Accolades Hall of Famers generally have the chance to catch their breath and look back at a career well-spent. Jeff Smulyan, newly inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, continues to look forward to going to work. Jeff Smulyan is newly inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. “I love this business,” says Smulyan, who started with radio station WENS-FM (97.1) in 1981 and now, as chairman of Emmis Communications, controls a company that took in nearly $592 million in fiscal 2004. Emmis currently owns 23 FM and four AM stations, 16 TV stations, six magazines, as well as nine radio stations in Belgium and the No. 1 radio network in Hungary, according to its Web site.
“You never say never in life, but I can’t imagine retiring,” he adds during a phone interview from Emmis’ downtown Indianapolis headquarters. “I don’t know whether I might do something else or take Emmis in another direction, but I can’t imagine I would ever leave.”
These days, Smulyan’s sights are set on a new project: creating what he describes as a mini-cable service on the digital spectrum. Instead of subscribing to cable, viewers will get local stations and 30-40 cable channels provided over the air in high definition for $25 a month.
He expects the Digital Antenna System to launch next year. The point of this venture is at least twofold. For consumers, it means a slightly cheaper alternative to cable. For local TV stations, it’ll provide additional revenue.
You’ll recall that every few years the local stations battle cable companies over the terms that allow the cable companies to carry the local network affiliates. The fight occurs because the affiliates think the cable companies should pay to carry their programming, just as cable companies pay to carry cable networks. Cable companies argue that since anyone can get the local stations for free over the air, there’s no reason they should pay.
Under Smulyan’s system, subscriber fees will go to local stations as well as cable networks.
“Even today with 400 channels, the local stations/networks get half the viewers,” he says. “Yet the only people who don’t get paid in that are the local stations and the networks. It’s absolutely crazy. If we don’t solve it, it’s going to be very hard to be in the over the air business.”
Smulyan also addressed several other topics during the interview:
• The future of satellite radio. “I don’t know if they can aggregate enough niches. I think the most brilliant thing they’ve done is, they’ve positioned it in the mind of a lot of decision-makers on Wall Street that it’s the next great thing. I’m a skeptic because the consumption patterns of radio and TV are so different. The willingness to pay for radio versus TV has been so different … I thought [luring Howard Stern to Sirius] was a brilliant idea, although I think it was also a Hail Mary pass. They’re still losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year … We always worry more about iPods. If you’ve got that refined musical taste, rather than get one of 300 channels, you’ll just get the all-Bee Gees channel [for example] and create it in your own iPod.”
• His best and worst decisions. “The best thing I can say about all the decisions is, in hindsight, they look fairly rational. They didn’t turn out the way [you] wanted them to, but they were always based on rational principles. Even baseball [when he bought the Seattle Mariners in 1989 and sold them three years later]. A lot of people thought, ‘Well, he loves baseball.’ But even that was the idea of aggregating radio and television rights on a regional basis. If you look at the YES Network [in New York/New Jersey] or the network in Chicago, all of that has sort of come to pass.”
• Emmis’ future in Indianapolis. “Home is home … I would be very surprised if we ever left here. I think we have an obligation, and I said a long time ago that if we do our job right, the next generations could help make this an institution. It’s so presumptuous to say you’d like to create another Eli Lilly in this community. It certainly won’t be done by me, but maybe the next generations can help do that.”