Value Added: Life After Radio
I didn't like Bennett Zier much when I first met him a couple of years ago over breakfast at The Four Seasons in Georgetown. He and Redskins icon John Riggins were pushing their new Redskins Radio venture - called Red Zebra -- under the team's owner Daniel Snyder.
Zier got testy when I said his nascent radio empire was just an arm of the Redskins and I implied he had no editorial independence. He swore he was independent. He even owned a small piece, he said. It was his radio station, not Snyder's.
By the time I saw Zier bouncing around the gazillion-dollar seats behind home plate at Nationals Park on Opening Day this month, cap turned backwards, working the crowd, two years had passed and he was no longer running his radio station.
I had come to like him because he is friendly, straightforward, unpretentious. He seems to be comfortable in his own skin, not insisting on being the smartest person in the room. When he said he likes hiring smarter people, it struck a chord. I was reminded about something Woodrow Wilson once said, which goes something like: "I use all my brains and all that I can borrow."
Zier is in consulting now, advising companies on how to grow and market their business. He draws on the lessons he learned during a long career in local radio.
A Potomac resident, he seems to know everybody. He floats on the local social and business currents, which carry him to The Palm, CafÃ© Milano, The Four Seasons, Nationals games and big charity. He knows AOL mogul Ted Leonsis. Danaher Corp. co-founder Mitchell Rales. He hangs with Riggins.
Zier, 51, is a year younger than me and one of the things I love to do is follow someone's career arc. I like to hear what they were doing while I was slogging it out as a bad copy editor in Syracuse, N.Y. Or where they were living when I was trying to get my feet underneath me as a 32-year-old reporter at The Washington Post.
So Bennett and I chatted on the telephone last week as he decompressed after running the 10-mile Cherry Blossom race. We talked about his new consulting venture, how he got to where he is in life, the emotional attachment he has to his neckties and wristwatches, and, yes, a little bit about Snyder. Businesspeople love to talk about Snyder.
Zier got his start in radio in college. He studied accounting at Adelphi University on Long Island (I went to Fordham University, not far away) and started hosting sports and radio shows on the campus network. He got an internship at a Huntington, Long Island radio station, working seven days a week in the late 1970s. He sold advertising weekdays, was a reporter on Saturdays (where he once interviewed a presidential aspirant named Ronald Reagan) and went on the air on Sundays, playing music and reading the time and temperature. He did that for 18 months without a day off.
He was hungry.
"You are listening to WGSM," said Zier, drawing on his radio past. "The information you need. The music you love."
Everybody remembers those three or four big breaks in life when they got the promotion, the new job, noticed by a boss or reception of the acceptance letter. Zier remembers his. His first break came at 22, when he got a job selling advertising time on WCBS in New York.
"I said, 'Can I go on the air like I did on Long Island?' They said no. They laughed."
He had to look the part, so Zier's mother took him to A&S department store in New York and bought him two suits. He didn't know the difference at the time between a sports jacket and suit. I didn't know the difference until I got married and my wife told me.
One of the things Zier did early was to set goals and reward himself when he reached them. He would buy himself wristwatches. He has six now, including a Movado, Rolex and Breitling. And every time he got a promotion, he would upgrade his suits. From A&S, he went to Macy's, Brooks Brothers, Saks and, now, Nieman Marcus at Mazza Gallery. He also buys nice ties to mark the occasions, which he continues to do to this day. He happily remembers the triumph or small success each tie represents.
He rose to vice president of national sales for CBS Radio, then moved to Boston to run one of the company's radio stations. Kind of like moving from a desk job at the Pentagon to commanding your own submarine. He was moving fast. He sponsored outdoor concerts at Boston City Hall. He arrived in Washington in 1992 and by the mid-1990s had added seven regional radio stations to the giant network owned by ClearChannel. He was in charge of the entire Washington-Baltimore region for ClearChannel, overseeing radio, outdoor advertising, concert venues like the Warner Theater and a live concert production company. His company booked concerts into the Verizon Center. He started with WTEM when it was an AM radio station. He helped launch Oldies 100.
I am not a big radio listener. I take the Metro to work in the morning. So I don't pretend to be an expert. So I asked Zier a business question: What did you do in Washington radio that no one else did? What did you figure out? How did you get listeners?
"I helped launch WTEM 570, now 980, the first all-sports station in town. Working with (Tony) Kornheiser, James Brown, John Riggins and John Thompson. I was able to hire talent and be in a position to allow them to do what they do. I had a reputation for being creative."
"Convincing John Thompson to go on radio and not do Xs and Os, but actually talk about his opinions. I am more interested in what John thinks about life and what he did. When you walk around town and see how people related to him, and he is great at relating to people. He didn't understand what he was going to do on radio. I said, 'I want you to feel like I am eavesdropping on your conversation on dinner, in the locker room, with a friend. And when you have an opinion, give it with the same sincerity that you have in the coaching huddle or with the press."
"Radio is like a restaurant," Zier said. "You market it so people come to the restaurant. The musical talent and the personalities are the kitchen. The product has got to be great."
Snyder lured Zier out of ClearChannel three years ago to create a Redskins radio network built around the team. The business model is similar to regional sports television networks: rather than sell the rights to a radio station to broadcast your games and content, buy the radio station yourself. That way you have profits AND a broadcasting property that you own.
I remember coming back from the office after the Four Seasons breakfast with Zier when he launched Red Zebra for Snyder, and my colleagues and I made fictional bets on how long the marriage would last. I knew Snyder had recruited ESPN programming phenom Mark Shapiro into his orbit, so I didn't give Zier much of a chance. How many egos can you fit in a luxury suite?
"Dan gave me a great opportunity," Zier said.
He was the founding CEO of RedZebra Broadcasting (Zier named it). It's the home of the Redskins, ESPN radio, John Riggins' show. It launched in 2006 and Zier was gone a year later.
The parting was amicable.
"It was a chance to be part of something new., something private not public. Dan is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. I learned a lot. When you sit in a board room with an entrepreneur like Dan, they tell you about all the mistakes they made and tell you not to make the same. When you sit in a corporate board room of a public company with anybody who has a bigger title than you, they have never made a mistake in their life and they say, 'Well, we did that and it was a great success.' "
I asked Zier what he learned from Snyder.
"Dan is great at making decisions. He didn't get caught up in things that were insignificant. He stayed on point. He was unencumbered that way. He was very specific on how to create a hub-and-spoke radio network that made sense. We were looking at radio in traditional ways. Dan said, 'No. Here is a better idea. Here is how we can maximize assets and talent to grow the business faster.' "
It is unclear to me how well Red Zebra is doing these days. Snyder is rumored to be looking for buyers, but the Redskins have vigorously denied it. The signals from the various FM and AM radio stations that Snyder has cobbled together are challenging, to say the least.
Bennett has launched his own consulting company in North Potomac called Umansky Wyatt Zier Consulting. It helps small and mid-size companies make decisions on how to grow. His partners are Ken Umansky, a former executive at Arnold Communications, and businessman Jeff Wyatt, whom Zier knows from radio.
"We are in health care, technology, cable TV, radio, publishing and help out a couple of sports teams." He won't discuss his client list, other than to say one of them is The Presidential, the Northern Virginia golf course where businesspeople can schmooze with each other. Augusta, it ain't.
"You can have a 9 iron and a cell phone in your hands at the same time," Zier said.
Bennett lives a short drive from his office, in leafy, upscale Potomac. I asked him what he has done with all the money he has made, thinking he would recite a laundry list of real estate, stock, bonds and other investments.
Nope. He has three sons at Georgetown Prep, an aging mother-in-law and an aging mother. The tuition bills alone amount to a $75,000 annual bill - net after taxes.
"I am compensated well, but I'm not rich. As I drive down River Road, there are lots of bigger houses and cars than mine. One of the things in a changing world is people are living longer, and I have other people to look after. I would say we are family-based and family-invested."
But as he sends his boys off to school in the morning, they are wearing the neckties he has accumulated over the years. As they walk out the door, those ties remind him of career accomplishments writ small and large, and he said it makes him smile.
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