The burdens of working in the world of corporate radio are heavy — no control over programming, being held to unrealistic ad revenue expectations, and being second-guessed at every turn by corporate “suits” and consultants. But those are mere inconveniences compared to the ultimate corporate radio indignity — losing your job for no good reason other than improving the station’s bottom-line profit.
Some of the Central Arkansas radio market’s most popular personalities have suffered those inconvenient fates, up to and including termination. Others have sucked it up, survived under the massive iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel) and Cumulus corporate radio umbrellas. (iHeart operates 860 radio stations, including 12 in Arkansas. Cumulus owns 428 stations, with 16 of those in Arkansas.)
Still others have gone in different directions – including Lisa Fischer, long a popular radio and TV personality who today is a copy editor for Arkansas Money and Politics as well as AY and the (locally owned!) company’s other print products.
And then there are those who’ve either never experienced the indignities of corporate radio or long ago were hired at stations with complete local control and none of the typical corporate radio headaches.
Tommy Smith, Randy Rainwater and Justin Acri are just three of the well-known veteran broadcasters who’ve long thrived in the relatively non-threatening environment at “103.7 The Buzz,” more formally known as KABZ-FM. Their long tenures and the relative calm in which they work owe to more than local ownership. The Buzz fills a critical programming niche — local sports talk radio — and consistently generates solid ratings in terms of listenership, particularly in key male demographic segments. Success provides significant cover from potentially overbearing bosses, no matter what industry you work in.
Acri is the station’s general manager, having been elevated to that position from program director. And he reports to CEO Terri Mahan, promoted from CFO after the retirement of Steve Jonsson, son of Philip Jonsson, the original owner of the Signal Media family of radio stations. Signal’s stations also notably include The Point 94.1 (KKPT), another longtime force on the local scene. It is also filled with well-known radio veterans, from program director Mike Kennedy to DJ Jeff Allen.
Rainwater for more than 30 years has been the host of “Drivetime Sports,” which The Buzz rightfully touts as the most popular sports talk radio show in Arkansas history. Smith is the only one of the three who was put through the corporate radio wringer, having been unceremoniously dumped from Magic 105 by a Clear Channel vice-president from Memphis in late 2004.
Smith remembered: “I’d had it with Clear Channel [which had bought the beloved Magic 105 in 1996]. After my show one day, Tom [Wood, another Magic 105 legend] said, ‘They want to see you, and they are going to make a mistake.’ I walk in, and there’s this guy in a lime green T-shirt, a lime green suit, loafers and no socks. He fires me and says, ‘When you leave this room, you leave this building.’”
Considering Smith is the undeniable star of a stable of strong performers at The Buzz, and has been for almost 17 years, the decision to fire him has to be one of the lowlights among many corporate radio decisions that had a major impact in the Little Rock market. Another one came 14 years later when Wood was also dumped from his role, in his case as iHeartMedia’s local public affairs director.
Fischer has clear memories of the difference in working for locally owned stations (she started at KARN, 920 AM, when it was local) vs. a corporate one.
“I remember being challenged by a muckety-muck at Cumulus radio, which owns B98.5 and several other stations in Little Rock,” Fischer said. “He was trying to make the case that the listeners to B98.5 weren’t likely familiar with me and then asked, ‘How long have you been here?’ I stammered when I asked, ‘Here at B98.5? Or here in Little Rock media?’ He replied, ‘Oh, you’ve been in radio besides B98.5?’ I laughed when I told him that I had been on just about every radio station, every TV station and even written for the statewide daily paper since around the time he graduated high school.
“I realized then that he didn’t do his homework. He should have known a tiny bit about the very person who was on the morning show on one of his heritage radio stations. But that’s the problem with corporate radio; it is nearly impossible to do all the homework on all the radio stations they own. Unlike the Buzz, where the general manager knows the birthday of the guy who runs the board on the weekends, I bet.”
That last sentence from Fischer gets at the heart of what makes the true difference in local radio. When you talk to Tommy Smith or Randy Rainwater, both of whom were hired by Signal Media patriarch Philip Jonsson, the love and respect flow freely.
“I called Philip ‘Pop,’” Rainwater said. “I probably put my career on the table the day I told Philip, ‘Pop, leave me alone, let me do my thing. If I mess up and things aren’t going well, I will gladly accept any guidance or direction.’ And we had a wonderful working relationship. Tommy and I have had as unique a situation as you can have in radio. We didn’t report to a program director or a GM. We reported to Pop… I’m not against criticism, but if you leave me alone and I get the job done, that should be the bottom line. Pop Jonsson was that way. I could never thank him enough.”
After he was fired by Clear Channel, Smith “called Phillip Jonsson and he hired me. He and Tom Wood — without those two guys, I would be nothing.”
Acri has heard about the horrors of the corporate radio world from Smith and others he knows in the radio world. He’s just never lived it.
“I really don’t have anything to compare it to,” he said. “The TV station I interned at was No. 1 in northern Minnesota. When I worked at [KATV] Channel 7, it was owned by Albritton, and they were in D.C., but it was a family business. It all goes back to great leader ship — and private ownership.” The Buzz was always “hyper local with Mr. Jonsson. He took a hands-on approach, and we had that local, direct connection to decision making. He understood what’s important. That’s what’s worked well. We have been hyper local. All the charity things that we do, helping people recover after a tornado. Celebrity karaoke.”
Rainwater started working for Jonsson at what is now KABZ in 1990 after “the program director decided he didn’t want to pay for Rush Limbaugh. Philip Jonsson asked if I could come up with programming that could make money and replace lost revenue from Rush.” The program that today is “Drivetime Sports” started as a Saturday morning, one-hour show that became two hours a day — 4-6 p.m. — weekdays (now 4-7 p.m.). Rainwater had co-hosts, but soon “I was handed the keys.”
Jonsson bought the stations that became the Buzz and the Point, and after doing reports from Charlotte on the Razorbacks’ run to the Final Four on a rock ’n’ roll station, “we transitioned over to talk” on the Buzz.
Years ago, speaking to a group in Searcy, Rainwater was asked what kind of goals he had.
“I said, let me think about that, and then said ‘I want to be on the air in the Little Rock market for 20 consecutive years.’ I don’t remember how close I was at the time. I think you can count on one hand the number of personalities who have been at the same station that long. Maybe Jim Elder, Brother Hal. If I were asked that later I might have said, ‘Make it 30.’ If someone asked me now, I don’t know what I’d answer. I’ve got a kid in college, so at least four more years, so let’s make it 35.”
Smith joined The Buzz in late 2004, and Acri started as a show host in 2003 before coming on full time in 2006. All three have been major forces ever since, the sort of continuity and consistency that’s not a hallmark of corporately owned radio stations. Those three have been the foundation for more than a decade and a half, but plenty of the supporting cast has been just as critical to The Buzz listener experience, from David Bazzel and Roger Scott, Smith’s co-hosts on “The Show With No Name,” and former University of Arkansas sports information director Rick Schaeffer, Rainwater’s “Drive-Time Sports” sidekick for 19 years. Not to mention the relationships all these gentlemen have forged with listeners over the years, including the “long-time listener, first-time caller” who quickly says he’ll “just hang up and listen” on Rainwater’s/Schaeffer’s show.
“That’s what we old-school radio people miss about radio from the good ol’ days,” Fischer said. “Relationships — authentic relationships.”
Corporate radio casualty Wood, who for the last couple of years has led the team at Arkansas Rocks, a network of “deep tracks” classic rock stations best accessed at ArkansasRocks.com, has this perspective:
“The Buzz is such a great radio station,” he said. “They are the definition of local, and when it comes to sports, there’s no doubt that they are lucky to do business in a state that has rabid support for their flagship team. But … unless you do it well like they do, you can still screw it up, and they never do. They are very good at what they do.
“I’ve seen lots of friends who were part of the amazing things we did at Magic 105 end up soured on radio, but when I think about the success and happiness Tommy and Jeff Allen at The Point have enjoyed, I’m so very happy for them.”