Talent manager

Imagine trying to manage Jesse Ventura, the flashy, outspoken professional wrestler-turned-politician whose upset victory in the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race shocked the nation.

Steve Konrad, program director for 610-WTVN radio, doesn’t have to imagine. He’s done it. In fact, Konrad brought the job of managing “Jesse the Mouth” upon himself.

When Konrad was program director of a talk radio station in St. Paul, Minn., he personally recruited Ventura to host the morning show there.

“I knew he had things to say and that he was a beloved guy,” Konrad explains. “Those are two things you’re always dying to find, and I had it in one package.”

Konrad says he first heard Ventura “yammer a little bit” about his philosophies during an event Konrad’s Minnesota station was involved with in the early ’90s.

“That was in the back of my head,” Konrad says. “Then the 80 percent voting rate he got when he was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park (Minn.) told me he’s not just the flash of showbiz. There was some substance to him.”

In the spring of 1994, Ventura started lighting up the phone lines at AM 1500 KSTP with his controversial opinions on political and social issues.

“It really blew some people away because people thought he was just going to be some dumb wrestler guy,” Konrad recalls.

Although Ventura found quick success in his new radio career, his widespread celebrity in the Twin Cities didn’t make him unbearable to manage, Konrad says.

“He was not an egomaniac,” he says. “He’s very thoughtful. He’s very humble, which doesn’t really fit the profile. He’s a normal guy with a house and a wife and kids. He has a heart of gold and he’s entertaining as hell.”

Still, it couldn’t have been a piece of cake to manage such a lightning-rod personality.

Case in point: In his autobiography, “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed,” Ventura admits to calling a Democratic Minnesota legislator a “little commie” during a live interview and later, after realizing his error, apologizing on air by saying, “You’re right … I shouldn’t have called you a communist. I should have called you a socialist.”– a comment Ventura notes the lawmaker didn’t seem to take any better.

Another time, Ventura reportedly munched on some chocolate-covered hemp seeds in the broadcast booth while discussing whether the crop, known best for producing marijuana but also used to make rope and cloth fiber, should be legalized.

“I never had a problem with Jesse that we couldn’t talk about,” Konrad insists. “He’s a good guy.”

The on-air talent Konrad now oversees at WTVN may not be as flashy or in-your-face as Ventura, but the same principles of management apply.

“A lot of it comes down to mutual respect,” Konrad says. “If that is there, that’s really the foundation.”

Here’s Konrad’s formula for laying solid groundwork when managing superstars.

Keep ’em happy

Bob Conners is the most consistently No. 1-rated morning radio host in Central Ohio, so making sure he’s content at WTVN is paramount to the station’s success.

“The morning show is probably the highest profile show of a radio station, and given his longevity in the market, his knowledge of the city and of the people and what they know and what they like to know about, (Bob’s) very important,” Konrad says.

He’s been No. 1 forever,” echoes Mike Elliott, producer of The Bob Conners Show, which airs from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays. “They don’t call him The Morning Monarch for nothing.”

Indeed. According to Arbitron ratings for fall 2000 — the most recent available; winter ratings are due out later this month — WTVN ranked first in the 5:30 to 9 a.m. timeslot with an 11.3 share. A share is the percentage of people, ages 12 and older, listening to the radio. The next highest share for that timeslot was WNCI at 8.8.

“He’s No. 1, and by a comfortable amount,” Elliott says of Conners.

Looking back at the same ratings period a year earlier, WTVN had an 11.9 share in Conners’ timeslot, nearly three full points ahead of any other Central Ohio station. In the fall of 1998, Conners’ show was first with a 10.8 share.

“He has consistently performed double-digit shares,” Konrad says.

In fact, the only time WTVN’s morning show ratings seem to dip is when Conners is on vacation. That’s why station executives agreed to let Conners do his show from Florida this winter. They wanted to keep their superstar happy — and on the air as much as possible.

“They treat me very well,” Conners says. “The people I work with are top-shelf people.”

That, too, is by design. Konrad wants his superstars to be comfortable with those around them. If a producer change is needed, for example, Konrad includes on-air talent in the interview process.

“They don’t have final say, but I typically follow their lead,” Konrad says. “It’s their show. Their butt’s on the line every day. They need to be on the same page. So I’m kind of partial to letting the talent dictate who they want to work with.”

After all, if a personality clash can be avoided, why not do it? Everyone winds up happier. And happy talent is productive talent.

“This can’t necessarily work in all situations, but you have to like the people you’re working with,” agrees Joe Bradley, who produced “The Bob Conners Show” for nearly five years before moving to afternoons to produce for John Corby. “If you don’t, that’s the first major impediment to being able to work with them and have them work well for you. That doesn’t mean I’m over at Bob’s house every day cooking out steaks on the back patio. But I don’t know how hard I could work for someone I didn’t like. It sounds awfully simplistic, but it’s what works for me.”

It also works in Konrad’s game plan.

“I need the talent to get along with and respect the producer and vice versa,” he says. “If that respect isn’t there, it’s going to be a problem.”

That doesn’t appear to be an issue with Conners and Elliott.

“Bob trusted me from the get-go,” Elliott says. “There’s been no second-guessing, no discomfort.”

And everybody at the station is respectful of Bob, Elliott adds.

“A lot of folks would love to be in his shoes.”

Realize their value

WTVN calls Conners a Columbus landmark, “as essential as the first cup of coffee,” and the “Morning Monarch” in station promotions.

His face grins down from the occasional billboard advertisement along heavily traveled commuter routes. He makes personal appearances on behalf of the station at selected events. He even has his own e-poll on the WTVN Web site — and a personal photo gallery showing him posing with a variety of citizens and civic leaders, as well as staffers and family.

“When you have someone of his stature and popularity, you definitely want to play to that strength,” Elliott says.

Conners can appreciate the station’s need to promote his name and face.

“First of all, I’m a product, and I’m their product,” Conners says. “How they see fit to use me is up to them. They’ve never done anything I’ve seen as out of line.”

Leveraging star power like Conners’ to help market WTVN may be beneficial to the business, but it comes at a price — generally top dollar.

Although Konrad won’t say outright if Conners is the top paid talent at WTVN, he concedes that “in a general sense, the morning show is the highest visibility and the morning drive is the highest listening population, so at any radio station, the person who does the morning show is going to be the highest paid.”

“They’re paying me for good ratings,” Conners says. “And I’m trying to perform the best I can. But ratings are a byproduct of what I do. What I do isn’t for ratings.”

Being top-rated year after year, however, would appear to put Conners in the driver’s seat when it comes time to renegotiate his contract. Not so, he says.

“They have the leverage,” Conners insists. “They have the radio station where I want to be.”

Even if your company superstar has an attitude like Conners’, negotiating with top talent can be a delicate matter. You want to pay them enough to keep them satisfied, but you have to work within a budget.

“I have no interest in ripping them off or jerking them around,” Konrad says. “I want them to be happy. I want them to feel they’re fairly compensated. And I want them to be comfortable.

“Obviously we have to balance that with (the fact that) this is a business. I can’t give the talent the bank,” Konrad continues. “That’s dumb. But it’s not about negotiating. It’s about discussing — ‘Where are you at? I can’t go that high because blah, blah, blah.’ I’ve never been in a knuckle-busting, poker-like game of negotiating contracts. All that does is create animosity. And you can’t go through all that strife and not go on the air and have people say, ‘Geez, what’s he so bitter about?’

“Whatever is on their mind is going to come out of their mouth.”

Conners says negotiating his contract — which includes a noncompete clause — “takes normally about 15 seconds. As in all work agreements, there’s give and take. You ask for a high number, they offer you a low number and you know they’re going to meet you at a middle number.”

So how, as a business owner or manager, do you decide what your top performer is worth?

It all comes down to expectations.

“How much revenue total is in the market? And how much of that do we think this talent can garner for us? That all translates into dollars,” Konrad says. “There is some subjectivity to it and you can’t get around it.

“But if they’re (top talent), their compensation is going to reflect that.”

Watch the egos

Despite all his years in the catbird seat at WTVN, Conners is still largely described by co-workers as “a regular guy.” The fame hasn’t gone to his head, they say.

“For as popular as he is, there’s the potential for him to have a huge ego, but he doesn’t,” Elliott says. “He doesn’t like to be gushed over. He’s very humble — especially when he’s in a position where he doesn’t have to be. It’s very refreshing.”

Conners says he’s actually a bit embarrassed by the Morning Monarch nickname, pointing out that a newspaper reporter bestowed that title upon him years ago.

“I’ve never billed myself as that,” he says. “I just don’t perceive myself as that. I don’t want to be the king of anything. I’m serious about what I do, but I don’t take myself seriously.”

Perhaps that’s why Conners is regarded as so approachable.

“I can’t imagine Bob not getting along with anyone,” Konrad says.

“If you’re the new, part-time accounting person and you want to shoot the breeze with Bob in the hallway, you can do that,” Bradley says. “He’s just a regular person who does something very well that entertains and informs lots of people.”

Conners also recognizes he didn’t get where he is all by himself.

“If there’s one thing to say about Bob, he’s quick to share the credit,” Bradley says. “He’s not quick to point the finger.”

“I’ve worked for lesser talent that’s had bigger egos,” Elliott adds. “He’s set up to have a gigantic ego and be very difficult to work with and want everything his way, but that’s not the case at all.”

That whole ego thing is stupid,” Conners says. “People from time to time will confuse pride with ego and I’m proud of what I do. I’m just not involved with all that ego, id, whatever you want to call it.

“You have to be proud of your product, and if someone misreads it, you’ll never be able to talk them out of it.”

Give up some control

Since superstars tend to take pride in their performance, they often want to call the shots. But how much latitude can you give such talent without losing control?

“I don’t know that free rein is the answer,” Konrad says. “I think they do want some boundaries. You just have to be sure everybody knows those boundaries.”

Konrad offers the example of a talented radio personality he used to work with who “every third week came marching into my office demanding that her producer be fired.”

That clearly was overstepping her bounds.

When problems like that arise, Konrad says it’s imperative to figure out the true source of your superstar’s discontent — which isn’t always obvious from the typical, ‘This just isn’t going to work for me,’ complaint.

“I have to find out: Where’s the pea under the mattress?” Konrad says. “And how do we move that pea out from under the mattress? It’s usually a very small problem that they perceive as being a big issue.

“The secret radio joke,” he continues, is superstars are “a lot like children.” They squawk over seemingly insignificant issues, presenting them as “melodramatic and larger than life traumas,” Konrad says.

Fortunately for Konrad, Conners and WTVN afternoon drive-time host John Corby seem to behave themselves despite their stardom. That means Konrad is more comfortable relinquishing control to them since he knows they won’t abuse that power.

“They’re professionals and I pretty much stay out of their hair as far as dictating what they should do,” Konrad says.

Elliott does likewise with Conners.

“You really can’t put restraints on somebody,” Elliott says. “Obviously, he’s the guy with the microphone, and if he doesn’t like the way something is going, he’s definitely in control. But he’ll trust my judgment. If I say, ‘We definitely need to talk to this person,’ he may not agree, but he’ll do it. And if he says, ‘I really want to tackle this topic,’ far be it from me to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do it on your show.’ After all, it is The Bob Conners Show.”

“Every business has creative people that drive their business,” Konrad concludes. “There is no cookie-cutter way to deal with creativity. That’s why it’s called creativity instead of science. Each person is different.

“I hope I treat everybody fairly, but there’s no way I can treat everybody the same.” How to reach: Steve Konrad, WTVN, 487-2476 or [email protected]

Nancy Byron ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.