10 Questions with ... Tom Leykis
March 5, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Many major market talk shows, including a long-running Westwood One syndicated show. Launched the New Normal Network in 2010, and launched own show online in 2012 once CBS Radio deal expired.
1. You've been doing your show online now for almost a year (and your online network's been on for longer than that) -- first, what would you say you've learned about doing online programming in that time that surprised you the most?
First and foremost, it is that we are not doing radio. I had to lose a lot of the Arbitron/PPM mentality that was drilled into me over the years. The methodology of computing audiences is different. In this environment, the minute-by-minute numbers show that if a caller is good, you can just go with it. They show that sometimes, people are just as happy being talked to as being talked with. They show that formats are made to be broken and that you can just throw all the cards up in the air to surprise the audience sometimes.
And we learned that social networking is not just something you do on the side to increase audience. It's something greater, and here is the most important part that many radio people haven't grasped yet: what we are doing is, in itself, a new kind of social networking... with a live audio component. It only sounds like radio to the uninitiated. Anyone who simply drags their tired old Obama-bashing act from the former gig at the 50 KW flamethrower to a podcast is going to be sadly disappointed. And probably very lonely.
2. What's the biggest challenge in doing online broadcasting as opposed to doing it through traditional means? Are there particular elements to the business that pose greater difficulty in the Internet sphere that don't exist in terrestrial radio?
Yes. At this point, we are where Sirius and XM were back before satellite radio was being built into cars. Only when Howard Stern came to Sirius did people willingly start to find out what a satellite radio was and to drill holes in their dashboards so they could get content they cared passionately about. Our P1s do what it takes to hear us, whether it's connecting their iPhones to their Aux jacks, using earbuds at work connected to their PCs, or using the TuneIn app on their tablets. Because they are virtually all P1s, our listeners actively solicit new listeners and even go so far as to show them how to tune in.
It would be easier to do this if we simply had an "on button" instead of an app or a media player. There is no effective scan button in our world. And, we're on a constant road show with advertisers and media buyers, demonstrating that we have accredited numbers and a level of passion from our followers about which radio stations can only dream. Our advertisers get a huge return on a relatively small investment. Our daily mission is to explain our business model to the uninitiated: our listeners know how sausage is made, that is, supporting our advertisers keeps us growing and keeps us doing what we do. Imagine if more radio listeners passionately believed that patronizing the advertiser is not just a way to buy a new mattress, but a way to support your favorite content?
3. How are you using social media in conjunction with your show? Is it a marketing tool, a programming tool, interactivity, or all of the above?
We don't just use social media in conjunction with our show. We are a social medium ourselves. We start our days, all of us, on Facebook and Twitter to take the pulse and see what people are talking about every day. But then some days, we use a variety of social media to throw out trial balloons or lob bombs. Then, we see what comes back and program accordingly. Facebook and Twitter content are like soup starter for us, but the show content also affects what people using social media are saying about us. Programming and business decisions are often inspired by what our partisans say that they want us to do. And we don't care what non-listeners or non-P1s think. If a joke might offend a 58-year-old woman in New Jersey, we can't waste our time worrying that she might write a letter; we superserve only those who are super fans.
4. Technically, anyone can start a podcast or stream, but to bring it to the size of audience you have now so quickly is obviously helped along by the following you brought with you. But some podcasts by people who didn't have that kind of fan base have developed a sizable following as well. What would you advise someone starting out in radio to do to reach a big audience? Would you tell them to skip terrestrial radio and go directly online?
It wasn't as easy for me as it seems because I had to sit out for over 37 months before I could do my first show. Our large audience this first year was more due to our feeding and watering of Facebook and Twitter in my absence and the fact that there was a countdown clock to April 2nd, 2012 on our website for over two years! In that time, we worked every angle to make sure that people knew I was coming back. And finally, the intellectual property folks at CBS Radio appeared to do virtually nothing to prevent people from posting thousands of hours of my old shows online everywhere from YouTube to a listener website called LeykisOnline.com. I'm not complaining; it kept me relevant to my existing fan base and it brought many curious new listeners to the table who had never heard our show before due to notoriously spotty syndication distribution by Westwood One. You might say that it was one of the best of many gifts CBS gave me.
If you are still working in radio, the clock is already ticking on you unless your name ends in "baugh" or "crest." Time to prepare for your next new world. Make sure you have your own email address and website that listeners can follow you to. Keep every email listeners send you and harvest all of their email addresses so you can create a database and get in touch with your P1s after the ax is planted in your back. And make sure that you keep good relations with all of your advertisers past and present because you'll need them when you finally go.
I would recommend that all young people drop their dreams of working in radio and go straight to the online world, unless "working in radio" to you means being the guy who gets nine dollars an hour to say, "You're listening to The Mike Huckabee Show on Hot Talk 1710, your home for NASCAR and stimulating conservative talk!" Is that the kind of career you college graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans had in mind?
5. Who else in Internet streaming and/or podcasting, besides you and your crew, is doing things you'd call impressive or creative? Who should people be checking out?
I say it every time that for streaming, Alex Jones is a rising star who, while he is on radio stations, his major impact is on the world of internet streaming. He gets huge numbers and, while his politics aren't everyone's cup of tea (and probably make blue-chip advertisers nervous), he has identified a major untapped niche and built quite a business for himself. I am crazy about comedian Joe Rogan's Joe Rogan Experience podcast as well.
6. You're available through TuneIn, as are some other prominent streams; how important is it for a show to be on one of the big streaming/podcast aggregators? Is it critical, or can you do it with your own stand-alone app?
I do believe that, going forward, it is going to be necessary to partner with an aggregator. We will be announcing a partnership very soon, and it is because I do believe that aggregators are the express train to a level playing field on the car dashboard. Good luck getting your stand-alone app to appear on a GM or a Toyota touchscreen without a wire or without Bluetooth.
7. Fantasy time: If you could wipe the slate clean for terrestrial radio and start it up again from scratch, what would you do to make the medium viable -- or is it too late for that?
Nothing short of the coming fire sale of radio stations by over-leveraged companies to smaller regional operators can begin to save this business. Haven't we learned by now that the 1,300 station gorilla is unmanageable and unprofitable? The smaller companies who still serve communities may make it through because they don't have all that debt and they still know what good radio stations mean in small and medium towns with no newspapers and few ways for people to connect. Unless big companies do what radio does best, that is, provide hyperlocal content with local, live bodies delivering it, radio offers nothing that internet streaming can't and doesn't already offer, and we online can do it for a decimal point of what they spend. Any radio station spending its day playing Tea Party talk shows from another state in this Obama era is going to get crushed (KABC/Los Angeles, for example). Or, they already have been crushed (WGST/Atlanta, for example).
8. Other than continuing to grow your own show, what additional things do you see your operation doing as you move forward? More shows, video... what else are you planning?
The secret of our success so far has been not to overspend and not to launch anything we haven't thoroughly studied and understood. Our plan is to get ourselves firmly into the black, and then to start adding more content. We are currently developing a bilingual, bicultural Spanish-English hybrid format specifically for Southern California, which we hope to announce soon.
9. Regarding podcasts vs. streaming, what are the benefits of doing your show live versus podcasting? (Keeping in mind that some taped podcasts take calls in prescribed times to sound semi-live, solicited via social media)
A major benefit of being live is that I have a real-time graph in my studio showing exactly how many listeners I have every minute of the day. That could be scary if someone in Atlanta or San Antonio were looking at it without you knowing it, but I am the only one who can see it. When a bit doesn't go over or a guest isn't getting it done, I know immediately because the audience starts voting with their feet. Rather than waiting weeks for Arbitron to find out what I did wrong six weeks prior, I know now. And I have ushered guests out or changed topics in mid-stream based on this data. Who needs a PD?
PS: Podcasters don't know how well or poorly they did until their number of subscribers decreases somewhere down the line.
What I do requires a totally live experience. Soliciting calls online and recording them doesn't cut it for me because part of the beauty of a great call-in show is that each call builds on and cascades from the ones that came before. When I show a commitment to be in the studio at 3 PM PT every day, the audience rewards our effort by being there when I get there. I could cut my costs substantially by simply recording all the calls and sending two of my guys home for good, but the product wouldn't be as good as it is. Only after we have created a special live experience together with our P1s do we post that show as a podcast.
The numbers bear us out: by the time we hit our first anniversary on April 2nd, we will have had five million connections in six-and-a-half months. Using the numbers we found in Triton Digital Webcast Metrics, we found that we have more unique monthly listeners than seven Arbitron-rated LA/Orange County radio stations, enough to fill the Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium and Staples Center combined. I believe that is a tribute to being on every day and creating appointment listening, something of which we learned the value from years of doing radio.
Comedians putting out podcasts when they feel like it? Two this week and none next week? Is downloading a canned show via an RSS feed better than doing a live event every day co-created by our listeners? I don't see it.
10. It seems that the kind of talk you were doing at KLSX has migrated to two places, online and morning shows. Do you think terrestrial radio gave up on the mostly non-political/"guy" talk format too quickly? Why do you think they did give up on it, and why do you think it's doing as well as it is online?
Terrestrial radio gave up on it because they lost Howard Stern. First, they tried to limp along without him, and then many stations proved how little they understood about Howard by thinking they could replace him by simply throwing on anyone who made vulgar comments or had strippers in the studio. And when that didn't work, the industry decided that talk formats aimed at young males just couldn't work. This is the traditional Chinese Fire Drill method of managing radio stations. By the way, the podcast world is full of bad Howard imitators with even less experience and ability than radio's Howard imitators. For this, you should thank God there's no scan button on the internet!
Online, this concept thrives because there is no FCC and there are no corporate "experts" to tell us how to do it. It also works because the age of the early tech adopter is pretty much the target audience (men 18-44) of this kind of content.