Ken Rutkowski is a dot-commer from the early days. He’s one of the first broad-casters who went from radio out of a small town (Joliet, IL) to broadcasting over the Internet. He saw how big digital was going to be long before radio stations had websites worth visiting, long before social media existed, and long before anyone knew the smart-phone would take over our lives.
Rutkowski’s radio show, called World Tech Roundup, was one of the only shows listened to by every big deal in Silicon Valley, and his newsletter was read by tens of thousands. To have that kind of fans, you not only need to know your stuff, you need to know how to network. Ken Rutkowski is a master at networking, a super connector. He prefers personal telephone calls over e-mails or texts (he tries to call 50-80 people every day). And he started a group called METal, which consists of 1,600 paying members who meet regu-larly to talk about entrepreneurship.
And now, along with Steve Lehman, Rutkowski has leveraged his two decades of networking, his Rolodex of CEOs, and his knowledge of the digital space into a syndicated talk show called Business Rockstars. The show focuses on aspiring entrepreneurs — all 30 million of them — whom Rutkowski calls “wantrepreneurs.” The show is heard live weekdays from 10 a.m.-noon, it’s streamed over the Internet at www.businessrockstars.com, iTunes, Stitcher, and iHeartRadio, and it can even be seen on YouTube. Already Business Rockstars has 450,000 Twitter followers (@bizrockstars) and more than 183,000 Facebook fans.
How did you get connected with radio?
Rutkowski: I was teaching engineering architecture at University of Illinois. I was driving one day and heard an accountant talking on the radio. I thought it was the most boring content I had ever heard. I thought, if this guy can talk about account-ing and people listen, I could talk about computers. I went to the radio station. The guy in charge’s name was Ed Sherman. I went to Ed and said, “I heard this guy talk about accounting. Let me talk about com-puters.” He said, “All right, what the heck.” He allowed me to do a show for 45 minutes on Saturday called World Tech Roundup, which eventually led to a weekly three-hour show on Saturdays. I probably had 15 listeners. But that progressively grew.
How did you wind up on WLS?
Rutkowski: Mike Elder was the program guy there. He heard the show and said, “Why don’t you bring this to a powerhouse station in Chicago and do it on Saturday nights as opposed to Saturday mornings? We’ll do a syndicated deal and you can have so many advertising spots per hour.” I was able to take my advertisers with me.
I did the show for a year on WLS until they found out how much I was getting paid from my advertisers, which was 20 times more than they were getting paid for the same spots. They asked if I could be put on salary. Salary was like $50,000 a year. I was making probably $800,000 a year, with a three-hour show once a week. I said no, I don’t want to do this. So I took the show off the air, and I literally created a daily show.
So you transitioned to the Internet.
Rutkowski: I love taking phone calls. That is the heart of almost everything I do; I am sitting there taking phone calls. We would get them from our local listeners in the Joliet area. When Rob Glaser from RealAudio said, “We are literally going to take your on-hold feed from the radio station and that’s what we are going to broadcast through the Internet,” our first call came from Acapulco, Mexico, and then another call came in from Melbourne, Australia.
I just realized that the world is where it’s at. I didn’t want to just hang out in Joliet. So I put more and more emphasis on a global audience. It allowed me to get really, really big sponsors. I got Oracle and Microsoft. And it wasn’t for small sponsorships. I got Microsoft for almost $600,000, as a sponsorship on a little-known radio station, over the course of a year, because they believed in the Internet also. Everyone I booked and everyone I talked to said, “Hey, we are the first global broadcast.”
And that’s when you started to meet the bigwigs in the early dot-com days.
Rutkowski: I got to meet Mark Cuban through Rob Glaser. Mark allowed me to stream through AudioNet and then allowed me to create a network through AudioNet. During the heyday, around 1998-99, I had 11 daily shows that were being pumped through AudioNet that I was producing. But they weren’t normal shows. One was The South African Report. Another was New Zealand/Australia and Brazil. It was technology and cool happenings in those parts of the world.
Through the process I met a bunch of cool tech people. I ended up working for CNet and launching CNet Radio. CNet Radio was good, but the minute you heard Time Warner was bought by AOL, the world was upside down. Nothing made sense anymore. So I was told, “You should move to Los Angeles. Get out of San Francisco.” I moved to L.A. and fell in love with it. I still did my daily radio show, still with great sponsors.
Microsoft backed it for the longest time because my data bills were around $15,000 a month; they would pay my data bills. I had a nice following in L.A. My newsletter got up to about 100,000 people every single day. The newsletter had great advertisers on it too.
I created an organization called METal. METal was my way to meet amazing people — about 50-80 people would meet once a week. While the show continued to grow,
my METal group was really growing. It became my larger source of revenue. I now have about 1,600 paying members, includ-ing five billionaires. It’s like a TED every weekend. Real important here: They are pay-ing members. I have to stress that. You don’t just become a member.
Then I bumped into Steve Lehman. Steve said “Let’s take what you do at METal and bring it to radio.” We launched the Business Rockstars radio show in February two years ago, with a few weekend shows. Then we launched the full-blown show on June 17 of 2012.
You were getting sponsorships back when the technical aspect of deliver-ing content was very different than it is today. How were you doing that?
Rutkowski: Huge dollars. It’s pretty easy, actually. My newsletter was the key. Today, that would be social media. Every time I would press “send,” it would show when somebody opened the newsletter and read it. For example, I would know when Larry Ellison from Oracle opened up my newslet-ter. I went after their tier-two people. Mark Benioff, who is the CEO of Salesforce at Oracle, became a really good friend. When he would open up the newsletter, I would know it. I would pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Mark, what’s going on?” He would say, “Ken, you are never going to believe this, but I am listening to your show,” or, “I am look-ing at your newsletter.”
I would use the newsletter as a door-opener to meet these people, then I would get them on the show. I would use them as regulars on the show. From there, they knew that people would talk about it and say, “Hey, I heard you on World Tech Roundup.” They never had that feeling before. Remember, most of these dot-commers and tech people are nerds. I saw them as rock stars. I really did. I would put them on on a regular basis, like somebody from Pink Floyd or Steely Dan. They liked it so much they would say, “Let’s find a way to sponsor it.”
You love to pick up the phone and talk to people, don’t you?
Rutkowski: To this day, I hate e-mail with a passion. There’s no personal connection. I love the phone. I just saw Jeffrey Katzenberg the other day. Katzenberg, to this day, makes 200 phone calls per day. I try to make 50 to 80. I try to meet 25-50 people every day. I try to bring together 200-300 people a week. It’s all around some type of touchpoint. E-mail, there is no personality. When people send e-mails back and forth, it loses its connection, especially if it’s done over and over again. It loses its resource, in that it is short, quick, and to get a point across. It is not a real mode of communication to make something happen. That is what phone calls are for. That is what meeting face-to-face is for.
What is Business Rockstars all about?
Rutkowski: Steve and myself are diehard entrepreneurs, which means you jump out of the plane, then as you are falling, you check to see if the parachute is on. That’s what entrepreneurs are. There are so many entrepreneurs out there, but they feel so alone. We wanted to create a place for them.
Lehman: Business Rockstars is a show that focuses on rock star CEOs, entrepreneurs, and starting, growing, and funding a busi-ness. Our target is the “wantrepreneur.” There are 30 million “wantrepreneurs” in the United States. We’ve created a show in one of the hottest sectors in the world right now, entrepreneurship.
We are the only daily two-hour national show that focuses on entrepreneurship in an entertaining, fast-paced, exciting for-mat. We drive the audience, and we enable the audience through social interaction, through our website, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We create an interactive platform with our listeners that we think adds an entirely unique dimension to this radio show.
I want to step back and say some-thing very important. I specifically believe that this is the turning point for women entrepreneurship. Women are really getting involved. If you look at the world right now, from Janet Yellen to Hillary Clinton to Angela Merkel, all of these women are gaining power seats throughout world politics, but we’re seeing the change down through corporate America too. More women will graduate college, starting next year, than men. That trend will continue to grow. We feature a lot of women entrepre-neurs, business owners, and women rock stars, which I think is very unique.
“Steve Lehman and myself are diehard entrepreneurs, which means you jump out of the plane, then as you are falling, you check to see if the parachute is on.” — Ken Rutkowski
Who are some of the guests you’ve had on the show?
Rutkowski: We’ve had about 1,500 guests, including Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese; Brian Lee, founder of LegalZoom; John McAfee, founder of the McAfee security software company; Peter Gruber, owner of the Dodgers; actress Cheryl Tiegs; and musician Akon.
All call-in guests?
Rutkowski: I hate the call-in guests. I like guests in studio. Since we broadcast the show on radio but also via YouTube, all these founders now want to be on the stream, because they chop it up and use it themselves. People will fly in to do a 15-minute radio interview because they want the social media connection.
Lehman: We have a radio studio that’s been converted into a television live-streaming studio where we do the show every day. People are able to listen to the show on radio, listen on Internet, and watch the show on YouTube, and we are able to take some of the most powerful pieces of content and cut those up into flashes of knowledge, play those back, and give them to the radio stations to put on their websites.
We also record interviews after the show, so that when we have a rock star CEO or interesting entrepreneur or a 17-year-old that’s changing the world, Ken will record unique content as a follow-on, which again engages the audi-ence.
What is your goal with this show?
Rutkowski: We focus on the good, the bad, and the ugly of business. Every true entrepreneur has had failure. The “wantre-preneurs” — somebody who wants to become an entrepreneur — may not know where to begin. A “wantrepreneur” may have tried starting a business, failed, and then just stopped. Or they just do not have the skill set to know how to take something to the next level. That’s who we focus on.
Lehman: Everyone who listens, even if they are not in business, even if they are not entrepreneurial, is going to say, “Wow, that’s inspirational.” We have CEOs tell stories about success, failure, and what it took to become an entrepreneur, their dedication. What they did to overcome adversity. It incorporates one of the strongest aspects of Talk radio, the story-telling. Ken is masterful at setting the story up and taking the story to logical conclusions that connect the dots with listeners.
What’s your perception of how radio is embracing digital?
Rutkowski: It depends. I’m pretty damn impressed by a lot of these new podcasts where they talk to their niche listener. Radio, unfortunately, is so very one-way. It’s like a broken Twitter. With Twitter, at least you can do a direct message. You can somehow get to the person that is relaying this. Now, with all the satellite and all the pre-programmed stuff, there is no direct feedback. And you consistently feel that.
I drove for seven miles the other day, and I heard three Katy Perry songs on the same station. What’s going on here? People don’t want to hear that. Radio is a one-way path. It is not bi-directional. It needs to look at what the Internet has done for the last 20 years; it’s a bi-directional path. Radio is broken. It is not broken in a bad way. I don’t think it has ever been repaired, because no one sees it as broken. The same people who have owned it for the last 20 years don’t know how to fix it.
Is there serious revenue to be made in digital for radio?
Rutkowski: Absolutely. Radio needs to allow the fans to be a part of the story. Look at Pepsi as an example. The Pepsi One cam-paign allowed the people that loved Pepsi to create videos around how Pepsi fits into their lives. That was a massively successful campaign. Radio needs to do that. Why does a certain radio station fit in somebody’s life? Allow those videos and posts and messages to be part of the radio environment, on websites, on social media, and on the air. Radio has to turn back to the listener and say, “How are we important to you?” Show us, teach us. No one is really doing that.
Unless your name is Adam Carolla, is there really any way to make money podcasting?
Rutkowski: I want to point to a guy named PewDiePie. He is on Youtube. PewDiePie has over 26 million subscrib-ers, over 4 billion views. He’s 24, plays two video games a day, and makes over $12 million a year. He destroys Adam Carolla’s numbers. This is where it’s going. CaptainSparklez plays just Minecraft, and he has somewhere in excess of 1.8 billion views. My point: It has to be niche content for niche audiences. Radio can grab those stars and say, “Hey, we are going to have the top Minecraft person join us today,” and use their social media outreach to help build that station’s visibility.
I’ve been doing a lot with Akon lately. Akon has 54 million likes on Facebook. The minute he’s on our show, we trend on Twitter. Radio needs to go after the rock stars in the social media world to build, and that’s how they’ll compete against the online world: by using those people that really capture the digital world and col-laborating with them.
Lehman: We’ve taken what Akon does in music and put it into music mentoring as a business within Business Rockstars. On Thursdays we have actual rock stars as part of this. It could be Akon, a member of Pink Floyd, someone from Oingo Boingo or a member of Smashing Pumpkins.
Rutkowski: Those real rock stars mentor up-and-coming musicians and bands about the business of music. It allowed us to stay true to our core of Business Rockstars, because we’re talking about music as a business and incorporating real rock stars into our show.
To be successful in your world, the digital world, what should radio be doing?
Rutkowski: You have to evolve, and you have to embrace. You can’t stop. I think radio right now is thinking that if there is a way we can just grab something and hold on to it for a while and ride it out — some of these radio stations’ websites are eight years old. A website needs to change every two years. They all need to have iPhones and Androids. Every station manager, everybody at every radio station, should have a LinkedIn profile.
I go to a hotel in the middle of Indonesia and everybody who works for that hotel has a LinkedIn profile to con-nect with the person who stayed in the hotel to create a personal relationship. That is so smart, because now I want to go back to that hotel.
Everybody has to be social media-ized. They have to be on the latest and greatest of technology. They have to understand it. They may not have to implement it right away, but they have to accept it and not think that they can slow it down. That’s probably one of the most important things. That is how you stay in touch with everything.
The last thing: Make sure the GMs and radio guys know it is all about connecting with one another, meeting and talking con-sistently. That’s the only thing that is going to save radio, when everybody is really com-municating and working together.