As a working journalist who depends on assignments from several different Omaha area publications for my living, I once in a while find myself in the position of accepting assignments from two different clients to profile the same individual in their respective pages. That happened in the case of KFAB radio program director and on-air personality Gary Sadlemyer. Both the City Weekly and B2B Magazine asked me to profile him within a few weeks of each other, and so not for the first time and I suspect not for the last time I ended up writing two separate profiles for two different publications, the stories appearing only a couple months apart. It’s a challenge I enjoy. I am sharing those stories back-to-back here and I will let you be the judge of how I handled crafting two distinct articles from the same source material.
Future posts will feature a few more examples of my facing the same challenge and hopefully being up to it.
A Good Man’s Job in Radio is Never Done
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
Omaha’s KFAB bills itself as Nebraska’s radio “superstation.” The designation refers to the long reach of its 50,000 watt signal, the tradition that comes with 84 years on the air and the market share dominance the commercial giant’s enjoyed since the 1950s. It’s a full service institution, minus complete music tracks.
KFAB was once so ingrained in ”the fabric” of listeners’ lives, program director Gary Sadlemyer said, radio dials remained set to 1110 AM for decades in people’s homes, offices, vehicles. The middle-of-the-road broadcasts were the first thing heard upon rising and the last thing heard before retiring. The music, news, ag reports, weather alerts, sports coverage, personalities and corny banter became familiar, comfortable touchstones. The call letters synonymous with Husker football in its glory years. All of which made KFAB a hard-to-break habit.
Radio does not exert the hold it once did on people’s time and loyalty in an era of cookie-cutter programming, remote ownership, the Internet, iPods, CDs and cable television. So has radio lost its relevance in this new media age?
“Not according to the numbers,” said Sadlemyer, host of KFAB’s popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9. “The latest industry figures I’ve seen indicate something like 93 percent of Americans listen to radio.”
FM rock/pop has its devotees. Public radio claims a niche audience. Satellite or subscription radio may be the next wave. Satellite purveyors’ maneuvering to do local programming draws Sadlemyer’s ire because local news/talk is not in their original charter. For now though AM talk rules. KFAB is that format’s local cock-of-the-walk. While studies confirm folks don’t tune into radio as often as they once did, he said the medium’s ubiquitousness keeps it vital.
“What’s not to like? It’s free and it’s easily accessible. You don’t have to worry about remembering to program it,” the veteran broadcaster said. “It’s amusing to me that people proclaim the death of AM radio. AM radio is really the strongest of them all. Talk radio is the number one format because it’s always local, at least to one extent or another. You’ve got local shows with guys talking about local issues and local news and weather. No iPod’s going to give you that.”
Talk is the medium’s version of blogging. Gossip, bullshitting and rant turned genre.
Now in his 32nd year at KFAB and 35th overall in radio, Sadlemyer’s experience reflects how the biz has changed in that time. He’s not crazy about the direction radio’s gone, especially stations being in the hands of fewer, larger multi-national companies. “I’m on my seventh or eight owner now,” he said.
He weathered the without-a-parachute jump from middle-of-the-road to talk radio in 1989. In the wake of deregulation the industry was in turmoil — mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, staff cuts, format changes.
“The year we made that switch,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do talk radio. I was our first talk show host. It was a natural progression for a news station like ours but we needed to do that on a more gradual basis…So KFAB went through this horrible down slide. I managed to survive it. Now we’re back up there, but it was a climb. It was a tough time.”
He can laugh about it now but he recalls the “show from hell” when he booked, without pre-screening, an expert to discuss radon gas. The guest turned out to be “the meekest, mild-mannered little nerd you ever heard. No personality whatsoever. No voice. Now if that happened today,” Sadlemyer said, “I would do maybe five minutes and move on. But I had him on the full hour. The sound of radios turning off was deafening.”
But talk radio was the future and KFAB forged ahead before figuring things out. That’s the kind of misstep that comes from unstable ownership.
For years KFAB was owned by May Broadcasting, a venerable Shenandoah, Iowa company. The Lincoln Journal-Star bought the station, selling it in ‘86 to Henry Broadcasting. Beginning in ‘96 KFAB went through a series of absentee owners — American Radio Systems, Triathlon, Capstar, Chancellor Broadcasting — before current owner Clear Channel Worldwide bought it in 2000. This “owner-of-the-month club,” Sadlemyer said, “was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite.” While entrenched at KFAB, where he envisions himself to be another 10 years, he knows nothing’s guaranteed in today’s revolving-door, bottom-line environment that keeps budgets tight and staffs small.
“Hey, I don’t know if I get to work 10 more years. They might blow me out of there tomorrow,” he said. “What I mean by that is that when you’re talking about these huge mega corporations, nothing’s ever personal. If you’re a good professional you like it to be personal because than you’re safer. If it’s impersonal it’s easier for some bean counter in a suit to downsize you out of a job. That’s the difference.
“I don’t think radio was designed to be a Wall Street-driven enterprise. Radio’s meant to be an integral part of whatever community it’s in. The difference is you don’t have complete autonomy and access like you do with local ownership. At least there’s a connection. Big companies driven by investors, rates of return, boards of directors and Wall Street need to have efficiency. Sometimes they go too far and you end up with not enough people but that’s true in a lot of industries now. I mean, ideally, could we use more people in our building? Yes, we could.”
The days of full radio news crews are gone, although KFAB’s an exception locally.
Still, he said, an overall tighter ship has meant doing more with less.
“What I really have is three jobs — program director, operations manager, Morning Show host,” he said. “When I get off the air at 9 we have a meeting right after the show every day to prepare for the next day. And then my administrative role kicks in. On the programming side it’s OK, how do we sound? We could have done this better. Operations is about this train having to run on time. Technical things, schedules. It’s just so multi-faceted. I enjoy it all but there are times when it gets frustrating to just not be able to do justice to everything.”
For all the ownership merry-go-rounds and format changes he said he still feels like that young guy fresh out of Brown Institute in Minneapolis, a technical school the Minnesota farm boy attended. Brown placed him at KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., where he learned the ropes announcing, reporting, producing.
“I’m still doing the same thing as far as I’m concerned I did from day one. I just love it. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24. I don’t think, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. I never think that way.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show. “I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s something I want to do and I’ve got in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
It may be a carry-over from his old-school ways but the business of radio is vastly different than when he started.
Stations built strong identities-followings based on readily discernible differences. That’s changed with the move toward digital automation, canned, subscription service content and a generic one-size-fits-all approach.
“The Top 40 stations had personality jocks and they were all over the community,” Sadlemyer said. “Some stations still have some of that but it isn’t like it was back then. You don’t have the freedom now to go crazy and create things on the air. To create promotions. The budgets aren’t there. So local radio is not what it was.”
Back when KFAB commanded a 37 share Sadlemyer said the station’s “neighborly style” engendered trust, which in turn earned loyalty. On-air figures like wry Lyell Bremser, Cronkitesque-Walt Kavanaugh and high energy Kent Pavelka were household names. As Sadlemyer’s Morning Show cohort Jim Rose might say, they had “more name recognition in my home than me.” Even ag man Roger Flemmer, whom Otis Twelve described as “a real Les Nessman,” had a certain flair.
KFAB was a Rock of Gibraltar in radio terms. Solid, stable. A bedrock of family values and Midwestern work ethic.
The guys-next-door vibe is still there but now it’s married to that ironic, satiric edge so endemic in media today. KFAB’s conservative, Fox News-allied, Clear Channel-owned corporate character plays to Nebraska’s Red state sensibilities. Sadlemyer’s own right-wing Republican colors play as folksy rather than polemical.
It’s not all straight-laced, as the predominantly male, testosterone-driven broadcasts and off-air studio discussion have a boys locker room-schoolyard humor side. The slams, barbs, retorts, asides and repartee can be a bit silly.
“I revert to the 11-year-old in me,” Sadlemyer said. “I always take that with me.”
The fast-paced show is part conversation, part schtick. In response to Rose’s cranky complaints about the host’s music selections one morning, Sadlemyer said, “You’re a ticking time bomb.”
Serious issues mix with trivia, celeb gossip and syndicated comedy bits. It’s mostly light and glib. The ad-libs reminiscent of Jay Leno or David Letterman. Sadlemyer always seems to find the right phrase to encapsulate things, which is why his homespun charm makes him such an in-demand “pimp” for sponsors/advertisers.
KFAB flirts with sexism. Its web site features a “Babes” tab with photos of hotties. It’s enough to make the Mount Rushmore icons of Nebraska radio — Bremser, Kavanaugh, Ken Headrick — roll over in their graves. On-air, divas like Rosie O’Donnell and Hillary Clinton are the objects of digs. Items on sexcapades and sex studies provide ready fodder. Once the mikes go cold the innuendo grows thick. When someone pushes things too far, the avuncular Sadlemyer sounds his disapproval like a Presbyterian minister reining in his disobedient flock.
Producer Roger Olson’s suggestive off-air comments one morning prompted Sadlemyer to say, “I don’t think I want to hear about it.” “Gary, you’re a prude,” Olson teased. “No I’m not,” Sadlemyer replied. “That’s the deal now if you have any standards,” Sadlemyer said with a wink and a smile to a studio guest. “That’s why I’m a dinosaur — I’ll never make it in radio.”
He has little to worry about. Anyone who can command roasters the caliber of Sens. Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson and Husker athletic director and coaching legend Tom Osborne, as Sadlemyer did for his February Omaha Press Club Face on the Ballroom Floor induction, is far from extinct.
His run in radio still has legs. His place in Nebraska broadcast lore is secure. That doesn’t mean he can’t be moved. Only last fall his cool facade was tested by the breaking Von Maur tragedy, when his dry humor gave way to sober deliberation.
“You just have to do the best you can in that circumstance and try to transmit information, which we had very little of in the first hours,” he said.
Besides the Von Maur shootings, he said the hardest thing he’s dealt with on-air was the “internal tug of war” he felt over reports that ex-Husker football player Brook Berringer was killed in a small plane crash. Sadlemyer had gotten to know Berringer working on Husker football broadcasts. On the day of the crash in 1996 the first information coming in was “pure speculation,” said Sadlemyer. He erred on the side of caution, waiting for confirmation, before putting Berringer’s name out there where family could hear it before authorities notified them.
Nebraska Radio Legend Gary Sadlemyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in B2B Magazine
1110 KFAB’s Gary Sadlemyer is a calm, considered voice of reason amid the shock jock stunts and blow hard rants that can pass as radio announcing these days. The consummate professional, host of the popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9 when not attending to his program director and operations director duties, is the last holdover from a golden era at the AM giant.
KFAB ruled the airwaves among Omaha broadcasters in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It was THE station of choice for vast numbers of listeners and THE place to work for news hounds or middle-of-the-road DJs.
When the then-24-year-old Sadlemyer started at KFAB in 1977 he joined seasoned veterans and certifiable legends in Walt Kavanaugh, Lyell Bremser and Ken Headrick. He counted himself lucky to be in their company.
Growing up on a farm near Eagle Bend, Minn., where he went to school and his father ran a trucking company, Sadlemyer didn’t hear KFAB, whose 50,000 watt signal carries long distances but not quite that far north. Even listening to some backwoods station was enough to spark his imagination.
“I’ll never forget, I was around 10 years old, running an errand in the car with my mother and the radio was tuned into our little local station,” he said. “I remember listening to the announcer and thinking, I’ll bet that’s fun. Listening to that guy I imagined what it looked like in the booth. At some point I realized I don’t listen to radio the way other people do. They didn’t pay attention to it like I did.”
Par for the course for kids he went from being enamored with radio to dreaming of being a landscape architect, then a teacher-coach, then a lawyer. After a stint at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) he reset his ambitions on radio and attended the Brown Institute in Minneapolis, where he received rudimentary training. What sold him on the technical school was a guaranteed placement working at a real live station. He wanted a job in radio so bad he told Brown officials, “I don’t care — I’ll go anywhere. Just give me a box of records and a microphone.”
To his surprise he was hired by KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., a big station in a good-sized town — not the typical way a green radio hand starts out.
“I was so lucky. The program director at KRGI was on vacation and the general manager, who knew virtually nothing about radio, called Brown. He’d fired someone or had someone quit, and he needed a guy right now. So I ended up being the guy. The program director got back from vacation and he was like, What have you done to me? But I survived that somehow.”
He learned the biz from the ground up, announcing, spinning records, covering news, running the board. “I got to learn all that stuff. It was fun,” he said.
Good fortune played a part in his leaving KRGI for this region’s radio mecca — KFAB. Not that he wasn’t happy in Grand Island — he was. If he were going to leave it would have to be for a special opportunity.
“I didn’t want to come to Omaha unless it was KFAB,” he said. “I knew there was one station in that market worth working for at the time, and in my opinion it was KFAB. I thought, That thing is the Rock of Gibraltar. Husker sports, a tremendous reputation, a tremendous name. This is the kind of place that can really provide some stability.”
Holding out for KFAB was one thing. Getting on there was another. Luckily he was befriended by “a real character” in Grand Island, Charlie Winkler, who just happened to be friends with Lyell Bremser, the genial voice of Big Red sports and the general manager at KFAB. Sadlemyer said Winkler “was kind of like a father figure” and when asked “if he’d put in a good word for me — he did.”
In his best Bremser imitation, Sadlemyer recalled what the inimitable radio icon told him when the novice called to inquire about a job. “Well, I’ll tell you, we don’t really have anything at the moment, but send a tape and we’ll keep it on file.”
Sadlemyer didn’t think much more about it. A year or two passed. “And out of the blue one day in November of ‘76,” he recalled, “station manager Ken Headrick called and said, We have an opening — we’d like you to come and talk about it.” He was offered the job the same day he interviewed. After talking it over with his first wife he did what anyone in his position would do — he took the job and ran with it.
On top of the usual hassles that come with settling in a new place the young couple dealt with extra challenges.
“It was rough right away because we didn’t know a soul. I was working seven to midnight and Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “Not making much money. And then we found out we were going to have a baby. It was just a tough stretch but we got through that.”
It wasn’t long before office politics turned ugly. A group of disgruntled employees agitated to make KFAB a union shop. Bremser wasn’t having it. Sadlemyer wisely chose management’s side. At the end of the fray the agitators were let go and Sadlemyer moved to the more plum weekday morning shift. Life was good. He absorbed everything he could from the old radio pros around him.
“I’d go in and bug them to tell me stuff,” he said. “How does this work? Take me through this process. They were wonderful about it. They all became friends.”
They all showed him the ropes but the one who really took him under his wing, he said, was Headrick, the boss. “He spoke to me like a dad. A very no-nonsense guy. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy but he was a mentor to me.” Headrick was there for him when he “went through a very painful divorce” in 1986. Three years later KFAB made the awkward leap into what was ballyhooed as the next big thing on the AM band — talk radio. It’s proven to be just that. Sadlemyer hosted KFAB’s first live talk show. The transition took time for a station whose announcers were previously “not encouraged to be funny or to talk a lot,” he said.
What won listeners over in the end, he said, was “KFAB’s neighborly style.” It’s a vibe Sadlemyer’s perfected with his folksy, homespun manner and dry wit. His personal life got better, too, as he remarried and his kids thrived.
The ‘90s saw many of his trusted colleagues at the station retire and KFAB go through what he disdainfully calls “the owner of the month club” — changing hands several times. “It was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite,” he said.
His own duties changed to include more administrative responsibilities. The biz changed to a more controlled, corporate model. Less personality. Less soul. He’s not crazy about what’s happened in radio but he’s never lost his passion for it.
“I just love it. The work is fun. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24.”
He said his favorite part of the job “is not promotions and it’s not the business-sales end of it, but it’s the relationships with the listener and with the advertiser. With all due modesty I think I’m a pretty good commercial spokesman for people because I don’t do any spots where I don’t know ‘em and I don’t believe ‘em. And I love telling their story, absolutely love it. And getting to know ‘em and hearing about the latest offer they have. I just love that part.
“And getting out on remotes and at public events and meeting listeners, yeah, I enjoy that, too, because everybody’s different, everybody’s got a story.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show.
“I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s
something I want to do and I’ve got it in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
At age 55 he figures he has 10 more years as a radio personality. A sure sign of how entrenched he is in the public’s mind and in media circles is his recent induction in the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Ballroom Floor. Thirty-one years after signing on with KFAB and its roster of legends he’s now a legend himself.
- Larry King Radio Return? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Letters: Local talk radio needs dial tuned to the right (knoxnews.com)
- Complaints and anger dominate talk radio (mysanantonio.com)
- Critics still hoping for ouster of Omaha mayor (sfgate.com)
This is a story about a pair of accomplished women who are partners in life and in work and who have branded themselves and their company as Rebel. M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson form a dynamic couple. Their passion for what they do and how they do it attracted me to them and their story, and I believe this article for the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly,com), which ran a shorter version of the piece, does them justice. I think you’ll like them as much as I do.
What’s in a Brand? For Rebel Interactive, Everything
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
When you’re audacious enough to go by Rebel, you better live up to the name. It turns out M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson, owners of Omaha branding agency Rebel Interactive, are mavericks in most everything they do.
For starters, consider that these women left corporate careers to go in business for themselves. The move was also a commitment to their personal relationship, as they’re partners in both business and in life. The couple enjoy an openly gay relationship in conservative Nebraska, a state notoriously unfriendly to same sex unions. Imagine the risk McBride and Wilson take in being up front about who they are in social/business circles that undoubtedly include some homophobes.
The couple’s quite comfortable sharing their life status with people they meet for the first time, which is certainly rebel in these parts. That’s the point. McBride and Wilson are comfortable enough in their own skins to declare their love, to have it published, without fear of repercussion. Why? Because they’re all about being true to themselves. The truth will set you free. That, as much as Rebel, is the credo behind their own personal-professional brand.
“A powerful aspect of the Rebel brand is being authentic,” said McBride. “This applies to all aspects of our lives, and our business is a big part of our lives. Caroline and I believe that being open and real is our opportunity to educate, create possibility and make a difference in the world we live in.”
Living out loud is nothing new to this pair. “We’ve lived more than half of our lives ‘out,’ so it’s common to us,” said McBride. “What I recall is being in a much more powerful place when I was open and willing to educate people who needed more understanding. The other principle I always remembered — and this goes for anything — is your silence will not protect you.”
Far from silent, the couple’s chosen, especially McBride, to publicly advocate for gay rights. She’s past president of Citizens for Equal Protection (CFEP).
“What’s important to us today is letting people know that same sex couples need the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Caroline and I are at an extreme disadvantage legally,” McBride said. “Most are shocked when we explain that when either of us dies we will pay a 48 percent-plus tax to pass assets to each other. Nebraska has (among) the highest combined taxes. And I believe it is our responsibility to bring about the change we want to see in the world. Working with organizations like CFEP is a great way to do this.
“Educational activism is Rebel.”
Ah, there it is again, the “r” word. Since this is a story about business/life partners who brand themselves and their company as Rebel, it’s important to note McBride and Wilson are far more than the sum of their parts. To just say they’re rebel is as superficial as calling them Lesbian Ad Babes or using some other misogynistic, gay-bashing label. By itself, rebel doesn’t represent what the partners and their company, a full-service marketing, advertising, Internet agency, are all about, which is designing innovative, interactive experiences that connect clients to customers.
The desired result: commerce. Selling clients’ brands/products in the marketplace.
McBride and Wilson work the way corporate consultants do. They interview client management/staff, review current marketing efforts, gauge customer attitudes, discover what makes a company tick, what distinguishes its products or services. Rebel figures out what works, what doesn’t, what needs tweaking or overhauling. Rebel also operates like industrial psychologists in determining a client’s values, personality, character. Where its healthy, where its dysfunctional, where what it promises to provide fails to match what it delivers.
Gaps between perception and reality are identified, addressed. Think of it as image inventory. Brainstorming occurs in Discovery Workshops, Ignite Sessions and the Rebel Think Tank. It’s all part of the proprietary branding process that’s become Rebel’s M.O. Before Rebel externally launches a brand, McBride said, the brand must be understood, embraced internally, among owners, managers, employees. Only then does it go live. Among Rebel’s promises is “bringing brands to life.”
“We talk about being your brand, in all levels, all layers, in every single thing you do and say — your hiring practices, how you pay people, the choices you make, the partnerships you make, the vendor relationships you make and definitely the customer relationships you have and the products you build,” McBride said. “It’s either all brand-enhancing or brand-damaging.”
Visit Rebel’s web site, rebel-interactive.com, or its offices at 1217 So. 13th St., or view any of its self-promotion print pieces, from business cards to letterhead, and you’ll see a consistently sleek, spare red-white-black design and color scheme.
“It’s our colors,” McBride said. She calls this coordinated, integrated strategy “environmental branding.” It can be accessorized, too, to fit any occasion. “It’s about making everything rhyme, wardrobing your brand basically. The concept is it’s an inclusive wardrobe that is YOU, whether you’re at a cocktail party or the pool or the office.” Thus, Rebel has its tuxedo and its casual outfits. Wilson’s collectible red Honda 450 motorcycle is often parked in the client lounge.
The Rebel Gals, as they’re sometimes referred to, practice their own principles. McBride, who can sound preachy at times, even goes by “The Brand Evangelist.” She’s the author of a book, Small Business Brand Plan, a motivational seminar, “Access to Personal Brand Power,” and s workshop, “Be Your Brand Technology.”
Internalizing this whole brand thing is not just about tags or slogans or mantras for McBride-Wilson, it’s the way they do business, it’s the way they interact with the world. It’s their lifestyle. They embody what it is to be your brand.
Sharing the same brand helps them successfully live and work together.
“When you have two people that are really passionate about what they do and each other,” McBride said, “it just becomes your life. It’s all a part of your life. We’re the perfect yin-yang balance. I have global brand-managing experience. I know brands inside and out. I know what’s going to work for our clients. I am extremely comfortable consulting any size client any time of day. Caroline brings banking and operations and what we call razor sharp creative and then client research. She’s just an encyclopedia of information.”
Both love people. McBride enjoys developing staff, Wilson doing customer relations.
Rebel gets clients to see branding as a 24/7 proposition. “The fastest way to get them to understand that is to talk about what it costs them to not be their brand or to have a brand that is fragmented. It exponentially costs more to have a confused brand,” said McBride. “When you have clarity with your brand and everybody understands it then you’re just prone to have more brand enhancing activity going on and therefore you’re having an exponential result, which is what we train our customers to think about — exponential results on brand value.”
McBride offered classic examples: Coca Cola’s “the real thing,” Nike’s “just do it” or YouTube’s “broadcast yourself” campaigns. Simple, clear, enduring, identifiable messages that encapsulate each company, its culture, its product, its image.
Rebel-designed brands include “Edgeworthy” for Fringes Salon, “Progressive Christian thinking” for Augustana Lutheran Church and “The Benson Beat” for the Benson/Ames Alliance. Clients range from small businesses and nonprofits to large corporations and organizations to neighborhoods and communities. All need a hook.
“A tag line is a perfect tool for clarity when it comes to a brand,” McBride said, “so if a company has a tag line that actually is relevant to internal and external audiences then we are excited about bringing it to life. If it doesn’t relate, if it’s generic, if it doesn’t present any competitive advantage or create an experience, then it’s really just some words. What we want to do is create a cohesive, clear message. The more clear your brand is then the easier it is to break through all the noise, all the clutter and actually deliver that message.”
Said Wilson, “Brand alliteration may stand the test of time, like BMW — ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ You still see that, they still use that, and they’ve used that as a campaign for at least 25 years. I like to use cars because cars are an excellent example of big brands, big advertising dollars, big names, global reach. Chevy, ‘like a rock.’ Like a rock stood a long time, people still relate to that. It’s still part of their brand and it really illuminates Chevrolet and who they are. So it can start as a tag line and be a powerful alliteration and then it can just take on a life of its own.”
Tag lines are just one tactic, McBride emphasized. “Not all companies are going to use that tactic but sometimes they’ll use that and then other tactics,” she said.
An effective branding campaign, she added, is an expression of “how we experience the brand through our senses. To the degree you can have a hook into those different areas and build on those, the more relevant your brand becomes. Then you can create brand loyalty and then develop new products, extend your brand and grow your business with a lot less effort.”
“A great example is Rebel,” said Wilson. “Exponential Results was our brand. It was under everything, it was on everything, and that was our promise, that was our brand. Now that lives on, that’s still our promise, but its really the experience now people have” that brands the agency. “Everything we do at Rebel in terms of branding — the thinking, the methodology, how we start here and just keep pushing it up — that’s what we give our clients,” she said.
“What makes them rebel is they’re not afraid to get out there. They’re very bold, they have very cutting-edge, fresh ideas, they’re very fun,” said Bluestone Development’s Christian Christensen. “We’ve been very impressed with what they do. And they’re just fun to be around.”
The agency’s name grew out of Rebel Graphics, which Wilson opened in ‘99. M.J. joined her and their boutique agency took off in ‘05. They now employ six people.
“We had the opportunity when we started the company to call it Wilson-McBride, McBride-Wilson and Associates, which is fine, but then we started looking at other ways to name the company and Rebel was it because we knew we were rebel for all these reasons,” said Wilson. “We wanted to start our own company, which isn’t something everybody does every day. We left great jobs, great companies to do that, and everyone thought we were nuts. We just said, ‘This is going to work, this is something we want to do, we’re going to make a difference.’”
A catchy, provocative name by itself is not enough, McBride pointed out. “A name and a logo is not a brand. We’re talking about much, much bigger than that.” So, what is a brand? “Well, it’s everything,” Wilson said.
Using Rebel as a case study, McBride said the two of them asked themselves, “What are we really passionate about?” The answer: “We’re passionate about what’s possible,” said McBride. “When clients come in here and they start talking to us about what they need to accomplish we’re interested in what is possible. What is possible means you haven’t thought of it yet. It’s like a breakthrough concept. We are passionately driven by what’s possible for us, for our employees, for our community, for our clients, for our planet. That’s what we’re excited about.”
The way Rebel applies that passion, McBride said, is by “giving our clients what they want, so really listening to them and laying our expertise on top of that and then making that a reality. We exist to help our clients have exponential results, exponential growth and profitability. If it’s not about money then it’s about prosperity.” Thus, the Rebel brand states, “brand, interact, profit.”
Getting people to buy into the whole brand concept is easy today, the partners said, but was a real stretch when they first opened shop. Mention branding then, McBride said, and people asked, “Are you talking about branding cattle?” Wilson said, “Yes, people literally said, ‘What do you mean by branding?’ So we were talking about it before most people, at least in Omaha for sure.”
McBride said while her evangelizing helped sell the concept here, Omaha finally caught on to the branding movement. “Other parts of the world are experts at branding and they got the concept a long time ago,” she said. “Now it’s a very strategic way to manage a business and it’s caught on and it’s here to stay.”
The current economic crisis would seem to be a bad environment for advertisers and advertising. Yet McBride said Rebel business has never been better. “We always say the best business to be in is branding, marketing and advertising or alcohol in these kinds of times,” she said, smiling. Skittish consumers, she added, are more apt to buy a strong, well-defined, easy-to-see brand.
“Customers are looking for stability and they want to go with winners,” she said, “and if you’re going to market during these times you’re going to be viewed differently than those dropping out of the market or not visible.”
Pulling ads sends the wrong message, she said. “People are going to assume you’re not doing well and you’re not a viable solution for whatever they want to be. Everything cycles and right now there’s less clutter, less noise in the market, so if you’re willing, like some of our ‘A’ clients are, to be in the game promoting your brand, you’re going to be way ahead when the cycle comes back to normal. Everybody else may be catching up or trying to reestablish or reinvent,” she said.
McBride said feel-good appeals lack traction right now.
“In these times it’s no longer about what people want or want to associate with, it’s about what they need,” she said. “We’re doing workshops on recession branding, working with clients on how to tailor their brand strategy for this kind of an environment. There’s lots of different strategies you can employ right now and really it’s about working with branding experts like us and then looking at what it is your brand is up against and finding creative, breakthrough solutions.”
Increasingly, Rebel’s designing wired, social connectivity campaigns for clients.
“There’s always a new opportunity to build their brand and to be in front of their customers,” McBride said, “and right now we’re developing a lot of social media packages for clients who already have a terrific online presence. We’re using all the applications Google has available, integration with Facebook, Twitter and all the popular social media outlets. We do eblasts or text messages that go directly to people’s phones. This is not random, it’s solicited, so it’s very powerful. All of a sudden our clients have a whole new universe of customers.
“Traditional marketing is very passive, whereas social media is right on target with authentic branding because it’s not passive, it’s participatory. It’s a one-on-one relationship and it’s very intimate.”“That’s exciting,” said Wilson.
A social consciousness attends Rebel’s popular social networking events. Its Rebel Yells and Rebelation Keynotes are forums for smart ways of doing business and for discussing community issues. Rebel taps its vast data base to get things done.
“Officially or unofficially we have a rebel network of extraordinary people we deal with as part of doing business,” said McBride. “For example, we sent out an appeal one Thanksgiving to help a family and in three minutes we had thousands of dollars donated. That got us thinking about the generosity of our clients.” That led to the Rebel Women’s Fund, a nascent micro-lending program “to support people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, just like Rebel, and want to really create something of value for their community and need the money to do it.”
McBride said a new, trademarked online donations product by Rebel is helping nonprofits across the nation raise money to support various women’s causes.
Wilson’s a driving force behind the South 13th Street Community, an association of area business-property owners and residents. She and McBride not only office in the neighborhood just south of the Old Market, they live there, sharing a Rose at SoMa residence. Wilson said the district has “a lot of potential, a lot of activity. It’s a great corridor into downtown. A lot of people are coming back into this area. Thirteenth St. was just designated an area of community importance or an ACI. That’s pretty much establishing a baseline for everything going forward there needing to map onto a specific code of design, so that’s exciting.”
The partners serve as “a conduit” for community development. It’s part of being good neighbors and social entrepreneurs. How very Rebel of them.
- Brand Image: You Are What Your Followers Say You Are (socialmediatoday.com)
- Nostalgia brands – what to do if you spot one (adliterate.com)
- Someone has to hate your brand (drewsmarketingminute.com)
- Everything Matters – Part II (keithiveymarcomm.wordpress.com)
- WikiLeaks: The outlaw brand turns to spin and merchandising to cement its rebel status (daveibsen.typepad.com)
Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History
I likely stumbled upon Verne Holoubek’s story the way I do a lot of figures I end up profiling — by coming across an article or item mentioning them or by someone telling me about them. Sometimes I’m given a fairly full portrait of the person, other times just a sketch. In the case of Holoubek, it was another profile subject of mine, folklorist and author Roger Welsch, who mentioned his friend Holoubek in the course of an interview as someone I should look up. Long story short, I heeded Welsch’s advice and arranged to meet Holoubek, and I’m glad I did. He has a helluva story. My take on his story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
When Verne Holoubek left his family’s homestead farm near Clarkson, Neb. in 1961 for the state university in Lincoln, he fully intended on getting an ag degree, then coming home to help his dad run the place. It’s what the eldest son of a traditional Czech farming family was expected to do. But by year two a restless Holoubek embarked on an unimagined path as a hip entrepeneur in the printed apparel field.
He was in his 20s when the dreamer in him — he expressed a talent for drawing in high school — merged with the pragmatist in him. It all began with magic markers and army surplus jackets. Holoubek applied basic designs to white parkas he sold at home Husker football games. Then came T-shirts, what became the core of the company he formed, Holoubek Inc. Fraternities snatched them up. His operation evolved from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house basement to the regional festival-fair circuit to a downtown Lincoln print shop to a full-scale production plant in Pewaukee, Wis., a Milwaukee bedroom community. Holoubek Inc., became an industry legend and made him a fortune. Many of his T-shirts are collectibles.
His journey from farmland to boardroom took some unusual routes. He did time as a “Forty Miler,” a reference to his early days as a carny hand-painting T-shirts at carnivals within a 40-mile radius of home. The allure of the road beckoned him to travel ever farther out. He got his ag degree alright, but opted to make a go of this T-shirt thing with his wife, Terri. The company survived many early struggles.
By the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, this once summer sideline turned serious business venture. A big break came when a then-fledgling discount store called Target gave him end-cap display space. His T-shirts sold-out. At the height of the T-shirt craze Holoubek designs were in every shop in every mall in every town in America. He expanded, going international. Along the way he acquired a client, Harley Davidson, whose open road nonconformity and anti-authoritarian spirit fit his own.
“I was a rebel from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve never liked the status quo. I’m not real big on authority. I mean, I always kind of go around it if I can.”
On a recent Nebraska visit Holoubek stood in a dirt road that intersects the small family farm he grew up on to consider how he’s come so far from so little. He used to ride a pony to the wood-frame, one-room school house just up the road. As he looked past the undulating corn and soybean fields to the far rolling hills poet Ted Kooser likes to call the “Bohemian Alps,” he grew quiet, only the sound of wind and meadowlark interrupting the stillness. Then he spoke.
“I guess I was always looking at these horizons wondering what’s over there. When you stood atop a haystack over here,” he said, indicating a field, “you saw all the lights in David City across the river. That’s about 46 miles. It’s just that curiosity. Intense curiosity. The word ‘vision’ has been used in a lot of interviews I’ve done. Where I get that, I don’t know.”
Upon further reflection, he gave his father props. “My dad was really forward thinking,” he said, “and maybe that’s where I picked up some of that vision. He always used the latest stuff” on the farm. “He was big into conservation” before it was popular. “We terraced all these fields. He built the first steel shed in the area.” It’s still standing. “He and Mom hired an architect to build their house. It has innovations that still seem modern.”
Holoubek’s sense for this place and for the land is profound. He’s never really left it or it him. “That’s really where it starts. Growing up on a farm, learning how to work, learning how to have fun — freedom, independence. Every day you made you own day,” he said. He proudly showed two visitors from the city the tiny Catholic church, long abandoned, and the adjoining cemetery where his family attended services and where his grandparents are buried, respectively. He pointed out, too, where he ran a tractor over the only rock in a field, the ditch he slid his car into and the gully he and his pals partied in.
His parents, now in their late 80s, still live on the land. When they’re gone, he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen to this farm. There’s nobody left in the family to run it.” He admires how his parents hung on there. How his dad diversified with an automotive service business. Verne’s followed in his footsteps, always keeping hands in different pots. And just as the old man bucked convention agitating for agricultural reforms as a National Farmers Organization activist, Verne’s gone his own way the whole ride.
Known as a pioneer in printed apparel, Holoubek found innovative applications of words and images by pen-and-ink, air-brush and silk-screen, iron-on heat-transfer, which he’s an originator of, and multi-color press. He fed the counter culture movement’s creation of a new casual wear market for shirts emblazoned with ads, artwork, pop icon figures, sport team logos, protests, phrases, lyrics, poems, jokes, names or just about anything else. Few anticipated the demand. Poised to capitalize on it, he helped make the heretofore naked white T-shirt a colorful medium for commercial exploitation and personal self-expression. A walking billboard/canvas equated with cool.
“People wanted to identify with something or identify themselves,” he said. “I think rock ‘n’ roll and the Vietnam War gave it a little help because it was a protest…a statement. You could say things, you could be comical, you could be serious, you could be political, you could be religious, you know, whatever you wanted to put on your shirt.”
Wherever he looked, he saw opportunity. He plugged his company into a then- burgeoning lakefront Milwaukee music festival called Summer Fest, where upwards of a million people come see name acts over ten days. In charge of merchandising, Holoubek-printed T-shirts sold big and fast. He also tapped the rock-pop-country music concert scene, printing T-shirts for KISS and Charlie Daniels, among others. And right from the start he hopped on the Hollywood merchandising bandwagon that began with Star Wars and Superman.
Besides the vision to see these trends, Holoubek was in the very age bracket that gave them life. He was an unreformed hippie. He looked the part, too.
“I was young and looked young. Full beard, long hair, cowboy boots, outrageous clothes. Nobody thought people that young should own businesses,” he said. “The concept of entrepreneur wasn’t discovered yet. Nobody knew how to pronounce it, spell it. I was always the youngest one in meetings with lawyers and bankers and marketing guys. I was kind of an oddity.”
By the time the company took off in the early ‘70s, he was “the old guy” at 31. The average age of his 150 employees was 23. “A lot of college kids,” he said. “That’s when college kids used to work in factories for the summer. We had great parties…great picnics. Charlie Daniels played at one of our company picnics.”
Emboldened by youth, “we came in and just blew away” competitors-vendors, he said. “We were brash and kind of cocky, but we took care of our customers.” At trade shows the team “put on the dog. It was show time. Maybe that came from the carnival,” he said, where setting up your booth is “flashing your joint. A joint was a store then. It’s all different now.”
Holoubek Inc. didn’t have to look hard for new artists-designers. “We were a hot name in town, so people wanted to work there,” he said. “The talent came.”
A big break came when he cultivated the Harley account. He’d printed Harley decals and stickers but not apparel, where the real money lay. With Harley’s rebirth in the mid-’80s, he pushed the Skull and Cross Bones rebel image to new heights as the brand’s exclusive apparel licensee. The gig made him a multi-millionaire. His Harley sales went from $350,000 to $40 million. Along the way, he got hooked on the cycle subculture he still embraces today at 63.
The Harley mystique, he said, “does capture you. First, it starts with love of motorcycling. If you ride, there’s nothing like it. It is just a thrill and you want to ride all the time. You can’t get enough of it.” Then there’s the image, as much a product of apparel-accessory lines and marketing pitches as the bikes themselves.
“Harley was brilliant enough to offer this clothing line,” Holoubek said. “It’s very expensive stuff. Their leather jackets cost $200 more than any other jacket, but people want the logo. The T-shirts sort of augment that. You wear your Harley stuff when you’re not riding. For sure, you wear it when you are riding. People want that identity. The real phenomenon is when people travel to rallies. They buy a T-shirt wherever they go. Pretty soon they’ve got a closet with a couple hundred shirts. It just kind of caught fire and it became THE thing.”
His own immersion in all things Harley happened almost by osmosis. “It was pretty easy to get into the Harley mystique because I was already around them,” he said. Before his indoctrination into that world he was “into bikes” as far back as college. “I actually rode to my graduation from college on my bike,” he said. “So, I’ve always had a bike,” but he admits, “I didn’t ride Harleys and I was not a biker. I was a college biker. My first bike was a Honda.”
He makes a point to differentiate between “real bikers” and motorcycle enthusiasts. He feels the real bikers comprise “about 1 percent” of the riding population. “I think bikers come in degrees,” he said, “I’m in the 99 percent group. Its hard to peg, but there is some biker in everybody.”
Ever the rebel, he once “took up motocross. Not racing, but riding for fun,” he said. “After work a bunch of guys would sneak into the Evinrude Proving grounds. The company tested snowmobiles there in the winter. We trespassed all summer.”
He’s an active member of a Harley biker club called the Ugly M/C. He wears a belt buckle with the name-insignia stamped on it. The Uglies possess a rich lore. “Uglies were able to go to Hells Angels parties and they came to ours,” he said of the respect they carried in hardcore biker circles. The Uglies also did security details for concerts-festivals, but enforced things less violently than their Angels brethren.
His Uglies II chapter includes celebrity brothers Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman. It’s for riders. No dilettantes allowed in this Wild Angels-Easy Rider crowd, even if members are senior, tax-sheltered rebels-without-a-cause now.
“Yeah, it’s a riding club. We ride hard. They’re just great guys and a lot of fun,” said Holoubek, who prints the club’s various shirts.
Aficionados will tell you Holoubek printed the best of the Harley collection. “They’re classics,” Fonda said. “There’s some great art there,” Hagman said.
As proud as Holoubek is that his work stands the test of time, he’s really jacked by his Uglyhood. “You have to ask” to join, he said. He did, and a Harley dealer sponsored him. Verne paid his dues for a year. “Here the rubber meets the road,” he said of this trial period. “You cook, clean, wash bikes, and do other duties as assigned. No rough initiation. It’s all in good fun. Ugly members are for life and we are careful to pick guys that will fit in for the long term. More do not make it in than do. One ‘no’ vote keeps you out of the club. Sometimes it takes three votes before you make it.” He won’t say how many it took him, but “they made me Ugly.”
Fellow Ugly Peter Fonda, now a close friend, met Holoubek when he rode out to Milwaukee for Harley’s 90th anniversary. He said they hit it right off despite their “very different backgrounds.” Then again, he said, they share a connection to Nebraska and its virtues. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is in life and he deserves every penny of it in my mind. The first thing I noticed is he has a very genuine heart. He’s a very generous person,” Fonda said. “When my wife had back surgery and it got botched, all my friends were concerned about me because I was really down. Verne flew out, for no other reason than to see me — to see I was alright and taking care of myself. Now that’s a true friend.”
Holoubek’s Wisconsin home is a kind of base camp for Uglies attending Sturgis rallies and Harley events. His “second home,” a beach front property in Akumal, Mexico, is always open to friends. “It’s beautiful down there,” Fonda said. “He likes to share his good fortune with friends. I think it only means something to him when he’s able to share it.” Fonda returns the favor by having Holoubek and company to his Montana ranch. Verne stays in Brigit’s room.
Nebraska author Roger Welsch tells an anecdote about how he and Holoubek met in a neo-nouvelle rich way. “I get a call one day from Akumal, Mexico on the Yucatan (Peninsula),” Welsch said. “The voice on the other end” is Holoubek’s. He wants to talk to Welsch about a book he has in mind. Welsch tells him, “‘Well, it’s really stupid to be talking about writing a book on the telephone. Shouldn’t we be sitting on a nice wide beach sucking on tequilas?’” To Welsch’s surprise, Verne says, “‘Good idea. There’ll be a ticket waiting for you…’” And there was. “It’s guys like this who know how to spend their money right you want to have as friends,” Welsch said. “He’s just a super guy. Easy going. A sweetheart.”
Fonda confirms Holoubek knows how to relax. It’s easier now that he’s retired and not wired to his business. “We enjoy doing the same things and we enjoy doing those things together,” said Fonda. Similarly, Larry Hagman and his wife enjoy travel with the Holoubeks, including a recent Costa Rica trip the couples made.
Terri Holoubek often joins Verne on rides. He describes his wife, an Omaha native, as “an equal partner in my life” and “in the business. She was there from nearly the beginning and we have worked together on every aspect of the venture. She did take the time to raise four great kids while keeping me in food and clothes and lots of advice on major decisions. She’s very intuitive.”
They’ve made some epic rides together. “We did 3,600 miles on the Glacier National Park ride — the Ride to the Sun. On the way back we rendezvoused at Peter’s (Fonda’s) ranch. From there we took off for the ride to Sturgis. On the ride into Sturgis from Devil’s Tower we road two-abreast at 80-miles an hour in formation, not the kind of thing you normally do. That was a great ride.”
He said the Sturgis experience, “which has been a regular stop for me over the last 20 years, is the REAL DEAL for bikers. Originally a race and hill climb, bikers camped in the city park in town. Over the years it has grown into the mainstream much like Harley Davidson has became an acceptable” brand. “The biggest change is that the riding public became more middle class just in time for the boomers to take part. It’s a lot of fun.”
The couple have ridden to the Four Corners and Daytona Beach They do charity events, including the famous Love Ride in Glendale, Calif. They would normally be up in Sturgis this week for the big rally. But a double-vision problem has idled Verne’s riding for now. That doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Between scuba diving at their ocean-front get-away in Akumal, touring old Europe, cruising in their classic ‘56 Packard or making Lake Michigan waves in their speed boat, this couple has fun. Earlier this year the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in Paris and Amsterdam.
Over the years Holoubek sold off most parts of the business, keeping only the prized Harley licensee segment. In 2004 he sold it too — to clothing manufacturer giant VF. Some hard feelings soured the Holoubek-Harley romance, but he doesn’t talk about them except to say, “It’s a big company now. It ain’t like it used to be when the family ran everything.” One Harley legend he remains close to is chief designer Willie G. Davidson, a grandson of the founder.
Holoubek tried retiring “once before.” He put “a management team in place and it just didn’t work out,” he said. “Either I didn’t run the team right or I didn’t have the right guidelines or I didn’t know how to be a chairman of the board and let somebody else run your company. I take the business very, very personally. I think about it 24 hours a day.” When sales went flat and good people left, he “came back to work.” He dealt with irate customers and vendors who felt his absence. That first day back he and Terri vowed, “‘Next time, we sell.’” That’s what they did.
The sale and retirement leave ample money and time. He could live anywhere, but still resides in Wisconsin and keeps close ties to Nebraska. While he never came back home to live again once he reinvented himself in college, he’s remained close to his family, most of whom still live in state. He keeps busy with vintage automobile and tractor collections, amateur photography and 400 acres of land he and Terri farm at their Wisconsin retreat. They also run a charitable foundation.
Fonda worries that without the action of a business to run, Holoubek might have problems. “I remind him, ‘Don’t retire, because that’s when people die,’” Fonda said. Holoubek says Fonda needn’t worry. First, he stays busy. “Life in retirement is very full,” he said. Second, he’s having too much fun. “I don’t believe you have to work your whole life,” he said. “I’ve watched people work to the grave in their business. There’s so many other things to do in the world I think I can do than just run that business.”
Passion drives Holoubek. It’s what gave him “a passport” and “a way out” of the farm in the first place. Finding “that avenue where you can create your own” destiny, he said, is a gift. “You’ve got to want to do something from the heart, and I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do that.”
- Out Of Print: Books on shirts. Shirts on a mission. (couturecult.com)
- Ugmonk (coolhunting.com)
- Famous Men and Their Motorcyles (artofmanliness.com)
- Clothing company grew up in a barn (thestar.com)
- In pictures: custom Harley-Davidsons (telegraph.co.uk)