10 Questions with ... Jon Grayson
August 19, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Began as an overnight board-op at WKTN-AM in Pinellas Park, FL; then moved to WFLA-AM Tampa where I spent 8 years as a producer and weekend host. Began full-time as a host evenings at WWTN-FM Nashville. Moved to KMOX-AM St. Louis in 2000 and have been here ever since, and added syndication first through CBS then Westwood One beginning in 2009.
1. You've been doing the national overnight show for a few years now. How, if at all, has the show changed or evolved from when you started it -- what things have you learned about doing the show and about the audience in the past few years? And has it proved substantially different from doing the local shows you did at KMOX in the past?
This past week has been a real throwback as events in our backyard (Ferguson, MO) have taken the national spotlight. In many ways it's turned me back into a local host and has underscored the differences that have taken place since we began the syndication. Going nationwide naturally makes the subject matter a lot more general - I have to figure out how to make the show as relatable to a man in Los Angeles as it is to a woman in Rehoboth Beach, DE. The trick is many times not to take on a topic directly, but to twist it to make it universal. Instead of spending a week talking about whether the police in Ferguson are handling the situation correctly, I'll throw in something like, "Tell me about your last interaction with a cop. Was it a positive or negative experience for you?" Also when we built the show for syndication one of the first decisions was to build a stable of regulars (most of whom are still on the show) to cover tech and pop culture, and we've added a weekly slot with People Magazine and a political reporter from The Hill. It continues to evolve based on feedback from the listeners and from our affiliates.
2. We've talked before about the type of show you do -- not explicitly political or partisan, and more into pop culture, news coverage, and lifestyle topics and interviews -- but in recent months, the drumbeat for a change in talk radio to something more like what you do has become louder, with more observers calling for talk radio to move towards talk that younger people will find palatable. So, as someone out there on the frontier, are you feeling vindicated? More to the point, do you think that the interest in that kind of talk will translate into a real change in talk radio?
Vindicated? Not really, because I didn't really feel insulted by talk radio's political move back when I first started. For 20 years talk radio has given a specific audience exactly what it wants, but that audience is quite literally dying off. But I didn't start doing this kind of show to tilt at the windmills of established radio management, I did it because I like it and figured I couldn't be the only one. Turns out I was right. And yes, talk radio will have to change. Whether it goes exactly in my direction is impossible to predict, but you can only sell anger and outrage for so long. I'm not angry, so I can't act it every night and I don't think that's what a huge chunk of listeners wants anymore. My oldest son is 23 and out of college, and I can tell you the last thing he and his friends are interested in is manufactured outrage. But they do have a lot to say and they're interested and plugged in, so we'd better find a way to give them a place to come and gather in huge numbers so we can sell them cars and toasters.
3. I've asked you twice before, but you keep piling up more guests and more material, so... as of NOW, what's your favorite interview ever? And the worst?
My favorites haven't changed much. I still love Eric Burdon and Paul Williams and Joel Hodgson because they were in-studio moments I'll never forget. I'll add a couple - I would advise anyone who hasn't had Billy Gardell on his show to start working on that now. The man is golden and audiences love him. Graham Nash I've had on three or four times now and he always cracks me up. W. Kamau Bell is great too. Oh, and Poppy Montgomery from "Unforgettable," I think she probably said something good, but I couldn't prove it.
The worst? There's a couple I never aired. Kiernan Shipka who plays Don Draper's daughter on Mad Men did a radio tour about three years ago and she was awful. She's also a kid so I'll give her a break, but she had nothing at all to say. The rest of the bad ones were people pitching things, but I don't really do those anymore.
I've also had a couple of guys become good friends after several appearances on the show; Orlando Jones (the "Make 7-Up Yours" guy) and Robbie Rist (Cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch). Both are great talkers, great guys and will bend over backwards for you. Robbie's on Facebook and very accessible, and he was in the first Sharknado which gives him some added pop-culture cred. Talk about non-traditional radio, Robbie and I once got 20 minutes out of camp songs like the Baby Bumblebee song. It was great fun.
4. You started doing talk at a really young age. Do you think today's 19 year olds can be brought around to listening to spoken word radio? Are podcasts, in your estimation, talk radio for that audience, and can "regular" radio compete (and how)?
Yes, yes and yes. Can we bring 19-year-olds in? Of course we can, and we do. I get callers (mostly from the West Coast) who identify themselves as late teens and early twenties, so I know they're out there. They do love their podcasts, but all that means is we old guys need to get a lot better - myself included - at delivering our content to them via the web. If we can upload a powerful caller-driven segment and make them sorry they missed the chance to call in live, we'll have them. But I think the competition you're talking about has to start with entertainment. We have to make it fun, and we have to make it an environment that inspires them and makes them comfortable. And we have to give them more than one voice, more than one drumbeat to listen to. They have so many more options than we did, and if all we can offer them is their angry great-uncle 24/7, they're gone and we're dead.
5. Following a tradition when I corral you for one of these things, what's the best movie you've seen so far this year? What are you watching on TV? And what popular movie or TV show do you just not get -- what does everyone else rave about that leaves you cold?
Jen and I went to the art house theater a couple of weeks ago and saw "Boyhood." We were blown away. Not only is it the best movie I've seen this year, I'd say it's the best I've seen in the past five. On TV it's mostly the cop procedurals and throwbacks to Sherlock Holmes - "Perception," "Unforgettable," etc. - television candy. I also never miss the Daily Show and Colbert (and neither do my sons and their friends, protip) and I really dig "Ray Donovan" and "The Bridge." But I just still can't do reality shows. No Kardashians, no real housewives of Ottumwa, none of that stuff. They're all about fighting and I hate fighting so the last thing I'm going to do is watch someone I don't know do it. The talent competition shows also leave me cold.
6. You do a lot of prep work beforehand, but you're still an overnight guy and you're up all night. What's your stay-awake method of choice -- caffeine? Sugar? Loud noises? Walter White's blue specialty? We've talked about "getting used to it," but how do you maintain the energy?
Hahaha, no meth. I get a 44-oz Diet Coke out of the convenience store fountain on my way in every night, but that's about it for the drugs. As maudlin as this may sound, the energy comes from the fact that I get paid to do something I love. I get to sit in front of a microphone every night and connect with huge numbers of people all over the country and act as their conduit to each other. If that can't get your ass out of bed you need to go sell refrigerators. My biggest challenge is trying to get to sleep once the show's over. I have about the most elaborate, jury-rigged light abatement system in my room you've ever seen. It's made of cardboard, velcro and bed sheets. It's ridiculous looking from the inside, but it works.
7. At this stage of your career and life, of what are you most proud?
My kids. That's easy. They're all great kids in spite of all the mistakes I made raising them. In my career it's just that moment when some caller from five states away tells me he just found my show a week ago and he hasn't turned the station since.
8. Oh, forgot something in question 5, so let's do it as a separate question: What's the best concert you've ever seen?
Wow, now that's tough. I took Jen to see McCartney last year because she had never been to see him before even though she's a great fan. That 72-year-old man put on an outstanding show. If you need inspiration to turn up the energy, check out Sir Paul. Also you and I are both fans of Roger Clyne, and one of the best-kept secrets in the rock world is the Circus Mexicus show he puts on every year in Rocky Point, Mexico. It's four hours of great music, Mexican beaches and tequila. I'd have to say the 2008 show goes up to the top of the list because I got engaged down there. She said yes!
9. How do you use social media in conjunction with your show? Is it show prep, connection with your listeners, both, neither? Are you a fan of Twitter and Facebook or are you skeptical?
I love Facebook. Facebook is my off-air conduit to the listeners. And since we have a show page and I have a personal page I get to both play full-time radio guy and spout off to my friends. I think we all have that button that gets pushed by a certain sound bite or news story and we instantly have that line...snark, wisdom, humor, whatever...that just occurs to us in an instant. Facebook gives me a way to say it out loud without forgetting it before the mic comes on. Twitter is more about show prep for me. I almost never post, but it gives me an instant feedback loop from the story to the street to me. I get the bounceback of what people are saying before the mic goes on. I don't post much because, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, 140 characters just doesn't work for me.
10. And finally, a completely non-radio, stupid, what's-your-favorite-color kind of question (no, not "What's your favorite color?"): Where have you not yet traveled that you want to see, and why?
My favorite evergreen question is "If you had to leave the US tomorrow never to return, where would you be living next week?"
As far as my own travel, we're going to Seattle, Vancouver and Alaska next month and I can't wait. I've never seen the Pacific Northwest before, so that's a big one to tick off my list. We also have a weekly guest (our insane chef) on the show who lives in Phuket, Thailand. That's a big one too...I'd love to get over there someday.