When we decided a few months ago to create a Meet The Market Managers series, I told Demetri Ravanos that John Kijowski needed to be a part of it, and I’d run point on writing the piece. It’s not everyday that I get to flip the script and ask questions of someone who once hired me, and peppered me constantly with questions related to 101 ESPN’s programming challenges and opportunities. John is so used to asking the questions that it was fun to hear his answers to my questions and see his visible reactions to a couple of curveballs I tossed in his direction during our Zoom chat.
Aside from my personal connection to John, and he’ll hate me for saying this, but he’s one of the best market managers in the business. Period. You may not know that if you follow the trades and see most of the larger markets earning all of the attention, but anyone who’s worked with or for John already knows this to be true. He prefers flying under the radar. He’d rather his team get the credit for their results. If his family is healthy, his employees are happy, his clients are served, his partners are pleased, and his bosses approve of the work he’s doing, that’s more than enough for John.
What I appreciate about John is that he never had to do a lot of yelling or pounding his fist on a table to make his point and get people to perform. He’ll ask questions to test your conviction on specific issues, he’ll challenge his team to raise the bar, and he’ll seek out new ideas from anywhere in the office, and ask how he can help make your job easier. He’s also accessible and interested in helping all of his managers whether they’re in sales, digital, promotions, engineering or programming. It’s why so many who work for him respect his input and trust his decision making.
As important as John’s professional skills may be, his ability to create a family like atmosphere matters even more. When you work at a John Kijowski led operation, you realize quickly that you’re part of a special kind of culture that others want to be a part of. I was a young programmer in 2008, convinced my better days were ahead of me, but still struggling to find the right leader and company to trust me, believe in me, and allow me to put my vision into action. John and I met to discuss the possibility of creating sports on the FM dial in St. Louis, and at first I thought he was doing what a lot of radio people do, seeking me out for information. I learned though that John was serious about hiring me, the outside noise mattered little to him, and as long as I assembled a great staff, worked well with multiple departments, provided sound reasoning for the decisions I was making, and managed my team to success, he’d have my back every step of the way. It’s why leaving St. Louis for San Francisco was incredibly difficult in 2011. I’ve been fortunate to reconnect with John and the 101 crew over the past few years in my current role.
Having shared all of that, I’d be doing this column a disservice if I didn’t point out one well known Kijowski specialty that those around him know all too well. Working for John requires being smart, strategic, giving maximum effort, and delivering results, but you also better have a good sense of humor. The second you turn around to tackle the day’s agenda, you may find a chair on your desk, a fork in your pocket or a ladder blocking your entrance into the office. It doesn’t matter if you’re the host of afternoon drive, the program director of one of his radio stations, the receptionist at the front desk or a part time member of the street team. If John sees an opportunity to create laughter, he’s going to take it. Those innocent pranks keep the office loose and remind people that it’s ok to work hard and play hard.
Our conversation covered a lot of ground including John’s entry into management, the future of sports betting, what he believes is most important when going thru a merger, the quality he values most in a program director, and what the process was like leading up to the decision to pursue sports on FM in St. Louis. I could easily write another 5,000 words on why John Kijowski is one of the best in this business, but the following interview will allow you to see that for yourself. Enjoy!
Jason Barrett: I was looking at LinkedIn prior to this conversation and it has you stepping into the GM world in 1995. Is that right?
John Kijowski: That’s correct.
JB: So when you were making a pitch for the first time to become a GM, what do you remember from that process?
JK: It’s interesting because before Sinclair, I was with Gannett as a DOS going for the GM position. I’ll never forget the president of Gannett broadcasting asking me to tell him about the different areas of the radio station and rank them in order of importance. I was a DOS so what do you think I said?
JK: Sales department, of course. Nothing happens unless we sell something. He just nodded, and said ‘what else’? I said, ‘well, you need a great signal, and programming’ and he said ‘OK, put them in order’. I said ‘sales, programming, signal’. He told me ‘John, you’re not ready for this position yet’. He said ‘unless there’s great programming, even the best sales staff won’t be able to sell it at a high premium consistently unless the programming is right’. That was the first great lesson of many that I learned.
JB: So that was your first taste of being close to running the show. The next time around, you did get the opportunity. When did you know you had the job?
JK: Barry Drake was the one who hired me as a GM from a DOS position at Sinclair. I can’t tell you I knew I had it until he said ‘this is yours’. I felt like I did the interview very well. Barry is an incredibly bright man. I thought I did a good job with him but I really didn’t know I had it until he said it was mine.
JB: So you begin your venture into management with Sinclair, who then transferred ownership to Bonneville, a great company that you spent over 11 years with. Bonneville then sold to Hubbard, another amazing group which you’ve had the pleasure of spending another decade with. You lucked out the past twenty years working for two great broadcasting groups. Having been thru a few mergers, as a GM, what’s that first month or two like when new owners are coming in? You have to think about your own future, your staff’s future, if they’ll tinker with the products you’ve helped build, and possibly change the strategy or even a format. Where does your focus go?
JK: I think of me last. You have to think of your team first. Our job is to acquire the best talent around us, and put them in the right seat on the bus. But you also have to retain them. When there’s a potential merger, you want to retain a great team. Whether the company retains you or not, obviously it’s critically important, but the team comes first. You want to make sure that what we’ve built is preserved for growth. I always looked at the team first, and communicated with the buying company on the aspects of what they’re going to be looking at, which are the obvious metrics of cash flow, net operating expenses, and net revenue. Where’s your growth come from? How do you look when the ratings aren’t so good? How is the cash flow? If you have good cash flow years while the ratings aren’t good, how do you do it? It’s mainly about protecting the team, and showing what the mission’s been.
JB: As you know some may be more focused on their own futures especially during a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Your answer explains why you’ve come thru it in great shape each time.
JK: You said before that I’ve been lucky, and I have been. I’m very fortunate to have worked with some great broadcasters. Bonneville under Bruce Reese and Drew Horowitz, and then coming over to a family owned business with Hubbard led by Ginny Morris, these are just amazing companies with great people. What the two have in common is shared vision, and leadership. You know exactly what they want you to do. Everybody is a part of the process and they want to show you where they’re going but they certainly want strong opinion from the market manager. Do you agree with the plan or should we avoid this? Do you see other options for growth? I’ve been lucky to work for two great companies.
JB: You mentioned how they seek your input when dealing with important business matters, so when you’re reporting to your bosses and having to either relay bad news about a talent or a quarterly sales performance, ask for additional funds that might not have budgeted or offer a point of view that differs from something they want to do, what do you think is important to communicate so they remain confident that they have great leadership in place overseeing their markets and know you’re looking out for the best interests of the company rather than just offering lip service to give them what they might want to hear but may not necessarily be what’s best for the long term interest in growing the brands under your watch?
JK: It’s all a process. I believe confidence comes from competence. You have to be competent over years. Then it’s the ability to communicate tough decisions honestly and transparently and say that you’ve looked at it from all angles and you didn’t do it by yourself. You include your Operations Manager, Director of Sales, Chief Engineer, Business Manager, the Marketing and Promotions team. You’ve brought everyone into the conversation who’s part of that small circle and said ‘what could we get tripped up on? This looks too good to be true, what’s wrong here? If I were the opponent, how would I attack it? And remember the opponent may not be another radio station or radio group. Maybe it’s how consumers are engaging with media in general right now. If you’re not doing it for them, the end user, and you’re only doing it for yourself, you’ll fail. How you communicate that takes confidence, but you have to some competence too.
JB: You hired me to help build 101 ESPN in September 2008. The station launched a few months later in January 2009. Before we even talked though, you had to have a number of conversations internally about the benefits of flipping to sports and the concerns associated with making a move into the format. Those same types of conversations take place all the time whether it involves talent, program directors, play by play partnerships or other business challenges and opportunities. When you’re considering a major move such as a format flip, what is it that you have to see to convince you that it’s worth pursuing and changing your current direction?
JK: You take that team that I just described, those critically important department heads, particularly on the programming side, and you ask ‘where is there an underserved part of the audience in our market?’ Even if you see a direct competitor, is the space itself under served? You certainly are aware of what we did putting 101 ESPN on in 2009. There was no FM outlet for robust and strong sports talk. There was guy talk on the AM dial, and we looked at the situation over and over again and said ‘do we need another rock station in town?’ There was no Triple A station so that area was open, but it looked like it was covered well between the classic rock and alternative stations in the market. We asked ‘is there easy listening?’ Yep. We’ve got that. Was Urban available. Nope, there were three of those stations. So we kept looking and asking ‘where are their holes to fill’ and we did our logistics and hired Coleman to do what was called a format finder. We made the investment to see if the research supported what our gut was telling us. Decisions made on science and gut are usually pretty good. Then you gather that team and ask ‘what will the ratings look like’, and you take that number down. ‘What will the revenue be’, and you take that number down too.
JB: Since you brought up asking for projections, I always wondered why you’d even ask me to project the radio station’s results for the following year. I’d be thinking ‘I’m not a fortune teller, so do you want me to just write something down and make an uneducated guess on where the audience might be in twelve months?.’ Case in point, nobody could’ve predicted going into 2020 that a pandemic would hit and do a number on the media industry. So what good are those actual projections?
JK: (laughs) But you still have to do it. You have to do the work and study where you think things might go. Our owner Stanley Hubbard, and Ginny Morris who runs the radio division, already had us doing a ‘what if’ plan before the pandemic hit. What if the market all of a sudden shrunk by 25%. Go five years out, what does that look like? We had just done that plan the year earlier. It was extremely helpful because as soon as you think you can predict things, the unexpected happens.
JB: I want to ask you about radio play by play partnerships. When the station launched in 2009, it went on the air with the St. Louis Rams. I remember Drew Horowitz not exactly loving that deal (laughs). Obviously the state of play by play today is much different than it was 12 years ago. Streaming is now a bigger part of the picture. Some teams now want to sell their own inventory or they’ll give up more commercial time in a broadcast to try and retain their rights fees. You work with the St. Louis Blues who are well received by your audience and clients. There are a lot of positives to being in business with teams but there can be some challenges too. What does a good partnership between a team and sports radio station look like to you?
JK: You asked earlier about selling up ideas to ownership. The process isn’t much different when it comes to creating a partnership with teams. Isn’t that why we’re here? We’re trying to create partnerships with our listeners, our colleagues inside the building, and with our advertisers. So what is the shared goal? I knew what the Rams goal was and how they measured it, and I know what the Blues expect. They’re both very different. When you ask the question ‘what does a good partnership look like?’ I think it’s important to describe it as if you were telling a story. Five years from now, I will evaluate this partnership by looking at how we hit this, this and this. Is that revenue? Non-spot revenue? Ratings? How can we help the club? We have tremendous access to players. That was important to us. Before we had the Blues, we had access to players with the Rams, but it’s not like what we have now. Why that’s important to us is because the listening audience, and the people who view us and engage with us on social, they want to hear from them. They want to hear from hosts on our airwaves who’ve played the game such as Jamie Rivers and Brad Thompson from The Fast Lane who played for the Blues and Cardinals respectively. They want to hear the stories of what took place behind the dressing room doors. What’s important to the club, and what’s important to the radio station, and how can we find common ground together to help each other. Yes it always comes down to money, but there’s a lot of different ways to do the deal then to just pay a ridiculous rights fee, that you’ll probably never get back, unless you’re in a Top 5 market. It’s incredibly difficult.
JB: Another partnership I want to ask you about is ESPN Radio. Your station has worked with the network for over a decade. When you say the four letters to most sports fans, they instantly carry weight. People know what brand you’re talking about. On the other hand, the radio network is different today than it has been in the past. Some are good with the changes, others aren’t. When you analyze your relationship with your national radio network partner, how do you evaluate it? What do you think they do a great job helping your brand with, and where can they improve?
JK: The brand of ESPN still matters. It hasn’t suffered a lot since we started the partnership, in fact I think it’s as big as ever. The ESPN brand is spectacular and the association with it is important to us. As an affiliate, I think there are a lot of ways to do a deal. I’d like to see them provide a little more flexibility on the barter. The gentleman I work with is flexible and reviewing our arrangement right now. Our brand though is live and local from 7a to 6p and then we go into games whether it be the Blues or the ESPN offerings from the NBA, MLB, college games, etc.. So that covers a lot of our main programming windows. I think the lead in to our morning show is really important. We launched with Mike & Mike and they did a spectacular show. It performed well here. That then morphed into Golic and Wingo which featured Trey Wingo, a guy with a well known national profile who spent a number of years here in St. Louis, and that too did well. Now they’re going thru an additional evolution with their new morning show. I think the jury is out but they are talented guys. We carry that show from 5a-7a and it’s important because it launches into our first local show of the day. So we’ll be monitoring that situation closely but the brand itself is super strong, if we’re able to get a little flexibility with the barter that’d help, but I’m proud to partner with them and appreciate the way they’ve treated us over the years.
JB: An area that a lot of industry people are hot on and see huge upside for the future in is sports betting. Missouri hasn’t been declared a legal state yet.
JK: Not yet but it could go thru in 2022. I think it will. It’ll be big.
JB: Knowing that it’s coming soon and the advertising dollars could be bigger and the appetite from the audience may continue getting stronger for that type of content, how do you expect sports betting to change the way sports radio is presented? For instance, the growth of gambling will be received differently by on-air talent. Some are going to be into discussions that revolve around looking at lines, prop bets and changes in betting behavior on a specific game, others might not want any part of those conversations. Taking all of that into account, what excites you and concerns you about the space and how do you see it changing the format?
JK: The part that excites me most is the revenue potential obviously. We know it’s coming so having a plan is important. We have a team that is meeting and reviewing what it might look like and developing it so we have it ready for execution this year even if we don’t start it until next year. Yes there may be some hosts that aren’t into it right now but this is going to continue gaining steam so more hosts are going to have to be into it because it’s where things are headed. Most of our talent have either a FanDuel or DraftKings account. Some have both. They have responded well to it. I think there’s going to be a lot of future opportunities for sports radio stations and talent for live events and on-air endorsements around sports betting. We’ve already started hiring street team to start in the 4th quarter because we expect big events around Busch Stadium and ScottTrade Center and we have soccer coming soon. I think the combination of events, endorsements, hosts being into the content, and special programming being available thru our brand is going to be part of it. I know a lot of people haven’t embraced HD2 to this point, however, I think there could be a dedicated HD2 channel for this that people go to for alternate broadcasts around the Cardinals or Blues that focus heavily on the sports gambling discussion around the game. You might hear ‘It’s 3 and 2 on the batter, is he going to get on or make an out? The odds say it’s 60% likely that he won’t succeed.’ I don’t rule out that possibility of HD2 being utilized in a bigger way.
JB: The last two things I want to pick your brain on are podcasting and social media. Each are important for branding and connecting with an audience but from a revenue standpoint they’re not on the same playing field yet with radio dollars. I see and hear a lot of noise out there about running away from the word ‘radio’ but radio is still driving the revenue bus. I love podcasting and social media as much as the next person but I don’t understand the fascination with distancing ourselves from the one word that has represented us for decades and still helps us generate dollars and interest. That said, younger people have different ways of consuming radio than you and I did. I understand why the industry is planning now for where we might be in 10-20 years. When you look at podcasting and social media, what do you feel needs to happen for both to become a bigger source of revenue for radio brands?
JK: It is called dual tracks. We have to keep doing what we’re doing on the radio side because that continues to be the big megaphone. People that are branding need radio. Definitely. No question. Advertisers definitely need radio, especially sports radio because it works for the client. Podcasting is an area we are involved in. It’s critically important to where we think growth is. We have to be able to create and innovate by introducing new podcasting content. For instance, we have a Blues podcast that takes one member of 101 ESPN, and two members of 105.7 The Point, our alternative station. It’s not something you’re going to hear on either radio station so that helps draw people in. We also want to create the best Cardinals podcast in St. Louis. We have the talent to do it but the right idea and personnel for it is important. We are always looking at ways to get more eyeballs and ears on our podcasts and video content and it comes from delivering original entertainment around the teams and people they care about most. If we produce material that people value, regardless of where it’s distributed, we’ll be able to monetize it.
JB: Before we wrap up, I’ve got to ask you a question about choosing a program director because you hired me to start 101 ESPN, Kent Sterling to succeed me when I left for San Francisco, Hoss Neupert to step in after Kent, and Tommy Mattern after Hoss. All four of us are different people, each with a different programming style and philosophy. When you’re looking for a candidate to run a brand, what sets someone apart from others when you’re going thru a process and trying to determine who to trust with programming one of your stations?
JK: One word – leadership. It all comes down to leadership. I don’t need a program director or a manager of things. I need a leader of people. That’s not just all about motivation. Motivation is a small part of it. A leader recognizes what everybody’s role is, puts them in the right positions, and is constantly self-directing it when they get off the road or cross the line a little bit. The leader also has to understand sales and content. I used to say ‘ratings = revenue’. Not anymore. Ratings are very important but it’s all about content generation now. We need on-air talent that are content machines and put it out on multiple platforms and have that entertaining way to make it sticky. A leader has to find those people and have a great relationship with the DOS and understand their strategy and tactics to help them monetize the content.
JB: I’m going to end with this, when you think about the present and future of the business, what’s the one thing that keeps you up at night and don’t tell me it’s your retirement because you have some time before that happens.
JK: I hope Ginny and Dave Bestler read this because I do have time. The one thing that keeps me up at night is figuring out where to look and find unique talent. And I’m not just talking about on-air. I’m talking about sales talent. Cost per point sellers are over. It’s been over for a while. We need people who need to think client first or listener first and what are their goals and how can we help them because it’s not about a one-time sale or a one-time great rating month. It’s about consistent success. The only people that can do that in my opinion are the people that, and I keep saying this, the content mavens. Those who listen more than talk and understand what the client or listener is looking for and finding a way to deliver it to them in a very creative way. These are entertainers. You can be funny in this format. Look, the pandemic should’ve taught everybody that we have to be entertaining even when there are no games being played. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re in the acquisition business. Our job is to acquire new customers and new listeners, and how we keep them engaging with us and supporting us depends on having great unique talented people representing our brands.