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Where He Wants To Be

Jeff Smulyan, chairman, CEO and founder of Emmis Communications, has been fascinated with radio since he was a kid. And that enthusiasm is still apparent.

It's Smulyan's drive that has transformed his company from a single FM station in 1979 into a media power owning 25 radio stations and a stable of regional magazines. Along the way, Smulyan pioneered a number of radio formats: In 1986 in New York, he invented the all-sports radio format with the station now known as WFAN. He also collected 16 TV stations, but he is now in the process of leaving that business and has already sold 10 of the stations for over $700 million.

His pivotal and passionate role in broadcasting is why the Broadcasters' Foundation is giving Smulyan its prestigious Golden Mike Award Feb. 27 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

Smulyan often takes a leadership role in industry-wide initiatives. Just last month, he pushed the potential of HD multicasting as a way to revitalize the radio industry by introducing several multicast channels.

His company, which was named one of the best places to work by Fortune magazine in 2005, has won a number of awards for its community-service programs. Smulyan himself was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2004.

“Jeff is a broadcaster's broadcaster,” explains Federated Media President/CEO John F. Dille III. “He's the kind of guy who is in the broadcasting business because he loves it.”

Says Bruce Reese, president/CEO of Bonneville International Corp., “What makes Jeff most remarkable is his record of industry leadership. He is always trying to bring people together for the greater good. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes, I think he feels like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. But his tremendous optimism and his love of broadcasting keep him going.”

Smulyan, 58, caught the broadcast bug early in life, while listening to baseball games and rock stations as a kid in Indianapolis. “Being in radio was all I've ever wanted to do,” he says.

After studying telecommunications and history at the University of Southern California and working at ABC in the summers during law school, Smulyan planned to buy small radio stations in California with several friends. His father had a better plan: He coaxed Smulyan back to Indiana by investing in WNTS(FM) Indianapolis in 1973 and KCRO(FM) Omaha, Neb., in 1976, making Smulyan the general manager.

In 1979, Smulyan bought WSVL Shelbyville, Ind., believing that the FM music business was about to take off. In 1980, he incorporated Emmis Broadcasting (now Emmis Communications), taking the company's name from the Hebrew word for “truth.”

It took two years to build a tower in Indianapolis to expand the station's reach and relaunch WSVL as WENS. Emmis grew quickly from there. The company acquired radio stations in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston during the 1980s. Smulyan also pushed into publishing, becoming the owner of dominant regional-magazine titles, such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Texas Monthly. From 1988 to '92, Smulyan and friends owned Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners.

When he got into television, Smulyan tried without success to persuade broadcast-station groups to form an alliance in which they could use their digital spectrum to create a wireless pay local-TV platform offering consumers 25-30 channels.

“Everyone knew that broadcasters needed a second revenue stream,” he says, “but I couldn't get the networks to work together.” So in May, he gave up on the business, putting Emmis' 16-TV-station group on the block.

Emmis' remaining six stations, particularly WVUE in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, have taken longer than expected to sell, but Smulyan expects to announce deals relatively soon, bringing the total proceeds to about $1.25 billion.

He'll plow a lot of that back into paying off debt—and buying more radio stations. He predicts that new technologies will open up a new age of radio programming, offering listeners more choice and much-improved sound. He thinks that, after some lean years, radio is poised for a growth spurt. And he has no plans to pull back from the daily operation of his company. “Anyone who has played golf with me knows that isn't a career alternative,” he jokes. “I can't imagine not working in this business.”