July 16, 2013
When you accomplish as much as Blair Garner already has - on-air stints at WPLJ and KIIS, 20 years as host of the premier Country late-night show, After Midnite - you'd think it would tough to come up with a huge new challenge. Problem solved ... when he was afforded the opportunity to host the morning show on the first Country radio station in New York at WNSH (NASH-FM). Assembling a morning cast of established Country stars and personalities, Garner is off and running in taking a sizable bite in Big Apple radio. Here's how he sees it...
How did this opportunity at WNSH come about come about?
When the opportunity first presented itself, I was completely taken aback. New York City is the #1 media market in the world. To spread the gospel of Country music through the Tri-State area, and to be entrusted with leading that charge, is the opportunity of a lifetime.
My agent, Eric Weiss, is good friends with John Dickey of Cumulus. When the decision was made to launch NASH FM, returning Country to the Big Apple for the first time in 17 years, John approached Eric about my potential involvement. When the time was right they brought the idea to me.
I remember John asking, "How would you do mornings? What would you do?" I sat and thought for a moment, and gave a somewhat brief answer. "Well, it would have to be big, something beyond what's been done before. " John's eyes lit up. Both he and Cumulus were up for the challenge. John said, "You've got to dream big. Dream without limits. Take a little time, and imagine what that might look like -- who you would want to be involved, and how you would go about it."
That tone of encouragement is what fuels me. The whole idea of investment and support. In my heart I quickly knew that this was the right partnership for someone like me.
Talk about your new team and what you've done to develop the right chemistry with them.
The most common thing people want to know about is how I chose the cast. Why would I go with artists? Well, I don't think you have to look any further than The View. Every person, with the exception of Barbara Walters, comes from different backgrounds. But they each have a distinct point of view, and are able to articulate it well. Why couldn't radio do the same?
During the 20 years of After MidNite, a lot of artists came through our doors. With that came a keen sense of who the real "entertainers" were, and who you would most want to hang out with. These were the people I wanted to seek out. I wanted entertainers. Personalities.
Some were surprised we went this route, but it makes sense once you stop to realize that they're each at the frontline of meeting our Country life group face-to-face. They are real. They are authentic. Every cast member connects face-to-face, virtually every weekend, with our listeners. So yes, entertainers ... with a deep understanding of who today's Country fans are. That became the first criteria.
With that first filter in place, I narrowed it down to a group of people who you'd want to spend time with. Who makes you smile, even when you don't feel like it? I'm happy to say that to the letter, every member of the America's Morning Show cast fills that criteria.
Terri Clark, Sunny Sweeney, Chuck Wicks, Lee Ann Womack, and HLN's Robin Meade. It's a powerhouse of a cast ... each with a unique viewpoint, each with a distinct personality, and each with a deep respect for the other. And each is authentically involved in Country music. They are the real deal.
A lot of morning shows are "arranged marriages." For me, this group is about as far from that as you can get. Our friendships transcend the time we're in the studio. It's authentic. That's something you just can't fake. We're only a couple weeks in, and I'm already leaving the studio with my sides hurting from laughing so hard. I'm having so much fun. The chemistry has been there from day one. Even after we've done our last segment, we're still hanging out together. That's the God's honest truth.
Should listeners expect to hear Terri, Sunny and Lee Ann singing during the show?
Listeners should expect the unexpected. The most unique aspect of the show is that it pulls back the curtain in a way no other program can -- taking its listeners, on a daily basis, backstage with what's really going on. That's because these are the guys who are there. They aren't the observers. These are the folks who are living it. It's fascinating to hear how they balance things like motherhood, a recording career, touring with their band ... and now being part of a NYC morning radio show.
You've done dayparts in major markets before. In what ways is this gig different than your past on-air jobs?
It's remarkably different in that it's an ensemble program. When I did afternoons at WPLJ, aside from the producer, I was the only guy in the studio. The same was true with KIIS in Los Angeles. Before syndicating After MidNite, I had always been solo.
But with After MidNite, things changed. It was an ensemble program. Typically there were four others in the room with me, each contributing both on and off-air. We were doing a morning show that just happened to air overnights. Personally, I think that was the heyday of After MidNite. We were a group of genuine friends having fun and inviting listeners along for the ride. I loved it. But eventually the show was brought back to only me, and I was once again a solo act.
What's so great about America's Morning Show is that I'm given those same freedoms I loved so much before. There are other people in the room. It's kind of like playing tennis. When there's nobody there to hit the ball back, it's not really tennis. Conversations are the same way to me.
One other difference is the advent of the PPM methodology and how we can refine our show. Used judiciously, you can better focus the show and give the listeners exactly what they want, when they want it. Much of it is what we've known all along, but it just reinforces the importance being there for the listeners -- letting them know what's coming up -- and delivering the promises you have made to them.
But are you willing to make changes in the show more quickly after evaluating PPM data?
Of course. But it goes back to that whole idea of judicious application. In a way it's like trading stocks. People have lost everything because they overreacted to a bump in the market. Personally, I'm a long-term investor. What's down today may be up tomorrow. Sometimes you've just got to ride it a bit. The key is in knowing when to rebalance that portfolio. In our world, we have to counterbalance PPM data with our show's internal mission statement. It's very clear, and it helps us filter the data.
Although you've been on the air for a relatively short time, have you ascertained any difference between the New York Country listener and, say, Country listeners in Nashville?
A Country fan is a Country fan. Only the accents change. Ask any artist who has toured the world, and they'll give you much the same answer. Personally, I think it's less about where they are than who they are. "Authenticity" is the word that first comes to mind.
The Country format is so much more than just the music. It's a way of life. Paul Jankowski wrote a book called "How To Speak American," where he distilled the Country life group down to three core values -- family, faith and community. Those are all core values of what our show authentically represents.
Country music is our life group's soundtrack. They live it. They feel it. Some of it is fun just for the sake of being fun, and some of it hits closer to those more challenging times in our lives. But it reflects what we are and who we are. Our show has that same type of authenticity.
Take, for example, Sunny Sweeney. She'll be the first tell you that her life mirrors that soundtrack; she's been divorced, which she has been open about, but now she's in the most rewarding relationship of her life with a police officer. No one here is trying to put out a false sense of who they are. New Yorkers are getting the real me, the real Terri, and so on. We each bring different experiences to the show. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don't. But we're respectful and always ourselves. Those are the bricks that pave the road to authenticity.
A few weeks ago, there was a huge reaction, pro and con, to the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage. Which prompts the question: Is there a dividing line between doing topical content on the show and doing politically-based topical content on the show?
I see no reason to shy away from it at all. If it's what our listeners have on their mind, then it should absolutely be on our radar. The question becomes how important it is to our listeners. Then, based on that level of importance, you'll find it reflected to a matching degree on the show.
I've described our show as "radio at the speed of now." We're all living in the same world at the same time. That means that we're reacting to the same events at the same time as our listeners.
A perfect example is how, thanks to our own Robin Meade, we scooped most every other outlet with the story of (former New England Patriot) Aaron Hernandez being arrested and handcuffed in a cop car. We had that on America's Morning Show a full 15 minutes before most major news outlets covered it.
Working with Scott Shannon back at WPLJ, I first realized the importance of picking your shots. Don't be afraid to stop things down. Don't be afraid to delve into emotionally charged areas. But do it with discretion. Do it with respect.
Country music has done exactly that since its inception. Brad Paisley wrote a great song called "This is Country Music." Parts of the song include the lyrics, "you're not supposed to say the word cancer in a song ... But this is Country music, and we do." He goes there. He's not afraid. Brad picks his shots. He'll have a heartfelt song like that, and then deliver a feel good summer hit with "Beat This Summer." He doesn't shy away, nor should we. But he finds the balance, and we aim to do the same.
I do my best to imagine what's going on with our listeners at any given moment ... what they are doing as they listen. Typically I think of that mother-daughter listener combo -- a young mom driving her daughter to school. We want to give them a listening experience they can both enjoy at the same time. Cool enough for the kids, but clean enough for the moms. I don't want that mother to have to explain any of our conversations to her daughter - especially if she doesn't feel her daughter is ready for that. I'm a father of nine-year-old twins, so I know what that's like.
Although your morning show is only heard in New York, are you preparing to craft a show that could be syndicated nationally?
I am the host of a New York City morning radio show. That's it. That's my sole focus. Doing mornings in NYC is the crown jewel. It's the #1 media market in the world. Part of my job is to convey to the folks of Madison Avenue that Country is now hip and fun. That they should invest in the "NASH" brand that Cumulus has developed. I want that investment to begin with buying morning airtime in New York City on NASH-FM 94-7.
Do you believe Country radio still suffers from an advertiser perception that it's un-hip and non-urban?
It's a perception of the past. That's played. There is a huge audience for Country. Country delivers to advertisers a population that others cannot. An astute media buyer is well aware of this and can make buys at the most granular of levels.
We're seeing huge sales activity at NASH; it's over-the-top crazy. It's intoxicating. The station's message is clearly making its mark. We are a station that is dynamic, current and mainstream.
After working with Scott Shannon at WPLJ years ago, today you find yourself competing against him, as well as Elvis Duran and other heavyweights in New York. Do you closely monitor your rivals, or do you focus solely on improving your own show?
Among the first e-mails I got when I started was from Scott telling me how proud he is of what we're doing. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned from Scott. I'm also a huge fan of Elvis. He's a genius at what he does, and it's inspiring. But I can't be Scott. I can't be Elvis. I can only be Blair.
I'm a very competitive guy -- but I'm competitive with myself. If take my eye off the ball long enough to see what the other guy is doing, then I've effectively let up on the gas. That's not how you win. You look for the open lane and floor it. Hit it full throttle.
When you're just starting out on a venture like this, does that alter any long-term career plans or goals that you've had?
I'm about the long-term. So is Cumulus. That's one of the reasons this partnership is so perfect. The success of After MidNite partially satiated my desire to do a morning show, but not completely. That's why I always maintained that option to do a local morning show. It's important to me on a personal level.
I've had similar opportunities presented in the past, but I never took them because they weren't the right fit. I decided early on that the opportunity would have to be something truly enormous to captivate my interest. When John and Eric presented this opportunity ... that was enormous to the 10th power. It immediately captivated me; I knew it was the right fit. I can honestly say this is the most exciting time of my career.
Now that you and After MidNite have officially parted ways, could you foresee a time when you'd want to host specialty programming like that again?
Honestly, I can't. I am so focused on mornings in New York right now there's no room for anything else, and that's the way it should be. That would be a little like standing at the altar with your new spouse and looking out into the congregation for the person you'll date next.
Congrats on being named to the Radio Hall of Fame. Some people similarly honored jokingly think awards like that are better off awarded posthumously, or at least until they retire because they have more challenges ahead. What kinds of feelings go through your head?
To my very depths, I am so humbled and honored by that recognition. It means the world to me, and I am so appreciative.
I made a resolution after 9/11. If I thought something nice about someone, I was going to tell them. I wasn't going to keep it to myself. Sometimes, the smallest bit of encouragement might be just what someone needs. This kind of award is anything but a "small bit" of encouragement. It is huge. Personally, it inspires me to dig deeper and work harder. It propels me to make this next step even bigger and bolder.