Second of two-part special on “Business Rockstars”
Quintessential connected host not stuck in a rut
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Connoisseurs of the fine art of the interview — and it truly is an art form — relish the opportunity to study Charlie Rose as he masterfully plies his craft nightly on PBS.
Roundtable one-on-one settings featuring the amiable Rose are clinics that more often than not uncover fascinating layers to his intriguing guests.
The second of our two-part series on “Business Rockstars” centers on the host of this daily two-hour program who has a somewhat similar style to Rose and adroitly produces the same meaty results, although the centerpiece guests he gets to “hang out with” each day are “very cool people” who — in the business world — turn nothing into something. “That is the angle I like,” comments “Business Rockstars” host-co-founder (with Steve Lehman)-co-owner-president Ken Rutkowski. “How many people can say that almost every one of the 1500 people they have talked with in the last two years is ‘amazing’? We have three or four ‘amazing’ guests on every day.”
Some have entire chapters of their life they have never shared yet Rutkowski — named in 2009 as an intelligence analyst at the Oprah Winfrey Network — elicits nuggets from them. “They have tips to help people,” he remarks. “By listening to the show, it is almost like getting a nice degree in business — but in a fun way.”
Accurate quantification for accolades such as “amazing” is obviously an inexact exercise but consider one representative “Business Rockstars” guest and you will most likely apply an equivalent term.
Specifically: Mindboggling Maryland teenager Jack Andraka (born in 1997) was the 2012 grand prize recipient of the Gordon E. Moore Award at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. “He has found a way to diagnose if someone has pancreatic cancer years before it would show up on a test,” Rutkowski proclaims. “If you test positive in the current test — the Whipple procedure — which costs $800, you have a 30% chance of life. Jack’s test gives nearly 100% chance of survival and his test is only three cents, which blows me away.”
Off-the-radar people such as Andraka make things happen and, as Rutkowski explains, “At times, we may never even hear about them. They will either sell their company or they are brought into a university structure that buys their technology. They are the ones I want to bring to light — I am looking for the not-so-obvious ‘rock stars.'”
Our particular discussion with Opportunity Green board member Rutkowski took place following his lunch with the person who runs Amazon Prime Movies. “He has a billion-dollar budget to create the next episodic films for Amazon,” Rutkowski points out. “These are ‘normal’ friends of mine. We all grew up at the beginning stages of being ‘nobodies’ and we are now running companies.”
Widespread customary business banter consists of fellow execs proclaiming to each other, “Dude, you’re a rock star.” During a brainstorming session to formulate a name for this non-traditional talk radio program, those very exchanges of camaraderie were remembered and the cordial compliment stuck.
Theorizing that if he were to ask his 12-year-old son to cite a ‘rock star,’ Rutkowski predicts the youngster would most likely invoke the name of someone such as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. “That is what this generation sees,” Rutkowski opines. “The term ‘rock star’ has changed. It is not about rock ‘n’ roll music. A ‘rock star’ is someone who is recognized for having done something amazing in a positive way.”
For a generation of those under the age of 18, the current crop of perceived “rock stars” are names that are generally foreign to most adults. For example, 24-year-old Swedish video gamer Felix Kjellberg — better known by his “PewDiePie” handle — has 27 million subscribers on YouTube and attracts over four billion views. As Rutkowski reveals, “He is a god to kids on YouTube. Kids around the world watch and play Minecraft — ‘CaptainSparklez’ [Jordan Maron] plays Minecraft all day and has almost two billion YouTube views.”
Readily admitting that he is a “fiercely nerdy guy” and among the very few college kids who did not do any partying while securing his undergraduate degree at Western Illinois University, Chicago native Rutkowski proudly asserts, “I am a tech guy. I had a technology company and made a few dollars by selling it when I was young.”
Virtually everyone who gets to witness Rutkowski deliver a presentation — as he did at a recent TALKERS seminar — walks away impressed, if not spellbound.
Roots of exemplary abilities as a public speaker can be traced to his days as a young professor of technology at Loyola University, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois — Champaign/Urbana. “I would do radio every weekend as a side job,” he notes. “As a former educator, I know how to make something sound entertaining. I am trying to figure out how to keep people engaged for two hours every day on the radio.”
Governing a Gaudy Rolodex
Then originating transmission from Joliet, Illinois’ WJOL, Rutkowski contends that — in 1995 — he was “the very first internet broadcaster” on RealAudio, and he ultimately transported his three-hour, weekend show to Chicago’s WLS-AM. “I did a Saturday show that was also carried over the internet,” he declares. “When I opened the lines for phone calls as I was broadcasting to a Chicago audience, my calls would be from Tel Aviv, Acapulco, and Sydney, Australia. That was pretty much alien for the mid-1990s. WLS president and general manager Zemira Jones and program manager Mike Elder had the foresight and were supportive of it. The rub was that I did a deal with WLS-AM which was almost a syndicated model.”
Avails were given to Rutkowski and he would sell spots for about 50 times that of WLS-AM’s normal rate. For a three-hour show that was on once a week, he was making in the lofty vicinity of $40,000 to $60,000 a month. “WLS said they wanted to make me a part of the team and gave me an employment contract for $55,000 a year,” he recounts. “I literally picked up the show and took it online. Beginning in 1998, I became the first podcaster to do a daily show. Microsoft sponsored it and it was the most-listened to daily internet show.”
Upon receiving funding for a company, he moved to San Francisco. In the process, Rutkowski sold that business and was hired by CNET Radio, where he did 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm in the Bay Area. “When AOL bought Time Warner, I knew the world was upside down and I had to leave San Francisco,” comments Rutkowski, who relocated to Los Angeles and continued to do his daily internet show, as well as publish a 150,000-subscriber newsletter. “Microsoft was a very big financial sponsor. I learned a lot about Los Angeles after I created METal (Media, Entertainment, and Technology alpha leaders) and I became a technology consultant to celebrities.”
Every Saturday in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, he does something similar to what he shared with those attending the aforementioned TALKERS seminar. “When Steve Lehman saw me do one, he said we have to have this on radio,” Rutkowski recollects. “We looked at market opportunities. We figured it was all about being empowered and launching a business.”
One’s use of certain superlatives can trigger charges of hyperbole. Rewinding to part one of this “Business Rockstars” feature, Lehman portrayed Rutkowski as “the best connected person” that the former president of Premiere Radio Networks (now Premiere Networks) had ever seen. Great validity, as opposed to hyperbole, though exists in Lehman’s assessment, as Rutkowski details that he has “an insanely great” Rolodex. “I can pick up the phone and call almost any well-recognized entrepreneur and he or she is there for us,” he emphasizes. “Guests on our show are usually our biggest listeners.”
Stressing however that he is “not a radio guy,” Rutkowski states, “That is not what I do, but I found a way to turn a technology show into something entertaining by bringing Hollywood into it. In every one of my shows, I would have someone such as an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Charlton Heston. When the internet was just in its infancy, they would hang out with me and talk about ‘tech’ — it was a lot of fun.”
Flagship outlet for “Business Rockstars” when the daily 10:00 am – 12:00 noon, PT program debuted was Los Angeles talker KFWB and Rutkowski estimates the program is now heard on just over one-dozen terrestrial stations. “It is not a substantial number,” he concedes but quickly adds, “It is about households. We did a deal with CRN where they have us on four times a day. We do 25,000 – 26,000 streams daily on our podcasts. We did some great relationships with Apple, getting very good positioning on the iTunes Store. I almost hate using the word ‘radio,’ because radio is so outdated; unfortunately, that is true.”
Among the most momentous red flags that Rutkowski and Lehman noticed on KFWB was the show’s listenership tended to be older males, leading them to make a vital adjustment. “We began to get much more boisterous, well-recognized women on the show,” explains Rutkowski, a 2005 Digital Entertainment award winner for his new media/emerging technologies activity. “We adopted the principle that half the show will always be about powerful female entrepreneurs and ‘rock stars.’ It balanced out because of that. We know that is going to be the empowering group, so we have people such as 38-year-old Yahoo! chief executive officer Marissa Mayer and Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System chair Janet Yellen. Women are really starting to come into power in business and we do not want to neglect them.”
Former supermodel Lizanne Falsetto is the founder/chief executive officer of thinkThin, and according to Rutkowski, the stunning Seattle native who drew notoriety in the Cindy Crawford-Naomi Watts era has created a $120 million – $150 million business. “I find someone similar to her every Tuesday and they become mentors to an up-and-coming businessperson. During the show, we hear the mentorship process going on from someone who understands business. We track it over the next few weeks and see the explosive growth. We bring in actual music artists on Thursdays because we feel a band is just like a business. They should have a profit/loss statement and understand their branding, positioning, and marketing.”
Millennials — or “Generation Y” are being targeted for the show, although Rutkowski’s opinion is that, “Millennials do not listen to the radio. When we get a really cool younger entrepreneur, especially when they have a large social media outreach, we know they will drive an audience to us that does not traditionally listen to AM or FM radio. We really try to leverage that.”
Once an authentic frequent-flier on the go every 10 days or so, Rutkowski has curtailed that significantly, traveling strictly “for purpose,” as opposed to pleasure. Nonetheless, he will be embarking to Singapore at the end of this month to participate in two trade shows and a conference in Indonesia. In his absence, “Some very well-respected ‘rock stars’ will co-host the show with someone like Steve who gets radio,” he points out. “Either I will broadcast from wherever I am, or we will get the ‘rock stars’ people love and give them a stab at taking the microphone.”
Usually up each day at 6:00 am, Rutkowski goes to the gym, where he runs three to five miles on the treadmill. Quite predictably, he spends an abundant amount of time on social media, where “Business Rockstars” has built a massive presence.
At the conclusion of the two-hour radio show — which Rutkowski categorizes as “the insider’s guide to global business leaders” — he has a production meeting for the next broadcast. “Then I focus specifically on my group, METal,” he notes. “I will do consulting work for several companies that have hired me.”
Everything in his free time revolves around his son, daughter, and partner. “I hang out with my partner/girlfriend and she and I will go back to the gym. I hate going there — hate it — but I know I need to and I might as well do two things at once. I have to consume so much content every day from listening to podcasts to watching TV shows. I bring my iPad with me and I either sit on the elliptical or am on the treadmill. While doing cardio, I knock out what I would normally watch on TV. We try to see a movie once or twice a week. I have a neat group of friends — 50 of them surprised me on Catalina Island on my birthday.”
Currently at the phase of his life when he wants to make certain that he is giving back, Rutkowski declares, “I hope the show and the events we do make the United States the epicenter of opportunity. We have so much competition from around the world and our country is falling far behind. I hope a show such as ours will encourage our country to go in a direction where we can grab the reins and be the most powerful place on the planet — not just for ideas, but for creating great businesses.”
Steve Lehman was spotlighted in part one of this special “Business Rockstars” feature, which was posted last Thursday (5/8) at TALKERS.com.
Mike Kinosian is managing editor/West Coast bureau chief of TALKERS and can be emailed at Kinosian@TALKERS.com. Meet Mike Kinosian at Talkers New York 2014 on Friday, June 20.