By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Neither long ago (relatively speaking) nor far away in some remote galaxy, teenagers were so routinely enthralled by their local radio station of choice that summoning up the courage to actually go visit it was a personal seminal moment.
When one Dayton high school junior made such a trek in 1978, nothing short of a series of mind-boggling events followed.
Eager to see what his favorite facility looked like, this 17-year-old requested a tour, and what immediately caught his attention wasn’t a piece of equipment or seeing someone involved in the on-air process. Rather, it was a bulletin board memo, which read that the station was “still looking for a young talk-master.”
Completely fearless, he knocked on the program director’s door and confidently declared he could do that. As luck would have it, the night talent at the talk station was out with the flu.
Improbable reality number one was that, while the PD had planned to fill-in for his ailing talent, he remarkably, inexplicably said the young visitor should go ahead and give talk radio hosting a try – that night.
Either the program director was one of the foremost assessors of raw talent imaginable or, at the other end of the spectrum, had temporarily taken leave of his senses.
Regardless, the high school student did a four-hour shift and was so impressive in what was – in essence – an on-air audition that, defying logic, he was hired.
Road to New York
In and of itself, that would constitute a great story, but as icing on the cake, he went on to become one of America’s most prominent, well-respected conservative talk hosts. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Mike Gallagher recounts of that first night on-air at Dayton’s WAVI-AM. “I ranted, raved, screamed, and hung up on callers.”
Nonetheless, the (actually quite) affable Gallagher has enjoyed a marvelous ride ever since and his daily, three-hour (9:00 am – 12:00 noon, Eastern Time) Salem Radio program is carried by 137 daily affiliates – 324 including weekend clears.
Being a radio personality was his lone career objective and, the then-17-year-old was very conscientious in doing morning notices on his high school’s public address system. “I took great pride in those announcements,” notes Gallagher, who was involved in Chaminade-Julienne High School’s radio and television stations. “I had fallen in love with the talk format when I was a teenager.”
From Dayton, the road would take him to Greenville-Spartanburg (South Carolina) and Albany (New York), before he would land his monumental break doing mornings at New York City’s legendary WABC.
Ambitious changes transpiring at a number of Cumulus Media and Clear Channel talk outlets are leading several mega-bell weathers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to be heard on different affiliates.
Consequently, more and more listeners have been scanning the dial in the past few weeks, leading Gallagher to opine, “Talk radio listeners are creatures of habit and they search for a show they like. Years ago, a boss of mine taught me that you never want to surprise your core listeners. They should only hear something from you that they expect to hear. That is one reason why I never thought a liberal host is a good idea to have on a conservative talk station. Have them on a liberal station – that is what MSNBC is trying to do on the television side. When people are surprised by new hosts, they go looking for someone else they might enjoy.”
Viewing this as being a great opportunity though for everyone in talk radio, whether at the local or national level, Gallagher theorizes there will be a huge battle for cume. “People are going to be sampling us in big numbers,” he predicts. “That is inevitable when the status quo is interrupted. Now is the time for me to make sure that my show is as good as ever and I am doing what is expected.”
Judicious about listening too closely to his on-air colleagues, Gallagher – listed at #15 on TALKERS’ 2013 “Heavy Hundred” – is fearful about picking up their speech patterns and mannerisms. “That would not be a good thing,” he laughs.
Virtually anyone who has had success nationally is considered among Gallagher’s influences. “I was a scared guy from Dayton who had an office down the hall from Rush Limbaugh,” he reflects. “I was in awe of him the whole time I worked at WABC. He was very nice and kind to me, but it was like getting to work next to ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Sean Hannity has been a good friend of mine for years. He and I began in New York at about the same time. They brought him to do Fox News Television – not radio – when Fox was an unknown, unheard of, cable news network. He was added to do WABC secondarily and the ‘rest is history.’ It is fun to watch the extraordinary explosion of someone’s career, especially in the case of a friend like Sean. It is satisfying when you see good things happen to people like that. I loved listening to the style of the late Bob Grant. Other than Howard Stern’s use of dirty language, I have always been an admirer of his – he is a brilliant host and broadcaster.”
Genuinely believing there is room for just about everyone in talk radio, Gallagher asserts, “life is too short” to get involved with feuds into which some of his colleagues have been known to enter. “The business is too hard to pick fights with people doing the same thing you are,” he maintains. “A person cannot listen to two or three stations at the same time. We are all going to get our fair share.”
Factors such as an affiliate’s marketing campaign and the strength or weakness of its signal are among elements beyond Gallagher’s control. “All I can do is keep my head down and give it my all,” he emphasizes. “I stay focused on doing the best job I possibly can. I do not necessarily view anyone as competition.”
Polarization of Personalizing
There is, however, an area on his daily program that Gallagher is capable of managing. One school of thought suggests talk radio has over-focused itself on political bashing, but Gallagher explains, “I go where my gut takes me. You have to reflect the ‘hits,’ and in our business, the ‘hits’ mean the headlines.”
On the other hand, his approach to talk radio tends to be deeply personal. In that context, it does not get any more momentous than in 2008 when – one day before she was to have turned 52 – Gallagher’s wife Denise lost her battle against endometrial cancer. “Listeners went on the journey with me when Denise got sick and when she passed away,” states Gallagher, who did everything but avoid mentioning his wife’s plight on the air. “I share frustrations I have with my kids or my sick dog. It is the single most polarizing thing about my show. Some managers do not like hosts talking about their personal lives; others think it is terrific. I am inviting myself into someone’s home, car, or office. It is a very intimate medium. I like connecting with someone as a husband, a father, a dog-lover, or someone always trying to lose weight. I have never been known to suffer in silence with whatever challenge I am facing. The single biggest compliment I get from listeners is a thank-you for letting them in on my life.”
Often times, baring his soul is precisely what helps to uniquely differentiate Gallagher’s show. “The audience likes and relates to that,” he acknowledges. “I have to respectfully disagree with managers who think a host shouldn’t talk about his or her personal life on air. I think they are wrong. I have intensely focused on being relatable in the 30+ years I have been doing this for a living. The best way of doing that is to share personal trials and tribulations with your audience. The best feedback I can get is when a person feels a level of familiarity with me.”
Having evolved over the years in his role of a talk show host, Gallagher vacillates about featuring high-profile guests. “One thing that I am sensitive to is that many big guests make the rounds,” he points out. “You always want to be special. There are days when I like to follow the Limbaugh model, which is not to have any guests, and just dive in with opinions and callers. Other days though, it is a good thing to bring in someone who can offer another perspective; it depends on the mood.”
For years, Gallagher called Greenville home and he did his show locally for former Multimedia property WFBC-AM – now Entercom-owned WYRD-AM (simulcast on WYRD-FM and WORD) – and he had that station as a national affiliate. The South Carolina market had been a comfort level for Gallagher, who did a nightly television commentary and had “a great quality of life” there.
After Salem acquired WGTK-FM, management wanted to plant Gallagher in Greenville quite a bit to help launch the station. “On some level, it was actually agonizing for me because those were all my friends at the Entercom station,” he admits. “I basically had to say goodbye to them and start the new station. That was very tough. I am a good team player though, so I got involved in the planning.”
Notwithstanding the fact that WGTK-FM has been up and running for approximately one year, Gallagher still spends some 10 -12 days a month in the market. That has necessitated an abundance of flights between Gotham and Greenville, but Gallagher contends, “It has been a lot of fun helping to get it off the ground. The station has been an amazing success story. After our first year, we have exceeded every ratings and revenue expectation. The Entercom station is a behemoth, but now we are an alternative in the market.”
Secret Recipe for Winning
Finding another talk host as revenue and budget savvy as Gallagher would be an exhaustive exercise, although he candidly concedes, “It is self-preservation, and my secret to longevity. I learned many years ago that ratings in our business are very volatile, and in particular, talk radio ratings can be cyclical. We are subjected to a political season and a post-political season, so ratings go up and down. I will always win, however, if I deliver revenue.”
A spreadsheet for his show’s budget is the very first thing Gallagher sees on his Empire State Building office desk; when he is in Greenville; or wherever the show originates on a specific day. “I know where we are to the penny at any given point, and right now, I’m 7% over my January budget,” he proclaims. “It is a tough environment, so I am very proud of that. We are fighting and scrapping for every dollar. I have always viewed the radio show as a business. I learned that many years ago from Greg Anderson.”
Not only can the Salem Radio Network president accurately attest to be one of Gallagher’s first bosses, he is Gallagher’s mentor. “If a host can figure out ways to deliver revenue to affiliates; voice spots; make market visits; and talk to advertisers, he or she will survive,” Gallagher proposes. “It doesn’t matter how good you think you are: If you are not hitting your budget, you will not last very long. The most important part of my day is making sure I am doing everything I can to hit my budget.”
Absolutely understood to be a given is the content of the show. “I must have strong opinions, and I better be entertaining,” Gallagher realizes. “It does not matter though if I am not making budget. I might as well be talking to myself in a K-Mart parking lot. Hitting revenue numbers is just as important to me as the content of the show. Many hosts in the last couple of years have not succeeded and I always feel badly for them. At the same time, however, I must admit I feel a degree of pride that I am still here after all these years, giving stations and our affiliate partners what they want.”
Numerous broadcast companies and individual shows are struggling, but self-described “bubble-inhabitant” Gallagher always seems to live to fight another day. “I might not have one of the biggest audiences in the country but I am constantly one of the top-billing products for Salem Communications,” he declares. “We have to be creative. Some days are longer than others in that creative process, but we are doing it. I am always optimistic that we are going to hit our numbers every month.”
Self-critiquing by talk hosts does not always involve editing issues, but Gallagher readily remarks that, almost daily, he has some form of regret over something he said on the air. “I know where the proverbial line is and I have survived because I know what not to cross. There are times though I am too harsh on callers, so later in the day, I will think that I should not have done that. Other times, however, I think I was not hard enough on someone. I still have a lot to learn and I try to get better every day – I believe there is a ton of room for improvement. I constantly listen to tapes and try to perfect what I do, but when you go on-air three hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year – you are bound to say something you wish you had said differently.”
Over and above his daily radio responsibilities, Gallagher is a familiar face on the Fox News Channel, where he is a frequent contributor. Furthermore, he has a talent and interest few others of his counterparts can lay claim to – he is a theater actor. “If I am in Greenville for a two- or three-month run of a show, it is good for the station,” he reasons. “For one week in September 2011, it was a dream come true for me to appear on Broadway in ‘Memphis’. This past fall, I finished a run playing Daddy Warbucks in ‘Annie’ and I am gearing up to play Max Bialystock in ‘The Producers.’”
Commenting that his recent investment in the Tony Award-winning musical “Pippin” was “a great experience,” Gallagher explains that he thought it was going to be a hit and, “It has been. It opened in April  and I literally recouped my entire investment eight months later. I have my own Tony on a shelf in my Manhattan apartment. That is pretty cool and a big kick for an aspiring thespian like me.”
Real Fun of Radio
Among the many things Gallagher learned from his wife Denise is to live for the moment. This past October, he had total hip replacement surgery, yet only missed six days of work. “I could not wait to get back on the air and broadcast from my living room,” he states. “That is a testament of how much I would rather be on-air than off.”
Ten years ago, Gallagher’s blood pressure was an alarming 200/110, but after famously losing 70 pounds, it fell to 120/50. Several more years remain on the 53-year-old’s (54 in April) Salem contract. “If I continue to produce, I am hopeful they will renew me again,” he notes. “I love doing this for a living and would like to continue for as long as I am physically able and mentally sharp. This is the only thing I have ever done as an adult. I would like to believe I am Broadway material, but realistically, I probably am not, so I need to stick to my day job and do regional theater at night. If I continue to do what I am supposed to do, the rest will figure itself out.”
Justifiably delighted at his more than 15 years in radio syndication, Gallagher still derives pleasure, as well as a great deal of satisfaction, from his career. “We are able to use the show to do something good for people such as with our ‘Fallen Officer Fund.’ We have raised over $1 million for the families of police officers killed in the line of duty. Police officers by their very nature are not great financial planners. Usually, an officer’s young widow and their children are left with almost nothing. We have helped hundreds of families. It is very fulfilling that, collectively, Salem hosts helped to raise nearly one-half million dollars for the Salvation Army’s ‘Red Kettle’ campaign. The ability to, in some small way, help others is ultimately the real fun. It gives you a sense of purpose to come to work every day.”
Entrepreneur Gallagher – along with business partner John Dame (Gallagher’s general manager when he worked for two years in afternoon drive at Albany’s WGY) – formulated the daily talk show. As an independent company, Dame-Gallagher Networks launched it on roughly 11 stations; Salem later acquired Dame-Gallagher Networks. “It has been fun for me to watch the business side of this show grow,” Gallagher points out. “It is still a kick. I think about people who truly have to work for a living – those digging ditches, directing traffic, fighting fires, or teaching kids in a classroom. They are the ones doing honorable things for a living and working their fannies off. I still pinch myself that I get to come in for three hours a day and be a big-mouth on the radio.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and west coast bureau chief of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.