10 Questions with ... Skip Mahaffey
September 13, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Nearly three decades in radio, primarily as a Country morning show host. 3-time CMA Award winner, Billboard Award winner. Tulsa (KVOO), Tucson (KIIM-KCUB, KAIR), Phoenix (Mix 101), St. Louis (Y-98), San Diego (KSON), Los Angeles (Star-98), Columbus (WCOL), Tampa (WQYK, US 103-5).
1. You've made the move from country morning show host to talker. What promoted that move? Why talk?
First of all, I haven't left Country radio altogether: I am working on True Country for Dial-Global. I have such deep roots in Country and I truly love the format, so I imagine I will always have some connection to Nashville!
PPM has completely changed the way music radio works. Music-based radio is now all about song count and content in under 30 seconds. I've seen the numbers and I understand that; in fact, even though we were not a PPM market, I went to great lengths to make my program PPM friendly during my last stint at KVOO.
But the SkipShow has always been a talk show that just so happened to play six to eight songs per hour. We made our mark by serving the community and talking to people; that's what we did best.
While we were at Clear Channel, everyone on the talk side (Jack Harris, Sue Treccase, Schnitt, to name a few) encouraged me to move into talk radio. It was really a natural progression. After I left Tulsa in January, I knew that if I was ever going to make this change, now was the time to do it. Given the state of the economy and the business, no matter what I was going to do next, it would be on a smaller scale than moves I've made in the past. So why not make the move now? I knew the only way I could generate some interest from the audience was to do it from the market that knew me best -- Tampa.
Why talk? Country music fans, like Talk fans, are very passionate, patriotic Americans. We all want what's best for our family. We have opinions on a wide variety of topics. More and more I was told by my programmers "nobody really cares" about anything outside the format. I don't agree with that. People want to connect with people they listen to on the radio. There are plenty of sources to get music, I want to give them a connection.
2. You've taken the unusual step of starting the show on your own dime, brokering the time to get your show out there. What have been the challenges of doing it on your own so far, and why did you go this route?
There are two challenges: finding advertisers and changing perceptions. I've always been aware of the challenges of selling radio advertising, but it's an entirely different game when you have to step out from behind the microphone and hit the streets. It's particularly difficult when YOU are the product you have to sell. I have SO much respect for those AEs who are successful in this industry.
Barter radio is the bastard step-child of the industry, filled with amateurs who think all they need to do to have their own program is pay the money. It's a reputation that is well deserved. Barter radio has traditionally been considered the bottom-feeders and it's a challenge to change those attitudes. There are exceptions to the rule. While there are plenty of "pay to play" programs on WTAN, our mornings are anchored by Don Imus, we carry Rays baseball, Lightning hockey, and USF Bulls and Gator football, and we have three high-profile local radio personalities, including myself. But sadly, when they hear "barter," large advertisers, agencies and just about everyone inside radio snickers and will immediately dissmiss you. There are no traditional numbers to work with and being on two low-power AM signals doesn't help. I have to work twice as hard to show radio and advertisers that the audience doesn't care where the content comes from, as long as it's relevant to them.
Taking this route was essentially the only way I could guarantee that I could get the show launched. Like I said before, the SkipShow has always been a talk show on a Country station. Understandably, talk radio programmers and operations managers are hesitant to hire someone with little or no talk experience no matter what's on their resume, especially for drive time. I have to give them proof that I can do talk radio. Plus I've always tried to be the very best at what I do, this route allows me to polish the stone and give me the opportunity to iron out the bugs, find my voice and really define what the show is supposed to be.
3. As a talker, how are you differentiating yourself from the pack? What makes you different?
There is a genuine lack of civility these days toward each other. I'm trying very hard to eliminate the negativity. It's been my assertion that most Americans live somewhere between the extreme left and the extreme right. I certainly fall into that category. Holland Cooke said, "The moment you use the words 'conservative' and 'liberal,' you have immediately alienated one half of your potential audience." America is tired of listening to radio talk show hosts bashing each other's politics, and there is a general distaste for the negativity prevalent in talk radio. For the past two years, I've been telling people that there is a wide open opportunity to at least blur that line, if not erase it completely, and open it up to a broader audience.
With encouragement and support from people like Gabe Hobbs and Mike McVay, I took the elements of my morning show and removed the music and launched the show in July. This is not "Real Housewives" and "Toddlers in Tiaras" radio geared to women, but a lifestyle-focused program with a little politics and a lot of content. In a sense, I'm trying to develop more "Good Morning America"/"Daily Show" and less FOX/MSNBC. I have also made it a point to be focused on serving the local community, something that is sadly lacking more and more. Every bit of it done with a lot of humor. I am interested in politics but it doesn't drive my life. Instead of attacking someone for their differences, I believe we need to find the common ground and look for viable solutions. If you disagree with me, I'm not going to resort to calling you names, then hanging up.
Most talk show hosts take themselves SO seriously. Anyone who has listened to my show in the past thirty years knows that I certainly do not. I am very passionate about what I believe in but I'm always the first person to laugh at myself and the absurdity of life.
4. In the same category, do you see less partisan talk radio growing in the coming years? Do you see it as replacing or supplementing traditional partisan talk radio? Why do you think there's been resistance to the concept up to now?
Partisan radio, like sports radio, will always be a mainstay of talk radio. I don't see there being less partisan radio, I see more non-partisan radio joining the fray. As more and more stations (especially FM) make the move to talk, like music, there's going to be a desire to "split the format" casting a wider net to appeal to a wider audience. We are in such a difficult time for radio, again you can blame PPM or the economy if you like. Nobody wants to take any chances. There was a great article in Radio Ink last year talking about how there are no more leaders in radio, I think the reality is that everyone from the top down is so gun-shy about making mistakes that taking the safety route is the best answer. Recently, a goup of new owners took over an AM-FM talk combo in Sarasota. They had an excellent opportunity to expand the brand in the Bay Area but chose to go all sports. Is that the wrong decision? Maybe not; It's just a safe decision. It's just my opinion, but nobody wants to take chances.
5. How have Facebook and Twitter, if at all, changed how you do your work? Is there a place for social media in your work, or is it more valuable as a personal thing?
Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are all vital tools for this program. Now more than ever, the quickest way to communicate with your audience is via social media. When I'm looking for show content, in the morning, I will toss out a statement on Facebook to see what kind of response I receive. That helps me determine whether or not to use air time on it later. It also helps me schedule callers. Since you never know if anyone will respond, I'll get comments from Facebook friends, grab their phone numbers and essentially set-up their comment calls like interviews. The show is very focused on serving the local community, Facebook is THE place people go to promote their events; That makes my job a little easier!
I learned from Melissa Bunting, my former producer, that if you're trying to get hold of entertainers, politicians or someone in the news for an on-air interview, you can reach them directly much faster on their Facebook page than by trying their publicists, etc.
6. Who have been your mentors and inspirations in the business?
Programmers: Billy Parker taught me to talk to the audience like you're talking to your next door neighbor. Bob Gaskins really taught me to appreciate the theater of radio. Eric Logan taught me to go big or don't go at all. Beau Phillips, John Paul and Shannon Stone at Dial-Global: They have great vision.
Air Talent: Drew Lane taught me the value of show prep and Lisa Dent taught me to love the audience more than you love yourself. Kelly Ford, Fitz, Mantel: those who define mornings in Country radio, the toughest job out there.
Marketing/Promotions: Nobody does it like Mike Culotta.
More recently, Heather Cohen, Gabe Hobbs, Mike McVay, Gary Krantz, Karen DeFrieze and all those who have encouraged me to take this step into talk radio. Mary McKenna in Kansas City, who had the guts to go first.
I look at everyone who has succeeded in this business, from Howard Stern to Paul Harvey, and try to learn something from them.
Above all, my wife Denise, for sticking with me for thirty years of radio.
7. You've done some writing and worked with charities, but if you hadn't ever gone into radio, what do you think you'd be doing right now? Would you be a writer, or was there something else that you would have pursued?
I love writing and plan on writing and publishing another book (my first book, "Adventures With My Father," available on Kindle!) but honestly, I'd probably be running a craft beer bar in Austin, Texas.
8. Of what are you most proud?
Personally: Sean, Carleigh, and Meagan.
Professionally: We did something good for someone somewhere along the ride.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ___________.
10. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
"Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off your goals."