By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Master marketer Vince McMahon continues to build a vast “Sports Entertainment” empire largely owing to his uncanny knack of giving the “universe” of WWE fans the product they crave, a philosophy congruous with that of Massachusetts-born entrepreneur Marshall Field, who stressed that his Chicago-based department stores should, “Give the lady what she wants.”
Not only is the same applicable to an intensely entertaining and astute talk radio personality, it is his program’s cornerstone mantra.
When Tom Leykis proclaims that he discusses things his listeners “really” care about, it is not lip service. You can practically see the faithful mouthing the words in harmony with their leader. They are keenly aware of the drill and anxiously wait to give Leykis an elongated “Helloooo Tom.”
Commencing at 3:00 pm PT on April 2, 2012, however, a significant change with program platform delivery surfaced as the creator of the New Normal Network transitioned from traditional terrestrial radio signals to a configuration of online streaming and podcasts.
Hardly randomly-selected, that date holds special significance: It was the day after his five-year contract with CBS Radio had expired; 3:00 pm PT was his customary terrestrial radio start time. Most of Leykis’ calls concluded with the host “blowing them up.” That bit’s origin actually started many years ago as the sound effect of a toilet flushing.
Challenge for listeners was how/where to find Leykis (NewNormalNetwork.com), whereas the monumental switch enabled him to have complete control over content.
More than 400,000 different internet provider addresses successfully located the program during its inaugural week.
Underscoring what appears as the company name on Leykis’ business cards, he now does what might very well be broadcasting’s ‘New Normal’ – talented individuals becoming more entrepreneurial. “It has been a pretty surprising ride for us,” he comments of the venture’s one-year anniversary. “In terms of listenership and media recognition, we are ahead of where we expected to be at this point.”
Having increased his audience by 15% from September – which is when Triton Digital’s Webcast Metrics began tabulating his listeners – Leykis states he is on a projected pace of 9.6 million connections for 2013. “That is huge.”
While any intended goals or expectations have been far surpassed, the bar was admittedly set modestly. “Many people in the radio business, including some I really respect, said I was insane,” Leykis reflects. “They felt I had a long history in radio and should not be walking away from it at this time. I was leaving the big-box, broadcasting business to be in the hand-crafted, small-batch business. This is a boutique content company in the P1 business, as opposed to trying to get P1s, P2s, P3s, P4s, and P5s.”
A number of colleagues cautioned Leykis that doing a live stream was the wrong road to take, and he was warned there were would a minimum number of callers yet he points out, “We have more phone lines than we had when I was at Westwood One or CBS Radio. We have 10 incoming phone lines and, for most of the day, they are packed.”
In the beginning though, Leykis was “so spooked” that he instituted a backup plan, just in case there was an absence of listener input. “We were prepared for that,” he admits, “but it turned out that we had nothing to worry about.”
Typical days for him are completely different from the past, as he is operating a genuine small enterprise. “I am talking to attorneys, my banker, clients, potential salespeople, and I go to Costco to purchase items for our 1,100-square foot building in Burbank,” Leykis explains. “The fact is that I have gone from having everything done for me to being responsible for running this business. Before, I would arrive at 2:59 pm to open the microphone. I would do my show prep at home and be out the door at 7:01 pm.”
Involved with the entire gamut, including technical issues, Leykis – in effect – functions as chief engineer. “I have to be sure the sound quality is where it belongs. There are times when I have to roll up my sleeves and fix things. Most of all, I enjoy being completely responsible for the product. If things go well, I take the credit – but if things go wrong, I take the blame. It all comes back to me.”
Throughout the numerous years Leykis spent in traditional radio, he constantly made suggestions but he laments, “Since so many station executives are more worried about debt service and stockholders than the quality of the product, many of our ideas were shunted to the side.”
One particular notion was to email everyone on the approximately 100,000-member database of his last flagship outlet – CBS Radio-owned KLSX, Los Angeles. As soon as someone accessed the message, he or she would hear the station. “Essentially, I was told to mind my own business,” Leykis recounts. “The first thing I did when our show came back was to send a message to the 10,000 people on my email list. When the person opened it, our 24/7 stream was playing. We could literally see our listenership spike when that email landed. You could never do that in radio.”
Two computer monitors occupy a high-profile location in Leykis’ on-air studio. One of them, however, is unlike what is found in a typical radio station environment, as it is devoted to charts and bar graphs showing Leykis the precise number of listeners he has at that very moment. “It is beyond a thrill, and it is what everybody should be able to do,” he declares. “Most radio stations have to wait weeks before knowing how they did on a certain day. If people don’t like a guest, or if I introduce a topic that is not interesting, I can look at the screen and see listeners voting with their feet. I have the opportunity to do something you could never do in radio – I can change what I am doing in mid-stream to make the audience happier.”
Guests have been ushered out of the studio less than 10 minutes into their segment. “The opinion of the program director saying a topic is not interesting is irrelevant – the opinion of the audience is relevant,” Leykis asserts. “If the audience likes what I am doing, I will do more of it.”
New Normal-conducted research revealed that 17% of all listening to Leykis’ channel is done when he is “live” – 83% listen when he is not there – and there always seems to be some sort of surprise.
In terms of listenership, the biggest days have dealt with major news stories such as Sandy Hook, the election, and the rampage of ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner. “We talk about big, bold news stories where people can argue – but we do not devote ourselves to being a news program,” Leykis emphasizes. “We already know what CNN is finding out the hard way, which is that, on most days, no story has the kind of dramatic tension that makes it a good talk show topic. Regardless how boring or disengaging it is to the audience, CNN is married to the front page of the newspaper. We are not in the business of talking about the story that is on the front page of The New York Times. We talk about issues that might be on page A-37. The New York Times is becoming more like my show than vice versa.”
Should a major event develop in the morning as Sandy Hook did, Leykis goes in earlier than usual. “We don’t have to wait until the 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm person finishes their show,” he remarks.
Given that Leykis has 25 years vested in Southern California – including a four-year run (1988-1992) at Los Angeles’ KFI – it is only natural that he not only continues to have a big audience there, but it is his top DMA; New York City ranks fifth. “In the 15 years I was in syndication, I was only on in New York City for 10 months in two, five-month runs,” he notes.
Demos are slightly younger for his New Normal program, compared to his syndicated radio days, with Men 18-44 comprising the overwhelming majority of his audience. “Part of the screener’s job was to screen out people over 50,” Leykis explains. “Now, there is almost no activity at all 45-plus.”
As part of the “new normal,” he can blurt out anything at any time, but the dean of “Leykis 101″ maintains there is “nothing shocking” about having sexually-oriented conversations if they become routine. “The appeal goes up when you are breaking the rules,” he insists. “On top of that, the era where several ‘shock jocks’ were competing against each other is pretty much over, and in fact, we each have our own ecosystem of P1 followers. We are not in that competition, since it isn’t necessary to see who can be the dirtiest.”
Some draw comparisons between Leykis to Howard Stern, although Leykis emphasizes he was “very careful” not to copy the legendary Sirius XM Satellite Radio morning talent. “His audience is very loyal and can smell a rat the minute someone else tries ripping him off. The last thing I would want to do is try to copy any of his material. I respect everything Howard has done.”
The two, of course, were morning drive (Stern) and afternoon drive (Leykis) bookends on Los Angeles’ KLSX with Stern leaving for satellite in January 2006 and Leykis exiting when CBS Radio’s KLSX became CHR KAMP on February 12, 2009.
Noteworthy, of course, is that both personalities pursued non-AM/FM platforms.
Prior to New Normal, Leykis states that going on KLSX in 1997 and being the afternoon “yang” to Stern’s “yin” was “the best thing that happened” in his career. “When Howard says nothing about me, I take it as a compliment.”
Puzzled why an FM station didn’t have Stern on all day, Leykis is correspondingly “amazed” that an AM facility does not feature Rush Limbaugh around-the-clock. “This idea of having different people on every three or four hours might be past its time,” theorizes Leykis, garbed in his traditional all-black clothing and dark glasses. “We are in a world where we give people what they want. When people come to my ecosystem, they are coming to hear ‘The Tom Leykis Show.'”
To spread the word about his endeavor, which features fewer commercials and virtually no restrictions, Leykis utilizes social media as adroitly as anyone. Any of his thousands of Facebook friends, for example, would have to be deliberately trying to miss his frequent postings, although he contends, “I don’t use it blatantly as a promotional vehicle. I just alert people about the content they want and the time they want it.”
One specific “colorful” caller from Virginia gets special treatment. “When he is on, our audience immediately goes up 10%,” Leykis points out. “When I see that he is on hold, I will not put him on right away. I will first send out a tweet and update my Facebook status to say that he is coming. The audience is waiting for him and he is the first person on after a break. Many stations make the mistake of reading off a laundry list of things that are ‘coming up,’ but truth be told, everything a station is doing is not that interesting. Rather than barraging your audience with blatant promotions, you need to figure out what they like the most and let them know when it is coming. They don’t see it as a promo, but content that they care about.”
Prepping For Parity
It is quite naturally Leykis’ fervent belief that his business model can be a revenue-generating, profitability success, however he candidly concedes, “So far, it is not. We did not expect to make a profit the first year – we hoped to keep our losses as low as possible. Cable television was not profitable in the first year, nor was TiVo. Satellite radio companies were nearly bankrupt before they began showing a profit. As in any other business, you have startup costs the first year that you will not have in year two and three. There was an investment well into six figures in outfitting the studio with gear, and we have four, full-time employees.”
Podcasts were sold in year one and Leykis foresees considerable promise in terms of future revenue streams. “We made six figures in sales and we were only on for nine months in 2012,” he explains. “We always believe that there should be a cost to listen on-demand. Once TuneIn and other apps are in the car dashboard, our days of struggling will be over, since we will be on equal footing with terrestrial radio. That is the direction where everything is heading.”
Plans call for Leykis to create more shows, but there will be separate streams for each, rather than all being on his. “I want radio people who are hiding under their desks to know that there is hope for them,” he states. “They do not have to ‘take a haircut’ or fear an axe will be put in their back. People who are employed in radio today have the opportunity to get ready for a future that is completely different.”
Traditional radio, he opines, “has it all wrong.” Proprietary content, which is a station’s lifeblood, should not be cut, advises Leykis. “They are spending money on HD Radio, which is a total bomb. When I was at Westwood One, our monthly long distance bill was $2,500. That was just the long distance cost and did not include phone lines. Our monthly cost – which does include phone lines – is about $350. If you want to cut costs, do it with things like that.”
As it exists today, most talk radio, in Leykis’ view, is, “Dead-on-arrival.”
Conservative talkers, he insists, “went all-in” on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “Mark Levin spent three hours every night for four years saying that President Obama needed to be voted out of office,” Leykis states. “Every hour of every day was devoted to how terrible Obama is. All they proved is that talk radio does not have nearly as much influence as everyone would like to say that it does. Talk radio is much more interesting when it is the voice of the people and when it reflects their hopes and desires. The minute that Obama was re-elected, ratings for many talk stations fell off a cliff.”
According to Leykis, he has sufficient resources to retire right now. “I didn’t need to come back to do this,” he maintains. “It is not just fun – it is the most fun that I have had in 20 years.”
Mike Kinosian • Kinosian@Talkers.com • (818) 985-0244