Succeeding in radio as a market manager requires understanding how to motivate people, maintain relationships, elevate programming, and create solutions for clients to generate revenue. Few understand those things better than Matt Hanlon. A veteran of the industry for nearly 30 years, Hanlon has a passion for the industry that’s on display 24/7, and a desire to win that’s felt by everyone around him. He’s a leader who doesn’t assume his prior experiences will provide the answers to tomorrow’s problems. It’s why he continues to educate himself on new technologies in order to stay connected to local listeners. He’s also not afraid to shake things up whether that means introducing a new talent to a market, rolling the dice on a first-time programmer or adjusting the plan if something isn’t working and a new direction is needed. If the path to progress requires adjustments, Hanlon is going to do what’s necessary to win.
When you analyze Matt’s career, it reads like a tail of two halves. Part 1 is where Hanlon gained his introduction to selling media. He spent a decade working for both Backer, Spielvogel & Bates, and Katz Media Group, where he held multiple positions as a media buyer, before ascending to a sales management role. During that period, he worked on campaigns for familiar brands such as CBS, Campbell’s, Mars Brands, and Miller Beer, and did business with various radio companies. He also had the privilege of working with the late Bob McCurdy, who helped him learn more about the importance of making budget and balancing expenses.
But the second half of Matt’s career is where his background in media sales helped him take the next step into radio management. He joined Citadel in 2001, spending 14 years with the company, growing from Market Manager in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to company President. He was responsible for managing Citadel’s Midwest Region of 85 stations across 14 markets with 1500 employees, and helped develop, build, and grow ‘The Huge Show Radio Network’ with Bill Simonson, gaining affiliates across the state, while generating seven figure revenues.
Following his run with Citadel, Hanlon’s next radio journey led him to Charlotte to manage three of Entercom’s market leading brands, WFNZ (sports), WBT (News/Talk) and 107.9 The Link. In less than five years, Hanlon has helped all three brands evolve, while remaining a vital part of the local listener’s lifestyle, and producing wins on the business end. The collective success of his three brands caught Urban One’s attention, giving the company added incentive to expand in the market, which they did in November 2020 during a multi-market multi-station swap with Entercom.
Having had the pleasure of working with Matt over the years, he’s never been one to seek the public spotlight. He prefers to let his people enjoy the credit and his brands’ results do the talking. But after a little bit of pleading, he finally came around, and I’m thrilled to share with you some of Matt Hanlon’s insights from our recent conversation as part of our Meet The Market Managers series presented by Point To Point Marketing.
JASON BARRETT: I want to pick your brain on a number of things because you’ve had an interesting career full of many different experiences, but I have to start by asking you about managing a cluster thru a pandemic and tragedy as you have in 2020. I don’t know of anyone else who’s dealt with more challenges than you have over the past year. You changed WFNZ’s PD direction in March, right before the pandemic rocked the nation. A month later, a great man, talented OM and longtime friend Darrin Arriens passed away following a bout with Covid-19. Then, after bringing in new PD Terry Foxx and appearing to have tragedy behind you, WFNZ APD/EP Mark Seidel unexpectedly passed away in September (his death was not related to Covid). Two months later, tragedy thankfully didn’t strike a third time, but you did learn that your cluster would be changing ownership as a result of a deal between Entercom and Urban One. With all of that taking place in less than a year, how do you keep a staff feeling positive, confident, and focused?
MATT HANLON: JB, we have gone thru a lot as a staff. I have as well personally, but as strange as it may sound, I think going thru all of this has brought us closer as a group. I really do. It’s hard to develop and maintain relationships when you don’t work next to someone every day, and when you couple that with losing Darrin and Mark, it had a deep impact on our building. As painful as those losses were given what they both meant to all of us personally and professionally, and let me make sure I say this, those guys were loved inside our building, and we miss them both tremendously, somehow those difficult times have brought us together as a staff.
You mentioned the ownership change too, and going through that was seismic. As you can image, when people learn they’re going to be changing employers, all sorts of questions get raised. Fortunately, we were acquired by a great company that gives us tremendous support. The first few months have given me a great feeling about where we are and where we’re going. What helps a lot is that the management team at the top is small and accessible. We’re in complete lock step about our future because they articulate things very well. The directive that we have is to strengthen our brands by creating more solutions for our clients while providing a stronger listening experience for our audiences, so that’s where we place our focus as a staff.
As far as keeping our team on track is concerned, we have a lot of people on our staff who want to be successful. But when you’re dealing with Covid-19 and the loss of teammates, you have to adjust and over communicate. We’ve never been more active using virtual companies than we are now. If it means having to take more phone calls to activate the staff, then that’s what we do. We do have a good team here that has many of the answers so we just need to allow them to do what they need to do to help us the best they can.
JB: Since I focus a lot on sports media, I want to turn the attention first to WFNZ. Under your watch, the radio station has generated consistent success in the market. It’s also improved its reputation across the entire sports format. Why do you think that’s been the case? Is there some magic formula you’re using?
MH: It’s 100% due to being able to reactivate the people. WFNZ is a great brand that this market loved. We just needed to get them to believe in it again. We made a few changes to improve the product, and the audience has consistently rewarded us with #1 TSL because they like what they’re hearing. I think we have the right people in the right seats with Nick, Kyle, Mac & TBone. These guys are good enough to be on any sports station in the business.
JB: In terms of local sports radio though, WFNZ isn’t facing stiff competition. Do you wish it did? I know you love to compete, so do you miss the daily battle or do you prefer less stress and knowing you hold the dominant format position in your market?
MH: Well, we do have another station in the market that broadcasts sports on the radio, but the market does invest its time with us most and we’re grateful for that. The competition may not be the same for sports radio as it is in some other cities, but there is healthy competition from the marketplace. I think brands need to have the ability to capture the mindshare of the marketplace thru a mix of good content or talent. We have 14 hours per day of discretionary sports talk radio so of course we’re the leader in that space. I’m proud of that and see it as an important layer of our business, but competition does exist. It might be Barstool Sports, though maybe it’s not. It could be ESPN television, but maybe it isn’t. In order to be a legit sports station, you have to be a brand that extends beyond the radio dial. Audiences today have so many options to choose from when deciding who to watch or listen to. In Charlotte, we want WFNZ to be a brand that sports fans know, trust, enjoy, and want to spend time with.
JB: Before you moved to Charlotte, you spent time in Michigan where you worked for Citadel. At one point, you oversaw more than 80 radio stations in the company’s Midwest region. It was during that run that you helped launch Bill Simonson’s ‘The Huge Show Radio Network’ all across the state. We’ve seen other companies explore regional syndication but not all of them have had the success that you did. First, what was it that you saw that convinced you that a move like that could work?
MH: Well, first you can’t be afraid to take a risk JB. We had that part covered. Second, you need a passionate fan base. Michigan was literally a peninsula so sports in that state is very rabid and provincial so it just worked perfect there. Next, you better have a great talent. Bill Simonson was a generational talent, still is, and he was the right guy for us to build around with ‘The Huge Show’. I heard Bill on the air at night and I thought he was doing one of the best shows in the country. He was even better at that time than Mike Francesa was on WFAN. That’s how dialed in he was. We quickly moved him into afternoons which created a lot more interest from both advertisers and listeners. The last piece to that puzzle is that you need to have a strong business model. I got the idea for the network from Knight Quality in Boston. Norman Knight had taken AM radio stations, strung them together, and turned the model into large revenues.
When we put The Huge Show Radio Network together, it became a scarcity model for regional syndication. It was never a ratings play for us. We had a lot of clients and stations jump on immediately, and others were calling out of fear that they’d lose out. We even had stations in Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana that wanted to air the show. That’s where I saw the power of it on display and how it could motivate others to grow their business.
Back then JB I had to knock on doors and tell a lot of people ‘Hey, I have an idea for you‘. I remember I’d take the Jim Rome contract, and white it out, and type in ‘The Huge Show’. That’s how I learned how to do syndication. It meant having to do things a little differently. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sign deals with affiliates in unconventional places. I remember going to Jim Sommerville’s house in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, he had a tower in his yard, and I had him sign the agreement at his dinner table. I had to climb a fence that day to get to him. In the end, we got business done and it all worked out.
Eventually we got the network on to a dozen stations and at one time we were generating roughly 8 million dollars a year in revenue. It was a heck of a run.
JB: To build a regional network of that magnitude though, you must’ve had to get stations on board who were owned and operated by other companies, some who likely saw you as a competitor. How did you knock down that wall?
MH: That’s true JB. I knew we had to get operators of other stations on board to really make it big, and to do that I had to get them to trust me. Every single one of them was my competitor at that time. I was in 8 of their markets. I think what it came down to is that there was mutual respect and they saw value in what they’d be getting in content, and how it could provide them greater value of their commercial units. There was a lot of trial and error for all of us but they stayed on. When they had conflicts we created solutions for them, and it seriously turned into a really good business for everybody involved.
JB: So having had success with a regional syndication model, I noticed that you haven’t taken that same approach in Charlotte where you operate a successful sports brand in WFNZ and have some personalities who’d likely be attractive to other stations across the state. Could a model like that work where you are now?
MH: In Michigan, we had all the right pieces in place at the right time. That’s why the model became very successful. When you look at other cities, not just Charlotte where I’m located now, they usually have a lot of people invested in teams from all over the place. You can do a regional network anywhere but so many factors come into play including the delivery system. There’s no way of telling what the future holds so I never say never, but right now we’re focused on maximizing what we have in front of us.
JB: As a Market Manager, you have to take into consideration a number of different things when deciding who the right fit is to program one of your radio stations. Many people have experience, relationships, ideas and leadership skills, so what ultimately matters to you most when evaluating candidates and deciding who to trust with the oversight of one of your brands?
MH: I think a programmer has to be a contemporary communicator. That means being able to understand where the listener consumes your product. If you don’t live that lifestyle yourself it’s tough to relate to it. You also have to be immersed in today’s technology and culture. In my case, I’m someone who looks at many different things. Are you creative? Smart? Are you good at building relationships with talent and the local teams? Terry Foxx for example who programs WFNZ is very mature and professional. He arrived here in July and instantly gained respect locally with the teams in our market, as well as with the talent in the building, simply by the way he conducts business. You have to be able to get next to all of them that way you can understand, support, create and innovate.
JB: You brought up the importance of being able to work with the local market teams in a positive manner. As you know Matt, some organizations are great to their radio partners, others try to use their influence to control the messages being relayed about the franchise across the airwaves. How do you balance that part with team owners and their key executives?
MH: When you’re in my job JB, I think so much of it has to be figured out early on. I believe you have to commit to sell the team’s product no matter what their record is. If they’re bad, you still have to help them. I’ve asked our partners to do the same for us. Obviously we all want to win, and we pull for each other to do well, and when times are good, the results and attention are ideal for everyone. But you also have to be honest with each other, and more importantly, the audience. We will never compromise a sportscast or newscast by ever adjusting content in someone’s favor just because we’re partners. There has to be trust on both sides to allow each other to do the job right. If trust is there you can work thru anything.
JB: I do want to ask you about something unrelated to sports talk because you do oversee an iconic News/Talk brand in WBT. This is a station that I’ve been able to hear in NY at night due to its massive signal. Like many other News/Talk brands, the format featured Rush Limbaugh in its weekday lineup. Rush unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago, so now stations across the country are trying to figure out what to do. Personalities on Rush’s level are impossible to replace yet you have an audience and advertisers who have been loyal to that timeslot and you’ve got to give them something to keep them with you. Do you see a capable replacement out there on the national circuit or do you see more news/talk stations going local to fill the void?
MH: I went thru something similar to this in Western Michigan with Howard Stern, and I’ll tell you JB, it’s not easy. I don’t think this will be the same though as Stern. There were places when Howard left that would just turn off the radio station. It was bad.
When it comes to replacing Rush, I’m sure the network will try to move forward just as we did with Adam Carolla, David Lee Roth, and Rover. It’s just hard and the odds of it continuing to work aren’t high. What made Rush unique is that he always had something to prove. Whoever comes on after him isn’t going to have that same chip on their shoulder or the history of having to take on big battles. It’s a totally different job now. I do think there’s an appetite for that messaging but there isn’t going to be another Rush Limbaugh.
For us, the impact on a station like WBT is mitigated by the fact that Brett Winterble is in our lineup. Brett is in afternoons for us and he previously worked with Rush so many of Rush’s local fans also appreciate Brett. We also didn’t promote Rush a lot on the station. We didn’t hide him, but we put most of our attention on our local programs so in this situation not much will change for us.