November 22, 2011
Over the past 25 years, John Tesh has been able to successfully embark on a variety of careers, from radio and TV news to hosting Entertainment Tonight and the Olympics, to writing and performing music. Now he has returned to his original craft - radio - with "Intelligence For Your Life," daily and weekly "purpose-driven" lifestyle show that can be heard on over 355 stations nationwide. Tesh's radio show neatly dovetails with his music career, which only serves to enhance his relationship with his fans and listeners. Here's how he oversees and operates his unique radio program
You seem to have mastered the ability of changing careers, or at least how you prioritize your multiple careers, from being a news reporter to hosting Entertainment Tonight, to a full-fledged musical career to now being the a nationally syndicated radio host. How do you know when to make that change and do it so effectively?
It's really more like the same career but a switch in emphasis. For me it's finding a way to be relevant; that's my #1 goal, mission and purpose. "Intelligence For Your Life" is actually a return to my original roots, going back to radio; I started at WKIX/Raleigh in 1973 when I was still in college. I got the job in the newsroom after making some "fake" demo news tapes with me doing all of the voices and interviews ... including a bad impression of Henry Kissinger.
I worked in local television news and network sports for 15 years before I got to Entertainment Tonight, so my training really was as a journalist and news reporter; the reason I took the Entertainment Tonight job was that the producers were very generous in giving me time to record my music. I worked four hours a day on ET and I spent the rest in a recording studio. That's pretty much what I'm doing now; I keep a communications job as a day job and moonlight at night as a musician, although to be honest, the radio show in its current configuration got much bigger than thought it would - happily so.
So what brought you back to radio?
About 10-11 years ago, Casey Kasem was in the middle of a contract dispute with Westwood One, so they invited me, along with various celebrities, to come in and sit in for Casey. I did and it made me remember how much fun (and challenging) being on the radio was. About five minutes after finishing Casey's show, I called my agent and said, "I'd love to do a countdown show," so we went to Westwood One with it, and we got maybe 15-16 stations interested in my weekend show. Westwood One eventually cancelled it, so I called my "song plugger" Scotty Meyers and said, "Hey we're launching a radio show and you're the affiliate relations guy!" We still laugh about it be because Scotty said, "Okay, what's that?"
The whole show was created when my wife Connie, who's an actress and a news hound, was using sticky notes to bookmark hundreds of articles in magazines like Oprah and Prevention that were beside the bed. I joked with her that she'd never find the time to read them all but then a light went off in my head about doing the "Intelligence for your life" program, with the idea that we could curate all those articles and turn them into 90-second pieces for women like Connie. Eventually Mike McVay and a few other programmers challenged us and suggested we broaden the scope to include a daily show.
What's the ratio of your news to music?
The local stations let us know what ratio works for them. The real key is that we have 10 researchers led by Betsy Chase, our head writer and content producer. The criteria we use is we ask ourselves, "Is this something someone can use to enrich their life ... and even if it doesn't apply to them, can they broadcast it to someone else using Facebook or over the water cooler in two to three sentences or less?" It sounds really simple, but when you've got studies and articles that are 3,000 words long, it's not easy to distill that down to the point where we're giving them a Readers Digest version of the topic.
What's funny is that for the most part we don't even select the music anymore, because it's easier to grow the show that way. We used to send it out as an AC show, and we do provide a feed for that, but we now realize that we can be much more competitive by offering a voice track-only version of the show. That enables us to be on formats such as Christian, Smooth Jazz, Hot AC, Country, Classic Hits and even Rock. It also allows us to do more localization; I can throw to weather and traffic and back-announce every song if needed. Then we let each station find the right music to fit the show and their station, which makes it more parochial sounding.
Anything about the show's success surprise you?
What I didn't realize about this is that we'd get kids to listen. It's one of our largest growing demos ... kids 12+. They don't remember the guy on Entertainment Tonight. To them I'm the "radio guy." Then they'll Google me and see me hosting the Olympics or playing that NBA theme and I get some very funny e-mails. A lot of kids tell us they use the material as talking points with their teachers or even their parents. College professors e-mail us all the time, telling us they use the "Intelligence" to assign papers or debate topics.
Have you tweaked the show at all to reach younger listeners, or do you primarily focus on your target demo?
Obviously, we primarily target women 25-65, but when we give teenage "Intelligence" on something about anorexia or binge drinking, or texting and driving, we don't address parents and say, "Watch out for your teens doing this." We address teens directly.
What's been the most effective way to enhance the show's relationship with your listeners?
We go out and do about 50 live concerts ever year. We'll do about four or five concerts on each trip, and we're able to partner up with a station in each market. We were just partnered with WGSY/Columbus, GA on a show, where we put all of their P1 listeners in the first five rows, and also put local advertisers backstage with me before the show. It's a more formal event that's better than sending listeners out to meet me at a gas station.
We realize that a lot of fans of "Intelligence" also enjoy getting out and going to our concerts, so we don't just play 15 songs and move on. We talk about the "Intelligence" mission and purpose in life; it's become a sort of purpose-driven radio that's more of a lifestyle show than a political/talk one.
Has the advent of PPM changed the way you set up or structure your show?
Over the last year or so, we've really immersed ourselves in the mechanics of PPM methodology, and how to be most effective "in a PPM world." We've shortened our voicetracks, but at the same time we focus on hitting the most compelling content.
Additionally, another key change we've made is in the way we tease the show.
I'm a lot more cognizant of that. I labor and sweat over what piece should follow every single voice track, so at the end of every segment, I make sure the listeners know what that is. I'm very specific about what they're going to hear after the next break. I really learned that from doing the Tour de France and the Olympic Games; we were painstaking in our efforts to make sure our audience knew what was coming up. Simply saying, "We'll be right back after this..." doesn't work anymore in PPM world.
As far as vetting "Intelligence," it's never time-and-temp with us. It has to be something memorable. Even if it's 12 or 25 seconds, the listener has to have something to take away. That can be hard to do; you can't do that with a staff of three people. It takes a lot of people to do that; that's why we have 20 people on staff. And from CBS News to Entertainment Tonight and NBC Sports, I've never worked with a better content producer than Betsy Chase.
I actually think PPM works to our advantage. There are still some guys who don't want to admit that they listen to a "John Tesh Radio Show;" we had that with Entertainment Tonight -- closet ET fans. It's much hipper to write in an Arbitron diary that you listen to Fluff and Danny on Kiss FM, but all of a sudden with the PPM, if you walk into a room and our show is on, be it at work or anywhere, there's no way they can avoid us. I love the PPM; it levels the playing field for everybody and I think it's really helped Dial Global enhance the amazing job they already did selling all of our radio properties.
Is it difficult deciding just what topics to use, or what ways to delve into them?
It is a challenge, but it's a process that has been perfected by Betsy. She has the researchers and writers come into her office to pitch her with stories they like; it could be a story from Prevention Magazine, or Harvard Wellness, or from a noted nutritionist. Betsy will say, "I like this or that," then she'll edit the ones she likes and gives them to me. I'll probably use 70% of what is presented to me. So by the time the story gets to the listener, it has really been curated.
Mike McVay has always been really terrific at opening me up to great authors for entrepreneurial inspiration such as Al Reis' "Focus" and Jack Trout's "Differentiate or Die." And nobody knows radio better than my guy Scotty Meyers. I swear he sits around praying that someone will cancel our show so he can take it across the street and compete. Don't make this guy mad.
Even when we decided to start this show, Scotty, Betsy and I remained very focused. We don't do phone calls; there's no politics, entertainment news or celebrity birthdays. If the story doesn't move you forward in your life or make a difference in others' lives, we won't do it. If you want politics, you'll have to go someplace else. Look at what's happening in the U.S. It's like Seth Godin's book "Tribes." We've all formed our own little tribes with groups on Facebook, with specific interests in this and that. We focus all of our energy on one thing. Our listeners call it "life coaching on the radio,"
How actively involved are you in your Facebook page and with Twitter?
I do get involved with Facebook, especially when I'm out on tour, but to be honest, I've run out of gas on Twitter; I really have. Twitter is like homework; If it's a choice between practicing piano for a couple of hours after the radio show or Tweeting, the piano always wins.
You announced three new "Intelligence" brands. How do you plan on delivering them?
Our listeners have voted on a few key areas of our 'Intelligence" show; they include health, relationships and even pets. We're working with three companies - we have yet to announce who they are - that will develop websites and products in those areas. Those will be available in the middle of next year. We've also launched "Intelligence For Your Health" with my wife, Connie Sellecca, and it has really blown up as a weekend show. I'm the engineer for that program so it's also a "marriage building experience" for the two of us (smiley face).
In terms of more programming, we've had a lot of requests to do a TV show. Maybe somebody else could do it for us, but I really don't have the time. I think a lot of radio people say, "Hey, radio is great, but television would be even greater!" Trust me, I've been there. Terrestrial radio is an A+. Television is Jersey Shore ... and less. Bury me with my headphones on.
Are you concerned with how busy you are with the show and your other interests? How long do you see yourself with such a career plan?
What's really funny is that I'm really not that busy. I know it sounds crazy, but when you subtract TV from your life, you get back a lot of time. Even though radio takes up a lot of time, my current stress level is pretty much zero, because I can comfortably focus on three things: 1) my family -- my wife and I have a daughter who's a teenager; 2) the radio show; and 3) my music.
I really don't do anything else. Connie and I have been asked to do Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing With The Stars and all of that stuff, but we realize our bread-and-butter has to be the radio shows and her acting career. I think I'm old enough now to know that when you have a radio show this big, with these kind of ratings, you have to protect it every day. That's why I really try hard to stay focused. Ah ... there's that word again.