LOS ANGELES — Akin to never coming across a more vocal emissary or advocate about the game of baseball than former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, the radio industry would be hard-pressed to find a livelier ambassador than Mike Horn.
Thirty years ago, Horn had what, at the time, was considered a wild, if not inconceivable notion of placing radio station audio onto cable television systems around the country.
Whether or not such a wacky idea would survive three decades down the road is not something over which Horn anguished. Instead, he immersed himself in concentrating on doing something new and different.
As passionate as founder/chief executive officer Horn was regarding the idea of launching CRN (Cable Radio Network), no one could have predicted that it would morph into the juggernaut it has become today as CRN Digital Talk Radio.
Some transmutation of the long-standing cliché that television is simply “radio with pictures” perhaps triggered Cable Radio Network not only to come to fruition but also to thrive. In addition to producing its own shows, CRN over the last three decades has collaborated with other broadcasters seeking cable coverage and has syndicated programs to terrestrial broadcast radio.
Across multiple networks, Horn’s 1983-founded property has originated/and or distributed dozens upon dozens of different programs.
While working at Los Angeles’ KFI, Horn noticed a Radio & Records (R&R) article that mentioned KMET showed up with a hefty-share in the Phoenix book. The Los Angeles rocker was the audio source on Channel 3 of a local cable system there, but Horn thought what most everyone else did: No one would listen to radio on television. As someone who always fantasized about owning radio stations though, he considered this as a viable alternative.
Discussions with an executive of King Cable in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley led Horn to program a country music channel. From the first day it went on, that channel generated numerous song requests. To make it even more mass appeal, Horn flipped it to oldies; two other cable systems – Valley Cable and Falcon Cable – then became interested.
Hookups were done via phone lines, but that was expensive, so Horn infused more money and CRN would wind up growing following a switch to satellite.
Pondering what he could broadcast on his venture that no terrestrial radio station would air, Horn found Dick Sinclair to host something which elicited huge response – a polka show.
Other different offerings found a home on CRN; however, when noncommercial music formats done by companies such as Digital Planet and DMX began surfacing, Horn decided to switch to talk rather than compete against them.
Then – as now – ratings was an inescapable topic, so Horn commissioned a company that worked with Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) to formulate a survey. Results indicated that CRN shared a similar-size audience as MSNBC, Cinemax, and Fox Sports. The research project aided Horn in determining exactly what he had on his hands.
Considerable snickering greeted Horn as friends indicated the concept would not succeed, although he insists their attitude was not made evident in a mean or nasty way. “I would tell my idea to people like [longtime Los Angeles radio personalities] Al Lohman and ‘Sweet’ Dick Whittington,” Horn notes. “They would look at me and just ask, ‘Really?’ Al absolutely did not think it was going to work. It was foreign at that time to think you could listen to a station’s morning show in your house on anything but a radio, but now look at it. Where can you even buy an AM radio? Everyone thought this would not work and it would certainly not last. It was crazy.”
Delivery structure is the biggest change Horn has witnessed in his 30-year-old success story. “When we started, I was going to deliver radio on cable television,” he explains. “We still are, but there are so many other ways to get that programming. People will listen to radio even if it is on a Dixie cup. If you boil things down, it all comes back to programming. Before Art Bell and George Noory did their shows, we had a program called ‘UFO Tonight.’ The phones were rocking off the hook with people calling in and wondering about it.”
Despite the fact that CRN was Horn’s focal point at the time, the masterful entrepreneur was able to fund it with several other entertainment projects he was working on under parent company Big Horn Productions Cable Radio Network, Inc. “No one talks about The Big Horn Productions side anymore,” he comments. “I was taking talent from radio stations and putting them in clubs as DJs. I did a lot of work with the Marriott Corporation and would bring in a personality to actually be in a club. One of radio’s best engineers – Bob Turner who is still around – put together an automation system that had two tape decks and a cartridge machine. We put it inside the restaurant at the Marriott near the Los Angeles Airport. The managers there hated it because they thought a live DJ should be in the booth. They would watch the automation to see if it would screw up; it didn’t – things went very well.”
Excellent press – including a Los Angeles Times piece – followed and Horn thought he was on his way, but as he recounts, “We put together three systems and I only sold one.”
During his youth, native Angelino Horn would listen to shortwave radio, and to terrestrial AM radio, relishing in picking up Chicago and Cincinnati stations. “I would verify my listening and get back QSL Cards from them,” he recalls. “Nowadays though, if you go on shortwave radio, there is nothing there but a bunch of amateur operators. Stations from Ecuador, Prague, and the Czech Republic are all crystal-clear on Wi-Fi radio. No one could have imagined that. I collect old radios but I do not even turn them on because there is nothing to tune in anymore.”
Desperately wanting a Remco radio kit for Christmas, Horn got his wish one year and he built his own transmitter. “I put up a 100-foot antenna instead of a 10-foot one and I was able to pump out some power,” he proudly states. “My interest for radio was there as a kid – that is where it all started.”
Enthralled with his mother’s radio preference – KMPC – which boasted such stellar on-air talents as Gary Owens, Dick Whittinghill, Roger Carroll, and Johnny Grant, Horn noticed UCLA’s radio station only had 10 watts, while the campus station at California State University – Northridge was 30 times greater. Largely on that basis, he went to CSUN to become a Radio, TV, & Film major.
It was also the setting where Horn developed his country music interest. In the early-1970s he had his own program on Cal State – Northridge’s campus outlet and he went to record labels hoping to receive product. Instead of country music though, he was handed 45s of rock and contemporary artists. Once KBBQ, Burbank personality Corky Mayberry was done playing all the songs from the station’s countdown survey each week, he would give them to Horn.
Following its sale, KBBQ became KROQ. It was not, however, the CBS Radio alternative outlet it is today, but rather a station that featured personalities such as Charlie Tuna and Sam Riddle. The all-night news editor on the station’s original staff, Horn was the first to be let go when KROQ began having financial problems. From there though, he found radio jobs in nearby Long Beach (KFOX) and Oxnard-Ventura (KUDU), before landing at Los Angeles outlets KLAC, KFI, and KRLA.
An early-on partisan of divergent musical influences, Horn listened to KFI, which he describes at the time of having a “magazine” format. “The most modern thing on that station was the Los Angeles Dodgers,” he opines of the facility where he would later work. “A staff announcer would play music for 15 minutes in the morning; then there would be a newscast; music for another 20 minutes; followed by a farm report. It was bizarre, old-school radio with all these feature programs.”
That however changed circa-1966 when the humorous, highly entertaining Geoff Edwards arrived. “He was a ‘big-deal’ personality,” Horn remarks of the (NBC-TV) “Jackpot” host. “Geoff changed the whole direction of KFI. There were only a handful of Dodger games on television back then, so you would listen to [Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster] Vin Scully at night on KFI and – presto – wake up to Geoff Edwards in the morning. That kind of culture got me into radio because they were real people with whom I identified. I do not want to be one of ‘those guys,’ but that is something missing in radio right now.”
Talk radio is so popular, Horn contends, owing to the fact that the audience senses personalities in that genre are “everyday” people. “You want to sit and have a conversation with him or her,” he maintains. “That type of an appeal makes for a good talk radio personality. That is how you felt with the middle-of-the-road (MOR) radio personalities.”
Not only was Horn at the right place at the right time, he made the most out of his opportunity and became heavily involved in Los Angeles’ country music scene. “[Iconic Los Angeles/national personality-programmer and Country Hall of Famer] Bob Kingsley was the show biz of country music,” Horn proclaims. “He was very slick with a top 40 sort of feel and is a very knowledgeable, fun guy. He was impressed that I knew about the country music artists. When KBBQ became KROQ, I ended up with the country music library. They were going to dump it and I grabbed it.”
Management at North Hollywood’s Palomino Club let Horn into the back room where he managed to talk with artists such as Johnny Cash, Doug Kershaw, Loretta Lynn, and Bobby Bare.
Respecting the Medium
Quite often Horn is labeled “a great salesman,” but he actually hates that term. “I would not survive if I gave a radio show to everyone who approached me with an idea for one,” he emphasizes. “It wouldn’t make money. You are always answering to someone, so you have to be humble. You must recognize whom your constituency is and whom you have to please. You never lose the idea that you are working for someone.”
Everything on CRN must have a revenue source and Horn explains, “There has to be something behind the show in order for it to survive. Some people spend $5,000 a week in block time, but after going through $20,000 in a month, they are finished with radio forever. They key factor is getting something that will work for everyone – not just for me. If we do our own show, we know how we are going to sell it. It does not matter if it is one advertiser – we know we are going to make at least a dollar more than we are spending. If someone has a great idea and wants to sell his own inventory, they can do that. Sales and programming go hand in hand with us.”
Provided there is a positive cash flow, Horn reasons that the economy is great. “Every year it seems to keep growing, but sometimes it is harder to make money,” he concedes. “You have to reinvent yourself; shift gears; and play with the economy as it goes. You can gripe about things or think of parameters of making something work. Money will come if you do something of value. [At the same time], you can do something of value if you do not think about the money. We have taken money from positive cash flow and put it back into other shows; have hired more people; got new equipment; and we come up with new ways of doing things. Our advertising has always been more direct-response. If you think it through, it sells itself. It requires more work in this economy but you can’t get scared – you have to move ahead.”
Ability to throw a switch and have people listen to him across the country and even across the world was magic for Horn. “Many people can hear what we say and that is a sacred thing we cannot forget,” he declares. “A great deal of responsibility comes with that. The key factors to make any project work are that you must have love and respect for radio.”
New media is something he can occasionally pooh-pooh but Horn admits he can quickly do a reversal on it. “When satellite radio started, it was kind of competition to what I was doing, which is why I switched from doing music to talk,” he points out. “They were going non-commercial and we had commercials. I figured no one would listen to our music. I have to look at what someone is doing and how they are doing it. I am a radio fanatic. I love radio and its localism, but I probably listen to satellite radio 90% of the time in my car. It is sad that I am doing that. Something must not be there on terrestrial radio for me, which is forcing me to go to satellite.”
Given that variety tends to be an important radio station component for Horn, talk stations that are all-liberal or all-conservative do not generally interest him. “I grew up with all different personalities, and a full-service station got the major audience,” he remarks. “In my time, personalities did not identify if they were liberal or conservative. I liked different forms of music, but I really liked country. Now, I will listen to jazz and classical, among others.”
One of the most critical things to instill in a listener’s head is that if he or she does not listen to your station, they are going to miss something and Horn insists, “That is something absent these days in local radio. I know it is a difficult business, but I hear more personality in a few seconds from satellite radio personalities than those in local radio. Perhaps it is because no one in local radio lets their personalities say anything, or they are not doing show prep. When we began CRN, the focus was always to give the feeling we had a local personality people could listen to. On CRN, I always wanted to get the one-on-one feeling as you see on television with a personality such as Jay Leno.”
Still Cooking On-Air
Some may be shocked that over and above Horn’s duties of running the CRN operation the indefatigable executive still has a high-profile, on-air presence. After finishing scouring USA Today, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The Los Angeles Times, he is ready to do a one-hour syndicated food, wine, travel program – “What’s Cooking?” – from his suburban Los Angeles home. “We have winemakers, great chefs, and celebrities on the fast-paced show,” he explains. “There are usually two interviews, as well as open segments to discuss what is happening in the world.”
Upon completion of those hosting responsibilities, Horn departs for his (Sunland, California) headquarters to make sales calls, work on new projects, attend meetings, and – on certain days – prepare for another one-hour show. “I would do “The PM Show” every day, but I now do it Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; co-hosts do it Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he notes. “I find that, regardless of my stress, when I get into that studio, doing that show is a relief valve. When I am done, I feel like I have seen a shrink and wiped out all my problems. I am comfortable with that program and know it is something I could do every day. I stay up on entertainment news and pop culture. I watch television before I go to bed – especially if there is a star I will be interviewing anytime soon. I try to avoid going into the office on weekends because I want to have some down time.”
An especially astute interviewer, Horn is fascinated with ascertaining what causes people to tick. “It makes me feel like a kid in a candy store,” he gushes. “It is always great to get former athletes to tell their many stories and fantastic to hang out with radio people such as Gary Owens and Wink Martindale. I could talk for days with Jesse Ventura about the JFK assassination. I want to find out what every person brings to the table – I think you learn from that.”
Adamant in his belief that radio is not dying, Horn instead comments, “There will simply always be change. People call [CRN’s ‘Robert Conrad Show’] 45 minutes before it goes on the air. He talks about his experience in Hollywood and the people he knows. Callers do not usually make for a hot show. Sometimes I actually prefer talk shows without calls, but Robert has a hot, caller-driven show. I do not know what it is, but we are ready to go through another change in radio. It is going to be fun to see what happens.”
Significantly more now than 30 years ago when he was building CRN’s foundation, Horn enjoys something priceless – respect of his peers. “At first, people were not quite sure exactly what I did, but this is basically the radio dream – putting good programming together,” he asserts. “I am simply distributing it in a different way and getting different types of advertisers. Everything we have looked at has come completely around. We are much like a full-service agency. If someone wants to advertise on CRN, I have no qualms about walking over to a Clear Channel station and assembling a package that is going to work. The thing that bothers me most is if someone questions my integrity. I must find out what causes that and clear the air. If you can do a good job for as many people as possible, you will be successful. I am passionate about what I like and I like what I am doing. If you get the chance to do what you love, it is not work.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and west coast bureau chief of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.