10 Questions with ... John McConnell
October 18, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Began career in 1977 at KHJ as news editor. Joined RKO Radio Network in 1979 as news editor then NBC, WOR, United Stations. Joined KGO in 1989.
1. First, let's get right to the project you're working on with philanthropist Peter Kiernan, an attempt to develop a "middle ground" in media, a "radical center." What's this about, how did your participation come about, and will radio be a part of the mix?
It's not an attempt to develop something that isn't there. There's clearly a growing and substantial movement in this country of people who are dissatisfied by the hyper partisanship in politics. The yelling and screaming from the polls has hit a crisis point and it's not moving our nation forward.
Radio has always been at the forefront of new media spaces, i.e. the conservative programming formats. This is a new opportunity, made of voices who are as feisty and pugnacious as the poll sitters, but are far more interested in solutions, often through compromise. Yes, radio will be a part of this space going forward. This space represents the majority, and it's extremely appealing to advertisers, who are also, in many instances, tired of the fighting, especially on air.
2. Keeping with the centrist concept for a moment, you've worked with several prominent talk hosts over the years while at ABC; what role do you think radio has played in what's been perceived as the polarization of American political discourse? Was radio a cause or a reflection of something already in the air?
Radio is reflective of people's voices. When Sean Hannity went into syndication, September 10, 2001, the block of Rush to Sean allowed stations to program additional like minded hosts and create brands -- a format was born. Radio was clearly a reflection of a mood and gave voice to those who didn't have one. With that said, radio has also had a very large role in perpetuating polarization.
3. You've been prominent in developing talent for radio, and a lot has been said about the "lack of a farm system" and radio being slow to develop new talent to replace the long-established hosts still on the air today. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about radio's ability to develop fresh talent? Do you see the tide turning in the near future -- do you expect radio to invest in finding and nurturing talent again?
I'm disappointed. Consolidation sucks out the creative process. Local news is a shadow of what it was and except for morning drive, personalities are tough to find. However, I have always looked outside the traditional radio business to find new talent. Some worked, many didn't and I'll continue to look to politics, writers, and ex-athletes.
For many years, it was my charge to find the next Paul Harvey. Knowing of course that there was no next, I did try to find someone who in their own right could hold his own. Mike Huckabee, ex-governor, would-be president, is now on over 600 stations.
In terms of investing in new talent... companies aren't going to overspend on their line-ups unless they have someone who is a game changer. There is, however, opportunity in the digital space. For local stations to create destinations that are much more than streams and instead a reflection of the community's tastes and interests -- that's when stations will become brands and not just stations. Look to what ESPN has done. Brilliant.
4. Also on talent development, what, to your ears, makes a strong radio personality? What do you listen for?
Passion. Sense of humor. Clarity of thought. Reads the newspaper (or online).
5. After your neck injury in 2005, you've been active with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. What does the work being done by the organization mean to you personally, and have you found radio receptive to helping publicize the foundation's efforts?
That accident changed my life. I'm the luckiest person and God wasn't ready for me. The fractures were incredibly close to the cord. I found the foundation shortly after the accident, needing their resources and guidance. They were incredible. That's where I met Peter Kiernan, by the way. The day Dana Reeve died, with Chris gone, she asked Peter to take over the foundation. He took a leave from his hedge fund and turned it around. I'm now on the executive board and yes, radio was very helpful, but you are reminding me to make some more phone calls. :) I did just finish creative on a new TV PSA. It will air over the holidays. It represents remarkable progress that has been made in spinal cord research AND quality of life.
6. Of what are you most proud?
Personally? My sons. My wife raised good men. And her. She cares for her father who has Alzheimers. She's amazing.
Professionally? Where to start...I have worked at the most extraordinary organizations...KGO, ABC News, ESPN and ABC Radio.
7. Since leaving ABC, you've been doing several projects on your own, including the Elvis Duran show and several start-ups. As someone who's taken that big step and ventured out to work for yourself, what advice would you give to those either looking to move out from under a corporate umbrella and be entrepreneurial or may be forced to do so? What are the pros and cons of being your own boss?
There's an adage about treating people the way you expect to be treated. Do unto others... and the saying about being good to people on the way up, because you'll see them on the way down. Well, I'm blessed to have a wonderful and prosperous business made up of mostly people I knew throughout my ABC career. The pros are being in a position to choose who you want to work with.
I really love working for myself. I was the radio guy all those years. Now I'm in radio, TV (represent clients), am very involved in digital development and have my first book deal. Working for someone else doesn't allow that kind of range. It's why I haven't taken another position. The flexibility is very important to me.
The cons are keeping track of everything. Good support and a book keeper are key. I make a lot of lists. Also... too many in our business don't return phone calls. What's up with that?
8. Who have been your mentors and inspirations in the business?
Many. I learned well from incredible bosses. Dave Cooke, one of my first bosses: He was news director at KHJ Los Angeles in the late 70's. Incredible voice and best writer I've ever heard in radio. Mickey Luckoff: There's a reason he is the most successful manager in the history of major market radio. Bob Callahan, former head of ABC Broadcast. Traug Keller, now a big shot at ESPN. He's normal and knew how to manage.
Broadcasters: I'm privileged to have worked with the best. Paul Harvey. What a talented and good man. He would call me Mr. McConnell, or "American." Ronn Owens in San Francisco: hard working and a total pro. Sean Hannity, incredibly disciplined and may understand the radio business better than most managers.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _____________.
...six cups of coffee and making tennis plans for the weekend, even if it's Monday.
10. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
I said it earlier. Treat others as you would expect to be treated. Be respectful. But the most important thing you have to have, in the people that work for you and those you work for, is trust. John Hare made me understand that.