Todd Cavanah & Erik Bradley
October 15, 2013
On October 18th, 1993, Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover" was the #1 single, Garth Brooks' "In Pieces" had just replaced Nirvana's "In Utero" as the #1 album, the Columbia space shuttle launched into orbit and President Clinton was having a hard time selling his national health plan to Congress -- three years before he would sign the Telecommunications Bill that would change the radio business forever.
October 18th, 1993 was also the first day Erik Bradley went to work under PD Todd Cavanah at WBBM-FM (B96)/Chicago -- and despite all the changes around them, Cavanah and Bradley continue to work together. To celebrate their 20th year as a winning team, All Access interviewed them about how it all started and how they've been able to succeed through the years.
What were you doing before you came to B96?
Working my second stint at my hometown radio station in Charlotte, NC at WCKZ (Kiss 102). I also had some experience at KBEQ/Kansas City as APD/MD. B96 was one of my dream stations to work with (along with KMEL SF or KIIS-FM LA) so as soon as I heard that Todd was promoted to PD, I went after this job immediately with everything I had. After going through the process of interviewing, I was offered the MD position and enthusiastically accepted it in like two seconds flat. My first day was October 18th, 1993.
Did you know Todd personally before you applied for that job?
I knew him primarily through mutual friends in the industry. I remember meeting him when he worked in promotion at Elektra right after I started at WCKZ when he came in to promote Elektra's priorities - and we kinda loosely stayed in touch over the years. I did spend a little time with him when I came in for a Bulls game and to see an artist showcase ... the only other time I ever saw Chicago was when I interviewed -- it was just a slight bit overwhelming for a small town country boy from North Carolina.
How long did it take for you to feel comfortable at B96?
I felt comfortable almost immediately because the station has always had a nurturing, caring and creative environment; I felt that on my very first day. As far as having confidence in myself to do this job, that took a little extra time. It can be intimidating for any young radio programmer coming to a world class city like Chicago, and a legendary radio station such as B96. I started to gain my footing and felt more confident with each passing day after Todd told me to just have fun, that I'd be able to do what I wanted to do and not to be afraid to make mistakes.
How has your relationship with Todd changed over the years?
Not only do we work so closely together, but we're the best of friends outside of work too. Right from the start Todd gave me an immense amount of freedom and power to impact the sound of B96, to help put my stamp on it, too. He gave me a chance to be my own person and have a legitimate say-so in the programming of the station, something not every Music Director had at that time (or has even now, for that matter.) That obviously helped us gain an incredible level of trust in each other, one of the most important qualities of a strong bond and working relationship.
They say a close working relationship can be a like marriage - with all the ups and downs. What's been the key to getting along and working together with Todd for so long of time?
Mainly because we are not the same type of person. We're extremely different, which fortunately plays well to our friendship and business relationship. Todd is married, has two amazing young children (who I absolutely adore) and lives in the suburbs. I live in the city with my partner and our dog. We also have very different tastes when it comes to pop culture, but we share a never-ending passion for hit music and for succeeding ... an insatiable desire to win. We've been able to sustain a high level of success and our strong personal bond primarily because we respect one another -- and we respect others. We're fortunate to have been able to work together for this long, and we have to give a great deal of credit to CBS Radio and our local team in Chicago led by Rod Zimmerman (Chicago Market Manager) for supporting us in every way, which helps ensure our continued success.
How long did it take for you to get a finger on the musical pulse of Chicago?
That took a little more time than I thought it would, just because this is such a huge city with so much diversity. I wasn't used to such a melting pot, coming from a small town in North Carolina. I began to feel comfortable when I started learning all the neighborhoods and the different tastes of the people here, although there was certainly a bit of an acclimation period.
And how did you read that musical pulse - from the clubs? The callout? The phones?
All of that and then some. I tried to look at it from a big picture view. I still take that same view, only now we can add in the instantaneous x-factor of social media, with which you can feel the immediacy. For a music fanatic like me that is amazing. There are all sorts of tools now at our disposal including Shazam, Twitter, Mscores as well as the more traditional avenues like callout, requests, good old-fashioned networking, etc.
Is turning on your listeners to new music more important to the station now as a Mainstream Top 40 than it was when B96 was a Rhythmic station?
We've always been able to take chances and be aggressive on certain styles of music; it's just as satisfying to see those records break through now as it was back when we were a Rhythmic station, and I suppose in some ways we were arguably even more aggressive in those days. When I moved to Chicago, B96 was a Rhythmic station that leaned dance; then we became more of a true Rhythmic station with less dance music (as always, the available product and the hit potential of that product plus the changing listeners taste dictated this 'shift'.) A few years ago as it seemed hip-hop was jumping the proverbial shark, we made the decision to evolve more towards the middle as a Mainstream Top 40 station (this was further cemented with the advent of PPM.) Through it all, we've always had the ability to be aggressive on the right songs and also to be slightly more conservative on styles of music that are just outside of our center.
Were you ever surprised when certain unproven or fringe records became big hits?
In the '90s, we were always able to spice up our rotation with titles that were quite left of B96's center: Alanis, Hootie, Lonestar, Aerosmith ... songs that you'd rarely hear on Rhythmic Top 40 stations back in the day. We maintained the ability to play those songs when they reached critical mass. So I wouldn't say that they ever surprised us. Being able to use those songs is one of the many ways that we allowed ourselves the opening to eventually evolve as a mainstream pop radio station ... we have that history and the heritage in Chicago.
Was the transition from dance/pop to Rhythmic to Mainstream Top 40 smooth or was it more abrupt?
It was definitely slow in development; it wasn't like we just "became" a Mainstream Top 40 station overnight. It took time, strategy and patience. A lot of it was dictated by the product we had to choose from. When hip-hop dried up, almost all of the hits were pop, and if we wanted to play hit music, we had to continue to move that way or risk a fate none of us wanted. You just couldn't sit there and say, "We can't play these songs because they don't fit our sound." We needed to be flexible and these days we're flexible enough to play anything that is or can be a hit.
One would think that sometime during your 20 years as a respected MD at a heritage successful station, other stations would have approached you with a PD opportunity. Have they ... and if so, why have you turned them down?
I was always raised to appreciate what you have. I value stability and like longevity. I know how good things are here at B96; the grass is not always greener somewhere else. I sincerely believe this is one of the best radio jobs in the entire country -- especially for a person who's addicted to music, who doesn't have to be on the air and can just be a programmer. Why would I take a chance by chasing another radio job where I might not be as happy or in as good a situation as I am now? My next move, whatever it ultimately is will have to make me just as happy, content and fulfilled as I currently am; otherwise, what's the point? I'm so fortunate that the station I've been working with these last 20 years has been such a strong success and has helped mold me into the man I am today.
One thing you have done on the side is manage bands. Do you enjoy it?
I love it! It's been fun to be able to keep my toe in that water. I believe that could be my next move, so who knows what the future holds. I just put my faith and trust that whenever that day comes, it will be my time to make that move, spread my wings and move to the next chapter. Until then, I count my blessings regularly and am ever so thankful to have been an integral part of B96 with Todd as long as I have. It blows my mind that 20 years have flown by; it's so hard to believe.
Before you had a chance to hire Erik, you were first promoted to B96 PD. How did you get that job?
I started programming B96 in July 1993 ... and I didn't even get a fruit basket. I was APD/MD/middays when PD Dave Shakes took a job at KMEL in San Francisco. I had a meeting with my GM at the time on the front porch of my house. He came out to the house and we negotiated a deal that night over a beer.
Was Erik your first hire in radio?
I'd been APD before at KTRS/Casper, WY and I hired staff there. And I was APD under Mark Bolke in Denver, where I found Dom Testa as my replacement when I went into the record business. I will say Erik turned out to be the most important hire of my career. He's somebody who keeps me organized when I have to program multiple stations. You need a person who can be there when you're not available and who knows how you'd answer any question.
How did you come to choose Erik in the first place?
First, I asked record people who the up-and-comers and future superstars in radio were, and Erik's name came up a lot. I also remember when I was working for Elektra, they gave me a list of the very tough stations - one of them was WCKZ/Charlotte. While I was there, an intern named Erik Bradley popped in to talk to me about Anita Baker, who I was working at the time. It was the first time I met him; I had no idea he'd eventually work with me; he just seemed to be on top of the music and very accessible.
The other occasion I met him was before a Bulls game here in Chicago. Erik came in for a label dinner and afterwards a bunch of us went to the game. I was sitting across from him at the dinner table when I mentioned I had to go back to the station because I hadn't finished the next day's music log. He asked to come with me because he'd love to watch me and help with the log. I said no, because one day he may end up programming against me -- and he'd see all my secrets. But he was so aggressive; he wanted to learn and see what other people were doing.
Later on, when I was promoted and the B96 MD job became available, the first guy to send me a FedEx package was Erik. It had his music logs, categories, recommendation letters and philosophy on music and programming. I went through a lot of other packages, but his stood out and I ultimately hired him. Something told me he'd be the Michael Jordan of MDs. Thank God I drafted him.
Could you tell from talking with him on those occasions that you could work with him?
I don't know if we had that kind of dialogue. Again, we only really started to get acquainted when the job was officially open and I interviewed him. But once we started working together, we became friends. Today, I consider him one as of my best friends. Sure, he has his interests and his beliefs, and I have mine; and we don't always agree on everything, but even then we find a way to work together. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, and we happen to counter each other well. It really makes the job easier when you know what each other's thinking. I also hate doing music by myself, which I do when he's on vacation. It's so much more fun to do music meetings together.
When dealing with the labels, who's the good cop and who's the bad cop?
Erik's the good cop all the way. Everyone hates me. Look, I was an MD once. I know how much fun it is to have the power to deal with the labels and the artists' managers. I'm stuck doing things like working with HR and doing budgets. My day is consumed with jock contracts and trade deals. Erik gets the fun part of the job.
I do give him the authority to make decisions, but we don't make a big decision without the other one knowing about it. That's one reason why we work well together. Although he doesn't have the official title, I consider Erik to be the PD for B96 while I program other stations in the cluster.
From your perspective, how has B96 evolved from a Dance station to a Mainstream Top 40?
We started as a Dance station, and then began to lean more Rhythmic before we went more towards the dark side of hip-hop music. Back then there was a strong dividing line between rock/pop and Rhythmic/hip-hop. Over the last decade, however, the audience tastes changed. Today, people don't want only one kind of music; they like a lot of hits and a lot of variety, and we have to choose accordingly.
As programmers, for a while we were living in a box, saying, "This song doesn't fit our idea of what we are." But we've since knocked down those walls by saying, "Just play the biggest songs to reach the biggest available audience. Let's be competitive and not give up any of our audience to others."
It's an evolution. We used to consider ourselves to be the center of the universe and having everyone revolve around us. When we were a niche station, we'd get into trouble combining music styles. But the changing market around us forced us to shift. We said, "Look, if we want to remain the dominant station we've been all these years, we have to become a Mainstream Top 40."
During your tenure at B96, you had to make the decision on letting go of a heritage morning show in Eddie & Jobo, for a new one. How do you know when to do that and what's the best way to make that transition successful?
A lot of wine, perhaps? It is a tough decision because you've got this big well-known brand that has been so successful for all these years, but then again, what makes someone decide to wear Puma or Adidas after wearing Nike for a number of years? People's tastes change and new brands come along.
In this instance we knew it was time to make the move. We paired J Niice (our midday jock) with Julian On The Radio (our night jock), two total opposites who we felt had the potential to work well together as a team along with Entertainment Reporter Showbiz Shelly. To help lead J, Julian and Shelly, we added Steve Reynolds, a talent coach and collectively came up with a focused game plan - to have a young, multi-cultural morning show with strong benchmarks while playing more music (further differentiating us from our competitors).
The brand was built over time and it worked. That show has evolved to The J Show featuring J Niice, Showbiz Shelly (who has taken on more of a traditional sidekick role), producer Gabe Ramirez (who went from an intern to a shining star, we wanted to get him more involved) and Mary Sandberg, a top-notch producer with lots of Chicago radio experience. Now our morning show has the potential to grow and evolve for the next 10 years.
You mentioned having patience to let a new morning show succeed. But isn't that increasingly difficult to do on a corporate radio station in the PPM era?
You must exercise patience. We have an 18-month plan internally here, which comes from the top, and was supported by everyone at the executive level. That patience has paid off as The J Show now is one of the top-rated morning shows in Chicago.
Why were you so confident that the show would break?
I saw the camaraderie building internally on the show, and I heard it through the speakers. I felt it was only a matter of time before the audience "got" them, so I just knew we were close. And one month later, their ratings shot up and eventually they ended up at #1. But I had to have the support of a company that believes in its programmers like CBS Radio does in order to succeed.
You know this business. A successful MD, sooner or later, will get an offer to be a PD somewhere. How have you dealt with that possibility?
It has crossed my mind. The way I see it is that there are two kinds of people out there. One is constantly looking for the next gig, not necessarily for more money, but just to move along. The other person is compensated well and appreciates that he or she has been given authority to make decisions and be part of the process. I think Erik is the latter and is quite happy here. Of course, everyone wants to have the title of PD, but we've offered Erik a great opportunity to thrive here -- and we've given him PD power in many cases.
Even so, there's the chance that eventually either he or I will leave. He'll either move up or he'll move on, so I have to keep my eyes and ears open. I truly hope I don't have to make that kind of decision. I hope I retire before that ever happens, because Erik has made my life easy.
At the risk of sounding like a marriage counselor, what are the keys to maintaining a good working and personal relationship for 20 years and counting?
It is like a marriage. Maybe you don't fight in the same way, but sometimes disagreements can be healthy - just as long as you don't have too many of them. One time, I walked by his office and he looked upset, and I asked if he was okay or if he was mad at me. It turns out the Atlanta Braves lost a game, so I was off the hook there.
For the most part, the key is just having an understanding and a respect for each other. Erik brings a lot to the table in one area; I bring a lot in another, so it's kind of easy for us to work well together. Not only do I feel I have the best Music Director in the country, I have my best friend working with me. Now that would be hard to replace.
Every day, no matter where I go, everybody I meet says something positive about him. I've never heard a bad thing about Erik. He's a great guy and a true gentleman. When you have someone like that by your side, you sure as hell don't disrupt it or terrorize it. He's earned my respect - and that's what it comes down to ... respect.
So what about your future? Do you have any specific goals or challenges you'd like to accomplish?
I like where I live. I've got a young family with a four and a two-year-old, so I'm very content and happy with where I am today. Who knows what the future holds? There's still a lot of work to do to keep this station alive and winning, and as long as we continue to win, and there are people who give you the support to win, there's nowhere else I want to go. I'm really happy here.
I can't really say if or where that next job is; I honestly haven't thought about it. There will always be opportunities, whether it is going back to the label side or something completely different. But Chicago is my home. It's the greatest place I've ever lived, and I still enjoy coming to work every day, so I have no complaints.