10 Questions with ... Blair Garner
May 1, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Currently host of the Nashville-based "America's Morning Show," syndicated nationally on Cumulus Media Networks, Garner is a three-time National Radio Personality Of The Year honoree from the Academy of Country Music (ACM). He got his first radio break in Canyon, Texas, a small town south of Amarillo at 17. Major market opportunities followed soon after in cities such as Dallas; Washington, DC; and - by the early 90s - New York, where he was part of the lineup at perennial powerhouse WPLJ. Following a stint at Top 40 giant KIIS in Los Angeles, Garner created - and, for 20 years, hosted - the nationally syndicated "After Midnite" program. No stranger to the tag "Hall Of Famer," Garner was a 2013 inductee into the National Radio Hall Of Fame. He'll be inducted into the Country Radio Hall Of Fame on Wednesday, June 22nd at Nashville's Omni Hotel.
1. Blair, thank you so much for taking time to speak with All Access about your induction in to the Country Radio Hall Of Fame as part of the Class of 2016. Let's begin by asking what induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame means to you and what you think it says about your radio career.
What blows me away is the fact that those who voted and would decide whether or not I would earn my way in are those that already made their way in. I walked down the hall so many times and looked at those pictures and those names and privately wondered if maybe I'd ever have the chance. But you don't want to set yourself up, you know? I would want to get that, but I always felt it was a bit out of my grasp. That's why it's so surreal. But to join those names - to join the people who paved the way - I'm hopeful to let folks know that there are more to come.
2. Following up on that, you are already a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame, which is a prestigious honor, but this is recognition to the format. You've done other formats, but this is the format you've spent, what, 25 years? I'm guessing this honor means a lot to you.
I'm incredibly appreciative to the other; but it's such a personal thing, because these are people that I see very year at CRS. These are people I have known my entire career. And just the fact that they stopped and gave you the tip of the hat is unbelievable. I honestly don't even know how to describe it. It's that big a deal.
3. Speaking of those people you see every year at CRS, you've chosen Bob Kingsley to induct you into the Hall of Fame, and that is someone who I know you see every year and are friends with. Was it an easy call to Bob saying, hey will you do this for me? What was the connection?
Well, it was emotional. Listen, when it's all said and done, none of us are going to surpass what Bob Kingsley did in his career - he's the guy. And I was a little embarrassed. It's kind of like telling someone that it means that much to you that they would be involved in that. I didn't want to be an imposition or anything like that. But the fact that Nan [Kingsley, Bob's wife] and Bob said they would do it, I'm so blown away.
4. So we know you grew up in Texas, and radio was an influence on you. What station or personality did you listen to growing up, and how did either influence you in pursuing a radio career?
Well, aside from Bob...When I was in this really small town in Texas, there was not a lot of stuff going on locally. I mean you had just a couple of radio stations really that you could listen to if you were lucky, and maybe one of them would be in FM. My brother went to school in New York, and this was probably about 1979 or 1980 when we went out on a family vacation to go see him and his wife. There was a radio station, WYNY, and I loved the music that they played, so I just taped the station. This was before I ever got into radio. I really hadn't given it any thought, so I recorded it. I used to think I was so cool, because I was driving around Canyon, TX in my '78 Pontiac Grand Prix listening to New York City weather; Steve O'Brien was the name of the jock. I heard one time, he'd given out the request line on that tape. So after I had been in radio for three months, I grabbed the phone, and just kept dialing over and over and over and over. Finally, one time he picked up and said, "'YNY this is Steve O'Brien," and I said, "Yes, my name is Blair Garner, and I'm a senior at Canyon High School, and I'm a radio DJ, too. I just finished my second month, and is there a chance that I can send you a tape, and you could give me some tips on how to be better?" And he graciously accepted. I'll never forget. It was probably three weeks later there came in my mailbox this little envelope with the NBC logo on the outside, and it was from Steve O'Brien, my very first air check critique. I was on the air for literally three months and then I got the opportunity to go work with John Shomby in Dallas. So I went from market 178 to number 10 in three months. It was ridiculous. So Steve certainly will forever be a very early mentor, and to this day remains a good friend of mine. But then, I'd say that working with Scott Shannon, working with Jim Kerr, and working with Rick Dees. All three had a very heavy influence on my style.
5. I want to go back to when you launched "After Midnite." This journey into Country radio started there. You branded it on air as "The Overnight Revolution," and it truly was. What made a Top 40 Major Market personality decide to try an overnight, nationally syndicated Country radio show? How did that light bulb go off?
Well, I've always been a bit of an entrepreneur, and I started my first corporation when I was 15. It was National Car Care Incorporated, and it was the very early days of being a detail shop. I had four college kids that worked for me and I'd come home from school - I was the front man - and I'd go to the dealerships and pick up the cars that were traded in, bring them back, and the guys would detail them. I'd just be shuttling back and forth. The only reason I did it was because I could drive pretty cool cars. Cars have always been a thing for me. And so that lasted until I got into radio and realized, hey I can actually do a little better without sweating over a car buffer every day. So I took the leap into radio. But that entrepreneurial spirit has always been there. It took me two years to write the business plan and get the capital venture together to launch "After Midnite." That was all fueled by - and I have to be very thankful for - Scott Shannon. The reason I say that may not be why you expect it, because what I found in working for Scott was that I figured out what I would and would not accept for myself. I'm trying to politely say that it was not a pleasurable experience. I'm very, very grateful for the time I worked for Scott, but it was a very difficult time, as well. And after nine months of that, I got to the place where even though I still had two and a half years left in my contract, I asked to be let out. And I remember the General Manager saying, "Give me three months, and if you still feel the same way after that, then I'll let you out of your deal." So I went home and marked it on my calendar. In the three months, I walked into his office and I said, "Today's the day." In a very strange way, my feelings were so strong working for Scott it fueled my desire to do something where I could prove myself. And I've always had something about taking something that no one else really sees the beauty in and then turning it into something that others find remarkable. And that's shown in cars; I cannot tell you what a thrill it is to get a car that everyone else would just laugh at, and with a lot of hard work turn it into something that everyone suddenly sees the beauty in. Maybe I see it before they do. And I feel that the overnight daypart was very much that way. I found that, on average, a single radio station - I still remember the research for radar research - a single station retains 30 to nearly 40 percent of the size of its daytime audience over nights. So the theory of the company became, you take that 30-40 percent of one market and add it to 30 to 40 of another, and if you keep doing it - we did do that, so we had 270 different pieces of that puzzle all come together and create something that no one had ever seen before. The overnight daypart was really problematic for a lot of programmers, because they wanted to focus their attentions on morning drive and on afternoon drive, the dayparts that are going to drive home revenue. Again and again they found this revolving door of talent, who if they were new in the business they just wanted to get better, and they would try and work for more prime shifts. The overnight daypart at the station was just a money losing proposition. So I felt that there was a genuine need, and I just worked to create the answer to that need. That's how "After Midnite" came to be.
6. For this format, there has traditionally been a lot of doubt about whether a nationally syndicated Country morning shows are viable, but that tide seems to be turning now with you and Bones. Is this because the Country listener is changing and more accepting of the idea? Why do you think that's viable now as opposed to 10 years ago?
Sure. I think that it's not only about radio in the way consumers use it. It's really about media, and how the lives that we live today compared to the lives that we lived 10 years ago are entirely different. The way that you get your news - if I told you 10 years ago you're going to first find out that Prince died through Twitter, you would've had no idea what I was talking about. You know, 15 to 20 years ago, had I said, "let me email them and I'll get back to you," you would've had no idea what I was talking about. For streaming, the methods of delivery have changed a lot. If anything, I think they were surprised by some of the old guard, the way that listening habits which we saw were so intense they could never be changed. That's actually not true. I'm a big proponent of local radio, but obviously I'm a big proponent of what syndicated programming can bring a station. I think that people in Albuquerque, NM who wake up with [ABC-TV's nationally syndicated] "Good Morning America," you know they're not refusing to watch it because that doesn't originate there in the Land of Enchantment. They're watching it because that is the best quality content, and that was our argument for "After Midnite." "The Tonight Show" - they don't tape it in Amarillo, and people from Amarillo like it. Why? Because it's good. It's about content. They have the opportunity to bring things to a market that a local station cannot. And certainly there was no show that would be able to bring Garth Brooks after his appearance on "The Tonight Show" and be on their overnight show. Nobody would even buy that. But if it was a nationally syndicated show from Hollywood, they did get that. Similarly, that trajectory can be fun.
7. There's an industry-wide concern about the thin on-air talent pool and its lack of development. How will we get younger talent ready for prime time, and where will we find younger creative types, in a time where radio isn't seen as cool as it once was?
Well, I don't see the talent pool as smaller; if anything, it's larger. And the reason I say that is because of home studios, and it's the same thing with musicians. You know, you think about if you were that kid who was putting together a pirate radio station in your parent's basement. You know those kids are still out there, still doing those same things but they're doing it in a different way. But again, it's the channel distribution that's changed. Maybe their content is different, but certainly our content would've been different from what our parents had. The wonderful thing about radio - and all media - is the fact that it's dynamic, and its ever-changing. What will dictate your success or your longevity within the field is your willingness to re-invent yourself; your willingness to say "Okay, that was then. What is now? And what will tomorrow be?" That plays itself out in so many different ways. Look at Madonna. Look at Reba! Reba is a perfect example. Here's a woman who had unparalleled success in the world of Country. Now what does she do? She does Broadway. She doesn't just sing on Broadway. She kills it on Broadway. She owns Broadway! She took it to a whole new level. And then what does she do? She goes and creates a television show. She understood a line extension of her brand. She understood how there were other opportunities to get the message out there. So I think that all of that - the ability to reinvent, the ability to say, "Hey, listen man, I'm so happy the system worked for me for 'x' number of years, but you know what? It's changing and I think I need to be on the lookout for what's next."
8. You've been in the format since 1993, when Country experienced a historic boom with Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and others - and recently it has exploded again. So now that you've experienced two pretty significant eras for the format, where is it going? What is happening with the format?
Well, there was so much concern that "Bro Country" would just roll over the market, and somehow we'd become this Pop format. And I do think that certainly there are more elements that are mainstream compared to perhaps the earlier years. But thanks to Chris Stapleton, who has defined what that other edge might be. We know that Taylor Swift now is having a great career in Pop. People will argue that so much of her music was always Pop, but it was accessible, and she brought people into the format. You're starting to see similar things with Thomas Rhett. You've got him on one end of the spectrum, and Brett Eldredge, and then you go to the other side and you've got Chris Stapleton. Our format is wider and more diverse, I think, than any other. If you really are astute with what's going on with millennials today, to them it doesn't matter that Justin Timberlake's not Country, because you may well hear Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around" on their own iPod back to Kenny Chesney's "Noise." They don't care. It's a feel; it's a life group. And I think the people who have been caught by surprise are the ones who hold their breath and say, "I'm not going to change."
9. Speaking of that generation, Country has traditionally been an adult-targeted format - specificially 25-54 - but we seem to have moved more into the 18-34 arena recently. Long-term, is this the core audience for Country radio, or do you see us shifting in emphasis and appeal, back to mature listeners?
I always find it hard to believe that it's a long-term systemic change. I think that the things that are not going to change in Country are the core messages of faith, family, and country. The songs and the production may change, but the core messages - that's not going to change. Certainly the 18-34 will be tomorrow's 25-54, but I think it's all momentary; I really do. I think that the best creations often come forged from the fires of really difficult situations. When you've got some difficult constraints to work with, all that really does is force you to be better at what you do. We now know that in just seconds when you crack that mic, if you don't make some kind of connection that lets them know, "Hey I'm going to do something here that you don't wanna miss out on." You've got to do it. We've gotten so much better, because the constraints have become more apparent. We've drilled down on what makes an impact, and I think that you've really just got to frame the environment in your own mind in the right way. You've got to view the challenges as opportunities. I'm bullish on what our format has coming down the pike and what radio has coming down the pike. It's exciting, and not something to be feared. It's something to be embraced and to find your own unique way of operating within that. The content will always connect. The music content of Country will always connect. How it's delivered - the radio station and the way that that's changing - that's changing dramatically. I had someone that came in, and I said when I first went into a studio, I had these bins of albums, and they were stacking up. I'm trying to queue 'em up and get 'em ready to go, and we didn't have any kind of computer log of our music. We had this recipe box of index cards that were broken down into different categories if you rotated through, and the playlist just kind of built itself as you went through. There was no log reconciliation. You were doing that yourself. And yeah, every now and again you cheated, because you liked a song a little bit more. If you were to somehow transport a jock from 1982 - which is the year I started - into the "America's Morning Show" studio today, I think it'd be terrifying. It'd be frightening. But you know what I mean? Things change so much, and along the way you had to take the jump and make the leap of faith that these trusted carts that you love - sometimes they had burned queue marks in the beginning - you had to trust that everything was going to be okay when you put this little round disc into the player. And then when you started to feel safe with that, you had to make another. You had to realize that it'll be in this computer hard drive. I remember when the VoxPro first came around. There are so many little things that have cumulatively added up to change what we do in a really, really profound way. I think you have to be ready to say "Alright, let's give it a go! Let's try!"
10. This might be a tough one, because there have been so many of them, but what is your proudest ever on-air moment?
Well, selfishly... Yeah, this is purely self-serving, and I don't know that it will really be the answer that you want, but it would be just sharing glimpses of my kids. The fact that the thing that's most precious in my entire life has been a part of this, it's beyond rewarding. One thing that's amazing, and I have always been so respectful, of is the relationship that radio has with its listeners. It was probably about 2005 when I got a letter at Premiere from a woman who said, "Blair, you don't know me. My name is Doris and I have been meaning to write you this letter for about two and half years. There was one night late at night, I was working at a convenient store, and a man with a gun came into the store. He blindfolded me and had me seated down on the floor next to the safe that he was trying to do the combination. And you were on the radio." She said, "I felt so alone in that moment, until I heard you. And there you were, my rock that had been with me for several years working the overnights. In that moment I was able to close my eyes, forget where I was, and maintain my composure." And that's not so much a testament to me, or anything like that. That is a testament to the power of radio and the power of connection and social connection. We all want to be connected with someone in some way, and I think that the overnight daypart is so problematic for a lot of people. If you're lonely - If you're lonely at three in the morning - that's really lonely. You think about the gratitude that you feel; that it mattered to someone is absolutely unbelievable. I mean, look at what you and I have been given. If I were a realtor, yeah it'd be kind of cool to drive around and show people houses and stuff. But at the end of the day, I'm not making the same kind of connection that you do to radio. I mean, you look at the songwriters, and boy do they tell our life stories. Country radio, specifically, I don't even know how to say how that connection... I don't even know how to describe it.
That's a great story. Someone in an incredibly vulnerable situation, and the person that kept them together was your voice and what you were doing on the air. That's powerful stuff right there.
And you'd never know that. And there are probably a million stories that every person in that room - there will be similar life moments for them with their listeners, some of which they may know about, and some of which they may not. But you know, I really do feel that being given that chance to hit the "On" button on the microphone is a gift. My hope is that anyone just understands what a gift that is. They are truly respectful of the format and the medium. We're truly really lucky.