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Sports Talk Radio creator and former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan's new book reveals his rollercoaster ride in the radio and sports biz

Then-Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan enjoys a moment with baseball greats Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr.
Jimmy Shapiro/Little Guy PR/Seattle Mariners
Then-Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan enjoys a moment with baseball greats Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Emmis Communications founder and CEO Jeff Smulyan is one of the most successful radio executives in history. The creator of sports talk radio and former owner of the Seattle Mariners is out with a new book Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down: The Ups, Downs, and Reinvention of an Entrepreneur.

Smulyan joined SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the book and his groundbreaking career.

Jeff Smulyan joins SportsJam with Doug Doyle
Doug Doyle/Zoom
Jeff Smulyan joins SportsJam with Doug Doyle

Even though Smulyan has had tremendous success building brands and owning iconic radio station in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago and New Orleans, he admits he hasn't always made the right decisions.

"I have a favorite saying. 'The line between a genius and an idiot is very fine.' I've been on both sides many times. I even have a chapter in the book called 'Idiot to Genius' which is the start to sports radio and 'Genius to Idiot' which is my tenure owning the Mariners. I think in life that anybody who tells you they haven't failed at anything doesn't count very well."

Smulyan's love for radio began when he was a youngster. He listened to sports and music on his transistor radio.

"When I had the transistor and was listening to ball games late at night or Top 40 radio, I think they (his parents) just said turn it off and go to bed. Radio was part of our lives then. I think baby boomers really had a place for radio. Radio was pronounced dead in the early 50's when TV came along, but radio really re-invented itself as it seems to always do."

When Jeff was taking classes at USC, he got the idea to create an all-sports radio. Friends and colleagues didn't think it would work, but when Smulyan created WFAN in New York, the format eventually turned into a craze that now dominates radio and television.

"We merged it with WNBC. We put the frequency on 660. We put Mike and the Mad Dog on and Don Imus and it became a place for people to go sports and then it became one of the biggest radio stations in America."

Jeff Smulyan's new book
Matt Holt/Jeff Smulyan
Jeff Smulyan's new book

Smulyan's book is filled with surprising stories about those days and beyond.

"Suzyn (Waldman) was the first voice on the air on WFAN. In those days, I would be more involved and I said boy she's terrible. I said she's not a great reader. They assigned her to the field where she became probably the greatest sport reporter of all-time. A few years later we were in Seattle and the Yankees were playing there. We were in the press box and I said 'Suzyn, who is the best young manager in baseball?' She said, 'Jeff the next great manager is Buck Showalter.' We (Seattle Mariners) were on the verge of making a change and we flew Buck Showalter out. He had just been fired as one of the Yankees coaches. George Steinbrenner fired the whole coaching staff. So we flew him out to Seattle for an interview. There was a story in the paper about Showalter flying to Seattle for a manager's interview and Steinbrenner said 'Wait a minute, why do they want him? I just fired the guy. Get him back here!' So he came back to New York. Steinbrenner interviewed him and immediately hired him as manager of the Yankees. So I always say Suzyn Waldman's comment launched Buck Showalter's managing career. "

Showalter won the National League Manager of the Year Award last year with the New York Mets. Before that, he was a three-time American League Manager of the Year.

Jeff Smulyan is the founder and CEO of Emmis Communications
Emmis Communications
Jeff Smulyan is the founder and CEO of Emmis Communications

Jeff Smulyan is a real family man who loves living in Indianapolis, the base for Emmis Communications.

"It's home. My family has been here for over 130 years. When I went away to school at USC, I thought I would never leave California. When I got out of law school, I always wanted to start my own company and my dad said come back home and do it. He talked me into it. The first six months I said what have I done? And for the last 45 years I've really loved it. I've had chances to be everywhere else, but it's home. I think home is always home. I'm very proud of some things that have helped shape this community and it's been very gratifying."

Smulyan is currently leading Emmis through a transition from slower growth traditional media assets to new businesses with better growth profiles.

A cum laude graduate of the University of Southern California with a B.A. in History and Telecommunications, Smulyan earned a Juris Doctor degree from USC School of Law, where he served as note and comment editor of the USC Law Review.

You can SEE the entire SportsJam interview with Jeff Smulyan here.

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Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.