June 7, 2016
Steve Wexler has spent his adult life - and a good part of his youth - in radio. Yet as his on-air dreams turned into a radio business reality, Wexler has remained committed to the basic fundamentals of good radio - starting with strong, local engagement. He continues to do it now at Scripps, much like he did at Journal before Scripps acquired it. Here, Wexler describes the keys to success for a broadcaster based in America's heartland.
You've spent upwards of 40 years in radio. How has your view of the business evolved since the time you started?
It's funny, in many ways the business has evolved a lot. But in some ways, it's the same.
I have loved radio ever since I created my own "radio station" in my bedroom when I was 14 years old. My last name looked like call letters, so I named it WEXL, "We Excel In Music" and would change formats based on what records my older brothers owned. Later, I would ride my bike to WTMJ, but of course back then I didn't fully appreciate the scope of the business or the industry, all the moving parts. I was just a kid who thought radio was cool. So now I'm a radio group head who still thinks radio is cool ... if we pay attention to what made us relevant in the first place. Of course the technology has changed dramatically since those days, but in an interesting way. I still flash back to the early days; the things that attracted me to radio when I was a teenager is what still works today -- local engagement, the ability to influence, inform and inspire. That hasn't changed, but how we do it and how we deliver it has obviously changed a lot.
How did the corporate and programmatic culture change when Scripps acquired Journal?
We were very fortunate in that at Journal, we came from a culture that emphasized being meaningful in our local markets, creating and sustaining brands that are connected to local audiences and advertisers. Scripps believes in those same things. Both companies are rooted in journalism and have 100-year histories as media companies. While the words that Scripps uses and Journal used may be different, the basic tenants of our culture around integrity, local engagement, and doing well by doing good are quite similar. Former Journal folks, including me, are enjoying our new company, and we're very proud to call Scripps our new home.
As you noted, Scripps is a strong believer in "live and local." How do you grow local talent? Do you voicetrack or use syndicated talent and how do you integrate them?
For sure, we are big believers in localism. We put an emphasis on local talent, news and sports. In addition to our Milwaukee flagship (WTMJ), in our Wichita, Kansas and Springfield, Missouri clusters we operate full-time radio newsrooms. That enables us to have the first point of contact when severe weather impacts our listeners. In Milwaukee, we are the flagship station for the Milwaukee Brewers, Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks and operate statewide networks for those teams. Being local isn't necessarily about geography; it's about being relevant to our listeners and our advertisers. We strive to be the local experts wherever we operate.
Throughout our company, we work hard to coach and develop on-air talent wherever we find them. We make a concerted effort to recruit and coach them, and we hope they will thrive in our company. We've even gotten more creative in where we look. In Springfield, MO, our new co-host on our Top 40 morning show came out of the sales department. She told us she realized her passion was in the studio, not in sales, so we sat down and took her through the process to become an on-air personality, and she's doing a terrific job. We're trying to make sure we find talent wherever they may be - and to do that we can't just look in the usual places. Interesting talent could be anywhere!
What's your overview of the current radio environment -- good, bad ... something in between?
It has been well chronicled that the industry is facing significant, fundamental challenges, and we aren't immune to them, as we don't operate in a vacuum. The big issues facing us, in big and small markets alike, is radio usage and new competition for advertising dollars. But time and time again, we've seen that local solutions to local advertisers' needs create real value. So that's where we spend our time and energy.
Competition: Is it the stations "across the street," or more and more, Net radio, satellite radio and streaming entities? How do compete against them?
Competition is anything that competes for part of our audience's media usage, be it audio or video. But I don't spend a whole lot of time losing sleep over the next great technology. I'd rather we figure out how to be a part of it, so we figure out how to work with new platforms and expand our brands. If we are serious about being a local broadcaster, the relevance has less to do with our competition and more to do with our own mindset, our own willingness to think differently, take risks, and not be afraid to fail. Radio has had competition since Marconi fired up the first tube; that's the reason our eulogy has been recited over and over again. We will continue to evolve and grow. We realize that we have to reinvent ourselves every day, and we're spending more and more of our time tackling that challenge.
What's your opinion of NextRadio ... and how does smartphone listening change the way Scripps does "radio?"
We're big supporters of it. We think what Jeff Smulyan has done is a great thing for the industry. Our stations have been involved in the TagStation product, and we'll continue to be a part of it.
Milwaukee is a PPM market. Are you satisfied with the PPMs, and do you consider Voltair a viable supplement to it?
I have no comment on Voltair, but whether our stations are in a PPM market or a diary market, we try to take a longer view of market trends. It's very dangerous to react too quickly to monthly numbers in the case of PPM, or even one quarter in a diary market. In two of our markets, we only get two reports over an entire year. So we obviously utilize the data, but we try to be smart and strategic about it. At the end of the day, our programming decisions will be based on our mission, which is to succeed locally, and if local advertisers are happy with our solutions and they respond to the things we do, that's as important to me as any spreadsheet I might get from Nielsen. I see both the flaws and also some of the positive elements of the ratings products. I think, over the years, we'll all be a little more strategic and less reactionary to ratings.
For your diary stations, you feel Nielsen is doing enough to improve that product?
I wouldn't say I'm happy with everything by any stretch, but I do think the industry and Nielsen have had very productive conversations about it, and we look forward to them improving the total listening and digital listening data. Just capturing wherever listening is taking place is a positive development. We all know there are certain flaws inherent in every methodology. Nielsen knows what they are as well, and as long as they continue to work diligently, they'll inevitably create a better system for everybody.
How much emphasis is Scripps putting into digital? Is it an adjunct platform for radio, or do you treat it as a separate entity?
Interesting question, especially for company like ours. Scripps is a digital, TV and radio company. Digital is its own division, but works collaboratively with our radio and TV divisions as well. We have a very robust digital business; last year, we announced the purchase of Midroll, an industry leader in podcasting. This spring, we purchased Cracked, a comedy/satire digital platform. So optimizing digital is very important to all of us. We're going to go where the users are going. In radio, we'll be working to find new ways to integrate the new digital products so we can help each other grow.
Our view is we use digital to strengthen ourselves. We're trying to be famous for localism in every one of our markets; that's the battle cry for the radio division. How we utilize these incredible new tools to extend and expand that localism goal is key. In Milwaukee, WTMJ's Charlie Sykes is our marquee talk host; he has his own website, Right Wisconsin. So we don't see digital as a distraction or contrary to the core platforms we have. They enhance what we do and ultimately will strengthen our hand.
Finally, what is Scripps' outlook for future in terms of growth of the company?
You'd have to ask our Chairman about where our future lies in terms of company size and growth, but from where I sit, Scripps Radio is very focused on localism. We believe in it and more importantly, we back it up. We try to live it every day and be the best we can be. We want to be more creative in how we approach the things we do. We believe there will always be a place for local brands that actually mean something to local audiences and advertisers. The biggest fear I have is that we lose sight of the enormous power and opportunity of what it truly means to be a local broadcaster, and we risk becoming a generic commodity. That type of game plan does not resonate with us.