10 Questions with ... Ian Punnett
October 4, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started at my high school radio station in 1974 and since then I have done a radio show once a week, if not every six days a week, and for many periods seven days a week, and on many occasions eight shows in seven days, almost continuously since then.
From the beginning, my interest has been in pushing format boundaries and creating new format approaches. While working within the confines of various formats, I've made a career of trying to color outside those lines too. I worked my way through college through a string of suburban Chicago Oldies and CHR stations eventually landing in the Monmouth-Ocean County, NJ market, where I was doing mornings at a station that flipped from CHR to Rock. When Y-107 switched to this more music intensive format, I switched from morning host to become an opinionated, bit-oriented, funny news man, and that's when my career really took off. I wrote parody songs, poems and fake stories with made-up sound bites which I performed in the news that got the attention of the PD of hard rock 97X in the Quad Cities. He had me switch from newsman back to host, and within a year we had a 25 share in demo.
Twenty-four months later, it was on to 103-KDF in Nashville, which was also very successful. Because I had continued to use a lot of topical bits, news-related content, sound-bite gags and some controversial talk radio elements as the basis for my content, I seemed like a good fit for the new, younger direction they were looking for at WGN. After three years, it was clear that I was tooooo controversial for WGN, and I was told the experiment was over. After that, I went back south to WGST in Atlanta, where things got a little crazy. I replaced Sean Hannity, although my interest was not talking about politics as much as culture. How people vote, to me, is not as interesting as what people are voting for. The show got off to a fast start doing so well that they wanted me to do morning drive. The management then blew up their news/talk success for a format twist that failed, and I sort of got caught in the crossfire. Still under contract, they put me on weeknights, then ended up syndicating my show to 11 other markets. Right about then I started seminary, and skewed my show to focus on life's bigger questions, using current events and pop culture to talk about conservative values and the culture wars. At the same time, because I could keep my political views in perspective, Premiere Radio Networks asked me to start filling in for Art Bell, which worked out so well that they gave me my own "Coast to Coast" night, the first time somebody other than Art was named in the title. My night was the experimental night for C2C, and the producers would test various guests and topics with me before moving them over to the main hosts and I have remained the host.
1. When first I encountered you, you were a morning DJ at a station at the Jersey Shore (competing with mine, actually). Eventually, though, you moved into talk radio. How did that transition take place, and why?
You were probably kicking my ass. Y-107, "Monmouth and Ocean County's Hit Music Connection," was a great training ground and I learned a lot. But once I figured out how to execute a solid, well-programmed CHR format, I sort of lost interest in it. After two years, my great aunt died and left me $5,000, which my young wife and I decided was a sign that it was time to quit and find something more challenging. So, I resigned from Y-107 and dedicated myself full-time to finding a better job in a bigger market, but after eight weeks of just nibbles, I got a call from my old boss who wanted me to rejoin the morning show I had just left. He extended my life there by one more year by switching me from morning show host to the role of a snarky, opinionated, bit-oriented news co-host (the host of the show became future NYC traffic guru Matt Ward) and I started to find a groove which eventually lead to talk radio. The more I did topical, news-oriented bits and talk topics, the more I outgrew a music format.
2. You've written your second children's book (with profits going to charity); what's it about, and how and why did you get into writing children's books?
Like so many of us in radio, at my core, I am just a writer. I write jokes, bits, monologues, parodies, questions, songs -- I am writing all day long. Sometimes in my head, sometimes on my hand, sometimes on Twitter, whatever, I spend my life trying to spin my thoughts into gold. Most of the time, I can use that material on the radio the next day to make way for more writing.
Writing in verse for kids came out of my frustration with the boring, preachy books I found myself reading to my boys at night. I wanted to read them books that were just silly, easy fun and imagination-inspiring, but all the books coming up when my boys were little were built around various agendas. Nothing wrong with conservation or diversity, but the message books were everywhere. When we adopted a particularly elusive dog that kept escaping from the backyard, our house, hotel rooms, etc., his story came out of me in verse as "Dizzy the Mutt with the Propeller Butt." Every time I read the story to my boys or to school groups, whatever, the kids laughed. It was my wife, Margery, who thought it would make a fun book. She's the one who found the illustrator and did ALL of the heavy lifting that made it such a hit.
"Jackula the Vampire Dog," the new book, reflected my interest in writing something edgier, something funnier, something more challenging for older kids. If I could have used "Jackula" or "Dizzy" on the radio in any substantive way, chances are they never would have made it to book form!
3. Your current local Minneapolis show is unusual in that a) it's not really political, b) it's on a station that's uniquely targeted towards female listeners, and c) is co-hosted by your wife Margery. First, after doing both morning shows on rock stations and straight-ahead talk radio, how comfortable are you with the kind of topics and approach you take on myTalk? Do you see this kind of talk -- not standard hard-core political talk, but lifestyle talk about pop culture plus more serious issues that are more about "real life" -- growing in the future? Why do you think more stations aren't following your lead?
myTalk107.1 is the archetype for a completely new spoken word format which should be in every market in America, in my opinion. I have been with myTalk since the project launched in 2002 as the generic "FM 107" and we began seven years of experimentation that was only possible because of the dedication of the Hubbard Broadcasting family. Years from now, when myTalk-like formats are making, lame, P3 AC stations profitable again, PDs should remember that it was only possible because of the willingness of Ginny Hubbard Morris to lose money on FM 107 until it morphed into the winner that myTalk has become. Radio is craving a new kind of approach to talk radio will attract lucrative female demos. Through a massive group effort and lots of trial and error, we believe we have found the formula.
The other night on "Coast to Coast," I was interviewing Michael Uslan, author of "The Boy Who Loved Batman," the man who spent 10 years lobbying in Hollywood for somebody to make a Batman movie that would capture the "Dark Knight" Batman that had been lost to the camp 60s TV show. From 1979 on, Michael was told that the only superhero the public wanted to see on the big screen was Superman. Can you imagine? But that's basically the myTalk107.1 story. In the same way that the Batman movie franchise looks like such a no-brainer in hindsight, someday all the fancy explanations that smart people have come up with why a myTalk format can't work or won't work will just seem silly.
myTalk107.1 deserved its Marconi nomination this year. Someday it will deserve a Marconi Award.
4. Also about your morning show, you have an unusual arrangement in that you work with your wife, who's at a home studio. How did the show and your working with Margery come about -- whose idea was it, and what are the challenges and rewards of working with your spouse?
Right after we started the myTalk107.1 experiment (originally FM107), I was doing an 8 to 11 mid-morning shift in the mode that I had left off at nights in Atlanta. Using pop culture, celeb news, current events and a heavy dose of humor, I was teasing out these talk radio topics about values and beliefs. Helping me start those conversations was my wife, Margery, a former local TV news producer, special projects producer for Harpo Studios, and booker for CNN. I would call her at home or at her worksite and we would pick up conversations (well, really, arguments) we had been having the night before about something or somebody that was in the news and that would launch the talk topic and then she'd hang up and go back to work. People loved it and we got a big kick out of it. So, the calls got more frequent, the friendly-ish banter got longer and when the air talent before us crashed, we went to management and said, "OK, if you're interested, Margery and I will co-host morning drive for the entire show as long as she can do it from a studio in the house and get the kids off to school in the morning." It was my idea to start calling her and putting her on the air but it was her idea to turn it into a whole show. For the first several years, however, Margery would have to leave the show at the 7:40 break to take the boys to school and she wouldn't get back until 8:05.
There have been a few challenges. I am an extrovert and she's basically an introvert. She's much more private than I am; I'm willing to talk about anything. Because she's in a studio in our house and I am at the radio station, I cannot see her roll her eyes at me when I'm talking. I can actually feel her roll her eyes at me but at least I don't have to see it. Still the rewards of being deeply in conversation and cooperation with each other every day have made for an amazing eight years. It's still my goal to make her laugh many times every day and not every married couple I know can say that.
5. You've hosted Coast to Coast AM on weekends for several years; how do you prepare for a show like that, featuring as it does a wide range of things like conspiracy theories and paranormal incidents -- what do you read, and where do you find out about that stuff?
Yes, I read books all week long for "Coast to Coast." Fortunately, I don't have to go out and find the topics or the guests; the executive producer and the weekend producer does that beautifully. It might best be described that I get a short list every week of some approved suggestions for guests from which to choose. After that, it's up to me to read the material and turn it into a show.
6. Who have been your mentors and inspirations in the business?
Of the names that anybody would know, legendary Chicago Top 40 jock John Records Landecker was originally an unwitting role model from a distance and then, later, a friend and mentor in person. Almost every program director and GM has been great for me, picking up a little here and there. Gabe Hobbs was influential and a great conversation partner for me. My PD at WGST, Nancy Zintak knew how to motivate me, and people like Ken Charles, Steve Konrad, Lisa Lyon at Premiere, and my current PD, Amy Daniels, all have pushed my game and made me better. I have more friends in this business than I deserve.
But there is one guy who was a huge inspiration to me whose name I will never know, one of many guys on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or "Bozo's Circus" who would run around keeping all those pie plates spinning on top of wooden poles. Just as one plate was about to fall, he would run back there and keep it spinning. Nerve-wracking to watch, but, man, it looked like fun to do. That's pretty much been my life exactly. Mille grazie, Mr. Italian Pie Plate Spinner Guy.
I don't know what's wrong with me. I suddenly feel like I won a Golden Globe and I'm afraid I'm going to leave somebody out of my acceptance speech. Uh, of course, I want to thank my beautiful wife and our adorable children. Now, go to sleep, boys!
7. How do you use social media in conjunction with your show? What do Facebook and Twitter bring to how you do your job, if anything?
I'm always posting photos and videos on our website, Tweeting comments, and I still respond personally to about a hundred emails a day.
But the innovation that the station tripped into are these Virtual Viewing Parties on our Facebook page, which we promote all the time. Monday night, for example, we will be on our Facebook page with as many listeners who want to sign on, talking about "Dancing with the Stars." How the celebs are doing, what they're wearing, what's wrong with Brooke Burke -- that sort of thing. The Virtual Viewing Parties, or VVPs, are something that we're really growing.
8. Of what are you most proud?
I think I've done some great shows on "Coast to Coast" and the books have been a blast but, on the radio side, I am most proud of the daily morning show I do with my wife. That might sound like the diplomatic answer, but it's not, I promise. It's such a unique sound. Most couples would fall into these cliched roles like the "sexist pig husband and the frustrated liberated wife" or the hackneyed "Ladies, why don't guys understand the thing about the toilet seat" or whatever.
But our show isn't like that. Margery's a troublemaker, frequently a fight starter. She's impulsive, a blurter, and, at the same time, a bit of a control freak in a funny way. She's really unpredictable -- it's not an act. No one else sounds like us, and that's pretty cool.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ___________.
Well, other than the requisite "knowing my family is safe" or "praying for world peace," my first thought is "learning." I have to learn something every day.
10. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
It's a long race.
If you aren't saying something, you aren't saying anything.
Diversify, diversify, diversify.