By Walter Sabo
NEW YORK — The great Ed McLaughlin has left a legacy of stunning success. Working for him for five years at the ABC Radio Networks, I learned how and why he was so successful, respected, and beloved. He was responsible for the success of KGO, San Francisco as its VP/GM in its founding year of 1960. Ed gave KGO its on-air staff, momentum and “sound” that lead it to record-breaking #1 ratings. The multiple network concept at ABC was brought to profitability by his determination and leadership. Ed retired from ABC to bring Dr. Dean Edell to syndication and Rush Limbaugh to the status he enjoys today.
MAKE IT BIGGER
Today, if you take an idea to most manager-types they will say that the company can’t afford it, or it costs too much, or it’s never been done before. Ed McLaughlin never embraced a small idea.
Those who met Ed socially or at conventions might be surprised to learn that he was a Zen-like manager. He never gave an order or direction. Instead, he grew the radio network using a very trusting and intriguing management style: Make it bigger. As the head of programming and affiliate relations, I would bring him ideas and his response was consistent: Make it bigger. He was only annoyed by small, mundane, standard ideas. He had no interest in forms, rules, or tradition.
For example, Beatles specials were always popular network offerings. These usually consisted of a deep-voiced jock playing Beatles songs and telling stories. Ed wasn’t interested in a special like that. After several proposals, he finally accepted a 24-hour special hosted by an actual Beatle — a Beatle — Ringo Starr was the “jock”. But, that wasn’t big enough. The last hour, week 24, was to be a live CALL IN show with Ringo taking phone calls. Stunning clearances. Major profits. Ed wanted it bigger.
Ideas that were big enough for Ed inspired him to become fully engaged in the project. He would marshal every resource of ABC to make a project a success — from legal, to financial, to engineering, to marketing, to the television network. When Ed called, the corporation cooperated. He knew that a key part of his job was to give his team access to the resources of the corporation and he was a genius at persuading all of ABC to support the radio network. When he supported a project, he believed it was his job to find the money. And he always found the money.
Sometimes things didn’t work. That was also okay. He insisted that his team be forthcoming about their mistakes, honest about their problems, and then he would work toward a solution. More importantly, once a mistake was revealed, it had no tenure, he just moved on. Make it bigger.
When he started as president of the ABC Radio Networks, they were losing money — a lot. When he left 12 years later, ABC had more than 2,000 affiliates and significant profits. Those profits came by spending money. Worth repeating: Profits came from investing in new ideas and talent. He trusted his staff to invest in the right ideas and execute them flawlessly.
STARS ARE OUR BUSINESS
When the ABC Radio Networks bought Watermark and “American Top 40,” Ed made it a mission to show Casey Kasem that ABC was the right home. Casey and his wife arrived in New York. They were limousined to Central Park. In Central Park they were put in a horse-drawn carriage to Times Square. In Times Square, timed perfectly, the display sign said, “WELCOME CASEY AND JEAN KASEM TO ABC.” Then the horse-drawn carriage took them to dinner at Le Cirque.
And that’s how you treat talent. That display of love for the Kasems was nothing unique for the ABC Radio Networks under Ed….talent first. He understood that radio is its talent. If stars are happy and loyal, radio becomes a strong business. Without passionate talent, radio is just a box of records. Whatever on-air talent wanted in terms of respect and access, they had it with Ed.
Ed was charming, flamboyant, and big. But he was also walking integrity. He had two credit cards. One for personal expenses, one for corporate, and he kept them pristine. Laws were followed, the books were clean, and his word was gold. Why that is necessary to mention is unfortunate, but it should go on his permanent record. The son of the fire chief of San Francisco had to know the rules.
HOW TO LEAVE A COMPANY
When Ed left the presidency of the ABC Radio Networks, rather than accept a check he studied how to make ABC a partner in his future. His parting package included his request for an office and phones paid for by ABC. He understood the syndication business better than any other radio executive and he planned to monetize that expertise. To do so in his agreement with ABC/Capital Cities, he said that if he found a syndication-worthy talent, that talent would be cleared on ABC-owned talk stations and the ABC Radio Network sales department — the best at the time — would sell the inventory for the first three years. His first star was Dr. Dean Edell. His second was Rush Limbaugh. WABC cleared Rush at its home station, paid Rush’s salary, and Ed kept the syndication rights and inventory.
HOW TO ACT LIKE A GROWN UP
After selling EFM Media, Ed did much more than golf. He devoted a great deal of time and money to the Broadcasters Foundation of America. More importantly, on a regular basis, Ed expected all of his colleagues, whom he made wealthy, to also devote considerable dollars to the Broadcasters Foundation of America. I think that’s what he would like us to do now! His successful life: He died with the respect and love of his wife, Pat, his children and his colleagues. Thank you Ed for demanding that we should all think outside the box and find bigger boxes.
Walter Sabo is CEO of New York City-based consultation firm Sabo Media. He can be phoned at 347-380-1581 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.