Dave "Chachi" Denes
October 13, 2015
"Too many people give up too soon; the really successful people - the ones who build great companies - are incredibly persistent," Dave "Chachi" Denes said. "They keep on going and they don't let a bankruptcy or a personal failure stop them. They just dust themselves off and work harder." Dene ought to know; on Inauguration Day, 2009, he was a casualty of a corporate radio downsizing. Down but not out, Denes dusted himself off and with the help of a few friends, launched Benztown Branding and built it into one of the industry's leading sources of radio services such as syndicated programming, imaging, voiceovers and even jingles. Here's how he surveys the radio environment and Benztown's place in it.
After spending years in radio in Southern California, what made you decide to join Benztown?
It was out of necessity. I was PD at KBIG when on Inauguration Day 2009, there were mass layoffs at Clear Channel, and I was part of them -- which turned out to be fortuitous. We started the company on the international side when I met my Stuttgart-based partners, Andy Sanneman and Oli Klenk, through my friend and mentor, Tracy Johnson. We initially started with just four imaging libraries. When I was "invited to leave" Clear Channel, it gave me the opportunity to go full force into Benztown, and Benztown USA was born.
What insight from your radio days did you bring to Benztown in terms of its products/services?
After programming for so many years, I knew what programmers needed from both a creative and a cost-efficient standpoint. As you know, over the last few years, there has been a lot of pressure on expenses and budgets throughout the industry. Our challenge was to create incredibly high-quality products at an affordable cost.
Benztown offers imaging, programming, jingles and voiceover. How do you prioritize your time and energy with the various divisions?
I'm fortunate to have partners like Andy and Oli and people like Lisa Dollinger, Masa Patterson, Justin Case, Chris Johansing and many other talented professionals on board; they're perfect examples of having a great team around me, which enables us to handle have over 1,900 station affiliates. As far as prioritizing my time, it's split between developing new business, marketing our products and brands, and growing and managing the business on the financial end. I've been lucky and purposely sought out people who are the best in their respective fields for the Benztown team, and we all complement each other well. I'm also acutely aware that many people on our team are much better than I am at many things. It's my job to let them shine and give them the tools they need. Peter Drucker said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." And I couldn't agree more. I think many leaders fall in to a trap of thinking they're the best at everything, which can lead to the demise of a company. Ultimately, my job is to be the conductor and let the talent play their instruments.
There are a lot of imaging services out there. What do you do to stand out, and how can a company like yours make itself unique?
Certainly we strive to be different. When I think about imaging, it's something that is ubiquitous. All stations need it and should have it, and the imaging has to enhance the brand. It literally can make or break the product. Some brands I'm naturally drawn to and have great respect for include Nordstrom, Disney and Louis Vuitton. Those companies have a lot of competitors in a crowded space, yet they are able to stand out by having a great product and providing great service. That focus on providing the very best products and incomparable service is in our DNA at Benztown.
An amazing brand transcends multiple generations and lifestyles. It comes down to a factor of creativity, service and product. If we're not creative in our own marketing, how can stations expect us to be creative for them? So not only are our products creative, captivating and distinctive -- our marketing reflects that, as well.
When doing imaging for a station, do you solely concentrate on the station's brand, or do you take into account the brands of competitors in the market?
It depends on the station's needs and how much they want us involved in the process. We look into a lot of different factors; it's not just one thing. It's also important to note that our service can be used in a myriad of different ways. Sometimes programmers have a very distinctive view of how they want their station to come off and they'll direct us accordingly. In that case, our job is to be a good listener and give them what they want.
In general, I would say not to be too caught up in what your competitors are doing. While you should always be aware in a race of who's in front of you and behind you, the most important thing to focus on is you and your performance. Most of the time, believe it or not, being first in is a disadvantage. Apple didn't invent the phone. Ford didn't invent the car. They just made their respective products better than their competitors. You have to run your own race and be the best that you can be.
What do you look for in voiceover talent? How do you tell if one person's voice has "it" and another may not?
VO is much like programming. I believe it's an art. There's a ton of critics out there and I'm not saying that you can't learn from them, because you can. I'm just saying don't take what they say as the gospel. Sometimes there's an "it" factor in a voiceover talent and you know right away, but that doesn't happen that often. Success usually comes down to taking a chance, going out on a limb and believing in someone who is passionate, who has a great attitude and is willing to work harder than most to succeed.
I think in this industry, we need to take more chances on people. Most of us can all recall someone who took a chance on us. I can name a few in my career: Tracy Johnson, Michael Steele, Dan Kieley, Roy Laughlin, Jhani Kaye, Michael Martin and Craig Rossi. No doubt I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. I'm a big fan of Howard Cogan (the voice of Jack), both personally and professionally. His sound is very different from the stereotypical radio VO talent. He came out of radio in Canada. Twenty years ago, before he became big, I'm guessing a lot people listened to his voice and went, "Nah, he has no 'it' factor." But he worked his ass off and the producers of a new format took a chance on him and it turned into a wild success! He has since expanded to TV (Modern Family on ABC and Grandfathered on FOX) and to commercials.
Do you actively scout for voiceover and imaging talent, or by this time do they come to you?
It's a little bit of both. Certainly we always want to find great talent and we're actively looking, but a growing number of voiceover talent is searching us out. We have about 150 voiceover personalities on our roster, and people want to work with us because we can help them with marketing and facilitate barter in exchange for their services. That didn't exist until Benztown came along; it wasn't something individual talent could do where, like a restaurant taking credit cards and not just cash, we could give them an alternative means to pay for their services. That's been a huge benefit and differentiator.
Jingles - how important are they in today's radio?
Some programmers love them and think they're great; they couldn't envision their radio stations without them. Other programmers don't want anything to do with them. Jingles are more polarizing than ever before. Six to eight years ago, you rarely heard jingles on the air. There has been a renaissance of sorts, but it's not what it used to be.
I personally really like jingles and the narrative behind them. In the days when most people couldn't write or read very well, stories were told through song. When you sing something like the ABC's, it makes them more memorable and more ingrained in your mind. Jingles were and can still be a valuable tool. The McDonalds' "I'm loving it" jingle is one of the most successful jingles currently on the air, and it was written by Justin Timberlake. Creating a jingle that people can recite in their head can be important for the brand of a lot of successful stations.
Benztown faces a lot of competition with voicetracking and syndicated programming. How do you see Benztown programming stack up against the Premieres and Westwood Ones of the world?
We are very proud of the programming we have -- Sunday Night Slow Jams, Hot Mix, Todd 'N' Tyler, Vipology, Dawson McAllister LIVE, and the others we work with are great products and services. As a programming analogy, I look at how Netflix came around in the content business. They used to send DVDs in the mail, but they eventually decided to spend some of their resources on creating original content. Now they've become a big force to reckon with in Hollywood - and other companies are moving into that space, such as Amazon and Spotify. We may not be one of the bigger players in content programming, but the quality of our content is first class and measures up against anyone. It's also important to note that we're partners with Westwood One and Compass Media, so I don't view them as competitors.
What do you look for in prospective syndicated talent?
I ask a few things. First and foremost I want to understand the talent's attitude. Fortunately, we've been doing this long enough that we can be selective with whom we work. Assuming they pass the attitude muster, I always look for unique talent willing to do what it takes to stand out and create a great product. When Elon Musk created the Tesla, there was no hole for a high-end electric car, but his car was so good that he created a demand for it. If your content is high quality enough, you can create a demand because people always want something new if it's unique and compelling. It always comes back to the quality of the product. Disney would not be such a great brand if it didn't consistently provide a high-quality product.
Just as important is the talent's passion and dedication to their product. Too many people give up too soon; the really successful people - the ones who build great companies - are incredibly persistent. They keep on going and they don't let a bankruptcy or a personal failure stop them. They just dust themselves off and work harder.
What's your take on podcasting?
Obviously, over the last year since Serial came out, there has been another renaissance, but the medium, per se, has been around since 2005. With the recent acquisition of Midroll by Scripps and Hubbard's investing $10 million into Podcast One, it's all the buzz. I do believe in the format and applaud the risk they're taking. According to Ad Age, just $35 million was spent on
podcasting advertising last year. I'm sure this year it will be up significantly, but the overall numbers will still be minuscule compared to radio. There are also measurement issues to contend with, but all and all, I'm bullish on the format.
In terms of success, it's going to come down to the quality of the podcasts out there. Only about 5% of them are generating any revenue. Interestingly enough, those 5% sound a lot like great radio shows. I'm not sure if those numbers are exact, but I believe there are upwards of 300,000 podcasters right now - and most of them aren't that good or successful for multiple reasons, including lack of experience, equipment, production skills, etc. On the surface, to an amateur podcasting seems easy. However, as radio people, we know that's far from the truth. It takes a lot of work to produce a great show and about one-third of them give up after doing a handful of shows. I believe the cream will rise to the top and we will eventually find more podcasts with the quality of Serial, Adam Corolla, Marc Maron, etc., while a lot of them will fail, just like a lot of stations fail. The persistent ones will dust themselves off and try again.
As far as our strategy goes, I can't go into a lot detail, but there definitely will be some podcasting in our future on a couple different levels. We'll have more to share on that in the coming weeks.
What's your view on radio and its future in this growingly digital, multi-platform world?
I love radio, as I imagine you do. I'm a huge fan and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to work in this medium for as long as I have. We certainly have challenges, but I don't think we need to be fearful of and not embrace digital and other platforms. We've all heard the tales about how VHS would kill movie theaters and how FM would kill AM, and lo and behold, none of that has happened. I certainly believe that the new technology and platforms, such as Spotify, Rdio and Pandora will make us all better, by prompting us to create better programming, much like Netflix is causing traditional networks to raise their game.
We're also excited about a lot of new radio brands. Jeff Smulyan has done a great job with NextRadio. And I'm bullish on the NASH brand. I have to hand it to iHeart for capitalizing on the success of their talent powerhouses like Ryan Seacrest and Elvis Duran, as has CBS with Carson Daly. We need more household names to come out of radio and to capitalize on all forms of radio. I'm very proud to be a part of it.
Finally, what about Benztown's future? How and where do you see yourself growing?
Our future will always be heavily focused on radio because we love it. At the same time, we've got to always look at new areas to grow our business. Certainly over the last couple of years, we're getting more into the digital space. We have content and imaging partnerships with Rdio and Dash. We also do work for Spotify and Pandora. Podcast One is a customer and we plan to grow more in that space. We want to be everywhere there's an audio product and we want to be an integral part of it sounding distinctive and compelling. Disney started as an animation studio, then created synergies that got them into TV, film, theme parks and merchandising that continue to feed off each other. Ultimately, it would be better for consumers if we work with our partners in that way, so at the end of the day, everyone wins.