Mark Cuban and AudioNet

The following is an excerpt from Learfield and the Internet: 1995-2005

In September of 1995 we received a phone call from Mark Cuban. He and a partner (Todd Wagner) had recently acquired a company called Cameron Audio Networks, named after its founder Cameron Christopher Jaeb. The company had acquired rights to broadcast radio and professional sports games live on the Internet. Cuban wanted to listen to the basketball games of his alma mater, Indiana University. Learfield owned the media rights to IU (and eight other universities and colleges). Cuban renamed his company AudioNet.

From the AudioNet media kit, October 1995:

“AudioNet is one of the most popular destinations on the Internet. People around the world know that when they want their choice of realtime and on demand audio programming there is only one place to go, WWW.Audionet.Com, the world’s first Broadcast Network on the Internet!”

“We offer them realtime broadcasts of radio stations such as KLIF Dallas, KFI Los Angeles, KOA Denver, XTRA San Diego, WQAM Miami, WJFK Washington DC WCKY Cincinnati, with many more to come. The there is the realtime broadcasts of exciting sporting events such as Texas A&M, University of Southern California, Baylor, Southern Methodist University college football, a growing schedule of professional football, baseball, basketball ad hockey, and Indoor Soccer.”

“In addition to sports programming we offer a complete choice of entertaining programming (you) can’t get anywhere else, like the Janice Malone Show, The Mark Cuban Show, Jeffrey Lyons Movie Reviews and Hollywood Reports, Medical Matters, Tech Talk, NetRadio, Geek Free Radio, Legal Matters, NetRadio, Celebrity Interviews with Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Swayze, Dustin Hoffman, George Foreman, Gennifer Flowers and much more. What’s even more exciting is that AudioNet is doubling (its) content offerings every month, with new things being added every day. Listeners know to stop by and see what’s new, and they do!”

On November 10, 1995, we met with Mark in Kansas City to discuss how our two companies might work together. It was Clyde, Allen Hammock, Steve Mays and (maybe) Chief Engineer Charlie Peters.

Since Learfield owned the broadcast rights, we couldn’t see the value of what AudioNet brought to the table. At one point Mark walked over to the whiteboard and scrawled some numbers, offering to sell 10% of his new company to Learfield for half a million dollars (others recall the number as one million). Learfield didn’t have the money at the time and really couldn’t see the value of AudioNet in any event. (Cuban sold his company to Yahoo! on April 1, 1999 for $5.7 billion, making it the most expensive acquisition Yahoo! had made at the time.)

In December, 1995, Learfield and AudioNet signed a letter of agreement for Internet distribution of our live college sports programming. AudioNet provided a minimum of 10,000 RealAudio streams while Learfield provided audio of our football and basketball broadcasts. We were also responsible for development of all content for the websites. Any advertising sold by Learfield, the split was 80/20 (80% to Learfield). If AudioNet sold the ads, the split was 60/40 (60% to Learfield). The term of the agreement was two years.

At some point during our talks with Mark, someone at Learfield asked why we couldn’t just do this on our own. Why did we need AudioNet? I recall Mark explaining he had an arrangement with RealAudio for streaming licenses that no other company could get. That was his edge.

Tweeting the execution

My Small History of Learfield and the Internet is nearing completion. Every drawer I open has some interesting new tidbit. Missourinet News Director Bob Priddy (now retired) share’s this gruesome bit of history:

“One of the highlights of our coverage of executions was when I became ( I think) the first reporter in the world who tweeted an execution. Dennis Skillicorn was executed in May, 2009. I could not take anything into the witness room except my notebook and a pen, and the book I had been reading in the waiting room, but I kept a careful chronology and as soon as we came out, I posted tweets on a minute-by-minute basis describing the events.

I stopped using Twitter in November of 2016 because it had become toxic with politics. Might return someday, might not. But searching for these Tweets reminds me of it’s historical importance.

When newsletters were printed and mailed

In 1988 if I wanted to communicate with the 60 radio stations affiliated with our news networks, I printed it and put it in an envelope and mailed it (USPS). Took as long as four days to reach some stations. No fax machines yet and email still years away.

This has such a Pony Express feel to me, here in 2017. The idea of a monthly, printed newsletter seems… quaint. But I recall almost every company and association doing a monthly (sometimes quarterly) newsletter. Somebody spent hours writing these things, often with multiple managers “signing off” before they went out.

When desktop publishing (and laser printers) came along, newsletters got ugly, fast. That was my opinion and I my philosophy was text-only; short paragraphs; one page, front and back. I read somewhere, “No more than an hour to write and a minute to read.” I think I knew, in my secret heart, that nobody read these things anyway. But I did them, every month for years. I kept most of them and they provide tiny snapshots of what was going one with our networks at the time.

Today we have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and maybe even a blog or two. But I’m seeing some Big Names moving back to newsletters. Easier to monetize? More likely to be read?

Clyde’s first business plan

It’s pretty easy to come up with an idea for a new business. It’s really hard to write good business plan for a new business. In 1972, 28-year-old Clyde Lear put together a proposal for regional radio network. He showed it to a half dozen local businessmen who invested in him and his idea. Last year Clyde’s company was valued at more than one billion dollars. It’s not really his company anymore, he sold it a few years ago.

Clyde kept that first business plan and it’s interesting reading. I worked for Clyde for 30 years and have known him for 40 so it might be more interesting to me than you. He’s graciously allowed me to share some of it here. It begins with the concept, his “big idea.” An excerpt:

Regional news and farm networks have been especially lucrative. The growing farm economy required quick dissemination of farm information. Much of this information is a necessity to the agribusinessman. Further, the advertiser wanting to market his good — machinery, seeds, services, fertilizer, feed, chemicals — looks for the way he can get the greatest number of farmers and ranchers to hear his message at the lowest possible cost. The regional farm network is the answer.

Advertising rates, proposed programs, projected expenses, descriptions of other networks. In 1972 there were 113 radio networks in the U. S. and Clyde researched eleven of them. An example:

Ohio Farm Network: This is a full-time farm network, but distribution is by tape, and five days late. Programming is entirely morning about 20 minutes in length. It is entirely a pre-sold program, based on a percentage of the rate card of each station. One man handles all the programming and all the selling. The overhead is low, and sales, by comparison to the others, are moderate at best, seldom reaching $10,000 per month.

If you’ve ever thought about starting your own business, or if you started your own business, you might find this bit of history interesting. The company that Clyde and others built from his original idea doesn’t look much like his original dream but that was never a static thing. You can download Clyde’s original plan here.

 

RadioIowa.com

My next “small histories” project will be an Internet timeline showing when and how the company I worked for viewed and used this new technology. We registered our first domain (Learfield.com) on August 30, 1995 but didn’t do much with that (corporate) site. In July of 1996 we created a site for one of our news networks (Radio Iowa) but I don’t recall what kinds of content we were posting in those early days.

By November of 1999 we had gotten the hang of things and were putting up a lot of news (text and audio). The Iowa Caucuses pulls lots of attention to the state every four years and our network created a feature called Campaign Countdown. Our website made it possible to extend the life of the stories we fed via the radio network and reporter O. Kay Henderson cranked out a LOT of stories and interviews, all of which went online.

As we moved and updated servers and software, much of this content was lost. Or so I thought. While poking around on the Internet Archive WayBack Machine this weekend I found the Campaign Countdown reports.

The design of the website is nothing to write home about (that’s on me) but he history is real and — thanks to the Internet Archive — preserved. (I made a donation and hope you will, too). From this screenshot (partial) of our Affiliates page and you can see that about half of the stations had websites in 1999.

In my experience, radio stations were slow to embrace the Internet. There were a lot of reasons for this. Some good and logical, some not. Most of the programming on small market stations was music and licensing and technical issues made it impractical to “stream.” I’m not sure we had that word in 1999. And why, many station managers asked, should I go to the expense and effort of creating a website when everyone we care about (advertisers and listeners) can hear our programing on the radio? Duh. And nobody was going to listen to music on a computer. (iTunes, the iPod, and XM Radio came along in 2001. Podcasting in 2004)

When the web was young and ugly

During the mid-90s I made a little career pivot that allowed me to work on our company’s Internet strategy although ‘strategy’ is too grand a term for what I/we were doing. I found and hired a couple of college kids who knew some html and created our first websites. The screenshots below (from the Wayback Machine) are from 1996-97.

A lot of websites looked like these in those days. Compared to many (most?) businesses, we were early to the game and registered domains for our networks in ’95 and ’96. I’m not sure having a one-word domain is a big deal these days. Or any domain for that matter.

Missouri Death Row Audio

In the late ’90s I created a website called MissouriDeathRow.com. A Missourinet reporter had served as a witness (while covering) of every execution going back to 1989. There was no death row website because a) the web was still pretty new at the time and b) the Missouri Department of Corrections went to some lengths to avoid the term “death row,” even though prisoners sentenced to — and awaiting — execution were housed together.

At each execution, a packet of information was handed out to reporters and a stack of those were gathering dust in the Missourinet newsroom. News Director Bob Priddy and I began putting that information online and it quickly became the de facto site for information about capital punishment in Missouri. I maintained the site until I retired in 2012.

The site included a page with some of the history of capital punishment, including audio recorded by Missourinet reporters. As of this writing, much of that audio is no longer available on the site. The site was moved a few times, different servers, different platforms… files get misplaced or lost. My buddy Phil Atkinson did his best to find some of those and I’ve archived them here.

Missouri hasn’t executed anyone in a couple of years but they had quite run at one point. The audio includes post-execution news conferences, interviews with victims’ families, opponents and proponents, and the condemned.

The early days of streaming audio

In 1996 (maybe 1997) I was involved in the first effort to stream audio of floor debate from the Missouri legislature. It was early days for streaming and the audio sounded pretty shitty. We had very limited bandwidth and the first RealAudio encoders were primitive. But it was the first time anyone could listen to live debate without being in the Capitol building (where they had audio lines to each rep’s office).

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 8.48.58 PMThat first year I think we only streamed live but the following year we started archiving the audio as well. That, however, was nearly useless if you were trying to find a particular piece of debate in audio files that could run five or ten hours.

Not sure I can explain this but what we did was insert links to specific points in the debate (not unlike how we now create YouTube links that jump you X minutes into the video). I spent hours doing this before I dumped it on an assistant. But it allowed someone that wanted to hear debate on House Bill 123 to click a link and get pretty close. Unbelievably tedious.

We provided this service at no charge for a year or two and then started charging $500 per session. Lots of takers, mostly lobbyists and lawyers. We bumped it to $750 the next session and lost a few subscribers. It wasn’t long after that that the House and Senate Information Offices took this service over and we were out of business. It wasn’t a good “business” business but it offered a hint of what would be coming down the road in terms of streaming.

If you’ve never listened to floor debate of a state legislature, it’s hard to describe how boring this shit was. As streaming tech got better, someone would suggest they stream video and they’d take a shot at that, usually on the final day of the session. On one such attempt they had to pull the plug quickly because the cameras were showing members dozing at their desks.

Once people saw that we could actually do this, we started hearing grumblings about the audio archives. It was explained to me this way: Since the dawn of time, the House and Senate journals were the official record of what happened in the respective chambers. But those records could be amended. So if one member called another member “a lying motherfucker,” that got stricken from the official journal. But but not from our audio archives. This made lots of folks very uncomfortable and — ultimately — led to the legislature taking over. I always assumed some poor schmuck got stuck with editing those monster audio files.

These days every legislator has a smart phone on her desk (or in her purse) and can record audio unobtrusively. Don’t know if the House and Senate rules prohibit this but I’ll bet it would be hard to police.

Smart phones and YouTube means everyone is being recorded all the time and for all time. Amending the written journal is so yesterday.

UPDATE: I failed to mention the important role Phil Atkinson and Charlie Peters (and the people that worked with them) played in this (and other) digital project. I’d ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…” and in a few days (or hours!) they found a way to do it.

Can Learfield fetch $1Billion or more?

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 2.19.56 PMThat’s the question posed in a recent edition of Sports Business Journal. Before retiring three years ago, I worked for Learfield for 29 years. Not sure how many employees they had when I started in 1984 but in 1989 there were only 49 of us. Today, more than 1,000.

I’m guessing a billion dollars is not that much for a national media company but when I remember the little house on McCarty Street that was HQ when I started, it sound like a lot of money and I’m proud of the former co-workers who made it worth that much.