10 Questions with ... Michael Castner
August 27, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started as a DJ as a teenager at KOKE-FM radio in Austin, Texas. It was a better education than college, so I skipped school to stay in broadcasting. I soon found myself on the White House lawn as a 22 year old TV correspondent for Tribune Broadcasting stations across the country, and then moved on to work as the London bureau chief for Entertainment Tonight. That was followed by a long tenure as a founding host for E! Entertainment Television before moving back to my first love, radio. My radio journey has since taken me from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and New Orleans and then to New York for the Wall Street Journal. I'm now back home in Portland enjoying my third gig with Clear Channel.
1. First, how did you get into radio in the first place? What drew you to going into radio?
I loved the idea of being the town crier. To open a microphone and have your voice spread (at the time) across the hill country of Texas just excited me like no other career option. It helped that I had a deep voice at 5.
I went in to KOKE FM in Austin and asked to see the program director (I had read thatâ€™s what he was called.) It was like asking someone out on a date for the first time. I was scared but confident. I landed the Sunday morning shift, which required the playing of the obligatory religious show tapes and a one hour DJ shift. I was terrified just before my first show, so I called my mom. She said, "You can walk out now and I wonâ€™t think any less of you - but try something first. Try talking just to one person. Talk to me. Tell me a story." Juanita Castner was my first and best consultant. It is advice that I have used throughout my career. I still hear her voice: "Talk to just one person."
2. You've been part of a couple of unusual experiences in recent years, being part of KFI's unique news department, Bonneville's Nightside Project at KSL, and the Daily Wrap (and E!, if we want to include that among the unusual....). What lessons, if anything, did you take from your experience on those projects?
That I am blessed. I have had the best teachers and I got paid for it! I learned to listen and to learn and then go for it.
KFI News Director Chris Little taught me how to come through the radio KFI style. At E! I learned that there were no rules. We were re-inventing how entertainment news and information was being disseminated. Bonneville gave us the opportunity to take our radio experiment, The Nightside Project, to multiple markets and to use social media as part of the program. The Wall St Journal was willing to take all of what I had done and take it nationwide.
I have had some great consultants like Greg Moceri, Gabe Hobbs, and my mentor Ken Charles. Ken has never been shy about sending me notes (whether I asked for them or not! And whether I worked for him or not). I have had the best in the business help shape me as a broadcaster. Solid advice is not an irritant. You have to look at it as a blessing. I do.
3. You've worked in politics, in campaigns and as an adviser. Has that experience being on "the other side" informed what you do as a talk host and newsman? Do you think you have a better understanding of what the people you cover and talk about are really all about?
Absolutely. I donâ€™t take anything at face value. Having been on the "inside," I know how to read between the lines and understand what the use of language really means. I learned how to turn chicken s--- into chicken salad working in politics. So now, knowing first-hand the various pressures, I can usually plot a politicians' moves several steps ahead. So many reporters and, frankly, the voting public believe what they read (hence the popularity of those absurd email forward stories that the â€œmainstream media chooses to ignoreâ€). I am also harder on those in elected office. You wanted it. You knew what you were getting into when you ran and STILL you chose to send that photo of your junk? No sympathy.
4. You've most recently been hosting at KEX in Portland but your travels have taken you across the country and back. As an experienced mover, how do you acclimate yourself to a new market? What kinds of things are the best way to learn about a community when you're a newcomer?
Luckily, my family has lived in Portland for over 100 years and I have lived here on and off since I was a kid. Same with Salt Lake. New Orleans, and DC were different. Thank God for the internet. I jump right into the news sites for a city as soon as a call comes in that I may be heading that way. I look up the major players in that town -- elected or not. There are so many local shows that rant and rave about the same national stuff (i.e., "Obama is the anti-Christ" or "conservatives hate black people"). The national guys have that covered. It really comes down to what did you talk about at the BBQ this weekend? What kept coming up over and over again during your golf game? It just MIGHT be the situation in Egypt, although I doubt it. It might very well be why "Duck Dynasty" is so freaking popular.
5. You're active in social media -- how do you use it in conjunction with your hosting duties? Is it a source for show prep, a way to connect with listeners, a way to network, all of the above, some of the above, none of the above?
All of the above. I had to explain to one boss why multi-tasking on Twitter DURING a show was essential. We were live and news (from trusted sources) breaks first on Twitter... then minutes later on TV. That said you have to be VERY, VERY careful about what you report and how you report Twitter news. I am on Twitter throughout the day, looking at local, national, international, entertainment, business and tech news. It is a strong part of my show prep and comes in handy for that one funky story that is fun to tell. I use it for booking (and getting around publicists).
6. In a possibly related question, describe your process - How do you prep your shows? What are your primary and secondary sources for topics?
First and foremost, what is the top local story that TV, the daily and weekly papers are reporting? Sometimes it's just dead for a talk radio topic, so you go for that water cooler subject that people canâ€™t stop talking about. It may be day two or three of a story, but you need to look for that angle that has grabbed you and people havenâ€™t thought about. I ask myself how I can move this story forward a notch to someplace new. Also since I am on Twitter 24/7, I tag stories all the time that I want to look at in the morning. I get up early and send out my first rundown for the afternoon show at about 7 or 8 AM. Of course that will change as news changes, but that gives us a framework to start with. News and events may require that we throw it all out. I learned that at E! You know those live Red Carpet events? There is a tightly produced script for each and every minute. With every single broadcast, those get tossed out as the stars stop to talk. But WHAT IF they didn't? With solid preparation, you are always covered with a great show no matter what.
For local stories I like to go straight to the newsmaker. A paper reported a mayor in the Portland area may be double dipping with transportation expenses. He wasn't breaking a law but it looked bad. I got him to commit on the air that he would stop taking the taxpayer-provided stipend. I use local news sources and when itâ€™s right, I go national. My friends at the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and CNN still deliver for me.
7. Who are your mentors and/or influences, in radio and in life?
My radio mentor is Ken Charles. When he speaks, people listen. He doesn't just like to hear himself pontificate. He knows his stuff. He wants you to be better. He is willing to explain if you do THIS then THIS will happen. He has not been hesitant to text me at 5:06 AM (from another time zone, listening in on iHeart) to tell me a topic sucks and to dump it. Now.
I want to be as good as I can be. With a boss like Ken or KFIâ€™s News Director Chris Little or PD Robin Bertolucci you have that opportunity if you listen and learn. In life, my stepdad (who just passed away) taught me to be a man, to have a back bone, to have morals and to allow myself to be challenged so I can be better.
8. Of what are you most proud?
When I am able to make a difference and not just talk. For example, while in Utah in 2008, I pushed for what we called called â€œThe Puppy Tortureâ€ bill, making animal abuse a felony statewide. I got a standing ovation on the floor of the Utah Senate for my efforts to get the bill passed. It was signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. On WJBO in Baton Rouge and WRNO New Orleans, I hosted a series of shows on cyber-bullying. After hearing story after story from desperate parents, I asked a state legislator to draft a law addressing the issue in Louisiana schools. I testified before House and Senate education committees, and the bill unanimously passed both houses of the legislature. It was signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal. Most recently, while doing the Wall Street Journal's Daily Wrap show, I got Washington Governor Chris Gregoire to send a letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie detailing her change of opinion on marriage equality. I was backstage at a Springsteen concert in New York standing next to Christie and damn near told him I was the one who had the letter sent. If you've ever stood next to him, you'll know why I decided against it.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ___________.
...TM. I practice Transcendental Mediation and have for nearly 20 years. I learned about it as a kid by reading that the Beatles did it. It was Howard Stern talking about it that made me learn the technique. I would finish my Wall Street Journal pre-tapes before we went live and then I would â€œgo underâ€ (as we called it) for 20 minutes. Doing that twice a day keeps me rested, relaxed, and ready to take on the day.
10. What's the best advice you've ever gotten? The worst?
Best advice was from my mom to talk to just one person when I was on the air. I think the worst advice comes when someone talks about something that I myself can teach. I donâ€™t know it all, most assuredly, but there are something things I have done for years and know inside and out. I think the best thing my bosses have done for me is know my strengths and let me do what I do and look at areas where I can use some wisdom and offer it up. When that happens, I am a sponge. I think back to an absurd meeting at E! where a producer said to the assembled team (with me sitting next to her) â€œLetâ€™s decide who IS Michael Castner? What makes him tick?â€ I raised my hand and reminded her I was there and they were free to ASK ME! LOL...