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 — When Clear Channel came along and bought MJI Broadcasting in November, 1999, and then merging them into Premiere Networks, the idea of leaving and starting his own company was far from his thoughts. However, Danno Wolkoff 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.
At MJI, Wolkoff was accustomed to building programs from the ground-up. This was not how Premiere was operating at the time, and realizing that sooner or later the end could come for him at Clear Channel and Premiere, Wolkoff began devising “Plan B.” The question for Wolkoff would be in which direction should he go, to work for someone as he had his entire career to-date, or start his own company?
“All those people who say I’m going to go to college and I’m going to be an entrepreneur. That’s more of an ideal. There are two types of entrepreneurs. There are the ones that do it because that’s how they’re wired, they always have these great ideas and they want to go and keep trying things and see if they can make things happen,” says Wolkoff. “The other entrepreneurs are the kind I fall into, which is you do it out of necessity. The reason I started Envision is, my choices were to hook on to another network similar to Premiere, like Westwood One or ABC. They probably would have hired me. But I wasn’t enjoying the network side of that (syndication), working with the big conglomerate. You had no control or say on building or designing or creating stuff. You were just going to maintain, and for me there just wasn’t that level of excitement. So, when you’re pushed up against the wall and you need to make money, and at that point we had three kids and you’re thinking about their college, you become a little more aggressive. I had very little to lose.”
For Wolkoff, that meant taking what was the biggest risk of his life and branching out on his own, and placing his destiny and that of his family in his own hands.
Wolkoff realized if he did start his own company and failed, he could always fall back on sales. However, Wolkoff was driven to succeed and believed he found a niche in syndication that he could call his own, and much like making that phone call to an old professor at Syracuse when he was looking for work, timing was everything.
“We were fortunate when I started Envision that Premiere fired a bunch of people and got rid of a bunch of producers and services. The first service we set up was a service we still do to this day called Guest Services which is a guest booking service for morning shows. At the time Premiere fired the staff and dropped the service because it wasn’t profitable enough. What they did was say that it’s not that we can’t do this and not make money on it, it’s we’re not making enough money. I talked to the producers and told them I was going to start my own company. If you’re willing to do this I could probably affiliate or get some of those stations back on and we can keep the service running. They said they could not take that plunge. So I decided to pay these guys out of my own pocket and get this started and become profitable,” said Wolkoff.
Of course, this was a big risk, because the money to fund this endeavor was their savings, and their kids’ college savings. While it was no sure thing, Wolkoff believed he had a business plan of action that would succeed.
“We put enough money aside to keep the first product and first service afloat for a year. We had three employees. I didn’t have an office. I was working from home. The only office we had was the office space we rented in New York City for the producers to actually go and do their guest booking, so our first office wasn’t even in Cleveland where I was based so the money was going into the product and the staff,” says Wolkoff. “They left Premiere and the very next day they were working on booking and the product and I was calling the stations and saying you can keep the service and sign a new contract and nothing changes. Out of the 30 affiliates back then we got 20 to re-sign with us and we were up and running.”
From there, the calls for new services kept coming in.
“The original goal was to create a company where we could syndicate shows and services. That’s the niche that I saw. I was being called constantly from people I knew in the business or people that knew me and wanted to get a show syndicated or wanted to know what it would take. Occasionally I’d find an idea or hear something and say ‘hey this is a great idea,’” says Wolkoff, who says it’s the same premise from his days working at MJI and later Premiere. The difference, Wolkoff says, is MJI would look at the idea and say build your team and get it done, while at Premiere would say that’s a lot of work and let’s let someone else do it and when it gets big enough they would simply buy it.
“At that time, all the networks weren’t really looking to build anything. They were all merely trying to maintain what they got, cutting resources, and just trying to grow the network,” says Wolkoff. “I was able to now make calls to services like Bit Exchange and The Chop Shop and told them that we can go ahead and do this and represent you now we can go out and syndicate. After we were up and running and people realized there was another company who can do these things my phone started to ring. We’re getting pitched all the time now.”
Wolkoff now has to figure out what show or product is that “diamond in the rough” – what’s that show that’s on one station or the service a station can use and how you bring that service to the marketplace.
“We look for that upstart and build it from scratch and create a network out of nothing,” says Wolkoff.
Interestingly, Wolkoff doesn’t feel the need to syndicate everything, and doesn’t mind telling you that.
“If you can do it by yourself – please do. If you can self-syndicate I tell people to do that. You don’t need to bring in an outside company if you have the ability,” says Wolkoff. “Most people though don’t have the wherewithal. They have the creative type or great production type but don’t have any idea on how to build it into a network. That’s when you have to look for an outside company to do it, and that’s where Envision comes in.”
Wokloff adds, “What we’ve done is we know what it takes and we explain it’s a three-year process. Everyone likes to think they have lightning in a bottle. I remind people that in the first year you will absolutely lose money doing this – make no mistake. If you think the money will be rolling in you’ll be grossly disappointed. Most people I chase off because they don’t realize how difficult a journey it will be. It’s not like it will instantly be on a bunch of stations and the Brinks truck backs up to your door. People look at Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, and even for them it didn’t happen overnight.”
The Changing Face of Syndication – and Radio
Radio continues to change, from size and scope of companies to how business is done on a local and national level. While radio has consolidated, quietly so has syndication, but the Envision business model allows them to not be constricted by corporate ownership.
“The biggest change that we have seen is what you can call these allegiances. An example is Clear Channel which is aligned with Premiere and they will prefer to use their own products and services on their own stations. The reality is if you’re a Clear Channel station and you need help with programming and services you will be told to and reach to Premiere before you contact an outside company. That’s no different from Cumulus which is now aligned with Westwood One. All of their services will come from there and they will not be looking outside, that is unless they can’t find it internally,” says Wolkoff. “That’s about 1,300 affiliated stations with those two companies that you may not get a lot of business with, or it may be limited. Fortunately for us at Envision, we work with both and we have programming and services they can use.”
Wolkoff looks at the strengths of a Clear Channel and Cumulus in another way – there are thousands of other stations they can work with, and the independence of Envision can be appealing to smaller companies, a fact he reminds current and future clients.
“Envision is nothing more than Switzerland. We are the neutral party. We have no allegiance. Our job is to put our programming and services on the very best stations across the country, build up our network and advertising and sell it to the best advertisers,” says Wolkoff. “We’re not obligated to put our products and services on one company over another. We go market by market, station by station. We want to work with everyone and help to make them better.”
This concept has allowed Envision to amass over 1,500 affiliates for such popular programs as “Full Metal Jackie” and “The Chop Shop.”
The changing face of radio has also seen changes in how Envision sells its products.
Against larger companies who not only sell products to all radio stations but also services their own company-operated stations, Envision Networks has needed to not develop products to pad their service listings, but to create programs and services that radio stations need – and need now – whether it’s to battle a larger competitor or to make sure their own station budget is met.
“For the first five years stations needed help in filling out either weekends or nights or daily vignettes they could sell to advertisers. However, the last five years and the process of syndication and what people are looking for has changed,” says Wolkoff. “Radio stations are looking to do more with less people and looking to outsource whatever they can and that’s where our growth has come – providing the services.”
Over the last five years, Wolkoff says Envision’s most popular services are imaging services, like their “Chop Shop” prep services, and now their “virtual” services, such as “Virtual Weather,” “Virtual News,” and “Virtual Production,” allowing stations to have a local presence in their markets despite either not having the in-house staff available anymore, or to aid and supplement in-house talent , such as the one production director who now handles five stations or the one news person who broadcasts for a cluster.
It is what Wolkoff says is “allowing our clients to maximize what they have but not lose what makes them local.”
In tomorrow’s (2/12) third installment of “The Vision of Envision,” Wolkoff will take a straightforward look at radio today and it’s immediate future, discussing what his company and others must do to change with the changing radio times, including his company’s new name change, but also explains why “radio is beyond radio now.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS and RadioInfo. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com. Meet Jeff McKay at Talkers New York 2014 on Friday, June 20.