Raising the Digital Frontier Bar One “Great American Broadcast” at a Time
By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
NEW YORK — The one thing you can never say is that Alex Bennett is not ahead of his time. Bennett can stake a claim to the fact he may be the only one who has successfully climbed the ladder from the smallest of radio markets to the top market in terrestrial radio, worked on the air as a talk host on satellite radio, and have made the transition to the audio and video digital frontier in a way nobody else has. It also appears that being 73-years young, he has no plans to hang up his headphones or power down his bandwidth anytime soon.
Bennett was born in 1939, when NBC’s Red Network had an affiliate in Havana, Cuba, and a few months before radio shows like “Truth or Consequences” and “The Adventures of Superman” debuted on the air. Much like those “firsts,” Bennett would soon prepare to venture into radio and create a few “firsts” of his own.
Bennett can trace the “ahead of his time” mantra back to his very early days in radio, when he got his start on his high school radio station, and when he worked as a late-night DJ in Reno, Nevada at a radio station whose studio was located inside of a casino. “I was under-age, so guards had to escort me across the casino floor to the studio every night. The show was great and people loved it, but they had to let me go because I believe it just got too much for them to keep taking me back and forth through the casino,” says Bennett.
Stops behind the microphone for Bennett include the high school’s radio station, along with stations in Reno, Klamath Falls, Oregon and Modesto, California before joining the military and the Armed Forces Radio Network. Upon his return to civilian life, Bennett worked in Sacramento, and then came his big break that would be his stepping stone to a major market.
“I saw an ad for a station in Houston looking for a British-sounding DJ. It was the time of the Beatles, and they wanted to have someone who sounded like Paul and John. So I made a tape using a British accent and sent it. I got a call one day and after we talked and proved the fake British accent was mine I was hired over the phone, but when I got to Houston I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I wasn’t British,” says Bennett, who was known on the air as “James Bond.”
It was in Houston that Bennett reached stardom, saying he became the number #1 morning DJ in the market, and then at his request flipping to nights where he could do talk. Says Bennett, “I took the persona of a nasty guy and we had a 65-share at night!”
Bennett would leave Houston for Minneapolis, and then Chicago’s WIND-AM where he would stay until he received a call to come to New York City and the legendary WMCA to do talk. It was here where he brought in different musicians to talk about their music, a practice many other DJs would soon follow, and when he left New York for his hometown of San Francisco, he worked at KMEL and KITS-FM “Live 105” where he would bring in young comedians who were just starting out, including Whoopi Goldberg and Jay Leno to talk to, another move that brought him recognition and notoriety.
It was also at KMEL where Bennett’s mother would achieve the fame of being one of the world’s oldest DJs when she was the host of a weekend countdown show in 1982 and 1983, at the same time her son was host of the morning show.
As the era of conservative talk radio grew, there was less and less of places where a liberal, left-leaning talk host could find a home.
Bennett would later make the move to satellite radio, joining Sirius where he did his left-leaning talk show for nearly a decade, eventually taking over the morning slot on Sirius Left. He says that there are real differences between terrestrial and satellite radio, especially where management perceptions come into play.
“When you work at a place like Sirius you have no ratings, no bargaining chips. Decisions are made without consequence. I don’t know if I had one, 100, 1,000 or 100,000 people listening to me at any given time. In AM/FM radio, you live and die by ratings. Ratings books told a story, and now PPMs have changed everything. There was a time when one ratings book came out and the PD or station owner is taking you out to dinner. The next book, they’re asking what went wrong. In satellite, it’s like working in a vacuum. You’ll get callers, but you really have no true measurement of exactly how many people are listening,” says Bennett.
Enter the Internet
Bennett may have realized that audio and video could work well together when he joined forces with the controversial publisher and pornographer Al Goldstein and debuted a show on New York City public cable access called “Midnight Blue.” The show was an interview program that aired in 1974 with Bennett, and would have a run of more than 20 years.
It was 15 years ago that Bennett had the idea of doing a show on the internet. Bennett created a website and had audio recordings of shows he performed available for people to listen to. Today, we call what Bennett was doing in 1998 “podcasts.” “What I did was the basis for podcasting, but I was doing it in 1998,” says Bennett.
“We recorded the shows as MP3s and put them on the site and people downloaded them,” says Bennett, who called the recordings, “Auto Alex.”
Now, 15 years later, Bennett has again staked his claim on the digital frontier, but this time his new program, the “Great American Broadcast” is a live streaming audio and video show broadcast from his New York City studio. Bennett discusses the events and news of the day, entertainment and the government, and takes calls from listeners, all aired live at 10:00 am ET, with shows available on-demand at all other times. In addition to his own site on Livestream, audio-only versions of the “Great American Broadcast” are available on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher.
“What we’re doing now is exactly what we were doing in 1998 and 1999. Back then, technology wasn’t ready for us. Now 15 years later we’re doing the same thing,” says Bennett who adds his show is “everywhere you are.”
Bennett is incorporating a Tricaster for his HiDef (high definition) TV show which airs on Livestream. Unlike a standard radio station with a broadcast tower, his show reaches a worldwide audience. In addition, unlike 15 years ago when it would have either been impossible or incredibly costly to put together a show like his, it is much more affordable now since the cost of bandwidth isn’t what it used to be.
One of the attractive features for Bennett is the fact that instead of waiting for Arbitron books quarterly, or PPM data monthly, or not knowing how many people were listening when he was on Satellite radio, the analytics of the internet allow him to know instantly where his listeners are, and how they are listening.
“I know the exact percentage of listeners we have. I know whether they are using iPods, iPhones, Androids or computers to see and hear the show. Getting exact and precise numbers is a great way to sell your show,” says Bennett. “Through the analytics I can analyze our audience and allows me to better connect with them.”
With his own creation on Livestream, Bennett can program his “Great American Broadcast” and only answer to his listeners. It also allows Bennett to continue to push the limits, something he has been doing since his days of walking through the Reno casino escorted to and from his radio station studio.
“We have a good product. We just need people to watch it. The next step will be advertising for it. I think the show is just about ready for where we need it to be,” says Bennett. “Fifteen years ago I tried it but it wasn’t ready. I think we’re [the Great American Broadcast] perfect for something like Netflix – we can feed the show and they [Netflix] will have the programming.”
When it comes to the show, Bennett says he thinks about the product first and then after that, if it can be sold and how to sell it. He does believe his idea is growing, and something that can bring in advertising revenue as it grows and gains an audience.
“I’d love to make money doing this. We’re still in the process of getting the word out and getting an audience, and also how to monetize it.”
Fortunately, through the metrics of the internet, Bennett can already see where his listeners are and even what they are using to listen and watch. He already has over 1,000 followers on his show site, and that doesn’t include listeners on internet audio sites.
While you may think the internet, and a streamed audio and video experience like the Great American Broadcast is for what you may call “the internet generation,” for the 73-year old Bennett, he’s just getting started.
“I’d love to have a radio show. I love radio and I live for radio,” says Bennett, who is now making his “Great American Broadcast” his priority. “I’d love to make money doing this, but I don’t want to be in this for the money. I’m still in the process of getting this show out and getting an audience, and how to monetize it. I’ve had more fun doing this than I have in a number of years.”
“I’ve always had a philosophy of doing something first and making money second. Right now we’re in the position of coming up with the product and growing it,” says Bennett.
As for what comes next in his storied career, Bennett says it’s not over yet.
“Ten years ago there was no iPhone. I don’t know where we’ll be 10 years from now,” says Bennett, who believes that radio must look into itself and realize what has worked well in the past can work well again. “The future is a return to localization which is the one thing that radio has always done well and which gives them their biggest advantage over competing technologies. If they don’t do that, the future of radio is as a data transmitter.”
As for the future of internet broadcasting, Bennett believes that when it comes to a show such as his “Great American Broadcast,” recorded programs are not an option.
“To me live is the most important next step in internet broadcasting and if that happens, then yes it is the future of talk.”
You can view and hear Alex Bennett’s “Great American Broadcast” by clicking here.
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.