Smokey Rivers parted ways with radio a few years ago, but it was never completely out of his system.
During recent downtime outside the industry, he helped his wife launch a deli in downtown Phoenix, coincidentally, or precisely because it filled a need as one of the few eating establishments near the IHeartMedia radio cluster.
Radio people might not make the money they once did, but they still gotta eat.
"It's very convenient to that organization and we opened it because there was nowhere else to eat around there," Rivers said of the Lunch Lounge, where he claims to handle the dishwashing, delivery and pot purchasing part (he was buying pans at Costco during this conversation) while his wife runs the joint. "They wanted some quality food, so we started making sandwiches and salads in 2010, and we're still there, and we'll continue to be there. It's a lot of fun."
But so is radio, and even though Rivers was out of the business, the appeal of the industry kept flowing through his veins.
"Food is good for the body, but radio is what fuels my soul," said Rivers in an internal memo to Scripps Tucson staff.
He maintained a presence by virtue of occasional consulting opportunities.
"I became a lot better listener," Rivers said. "That's the part that helped during the time I wasn't working directly with a radio station. I became more critical of what was on the radio. I'd find myself saying, 'No, don't do that. That's not where that is supposed to go. People aren't interested in that,' and so on and so forth. It got my juices flowing. I wanted to do this again, and by a strange coincidence I had three Operations Manager opportunities, asking me if I wanted to get back into radio."
He chose the Scripps Tucson cluster for a couple reasons. Certainly, proximity to the Valley didn't hurt, but he also had familiarity with Scripps.
"I worked for Scripps in the early '90s in Memphis back when they owned radio previously. I was the Operations Manager for a hot AC and news/talk station," Rivers said. "I truly enjoyed my time in the company, and went to work for them precisely because they were Scripps, and in that town they had an AM/FM/TV/Newspaper combo before the FCC had broken that stuff up. Once that changed, Scripps sold the radio stations and I went to St. Louis to work for a different company. I was in Memphis to work for Scripps, not to work in Memphis. I really enjoyed my time with them. When I heard there was an opportunity to go to Tucson and work with that company I was very interested to work for Scripps. I know some people in TV in Phoenix who work for Scripps. They think they're great. I like the way they do business. It's a very fair company. They're not saddled with debt. They're nimble. They have smart people with hearts and brains running the company."
Rivers will need to use the brain part to get the Scripps Tucson properties back on track. Of its four stations, only KMXZ 94.9 MIX fm grades well within given demographic parameters. Mix is the cluster's lynchpin, and that familiarity helps it get solid listener numbers. It's the top-ranked AC (adult contemporary) station in the market and never slips below fifth (usually placing in the top three) in overall ratings.
"Mix is the legacy radio station," Rivers said. "I've known (morning show host) Bobby Rich for a while. We've co-hosted events in Tucson."
However, there's work to do on the other three stations. The Groove, KTGV 106.3 FM, has seen its uptick slip as a result of classic hip-hop format The Vibe, 97.5 FM, which has registered well in two ratings periods since the station changed formats from a floundering top-40.
"The Groove is a cool radio station," Rivers said. "I put a rhythmic AC station on the air in Phoenix. I like that format. I've done a few of those over the years, and like what that format is capable of doing."
Scripps needs to see a significant boost on the talk front. News/talk format KQTH 104.1 FM has floundered in head-to-head competition with IHeartMedia owned KNST AM 790 for numerous consecutive books.
"I remember when (KQTH) went on the air. I was programming KFYI in Phoenix, which is the local news/talk station here, and I was very interested to see what they were doing down there," Rivers said. "I've always kept an ear on that."
However, KFYI, which consistently hammers fellow legacy talker KTAR in Phoenix, has a lineup more representative of KNST—it rolls out syndicated heavyweights Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—and Rivers will have to devise counterprogramming approaches to try lure listeners back to a format that just three years ago had KNST on the ropes.
Rivers faces a similar uphill climb with KFFN AM 1490/FM 104.9, the ESPN sportstalk affiliate. While the respective ratings don't register big numbers for sportstalk in Tucson, the chasm between KFFN and Cumulus owned KCUB 1290 AM continues to expand. KCUB has outdistanced KFFN in five consecutive ratings periods.
"I fell in love with the opportunity," said Rivers. "Tucson has great people. I'm excited. I'll do my thing."