June 3, 2014
In the ultra-competitive, mega-consolidated world of network syndication, Doug Stephan pretty much stands alone. And he's been doing it that way for over two decades, when Stephan decided the best way to succeed was to do it all by himself - host and produce the show, do affiliate relations and even sell advertising. Flying under the radar of a plethora of highly partisan Talk product, Doug Stephan's Good Day has prospered by serving as a welcome change of pace to a loyal audience and risk-averse affiliates. Here's how he has done it...
You had been in radio for a number of years before starting your own syndicated talk radio program. What made you decide back in 1988 that you could syndicate the show yourself?
I had already done Talk for 14 years; I worked at WCKY in Cincinnati when a gentleman called me from Baltimore - this was in August of '88 when Limbaugh got started - he was an entrepreneurial sort who found an investor in Florida to put a couple million dollars into a radio network and have on guys like Rush. They decided to hire five people to do a 24-hour network. I was asked to do mornings, so I set up a studio in the basement of WCKY and for the first four months, I only talked to three people. It was called "Good Day America." ARN was fascinated by what Limbaugh was doing and thought, "Wow maybe we can do this, too." They had stars in their eyes.
That network failed after a year-and-a-half, so I brought what I was doing to Pat Robertson's network in Washington, D.C. It was more professional. ARN had 80-90 stations in small and medium markets; Pat Robertson wanted to do the same sort of thing, so he put together a News/Talk radio network studio in Washington, but he got in trouble with the IRS when he used money from his nonprofit efforts to support his for-profit efforts. So that ended and I hooked up with some guys in Florida who ran the Sun Radio Network. I managed to keep the stations I had, but that only lasted until I found out they were all neo-Nazis; I got out as fast as I could.
At that point, I had been on the road a lot and my children were feeling uncomfortable with me being away from home and the farm we had in Massachusetts. My former wife had also developed breast cancer. My priority was my family and figuring out how to do my program by myself.
What were the greatest challenges in doing that?
I learned the hard way to produce and host my own show for at least two years by doing everything. Not only did I host and produce my show, I had to work with affiliates and sell to advertisers. I had to get up at 4a to do the program until 9a, then work from 9a-5p, finding future guests and dealing with advertisers and affiliates. I wouldn't stop until the West Coast called it a day at 8p ET. You don't survive if you don't learn how to do the most important components.
I must have a high tolerance for pain, but I say that lovingly. I do have a high threshold for work; I'm a very energetic guy so I pursue my two main passions simultaneously - my radio show and my farm. I've been around animals all my life and I love the work ethic that farming life commands. Even today, I don't find myself exhausted, but rather invigorated, especially when doing my radio show.
How has the consolidation of not only radio stations, but of network syndication, impacted your show? Were there ever offers made to buy you out?
Yes, I have had conversations with several syndicators to buy out my program, but they didn't really understand what I was doing. They never understood I do all of it by myself. I probably came closest to selling to Buckley. There were some attempts by people who launched programs against mine to push me out of the business. I remember Dick Cavett, a big-name guy whose name alone had the potential to attract advertising revenue. Thing was, he couldn't stand getting up early in the morning and couldn't handle all the things you have to do with affiliates and advertisers.
I have found the best Talk hosts are those who were former jocks. In that capacity, I learned a sense of timing, plot, how to get in and get out. People who think they can do this simply because they have something to say have a difficult time actually doing it.
Have you changed the content or style of your show over the years?
It has changed tremendously. The show has changed as my life and the needs of my audience have changed. Over the years, as I've grown with the program, I knew my approach was unique and relatable. I've recently changed the program around, although when I say that, it doesn't mean I'm the "be all, end all." I have support from David G. Hall who helps me strategize, resulting in a show with a completely different texture and feel today.
For instance, we start each half-hour with a top news story and have created a "newsmakers" segment where we interview experts or people who are part of the story that day. I like to focus on how any given news story impacts our listeners. I'm also interested in giving people advice. Morning listeners want advice, so we have a number of experts, from travel and renovating your home to psychology and technology - they're all part of a good full-service show.
One thing that hasn't changed - we laugh a lot and have fun. We take the news seriously, but that's about it.
One thing you haven't done is veer into partisan politics, which in the case of right-wing conservative hosts, has turned into a double-edged sword of late.
You automatically eliminate half the audience when you do that. I want to appeal to as many people as possible. I became friends with Ed McMahon, and I remember having a conversation with him one night over dinner in Las Vegas - and I swear to God, I never knew what his politics were. People close to him would tell me that I'd be amazed to know just what his politics were. I asked him why he didn't talk politics and he said, "I want everyone to buy Alpo, not just Republicans or Democrats." He was a pitchman and in a sense, I am too ... only I'm pitching ideas, not products.
If you get too strident, you'll not only send audience away but especially today, advertisers. My thing is to reach listeners who feel thirsty for advice and security.
How do you judge the success of your show -- mainly through ratings, the number of affiliates you accumulate, the market size of those affiliates, or the quality of the show you just completed?
I don't know if there's a single answer for that. The fact that I just started my 26th year doing this program is all the answer that's required. I'm still here doing what I love to do, which is find a way to service the listeners and the stations and make it a viable business.
There's a magic to it; it's like making love. Sometimes you are just better at it than others; a lot of it has to do with the synergy of your partner - and the people I work with really know me and they're all my friends. They can tell when I need support and they know when I need to be alone. We have a sixth sense about each other, which makes us a well-oiled machine. I think people hear that over the air ... and they like that. People want to get uplifted and not dwell on their problems. I focus on getting them away from their issues and make it a "good day."
Did you ever have "talk host topics block?"
No. I'm on-air every day; I don't take a vacation. I have a five to six-hour radio work day and I still have piles of things on my desk that's research I've found over the years. The world is a fascinating place. It troubles me to hear people say, "It's a slow news day." Baloney. It's never a slow news day; people are always doing interesting things. There are memorable events going on every single moment of every single day, I don't go down the same street as others who find it easy to talk about abortion and capitol punishment. That's wonderful if you only want to do topics that get people riled up. But to me, that's not stimulating.
What has been your greatest success and failure?
In terms of my career, my greatest success is taking an amalgamation of various things and getting them to all work together. Finding all these people to partner with me so that at the 26-year point, the show is primed for continued growth ... that's success!
In the personal world, I have two children who are the closest people to me. We're very close-knit; they make sure things are well with me and vice versa. That gives me a new perspective. The audience hears me talk about them all the time; the kids have grown up on the radio program, so they can understand me like nobody's business.
You work on the West Coast yet maintain a dairy farm on the East Coast. How do you successfully handle that and your own syndicated efforts?
I love Southern California. Both of my children live in L.A.; I just finished my 20th winter at my home in Santa Monica. I go to my farm in Massachusetts during the good-weather months. I have a studio in my home; I just have to be up at 1a on the West Coast and go to bed at 7p. On the East Coast it's 4a-10p.
On my farm, I have 300 jersey dairy cows. I sell raw milk and cheese under the name of Eastleigh Farms. I've been around cows all my life. I found that a farm is a great place for me. I believe there are no mistakes; everything happens in life because it's supposed to happen - and farming has allowed me to grow tremendously and better understand my life. It's part of who I am.
What kind of goals do you set ... that each show is good quality-wise, or do you set long-range goals as well?
I've never been a great planner. I never said to myself that I had to be married and have kids at a certain age, or run my own business by 1999. However in terms of my own life, my goal is to love what I do. I look at some folks who say they can't wait to retire so they can do something else. To me, that's an escape from something they don't like doing now. I occupy my time with thing things I love doing, which is radio and running my farm. I certainly have no intention of stopping either of them.
If anything, my goal is to be the last guy standing. Next year will be my 50th year on the air. Do I set a goal of making it to 60 or 70 years? No, because those kinds of numbers aren't important. I also don't worry about prizes, awards and accolades. Sure, it's great to get them, but again, getting them is not why I'm doing what I'm doing. I just enjoy doing something every day that I'm pretty good at. I make a good living at it and that makes me want to do this better.
Why give up a franchise like this? I figure when someone tells me what I said on-air doesn't make sense, I'll stop. I don't want to embarrass myself; fortunately I've been blessed with a good mind, a healthy body and a spiritual basis that gives me the opportunity - and the responsibility - to stay on-air even on holidays. When I get up on Christmas morning and New Year's Day, I want to get on-air because I love being there and love talking to people. For 24 years, I've had the responsibility to those people to give them my best every single day. I wake up thankful to have such an opportunity, so let's get going!