TALKERS Three-Part Special Feature
The Vision of Envision: The Rise of Radio Syndication Entrepreneur Danno Wolkoff and an Emerging Independent Powerhouse
By Jeff McKay
Special features Correspondent
NEW YORK — Like many people who go to college with a plan for what they want to do when they graduate, Danno Wolkoff went to Syracuse University with a goal to wind up in television production. Fate, and the prodding from senior management at MJI Broadcasting instead sent him in the direction of sales and affiliate relations. Wolkoff discovered he had a gift for sales, and doubled his income in one year. It was through sales and affiliate relations work that he climbed the corporate ladder at MJI, expanding and growing their sales offices nationwide. When Clear Channel acquired MJI and merged it into Premiere Radio Networks, he became VP of Affiliate Relations.
However, it wasn’t long before he began to realize that the hands-on and creative approach he had at MJI wasn’t translating to the growth concepts and business model of Premiere and Clear Channel. Wolkoff faced a career crossroad, and would make a decision that would change his life and become an important source of programming and services for radio.
His vision was “Envision Radio Networks,” a highly successful and visionary company that creates over four dozen content products and services for radio stations and media outlets nationwide, customizing solutions for clients, producers and affiliates. It was a company literally founded after another syndication and programming company decided they had a good product that despite making money, didn’t make enough money for their bottom line.
What Wolkoff has accomplished in the span of just 10 years is inspiring and a textbook example of creating a force for productivity and jobs in an industry. He took the biggest gamble of his life, grabbing a program and three people laid off by an established firm that would become his largest competitor, and growing an independent syndication empire serving over 1,500 radio stations with everything from prep services to music shows, local news and information to weekend talk shows. His staff has grown over 20-fold in a decade to include an array of producers, salespeople and contract staffers researching, producing, creating and selling more than four-dozen products to radio stations in both the largest and smallest markets. Now known simply as Envision Networks (they dropped the word “Radio” this past week – more on that later) continues to not only grow, embracing new technology and catering to those needs, but in the process has become an independent force in syndication.
In the words of Michael Harrison, “The emergence of special individuals like Danno Wolkoff is the force that propels an industry such as ours forward. I’ve seen this movie many times before. Danno is the kind of guy who has the makings of being a true giant 10 years down the pike, taking his place among the biggest of the big.”
Ironically, both his company and his career in radio was never in his career plans.
Right Place at the Right Time
Much like getting into radio, Wolkoff also had no plan to attend Syracuse University. While touring colleges with his friend who was interested in pre-med schools, their road trip brought the pair to Syracuse, NY. “When I was introduced to the Newhouse School I realized it was not only a great school and a great program, it quickly became my first choice. That started me on my path,” says Wolkoff. My original plan was television production. The radio part didn’t come into play until my sophomore year. A friend was doing a radio show at the campus carrier current radio station. I lived across the street from the station so it was easy to do, but my main focus was television production.”
When the campus station applied for and was granted an FM license, Wolkoff took the FCC test, passed, and station leadership decided that he would be a great person to be on the morning show. Wolkoff then became part of the “Crazy Morning Crew” and an original member of station, despite the fact he was the first to admit he “wasn’t a morning person.” Wolkoff manned mornings for his junior and senior year on WJPZ-FM. While he had fun doing it, Wolkoff admits to TALKERS, “I didn’t see a future for me in radio. Let me get a job in television production where I could actually make some money and do some good.”
Upon graduation from college, Wolkoff joined his high school sweetheart in the New York City area and began knocking on doors in hopes to join a TV network and get into production. After receiving a number of internship offers, and realizing he needed a job that came with an income, Wolkoff called a professor at Syracuse, apparently at a very opportune time.
“I pulled a phone number out of my wallet that a professor at Syracuse gave me on my last day of school there. I called him and while I was on the phone with him, he got a call from another professor who told him he knew of an opening at a radio syndication company called MJI. He says to me that he knew I was in TV production but you did the radio show here at Syracuse. I told him radio wasn’t my first interest but fast-forward a couple of months and still no job and no money, so I called them and got an interview. When I was asked by the president of MJI where I saw myself in five years, I told him all gung-ho that I’d be doing television production and working for a network. That of course immediately disqualified me from getting that job,” says Wolkoff, who looks back on that and knows “if you really want the job be truthful and tell them you want the job.”
When he called back a few weeks later, he was told he was qualified but his pursuit of TV production wasn’t what they were looking for. After a little begging to MJI’s Julie Talbott (who would later become head of content and affiliate relations with Premiere Networks), he was offered a job.
While he started at MJI on June 15, 1986 at the bottom of the ladder in clearance and affidavit retrieval, it wasn’t long before they realized he was good at talking to radio stations, and after six months on the job he was summoned to the president’s office where Josh Feigenbaum told him if he wanted to edit and produce radio shows he could make about $18,000, but sales is what they wanted Wolkoff to try, enticing him with the prospect of doubling his salary, training, and a better starting salary. Wolkoff agreed, despite not wanting to do sales, but was happy with a better base salary and a chance to make more money. Wolkoff was told to try sales, and if he didn’t like it he could always return to production work.
Wolkoff put his ability to talk to radio stations to good use, and in a year doubled his salary through sales. Television production became an afterthought.
Fifteen years later, he was still with MJI, moving up the latter into affiliate relations and becoming one of the leaders of the company. Then Clear Channel came along and bought MJI, merging them into Premiere Networks, which became his introduction into the other side of the network radio business, while merging his MJI affiliate relations group into Premiere’s.
He soon found out that creating new programs he was trying to push wasn’t in the plans for Premiere at that time, told simply “if we want a new show we’ll buy it,” which included shows like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Wolkoff realized his future wasn’t at Premiere.
While at MJI, Wolkoff had become accustomed to building programs from the ground-up. He had learned how to build and cultivate a product, a brand, and a business, and that knowledge would come in handy when he decided to venture off and start his own company.
Wolkoff founded Cleveland-based Envision Radio Networks 10 years ago, and in that time has grown to include syndication of dozens of shows and services for clients covering music, customized programming, local news, and production services to enhance any radio station.
Despite moving forward with his company, Wolkoff has not forgotten where he came from, and how important his college years and his college radio station were to him. Last year, Wolkoff dedicated the new studios at WJPZ-FM at his alma mater named for the company he founded.
“They were moving out of their old building and wanted to build state-of-the-art facilities. They needed some of the alumni and others to step up and help cover the costs. We were happy to donate and they named the broadcast center The Envision Radio Networks Broadcast Center.” We were happy to donate so the students there could continue on and feed our industry which was the ultimate goal. We need to teach the kids coming out that radio is not dead – not by a long shot – and there’s still work for great broadcasters who have talent. I’m a big believer in that and I put my money where my mouth is,” says Wolkoff, who took a special joy in the fact he was helping the students and the school where he got his start in radio.
“You go back 30 years and things have changed. The new studios are back in the same area. I’m glad we had the resources to do it, but the reception we got from the students there and the faculty made us very happy we could do this for the kids and to let them understand that we don’t want radio to end and we think it should be important for them – a message heard loud and clear. The Newhouse School and others at Syracuse have been asking us our opinion about the future of radio and what can they be doing to turn out broadcasters and what do they need to know for the business and to grow the business,” says Wolkoff.
In 2009, Wolkoff was the very first member inducted into the inaugural class of the WJPZ Hall of Fame, where Rick Alpern said of Wolkoff, “There are literally hundreds of program directors who trust Danno’s opinion because they know from experience that he’s high in ethics and he’s all about doing the right thing.”
Part two was published on Tuesday (2/11), read that here. On Wednesday (2/12) in the third installment of “The Vision of Envision,” TALKERS will examine what Envision Networks is, how it’s grown, and go into more detail about the thinking behind last week’s name and branding change at Wolkoff’s dynamic company.
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.