We are ready for Jeff Smullin, who owned a radio station in New York City. If I have this correct, he bought what was then WHN in New York and flipped it to all sports. And Jeff Smullin is the author of Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down. That is sage advice.
The ups, downs, and reinvention of an entrepreneur. Do I have that correct, Mr. Smullin, that you bought WHN and turned it into an all-sports radio station? Mr. Gold, you are absolutely correct.
That is exactly right. I grew up in that area and WHN was at that point the flagship station of the Mets. Look, I used to listen to Art Rust Jr. doing sports talk. I listened to Pete Franklin when I was a kid.
So thank you very much for your time. It isn't often you talk to somebody who hired Don Imus, Howard Stern, David Letterman, Mike and the Mad Dog. Mike Francesca and Chris Russo.
Which of those hirings was the most challenging for you? Well, Imus was always a curmudgeon. I loved Don. But Don, you never knew what you got with Don. You know, with David, David and I are the exact same age. We're six days apart and we were both starting our careers. He was a weekend weatherman and we brought him into the first station. You know, incredible amount of fun in those days.
We were kids. You know, every step of the way, all the people we worked with have been great. A lot of fun.
Jeff Smullion is joining us here on the Adam Gold Show. There are risks involved. If you're an entrepreneur, you are a risk taker by nature. There are risks taken when you hire people. So what I'm curious about is like the hiring of Don Imus, the risk is minimal because he was already a made star at WNBC in New York.
Howard Stern was already a known commodity. Letterman obviously was a risk. But when you hire Chris Russo or Mike Francesca, who were not stars, what is the risk and what were you worried about maybe at that time? Or was there risk?
Well, I think there's always a risk with anybody. Well, we brought Don in. We bought the NBC stations and we inherited the 660 frequency where we moved in. And I'll never forget that the first year of WFAN was a disaster.
I have a chapter in the book. I have a favorite saying, Adam, the line between being a genius and an idiot is very fun. I've been on both sides. And one chapter was idiot to genius, which is WFAN, because we put it on the air. Nobody liked it.
Everybody thought it was a stupid idea. And after a year when we bought the NBC stations, we were thinking of putting Don on the station. And I remember meeting with his agent saying, we have a radio station losing record amounts of money. We have a New York Mets baseball team that has the world record in drug problems. And we have Don Imus has been in and out of rehab four or five times in the last five years. What could possibly go wrong with this combination? But it all worked. So when it works, it's great.
And we've seen it on all sides. I used to listen to 66 when Supey Sales was on that radio station, Jeff Smulyan. So you're talking to somebody who's in his mid-50s, who grew up in that area, listening to Ted Brown at WNEW in New York.
So I understand all of the New York radio stuff. What attracted you to Russo? I've told the story the first time I ever listened to Chris Russo, he actually made me physically ill because of the style.
I was already sick. But what attracted you to a Russo or a Francesca? Well, Russo, remember, he started doing stuff on Imus's show. And I mean, he used to call Donald Duck on steroids. And I give Mark Mason as a program director credit.
We had Pete Franklin and did not work out. And so we needed something for the afternoons. And Francesca was brilliant. And Russo was incredibly talented and quirky and put them together. And it was magic. The thing just clicked. Sometimes the combination just works. And those are two guys who knew sports really, really well and played off of each other brilliantly.
Jeff Smulyan is joining us here. The book is called Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down, the ups, downs and reinvention of an entrepreneur. Real quick about the title. I mean, it's good advice, but why did you choose that? The book was written at the behest of my now college freshman daughter, a freshman at Georgetown.
I would drive her to school every day and we'd talk about life. I'm a big lesson guy. Here's what I learned here.
Here's what I learned there. And she said, Dad, you got to write these stories down. Nobody would ever believe these crazy stories. And I started writing. And when I thought about it, I thought the old saying about life, it's a roller coaster ride. And when you start out, you think everything's just this great lineup and everything is great, but your life is measured by your ups and downs. And some of the crazy things that happened to us were really a roller coaster ride that was upside down, which I don't recommend, but it made for some fun stories.
I don't know, man. Now, I think the last time I was on a roller coaster was at Epcot Center. And for part of it, you actually are upside down.
It was a pretty good, pretty good ride. Do you treat all talent? Well, just say talent because all employees essentially get treated the same way. But in terms of the talent and the artistry, do you treat them all the same or do you have to treat them differently? You have to understand everybody. And I think the thing I'm proudest of is the culture we've created in the company. We've been able to get along with all sorts of people. I have a favorite saying, Adam, I've never met anybody who walked into the office in the morning and said, how do I screw my job up? People care about doing a good job. It's our job as managers to give them the tools and tools are different for different people.
But I think if you treat people with respect and creating a culture that is welcoming and fun, it usually works out. Who was of these famous people that we've already discussed? And I know Letterman was at a different place in his career. So maybe we're just talking about the other four for this. Who was, who helped create the best atmosphere, the one that was the most conducive to success as an entire company? Well, I have to laugh. I'd probably go to baseball and Ken Griffey Jr. because I've never seen anybody who could electrify an entire stadium as much as Kenny.
I love Kenny. But they all were talented in their own ways. You know, they all worked well. You know, Imus was known as a legendary curmudgeon. But when Imus came on, Imus had a bet when he entered his show that said, it's 10 o'clock, this is the end of the day's entertainment programming. The rest of the day, for the next 20 hours, you were here, mindless drivel for moronic sports fans talking to moronic hosts.
So if you want to have actual entertainment, come back tomorrow at 6 a.m. And everybody loved it. And he was, you know, he cross promoted the other shows. And for a guy who everybody thought was impossible, he was a great team builder for that radio station. I remember the end of that show. Actually, one of the stations that, well, the station, I've been in Raleigh for 25 years, and the previous station, we used to run Imus, his show. So I remember hearing that at the end of a tremendous bet. If I'm not mistaken, he also used to do a live commercial for like a gasoline, but he would say this gas is only good to get you to a competing gas station. I think this like Exxon is only good to get you to a Sunoco station.
How does that play? Well, Don always made fun of advertisers and most advertisers loved it because it was, you know, I mean, listen, if you found an advertiser who didn't love it, it was very simple. They didn't advertise it in the show anymore. But Don was an American original, brilliant man. Jeff Smullion is joining us here. You own the Mariners. You made reference to Ken Griffey Jr. I don't know how responsible you are for Ken Griffey Sr. to play with Ken Griffey Jr., but you only own the Mariners for a short period of time.
Three years, yeah. I always said we could not, and I was very proud of putting Ken Jr. and Sr. together. And one of my favorite, I don't keep a lot of mementos, but one of my favorite mementos is they signed the lineup card the first night the father and son ever played together and they gave it to me. And I have a picture of my idol as a kid was Willie Mays. In spring training one day, Kenny and his dad and Willie and I were together and I've saved that. But I always kidded in baseball. My other chapter is genius to idiot my ownership of the Mariners because I was the boy wonder when I went out there and we just couldn't afford the losses. I said, you know, you needed to be a billionaire to own a baseball team in Seattle in that era and I wasn't. I said, you know, if you own the Yankees or the Dodgers and you had a paper route, you could fund the team. But it was a different time. Yeah, if you knew now or knew then what you know now about the business of professional sports, would you have done everything you could to figure out a way to stay in ownership? Yeah, only because if you read the book, there's a David Stern was wonderful to me and we got out of baseball. He was a fan about our team and he said in our group and he said, I need you to take over the Houston Rockets.
You put up whatever you want. I'll get you the money. Do it. And I turned him down because radio was in a downturn and I need to go back and fix my company. My friend Jerry Reinsor says that is a single stupidest decision in the history of American business.
I would say that, you know, that IBM giving away the software rights to Microsoft may have been number one, but my decision to turn down the rockets was certainly two or three. I mean, look, the franchise values keep going up and up and up and up. It's crazy. Yeah. Do you pay attention to the economic drivers or the mechanisms in sports?
Yeah. Let me ask you this. Do you think Major League Baseball needs a salary cap?
Well, sure. I mean, if you look at the economics and Adam, you know, the economic sports have been a hobby of mine long before I owned a team and long after I spent. I'm a trustee at USC, so I spent three and a half years figuring out what to do with SC and the Pac-12 and the Big 10. You know, the economics of baseball are challenged because you don't have a salary cap. The NFL is the best business model. It's a lot easier when you have the number one, when you have 90 of the top 100 TV shows in the United States, NFL games. So, yeah, you know, in the NFL, you know that you're going to get $425 million in television revenue before you sell a ticket. Right. And you got a $230 million salary cap.
This is a nice business. Baseball does not have those issues. It's not at that fortunate. Asset values have risen almost independent of the economic performance of all the leagues except the NFL, simply because, frankly, we've created so many billionaires that they've just been at prices to different levels. My pushback to whether or not baseball needs it is that why would it need it?
It has as much or more competitive balance than any of the other sports. More teams challenge for playoff spots, make the playoffs than we have in the other sports who have salary caps. So if it's not for competitive balance, then what's the reasoning behind it if it's not to keep more money in owner's pockets? Well, when you own something, whether you own a grocery store or baseball team, you always want to make more money.
Yeah, I agree. But I think historically, until they had revenue sharing and some form of modified cap, you did see a disparity in performance. You really had some teams that never won and some that didn't. On the other hand, how can you not look at Tampa Bay with the lowest revenue in baseball and the best performance and say you can overcome that? The challenge was, and always was, if you had a low revenue team, you had to have young players really perform before their prime because you can never keep them all together. That's always the challenge of the small market teams, even today with revenue sharing.
Oh, there's no question, but it does seem that young players are performing at an earlier age, so it helps that cause. And final thing, I could personally just talk to you forever. Just tell me why you decided that you wanted to write this book other than your daughter in driving her to Georgetown said, Dad, you got to tell these stories somewhere. Was there another motive for you to write the book?
A lot of crazy things happened in the radio business and TV and all the business we're in. And I just thought it would be fun to do it. I wrote it.
It was fun. I ended up with a wonderful editor who was just very helpful and an agent and a publisher. And I just thought, you know what? I'd almost written a few more books. A friend of mine said we got out of baseball. You got to write a book.
Nobody ever believed what you guys went through. And I did it, had an agent and then said, yeah, I said some things in there I'm not dying to say publicly, but this was fun. And it gave me a chance to really recreate the histories of the industries that I've been in and pay tribute to a lot of the people I've worked with. And it was a lot of fun. I think it's probably the most gratifying experience I've ever had because I get, you know, people every day say, boy, I laughed. I learned a lot. And so the book has been a very gratifying experience. All right.
Final thing. I know a lot. Did you ever? I'm having fun.
This is better than my day job. Did you ever turn on Imus or Howard Stern and go, why the heck did I do this? Well, I will tell you a funny story. I was, you know, I live in Indianapolis. I was in Seattle. I'll never forget one of my favorite moments.
We'd get favorite, famous people at the ballpark. And Paul Newman came with his agent one night and his agent was a fanatical Imus listener. And he said, I know more about your life. I was single for many years. And I was single in those days. And he said, Imus talks about who you date and your life. And he makes fun of you. And I was always at least a thousand or 3000 miles away. So I didn't know it. And when my friend Mel Carmisen bought the stations from us a few years later, he made this contract with Imus says, you can't talk about my personal life because I listen to what you did to Smullyan every day. And I don't want that to happen to me. So I, it never bothered me though.
I've had, I've had people make fun and none of that bothers me. Man, an absolute legend as you are, sir. I appreciate your time.
Jeff Smullyan, the book is called Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down, The Ups, Downs and Reinvention of the Entrepreneur, of an Entrepreneur. I appreciate your time, sir. Best of luck with this book. Again, as a kid, grew up listening to WHN when it became all sports, flipping, buying the signal 660 and being there. And it was, it's part of my life.
Part of the reason I do this. Thanks for coming up. Well, have fun down there. I would show my daughter's other choice was UNC. Fell in love with UNC. You remember, I don't know if you know Jim Lampley, but Jimmy used to work for us and he now teaches at UNC. Oh, I didn't realize he teaches down here. He's there and he was recruiting my daughter heavily, but she'd always wanted to go to Georgetown. And USC, my alma mater, I've been on the board forever, finished in third place. So you're a Big Ten legend now.
Well, we're, you know, everybody in Indiana says, well, you just wanted to be in the Big Ten so you could play in Bloomington and Lafayette. So, I don't know. It's all good. Thank you very much for the time, sir. Thanks, Adam. This is great. You got it. Jeff Smullion here on the Adam Gold Show. So I apologize for geeking out for however long that was. I mean, wow, what a history lesson for me.
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