LOS ANGELES — Those fancying a career in radio typically lead a nomadic existence, as they pay their dues in small markets and relocate numerous times – often before even reaching their 30th birthday.
First Social Media
As a teenager growing up in Seattle, Sullivan made it a top priority to meet one of the Emerald City’s major radio personalities, who graciously wound up asking if he wanted to get a first-hand look at how radio works. “I hung out with him during his shift,” Sullivan fondly recalls. “I had that interest in radio then, but I think many [others that age] did at the time because that is where we got our music. Radio was our social world.”
Even so, he never pursued a livelihood in the medium, nor did he take any journalism or communications classes. “I was a ‘business’ person and have degrees in accounting and business,” points out Sullivan, who attended Seattle University, the University of Washington, and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Executive Program.” I was going down that road and I was interested in becoming a CPA. I began a couple of companies and did not think [about broadcasting] until I started my investment company.”
After coming to the realization that “it cost a lot to advertise,” Sullivan, in 1980, talked his way onto a year-end KFBK tax advice program. By happenstance, the station’s business reporter was leaving and Sullivan jumped at the opportunity to replace him. “For my first eight years in Sacramento, all I did were the business reports for KFBK and the NBC-TV affiliate, KCRA-TV,” he explains. “Rush came to town in 1984 and he left in 1988. When he first went to New York City, he did a two-hour national show. His three-hour program in Sacramento was reduced by one hour and we had to fill that hole. Our program director at the time, Tyler Cox – now in Dallas at WBAP – said, ‘Get in there Tom and do a money show for one hour.’ I did and that is how I started.”
A fortuitous meeting with Sean Hannity eventuated during “Radio Days” when the two hosts did their respective shows from outside the White House and they hit it off. In addition to remaining in contact, they would become part of an exclusive club. “At the time, Sean was one of the original fill-ins for Rush,” Sullivan recounts. “Sean went off to get his own show, and then, Roger Hedgecock and I became regular fill-ins for something like eight years. Very few of us did Rush’s show; Sean and I stayed in touch. He called me one day and said Fox was thinking of starting a business network on television. He knew that I was a business investment person so he wondered if I would be interested.”
Indeed, the Fox Business Network became a reality and Sullivan was asked to be part of it. “They said, ‘Oh by the way, why don’t you do your radio show from Fox as well?” he notes. “I don’t think it was an afterthought. They were staffing up for Fox Business Network, but they realized they had a radio person on their hands, too. By that point, Tony Snow (who preceded Sullivan in that slot from 2003 – 2006) had left to go to the White House (as George W. Bush’s press secretary). I had the pleasure to get to know Tony pretty well and he was a gentleman.” Colon cancer claimed Snow’s life; he was just 53 years old when he died in 2008.
In Quest of Young Women
Canvass a cross-section of talk radio programmers and it would not be surprising to hear many of them implore that politics be de-emphasized on-air. That point notwithstanding, many hosts continue on that track, whereas Sullivan – nicknamed by several of his listeners “The Radical Center” – differentiates himself by focusing on non-political topics. “I am a big fiscal conservative but I think a fiscal conservative can live in the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian wings of the political world,” he opines. “People do not want to have government waste their money. I can do political ‘sound,’ without doing a show on just politics. If a presidential election campaign is going in full swing, of course we will talk about what the candidates did and said, but I do less politics than most other talk show hosts do. It is what many PDs say they want but I honestly do not know why more talk radio talents are not taking my approach.”
The final hour of the local program Sullivan did in Sacramento was dubbed “Financial Friday,” which featured him fielding investment questions. “I learned early-on going all the way back to when I first did that one-hour money show that a host can talk about something like sex every day and he or she can still lose the audience,” he comments. “You must have a variety of information and you need to discuss what people are talking about around the water cooler.”
Despite his exemplary business acumen, Sullivan does a “traditional” talk show and he remarks that, “Listeners, as well as those in the industry, tell me that I am the only person who looks at things from a business perspective. I have owned and built my own businesses; I have hired people; and I have done mergers/acquisitions. That is my wheelhouse. One thing that coincides perfectly with what I do is that the number one story that concerns people is the economy – I know that stuff inside and out.”
As someone who studies the ratings, Sullivan is highly cognizant that his audience composition skews toward Men 35-54, although he maintains that he has “always had a higher female count” than most other talk shows, but he admits he does not know why. “My standing joke with my producers is, “Get me young women.’ If we have two callers who are equally as interesting, one male – one female, give me the woman. If women hear other women on a show, they will think it is a show for them. When a young person hears another young person on the show, they will think it is a show for them. I want younger listeners – particularly women – to know that this is a show made for them.”
Likening listener phone calls on a talk radio show to “the hits” on an FM music station, Sullivan emphasizes that, “It is critical who is put up on the air. Many people who do not understand the industry think you can get anyone to answer the phones [for a talk show but] it is not that way. We have to find callers who are going to make the most interesting and the most compelling radio. It is then my job to figure out how to deal with these people on an impromptu basis. Probably the most important part of the show is screening calls and putting callers in-place.”
It is Sullivan’s contention that other talk shows are not his opposition, “I compete against the music stations,” he stresses.
Through a daily, one-hour editorial meeting at 10:30 am, Sullivan and his producers lay out plans for that afternoon’s program. “They put together the stories, pull the sound bites, and arrange things on the social media platforms,” he points out. “I go in my office to get all the details together. After the meeting, we do about three hours worth of preparation for a three-hour show.”
Interaction is what he finds so appealing about talk radio. “In television, I sit in a studio; talk to the cameras; and there are no calls,” Sullivan explains. “In radio, I started out with a fax machine and I took telephone calls.”
Podcasts for Sullivan’s radio shows are available and he points out that the first hour of his program via that platform is free. “They have a subscription model, as opposed to an advertising model,” he states. Subscriptions to his show are $4.95 monthly or $39.95 annually. “I was doing podcasts back in the Sacramento days, and while I do not have anything to prove this, I was told that at one point, I had the biggest podcast of any Clear Channel station. That was in the early days – I was on podcasts very quickly.”
Perhaps the majority of Sullivan’s terrestrial radio affiliates are in the south, but he quickly adds that his program airs elsewhere, such as in northern California and southern California. “I believe that I have the best list of affiliates of anyone,” he boasts. “A number of the program directors of our affiliates have told me that they are surprised when I call them. Most hosts do not. I think I have only lost one affiliate in six years. We had been on SiriusXM until the first of the year, but our contract ran out on January 1. The Sirius audience was a pretty active part of the show and now we are back on satellite radio.”
Several years ago at a KFBK anniversary party for its listeners, a mid-30ish man in a wheelchair approached Sullivan. “He said that before his family eats their evening meal, they thank God for my advice,” recounts Sullivan, whose Fox show fittingly airs on KFBK (12:00 noon to 3:00 pm), immediately following fellow station alum Limbaugh (9:00 am to 12:00 noon). “This man had called my show a number of years ago and apparently had started some kind of business. We talked about life insurance and I said that a person needs life insurance when someone is relying on you to ‘bring home the bacon.’ I mentioned though at his age, he had a better chance of being disabled than he did of dying. My suggestion was that he investigate disability insurance and he did. He bought disability insurance and a year or so later, he came down with a debilitating disease.”
While that man is totally incapacitated, he and his family are “living comfortably” owing to Sullivan’s advice to purchase disability insurance. “Many times, we talk show hosts can think we are just speaking into the ozone,” Sullivan laments. “Our words are going out to the stars, but this was a living, breathing example of a difference that I made to someone. We connect with peoples’ lives. I have never forgotten that.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be telephoned at 818-985-0244 or emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com