By David Penticuff
The Indianapolis Star
After nightfall, youngster Jeff Smulyan would search out AM radio play-by-play of the New York Giants.
He dialed in stations, some of which could transmit a thousand or more miles through the static of lightning in Indianapolis, to hear what his favorite outfielder was doing.
"At the time, you were either a big Willie Mays fan or a Mickey Mantle fan," Smulyan remembers. "I liked Willie Mays."
Radio and, to some extent, baseball still occupy Smulyan, who returned to Indianapolis from law school and started a radio career that resulted in Cincinnati Magazine parent Emmis Communications.
Now Smulyan, 56, is a past owner of the Seattle Mariners while continuing to build Emmis, with assets today of about $2 billion, including 21 radio stations, some dominating top U.S. markets.
Emmis is the sixth-largest radio chain in the nation in terms of listeners and the eighth-largest by its annual revenue of about $300 million - even though it ranks 34th in number of stations owned.
"I like to do what people say can't be done," he said.
That has been Smulyan's key, say friends of the down-to-earth chief executive officer, who owns more than half of the shares of Indianapolis-based Emmis.
"He's a very, very kind person," said Steve Crane, who has known Smulyan since the two attended elementary school together in the 1950s. "And his persistence. He has a never-give-up attitude."
His visible success is tempered by an approachability that has caused him to be admired even by the competition.
"In a business that has a reputation that people are just in it for the money, Jeff is a humane operator and he is a broadcaster," said Amos Brown, director of strategic research for Radio One.
Brown said Emmis is known as one of the best places to work in Indianapolis.
At work, Smulyan has put his attitude into a list of 11 commandments for company employees. They include "Admit your mistakes" and "Never get smug."
It's a credo he has been developing since he launched Emmis more than 20 years ago.
"What he did was unique and compelling - he blew up the formats," said Mike Miles, an investor and longtime friend of Smulyan.
Miles said Smulyan would move into a market and buy underperforming stations, spend a lot to promote them and change the formats - attracting a lot of attention from listeners. That resulted in higher ratings and more revenue from advertisers.
And he did it in one city after another.
In New York, he bought WNBC in 1987 and converted the historic station into WFAN - one of the first all-sports stations.
In addition to Cincinnati Magazine, Emmis owns a number of regional magazines, including Indianapolis Monthly, Texas Monthly and Los Angeles magazines.
There also is a television component to Emmis, which owns 16 TV stations spread across 12 states, usually in smaller markets - such as Terre Haute, Ind.; Green Bay, Wis., and Honolulu.
"We believe we would like to get a little bigger," Smulyan said.
Accessibility and restraint are appreciated by his on- and off-air talent.
"I'm sure he chafes at some of the positions I take," said attorney Greg Garrison, who broadcasts his conservative opinions over about a dozen stations around the state as host of a radio talk show.
Smulyan, one of the highest-profile Democrats in Indiana, doesn't get involved with the daily content of his media operations or let his personal opinions hold sway over business. He doesn't quibble with the market - he serves it.
"Anyone who knows my politics knows that I'm not a Rush Limbaugh fan," he said. "I suppose that one of my television stations has Jerry Springer on right now, but I'm not a fan of that, either."
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