Karmazin expands his multimedia empire

Mary Catanese
Craig Karmazin, who owns 12 radio stations, recently opened Wireless Zone, a store in Mequon.
Published on: 7/31/2013

Mequon — Craig Karmazin doesn't want customers. He wants fans.

So when the 38-year-old Fox Point businessman decided to get into the wireless business, he wanted to do things differently.

Most people have probably put up with overbearing pitches from 'sales associates' at electronics stores, big-box retailers, local banks, you name it — places where retail employees are straining to make commission or hit their sales goals.

Those all-too-forceful pitches, and the almost claustrophobic feel of such a sales culture, is exactly what Karmazin wanted to avoid when he opened his first Wireless Zone franchise last year in Beaver Dam and his second in Mequon earlier this year.

His employees don't wear uniforms. Rather, they rotate through monthly dress codes put together by Karmazin's significant other, Kelly. Homey furnishings soften the look of the familiar circular desks and kiosks typical of a cellphone store. Canine customers can hunker down in the dog bed in the corner.

Perhaps most importantly, his employees don't have the individual sales goals which drive so many retail employees to desperation and so many retail customers to frustration. Team goals mean they work as a team, says employee Cale Berg.

Experience important

'I can give customers the whole spiel and answer questions, and she can come in and give advice,' says Berg, gesturing to coworker Maria Sapienza. 'It's not like, oh, she's trying to take my sale, or he's trying to undercut me.'

'I don't know if we could be 'salesy' if we tried,' Sapienza says. 'In the long run it's all going to pan out.'

A wireless store full of noncommissioned employees, admits Karmazin, is something of a foreign concept in the industry.

'The belief is it'll be a little more expensive having a little nicer locations and better compensations,' Karmazin says, 'but people will have such a good experience that it will lead to enough volume to make up the difference.'

The son of media mogul Mel Karmazin, most 'industry people' recognize Craig as the founder of Good Karma Broadcasting, which he started in 1997 by purchasing three Beaver Dam radio stations for a cool $3.5 million — he was 22 at the time. Most Milwaukeeans recognize him as the straight man opposite former Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura on ESPN Milwaukee's Sunday morning broadcast.

ESPN dominates format

ESPN Milwaukee is one of 12 stations Karmazin now owns in markets ranging from Beaver Dam to Cleveland to West Palm, Fla. Nine of his 12 stations are either ESPN or ESPN Deportes (Spanish-speaking) affiliates.

Originally, Good Karma Broadcasting was a traditional radio company, Karmazin says, but as the internet began to encroach on radio's space, the company has adapted into more of a full-service sports talk and sports marketing shop. Karmazin's success has earned him a spot on the Sports Business Journal's 2013 'Forty under 40' list.

Having reshaped one industry, Karmazin saw an opportunity to do the same with wireless when he was perennially disappointed with the service and sales-first atmosphere at local retail shops.

'We think we can reinvent the business in some ways,' Karmazin says. 'We're not going to sacrifice our culture for a few bucks to sell some cellphones.'

And even if they don't manage to remake the wireless industry, that's alright, too.

'At the end of the day, the most important thing is going to be our guests and their experiences,' Karmazin says, and if the experiment doesn't work, 'this will be a division of our company that makes a lot of friends and not a lot of money.'