10 Questions with ... JR Ammons
December 8, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started my radio journey at KKYK in Little Rock in the late '80s. Got my first MD job in Charlotte in 91, and spent 11 awesome years in Atlanta at Star 94 from '95-'06. My first PD job was with CBS at Mix in Kansas City, then I programmed WAPE with Cox, back to Star in Atlanta and just celebrated my five-year anniversary here in Indy at ZPL.
1) Congratulations on leading ZPL to the top of a competitive market. What have been the key factors leading to that success?
Once you surround yourself with the right people, it's just about execution. ZPL is a big brand in Indy - been around for 30 years doing some variation of contemporary music. Once we made the commitment to return to Top 40 a couple of years ago, it's been steadily growing to this point. I personally think, top-to-bottom, we've got one of the most talented staffs in the country (all under iron-clad contracts, by the way). Incredibly creative, driven people. I'm really happy to take credit for their work.
2) Give us an air staff rundown. What positives to they bring to the table?
If I get started talking about our people, I may never stop. I'm genuinely a huge fan of these folks. As it does with most stations, everything begins with the morning show. For us, that's the Smiley Morning Show: Dave, Nikki, Toni and Producer Will. They are collectively some of the most innovative people I've ever been around, led by, easily one of the top-three or four morning guys in the country. Dave is so good it's annoying. But, if you were to spend a few minutes with Dave, he probably would come across as a guy with no plan. I'm being serious. But dig a little deeper and you'd find a guy who has a very specific vision for his show and someone who has carefully crafted a persona. He never stops. It's a show seven days a week, 24 hours a day whether he's on the air or not. It's almost impossible to have a staff meeting. Everything is fodder for the show.
Next is Nikki: I take 100% credit for Nikki Reed. She was the first person I hired when came to Indy. She did afternoon drive on ZPL for four years and was extremely successful in that role, but you could always feel that she had more to offer. She's a really funny, opinionated, passionate person. She joined the Smiley Show earlier this year and hasn't missed a beat.
Producer Will is one of the smartest, funniest and most talented people, not only in this building, but in this industry. He's a comedy writer, a musician, an actor -- I don't think there's anything he can't do. His bad ideas are better than mine nine times out of ten. Then there's Toni. Toni has been in the building something like 15 years. First as a Promotions Director and now as a member of the Smiley Morning Show (she still looks 12, by the way). When we put her with Smiley, I told Dave that she was not to be on the air; she was there to help facilitate promotions and "produce" the show. That lasted about 38 minutes into the first day and now, three years later, she's a huge part of the show and listeners love her. Toni's one of our most-requested endorsers, and her five-year-old son, Lucas, is absolutely hilarious as the show's official Weather Man (there's always a "slight chance of poop" every day -- gotta love a five-year-old's humor).
The ultra-talented Leigh McNabb, PD of The Point in Kansas City, does middays for us and Nathan from Kiss in Milwaukee does nights for us. Nathan works with Brian Kelly, which means he'll be a PD by next Friday. And finally, there's Chase Daniels, whom I've worked with for the past eight years in Jacksonville, Atlanta and now in Indy. Along with programming WNTR, he does PM drive on ZPL. Chase and I work really well with each other 'cause we balance each other so well. Where I might be considered a little less than a "detail guy," Chase is just that. Along with the details, he brings a great heart, a great work ethic, and a great ear for radio. Now that he's a big-time PD, I probably won't be able to convince him to work with me again, but I'll take what I can get for the time being.
I also need to mention our awesome swing staff: Jason Richardson just celebrated 14 great years on the air at ZPL; a total stud, Joe Rosati from Energy in San Diego and our utility guy here in Indy is Taylor Scott, who has the best attitude you've ever seen. He does everything that is asked of him and always has a great attitude. He has a really bright future in radio.
3) Top 40 has been blessed with a strong crop of music for the last several years. Would you agree?
Absolutely. As long as Taylor Swift keeps making records, Top 40 will continue to flourish. In fact, some of the strongest songs I've ever seen in call-out have all happened just recently: "Blank Space," "Uptown Funk" and now "Hello." All massive. It's a great time to be a Top 40 programmer with Bieber, Demi, Selena, Tori, Adele ... the future looks extremely bright.
4) What are some of the best promotions that you've been involved with recently?
I'd probably have to mention some of the things our morning show has done recently: "Sep-Tinder" for the month of September. It was a bracketed dating tournament to find co-host Nikki a date. Very Bachelor-like. Lots of great content for the morning show and it almost blew up our social media. This was a very cool twist on a very universal subject.
They also do a singles event on Valentine's Day called The Wheel of Men, where we have a giant merry-go-round type wheel, loaded with eligible men, that women line up to spin. Whatever guy it lands on has a 10-minute speed date with the woman who spun the wheel. It's just a great visual to see 10 guys on a big wheel being spun ... being treated like a piece of meat. Very dehumanizing. I love it.
5) How would you describe your first radio gig?
My first paying job in radio was running the board for St. Louis Cardinal baseball games for a little AM in Arkansas. I got to do a live legal ID every hour. "You're listening to the voice and choice of Central Arkansas for more than 50 years, AM 1230 KCON Conway - home of St. Louis Cardinal baseball." I could time that out perfectly so it sounded like Jack Buck and I were in the same room. Hot.
6) What makes your station unique? How would you compare it to other stations you've worked at?
I think what makes ZPL unique compared with other places I've worked is simply the culture within Entercom. Local managers are given the tools and the decision making ability that allows us to create an environment that gets the most out of our people. The company that owns us is a big reason we've been able to do what we're doing. Because of this environment, a lot of people contribute to the product. I really hope that everyone in this building feels they've contributed to the success we're having, because I certainly feel that way.
I think everybody who has ever taken a programming job, takes it with the intent of building something special. Everybody wants what Tom and Sharon and Cubby created at Z100; what Dave Robbins and now Michael McCoy have done at WNCI; what Patrick Davis at Kiss in Dallas has done. Those guys haven't just simply won, they've created something that has endured. That's my goal here too. I want, years from now, everyone who passes through these hallways to know they were a part of something BIG. And Entercom has given me that opportunity to do that.
7) Who handles your imaging, and what voices are you using?
Steve Dubbs (CESD) is our voice guy and he also handles ZPL's imaging. He's been with us coming up on a year now and has really added an extra dimension of personality to the station. He's easily one of the best in the business.
8) Who were your mentors? Who would you say has influenced your career the most?
There are a lot of people who come to mind instantly -- Don Benson, Herndon Hasty, David Isreal, Mark Kanov, Bill Hendrick. I learned a lot from those guys ... all different, but at the same time, all great leaders. I'd have to say at the top of the list is Dan Bowen, my boss at Star 94 in Atlanta. Dan is a really smart, strategic, collaborative, humble programmer and an outstanding communicator. He made everyone feel like their opinion mattered and he honestly never took enough credit for all the success we had there. Most of what I am as a PD today came from watching and learning from Dan. He's still a great friend and even though we haven't worked together in about 10 years now, we can still kill hours with radio talk.
9) What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Talent wins. If you don't surround yourself with people more talented than you are, you haven't got a chance. Very few people can fake their way to success. It's true in sales, it's true in football and it's true in Top 40 radio. Talented, positive people win.
10) What advice you would give people new to the business?
The best advice I could give someone getting into programming would be to rid yourself of needing to be "right." Needing to be "right" is what gets people fired. Just because you're the PD doesn't mean you have to be the smartest person in the room. There are a million different ways to get to the same place in radio and most of them are unique to a specific situation. There are a lot of young, talented, smart people in our business who have opinions that should be heard. Looking back on a couple of situations in my career, I wish I could have a do-over. I would have been more open-minded and not so locked in my way to do things. More times than not, winning is a collaborative effort in this business. Very few people have long term success as dictators. Young JR would have appreciated that advice.
What was your last non-industry job?
I got fired from WFMF in Baton Rouge about 20 years ago and I was a construction worker for about two weeks. Talk about putting things in perspective. From that period of my life until now, I really try to be appreciative of the opportunities I've been given in this business and think often about how fortunate I am to do what I love.