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March 2018

Trailblazers :: March 2018

SnoCountry's Chuck Devine

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If you’ve ever listened to the radio, you’ve probably heard Chuck Devine’s voice. He’s been “preaching the gospel of skiing” on SnoCountry mountain reports for more than 30 years. It’s not a stretch to say that Chuck has been, and continues to be, the ski industry’s snow reporter. He and his SnoCountry staff reach millions of listeners every day in winter, stirring the stoke, informing the uniformed, and likely inspiring many who may never have thought about giving skiing or riding a try.

But his smooth, enthusiastic descriptions of what’s happening in the mountains are only a small part of his work. Behind the scenes, he and his colleagues have built an empire of more than 500 radio affiliates from coast-to-coast that carry SnoCountry mountain reports. And from “The Skiing Weatherman” to the “SnoCountry Snapshot,” he has helped bring the experience of skiing into the homes of the millions of television viewers.

So, how did this radio broadcaster from New Jersey—who didn’t ski until he moved to Vermont in his mid-20s—become the voice of the ski industry? Let’s find out.

SAM: How did you get started working for SnoCountry?

Chuck: After graduating college in 1983, I started working at WHTG, which was an easy-listening radio station on the Jersey Shore. And I’m not an easy listening kind of guy. But in the two years I was there, the format switched to alternative. Around that time, I saw an ad in Broadcasting Magazine—which was what everyone in radio used to look for work—for a job in Woodstock, Vermont. Phil Camp had put the ad out.

At that point, I was the news and sports director, but I was ready to move out and move up. My wife got on board with it. She went for a job at Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital, and I went for the job at SnoCountry. She got hired first, and an hour later Phil Camp called me up to say that I was the third of three people to be hired. It was a great day.

My plan was to actually become the sports guy at a TV station in White River Junction. But there was something about SnoCountry that made me really want to stay. I had only been there for three or four years, and Phil made me the director of broadcast operations, or DOBO, as my co-workers would call me.

I really liked doing the reports, getting on the radio and preaching the gospel of skiing. But I could also syndicate that network and go out and get affiliates to build our reach.

SAM: When did you learn to ski?

Chuck: I had gone once to Jack Frost (Pa.) when I was in high school. My brother took me. He showed me a few turns, and I spent the rest of the time falling down and yelling at little kids to get out of the way so I didn’t bowl them over. It was tough.

Years and years later after I got hired with SnoCountry, I went to Okemo Thanksgiving weekend and took a lesson. It helped, but shortly after I went to Killington with my coworkers. I thought I had the hang of it because I had skied the very bottom of Okemo, but, ah, I just totally embarrassed myself. It was my first year at SnoCountry, and my coworkers were all skiers. I had told them I was a novice, which at the time I thought was a step above a beginner. From then on I worked on it, and by the middle of January my skiing got way better—and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the experience.

SAM: What were the keys to building SnoCountry’s media network?

Chuck: There were a few things. Back in the beginning we had two competitors. One was John Hamilton and the other was Morrie Trumble. We were all fierce competitors at the time, but SnoCountry had the greatest volume. Hamilton became Onthesnow and Mountain News, and we bought out Trumble in 1992. When we did that we became national.

That was also around the time that I started using trade from ski areas—lift tickets, vacations—and working sort of as an agency on behalf of the ski areas. I would use lift ticket trade to obtain some of the larger stations in bigger markets. Since then, the radio network has grown to more than 500 affiliates.

We bought out Herb Stevens in 2006, so “The Skiing Weatherman” became our show and we started syndicating it on television. Then we replaced that show with Halley O’Brien and the “SnoCountry Snapshot” in 2012, which has been great because it gives the program more of a lifestyle focus.

Herb did his show for about 25 years. When he first started it, people had no other way of seeing what the mountains were like. If markets went through a few days of rain, but there was snow in the mountains, his show was the proof of that. By the time Halley took over, ski areas had several ways of showing people what the mountains looked like.

SAM: What goes into developing the on-air message?

Chuck: There are certainly far more people out there who know basically nothing about skiing or snowboarding. When I was younger, I was one of them. In fact, I would look at the ski reports in the newspaper and see a base depth of 20 to 60 inches. My first thought was, “How can you not sink?” I had no idea it was being packed down by machines and people.

For that audience, it’s important for us to talk about the process, too, not just the conditions. Talk about how grooming equipment churns up the snow to make a smooth and loose surface. We’re talking to several different publics. There’s the people who ski frequently and know the lingo. For them, I’m either providing reassurance or just keeping them in the mood. Then you have the weekend warriors, and we’re trying to reassure them about what the weekend is going to be like and talking about the process.

Ski reporting, for me, is always about where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going. Every season is unique, and every season has a storyline. I love following those storylines and using them in my reports. Things can change really fast, no matter where you are in the country. If things weren’t great before, but now conditions and weather are turning for the better, I’ll trash the past and encourage people to come out because it’s better now than it was then.

But, of course, if we have a day that it’s pouring rain, especially in November or December, I’ll call a spade a spade. That’s how you build credibility. So when it’s really good, people know it’s good.

I talk to a public that has different states of awareness of how the weather and all the other factors affect the skiing experience. The regulars hear me talking about it and they’re thinking, “I’m with you, dude. I know it’s going to be good.” And there are the others in the middle that need to be reminded that the ski areas are taking care of the snow, and will take care of you. And then there are the folks who just need to be encouraged to check it out.

This past Saturday, for instance, it was warmer and the snow was going to be soft. So I started the report by saying this is going to be a great weekend to learn how to ski. Even if it didn’t get them out that weekend, hopefully it planted a seed for them to think about trying it sometime soon.

And, you know, it’s a long season, and sometimes if one of my broadcasters isn’t feeling it for one reason or another, I always tell them, “You gotta get out and ski.” Because when you feel the experience, it makes it so much easier to talk about. I try not to go more than a week without skiing because it helps me with my reports.

SAM: When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?

Chuck: The smirky answer? I build an empire (laughs)! We build an empire, really. Our team works so hard to grow our reach, between Andy Davis, Rob Chandler, and the rest of the team. When we add a new station to our network and it gets some trade, the station needs to treat us right. Andy keeps a close eye to make sure they’re taking care of us and our resort partners and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

We’re a network. We’re media. I was media first before I was skiing. And it’s funny because if I were to hire a broadcaster now, I’d want them to be skiing before media. The person would need to have that gift of gab and they need to have that passion, but I could point them in the right direction. I’m lucky, because I don’t know if I would’ve hired me!

The other answer to your question is: I preach the gospel of skiing. I’m a broadcaster. It’s what I do. Something you might not know is every Friday from the end of August to December, I’m the fantasy football expert on ESPN radio in Lebanon [N.H.]. So I spend an hour talking fantasy football on the radio. I just love being on the air talking about things that I love to do.

SAM: Have you had any mentors along the way?

Chuck: Oh, I’ve had many. My first one was Jack Scott. He was at WHTG in New Jersey, probably 65 years old at the time, and he was just very, very nice to me. He would let me make my mistakes on the air, and then work on it with me afterwards. He would say, “Get your experience here, and get out.” He was a real father figure in broadcasting.

Phil Camp was absolutely a mentor for me. I remember my first year at SnoCountry, our office was connected to his house in Woodstock, so he was always there in the office and had stoked the fire by the time we all arrived. This morning we all sit down at the table and he says to us, “OK, what are we going to talk about today?” So we’re all sitting there, on the spot, and everyone’s looking at each other kind of rolling our eyes. And Phil says, “Dammit, somebody better say something because that’s what I pay you for!” He was right. I came into the office with something to talk about every day since.

Scott Clarkson [Okemo and then Breck], who is the same age as me, I’ve watched the way he operates—he’s the quiet leader-type. I’ve always admired his process. Like many marketing directors, he looks around the mountain and notices the smallest of details and thinks about ways to make things better.

And Tom Cottrill was an amazing boss. I have so much respect for him. And more recently, Mike Colbourn, who is a great leader.

SAM: Was there a concern about how satellite radio would affect SnoCountry’s network?

Chuck: There was. And at first, we were able to get on with some affiliates with XM Radio. The biggest part of building this empire is the relationships. And we had a really good partner in radio that went over to XM, and we were able to get our reports on a lot of the news stations back then in their infancy stages. We haven’t had that lately, but we’re always seeking new opportunities.

Terrestrial radio took a lot of hits, and a lot of ski resorts weren’t having the same faith in terrestrial radio because, for one thing, when you advertise online you can track the results. But you’ve also got to come up with ways to reach the general public, and the public seems to always come back to radio, especially in the car.

SAM: What’s a typical workday like?

Chuck: That depends on the time of year, but let’s use a Thursday in December as an example. I get up at 3 a.m., I get to work at 4. I’m actually the only one who is still in Lebanon. The rest of the team is stationed at their own home studios. Andy still gives me crap about not having a home studio. One of these days, maybe.

So, I write the intros for the Northeast and Metro, which encompasses anything in New England and right down to Philly. Those are done by about 4:15, and I start pumping out feeds to radio stations. In the morning, the average feed load is around 40, and in the afternoon it’s around 30. It doesn’t mean I’m doing 40 different voiced pieces of work, but I’m cutting and pasting to make 40 of them.

And when I’m looking to get some extra information, I’m constantly going to ski area websites to figure that out. That’s a huge difference in my job since I started. Before, I would have to make a phone call to get extra info. Now, I go to the site and find out what they did for grooming and such, so I can recommend something particular for our listeners.

And then when I’m done with my reports, I’m calling stations to work out any issues. Or I’m working with new stations, because we’re always adding new stations, to make sure they’re getting everything on. If we have a new station, I let Andy know so he can keep track of them, and I let Rob know so he can tell the resorts that we got a new station in Boston, or New York, or wherever.

I also spend some time researching the listenership of radio stations to see where we can expand. I’m always looking for new ways to grow television, too.

So, broadcasting is a small part of my day, but it’s still the biggest part of what I do—and my favorite part of it.

SAM: What’s the most challenging part of the job?

Chuck: Well, there are a couple things. One is trying to keep the job from being so intense from the early part of December into January. There’s no way of stopping that because it always converges at once. It’s just a matter of managing it.

Also, finding good young talent. However, I haven’t given it the effort to really say that’s one of the most challenging parts, but it’s on the horizon. We have good broadcasters, but we’re all 40 and over.

Another thing is, getting western radio stations to be interested in our product.
It’s a lot of relationship building, and that goes for all of us at SnoCountry.

SAM: Where does snow reporting land in the hierarchy of importance for ski area communication?

Chuck: I think it’s way up there. There’s a lot that goes into it. The message needs to resonate and you need to toe the company line, but at the same time you need to maintain integrity in what you’re saying. People see through a stinking sales pitch from a mile a way.

We’re here to help. If it snowed overnight, a snow reporter who is really passionate about the job and knows how important it is will drag their ass out of bed at 5 a.m., stick a foot in the snow, and call up SnoCountry to say, “Yes, it is snowing, and this is how much is on the ground.” It doesn’t even need to be exact. Just let me know, man, and your ski area will be front and center. We don’t always know from where we’re sitting, and we don’t really find out until 7 o’clock. And by then we’ve already talked to more than 500 affiliates.

Back in the days when Phil was running SnoCountry, the marketing directors would do that, and we would have the info to tell everyone. That’s a rarity now.

But maybe it’s on me, too. I need to get the numbers of more groomers to call and see what’s going on. I’ve called ski areas early in the morning, sometimes I’ll get the front desk and the person will say, “Well, marketing isn’t in yet.” And I’ll say, “Can you please just take look outside and let me know what you think?” We’re not talking about rocket science, here. I really just want people to go skiing, man. That’s all I want.