February 26, 2013
David Katz and his, partner, on-air star Elvis Duran, both realize they're not just in radio anymore. The Elvis Duran Group is an entertainment company that creates content for radio, television, digital, theater and film. Yet Katz also knows what the keys are to Duran's and any air talent's multimedia success - and that's conquering the home turf of radio. Katz' past experience working with Don Buchwald, Howard Stern and Phil Hendrie, among others, has given him a unique perspective on what it takes to be successful in radio's multimedia digital age.
First off, what made you get into the talent agency business?
Actually, I never tried to get into the talent agency business. It was not a goal of mine. At the time, I was a TV syndicator, working for a company that was selling product such as "Baywatch, "Family Feud" ... and a "cable accessy" looking show starring Howard Stern. This was in 1990-91 -- well before his E! Network show -- that aired in Los Angeles on KCOP, channel 13, on 1a Saturday nights/Sunday mornings. That's how I met his agent, Don Buchwald; we struck up a relationship and I eventually I went to work for him.
I had never really dealt with talent before. Before that, I was just told to go out and sell. As an agent, I was still a salesman -- only my product was a human being. To be an agent, you need to have a relationship with that person; you need to know what he or she is capable of - and then you go out and sell them. You have to have a very candid and open relationship with the talent; in my experience, most air personalities are not told the truth by their representatives. But you have to tell them the truth, of where you believe they can go, if you want them to get there.
How did Don Buchwald's working relationship with Howard Stern impact the way you work with air talent, from your early days to your relationship with Elvis Duran today?
I learned everything from Don. I had never been an agent when he hired me. So for my entire first year there, I just sat beside his desk and watched whatever he did. I was basically in school - and it wasn't just his relationship with Howard, but with everyone he represented. It was the greatest education I could ask for.
Not exactly everything I learned back then, I use with Elvis today, but for the most part, how I deal with Elvis is very much like how he dealt - and still deals -- with Howard. More than anything else, it comes down to how he communicates with Howard. Don knows exactly what Howard wants to do and what he wants to be, and because of that, Howard is willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain those goals ... and that's how I work with Elvis now -- and for the last 20 years.
How much of an air personality's success is due to God-given talent, and how much is it learned/trained/developed?
Most of it is God-given. I believe that many people can be directed, coached and guided to be successful, but in the end it is God-given -- and most of us don't have that talent. They can be taught to be good broadcasters, and you can help refine and define them ... but only to a certain point.
I see you also worked with Phil Hendrie. Judging by his unique style, he seems to be a one-of-a-kind talent. How does one counsel and/or relate to someone like that?
Frankly, everything I counseled him on can be applied to any talent. The thing is, Phil --without hesitation - is the most unique radio talent I have ever met, seen and heard. Talk about a God-given talent ... that man has a God-given talent! He was also savvy enough to educate and refine himself. When you deal with someone like that, whose talent is so enormous and unique, the best thing you can do is get out of the way.
You also worked with Dee Snider. Not all stars of other entertainment forms successfully make the transition to radio. What does that kind of talent need to do to successfully make that transition?
I've been involved and worked with Dee Snider and his family for 20 years now. Dee's story is truly exceptional; I just wish that everybody outside of radio who wants to get in would follow his lead. His willingness and commitment to succeed in radio ... his willingness to take all the steps, from A to Z ... I never met another individual from another medium who came into radio and did what he did.
Obviously, Dee is a friend of Howard and appeared on his show many times in the '80s. He always had a great affection for radio; he wanted to get on the air - and he had a willingness to do whatever's necessary to achieve that goal. The first job we got him was essentially at a 9-volt, battery-operated radio station on the east end of Long Island, which agreed to give him a Sunday night slot from 9p-midnight. He did that for a whole year at $1.25 an hour, which didn't even pay for the gas to get there. But Dee didn't complain ... there wasn't a peep out of him.
Working every Sunday night for a year taught him how to do radio, including working the board and all the technical stuff, and you couple that with the fact that he learned so much from watching Howard. After that first year, we collected some tape and started to shop him elsewhere -- and that's how he succeeded. He was willing to take the time and put in the effort and energy to succeed.
Sadly, in my experience, way too many "personalities" come out of other media and think that being on the radio is a breeze, that all you have to do is get behind the mic and talk. They do it without learning the basics. Dee worked his ass off ...and that's why he still has a syndicated show 15 years later - and he did a successful morning show in Hartford, too.
How has the changing radio climate, in terms of consolidation, syndication and voiceovers, changed the M.O. of a successful air talent?
I don't think it has changed how someone can become successful on the air, although it certainly has created fewer opportunities to be successful, with so many dayparts taken away from lesser or up-and-coming talent. They have less of a chance to become successful, but the mindset remains the same no matter how few openings there are. A radio personality still has to commit to be the best and have the mindset to work on their craft.
Many programmers and radio managers believe that personalities have to cut down on talk in the PPM - essentially get in and get out - which some believe restricts air personalities from becoming true stars. Agree?
I've never been a PD; I've never been a GM and I've never been an air personality. All I have been is a radio fan for my entire life. I want to hear personalities talk about the music and our lives. I'm not sure why programmers tell the majority of jocks they don't want to be heard and just get in and get out. I don't subscribe to that point of view; I feel it's self-defeating.
Elvis, of course, started as a local sensation. What are the keys for him developing into a national presence?
Basically by continuing to commit to the show he was doing locally. He did not look at his goal of national syndication in a way that would affect the content and direction of his Z100 show. He just chose to do the best possible show he could do locally. Howard did the same thing; he did the show he wanted to do. He didn't give a crap about targeting people in L.A. or Arizona; he committed doing the show the way he always wanted it done.
Does Elvis Duran maintain a competitive streak against other syndicated stars (a la Seacrest) - and should air talent in general go after other rivals in the market?
It's human nature to have a competitive streak, but I don't think it influences anything Elvis does. With Elvis and probably almost any successful personality, it's all about competing with yourself and making yourself better. You really don't care about what the guy across the street is doing.
"Local, local, local" has been the mantra for radio since time immemorial. Considering the success Elvis has accrued and the way radio runs today, is that mantra still relevant?
My response to the "local, local, local" mantra is that it's "wrong, wrong, wrong!" It's the stupidest mantra I have come across in radio -- and I have come across a lot of them. I do not ascribe to the notion that personalities have to be local. You know what has to be local? News stations have to be local - WINS, KNX, WBBM-A, KFWB. In my opinion, being local is not nearly as important as being entertaining. Elvis and Howard didn't succeed by being local. They talk about things affecting their lives, on a daily basis, and make it personal and relatable, be it pop culture or topical events. And when they do talk about something local, they make it compelling or entertaining enough to make it interesting nationwide.
Look at what Elvis did during Hurricane Sandy. (Ironically, living on Long Island, the power was out so I couldn't hear him for a while.) But he spent a good month talking about Sandy and its aftermath - and he did it so well that he made it compelling for listeners in over 50 other markets, most of whom weren't affected at all by the storm.
Water cooler stunts and so-called shock jock tactics used to be ratings winners ... are they still viable today, and if so, how can they be set up so you push the envelope and not break it?
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. I do hate the term "shock jock." I've worked around Howard from his first TV show days, and in my mind, the only thing he did that was shocking was that he spoke his mind. And there's always going to be people who won't tolerate that. Being candid is shocking to them.
Then you have Opie & Anthony, who were successful by being shocking - as evidence in that "Sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral" stunt. That cheapens radio, and whatever press it generates lasts for a very short period of time and inevitably turns negative. I also remember the incident in Tampa, where Bubba slaughtered a pig; that was meant to be shocking, but it was gratuitous. That didn't do radio any good, either.
Yet many of the people who are "shocked" by Howard lump him in with the others who you feel have gone over the line. How did you deal with that?
You're not going to be able to convince people who feel that anything that's different than what they like is good. It's like a hardcore conservative trying to get a hardcore liberal to relate to their point of view, and vice versa. So it doesn't matter how much you try to convince those people to change their minds; it's not going to happen.
You obviously have been monitoring air talent for many years. Can you spot a budding star early on nowadays, or does success most likely come to those who work and change and evolve their presence?
The ones you spot early on are few and far between, but when you see them and hear them, you know it. Sadly, too many personalities don't jump out at you to the point where you think they've got the goods.
So what do you do with all the others who want representation?
You work with them and try to make them better broadcasters. You try to guide them; whether that's enough for them to succeed or not, you don't know ... but you don't walk away from them. There are thousands of non-A-listers who can still make a great living if they work hard enough to live up to their potential. Not everyone has the talent to become superstars, but the others can still get work and do a good job.
What are the best ways for an air talent to utilize the digital platforms available to him or them?
Look at it this way: The great majority of Elvis Duran's audience has essentially been born with iPods in their hands. That's why Elvis has made social media a character in his show, which has helped their success enormously. People who listen to radio today don't want to just sit and listen. They want to text, tweet and become part of the show conversation. In order to be relevant, you need to be technologically connected to the audience. You need to make social media a character in your show, so you can communicate to the audience through it during the show, as well as after the show. If you don't embrace it, you are missing a huge opportunity to keep your audience interested, not to mention grow your audience.
You've also helped radio stars make the transition to TV. Do you feel the old saying of "having a face for radio" has outlived its usefulness?
First of all, I have a face for radio, too. Secondly, I come from the Don Buchwald School where radio is always the no. 1 priority. Radio is a great platform to jump into additional media ... but not necessarily the other way around. As a radio personality, you have to protect the mothership; you've got to make sure the talent is kicking ass in the home medium. Then and only then should they venture out into other media.
And if you're lucky enough -- and many aren't -- to get the chance to go into additional media, I am the biggest fan of that that exposure. Being on TV only enhances and grows your credibility and brand. Frankly, I'm disappointed in radio in general, as most in management are opposed to having their personalities venture into TV. They prefer their talent to stay on the radio and nothing else. I don't think they want their personalities to become too popular because then they would have to pay them more.
Look at Ryan Seacrest; for years he was just a radio personality. Then he got an opportunity to be host on what arguably became the most popular TV show in the last 15 years, and that propelled him to superstardom in a variety of fields. And it helped him get an even better radio job. Frankly, I believe there are radio companies that look at Seacrest and say, "Gee, I hope that doesn't happen to my talent because I'd have to pay them so much money." If they were truly honest, most of them would say something like that. They want their talent to only play in their sandbox ... and not go to the other ones.
This brings up something that I'd like to get off my chest: As a former talent agent who has worked with Don Buchwald, one of the most successful entertainment agents in the business -- who basically invented radio representation, and has represented talent in film, TV and theatre - in the 15 years I worked for Don, I can tell you that less than five times did I ever get a phone call from someone in radio programming or management who said, "Hey, we have an opening in mornings; do you know of anyone who could work for us?"
Radio, as an industry, has refused to look at the talent agent or agency as a resource for talent! Rather, they look at us like we're the enemy. In TV, film, theater and even sports, in every other medium, companies and producers call up agents to help them cast a movie, TV show or sports team. They'll go, "We're casting this movie and we need someone like this for that role," or "someone who can sing and dance," then ask, "Who do you have" or "who do you know?" We analyze talent every day -- not just the talent we represent, but prospective talent as well. Even if we don refer them to our talent, we can refer them to qualified people. Radio management has refused to get out of its own way - and the entire industry will hold itself back until they embrace talent - and those who really recognize it and represent it.
Lastly, some have complained about a lack of an "overnight/weekend farm system," so to speak. Agree? What should the industry do, if anything, to make a radio DJ career seem as "cool" as it used to be?
I agree there is no farm system in overnights anymore - and unfortunately, it's not just overnights and weekends. You're seeing night slots being voicetracked and syndicated, too. But to be honest, that's a problem where I can make both arguments. On the one hand, you can wonder aloud if radio is being shortsighted by trying to save money by voicetracking over so many different time periods. On the other hand, you can save considerable money and help your bottom line, which of course, is the reason you're in the radio business. So while you can make effective arguments for both sides, I happen to lean with the thinking that cutting back too much on developing talent on-air could come back to bite them when they'll need the next generation of talent.
Frankly, "the farm system" perhaps lies within the casts of current shows. Elvis lost two members of his morning team - one, TJ, left for a morning slot in Boston. So in a sense, morning shows can become a training ground for personalities to move to other opportunities. I mean, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better teacher than Elvis Duran. Maybe that would be the most realistic approach radio companies take - expand their existing shows by adding new people and have them learn their craft that way. Then again, that would take adding on new salary, and management may not want to do that.
I do get concerned when radio looks at TV as a potential next farm system. The majority of TV people who come to radio don't make it. Radio is a lot harder than TV people think it is. Whoopi Goldberg is incredibly talented and she does very well as part of a five-woman team on a daily one-hour show. She didn't do nearly as well as part of a two-person team on a four-hour radio show. Radio management will continue a pattern of failure if they keep hiring TV people to do that.