second station that Emma's on Jeff bought it, I think in 82, or 83 might have been 83. He had an agreement, in principle, a signed agreement to purchase the station. The station was not doing great. It was billed as an AC station. And I forgotten the gentleman's name that Jeff bought it from. But quietly, the ownership was out of town, I think in Michigan someplace. And quietly the management there had switched lol from an AC radio station to a top 40. And they did it just as MTV was taking off. So you had all of the prints and Michael Jackson and Madonna. It couldn't have been a greater time and top 40 than those early years in the 80s. And station just took off like a rocket. Well, when Jeff made the agreement to purchase it, it was something like a three share AC station not doing well at all. Before the deal closes, the ratings come out and lol was number one in the market. And the owner tried to renege on the deal, he wanted to cancel on the deal. And Jeff said, Sorry, we've got a signed deal. We're gonna go through with it at the purchase price we agreed to. And so here we were some of that Emma's early magic, we bought a station that was not doing well. And by the time it closed, it was number one on the market.


Matt Cundill 38:16

Well, you're so right and say hi to Sean Ross, who always talks about 1984 being that pinnacle year when there were so many great songs on the chart. And a lot of them today just don't get played even though they were fantastic songs. It was really just timing and you mentioned it you know, Madonna Prince Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie on and on Ron.


Rick Cummings 38:36

It was an unbelievable two or three year period there. And I think MTV had something to do with it, because he also had all of those one hit wonders, the you know, the minute work and flock of seagulls and all of those kinds of bands that had one giant hit and then kind of went on the Holiday Inn circuit a few years later, but between those one hit wonders, and those iconic artists that are some of the bigger artists in the last 50 years, 100 years, it was a pretty big year for top 40


Matt Cundill 39:08

get w lol it's at number one. And I've got to say that there's another top 40 or even two that you've got to do battle with immediately.


Rick Cummings 39:18

Yeah, Brian Phillips and I still have running commentary and jokes about it. Brian was, of course he's heads up cumulus content these days, but Brian was the program director at KDWB and I had hired a guy that you may have heard of named Greg Strassel. And Greg was our program director at lol and the battle between those two stations was pretty epic and depending on who might be on this call with us if Brian's on the call Brian will say yeah, but we unseated lol before it was all over we beat them and if Greg were on the call Greg would say that may be but the final book for me. Sold WLOL to Minnesota Public Radio To the final book, we beat KDWB and he's still got a copy of that.


Matt Cundill 40:07

I'm sure to run into Greg in the next couple of weeks. So I'll see if he has a copy on his shirt pocket.


Rick Cummings 40:15

Yeah, he probably does.


Matt Cundill 40:19

You know, so much of the radio station, you know, efforts that go in so much of it came down to marketing. So if it were a pie, we talked about talent, we talked about records, what percentage of marketing is involved here with the success of the stations?


Rick Cummings 40:32

Well, I think back in those days, when we all did marketing, I think our marketing was crucial. And I think it was a really key component in the success of hot 97 Power 106. The Fan in New York, I think some of the advertising TV advertising we did for the fan in New York was some of the most creative advertising ever done for radio. Wieden & Kennedy, the famous ad agency do those campaigns. And they were unbelievable. And, you know, we continued to do I think pretty creative marketing and advertising, but probably one of the last ones to stop doing it. Until the radio industry economics reached the point where it became very, very difficult to do those kinds of campaigns. I mean, I don't remember the last time I heard someone talk about a TV campaign for a radio station. It's just kind of unaffordable. But back in the day, that was a really critical element. And I'd say we did pretty well. And it was a significant part of our success.


Matt Cundill 41:35

What was your favorite mistake?


Rick Cummings 41:38

I used to keep three of those little mini billboards that you have from outdoor campaigns on my desk when we were based out in Encino. And I remember somebody being in the office one day and saying, Why do you have these little miniature boards up it was x 100, San Francisco energy 96.5. And I don't remember the third one, it might have been smooth jazz, Boston, and this one exam, one for power 106, or for Q one a one or K shear hot 97. And I said, I keep these because they keep me humble, they're reminders of some terrible mistakes we made. In Boston, we did a great version of smooth jazz, only to realize after doing further research that a key component of the successful smooth jazz stations was having a 25% black composition. And numerically back then that was impossible. In the city of Boston. I mentioned the energy 96.5 mistake, x 100. And San Francisco was kind of a rock top 40 that we positioned up against cam Hill. And our theory was, hey, let's be different. And a Rock Top 40 is certainly different. And they'll have a lot of suburban appeal. And the truth of the matter is, it was a miserable failure. It was different. But I think what we learned from those three things, is that different is only good when it's good, right? You can be different slug. And those three cases that was the case


Matt Cundill 43:15

from the President's chair, how does radio look today? And how does radio sound to your ear?


Rick Cummings 43:21

I don't think it sounds as creative as it should. It's funny my thinking on this has changed as we've gotten more and more out of the radio business. We only own a New York FM and am now we've sold the rest of our properties. And as much as I love the business, I think it was a smart business decision. But I am a little bit involved in a consulting capacity in a few places. And I've grown to view things a lot differently in the last few years. In this regard, when PPM came along in 2008 or 2009 I think it was oh, away and then it had a false start. And then it came back. I don't remember now exactly what year. But it's been a good 15 years that PPM has been around and Ms. Like a lot of other companies went through a period of preaching to the air talent Shut up. Be brief, one thought per break. And we took some personality out of these radio stations. Because we saw when the jocks talked last time we placed stop sets in certain positions, we could sort of game the estimates. And in recent years, I've grown to believe that at least now that is the wrong approach. I really think what's left to radio is personality. You know, you can get a great record anyplace and you can get them in a lot of places without 1314 minutes of commercials every hour. And so that the notion of being successful as the station that plays most Drake records the most often is just not viable, I think what you've got to have is the station that has the most entertaining morning show, and night show and afternoon show that happens to play our Drake record in between some really good conversation and personality. That's where this thing has to go. If it's going to survive, in my opinion, I just don't think being a music delivery vehicle is a sustainable long term solution. And so in a few places where we're helping out some radio owners, we're increasingly telling them, Look, let's make big bets on personalities, you know, where's the next Baker Boys, where's the next big boy? Where's the next Woody, who's out there? Probably doing a podcast, who we can bring to radio, who is as a sparkling personality really has something to say. And once again, we'll teach him to say the call letters and we'll sell them not to use F bombs. But we need to get some people on the radio, the top 50 markets that do, frankly, what a lot of small market radio still does really well. And that's, you know, embrace their local community, support their advertisers, and show some personality. And I think if there is salvation, that's the salvation of the radio business. It's still a good business. But it's not the business he used to be. And anybody who doesn't acknowledge that it's just not looking at facts.


Matt Cundill 46:33

Thanks so much for taking the time to be on the podcast and share your thoughts.


Rick Cummings 46:37

My pleasure, Matt. This was fun.


Tara Sands (Voiceover) 46:38

The sound off podcast is written and hosted by Matt Cundill. Produced by Evan Surminski. Edited by Chloe Emond-Lane. Social media by Aidan Glassey. Another great creation from the Sound Off Media Company. There's always more at soundoffpodcast.com.





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