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Meet The Market Managers: Keith Williams, Good Karma Brands Chicago

“I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Week 2 of Season 2! Today, the Meet the Market Managers series takes us to Chicago. My conversation with Keith Williams of Good Karma is an interesting one.

Keith is a lifer with GKB, having worked in multiple markets, leading multiple brands for the company. Part of working for Craig Karmazin’s group though is not being married to any ways of doing business. Even lifers aren’t allowed to lean on the idea that “this is how we’ve always done it.”

In our conversation, presented by our outstanding partners at Point-to-Point Marketing, Keith shares why that approach works for him, and why it was part of guiding his search for the station’s new Director of Content. We also talked about competition between Good Karma markets, how Mike Thomas left his mark on the station in a short time, and how to explain the changing media landscape to clients.

Enjoy!

Demetri Ravanos: One of the first things you had to do in Chicago after taking the reigns of ESPN 1000 was hire a PD. That search was largely internal. What were you prioritizing as you were looking for a new leader on the programming side? 

Keith Williams: Just having the vision to pivot quickly to create new opportunities for our team, for our sales and marketing teams, and increase the diversity of our hosts. Those were three things that we really talked about looking to expand. Yes, we had some good internal candidates. We had a few external as well. Danny (Zederman) is obviously who I went with and Ryan Maguire, who you know as he wrote for BSM, we found a spot for in Milwaukee so that he was still with Good Karma.

It was something that obviously my predecessor was very focused on, and he did amazing things with this radio station, moving some of the pieces around, adding Twitch and an app, and of course, the White Sox rights. I thought Danny could really help us get to that next level. He’s added a number of shows already, some specialty things and things specifically on the app. We’re having some fun. 

DR: This is a really big stage. Market number three is a big one to step into for your first programming role. That said, Danny has spent a lot of time with that radio station during his career. You mentioned part of the way ESPN 1000 presented itself while under Mike Thomas’ leadership, so what was it about what Danny that made you say, “I don’t care that he doesn’t have the prior PD experience. He’s the guy!”?

KW: Well, first, he’s really creative. He’s an activator. I knew he was going to move quickly and get things done. He’s got a high capacity to work fast, to work smart, and he’s a really good communicator, and we need that. We need someone that can communicate the vision, the ideas for marketing, for our sales team, and obviously to set the vision for our content team.

We want to be fun. We want to be fast. Obviously, the Bears are always going to be the big team in town, but we also want to continue to bring that personal level of entertainment to our fans.

I think Danny has the ability, and his relationships here with the team, having pretty much worked with almost every single person. This was a great move for him to get the opportunity to prove himself.

DR: So as a new boss coming in, and immediately having to pick a leader of the programming side when you have multiple guys internally interested in the job, how do you go through the process and make sure to build relationships with the people that didn’t get the job? How did you show them that they still have a lot of value to you and the brand? 

KW: That was important. I mean, everybody doesn’t have the exact skill set to manage, to lead and to work quickly and have the ability to communicate across departments. At the same time, everyone that did apply had unbelievable ideas on how to make us better, and we want people’s feedback. We’re not trying to shove things down everyone’s throat. It’s all about listening, communicating, and hearing everybody’s opinions.

We’re a small company. We can pivot on a dime and listen to people’s ideas and feedback and take it, run with it, and make a change. If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch back. So, that’s the beauty of it.

For the people that did apply internally, we took their feedback. We are involving them in the process and hearing their voices. We’re allowing them to help us, because they have a passion for this radio station and market, and deep relationships in the building. Danny and I are both all ears for every single idea that comes across our table.

DR: You mentioned that the company is still relatively small, particularly in terms of media operations. You’ve been with them for a long time across a number of markets in a variety of roles. I always wonder when I talk to people inside Good Karma, what are the standards that are expected across each market? Also, how does the company give the VP/Market Manager an opportunity to establish their own identity and do things their own way?

KW: Craig [Karmazin] gives us a ton of freedom. I do a one-on-one with him each week and I’ve got a list of things I’ll go over, and his usual question back to me is, “was this the right thing to do?” “Does it fit our core values?”.

We look at it like it’s our own business. We are in charge of the revenue. We’re in charge of the expenses and everything left over is cash flow profit that we can then invest in our own people and equipment. So it’s up to us to choose our own path within what Good Karma’s core values and culture are, right?

I think one of the things that I have prided my career on is my communication and follow-through. If I hear somebody wanting something, and maybe we don’t choose to go that direction or we do, we always try to explain the why and follow through. So really, listening to our teammates is key to the growth of how to make this place the best it can be. 

DR: So what sort of information were you trying to gather to make the decision about whether Chicago was the right move for you or not? Was it as simple as “It’s bigger than Madison and I want a new challenge”? Or was there something specific you were looking for before you would say yes? 

KW: I told Craig 20-something years ago when I joined the company, wherever you need me, I am willing to go. So I started off in Madison and had no knowledge of sales, marketing or radio. But I just worked hard and did things the right way, always figuring out a way to hit budget or overdeliver on whatever the key needs were.

Then he gave me an opportunity to run some radio stations in Janesville, which I did for about four or five years. He asked me then to join forces with Sam Pines, who is now running our ESPN LA property. Sam and I worked together in Cleveland for ten years.

I was ready to do something different. So we had the big picture conversation, and I was commuting for a period of time to D.C. and Baltimore, running our ESPN digital sales offices there. We redid the structure of the sales team and then Craig said, would you be willing to go back to Wisconsin? And I said, you know, if that’s where the team needs me, we’ll go. We completely rebuilt the team in my three years there, a year and a half of which, we were probably working from home during the pandemic.

Then when Mike left. It became an opportunity when Craig called and said, “would you be interested in this?”. I said I have to talk to my family first, obviously. My wife was super supportive and asked all the right questions.

This is my passion. I love being in a market. Yes, it’s a bigger market, but the principles are all the same. It’s about the people. It’s about doing the right thing for our partners, and giving our fans the opportunity to consume whatever content we’re putting out there on as many platforms as we possibly can. 

DR: So let’s talk about the people and the partners, because that goes to a question about what happened earlier this month when you guys announced that Carmen and Jurko were moving back to noon to 2 pm. The guys on air mentioned that one of the things they liked is that it meant five days a week they’d get to interact with Waddle and Silvy.

I wonder, as somebody that is looking out for the entire brand, how can something as simple as a casual five or six-minute conversation between two shows, groups of guys that don’t normally have a chance to interact with each other on-air, how does that elevate a brand? Why is an element like that important for getting a station to the next level?

KW: I mean, we see it behind the scenes. Even just yesterday walking around the halls, those guys were talking and hanging out. So, it was a behind-the-scenes conversation, and our whole thing is “let’s bring it to the forefront”.

They have such good chemistry, all four of them. I don’t know if you’ve listened to their crosstalk, Unhinged. Not on the radio. It’s their podcast. Those guys really just absolutely love each other. They respect each other and they can poke and prod just like you do with your friends. I mean, it really is great camaraderie, so why not give it a chance to shine?

You could see some of the feedback on social media. People are really excited to hear that again. So we’re listening to our fans. We’re listening to our teammates. Danny made a great decision.

DR: The other side of that move is it puts Greeny back to 10 to noon. It’s interesting to me that as big of a market as Chicago is, the station is not an O&O for ESPN anymore. It seems from the outside that dropping Greeny for more local programing would make sense, but I know his show had solid ratings in that slot before and GKB has a strong partnership with ESPN Radio which is important. I guess I just wonder why it’s important to keep that connection to the network on air when fans prefer local.

KW: We want the connection. Obviously with ESPN, they are our biggest partner. Plus, you know, Greeny does have a Chicago connection.

Our vision with Danny is to get it as close to all-live as we possibly can, but we love Greeny. We are happy with what he’s doing for us. I know it’s not local, but it sounds local when there’s big news for the market because he has that Chicago background.

DR: I want to go back and combine two things we talked about earlier. You mentioned the idea that this is a small company and I want to tie that to what Mike Thomas accomplished while he was in your seat there.

He pulled off some really cool promotions. He gave away two cars to fans when the White Sox threw a no-hitter. He gave away multiple ad campaigns to local businesses. That sort of creativity and headline-grabbing nature of promotions seems to be standard across all of Good Karma’s properties. Can you take me behind the curtain a little bit here? Is there competition among the local market managers for who can pull off the biggest ideas like that? 

KW: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. We want to one-up each other, for sure. Creativity sells, right? So I think the weirder, the more out there a promotion can be, within the legal guidelines, which are always interesting to figure out, the better.

I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners. I mean, when we did that, Nissan No-Hitter, think of all the earned media exposure that Nissan got from that! And who knew that it was going to happen twice? It was just incredible!

Yes, we definitely have competition for ideas. Our teammates love talking about weird and fun promotions. Our partners love it because they get exposure beyond a radio spot schedule, and our fans like it too because they get to participate and win free stuff, especially when it’s a huge prize like a car. We’re always looking for that type of idea, so we have internal brainstorming meetings on how to do these things all the time.

DR: How do the partners and clients that have been with you for a long time view a promotion like giving away an ad campaign to another business during the pandemic? 

KW: If you think about the partners that we have, some are big businesses, most of them probably are, and some are small. So when we were doing that particular promotion, it was in conjunction with First Midwest Bank, which is now going to be changing to Old National Bank. It was an opportunity for them, right? It was a chance to team up with us to give back to the community. So it was a true partnership. We explain that to our other partners. “Hey, this is something that we’re going to be executing for First Midwest Bank. We’re going to give light to a small business that’s deserving and may not be able to afford a radio schedule in Chicago, Illinois.”

DR: Chicago, in terms of being a radio market, is not Boston, where even if WEEI does good numbers, the trend right now is that The Sports Hub is going to come out on top. ESPN 1000 and The Score have gone back and forth over the years although The Score has had a better run in recent times. When you’re talking to, whether it’s the sales staff or clients, what is it you tell them about the unpredictability and volatility of radio ratings? 

KW: I tell them radio sales and marketing, in my opinion, is all about listening to our partners and their needs, and solving their problems in the most creative and effective way that you can. A ratings point never bought a cheeseburger. Now, I’m definitely quoting one of our teammates on that.

It’s all about the idea and the relationship. Advertising is a real simple formula: audience, frequency and message. If you have all three of those and you’re truly listening to the partner’s objectives, whatever you end up coming up with is going to be the right idea for them, and it’s going to work. That’s why so many of our advertising partners have been with us for so long.

It’s not just in Chicago. That’s everywhere GKB is because we truly listen to what our partners need, and try to get their message out as many times as we can. Radio commercials, promotions, endorsements, appearances, events. Whatever that is, our goal is to sell more hamburgers or cars or windows the next day and the day after that. And you know, if we’re truly listening to people, then we have the ability to grow anyone’s business. 

DR: I think, within the business, it is easy to explain and understand the problems with Nielsen ratings, because we all speak the same language and have the same background knowledge. When you’re talking to a business though, so many of them still put value in that number no matter how often you explain that it doesn’t tell the accurate story anymore because listening shifted or because there isn’t a large enough sample. What is that struggle like? 

KW: It’s all about, are we going to move product, right? At the end of the day, if you have a million listeners and only ten are going to buy a car, that’s the ten that matter.

Our focus is just entirely different. It’s all about how do you help somebody’s business grow with our loyal audience that listens as often as they do for as long as they do. If your message is good enough, it’s going to stand out and it’s going to ring at the cash register. 

DR: Chicago, in radio terms, is becoming more and more unique. You guys are still an AM market. You have a partnership with Hubbard that gives you an HD2 signal, but 1000, The Score, WBBM, WGN, all of the big talk properties, are still on the AM dial and finding success.

Could you see that changing as the generations spending money and leading the charge change? Do you have designs on someday seeing ESPN 1000 become ESPN one-hundred-point-whatever on the FM dial r are you comfortable with the position and habits of Chicago radio? 

KW: We’re very comfortable with our position because I think our mobile app is one tap and you’re already into live programming. We have the ability to promote that and you’re right there. Obviously, with smart devices and smart cars and Twitch, there are plenty of ways to get the content.

If we can just continue to promote not only AM 1000, but the ease of the ESPN Chicago app, you can get content right at your fingertips with seriously, one tap on your phone. I don’t think it matters if you’re on an AM or FM. I would just say the more places you can be, the better. 

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BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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Demetri Ravanos

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Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

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Demetri Ravanos

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ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

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iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

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