10 Questions with ... Sammy George
May 31, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Sammy George is our second in a series of "10 Questions" features highlighting incoming 2015 Country Radio Hall of Fame honorees. He will be inducted Wednesday, June 24th at the Omni Hotel in Nashville. During his 38-year career in radio, SAMMY GEORGE handled virtually every position inside a radio station, including on-air-personality, Program Director, News Reporter, sports play-by-play announcer, Sales Executive and Director of Sales. His final 22 years in the radio business saw GEORGE serve as GM/Market Manager for WUSY/CHATTANOOGA, where he led the station to 73 consecutive #1 rating books, nine CMA Station of the Year awards, two ACM Station of the Year trophies, NAB CRYSTAL and MARCONI AWARDS, plus an eight-year run as the "CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS" Readers' Choice Award for Best Local Radio Station
1. Sammy, Thanks for taking the time for 10 Questions. Let's begin by asking what induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame means to you and what you think it says about your radio career.
To me it represents almost 50 years and a body of work that I can be proud of. To be recognized with induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame confirms that during my journey I made some good decisions, I hired great people, I gave them permission to be themselves to innovate and achieve their goals.
2. OK, so exactly where you, and what were you doing when you got the news?
Where a lot of old guys like me hang out these days, at the Walgreens Pharmacy in Ooltewah, Tn. I was there with my wife, Lon Helton left a voice mail so when Shelia and I returned to the car I called and couldn't believe the good news. I told Lon it was a good thing that he was over 2 hours away; I would have hugged the breath out of him. Shelia teared up, man she's special.
3. What station or personality did you listen to most growing up and how did either - or both -influence you in pursuing a radio career.
50,000 watt WVOK The Mighty Six Ninety (690 AM) in Birmingham and the Joe Rumore Show. Joe was the type personality that everyone who listened thought Joe was talking only to them. A lot of the great air-personalities I worked with over the years shared many of the same traits as Joe. Rhubarb Jones is one of those and he also lists Joe Rumore as a major role model. Both are members of the Country Radio Hall of Fame and I'm honored to join them. Joe also was the best on-air sales person in the mediums history in my book. If Joe Rumore said it was good product, my parents and grandparents were buying it. WVOK was part of a great chain of stations; there was WFLI, Chattanooga, WBAM in Montgomery and WAPE in Jacksonville all 50,000 watt powerhouses. Back in the 60's they would host their "Shower of Stars Spectacular" and there would be eight to 10 acts on the bill. Long before the iHeart Music Festival that featured cross genre performers These guys were filling stadiums in the 60's. I saw Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis, Sonny James on the same show with The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys at Legion Field on a five dollar ticket. I thought this is the job I want, I want to be around this. I spent a lot of nights with my 7 transistor Silvetone radio listening to WSM, WLAC, WLS, KMOX and other giant 50KW clear channel stations (no iHeart didn't own those stations). It was like magic to me, those guys could make me feel like I was standing in the freezing cold in the snow in the loop in Chicago in February. I remember WLS would say the street level temperature in the Loop is three degrees and I'm thinking hell it must be 20 below on the 4th floor. I remember my loftiest goal as a high school junior and listening to WLS was to own Dodge Hemi that I bought from Mr. Norm's Grand Spaulding Dodge. Their commercials were incredibly effective. I did buy a 69 'Cuda but I didn't make it to Mr. Norm's.
4. Tell us about your first radio job - Everybody's first job has a crazy, zany story attached to it. Certainly, you remember both, right? The statute of limitations has run out - share with the class, please.
Not sure this is zany but it was really cool for me. One of my first jobs was nights on WYAM a small 1000 watt station in the Birmingham metro My first PD was a guy name Fred Lehner and he cut demo's in the studios there on Jay Bird Road on a young hair dresser who wanted to be a Country & Western singer. Fred more than once told me I was awful but I was the best he could afford at the time. Fred didn't have a lot of time for me as he had bigger fish to fry being an on-air PD, cutting demos and writing songs. All those paid off when that Birmingham hairdresser named Tammy Wynette signed her first record deal and moved to Nashville. Fred wasn't too far behind; he wound up co-writing "Home" a huge hit for Joe Diffie and a few other hits along the way.
5. Mentors - everybody has a few of them. Who was it for you that helped you, challenged you and made you believe you could actually make this a career?
No doubt about it was my hero Julius Talton. He hired me after my service in the Marine Corps and put me on afternoons at WHBB in Selma. Ask anyone who worked for him and they will tell you, you didn't work for Mr. Talton you apprenticed under him. He was a brilliant businessman and a great mentor and teacher. He was old school tough, he grew up in an orphanage put himself through the University of Alabama (is in the University's Broadcasting Hall of Fame) flew bombers for the Air Force and after service worked his way up to Sales Manager of WAPI in Birmingham. Then bought small market stations across Alabama and made them all successful businesses. He was one of the most respected business people in state. Talton was by far the best salesperson I've ever encountered. He could walk away from an hour long meeting with a first time customer and know more about her, her family and her history than her first cousins knew. While I was away in the Marines Talton bought my hometown station. He gave me the chance to return to my home and manage the station. At age 24 he saw something in me that I didn't see in me and I'll never forget that. He set the tone for me it was always "It's your station, you run it, send me the money".
6. You're part of a rare breed - the manager that has stayed in one market for a long time - the majority of your career. Was there a deliberate decision to "Marry the market" as they say - or did it happen organically.
When I came to Chattanooga it wasn't like "I'll spend four or five years here and see where it takes me." I wanted to put down roots; my son Lucas was five at the time and my wife decided to be a stay at home mom and we both wanted to make Chattanooga home. I remember shortly after coming to town the husband of our Sales Manager at the time asked me this question "you're not planning on buying a house are you? When I said yes he responded "I wouldn't do that if I were you, you know this is only temporary for you. The plan is for my wife to be General Manager and then send you somewhere else". I recon he's still disappointed that I bought that house. Chattanooga is a great town, it small enough that when you go to the grocery you recognize your listeners. No one disputes this is one of the most beautiful regions of the country, why leave? This town and region has been great to my family and me, it's home and I love this place.
7. OK, and to that point - the market and the station. Talk about how WUSY became such a beloved, important part of the Chattanooga community. What did it take to build that dynasty?
Hiring people who believed they could create one of the best radio stations in the country and finding the people who wanted to win as much as I did. Once I did that and I'm going to run off a stream of names of those that I give a lot of credit to....Big Jon Anthony, David Earl Hughes, Bill "Dex" Poindexter, Ken Hicks, Benjamin "Bearman" Martin, Clay Hunnicutt, Greg Mozingo, Ed Buice. When I had the team in place they wouldn't stop until the goal was met. A great example of how our people think and react to situations and one I'm very proud of is how WUSY responded to the first gulf war. Our morning guy Big Jon Anthony came to me with an idea on how we could support and honor the men and women being deployed to a war zone. He asked if he could create a "Declaration of Support" and ask all our listeners to sign it to show their support for our troops. Thousands of signatures later the military's top brass got wind of it and invited Jon and the station to a special service to present those signatures to then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in his office in the Pentagon. CNN carried the story and support started coming in waves from around the country Jon Anthony started it all. When the troops were deployed their route from Ft. Campbell Kentucky brought them through the heart of Chattanooga. Jon suggested that the US-101 listeners line the overpasses armed with American Flags to show our solidary and support. That word also got around and the momentum was such that their route from Chattanooga south was awash in red, white and blue. Jon Anthony cast the dye for the US-101 shield as a brand and what our brand stood for. Our on-air people had zero egos and but what they did have was a work ethic like no one else on the planet. They all bought into the importance of US-101 as a meaningful brand. They all also understood the importance of serving the community, not just an amplified voice but the need to get your hands dirty by loading trucks with tornado relief supplies, standing in the December cold and rain with a bucket asking for donations to help kids at Christmas. All these things were and are important to everyone at US-101 to this day. None of our people thought, we can be a great radio station just by playing great music and being entertaining on the radio. We have to be a part of their lives, we want to be their neighbor, their friend the kind of station people will turn to because they like us, respect us and know were going to be there for them. All I had to do was to lay out the plan, ask for their input, get the best ideas on the table and show em the door. US-101 is one of the most successful radio stations ever in terms of awards and accolades, ratings and revenue and I got to watch it all happen from the best seat in the house.
8. In what way did you see the role of a GM or, Market Manager evolve during your time at WUSY? From the outside, it seems managers are less involved in the on-air product and totally immersed in revenue and sales issues anymore. True?
You're absolutely right. From my first job as a GM at age 24 and through managing WLWI and WUSY those were "my" radio stations and I was totally accountable for all aspects of the stations success, not just sales. The first owner of US-101 was Colonial Broadcasting and its sole stock holder was Bobby Lowder. Lowder was a CEO of a large bank as well as Colonial Broadcasting. In his world a general manager was responsible for everything that happened inside that radio station and that included day to day programming. If he asked why you took a hit 25-54 you didn't respond "well you know I'll have to ask the guys from programming and get back to you...That didn't work, it was my radio station, it was my responsibility and he expected me to have the answers and the solutions. I liked that a lot, I didn't want it any other way. If I'm going to be held responsible I'll be part of the creative process. I thoroughly enjoyed overseeing a sales department, working with the Sales Managers to make sure we got the best rates possible, maximized the inventory and hired and trained the right people. To be honest with you I had two of the most successful, smart and talented Sales Managers in radio who made my life a lot easier over the years. Rick Brown at WLWI in Montgomery and Rhonda Rollins at WUSY were Sales Managers, GM's like me dream about. When Cumulus bought us then sold us to Clear Channel our roles began to shift but by in large they saw what we were doing and our success and for the most part allowed us the freedom to do what we do. Today I think the Market Mangers are totally immersed in the sales departments. Some like to manage systems and I know guys who thrive in that environment, who love what they do and they do a great job. I just wasn't built that way. To me it's always been about the product, get that right and the sales and the profits will follow.
9. You've been away from the day-to-day aspect of radio for a bit - what are you seeing from the outside that concerns you about radio - and, what gives you hope about its future?
I came from a different time with a different perspective and expectations of radio but things that concern me are the lack of people to take care of the listeners and I'll cite a recent example. I was watching CBS news a few months back and Louisville had been hit really hard with tons of snow and it shut the interstate down overnight. Motorists were trapped in their cars at night for hours on end. CBS asked a twenty-something female about how she felt being stuck on the interstate in the snow at night and in her answer she basically said we were clueless as to what was going on or what was being done to help them, there was absolutely nothing being said on the radio about the storm nor their plight. Perhaps radio feels why bother, social media has those bases covered so there is no need to have anyone live at the station. To me that same argument was made years ago, why have news since there are news/talk stations, or why bother with weather on radio, TV does a much better job and they have color maps and really cool graphics. Where is that warm reassuring voice that says "I'm your radio and we're here for you"? Radio will probably never return as I knew it but that's a good thing, it has to change, evolve and grow and that also excites me. It's really up to the great and smart radio people of today. I won't be around but it would be fun to hear those guys on the front porch at the old folks home at the end of their career, they can look back and say "we did something special but I sure don't like the way these kids of today are treating my industry". Rock on boys
10. Let's take that more granular - Country radio. Are you optimistic about its direction? What should the format be doing better to protect its future?
Am I optimistic about its direction? Hell yes, when Steven Tyler's Country album is getting played once an hour and Merle Haggard can't buy a spin on country radio wouldn't you be optimistic. Just kidding, it'll all work out, be cool, let happen what's going to happen. As bad as it seems to some folks we can't kill it, it's bigger than all of us. Back in the days of the Barn Dance radio was going to die because there were no more live shows, it didn't. Radio stations fired all their studio musicians putting a lot of good flute players out of work, country nor radio didn't die. Here come the outlaws, they fired Ole Hank, Cash showed his ass and kicked the lights out, then along comes Waylon & Willie, that bunch looked like they ain't bathed in a month of Sundays, lord what's happened to my country & western music? There went Mickey Gilley and line dancing went with him, country's dead for sure now. Florida Georgia Line brings Nellie to the dance hall, hell that's got to be the last straw, Eric Church on a country awards show playing "That's Damn Rock & Roll"... Country takes it's twists and turns, not everybody's gonna get it, but I think that's a good thing it allows the format to expand and grow. But you know right now there is a young kid in his room with just a guitar and a god given, raw earthy talent that can knock your socks off with a special twang you ain't heard in years. He or she will steer the format back toward center. George Strait did it, Randy Travis did it, Alan Jackson did it, there's one standing in the wings with that special voice, he will be met by a young country PD that wants to make waves and that young man's voice will be heard on country radio and the reaction will be "where did that come from, now that's more like it". Who is the rookie PD that saw that one coming, give him a corporate job. So for radio to protect its future it has to keep one eye on the past. You can move the plant but save the roots, you may need em someday.