February 5, 2013
Dom Theodore is a true radio renaissance man. He first gained notoriety in the Top 40 hotbed of Tampa at the legendary WFLZ. He then took on executive programming posts, first at Clear Channel and then at CBS Radio. Now Dom's the owner of WCDY/Cadillac, MI and WHTP/Portland ME; he also consults several stations through his RadioAnimal, LLC consulting firm; and last but not least, he's programming the Blaze Radio Network for Glenn Beck. In the spare few seconds he has in his busy broadcast day, Theodore describes how his past helps him keep all his plates spinning today.
From programming in a true radio battleground such as Tampa, to corporate programming posts at both Clear Channel and CBS Radio, what have you drawn from your experiences?
Most of my career has been spent in very competitive situations, so I still thrive on that. When it comes to ownership, one of the key things is knowing how to plan and budget properly, read P&Ls, financing, and the business affairs of the company ... My prior experience in corporate radio certainly prepared me well for that. But at the end of the day, it's still the creativity, growing talent, and building compelling products that capture and entertain audiences that drive me.
What are your favorite memories of that CC/CBS era?
There are a few ... Some of the most fun I've ever had in radio happened at WFLZ in Tampa. I doubt that there'll ever be another station like it ever again. Nothing could ever replace the experience I had working with legendary programming minds like Randy Michaels, BJ Harris, Gabe Hobbs, Jeff Kapugi, Marc Chase and my GM Dave Reinhart, and EVP Dave Crowl ... the collection of talent in that building and within that company (Jacor) is unparalleled to this day.
Another one of my favorite memories is the ascent from 14th to 1st place at WKQI/Detroit. We built an amazing team of truly talented, highly competitive, and very creative and passionate folks, and accomplished something that most people thought would never happen -- we drove our competitor out of the format and took the station all the way to #1 Persons 12+ in Detroit, the first FM Top 40 in the history of that market to ever achieve that rank. And of course, the experiences I had launching and working with many of America's biggest Top 40 stations as both a Top 40 brand manager for Clear Channel, and VP of Top 40 Programming for CBS, and my long-standing consulting relationship with Mercury Radio Arts and Glenn Beck, who I first met in Tampa and have been working with ever since.
So what made you decide to essentially leave the day-to-day business?
I wanted a new challenge that was more focused on what is coming out of the speakers and less focused on spreadsheets and reports. I believe a lot of stations are held back because PDs are caught up in what I refer to as the "business of running the business" -- like time sheets, corporate reports, PowerPoint presentations, budget close meetings, etc. -- instead of focusing on the product, working with talent, writing great imaging, listening to music, and developing creative content and promotions. I wanted to focus on THAT end of the business, and as a consultant, owner, and programmer for The Blaze Radio Network, I get to do just that.
What made you decide to get into ownership?
I've long had an entrepreneurial streak, and I'm finding there are fewer and fewer places in our business that offer programmers and talent real autonomy, so I saw an opportunity to start a company to do just that. I want to build "destination platforms" for creative people to do creative things. And I consult other like-minded companies who see the same opportunity that I see to build the "other" kind of broadcast company.
Other than being in small markets, what are the similarities and differences in the stations?
My friend Kid Kelly likes to say, "The only difference between big markets and small markets is that more people live around the transmitter" ... and if you stop and think about that, it's true. Great content is great content. But one of the advantages in smaller markets is how much easier it is to connect on the community level. It's much harder to do that as effectively in bigger markets because there's so much territory to cover, and in many cases not enough people to cover it.
How did your corporate radio experience impact you in ownership?
The sheer amount of change in our industry from 1996 until now is unprecedented ... there was no model for it, so corporate radio had lots of trial and error. There are still many technological and audience trends that the industry is trying to figure out. But having seen both the failures and successes of different corporate models and operating strategies has helped me to determine the best path for success with my company and the stations and platforms that I work with.
...And what aspects of your ownership do NOT apply to corporate radio?
The biggest advantage that I have is we are not beholden to Wall Street, banks or outside private equity investors ... so we don't have the pressure to turn 50% margins like many other groups ... we can be perfectly satisfied with 30% margins and re-investment into the product to grow audience loyalty. This is definitely an advantage over other groups with much higher debt leverage.
What made you decide to start your own consultancy?
There are lots of stations that need guidance, programming strategies, ideas and creativity, and through the years as a brand manager and VP/Programming overseeing several stations at a time, I really enjoyed working with PDs on those areas. So it seemed like a very natural progression.
How has your corporate radio experience impacted your consultancy?
Some of the clients that I have today were PDs and talent that I worked with previously in my corporate role. It's been very enjoyable to team back up with some of the same programmers whom I've had success with in the past. In addition, because I've worked in a PPM environment, and programmed day-to-day in the modern corporate culture, I understand the pressures and expectations that PDs are under, which has helped me offer the right guidance and strategies.
Obviously, your radio experience is a plus, but has it been difficult to reach out to CC and CBS stations because you don't work there anymore?
Not at all; I have many relationships in both Clear Channel and CBS ... and talk often to many PDs at both companies.
A lot of old-time consultants (Zapoleon, McVay) have been "incorporated" into the major groups ostensibly because the major radio groups don't feel they need consultants or that they're worth the price anymore. Agree? How do you plan on growing your business in such a competitive environment?
The consultants that have gone "in-house" have left a void at many of the stations that they used to work with, so there's plenty of need out there. I'm also not interested in over-extending my company. I have set limits on the total number of stations that I will consult to make sure that the stations I do work with get the attention and focus that they deserve.
So how did you get involved with the Blaze?
The Blaze Radio network is a concept that I've been in discussion with for years with Glenn Beck and his business partner Chris Balfe. With the audience growth of The Blaze over the past couple of years, we knew that now is the perfect time to launch this platform as the audio companion to the TV network and the very successful digital brand. And we're not stopping there; much more is in the works.
What attracted you to that opportunity?
Glenn, Chris, and I all share that entrepreneurial streak that I mentioned earlier, and I love the challenge of building something new, especially on a new media platform like this. Glenn shared his vision for this with me several years ago, and I'm really excited about the future with The Blaze as this vision continues to unfold.
Considering this is Glenn Beck's domain, is your job there based strictly on radio business principles, or do you need to adopt a political mindset as well?
In many ways, it's both. Obviously part of my job is to ensure that good programming principles are observed, but at the same time you have to understand that when we say "truth lives here," it's more than just a "positioning statement," it's a mission statement. One of the reasons The Blaze brand has grown so rapidly is our commitment to uncover stories that no other news outlet would dare touch. This is really a revolution in journalism, and The Blaze is on the forefront of it. It's where entertainment and enlightenment collide.
If so, how do you balance that?
It's actually quite easy. We just focus on bringing the truth to our audience, and let the cards fall where they may.
Consultancies, station ownership and The Blaze ... how do you prioritize and/or balance all these projects? Is this a challenge of time management?
It's really not any more of a time management challenge than what I was used to facing from my prior roles. Over the past several years, as I grew from a PD to an OM, to a VP/Programming, to a Regional VP, to a Format VP, I had to learn very quickly to multi-task as my portfolio of stations grew. It can be a challenge at times, but that's part of the fun. And I get to pursue different aspects of my passion all at the same time.
Are there any other areas of the business you'd like to explore?
I have an open mind about possibilities ... as things continue to unfold, particularly with The Blaze, I know it's going to lead to more new ventures. Really, the possibilities are endless.
How has your gauge for success changed over the years, from Tampa to today?
To some extent, they are the same. It's still all about attracting and engaging an audience. We may do that on more platforms today than what we did in Tampa, but the challenge is still the same. The difference is the playing field is so much bigger now, which makes the goals much loftier. But that's also part of the fun.
Is the current radio environment so fluid that it has tempered how you envision your future endeavors and career ... and how so?
There's no question that our business continues to change on an almost daily basis. I remember hearing the term "bone-breaking change" over and over again a few years ago; now that has become a way of life. But I also see an opportunity in the midst of all this change to return to the principles that made this medium great.
We are losing so many creative 20-somethings to new media because it offers more autonomy than many broadcast companies, and that's a shame. Good operators know that every radio station is in many ways a "blank canvass" and each market presents an opportunity to craft a unique sound, brand, and image ... although many operators just don't want to spend the resources to identify and create it. Instead of the extreme "top-down" model that seems to have taken over our industry, I see an opportunity to attract creative people by introducing a new model that is focused on setting goals and giving talented people the autonomy to achieve those goals.
So, I don't have a "tempered" vision of future possibilities; in fact it's just the opposite. I see lots of opportunity to maneuver into areas that others have given up on or are too afraid to attempt. And as history has proven time and time again, that's usually where the biggest returns are.