When it comes to keeping faith with listeners, Salem Media's Jeff Reisman has The Answer

Jeff Reisman (Photo: Salem Media Group)

No one would say running a station like WIND 560-AM is a breeze, but Jeff Reisman makes it look easy.

From studios and offices in Elk Grove Village, Reisman calls the shots for the conservative news/talk station known as “AM 560 The Answer" as well as WYLL 1160-AM, the Christian talk and teaching station also owned by Salem Media Group.

Reisman, 55, grew up in Northbrook, where he and his wife still live with their three children — all of whom attended Glenbrook North High School, as did their dad.

With degrees from Bradley University and Drake University, Reisman toiled in numerous advertising sales positions for Pioneer Press, CBS Radio and Bonneville International before he found his calling at Salem Media Group.

Starting as general sales manager of WIND in 2004, Reisman rose to director of sales and then general manager of the Chicago cluster. In 2017 he was promoted to operational vice president for Salem's radio division, overseeing stations in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Now in his 18th year with Salem Media Group, Reisman reflected on the uniqueness of his stations, the challenges of competing in the market without subscribing to ratings, and his lifelong love of Chicago radio:

Q. I know WIND's slogan is “AM 560 The Answer." But I've always wanted to ask you: What is the question?

A. Every day, there are many questions that our listeners have that they want answered. We want to be the place they come to get those answers. What’s happening in Ukraine? What’s the weather going to be next week? What’s the deal with Mayor Lightfoot? Where’s traffic backed up today? We know that we have an information-seeking audience. Our listeners want to know what’s happening, what it means, and why it’s important. Our mission is to answer those questions every single day.

Q. How would you describe the format of WIND to someone who's never listened?

A. Our tagline is “news, opinion, insight,” and I think that provides a framework for what we do. We’re going to provide listeners with the latest information, but in this day and age, you can get news from a lot of places. If all you want is news headlines recycled every 20 minutes, AM 560 is not your station. What you can’t get from other stations is informed opinion and deep insight. Our hosts and their guests go beyond a headline or a social media post and seek to unpack the latest news to help listeners make sense of it. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by so many voices on social media who have no connection to their followers. Our local and national hosts are on the air, every single day, explaining and defending their positions, in a long-form format.

Amy Jacobson and Dan Proft

And many of our hosts have deep ties to Chicago. Dan Proft — born and raised here, went to college and law school here, and has been involved in media and politics for decades. Amy Jacobson — born and raised here, spent years on reporting on NBC 5 Chicago. Shaun Thompson — born and raised here, spent years working as a trader and real estate investor before he got into radio. And our nationally syndicated midday host, Charlie Kirk, grew up in Chicagoland. He’s 28 years old, and he grew up listening to AM 560. Now, he’s become a conservative media superstar, and he’s on the station.

Q. Your studios are in Elk Grove Village, but you've never considered yours to be a "suburban station." How do you stay competitive in the market?

A. It’s such a misnomer to consider either of our stations — AM 560 or AM 1160 — as suburban stations when both signals cover the entire Chicago metro and well into northwest Indiana, southwest Michigan and southeast Wisconsin. Our listeners really don’t care where our offices are and neither do our advertisers. Our listeners care if we’re consistently delivering the content they’re looking for, and our advertisers care if we’re generating results for them. On both counts, we’ve been very successful. That’s how we stay competitive.

Q. Your company doesn't subscribe to Nielsen Audio. Does that mean ratings don't matter to you?

A. Candidly, Nielsen ratings are not relevant to the business model. We’ve been successful at building a large and loyal portfolio of clients in myriad industry verticals. Of course, AM 560 The Answer has ratings — people listening — otherwise our advertisers would not be realizing favorable results from their campaigns and renewing year after year. We simply choose not to pay Nielsen for the ratings information. Additionally, both AM 560 and AM 1160 have multiple listener events throughout the year that typically sell out — a clear indicator of a healthy and responsive audience.

Q. Are there unique challenges in working for a company that specializes in Christian and conservative content?

A. The unique challenge for both formats is to constantly stay in tune with what our audiences want. On the conservative talk side, those preferences can change as quickly as the news cycle, which can be daily. We have to be ready to respond to that. On the Christian teaching and talk side for AM 1160 WYLL, our goal is to encourage and inspire our listeners in their faith. For many of our listeners, WYLL is their church, especially over the last two years when churches have been closed and people have been reluctant to attend in-person services. We’ve been able to bridge that gap through the teaching and preaching programs of our local and national ministries. At the same time, we always want to come alongside local churches and amplify the work their doing in the community whenever we can, which is why we regularly host events for pastors and ministry leaders.

Q. As a kid growing up in Northbrook, what do you remember listening to on the radio?

A. I have fond memories, from listening to "WMAQ Is Gonna Make Me Rich" and repeatedly calling the studio hotline in an attempt to win prizes, to Larry Lujack’s "Animal Stories," and recording hours of WBMX’s Saturday night mixes to produce my own cassette party tapes. Growing up in the 1980s I was a fan of The Killer Bee B96 and Z95. In fact, I remember walking into CBS Radio my first week on the job and being excited to meet Eddie and Jobo [B96 morning hosts at the time].

Q. How did working for Pioneer Press, CBS Radio and Bonneville help prepare you for this job?

A. I’ve been fortunate in my career, each company I’ve worked for has been a steppingstone to the next position. I started my first media sales job in 1991 for Pioneer Press newspapers as a street-fighter, pounding the pavement in search of clients that had a business need or problem I could solve. I learned early on that my relationship is with the business owner, a brand without trust is just a product and a product can be replaced. To become truly trusted you need to forge a bond with the customer.

Over the years, it’s clear to me that it’s easy to get bogged down with the day-to-day minutiae, however, to be successful and build a cohesive team and an office culture where employees enjoy their work, it is imperative to make “people” the highest priority as they are the most important assets.

Q. What do you think you’d be doing now if you’d never gotten into radio?

A. My father worked for some of the largest advertising agencies in the country. Marketing and media has always been at the center of my professional life. I’m confident I am doing what I should I be doing. If I did not start my career in media sales, it is likely that I would be working for an advertising agency or for a Fortune 500 company in a marketing, leadership capacity.

Q. When you joined Salem as general sales manager here in 2004, did you ever imagine you'd be running the place — and overseeing Boston and Philadelphia, too?

A. Absolutely not! In 2004 I was a relatively new sales manager, although confident in my ability to lead a team I had never launched a radio station —WIND in its present format — and built a sales team. Over the past 18 years with Salem Media Group I have had wonderful bosses who have encouraged me, allowed me to make mistakes, provide leadership guidance and opportunities for advancement. I enjoy what I do and who I do it for.

Thursday's comment of the day: Scott Knitter: It's a column. Last I checked, columnists express opinions.

AM 560 The Answer