A Good Listen to a Good Guy
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
To others, age – more correctly – is merely a meaningless number with no attached strings or restrictions.
It would have been quite easy and understandable for Alex Bennett to take leave and retreat from the business in which he has been an integral part for several decades. After all, the legendary broadcaster was 73 years old when Sirius XM unceremoniously pink-slipped him last June after more than nine years of service at the satcaster (he turned 74 two months ago).
Notwithstanding an imposing and lengthy list of accomplishments and vitae, which the native Californian could trumpet as an entree to retirement, he has become an entrepreneur with “Alex Bennett’s Great American Broadcasts” being the centerpiece of his novel take to talk radio.
Cognizant that it might appear to come across as being “egotistical,” Bennett nonetheless declares, “We really have created the first real innovation in phone-in talk radio since the format’s invention. Talk radio has not changed in 40 years. I am always looking at ways to do something that has not been done before.”
Given his colorful history, such things generally happen to Bennett completely by accident. “My theory in this business is that you never do anything by design,” he comments. “You do it and see where it takes you. As old as I am, I seem to have come up with a new format. I thought I had done all I had to do but I seem to have innovated something one more time.”
Skype’s the Limit
This particular journey originated with Bennett engaged with television and running the audio as a radio show, but he candidly admits that was not working. When producer Albert Reinoso no longer wanting to be part of the TV show, Bennett had to substitute something into that slot and he opted to go with a radio program. “I did not know if I would talk for an hour or get people to call,” he recounts. “That would mean putting in extra phone lines, and they would have to be landlines – not cable voice lines.”
The light bulb illuminating in Bennett’s cranium that made this a seminal event is when he speculated what would happen if he got listeners involved through Skype. “People are on their computers to begin with, so Skype cannot be that far behind for them,” he reasons. “If someone cannot understand Skype, they probably are not listening to internet radio programming. It is a pretty simple process. The only problem with Skype is that sometimes there is a bad connection, but it is no worse than what we have had with phones. People call talk shows on cell phones and quite frankly, they sound like crap.”
When it was discovered that by paying roughly $10 a month he would be able to put as many as 10 people on the line simultaneously, the notion soundly resonated with him and he thought there was the idea. “It is like having a discussion with friends after dinner in the living room,” Bennett explains of the “Citizen Panels” concept, where he and callers bounce thoughts back and forth. “It is not one-on-one talk – it is a whole bunch of people talking together. It creates an entirely new dynamic and a new set of rules in talk radio. It is unlike anything else I have ever heard and it is a ‘good listen.’ We are thrilled that we have come up with a way of doing an entirely different talk show. It sounds like a regular radio station, except you won’t hear any commercials.”
In many cases, people sound like they are in the same room with Bennett, who enthusiastically states, “There isn’t telephonic sound anymore.”
One might assume having nearly a dozen people on at the same time would be unwieldy although Bennett insists it never has been. “One person talks, and then another one talks,” he calmly points out. “At the very worst, I will intervene and ask someone to keep it down. I usually know who is talking because I can see a video of them.”
If someone wants to chime in, Bennett has a rule that he or she must first raise his or her hand. “They can see each other so people feel like a cohesive unit,” he comments.
Ironically, there is a strong possibility that Bennett may have unwittingly borrowed this idea – from himself – when he worked at Houston’s KILT in the mid-1960s. “If you removed a little washer in between each of the old phone lines back then, you could push all four buttons down at once,” recalls Bennett, whose nom d’air at that time was “James Bond” – complete with English accent. “I would do shows when I had four people on the line at the same time. The technology of Skype updates that. Stations can conference two people but they cannot conference more than that.”
Politics will surface in these “citizen panel discussions,” but Bennett’s broadcasts are not standard-issue political shows. “They go all over the place,” he confirms. “The definition of talk shows being political is an old-fashioned, outdated idea that is being played to death. How many more bloviators can we have on the air spouting their politics for three hours a day?”
Among the most discussed topics is Bennett’s demise at Sirius XM, where he hosted a weekday program fed to “Sirius Left” (Channel 127) and to XM Radio’s “America Left” (Channel 167). “The audience never quite understood it – and neither did I,” he remarks of his departure eight months ago. “I give a quick answer and move on to other stuff. When the end came, I was shocked. I loved every minute that I was there until they said goodbye. I enjoyed the freedom. We did not have to worry about ratings or advertisers. It was one of the best experiences of my career.”
On-air discussions about himself and his adventures have been a Bennett trademark. This forum gives him a different way to present himself. “I have suddenly become the ringmaster and a pal to all these people who call,” he notes. “We still have a few problems to sort out but most of it is technical. I am hoping to hire technicians to [install] a complete studio system that is 100% workable. It is a matter of having someone come in and make it more efficient.”
Apart from that, there have been minimal issues. Expertise in this realm is not particularly foreign to Bennett, who in the mid-1990s, did a weekly “User Friendly” technology segment on KGO-TV, San Francisco’s “Log On TV,” which dealt primarily with consumer electronics. Recognition included an Emmy for “Outstanding Achievement: Talent – Programming,” however, it is not the lone one in his collection as he boasts another as part of a group sports ensemble at another Bay Area outlet – KPIX-TV.
Cordiality is in clear evidence on Bennett’s budding enterprise and the atmosphere is one where people genuinely seem to enjoy talking with one another. “We have created this community and we are learning every day,” he explains. “You need hosts who know how to play with the audience however you don’t find many of those.”
Presently, the talent roster consists of Bennett and Reinoso each doing a daily show. “We have been amazed at how different [what we do] sounds from any other talk show,” Bennett declares. “Albert knows how to play with people just as I do. He is very good at it.”
Up and running for slightly more than one month, Bennett’s Great American Broadcast Network (“GABNet” at GABroadcaster.com) is building audience on such platforms as TuneIn.com, Vimeo, Stitcher, iTunes, and LiveStream. Over and above his weekday broadcasts, Bennett oversees “The Ramble,” a two-hour show each Friday and Saturday night where no topics are on the table. As underscored by the show’s title, callers “just ramble” about whatever they like. “It is great company at that time of night and is what radio does best,” Bennett opines.
Listeners from all political stripes call the daily and weekend programs with Bennett emphasizing, “It is not particularly contentious. Many times, they will disagree with each other, but – oddly enough – it is all pretty civil, and interesting as hell.”
Magnifying Specs into Blisters
Albeit that Bennett’s Great American Broadcasts are still in their embryonic stages, the programs have already produced their own cast of listener characters. “One of our callers is a history professor and he gives an historical perspective on everything,” Bennett points out. “In and out of that come new people.”
Not only is Bennett attracting the typical mature talk radio audience, those in their early-30s are participating, thus the age demos constitute a wide swath. “I have never thought in terms of target demo and I never will,” he stresses. “Whoever I attract from a show is who I attract.”
Part of what seems to make this concept work is that people can see each other and the fun part to this point is that certain camaraderie exists even among people with divergent viewpoints. “My gripe about talk radio is that everyone has to have an opinion,” Bennett maintains. “Talk show hosts know they have to get ratings so they take small problems and turn them into large blisters. Some shows have created the atmosphere that we have big problems. A format in which that contentiousness disappears has value in and of itself. You do not have to be contentious to be entertaining.”
While the GABNet scenario allows up to 10 callers at a time, Bennett typically will juggle four or five during his daily morning show. Things though are noticeably different on the weekends. “The minute I open up the line Friday and Saturday nights I am usually up to 10 people within five minutes,” he reveals. “That is more calls than some syndicated shows get in a whole night.”
Individual shows run repeatedly in a 24-hour period and while the number of listeners is – in Bennett’s own admission, “not great,” he is encouraged. “We get a decent audience for something that has just started,” he explains. “No matter what anyone says, the internet is notorious for not having big numbers. We are very happy with where we are.”
Finding himself listening at 1:30 am to a replay of one of Reinoso’s shows, Bennett thought to himself he was being provided with excellent companionship at that time of the morning. “Very rarely do we get that feeling because stations don’t like being on after midnight with any original programming,” he remarks. “Beyond anything else, we have created a great companion.”
Satisfaction and the professional reward of being credited with formulating an invigorating idea aside, someone in Bennett’s position must eventually consider one significant area. “Making money is the problem and that is what we are now investigating,” he concedes. “I would love to say that I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this, but it is actually one of the most inexpensive things I have ever done. I found an incredibly cheap audio streamer from the Netherlands. For the actual transmission, website, and accoutrements, I spend under $100 a month.”
Enjoy, Be Dedicated – Remuneration Will Follow
Possibilities to expand listenership and generate revenue include syndicating the product to terrestrial stations, which Bennett contends would be “a shot in the arm that” the medium sorely needs. “They are all playing it safe, but this idea is completely radical. It is not an unsafe format though and it works.”
Granting that there would be problems, Bennett realizes the commercial inventory would have to be reduced. “You run your rates higher and bring down the load,” he states. “When I am in a nice discussion with a group of people, I don’t want to break for seven minutes. That would destroy this format. I would rather run a handful of spots at a higher rate so you give advertisers a sense of exclusivity.”
Institution of that policy would preserve the format’s integrity. “That will sound harsh to those who want to plow through as many commercials as they can in an hour, but seven-minute commercial breaks are among the things ruining radio today,” Bennett warns. “You cannot expect listeners to sit through that. They would rather listen to their iPod than a station’s seven minutes of commercials for such products as zit cream. Syndication would bring with it certain demands, but we are looking into all different ways we can do this.”
With nothing in terms of numbers to sell though, Bennett – the original host of public television’s “Comedy Tonight” (1985 – 1989) – has yet to make money with GABNet and if he were to go with commercials, he would prefer to do it himself. “I do not want to parcel it out to someone who would fill in the gaps when we go to a break,” he emphasizes. “I want our people to do everything, including a live pitch – which is the most effective form of advertising you can have. The thing that has guided me in just about everything I do is that you should do something because you enjoy it. If you do that, somewhere along the line the money will come. It might take a long time – but it will come.”
Frightening Thought Squelched
Many remember Bennett from his early-1970s New York City tenure as a WMCA “Good Guy” and later at cross-town WPLJ although his biggest success was actually at San Francisco rocker KMEL 10 years later; he would subsequently work for the Bay Area’s KQAK “Quake,” KITS, KNBR, and KNEW. “I was the first person to put comedians on the air in a morning show,” he proudly proclaims. “When I did it in San Francisco, it became a gigantic sensation. It was probably the biggest success I have ever had in broadcasting. Years earlier, I was the first person to interview rock stars on radio. Record companies did not have departments for that then, but now they push music acts like crazy to go on radio programs.”
An interesting side-note is that Alex isn’t the only family member having KMEL ties. As host of a Sunday night countdown show there (1982 – 1983) his mother Ruth was reportedly “the world’s oldest rock” air personality; in 2005, matriarch Ruth passed away – at the age of 100.
Latest addition to the GABNet lineup is one of Bennett’s colleagues from the late-1990s’ “Play TV,” Jim Browning, who will host “Revelstoke Jim’s Canadian Content” each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12:00 midnight (ET). ”He has a wonderful back-woods sort of humor,” Bennett comments of Browning, whose show commences this Friday night (2/7). “I have always liked what he has done and almost begged him to do this.”
Eager to find other shows and additional on-air personalities, Bennett (Alex@GABroadcaster.com) would “love” to fill up the entire day with original programming. “A month ago, I would not have said that I would be doing a radio show every morning with a bunch of people on the line discussing any number of topics and that it would be one of the most engaging things I have done in radio,” he asserts. “I do not want to feel that at my age, it is all over.”
At one point recently, he feared the day was approaching when he would no longer have any fresh concepts. “When you get older, they just stop coming and you keep doing the same thing,” laments Bennett. “Howard Stern has been doing the same act for 30 years; Cousin Brucie [Bruce Morrow] has been the same for the last 20 – 30 years. I came up with a new idea and that is what thrilled me. All I care about is that it is a ‘good listen’ and I want people to know where this started. When others find out about it, they will want to try it, but it is not that easy to do. They will steal it like crazy from us because it really works. If people do happen to do this well, thank God because it will change talk radio from the drone that has been going on for the last several years. It would be nice though if people come to me first so I can help them steal it.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@talkers.com. Meet Mike Kinosian at Talkers New York 2014 on Friday, June 20, 2014.