Radio Ink: ‘A Declaration of Independents’ – Mark Masters Interview
Talk Radio Network appeared on the syndication scene in 1993, when EFM Media was successfully syndicating an outspoken Sacramento Talk show host named Rush Limbaugh. “Looking at EFM Media, it was clear that barter-only syndication was working,” says TRN’s CEO Mark Masters. “We had an opportunity to run the Art Bell show, but people told us that, even if we cleared it, we wouldn’t be able to sell it because overnights weren’t rated. However, we hired some people who didn’t know that. They cold-called advertisers, and — lo and behold — we sold a lot of advertising in-house.”
Art Bell quickly grabbed a nationwide audience, the company took off, and it was sold to Premiere Radio Networks in early 1998. “Four months after we sold it, we approached Premiere and asked if we could buy the company back, minus Art Bell,” Masters recalls. “At that point, we realized that, maybe in a post-consolidation environment, stations would still need ratings performance, and it didn’t really matter who the network was.” Masters was banking on the notion that post-consolidation station managers and program directors would be held accountable for ratings and revenue, opening the door for independent syndication opportunities.
The success of Michael Savage, now heard on more than 300 stations nationwide, attests to the accuracy of Masters’ insight. “Michael Savage has done very well on Clear Channel stations, Citadel stations and all the other major groups, as well as independents,” he observes. “We’ve proven that a content company that is not owned by a group but wants to provide great programming to help a station lower costs and generate ratings, can succeed in a post-consolidation environment.” Other TRN successes include syndication of Rusty Humphries, Motor Trend Radio Magazine, and The Bob Dornan Show.
TRN’s next step was sub-contracting to build network divisions for Radio groups without the resources to syndicate programming. “Talk Radio Syndication Services can provide a network division turnkey for a fraction of the cost that a group would pay to build a network division in-house,” says Masters.
Another TRN division, Syndicated Management Systems, is being established to syndicate Radio management and programming talent. “We’ve syndicated some of the top on-air talent of all time, and now it is time to do the same with the most brilliant minds in Radio,” observes Masters. In return for inventory and other incentives, SMS will “provide Wall Street-caliber management and programming support to independent operators,” he says.
Masters also has eyes on becoming the “super agent of Talk talent.” “Syndication will be only one of the things we do in creating and managing a career path for talent,” he explains. “As a syndicator, we’re married to talent for 10 years or more, so we have the long view of how to build their careers, and we know where the real opportunities exist. It’s only logical that we should represent them and help manage their careers to optimize all good opportunities.”
INK: Do you consider Talk Radio a format, or is it an entire programming category?
MM: When music program directors look at music Radio, they say, “Well, there’s Country, Jazz, A/C, Oldies, Top 40, Heavy Metal” — those are genres of music. There also are genres of Talk. Yet, if a Talk programmer were to program a music station, here’s what he would do: The first two songs of every hour would be Country. Then he’d balance that with Heavy Metal, and then he’d do two Jazz songs, then go to Oldies.
Do Talk programmers try to be all things to all people?
Some of them. Look at Rush Limbaugh. He has this giant, audience-building show of male conservatives; but a lot of Talk programmers put a female-skewing, non-political show after him. What they’ve done is run Rush’s audience into a brick wall. They have just programmed a Heavy Metal song after a Country song. All those Rush Limbaugh listeners will turn away, and now the station must have an “appointment audience” that will show up for that non-political female- skewing show. If the PD puts on another male-skewed, conservative show, all those male listeners must return. With an 18-34 Sex Talk show after that, you do it all again. These PDs think it’s all Talk and everyone will compliment the line-up, but what they’re really doing is destroying the efficiency of the transferable audience from Rush all the way down the line.
How would you classify the different subgenres of Talk?
There’s the conservative white male 35- plus listener; the news-you-can-use listener, who listens to Clark Howard for financial needs and Dr. Laura for emotional needs; the 18-34 males’ audio-voyeurism sex talk, which meets the needs of the younger guy who wants to be titillated and constantly shocked; and the business talk. The most successful AM Talk stations create a “cume train” — all programming transfers the audience to other highly compatible shows; instead of losing 40 percent of the audience, the station doesn’t lose any. An example would be Rush, going into Sean Hannity, going into Michael Savage, going into Neal Boortz.
Don’t some stations put on the non-compatible shows just to keep them off the competition?
That’s a lot of the strategy. But over the next year and a half, we will see an evolution to some A-tier, male-skewing Talk stations — those that program Rush, Savage, Hannity, and Boortz. Then there will be the B-tier conservative stations that will have the ratings losers — those shows that don’t create unique audience. See, if you have a 3 share and put these guys on, you still have a 3. But if you have a 3 share and put on the winning talk shows, you have a 5.
So what happens to the B-tier stations?
You’ll see a lot of those shows going away as the PDs say, “I don’t need to fight over the conservative audience; I can create a station that doesn’t draw from that pool, and I can get massive ratings alongside those stations.” Dr. Laura has been a casualty of the short news cycle, and a lot of stations are taking her off. I think you’ll see other stations putting her on live — but not in a maleskewing lineup. The station across town will go with Clark Howard, Dr. Laura, Dean Edell, and other female-skewing, news-youcan- use programming. And they will perform well, possibly drawing numbers akin to the male-skewing shows, but they’ll be drawing from a different audience.
How important is a balance of local programming to national programming. Is such a balance necessary, and if so, how much local vs. national?
What we learned from Rush Limbaugh and all the other big shows is that a program doesn’t have to be live and local — it just has to be really good. If a show is really compelling, grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the speakers, it will generate word-of-mouth referral. And that word-of-mouth referral will result in big ratings spikes. A syndicated show that sucks will fail. Likewise, a local show that sucks will fail. Local talent makes sense for a station only when a network starts to charge so much in base fees and minutes for a show that it’s no longer economically viable, and they’re not making a profit on it. At that point, it makes sense to pay a local host. The benefits of a local host are that you get live local reads and you can have the celebrity power of that local host — he or she can go on ad calls with your salespeople. You can do creative things.
So why should a station relinquish those benefits for an out-of-market syndicated program?
Because, if a syndicated show is really powerful, it will double or triple the station’s daypart. The best of the best have that magic: Listeners sit in the driveway for 15 minutes to keep listening before going into the house or the office. That’s the type of host you hear about before you actually ever hear him or her. Only one in 500 hosts has that ability.
You’ve heard demos from hundreds of network wannabes. What makes a Talk show host great?
We’ve received 400 tapes in the last year and a half. We’re listening for two things: warmth and range. Warmth is how likable they are — whether you can sit in the car with them for two hours and want to have that person go somewhere with you. Range is the ability to go from high drama to comedy and to connect the dots, crystallizing listeners’ thinking in such a way that it simplifies their world for you and meets an emotional or philosophical need. Most hosts are warm with very limited range, or they are cold with a lot of range. William F. Buckley is a person with a huge amount of dynamic range, but he’s very cold.
And when someone possesses both warmth and range…?
Full dynamic range and warmth equals referral-based listenership, which equals ratings spikes. It’s the rare host with that combination. Good hosts talk to the audience; great hosts talk on behalf of their audience, validate their thoughts, and speak for them. In return, that host becomes a part of the listeners’ emotional day, and they’ll show up because it’s filling a need. If a host doesn’t fill a need and becomes predictable, that host is dead.
What’s your biggest criticism of those hosts whose demos end in the circular file?
First, most of them are unconsciously imitating somebody already in syndication. Second, most hosts don’t have the courage to have an opinion. It looks as though they have an opinion, but most hosts read an oped piece in the paper and ask their audience what they think. Those are information based hosts. They sound really good, but they really don’t form an opinion. They don’t connect the dots, and they don’t do analysis that connects A, B, and C and tells you what it all means. Essentially, they’re lazy. They want the audience to do the show for them. Remember: No listener tells a friend, “Hey, you have to listen to Joe Smith’s show — his callers are so brilliant.” No one cares what callers think. The host’s job is to give his opinion on what the information means and how it affects the listener.
Why is it that virtually all political Talk show hosts are conservatives?
Most TV and newsprint is dominated by the liberal viewpoint. So the conservative viewpoint has tended to migrate to Radio, where it is seen as balancing the liberal viewpoint in the newspaper and television world. Ultimately, if you get more conservative programming on TV, there will be an opportunity for warm liberal hosts with a lot of range on Radio.
Can liberal Talk work, or is there just no audience for it?
There is a time where liberal Talk might work. Conservative Talk show hosts — as much as people think they’re conservative — are really entertainers. They understand that they must be entertaining and not too agenda-laden. The untold story is that all failed conservative Talk shows lost because they followed an agenda. People don’t want to listen to an angry conservative — they want to listen to a humorous, light-hearted conservative with a victory attitude. A liberal host who is agenda-oriented and wants to bash conservatives is not likable, and he or she becomes cold. Likewise, when a conservative has an agenda, he can say all the right things but be cold, and he won’t generate referral-based audience. If a liberal goes on the air as warm and likable, and makes his point in a compelling way, he’ll get conservative listenership.
Can someone such as Bill O’Reilly carry over from cable and succeed?
Bill O’Reilly is a brilliant host on TV. I’m a big fan. But a one-hour TV show has probably 37 minutes of content with a staff or producers and visuals. On the other hand, Radio is impromptu. A Talk show host alone does in two or three hours what a full team of writers does for David Letterman every night. It’s a big transition. The truth is that a Radio Talk host must have a lot more dynamic range than a TV personality. The formatics of the show demand that he be highly improvisational with warmth of range — and that’s a very rare skill. Most of the great TV personalities, starting with Milton Berle, came out of Radio. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage have trained us to have an ear focused on that one auditory medium. You can tell if someone is arrogant or sincere because we’ve been trained to notice the difference. If anybody could make that transition, it might be O’Reilly; but it requires more range than most TV personalities have to give.
At one time, you projected another 1,000 Talk stations by 2010. At what point will the industry become over-Talked?
It’s like asking at what point there will be too much music on Radio. You’ll see a split in Talk Radio, programming with the same logic that music stations use. Talk provides 30 percent more hourly inventory than music, and it’s a foreground format. When people want to listen to music, they often want to disengage; but when they listen to Talk Radio, they’re trying to engage. Also, when you listen to a Talk Radio commercial in the voice of the host or that’s in the format of the show, you can transfer the loyalty of the host with the kind of voice read that took Snapple from a small company to a large company. Also, with a Talk station you can own the content, whereas the record labels own the content of music stations.
As an independent syndicator, how do you approach a Talk station — whether you’re marketing a new program or a proven show?
This is my conversation: “Here’s the track record of my show. It outperforms its lead-in by an average of 100 percent wherever it goes on. You can make a profit on it. You’ll benefit from it because it will increase the value of the local minutes that you retain. I want to work with you — you’re an excellent customer. If you say ‘no,’ I’ll have to take it across the street and increase the audience of your competitor and erode your ratings.
“I have to remain loyal to whoever takes me first, so don’t come to me six months from now and ask me to take my show away from the guy who took me. So before you say ‘no,’ look at my ratings performance and see how it will benefit your stations, because your stations are known for making the best programming decisions — and this is the best programming decision.”
As the name of your company is Talk Radio Network, are you content to focus primarily on Talk programming, or are music-oriented shows in your future?
We’re looking at all those things right now. We’ve almost done deals like that. I don’t want anybody to look at us and say, “They’re just the Art Bell-Michael Savage guys.” We’ll do anything as long as it can generate unique audience. If it generates unique audience and is not a ratings echo, it doesn’t matter if it’s AM-, FM- or satellite-delivered. If a program has unique audience, we can go to a station and make a compelling argument why they’ll make a profit. But if a show doesn’t get unique audience, if it doesn’t create massive ratings spikes, then you can’t make that argument.
What has been the response to your network syndication systems concept?
A lot of groups are considering a network division, but the amount of required start-up money makes it infeasible. Building the infrastructure is overwhelmingly expensive. We want to super-serve our core customers, which are the other Radio groups — all Radio groups, in fact. But Radio groups without network divisions must give their key people a career path, in order to retain that talent or to attract recruits. Some major talent won’t go with a group unless the group can prove they can give the talent a career path into national syndication. We started Talk Radio Syndication Systems to provide a one-stop, turnkey infrastructure solution. We can build a network division for the group under its brand name, but it’s managed through us.
You’re also working on a plan to manage the interests of Talk show hosts. Is it possible to serve both masters — the station group and the personality?
Think in terms of affinity groups. Michael Jordan’s affinity group wants to emulate him, and he has the ability to change the purchasing habits of people — not along demographic lines, but along the lines of those people who are his closest followers. Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity affect the purchasing habits of their affinity groups as much as major sports athletes affect theirs.
Today’s Radio talent is not managed, so their opportunities for profitability are not optimized the way managers of athletes and movie stars optimize the profitability for their talent. What we’d like, as time goes by, is for syndication to become a part of what we do as a giant talent company — with not only on-air talent but also the greatest management minds.
You plan to syndicate the talents of proven Radio managers and program directors. How would this differ from forming a consulting division?
This is directed more toward the independent operator who is trying to figure out how to organize his system. If you take some of the most brilliant managers and programmers and rep both sides of the microphone on a barter basis with some small fees that are reasonable, and then take your profit from the performance of the result of your brilliant thinking and smart programming, what you really have is a partner. If you take a guy’s station from a 1 to a 5 share, there’s a certain point at which you start getting cut in on the profitability above and beyond the barter inventory you get. It’s more atrisk, it’s day-to-day, and it’s long-term — we don’t make money off you unless our ideas actually work.
Ultimately, all syndication is a form of partnership. When stations take a show and give us some of their inventory, there’s a partnership in that daypart. There’s an anticipation that, if the show succeeds, we all win; and if the show doesn’t succeed, we won’t. We want to extend the same philosophy of partnering in the revenues of stations that want to have the best management and on air teams in the country.
What leisure activities do you enjoy? Spending time with my children; anything water-related
What books do you recommend? The Art Of War by Sun Tzu; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
What books are on your nightstand right now? Marcus Aurelius And His Times, and On War by Karl Von Clausewitz
If you had 30 minute to talk to one person, who would that be? Moses
Whose phone calls do you always return? My wife and kids, station PDs, and my program hosts
If you could go back in time, where/when would you go? Ancient Rome in its pre-decadent period, when it was still a great republic
To whom did you listen on the Radio when you were growing up? George Putnum, Michael Jackson and my father (Roy Masters)
What did you want to be when you grew up? Someone with common sense and not afraid to take entrepreneurial risks
What is your favorite radio format? Talk
What’s your No. 1 “guilty pleasure” website? Drudge Report; World Net Daily
What has been your most unattainable goal? To be the weight I was when I was 25 years old
Of what achievement are you most proud? Being a loving father, a loyal husband, and a son that parents and siblings can be proud of.