10 Questions with ... Josh Leng
May 28, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Worked in programming under Phil Tower at WOOD-AM & WTKG-AM/Grand Rapids for 3 years while in college. Graduated and became an Air Force Officer. During my last year on active duty, I worked part-time for Clear Channel in L.A. - KFI-AM & KTLK-AM on Robin and Don's rock star teams. Produced the Captain Dale Dye military show on KFI. Back to WOOD/WTKG in Grand Rapids, where I started the weekly military talk radio show "Frontlines of Freedom." Then to WBAL-AM/Baltimore, producing Bruce Elliott (now PD & Mornings on WILM-AM/Wilmington and WDOV-AM/Dover, DE). Became PD at 790 KNST in Tucson - led the station to its highest ratings in the past seven years. Founded Talk Media Network following, consulted a number of syndicated shows, then became PD of WJRW-AM/Grand Rapids in Oct '10, and soon also WJIM-AM/Lansing, WKLQ-AM/Muskegon, and the Michigan Talk Network. Left my four PD gigs late last year to focus full-time on growing Talk Media Network, which currently includes the weekly shows Frontlines of Freedom, Fat Guys At The Movies, The Financial Fitness Show, and USA Financial Headquarters.
1. You were a programmer, and now you're a syndicator. How did you end up moving into the syndication field?
I've always been a student of radio, not just a worker bee. So when my mentor, Phil Tower, became General Manager of The Allen Hunt Show, I picked up a lot more information on all that is involved in syndicating a national show. Over the years, I've helped create dozens of shows, as many in radio programming have, but some of those programs are special and deserve to be shared with a wider audience, and that's what syndication should be about.
After moving my family to Tucson, Arizona, posting great results, and getting fired, it was my goal not to subject my family to the ups and downs of radio for the next 30 years. So the day after my non-compete expired, I founded Talk Media Network, LLC.
2. As someone who was on the other side of those phone calls as a PD, how does that experience influence how you sell your programming to potential affiliates? Is there a greater understanding of what role syndicated shows have in the PD's programming process?
Absolutely. Having worked for Clear Channel, Citadel, and Cumulus Media, I know the specific environment many PD's are operating in. Call them "Brand Managers" if you want, but their #1 responsibility is programming their station(s). My job is to give them the talk radio shows that fit their needs and strategy, and to make it as easy as possible to implement, promote and monetize them.
Being a PD helped more in knowing what syndicators do well, or don't do well, what distribution platforms work best, and what affiliate tools and resources can be provided. I have used those "lessons learned" to help Talk Media Network be a better talk radio syndicator.
Simply put, Talk Media Network is a veteran-owned small business dedicated to providing top flight programming and service to our affiliate stations.
3. You're an independent syndicator who has to compete for clearances with larger players who, in some cases, are co-owned with the station groups. How do you approach that competition? Does the co-owned relationship between some syndicators and groups make your job more difficult, or do you not find that as much of a problem?
Radio is a business, so just like in the movie "Office Space" where the question is asked, "Is this good for the company?" some PDs are "informed" of the shows they have to air. It's their prerogative, if they own the whole shootin' match! There are also the weekend "must carry" shows that some weekday programs require, no matter what your ownership. PDs love the opportunity to actually program, and do what they feel is best for their listeners. When a Talk Media Network show and that opportunity line up... it's a beautiful thing.
We haven't had any problems, and believe there is room enough for everyone. In fact, I wish there was more creativity and entrepreneurship in our business. No one syndicator has all the best shows for every station in every market.
The one thing that trumps "company-owned" programming, is the golden egg: local direct revenue. So you either work around the edges, or you deliver shows that can bring in ratings and local direct revenue, which give you the opportunity for better clearances. GM's and PD's really get excited over the sales support Talk Media Network provides to help our affiliates monetize our programs.
4. From your experience as a PD, producer, and now a syndicator, what are the hallmarks of a good weekend syndicated show? In producing and in developing a show, what do you look for?
The goal is always to develop or find shows that listeners will set an appointment for, and that sales can sell packages in to local advertisers. It's the ratings and revenue win/win. Niche programs are best at doing that, but they still need to be mass appeal, so you're bringing back your regular listeners on the weekends.
While topical, I don't get too far off the beaten path, I look for shows that are "P1 friendly". Talk radio is about personalities... but the talent also must deliver timely, relevant and informative content while they entertain.
5. What role do you see streaming and podcasting playing in your business? Do you see those alternative means of distribution taking hold yet? How long, if ever, do you think it will take before they become economically competitive and/or viable for independent producers like yourself?
The latest show Talk Media Network is now syndicating, Fat Guys At The Movies, began as a weekly podcast more than five years earlier, but the host (Kevin Carr) has as many years experience giving reviews on major morning radio shows as well - so it was an easy call. Kevin is hilarious. I laugh every week listening to Fat Guys. So there's proof the podcast community can be a place to find new radio talent and shows.
There will always be a demand for entertainment, be it radio, TV, podcasts, or YouTube. Wherever the best content is, the audience will follow. Talk Media Network's focus is on radio. We want as many listeners as possible tuned in to our affiliate stations every week, and we give them the promo, imaging and interview support to help do that. Programmers podcast because we all know our content needs to fit the on-demand lifestyle some listeners require and it allows for online sharing and show discovery. For a syndicated show, it also fills in the geographic gaps where a show might not have an affiliate. The metrics podcasting provides on what content is popular and what isn't, is very insightful. Every PD should analyze their station's podcast downloads report.
Right now, it's much more viable for someone to build a successful (i.e., lucrative) following via YouTube than through podcasting, thanks to Google. I do think we'll begin to see podcast collaborators engage in mass monetization and revenue sharing for podcast creators in the coming months to couple of years; the most popular podcasts will see the majority of the revenue. What's most valuable is packaging all your assets to offer more value, making it easier to monetize. For anyone that watches "American Pickers" on History, you bundle. Bundle your radio show and feature inventory, e-newsletter ads, website ads, and podcast pre-rolls and ads and sell it in a package. If an advertiser likes your product and audience, give them the opportunity to reinforce their message, cross-platform, and everyone wins.
6. How, if at all, do you use social media in conjunction with your shows and operation? Do you plan to increase your shows' and company's social media presence?
Each show handles its own social media in differing ways. It is, without a doubt, a necessity to continue engaging with your audience, and to update them on related news, especially for shows that only air once a week. While Talk Media Network's focus is on affiliate service and programming first, we are upgrading to a "marketing suite" to improve our social media efforts, which also integrates with some of our other digital resources.
7. Let's hear a short pitch here: Why should stations add "Frontlines of Freedom"? Who's the target audience and what are the benefits of carrying the show?
Every day a terrorist wakes up... plotting ways he can harm America, and Americans. Every day a member of the United States Military wakes up, knowing he must outsmart the most cunning terrorist, or he could die. Our Nation is at War. What is your radio station talking about?
The stories, the struggles, the valor, the support programs, the life & death dramas unfolding before our eyes... it's all here:
FRONTLINES OF FREEDOM
Two hour award-winning weekly military & veteran news-talk show. Hosted by Colonel Denny Gillem (Ret.), a combat-proven Airborne Ranger who was awarded two purple hearts and seven awards for valor.
Learn more at: talkmedianetwork.com
Frontlines of Freedom's target audience is: Warriors, veterans and America-loving citizens, which is most talk radio listeners.
Benefits include: Higher testosterone levels, enhanced station performance,military Officer analysis, A-list newsmakers, weekly giveaways, custom imaging, interview availability, local sales materials, free endorsements, and it even counts as Community Service programming for your FCC Public File.
8. Of what are you most proud?
My wife and three boys: Jordan, Evan & Aiden. Nothing beats those big family hugs. "Lengs always love each other and stick together."
If you meant in radio... seeing a Host and Producer get rewarded for their commitment and dedication with a new affiliate or positive listener feedback. I truly enjoy working with those who are passionate and dedicated to their craft.
9. How has your military training and background influenced your management style and capabilities? And who have been your influences and mentors in the business?
Military Officer training was almost as far away from "Full Metal Jacket" as you could get. At Air Force Officer Training School, the emphasis was on teamwork and communication. You could not survive on your own; if you tried, you would fail. Later on, I also received DoD Project Management certification, which has been invaluable. The experiences of working with so many different types of people (military, civilians, contractors, FFRDC staff) also helped me gain perspective and sharpen my communication skills.
Phil Tower, at WOOD-AM/FM and Clear Channel Grand Rapids, is my "Radio Dad" and programming mentor. When I told him I had been accepted into the Air Force, he sat me down and told me that I could have a real future in radio after my military career. He has given great guidance and counsel through the years. However, I've never received an allowance...
Matt Hanlon, who was a Regional President for Citadel and its GM in Grand Rapids, is the single best leader I have ever had the pleasure of working with... in our out of the military. He builds exceptional teams and a great work environment, leads by example, and is masterful at strategy. He's likely sold icebergs to Eskimos as well.
I also learned as much as I could while working on Robin Bertolucci's all-star team at KFI, with Bruce Elliott at WBAL, Skip Essick at KMJ (who was my first GM at WOOD), and Debbie Wagner was an outstanding GM at Clear Channel Tucson. There are so many great people in this business.
10. What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
Stick up for what you believe in.
I say that as a talk radio P1 since the age of 12 (I'm now 35)... you have to trust your instincts. Doing what's right for your listeners is always worth it.