For many New Yorkers, the launch of WFAN in 1987 changed their lives forever.
This was certainly the case for a young Chris Oliviero, whose fascination with the new station and new format sparked a love affair with radio that led him to make it his chosen profession.
Oliviero spent 23 years at CBS Radio, the last five of which as the company’s Chief Content Officer. He played a key role in helping CBS build the nation’s top news and sports audio platform, as stations in those formats dominated viewership and revenue.
Soon after, CBS was acquired by Entercom (now Audacy), and he quit his job as a corporate programmer to work in consulting.
Naturally, it didn’t last long. As has been the case for so many talented radio professionals who decide to “walk away,” the industry finds a way to push them back.
He was recruited and quickly accepted the position of Senior Vice President and Market Director for the Audacy brand group in New York. For Oliviero, it was something of a homecoming since overseeing former CBS news brands 1010 WINS, WCBS 880 and, of course, all-sports WFAN.
Oliviero will be present the BSM Summit in New York on March 2 and 3 and was kind enough to tell us about his career and his thoughts on the industry.
Why radio? What brought you into this industry?
The birth of WFAN in 1987 fascinated me as a child with an aura and gravitational pull that only a 24-hour live, personality-driven format can have when done right. Hard to grasp in our technological utopia today, but it was so new and different in a time when if you wanted the score of a west coast baseball game, you had to put on your shoes, leave the house and walk to the corner to buy a printed paper.
Also, the personalities, including the callers, seemed to come out of central casting, if that casting office was of course not in Hollywood but in Queens or the Bronx. I listened (a lot), recorded hours on tape, wrote letters to hosts, and even called in an attempt to circumvent the age restrictions imposed by telephone checkers. I was hooked. And I wanted to one day try to be a part of it in any way I could.
You worked on The Howard Stern Show. What did you learn about working with Stern and his team?
You need breaks in this business, especially in the beginning, and luckily I had a huge one. Being an intern in the late 1990s at the Stern Show and just being lucky enough to witness the complete dominance of mass media, from radio to television, from movies to books, was the best education you could ask for. So many career lessons that I have taken with me since that time.
The importance of the team, top to bottom, and of everyone knowing their specific obligations, whether big or small, and performing at their peak, day in and day out. This sense of mutual responsibility between employees really struck me. If I don’t do my job well, it’s harder for others to do theirs. Oh and, of course, I learned that you don’t just have to win, win big; it’s always more fun. Raise the score on the competition.
Who do you consider your mentors and why?
There are so many over the years, but your first is always the most impactful, especially in the early days of a career. Gary Dell’Abate, hands down, will always have my appreciation. Gary paid attention to me, took the time to listen to me, and then followed the topics we were going to discuss. He generously shared his experiences and connections. All of that to me is a pretty good description of a mentor.
The thing is, I don’t know if I would have even had a chance to walk through the door of WFAN as a board of directors if Gary hadn’t taken the extra step of calling Mark Chernoff to introduce us and carry on. guarantor of me. But I’m really glad Gary did, and even now, decades later, he’s still someone I can call on for advice.
During your career, you have worked with and managed a LOT of very stubborn talent. What’s the secret sauce to getting them to perform well and play well with others?
Well, I’ll whisper it so no one can hear it. Although it goes against the org chart and titles, I’ve always viewed it as if I was actually working for the talent and not the other way around. My job is to make the most of them and eliminate anything that prevents them. It’s also about playing a role in helping them really see what their greatest potential could be.
To begin with, however, you must have genuine empathy for the difficulty of their work. Do you think it’s fun to get a report card every week to judge the supposed “value” of your content? If you can build mutual trust, and it takes time, then it’s actually quite easy.
You also need to be honest, in good times and bad, with each other. Empathy, trust, and honesty are the building blocks of any healthy marriage, and that’s how I see it, we’re married in this business. I laugh, though, when I see an executive come in and try to strain a talent and basically say “do this because you work for us.” It never works and these types of management usually don’t take long for the creative world.
If you could build the ideal talent for talk radio, what characteristics would that person have?
Intelligence and humor are the fundamental pair of essential traits for a talk show host. Sprinkle in some self-deprecating awareness, as well as a unique vocal delivery and it always helps. And the ability to know when to shut up is key. A good host doesn’t have to talk all the time, some of the best know when to shut up and give others around them the stage to dance. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but silence can make you a great talk show host.
What advice would you have for PDs and content directors?
Just try something new once in a while. Throw an idea against the wall. Hire a host who is off the radar and off the grid. Be confident enough to be ridiculed for such moves. What’s your equivalent for playing records upside down? But of course, don’t lose the license. Other than that, have fun and stand out.
Radio has undergone a massive metamorphosis. What do you think the industry will look like in the next decade?
If I had a crystal ball, I would say that local content is actually increasing in value for radio, as much of the entertainment world is looking to expand nationally and even internationally. People will always live in communities and have unique experiences, especially with news and sports. We have one foot in this space, so double it. If everyone zigzags, sometimes there is value for those who zigzag.
Also, I think many industry content standards will expire and fall by the wayside. Why does a radio show have to be in a three or four hour block? Maybe it’s only 37 minutes. And finally, who knows by 2032, maybe the audio will have killed the video star.