Good Karma Broadcasting founder and president Craig Karmazin is living his dream. At only 30 years old, the New Jersey native owns eight radio stations across the country, with operations based in Beaver Dam.
But his Milwaukee station, ESPN Radio (1510 AM days, 1290 AM nights) is where Karmazin spends most of his time. In addition to running the radio group, he also has his own daily show with his childhood best friend and co-hosts a football program with former Packers tight end Mark Chmura.
We caught up with Karmazin to get the back story on what makes him tick, including how he landed Steve "The Homer" True and what role Craig's influential father played in launching his company. (Full disclosure: OnMilwaukee.com is a promotional partner with Karmazin and trades advertising on Milwaukee's ESPN Radio. OMC is also developing a soon-to-launch eCommerce Web site in a joint venture with Good Karma.)
Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks with ESPN Radio's Craig Karmazin.
OMC: How does a 30-year-old guy go about owning a bunch of radio stations?
Craig Karmazin: A 30-year-old goes out and gets himself $10 million in debt to buy a radio group, borrowing money and having a lot of good people who allow you to do what you need to do to continue to grow.
OMC: OK, really, give me the story on how you got here.
CK: Short story is the me and bunch of friends who had an interest in broadcasting were in Madison for a Halloween / football weekend. We had a lot of drinks and threw out the idea that high school friends who are getting together in college do: We should start a business in this city that we're sitting in right now. A year and a half later and nine trips to Madison later, we were able to accomplish that.
OMC: But you're not a Wisconsin native, right?
CK: I'm from New Jersey and New York, all Yankees and Knicks. In college, I worked at a radio station in Philadelphia.
OMC: So what were you doing in Madison?
CK: I had a friend who went to school here, and like so many Wisconsin students, couldn't start a sentence without saying, 'Well, in Madison, this is what we do.' We all wanted to come out and see if it was for real.
OMC: I have to get this out of the way. How does your dad, Mel Karmazin, play into this?
CK: My dad greatly plays into this. He is currently the CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio. He had managed and grown Infinity Broadcasting, had run CBS and Viacom, and he's a great mentor and person I can lean on. How he doesn't fit into the business is that he's not involved in any way financially, management-wise, decision making, or in any other way.
OMC: But did having Karmazin as your last name help secure your financial backing?
CK: I certainly think it didn't hurt, but it was still about putting together a business plan. We were really lucky that the first acquisition we made was in Beaver Dam of very, very successful existing stations with a lot of cash flow -- which is what banks are looking for when we made (the additional) acquisitions.
OMC: So what are you doing in Milwaukee?
CK: It's a natural extension. We're a Wisconsin-based company. We started almost nine years ago, and Milwaukee is the biggest market in the state with the most potential listeners and advertisers.
OMC: Yet, as an on-air personality for your other stations, you don't have much of a presence at ESPN Radio in Milwaukee, right?
CK: Our research has shown that Milwaukeeans like to listen to people who have a heritage and who are from here. When it came time to setting our Monday through Friday lineup, we were able to have some really powerful national names from ESPN Radio like Mike and Mike and Dan Patrick, and we've been able to supplement that with Steve "The Homer" True, Bill Johnson, Dan Needles, Steve Haywood and (OnMilwaukee.com senior editor) Drew Olson. The spot for my show, The Steve and Craig Show, wasn't here.
OMC: What's it like to do a radio show with your childhood best friend and business partner?
CK: It's a bizarre show, in that it has evolved into a show that airs in the obvious tri-state area of Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida, with very different psychographics and demographics. It's a combination of sports, entertainment and the talk that all guys have at the bar. I'm lucky enough to do it with Steve Politziner, who has been my best friend since I was four years old. He runs our West Palm Beach operations. I've been doing the same show in the back of car pools since about the age of six.
OMC: And you guys do this show every day from across the country?
CK: We are wherever we end up. With eight radio stations now in the company and different responsibilities, we have found a way to do the show wherever we are.
OMC: Do many radio station owners also have their own shows?
CK: I think it's unique for a broadcast company to be as small as ours in the age of consolidation, with the Clear Channels and Entercoms. But I don't think it's uncommon for the owner of a small business to be involved in a lot of aspects of the business.
OMC: And in Milwaukee, listeners can hear you alongside Mark Chmura. Explain that relationship.
CK: The Miller Lite Football Show is one of the best things we've done as a radio station. We hired Mark before the 2004 football season. He was one of our first and best hires. He and Craig Coshun hosted the show last year, and when Craig was given more national opportunities, we needed to find someone named Craig to do the show with Mark. I was the only one around, so it worked out. Mark has grown incredibly as a broadcaster and has more journalistic integrity than I would ever have. He's a great, honest, hard-working part of what we do.
OMC: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the controversy in having Chmura as a host. What kind of vetting did you do before hiring him? Or was the fact that he was found not guilty good enough?
CK: Not guilty, alone, wasn't enough. I lived here during his trial, and I saw what he went through. I thought a lot of it was unfair. I did extra reading up on the trial, and I was first really surprised to see that he had chosen to live in the Milwaukee area. How many Packers have chosen to do that? That was a real plus. The first time that I met him I had that confidence that he'd be a great contributor to the radio station.
OMC: How did you bring Steve "The Homer" true over from WISN?
CK: Bringing Homer over is like bringing Reggie White over to the Packers, it's been said to me. We had been in the market for only a year at the time, but the number one person in the genre believed in what we were doing and wanted to take us to the next level.
OMC: Was that a defining moment in your career?
CK: I don't get caught up in one moment being too big. I don't get too high or too low. I think it was another great addition, the same as it was great to add Drew Olson and Dan Needles and people who worked all across the company.
OMC: What do you do about people who complain they can't pick up your station's signal downtown?
CK: Everyone who has a computer can hear us. All of our shows, local and national, are streamed at espnmilwaukee.com. We've been able to solve our issues with the Internet. We are licensed on 1510 as a daytime only station. With the rapid growth of the station in May of 2004, we instantly realized we needed more inventory to sell. We were able to get a signal at night through our partnership at 1290 AM, WMCS. We knew it would be an instant success. We have also made improvements and upgrades to the signal.
OMC: What's the future of radio? Is it online or satellite or digital or "high definition" radio?
CK: I've not heard a financial model that is going to make high definition radio work for us at this time. I think that both traditional AM/FM radio, as a well as satellite, are both great businesses.
OMC: How has having another sports station in the market helped or hurt you?
CK: All it's done has brought more attention to sports radio. From May 2004 when we bought the station, there's never been a time when we haven't been the highest rated sports radio station in Milwaukee.
OMC: Lets talk about you for a minute. You always wear a suit to work. In this business casual world, why do you dress up every day?
CK: From the first day I started in this job when I was 22, I probably was asked a few times if I was old enough to get into PG-13 movies. For me, I love wearing sweats, but there's something about putting your clothes on to do the job. I don't picture the Brewers wearing another uniform and being in the same mode. There's something about putting on the suit that puts me in the work mode.
OMC: What do you like about Milwaukee? Do you plan on staying here?
CK: I love it. I've lived on the East Side since I've been here. You could put Milwaukee up there with any city in terms of great restaurants, things to do, ease of transportation. To have three major professional sports teams and two major universities. And to get from my apartment to an arena in less than 10 minutes.
OMC: When you're not working, where do you like to go?
CK: My favorite bars and restaurants are the ones that are spending money with our radio stations.
OMC: OK, how about places that aren't spending with you?
CK: Osteria. I love it down there, never have had a bad meal there. I've taken all sorts of people from out of town there.
OMC: Are you married?
CK: I'm not married, but I've had a girlfriend for a few years. And a dog of nine years, a Jack Russell Terrier.
OMC: As a transplant, have you become a fan of Wisconsin sports teams?
CK: I've definitely become a fan of Wisconsin teams and players. It's such a unique time with the Packers' transition and the Brewers' transformation, and with the Bucks being a playoff team, all at the same time. When you combine that with college sports, to have both Milwaukee teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, it was amazing to watch.
OMC: Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
CK: I have no idea. I've never been smart enough to figure that one out. With over 100 employees in the company and so many opportunities out there, I have to examine what's best for the company. Whether it's beyond radio or the state of Wisconsin, our eyes are always open for growth.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.