I have a soft spot for Louisiana. I love the food. I love the music. It is where I was born.
So, when JB suggested I talk to Gordy Rush from Guaranty Broadcasting for our Meet the Market Managers series, I didn’t need convincing. Not only do I get the chance to bring you lessons from the Sportsman’s Paradise, but I get to put a spotlight on the guy that runs one of the most underrated brands in all of sports radio, 104.5 ESPN.
That station does everything its own way. The studio is set up for television. The morning show features two ex-jocks and no broadcast nerd. It is just a really cool, really local brand that is worth studying.
In our conversation, Gordy and I discussed how owning a digital ad agency has helped Guaranty’s traditional broadcast business, how he let one of his biggest stars deal with bad news on the air, what he brings to the workplace that he learned on the football field, and so much more.
Demetri Ravanos: Baton Rouge is a big college town, so I would guess you have access to those kids coming out of LSU looking for sales jobs. But I wonder how much interest you see from young people in selling not just radio, but media in general?
Gordy Rush: Well, we get a lot of interest from LSU and from New Orleans – Tulane, UNO and Loyola. People that are interested not only in sales but on air. And of course, LSU had a good run in recent years here with Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland all landing with ESPN. They’ve done very well. That means there is a lot of talent that comes out and a lot of people that are interested in the profession.
DR: So what do you see as Baton Rouge’s potential in terms of market growth?
GR: Well, I think Baton Rouge is in the 70 to 80 range market-wise. It had a big boom post 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, where a lot of people from New Orleans kind of relocated to the surrounding parishes down here. But it kind of is what it is.
I think the uniqueness of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, for that matter, is that you have LSU and then you have the New Orleans Saints. And for a state that size, you really just have those two sports. And the Pelicans, I think, are certainly getting more interest, but it’s a considerable drop. Whereas, if you go four hours over to Houston, Texas A&M sometimes struggles to crack the top 10 in interest in a city of that size. So it’s really a two trick state when you talk about LSU and the Saints.
DR: LSU is a rare college sports culture. I really think it is only in Louisiana and Mississippi where there is this gigantic college baseball culture. That lets you monetize that rights partnership year-round in a way that a lot of SEC markets can’t. Do you get how rare that is or does it just feel normal to you at this point?
GR: Well, let’s start with the fact LSU has led the nation for umpteen years in attendance. It’s like a triple-A stadium – ten thousand plus per year. Of course, the big exception this year was the Covid year. So it is like a triple-A town. I will tell you that we carry all the games on a 100,000 watt classic rock radio station.
When we were a subscriber to Nielsen and I would go up to to Columbia, Maryland, and look at the books, you’d get thirteen quarter hours Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You know, I’ve seen numbers back before ESPN+ was the thing, when it was ESPN3, and LSU would be playing a non-conference opponent on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and the streaming rights for television – there was one point that it outdrew North Carolina vs Duke streaming-wise. It gives you an idea of the popularity of baseball here. And of course, they’ve won five national championships.
DR: So how does that affect bringing local sponsors on board? Are most people advertising on LSU sports year-round, or because you have three distinct seasons, do you have advertisers that lock into just football or just baseball or just basketball?
GR: I think 75% of our sports are sold the complete athletic year, starting with football, basketball with Will Wade, he’s done a phenomenal job, I think the best three year run of SEC win percentage in the history of the school, if I’m not mistaken. And, of course, baseball. And so we sell 75% of it all through. Certainly there’s some people that are baseball purists. They’re people that started with Skip Bertman twenty or twenty five years ago that have stayed with them.
The unique thing about baseball is it’s a three and a half hour game, right? You think about a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you have a lot of people listening on the radio, cutting the lawn. There’s a lot of waterways here in Louisiana and people will have the Tigers on their radio, out on their boats partying or they’re doing what they do on Saturday and Sunday. So it is a big deal.
DR: So you have one station in the cluster that carries the Saints. Just this year, it was 104.5 that put the Kansas City Chiefs on.
GR: So it’s interesting. 98.1 has been the flagship for LSU. It’s a classic rock station that carries football, basketball and baseball. I don’t think you’ll see a top hundred market that has a 100,000 watt rock station with that much sports on it. I think back in 2010, we started with ESPN Radio, just two class A radio stations, 104.5 and 104.9, as a simulcast.
So what we wanted to do this year with the question mark of whether or not LSU was going to play, we knew the NFL was going to go. We have a Westwood One contract. Of course, we also have the Saints on on our classic rock station. They’re an affiliate. We wanted to get aggressive with the NFL. We already have the Westwood One package with the Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games, and decided to reach out and talk to Cincinnati because they had Joe Burrow. Then we talked to Kansas City because of Tyrann Matthieu, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Daryl Williams, a number of former LSU players with Kansas City, and we really struck a good relationship with the local affiliate there. So we carried all the Kansas City Chiefs games on 104.5 ESPN. You know, what a season to do that too! So, yeah, it was a good ride. It was the first time that we did that, so we were airing five NFL games every weekend on our properties.
DR: Airing the Chiefs, like you said, comes with a number of LSU connections. With your market being such a Saints-heavy sports culture, do you just go to advertisers and say “we have a package that includes 5 NFL games every weekend,” or do those LSU connections make it possible to sell the Chiefs as their own package?
GR: Well, they got the Saints and then we presented the whole NFL package. We have different levels, right? There are people that buy LSU and the Saints, and then I think that you have entry level opportunities for people that just get the NFL. I think for some some smaller businesses, it’s a really good play where they get the five NFL games and maybe some more or less that will air on the radio station.
But we really handpicked those games. I will tell you, there were games that were with Westwood One, we did some stuff with Compass, we had ESPN Radio and of course we had the Chiefs. Anytime we could get Joe Burrow before he got hurt, we put Joe Burrow on the radio. So, it was an NFL schedule that really lent itself to our market and our market interest.
DR: So with the insane success of that 2019 LSU team, not just winning a title, but all the guys they put in the NFL, is there anyone encroaching on the hardcore Saints fans? Could you see a future of carrying the Chiefs or Bengals regularly?
GR: Baton Rouge is a Saints town first and foremost and always will be. But, you know, the Saints are only going to fill one of those five spots Thursday night, Sunday night, Monday night or the 12 o’clock and the three thirty Central Time kickoff. So it’s an opportunity for four other ones. And I think with the success that LSU’s had and you look around and so many teams like Cincinnati with Burrow and what Kansas City has done, Devin White is down with Tampa Bay, Patrick Peterson with Arizona. So, it’s one of the things we will promote locally to our market here. If Patrick Peterson and the Arizona Cardinals take on Devin White and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s Sunday 3:30 pm on 104.5 ESPN.
DR: I want to turn the attention next to your on-air shows. Earlier this year, you had a high profile departure from the morning show. Jordy Culotta exited. The next day, T-Bob Hebert told the audience he didn’t like the decision and didn’t agree with it. Can you take me inside the conversation that happened before that? As a market manager, how do you ride the line of giving T-Bob the space to express his frustrations and also making sure he is on board with the plan moving forward?
GR: Yeah. You know, I get paid to make those decisions. Sometimes they are hard decisions. I had to sit down with T-Bob and give that explanation. And he told me, “I need to be me.” Which I certainly respect.
I think that’s a big part of it. We tell our people, “I need you to be real. You have the room to critique. Just don’t be an ass.” There’s lines to keep things between, and our guys do a good job of that. I respect his opinion. He’s been paid to do a morning show and I’m getting paid to run a business. I think we both understand that and I respect what he has to say.
DR: T-Bob is a guy that I think the world of. He is uniquely talented and just hard not to like.
GR: So, I know his dad, right? I’m in between them age-wise. His dad is a New Orleans legend, Bobby Hebert, the quarterback for the Saints. Now he’s down with WWL and the New Orleans Saints’ broadcast team.
I think both of them are tremendous talents. What I’ll say about T-Bob is that I don’t know where you get an offensive lineman that is intellectual, and loves Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and all the things that he does. I tell people it’s kind of like an acquired taste. But what I love about T-Bob is he is passionate. He really does the show prep and puts a lot of thought into his segments and where he’s going with the show.
It’s been really interesting to see him grow. He was an intern with us, and then went to WWL to do nights. We recruited him to come back to Baton Rouge. He was just getting married, and wanted to have a family. I said “Look, it’s a better quality of life. You can come do morning drive here in Baton Rouge. At that point, we did not have a New Orleans affiliate. We do now with ESPN Radio New Orleans. And with this recent transition, he’s now partners with Jacob Hester. That show is on state-wide, really Gulf South-wide on Cox Sports Television, which is the equivalent of like the Yes Network. It’s a big deal. I’m really happy and thrilled with the way that he’s grown.
DR: Let’s talk about that new morning show. T-Bob and Jacob are both former athletes. There is no lifelong broadcaster in the room. Do you think we put too much value on the idea that an ex-jock needs a radio nerd on air with him? Do you see that as something that can get in the way of letting former players grow beyond their stereotypical roles?
GR: I think the interesting part about it is, let’s talk about T-Bob. He has been more in the analyst role, the second seat. He did a little little lead with WWL, but primarily with us he has been in the second seat. And then you’ve got Jacob Hester that came from Shreveport, I think four years ago. He was really in the second seat and we put him in the first seat and went back and forth. In fact, I think I sat in on Mondays for a year with him, just to kind of get him with some different people so he could get comfortable. He ran lead. We wind up flipping him after Covid to middays and into the second seat with a veteran host in Charles Hanagriff. While he was doing that, he was also doing a lot of SiriusXM’s SEC Network with Chris Doering and Peter Burns. You have a lot of rotation with that.
I think the great thing about being with Guaranty Broadcasting is that I tell people we have the ability to be a dry erase board. If there was anyone that’s going to buck standards, it’s going to be us.
Who says that you have to have a lead and a second guy? You don’t. They take turns going back and forth and do it. To me, what’s more important is you’ve got two guys who really, really want to work with each other. When we made the transition, both of them raised their hand and they wanted to work with each other. Hester was in the midday, and when I sat down and had the discussion with T-Bob I said, “I’m open to whoever you want to work with. We posted the job. You tell me what you want to do.” Hester’s name came up and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas. And I think the same for Hester. Then we took a month to figure out what we wanted to do and the television element came into play and we made sure that we had a good vision of where we wanted to go. I think sometimes people in radio just panic.
We took our time. I think they planned it out well, and I will tell you, I’m absolutely thrilled with the success. We’ve had one affiliate pick up a third hour already. We’re working with another. Even the television syndicator, you know they looked at it from 7am to 9am, and we have discussions. Hopefully they’re going to pick it up for a third as well. So it’s been a home run for us so far.
DR: With Hester moving to mornings, are you still looking for someone to fill the midday vacancy?
GR: Yeah. So we have again, Charles Hanagriff, who was paired with Hester. Like everyone else, we’re just coming out of Covid and we had to do some layoffs, especially the part timers. We’re rebuilding our staff and we posted the job. Now of course, we shifted our focus from morning to somebody that would be in mid day.
The question is, at one point we had four shows on the radio station. We had two in the midday, and right now we have one. I think it’s all about finding the right fit. We’ve just started that process, and we’re not sure yet what that is. We’re a locally owned company. We don’t make a whole lot of changes, so we will take our time to make sure we get the right person.
DR: Speaking of culture, I’m from the Gulf Coast. I know that even though the whole culture is built on hospitality, Louisiana specifically is very parochial. How important is it that whoever you hire be from Louisiana or at least the Gulf Coast?
GR: I don’t think that you go in saying that you need a local person. I’ll tell you, I was on the search committee for the new play-by-play guy for LSU probably six years ago or so. And Chris Blair got the job and he was a play-by-play guy from Georgia Southern.
Some local knowledge may be a part of it. I don’t think you could come in 100 percent foreign to everything LSU and Saints. I’d think they’d struggle with that. But does it have to be somebody locally? I don’t think so.
DR: So for you, the local knowledge that matters is sports culture, not do you know we have parishes, not counties and can you pronounce all of their French names correctly?
GR: (laughing) Well, you know for all the years ESPN and CBS butchered Metairie, Louisiana as Mah-tari, that’s probably not a good look. But, I think this interview evolved to it. It’s not just hiring a talk show host anymore. You’re an influencer, right? I mean, you’re almost on 24/7.
One of the big things that we’ve been successful with is we sell live endorsements. I think that’s why we’ve outperformed the market during Covid. Our clients look at it as “There’s no way I’m canceling because so-and-so moves product for me. It’s got to be a part of my marketing plan.”
So it’s just not the on air role. The right fit will understand what we’re doing, our culture, and that we’re truly looking for an influencer.
DR : So let’s circle back on those affiliations. You have two shows heard on stations across Louisiana. How did that happen? Was it you going to stations and selling the access to LSU or did the stations have holes to fill and came to you?
GR: A little bit of both. We have great relationships. The owner in New Orleans sat down with myself and my friend Jeff Martindale with ESPN Radio when he made the effort to become an ESPN affiliate. Now he’s the flagship for the Pelicans and he’s got both our morning and afternoon shows on. Then you go to Cenla Broadcasting, tremendous broadcasters up there in Alexandria. We helped them with ESPN Radio to get that partnership going. So then up in Shreveport, Hester’s from there, so they broadcast his show. He was on the air there, and we found a way to kick it back.
So it’s being a Louisiana broadcaster. Our owner, Flynn Foster, was the chair of the LAB. So we have great relationships within the state. Then there was just an incredible relationship with Cox Sports Television. So the morning show’s on from seven to nine, hopefully seven to ten soon. Then Matt Moscona is on from three to six in the afternoon. So right now, six hours of their daily programing. We do a prep scoreboard from ten to twelve that goes statewide every night after their game, which has been a real win win. Then Hester and I do, I guess you’d say it is the equivalent of an ESPN GameDay that’s called LSU Game Day Live from 11 to 12 from wherever LSU plays.
CST’s a tremendous platform. It is the main cable provider in the state of Louisiana. You can see it in the whole state of Arkansas and on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, parts of Florida, San Diego, California. It’s tremendous visibility for us.
DR: Your studio has been set up to do something like that for a long time. Was it always about the Cox partnership or was the set and the camera setup put in thinking about creating multi-platform content?
GR: It was before we had the CST deal. Our studio is a hybrid of what Van Pelt and Rusillo had. I remember watching that studio in person and I was blown away how small it was. There are aspects of it that we took from that. We have a great relationship with Bonneville. One of my best friends in the business is Bonneville Phoenix, and they weren’t doing much in Phoenix, but they were doing this in Seattle. I made a trip because I’m a Portland Timbers fan, so one of my Oregon boys and I made the trip and flew out to Seattle to see the Bonneville studio, and we took pictures. Then of course, I went to watch Clint Dempsey play and then jumped on a overnight flight back to New Orleans.
So it’s a hybrid of ESPN Seattle and Scott Van Pelt and Rusillo. It’s really progressive and has been awesome for us. Our guys love it, and every piece of real estate in that thing was sold. It’s been a win for not only our sales, but our talent as well.
DR: In addition to radio, Guaranty Media owns a digital firm called Gatorworks. How involved are they every time you set out to pitch a new client?
GR: Any time that you sit down with a new client, you want to introduce additional questions. “What do you do on your website?” “What do you do in digital tactics?”
I want to say it was the 2014 NAB show in Indianapolis. Flynn Foster and I made the trip there. One of the great things about Flynn is he gives us the opportunity to see people face to face. I told him that when I started as GM in 2010 that I’m going to go somewhere and sit in the front row and learn. I think body language and tone and everything else is just as important than what’s coming out of people’s mouths.
We realized what was going on with digital. You know, a lot of people just went and got a third party firm. I think that our strategy was it’s not who we are. We are local. A higher percentage of our business is local. We needed a local digital company that did business the same way that we did, especially where clients can go in and sit at a table and look at analytics and do all the things that we do.
The reality of it is that if you take the third party out of it, one or two things can happen – the advertiser can get more bang for their buck or they can get a lower cost per thousand. It’s a great competitive advantage that we have. It’s a real simple pitch that we can make to advertisers.
Gatorworks has so much inbound and referral traffic. It’s been a great marriage. Ryan Rodriguez does an incredible job with data works.
DR: I saw Flynn talking about Gaterworks at the NAB in Dallas. He didn’t bring this up, but I did wonder in this time when there are people out there spinning the narrative that radio is old fashioned or dying, this is probably a really good way of kicking down that door if it’s a barrier you’re facing with a potential client.
GR: You do get some of that, but I think it goes back to the top of the funnel. You still need to do some sort of branding. You need to bring people to the top of the funnel. People need to know who you are. You spend all that money on the bottom part of the funnel and you tell people to click, and if they don’t know who you are, they’re less likely to click. So I think it’s a holistic marketing plan that we’re able to bring with top of the funnel and bottom of the funnel options.
DR: So you played football at both LSU and Purdue, correct?
GR: Purdue as a true freshman. We went 3-8. It was really cold. I had to play right away. I was only 17 years old and they fired the coach, Leo Burnett, and brought in Fred Akers.
I played in the All-Star Game in Tiger Stadium at the end of high school. It was LSU people running the thing and LSU did not recruit me. They did not offer me. I had a really good All-Star Game. They got back to me and said, “hey, look, we might have made a mistake. If things don’t work out, let us know.” And so that time came, 3-8 and a coaching change. I’d never seen snow, Demetri, in my life.
Anyway, long story short, I looked at options. I had good grades and I was considering going to Cornell. My old man and I had a long discussion. I flew back and I drove up and had a talk with Coach Archer. He decided to go ahead and give me the opportunity to walk on. I sat out that year and then played special teams right away as a sophomore and played all three years and eventually earned a scholarship. And so it was a great experience. I’m really blessed that it opened so many doors for me, life and work wise. I’m grateful that that was the path that I took.
DR: How much of what you learned as a player and saw from your coaches has translated into your management style?
GR: Well, you know, a little bit of everybody. I’ve done the sidelines for LSU games the last ten years and the beautiful thing is all the access to different voices and styles. Nick Saban, the process and his attention to detail, you pick a little bit of what he does. I love some of the stuff that Coach O does and what he brings to the table.
Not only that, but even to look across the field. I enjoy watching Dan Mullen going back to his days at Mississippi State. You could see why he’s successful in the way he approaches games and his game management. I’ll tell you, recently, one of the guys who I really enjoy is P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, I mean, wow, a breath of fresh air.
So, yeah, there’s no doubt that I think, the crossover to football for leadership and management exists. It’s an enjoyable way to learn and there is plenty to pick up from some of the best in sports.