The ABCs of T.J. Lambert
by Mike Kinosian, Personality Editor, Inside Radio
Every city having a major professional sports franchise will at some point see its citizenry lay claim to possessing the greatest and most rabid fans.
Substantiation to such allegations could be a packed stadium with a stunningly high percentage of the crowd donned in precisely the same color scheme frenetically waving towels, homer hankies or rhythmically rattling thunder sticks.
Few will dispute the robust energy Philadelphia fans have for their teams so it must have been professional paradise for lifelong Phillies-Eagles-Flyers-76ers supporter TJ Lambert to serve as ESPN Radio’s VP/Affiliate Relations.
This past August (2007), the 14-year ABC Radio Networks veteran was elevated to Senior VP/Affiliate Relations World- wide where he oversees an approximately three-dozen member staff, including highly-respected Dave Van Dyke who last month (10-16-2007) was brought in as VP/Affiliate Relations. “Citadel is a public company and is a pure radio company,” Lambert proudly remarks of the new ownership. “There’s more of an entrepreneurial spirit here now. We’re sleeker, faster and more nimble to take marketplace advantages. [Citadel Chair- man/CEO] Farid [Suleman] and [COO] Judy [Ellis] are into programming.”
Discovering cutting-edge talent is among their top priorities. “The next Rush [Limbaugh] or Sean [Hannity] might be in Chicago, Kansas City or Boise,” Lambert comments. “We’re always out there looking. It’s a matter of finding [the right on-air personalities] and then [making] a place for them. We want to move our terrific format business with 800 stations strong into bigger markets, while making it more relevant and personality-driven in our smaller markets. About 90% of what we talk about in this building is content.”
Without having to commit to ABC Radio’s entire “Today’s Best Country” format, Citadel’s KSCS/Dallas recently added the network’s Amy B to middays. “It’s cool to be able to put her up against the station [Cumulus/Dallas’ KPLX] where she had ten consecutive #1 books,” Lambert declares. “Many people don’t know we have a fully built Nashville operation. All our Country [product] will be live [from there].”
Components of Lambert’s current responsibilities entail every- thing connected to affiliate relations or affiliate sales.
Latest offering in the goody bag is Don Imus’ WABC/New York-based wakeup show debuting today (12-3-2007) and already cleared on Greater Media’s WTKK/Boston and Citadel’s WSKO/Providence. “The affiliate group is primarily telemarketers but they travel when needed and are out there selling our products,” he explains. “Our ad sales people are exceeding last year’s numbers. The affiliate relations part of it [deals with] current affiliates [who] need help, guidance and customer service. That’s part of the job and anyone who knows me [is aware] that is first and foremost in my heart. I truly believe if you begin worrying about the business you’re going to get before the business you have, you should buy a lot of plywood because you’ll need it for your windows.”
Several WIBG/Philadelphia personalities frequently conducted record hops when Lambert was growing up in that area. “I liked to dance and that was a great way to do it,” he recalls. “It didn’t cost much to go. There’s no question my musical influence was Philadelphia Top 40 from [the 1960s].”
Motown, the Beach Boys and British Invasion artists such as the Beatles kept Lambert glued to the radio. “Look in my high school yearbook and you’ll see `DJ’ was my nickname because that’s what I’d do,” he confirms. “It was a career decision long before I ever got out of high school.”
It was while employed at a DuPont plant’s air pollution quality control division when Lambert struck up record hop friend- ships with radio personalities Bob Hamilton and Bill Todd. “They instilled the bug in me,” Lambert points out. “My mother was Bill Todd’s speech therapist. He was in Atlantic City and couldn’t get a job at WIBG because he had a [minor speech impediment]. My mom fixed it and he [eventually] was [hired there]. I [was impressed with WAEB/Allentown] and Bill introduced me to [the late] Jay Sands who helped get my foot in the door as an afternoon/evening newsperson.”
Just as Lambert was negotiating a $10 a week pay raise (from $105 to $115) at WAEB (where his on-air name was Ted Lambert), George Gilbert hired him to follow Joey Shaver at WARM-AM/Wilkes Barre-Scranton.
Management at WAEB was perplexed by Lambert’s decision to exit because they were going to grant him the extra $520 a year but he stresses, “WARM[-AM] was `it’ in those days. It really was `The Mighty 590.’ If you couldn’t learn with Susquehanna, you couldn’t learn.”
Randomly-done airchecks were followed up by paragraph-long critiques. “This guy’s comments were spot-on every single time,” Lambert recalls. “Most people however didn’t know [the person doing the evaluations] was blind. When I found that out, I never fought back again.”
Thirty Five and Out
A weekend/swing position opened up at WIBG and Lambert jumped on the opportunity to return to his hometown. “You can imagine what it was like to have a chance to work at the station I grew up listening to. I was a young guy and thought I’d hit the lottery. The fact is I wasn’t quite ready for primetime. I was only there six months. It taught me I needed to improve my skills if I wanted to have a major market career. I was lucky to get the nighttime job at WPOP/Hartford and [stayed] until they went all-News [in the mid-1970s].”
Another chance for Lambert to work in Philly (this time at WIFI) preceded his Cleveland programming assignment at WERE & WGCL and doing radio and television work in Albuquerque.
While at WIBG, Lambert composed a note to himself which stated he wouldn’t be on the air or in programming by his 35th birthday. “I was getting to be [that age] and the television job wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” he candidly comments.
Los Angeles-based Drake-Chenault had been purchased by Wagontrain Communications and by 1986 new owner Bill Sanders relocated the format and feature supplier to Albuquer- que. “They hired me as a Regional Manager and I became GSM three months later,” Lambert points out. “That lasted another three months and I was promoted to GM.”
Much of Lambert’s circa 1990 selling involved 24/7 reel-to- reel music formats. “It was a dying technology,” he concedes but the company soon entered into a partnership with Jones Intercable. “They started cable radio and selected us to program their [channels]. It was an open-frequency on [a subscriber’s cable system]. The germ of what became Drake-Chenault/Jones Satellite Services which became Jones Satellite Services which became Jones Satellite Audio which became Jones Satellite Radio which became Jones Satellite Network as it is today all began with a call from someone with a need. We decided to niche it as a commercial-free, cash-only venture.”
The association Lambert had with Jones lasted until 1993 when David Kantor and Darryl Brown asked him to assist ABC Radio with a strategy for its news networks and formats.
First on the agenda was tweaking ESPN Radio, which at the time, offered a weekend-only schedule.
Not long thereafter, NBA play-by-play, “The Fabulous Sports Babe” and other fully-programmed dayparts were added. “A cavalcade of stars had a hand in ESPN Radio and I’m just glad I [played] as big [of a role] as I did,” Lambert states. “I remember the first meeting we had about [becoming a fulltime network]. Drew Hayes was the GM. John McConnell had a part of it. John Walsh, the guy who invented SportsCenter, was in the room. John Hare had just taken over the Radio Division. We were sitting in Boston at the  All-Star Game [played at Fenway Park]. I can visualize those meetings, the room and what we ate. The guys running it now certainly understand the history and what it means to radio.”
Bristol University (a.k.a. ESPN) employees are generally in- tense sports fans, a label definitively applicable to former ESPN Radio GM (and longtime frontline par excellence programmer) Bruce Gilbert. “You have to be [a sports fan in order] to be associated with that brand,” Lambert maintains. “There are talented people beyond belief there. In my way of thinking that brand is in the same category as Xerox and Disney. From top to bottom, there’s a collection of creative and fabulous people [at ESPN Radio]. You would talk to people who thought you were a genius because it said ESPN on your business card. [On one hand], I live and die by how my Philadelphia sports teams are doing [but] I didn’t think about sports the very first thing every morning.”
Cranking Out The Calls
Prior to his Drake-Chenault program syndication days Lambert tried his hand at record promotion. “I happened to get in it in the late-1970s/early-1980s when it was pretty rocking with Neil Bogart,” he remarks. “It was a four-color world, brother, and as fast-paced as you can imagine. Casablanca was the king of disco and the WEA group was doing great rock and pop stuff. Country was becoming a bit more modernized and broad-based. The guys from PolyGram came in one day with a little gold disc and said it was going to revolutionize how we did our business.”
The new form of distribution (CDs) cost less to make and record companies could charge twice as much than it was for vinyl. “I was blown away at the quality,” Lambert states of the new compact discs. “One year, [Harry Wayne Casey, the front man of] KC & The Sunshine Band gave us [what appeared to be] cassette players as a Christmas present. It looked like a pretty good-sized paperback book. They were actually the first Walk- man and cost $500 apiece. It was cool to be on that side of the business where I could see some technological changes.”
Perhaps more than anything else from that record label ex- perience though Lambert learned how to place more phone calls. “It’s a different way to sell,” he acknowledges. “I love record promotion people because they know how to get on the phone and get `adds.’ The first record promotion person I ever hired to do affiliate relations came from Lyric Street. Record people make calls – that’s what they do. You have to throttle them down [and remind them] they’re not going to [get clearances] every week. It’s a little bit different business. All the folks in Nashville doing affiliate relations have a record company background.”
Sony’s Walkman has given way to Apple’s iPod and Lam- bert contends his is so schizophrenic, he calls it Sybil. “I’m probably an R&B-leaning pop guy,” he notes. “I love Justin Timberlake’s new stuff and [have enjoyed] Country music since I got involved with it in my Drake-Chenault format days. I also love hearing Rush, Sean and Mark [Levin]. We’re representing ad sales for [syndicated morning talent] Kidd Kraddick, who absolutely cracks me up. I’m glad we have an opportunity to work with [him] and his team. When I’m up at the farm with my horses, we listen to [NextMedia Adult Contemporary KLAK/McKinney, TX].”
Travel comes in spurts for Dallas-based Lambert who is usually on the road 40% of the year although he attempts to be in the office each Monday and Friday. “I take everyone’s phone call and return each one,” the enthusiastic fan of former Group W Radio President Jim Thompson states. “Jim is a great radio guy. I could just gush about him forever. [Former NAB President/CEO] Eddie Fritts hooked Jim and me up at a convention. It turned out he’s from Philadelphia too and we became [immediate] pals that day. I had no idea until after I came back from the convention just exactly who he was. We played golf, had lunch and hung out but I didn’t know. If I’m going to do anything major in my life, the people I’ll talk to the most about it are my wife, my older brother and Jim Thompson.”
As someone who has consistently shared whatever he’s learned with others, Lambert proclaims, “I have a wild idea or two but I’d love to figure out a way to get young people interested in our business again. This is a terrific and fabulous business [although] it’s just not very sexy right now.”
Now that the Citadel-ABC transaction is complete he wants to finish what’s been started and what the company is work- ing on. “It’s really a breath of fresh air,” Lambert comments. “Don’t for a moment think we’re just sitting around collecting paychecks and revenue. We’ve all been through sales and this one was two years worth of people wondering when it was going to close.”
When it finally did, a collective sigh could be felt and as Lambert states, “The next chapter was ready to begin. We opened the cover of this book and months later, there’s been a lot of laughter and fun. I have no problem getting up in the morning and coming to work. There’s exciting stuff on the horizon for us. There are things on my desk that make me think this is one great place to be. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”