August 21, 2012
After a career that includes working with some of the biggest names in Talk radio, Ron Hartenbaum decided to re-boot his passion in a big way by launching WYD, and then more recently the affiliate sales arm, WYM Media Management with co-founder, partner Debbie Greenbaum and Liz Laud. But instead of just garnering affiliates for his talent lineup, Hartenbaum is putting much of his energy into building the careers of a wide array of Talk personalities -- from the left in Stephanie Miller to the right in Ernest Istook - and breaking new talent, such as teenager Zach Sang, to attract a younger demo into the Top 40 format. Here's his take on the current Talk environment.
What made you decide to get into radio?
I decided to go to Westwood One because I felt radio was a very entrepreneurial opportunity, while TV was very corporate -- and I wasn't corporate. I was initially attracted to radio because I wanted to get into the music side, but over time, I realized that my talents were best suited for the talk side.
You headed up MediaAmerica, which helped turn Rush Limbaugh into a national presence. Could you tell early on that he was going to achieve such success?
We actually got involved with Rush after he had been on the air for two years. His show was originally sold by ABC Radio. We were just pitching it to the reps; we didn't actually get to do ad sales for the show until after year 2. Ultimately, we won the account from ABC Radio when the show went into its fourth year. It was a magical time for the show and the business because with every rating period, the audience seemed to grow by double-digits.
Were his on-air talents that obvious, or was he at the right place at the right time?
Of course he was always a very talented personality, yet it's also true that succeeding in life is always about in the right place at the right time.
With all the talk shows you represented, was/is there a formula for selling them successfully not just to clients, but affiliates? Or is each show unique and requires a unique formula?
Each personality is unique and each show is different, with unique strengths and challenges. The only consistent formula for success that pertains to everyone is that it always takes a lot of hard work.
Much like radio itself, you sold your company to Jones only to, open your own company again in WYD and more recently WYM. What made you first sell your company ... and then start a new one?
As we all know, the entire radio industry was consolidating 15 years ago. We were working very aggressively in that climate when we decided to sell MediaAmerica to Jones, who happened to be one of our larger clients. They took over operations, while I stayed on to oversee the radio division and some cable TV assets. We were very involved in Great American Country, which was a Jones project.
I stayed for a total of six years after I sold the company. At first I stayed as part of our buyout agreement, after three years there I decided to stay on because my first wife was dying of breast cancer. After she passed away and my youngest son went off to college, nine years later, I decided to go back into the business on my own.
Is WYD's business essentially identical to what you were doing with MediaAmerica and Jones?
I'm actually doing a different aspect of the same basic business. I'm not as directly involved in ad sales as I was with MediaAmerica. At this point, what I take great pride in is working with the people who speak into the microphone. I enjoy being part of a team that creates some terrific programming which has longevity, so I have a hybrid job. One role is being the traditional radio sales executive, but I'm also a career manager and a brand manager.
I view my people and shows as brands. For example, Stephanie Miller has a successful network radio show but now she's also simulcasting it on Current TV, plus she's involved with a theatrical tour on weekends. What's more, she has book coming out. We're here to fully support all the different elements of her brand because they are all very important to her continued success.
Speaking of Stephanie Miller, by representing her and Thom Hartmann, you seem to have a solid grip on two of the most popular liberal talkers, who are few and far between in Talk radio. Why is that?
To be fair, WYD offers a full spectrum of political Talk. We have conservative Ernest Istook, who's from the Heritage Foundation and can be heard on the Patriot channel on Sirius XM. Then we have a centrist in Michael Smerconish and, as you mentioned, liberal and progressive voices in Stephanie and Thom Hartmann, so there is a range of personalities. At the end of the day, what makes them all successful is that they're all very articulate people who have excellent points of view and know how to share them with their audiences.
But what about the overall notion that a large majority of successful Talk radio personalities are politically conservative?
I could write a full-length book on that, but you have to remember that conservative Talk had a two-decade lead on progressive Talk. Air America notwithstanding, most of progressive's new and most successful wave of hosts essentially just got into the marketplace over the last eight years. But because conservative Talk achieved success first, they found homes on the biggest signals in their markets. Many of the liberal Talk shows and stations had to go on the weaker signals of less successful stations, making it much harder for them to succeed. But that is evolving and as all the new platforms help level the playing field a bit, it will continue to evolve as consumers decide what they want to listen to.
It seems that the most successful liberal or progressive personalities are TV stars, a la Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert. Do you think their higher profile casts a shadow or hinders the growth of a breakthrough liberal talk star?
No, they're a different entity altogether. They both host very entertaining and fun shows on TV and they do have a very big audience, but then again Fox has a TV show with political humor and satire called "Red Eye," so there's room for humorists or satire on both the right and left.
I guess what I'm trying to ask is that while he'd likely never do it, Jon Stewart, or someone a lot like him, would be the ideal liberal Talk radio personality. Do you agree?
That's a good question that I don't know the answer to. I do know that there's no guarantee that a great TV host would make a great radio host ... and vice versa. It's not as easy to cross that divide as it seems. While Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz have been successful at both, Rush tried TV before deciding he didn't want to do it, while Bill O'Reilly was a success on TV and tried radio before deciding he didn't want to do that. So you've got some examples of those who are able to do it ... and some who for whatever reason, aren't or don't want to do it.
Will a transition from AM to FM impact the formula for successful syndicated Talk shows?
The growth of Talk on FM is something we all looked at with great anticipation. Now that we see it actually happening, music seems to be migrating to different platforms. Having said that, we've already seen two FM Talk stations convert back to music; I'm referring to the Merlin stations in New York and Chicago. Despite that, I believe more Talk and News stations will find homes on FM for the simple fact that there's an ever-increasing percentage of listenership on the FM dial - and ultimately the more popular formats and shows are heard on the biggest signals, which are in abundance on FM.
In terms of content, some personalities may change some aspects of their shows, simply because younger people listen to FM, and they want to attract that audience. Whether significant changes are needed attract that audience ... we'll just have to see how it evolves.
One CHR personality who may seems suited to generate success with a younger audience is Zach Sang, who you just signed to do a Top 40 live nightly show. What makes you confident that he'll be successful in the Top 40 realm?
Zach is an incredible young personality. He was 14 years old when his parents let him get a job. He started out bagging groceries, but he hated it. He happened to love talk shows, so he started his own online radio show out of his bedroom. That led to a Nickelodeon show, which led to this.
He's the best example of what our industry needs going forward ... a fresh vantage point. He has the energy, excitement and ability to talk to a new generation of radio listeners. I really believe traditional broadcasters will lose if they don't incorporate more people like Zach into their Top 40 programming in their markets. Zach is the real deal; he's 19 years old, but he already loves the business. He can walk into a room with advertising sales people and talk about cost per point, then walk into a room with programmers and talk about programming - and again, he's just 19.
But how difficult is it to find the next generation of exciting young talent - especially those who want to do Talk?
It's really not even a matter of being easy or hard. You asked earlier about being at the right place at the right time. A lot of talent discovery is having the ability to recognize talent - and having the good fortune to have that talent present itself. Zach had the entrepreneurial chops to put his show online and make his presence known amongst all the other shows. It's very exciting because he is such a dynamic personality who's multi-talented and knows how to utilize a multimedia platform.
Yet with a glut of Talk -- especially political Talk -- radio product on the air already, how can a new show get a break to crack into a slot on a strong signal in a significant number of markets?
There's always change in our business. Neal Boortz has already said that he'll retire in January; then there are the local hosts who are leaving their shows to run for political office. There's always people coming and going -- on a local basis and a national basis -- but at the end of the day, it ultimately comes down to the cream rising to the top. Great programmers are great programmers; they don't appear suddenly without warning; they develop over time. I'm very pleased to be working with shows that have taken the time to grow. It's a process like anything else.
How much of WYD's success will be generated from your usage of multiple platforms?
We make sure that Zach, as well as all of our talk shows, has a very aggressive multi-platform strategy. We want to make our presence felt on broadcast radio, SiriusXM and streaming, as well as certain podcasts. As of now, we're not going to do any on-demand listening but we may ultimately stream on an ongoing basis.
Long-term, is you goal to turn WYD into the next Premiere?
No ... Premiere is a magnificent company that Kraig Kitchen built decades ago; it's a wonderful company that Clear Channel now owns. That is a full-service radio network in the most traditional sense with a great arm of programming.
My main objective is to work with great personalities and harness those personalities in a variety of branded business silos. So it's somewhat different approach compared to what a traditional network does. Our main focus will be on developing and growing our personalities, the pros who speak into the mic, and to help our affiliates achieve maximum success with the great on-air talent we have.