By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — The third and final installment of our recap of last week’s Hivio 2016 conference sums up three of the 17 sessions presented Thursday (6/2) and Friday (6/3) on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, literally steps away from the famous Comedy Store. Most of the agenda featured one-on-one interviews conducted by event co-organizer Mark Ramsey, who declares, “Contests on radio are pathetic.” The “attraction to listen,” he notes, is “a one in a million chance to win something.” That incentive to listen, Ramsey stresses, “makes no sense” and the San Diego-based media advisor-strategist/research analyst seamlessly utilizes that statement to introduce Omaze co-founder/co-chief executive officer Ryan Cummins, who Ramsey comments has a “different – better – way [that] will change the way you view contesting.”
Omaze raises awareness and money for charity by offering a chance to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences. One such example was scoring a trip to Los Angeles where George Clooney would raise a glass and compliment the winner for 45 straight seconds. Not only that, Clooney would do so while staring directly into the winner’s eyes.
Cummins and Omaze co-founder Matt Pohlson became best friends at Stanford through one specific shared passion. “The DNA of Omaze is our storytelling,” Cummins states to Ramsey. “We serve world-changers through storytelling and technology. Most recently, we were executive producers of ‘Decade of Difference,’ the Clinton Foundation’s ten-year anniversary event.”
A pattern emerged early on with Omaze as in every cause campaign, the venture captured awareness but not the impact they wanted to. “It is much more difficult to create lifetime donors,” Cummins explains. “We did what two guys ending their 20s naturally do – we went back to business school. We surrounded ourselves with people that we knew were far brighter than we were. We tried to learn from the for-profit model and take that over to the non-profit sector.” They attended a Magic Johnson-hosted gala honoring the Boys & Girls Club of America. Half of why they were there was to support the organization; the other motivation was to see the personable NBA Hall of Famer, who auctioned off a chance to hang out with him and go to a Lakers game. “As lifelong Magic Johnson fans, we wanted nothing more than to participate in that,” acknowledges Cummins, who with Pohlson were in the bidding at $100. The prize ultimately went for $15,000, far out of their league. “When we drove home that night, we were incredibly frustrated,” Cummins recounts. “There was salt on the wound because we knew the person who paid $15,000 was not a lifelong Magic Johnson fan – and we were. Magic is a hero to millions – a global icon. He stands for much more than just basketball. He was leveraging his time and should have been able to raise considerably more than $15,000.” Moreover, only the 200 people in that particular room were able to participate and that was how the idea for Omaze originated. “For $10 dollars, anyone can win a chance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Cummins points out. Money and awareness for charities are raised and as he reasons, “Everybody wins.” You are not alone if you are thinking this could be a lottery or a raffle, but Cummins clarifies that, “Technically, it is a sweepstakes.”
In addition to the George Clooney experience, other sweepstakes have involved the possibility to crush things while riding in a tank with Arnold Schwarzenegger; and an opportunity to see the finale of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” According to Cummins, “If you pre-load a room with people who want to donate, you might top out at $100,000. Through Omaze, we raised [approximately $1.5 million for each of those]. ‘Breaking Bad’ supported an anti-bullying campaign,” while the Schwarzenegger event aided “After School All-Stars,” which empowers kids with after-school activities. Omaze was launched in September 2012 and Cummins grants that it did not get off to a great start. “Our friends, families, and investors all asked if people would think this was some kind of a scam,” he quips. “They also wondered if celebrities would ever lend their time to something like this and if a cause would support us supporting them. We spent the better part of eight months flailing. We believed in what we were doing but didn’t have down the recipe. Our first chance was to visit the set of ‘The Cupcake Wars.’ We went on to raise $60,000 for a ‘Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ event back when our site wasn’t anything like it is now. Our first ESPN experience raised over $200,000.” In the nascent stages of Omaze, a “tremendous amount of hustle” was required. “We built relationships for the better part of a decade,” Cummins reveals. When we raised $1.7 million with the ‘Breaking Bad’ experience, we felt all the pieces were coming together. Our last Jon Stewart event raised over $2 million. Our model is working; people are enjoying it; and we are having a ton of fun. Our team charges us up every day. They are so enthusiastic, motivated, and passionate.”
Prior to founding Red Seat Ventures, Chris Balfe was president/chief operating officer of Glenn Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts, as well as chief executive officer of TheBlaze. “We always said content is king – but right now, talent is,” he remarks to Ramsey. “What we build for talent could be a podcast, or in the case of some people we are working with at Premiere Networks, it could be a 360-degree view of their world.” It is Balfe’s contention that, “Premiere has the best talent in the terrestrial space, but they haven’t yet taken advantage of the digital opportunities in the same way we did for Glenn. We are working with Premiere and the talent.” It needs to be a collaboration among Premiere, Red Seat, and the talent who have to “opt-in and say they want to make an investment in digital. We build the correct platform and we provide resources that most on-air personalities do not have in-house. We have amazing social [media], editorial, and tech people. We bring it all together and negotiate a single strategy for them so they can have a digital presence they need.”
One specific example regarding Red Seat involves Mike Rowe, perhaps best known for hosting the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” series (2003 – 2012). “He wanted to do a podcast but he didn’t have people who knew how to sell or distribute it, so we brought those sides of it to the table,” Balfe recounts. “Mike’s [seven-minute ‘Rest of the Story’] podcast has been in the top 50 on iTunes ever since we launched it [approximately 18 weeks ago]. There have been over three million downloads so far. It is authentic to who he is as a broadcaster. He loves telling stories – that passion and enthusiasm comes through. I thought it was going to be a hit as soon as I heard the idea – and it was.”
The first calls Balfe made were to radio syndication partners to say Rowe was the next Paul Harvey – “The Rest of the Story” originator. “It is good enough that it should be on radio [but] I really could not get traction,” Balfe concedes. “Shows now have to be formatted in certain ways.” The “litmus test” he once employed for a potential show is that if stations were not going to run it, there was no need to create it. “Now with podcasts, that is over,” he emphasizes. “Mike Rowe belongs on radio – eventually [programmers] might come around but for now, it is doing great as a podcast. If it never gets to radio, it is radio’s loss – not his.”
When Ramsey invokes the name Howard Stern in the digital context, Balfe says the King of All Media has radio and television, “but at the same time, that kind of complexity can be a problem. No one is in the driver’s seat specifically thinking about digital.” That is where Balfe enters. “Howard does so many things well, but [social media isn’t one of them]. Everyone talks about the amazing interviews he does but those interviews do not get shared socially the way Jimmy Fallon’s do. Taking the content he has already created and making it ‘shareable’ for social media consumption is a place we would start with Howard.” It begins with an editorial perspective. “We have real pros who can listen to the shows and can think about the unique advantages a talent has with [his or her] audience and how that can be highlighted for digital,” Balfe declares. “Many people we work with already have a [daily] three-hour radio show and a [daily] one-hour television show. If I show up and say we will build an amazing digital show and, by the way, we need three hours of your time each day – it is not going to happen.” Growing up as a fan of Don Imus, Balfe has since become more interested in consuming content of Stern’s interviews. “They are not in my Facebook feed though and I do not see them ‘shared,’ so I don’t. As a result, ‘Planet Howard’ is a bit contained and could be opened up.”
MaximumFun.org proprietor Jesse Thorn oversees a network of more than 20 podcasts. In 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history. The two areas he focuses on are comedy and culture. “Those grew out of things I wanted to see more of,” he informs Ramsey. “We directly produce approximately half of our shows; the other half amounts to a distribution partnership but it is more like a relationship any record label has with a band. We provide backup and guidance on the creative side but do the heavy lifting with fundraising, ad sales, and marketing.” His current approximately 12-person staff is “significantly more” than it has ever been.
Distributed by NPR, flagship show “Bullseye with Jesse Thorn” airs on such stations as WNYC, New York and KPCC, Los Angeles, but the host downplays that it is not MaximumFun’s most “popular” show. “‘Adventure Zone’ might be the most popular,” Thorn guesses. “At any given time, we usually have 10 – 15 shows in the iTunes Top 100 for comedy. We have shows ranging from 10,000 downloads to hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode. It is not exactly about audience size for us as much as the way that the audience cares about the show. Our ‘unfair advantage’ is that we actually believe in what we do. It is something that really comes from our hearts; something we believe in; and our actual core values. The people we connect with believe in it as well. In the case of MaxFun, it is a case of making things and being creative; being kind; and liking jokes. It is easy to extend that brand when that brand is actually things [for which you] care.” Stressing that he got into this because he loves public radio, Thorn nonetheless explains, “It is not that important for the shows to be on radio” to fuel audience interest. “It is not a huge driver for our overall audience.” NPR’s name recognition and credibility are “the most useful part of it for us. That is an effective means of shorthand.” In many ways, the terrestrial public radio audience is similar to the online public radio audience but they may be different in some respects. “Those listening to NPR [on terrestrial radio] probably are not running to my ‘Jordan, Jesse, Go’ podcast, which is basically an uninterrupted string of swear words.” Platform-agnostic Thorn isn’t “worried” about how he reaches an audience. “Stop thinking of your listeners solely as listeners and start thinking how you are engaged with these people,” he advises. “If you are a major media company that does not try to innovate things – you are failing at what you do. The great thing about the internet is that you don’t necessarily have to try those things in a single-stream broadcast scenario where you might alienate people.”
The first two TALKERS hivio summaries were archived Friday (6/3) and yesterday (Monday, 6/6).
Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com.