Profiles in Courage: Craig Karmazin

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Posted by GK G(ood) P(ress) on April 02, 2013 at 23:23:30:

Creator of local broadcasting company thrives

March 31, 2013 8:00 am • DOUG MOE | Wisconsin State Journal

This story starts in a sports bar in Madison in 1996. Nobody remembers which one. The group of former high school buddies from the East, now scattered at colleges across the country, had toured several.

They’d convened in Madison after hearing about the fun to be had on football weekends. Their affection for the city grew with the pile of empty beer bottles.

Post midnight, one of the group stood and announced he was going to start a company and put a radio station on the air in Madison. The next morning, he took his headache and left town. Craig Karmazin did not.

Well, Karmazin did eventually leave — he had classes at Emory University — but once he got back to Atlanta, he found a professor who agreed that developing a business plan and potential investors for a radio station in Madison qualified as independent study.

Within a year, Karmazin — he was 22 — formed a company, Good Karma Broadcasting (GKB), and negotiated a bank loan. Madison proved too expensive, but Karmazin purchased three stations — two in Beaver Dam and one in Columbus — for $3.5 million.

It began a journey that peaked this month when Karmazin — still just 37 — was named to the SportsBusiness Journal’s “40 Under 40” list of the top young executives in sports business. He’ll attend the black-tie dinner honoring the winners Thursday in Naples, Fla.

Karmazin today presides over a burgeoning enterprise that includes a dozen radio stations, mainly sports — nine are affiliated with ESPN, including FM 100.5 in Madison — and is branching into sports marketing.

To that end, in late 2011, GKB purchased three homes adjacent to Lambeau Field in Green Bay. You can walk from them to the historic stadium without crossing a street. They’ve been renovated and Karmazin anticipates hosting exclusive gatherings for the private plane set. Lambeau is on a lot of bucket lists.

On April 18, GKB will produce the second annual Wisconsin Sports Awards at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Braun attended the first event last year.

“It’s an exciting time in a lot of areas,” Karmazin said, when we spoke recently.

I first met Karmazin a decade ago, at John Roach’s office Christmas party in Madison. He was 28 and looked younger. Craig was just back from Chicago, where his dad, Mel Karmazin, had been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Mel is a legendary broadcasting executive who ran Viacom and Sirius XM. Don Imus introduced him at the Chicago ceremony. Craig sat next to Imus at dinner and they talked college football.

The thing is, Mel Karmazin didn’t encourage his son to go into broadcasting. The father felt with his last name, Craig couldn’t win. Even if he did well, people would figure it was handed to him.

Craig liked radio too much to listen. Growing up in New Jersey, he got hooked on New York sports radio. His best childhood friend, Steve Politziner, was a fellow addict.

When Karmazin bought his first Wisconsin stations, in 1997, he immediately turned one — Columbus, with a signal that reached Madison — into sports talk. He and Politziner hosted an afternoon drive-time show, which continued even after Politziner moved to Florida to oversee a new GKB station in West Palm Beach.

Today, GKB has two stations each in six cities: Madison, West Palm, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Beaver Dam and Janesville. Karmazin — president and CEO — makes his home in Fox Point outside Milwaukee, having relocated from Madison in 2010. The GKB headquarters is still where it started, in Beaver Dam.

Karmazin no longer does the afternoon show. His only on-air gig now is a Sunday morning football program that he hosts with former Packer Mark Chmura. It’s mostly football. Last week they spent some time debating the merits of the pimento cheese sandwiches at The Masters golf tournament in Georgia.

When we spoke recently, Karmazin told me it was around the time of our meeting a decade ago that he first started thinking of expanding his company into sports marketing. An association with ESPN was also in the front of his mind. He made it all happen. I guess it was just a matter of time before he started scooping up houses near Lambeau Field.

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