By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES —Journey back to the “Golden Age” of radio and television, and, you will promptly ascertain that, especially in terms of audience acceptance, pairing a real-life husband and wife was a brilliant programming strategy that tended to produce blockbuster results.
Consider such instantly familiar classic examples as George Burns & Gracie Allen; Desi Arnaz & Lucille Ball; Ozzie & Harriet Nelson; and Jim & Marian Jordan as “Fibber McGee & Molly,” whose 24-year radio run concluded in 1959.
Contemporary “Windy City” radio partisans will surely cite “Don Wade & Roma,” who were staples on WLS-AM, Chicago for over 25 years; Don Wade succumbed to brain cancer last September.
Fairly recently (then-married) couples Chet Curtis & Natalie Jacobson on Boston’s WCVB-TV, and Jim Lampley & Bree Walker on Los Angeles’ KCBS-TV co-anchored the news together on their respective stations; 74-year-old Curtis lost his fight against pancreatic cancer five months ago.
These are simply representative examples (certainly not approaching a definitive list) of the effective, albeit not now revolutionary concept.
Consequently, while it will hardly be precedent setting when Los Angeles-based Brent Seltzer and his wife Meg McDonald debut next Monday (6/23) on the Genesis Communications Network for their daily, two-hour (1:00 pm – 3:00 pm, ET) broadcast, it nonetheless promises to be a wonderfully refreshing burst of fresh air to talk radio.
Largely a Spoof
Five years ago, a number of terrestrial stations aired the feature series “Brent Seltzer Still At Large,” which eventually landed on satellite radio. As much as anything else, the roughly two-minute commentary was a spoof … of commentaries.
At a Jupiter, Florida dinner one evening with TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison and his wife Bernadette, Seltzer happened to cite the origin of that short-form feature and, specifically, how that when he began writing it, he requested theretofore on-air novice Meg as a female voice. “He wrote me a line and I read it; about one month later, he handed me another script and I wondered why I only had one line,” playfully recounts McDonald, also present at that Florida soiree. “Wait a minute – I need more than that. I really got into it and I loved it.”
This though did not prove to be simply pedestrian conversation among friends, but rather – and at the risk of a mixed metaphor – it became the “genesis” of establishing “Brent & Meg” as a radio team.
KGB Monitors San Diego
One sector of the industry knows Michael Harrison as a trailblazing trade magazine publisher. Others are familiar with a world-class rock programmer/renowned on-air talent named Mike Harrison. They are, of course, one in the same person, with Seltzer encountering the latter more than 40 years ago in San Diego, where Harrison programmed and masterfully did morning drive at KPRI, as Seltzer delivered morning news on cross-town Ron Jacobs-programmed KGB. “I had a chance to hear how good Michael was,” Seltzer remarks of Harrison. “I was monitoring the other stations and listened to him do a set that made me realize that KGB was not alone. Several years later, Michael and I connected in Los Angeles at a Radio & Records (R&R) convention and we immediately hit it off.”
Not only has that friendship famously carried on, the previously alluded to dinner dialogue proved fortuitous since the always-innovative Harrison was formulating a concept called TalkersRadio. At that Palm Beach County get together, he was the one who initiated the notion of a “Brent & Meg” on-air partnership. “Once the technology became available to do this, his excitement about TalkersRadio was so infectious,” Seltzer states. “He said we would be great at it and I could not get there fast enough.”
Conversely, however, the purely delightful and charming McDonald admits to having had some trepidation. That is actually somewhat ironic in light of the fact that she is the daughter of actress Elisabeth Fraser – perhaps best known for her 1955 – 1958 run as Sgt. Joan Hogan, the love interest of Sgt. Ernie Bilko on “The Phil Silvers Show,” an all-time cream of the crop sitcom. Whether a bizarre coincidence or serendipitous foreshadowing, fetching Fraser was later cast as Hazel Norris in the 1959 television version of … “Fibber McGee & Molly.”
Focused On Fun
Aside from whatever jitters McDonald may have encountered, “Brent & Meg” raised the curtain to their two-hour daily TalkersRadio show last September, and over the course of the ensuing nine months, the program morphed about once every two weeks, with Seltzer stressing, “You get back to the very basics. The great thing about TalkersRadio is that it is the development capital of radio in America today. It is the place you get a chance to work it out, and to hold it up to the light. When we began there, we agreed there were certain things we did not want to be part of, or not want to do. By the time we got to the last few months, our show was our show and we felt good with it.”
In the customary news-talk tradition, “Brent & Meg” address the events of the day, but they attempt to put them into context for what it actually means to their listeners. “We are entertainers and we want to have fun,” emphasizes Seltzer, blessed with distinctive golden pipes. “That is the focal point of what we want to put on the air. We had been doing 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm [Eastern], but we are happy to be moving to two hours earlier. It is really a more delicious slot and we are thrilled about that. We do not want our show to have any of the other ‘stuff’ that makes talk radio crazy. It is not fun doing anything obnoxious and annoying.”
An initially reluctant McDonald has found how swiftly a daily, long-form radio program can zoom. “Brent gave me courage to do the TalkersRadio show and I wound up asking myself how two hours could be up already,” she comments. “I had the best time, and am so enjoying ‘Life 2.0.’”
On-air performing though is still a relatively new playground for the top-notch McDonald Media Services publicist, but she has a vocal supporter in Harrison, who observes that she has a “solid, stable, mature voice” that exudes credibility. “Meg does not sound like some of the squeaky young girls you hear in media today. Her steady, economy of words and unpredictable point-of-view give Brent the perfect foil. I know how intelligent Meg is and she sounds great.”
Rather amazingly, it had never occurred to the couple that they could be an on-air radio team. “I thought so much of the very cool, out-of-the-box, fun, hip ['Brent Seltzer Still At Large'] podcast he was doing that we put it on PodJockey [an experimental pre-TalkersRadio podcasting site developed years ago by the father/son team of Michael and Matthew B. Harrison] so the industry could hear it,” Michael Harrison notes. “Everyone loved it, but no one knew what to do with it. Unfortunately, many feel that features are clutter. It would be better if these things were judged on their merit. I suggested that Brent use Meg a little more. There is a beautiful harmony with their voices. Brent’s genius as an entertaining newsman comes to the fore. The thing we desperately need in talk radio is people with depth and substance. One reason it is difficult to get young people to do talk radio is that [the genre] very quickly exposes those with a lack of depth or lack of background.”
Chemistry displayed by “Brent & Meg” is reminiscent of several husband/wife teams highlighted above – as well as some others – and Harrison puts forth that the closest we have come “in modern times to getting people to chat together on the air in a non-stilted manner” is sports talk radio. “When ‘Brent & Meg’ are talking to each other about the issues, whether serious or otherwise, they come at it from all different angles – just like real life.”
After 168 daily broadcasts, the couple did its final TalkersRadio show on (Friday) June 6 and “Brent & Meg” are now in preparation mode for the July 7 GCN unveiling. “We are not a political show and we did not want to be that,” McDonald declares. “We will cover the top news stories, business, and some sports. It will be things that interest us, and what we think will be of interest to the audience.”
Essential components of “interesting” and “entertaining” can be traced to mega-successful talk radio outlets that excel in the format.By way of historical perspective, Seltzer recalls that when Sigourney Weaver’s father – Pat Weaver – invented the “Today Show” and the “Tonight Show,” both on-camera talents hosting those NBC-TV programs were appropriated from radio. “['Today Show' host] Dave Garroway did mornings on WOR, New York and [peerless 'Tonight Show' superstar] Steve Allen was a nighttime radio host. That sensibility was always in-place. A lot – certainly not all — of Talk radio today has become a bastion of anger and misinformation. We want to remind people this is a very entertaining medium. We just want to make people think and have a good time. When given the opportunity, people can put aside their fear-based anger and let their wonderment take over. It becomes what radio does best – it is very intimate.”
Learning the Lingo
While The City of Angels has been his home since 1975, Seltzer grew up in Wilmington, where his father was a merchant on the main street of that Delaware city. “He thought about doing some advertising on radio and met a young morning guy named Joe Pyne, who needed a piece of equipment that the station did not have,” Seltzer recollects. “It was a Webcor tape recorder and my dad had it.”
Author of the insult phrase, “Go gargle with razorblades” and host of WILM, Wilmington’s “It’s Your Nickel,” Pyne took a liking to the young Seltzer, who would go on to matriculate as a Broadcasting major at New York State’s Ithaca College. “After college, I went to work for ABC Radio news the first day of ‘Quad Net’ radio in 1968,” Seltzer reveals.
Through a friendship with KGB news director Brad Messer, he landed a job in the San Diego station’s news department. “Brad is one of the truly, truly greats,” asserts Seltzer, whose first job when he later relocated to Los Angeles was working as a relief newsperson for Shadoe Stevens at KRLA. “Had it not been for Michael Harrison giving us so much competition across the street [at KPRI], we would never have received the attention that we did.”
Meanwhile, with no interest in following in the footsteps of her actress mother, McDonald’s main interest as she was growing up was to be a stunt girl with horses. “I shoveled a lot of manure and did not mind it at all,” the Hollywood High School alum convincingly contends. “One of the most popular girls I knew said she was going to be a secretary. I figured, if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me, too.”
Commencing as a secretary at a public relations shop in 1969, McDonald climbed the ladder, progressing to director of radio and television and she then attended the Don Martin School of Broadcasting. “I wanted to understand the lingo and sensibilities,” she remarks. “I specialized in giving clients exposure on radio and television.”
Over and above being a prudent career decision, it led to how she and Seltzer met in April 1979, when McDonald was pitching a story for a client of hers. “KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was starting service from LAX, so I went to radio stations with a basket of tulips in one hand and my memo for coverage in the other hand,” she remembers. “I actually went to [Los Angeles soft rock - later country radio outlet] KZLA to see the news director, but I unexpectedly met Brent.”
A potentially awkward situation followed introductory pleasantries. “He would not let go of my hand,” McDonald jokes. “We were involved with other people, but we wound up having a wonderful, platonic relationship for years. I would sharpen many pencils and always wanted to do my best when I pitched Brent.”
Approximately three months after her then-husband passed away in March 1983, McDonald built up the courage to phone Seltzer to see how he was doing, only to be surprised to learn he was filing for divorce. “I asked if he wanted to get a cup of coffee – we have been together ever since. We have quit smoking together; we gained weight together; we have lost weight together; and now, we are doing a radio show together and having a great time.”
Likening the Rocky Balboa-Adrian Pennino Balboa relationship – from Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” franchise – to “Brent & Meg,” McDonald analogizes, “We ‘fill in each other’s gaps.’ We complement each other and we are happy with each other.”
No Jealousy Allowed
Professional partnership coupled with a personal relationship will simply not work in all occasions but McDonald, who officially retired from doing public relations when she and Seltzer launched their TalkersRadio show in September, opines that it clicks with “Brent & Meg” because they are not resentful of each other’s ability. “We are grateful for each other’s talents. He is a fabulous writer – my feeling is thank goodness he can do that. I can bring certain assets and he is not jealous of what I can do as a detail person. My husband says that it is a skill that I am obsessive compulsive, and anal-retentive.”
Prior to their marriage, the two had worked together on a myriad of projects. “Meg was on the board of directors of every public relations society and every public service agency,” Seltzer proudly boasts. “She had me doing seminars and lectures – I’d do anything for her. She was terrific and always very professional. I am a creative person who cannot wait to get off the grid and go out on the edge. As the perfect equestrian, Meg knows how to rein me in just before I go too far. I discovered that, as gorgeous and lovely as Meg was and is, she was incredibly good at her job.”
Someone who grew up in a family-fun business, Seltzer indicates he probably spent more time with his parents at work than he did with them at home, so this arrangement does not seem weird to the “rock ‘n’ roll news guy for a thousand years,” including 1975 – 1976 at Los Angeles’ KWST (now rhythmic CHR KPWR). “I was news director for CBS Radio Los Angeles in 1980 [at then-KNX-FM, now adult hits KCBS-FM]; then, I became a talk show host on Gene Autry’s [legendary, personality-driven] KMPC. I am taking those years of experience and adding to them. As a PR person, Meg was a specialist in broadcast. She had a focus on it from a different point-of-view. She has monitored every format ever since she was a teenybopper who listened to ‘Boss Radio’ on KHJ.”
Mutual Respect – Even In Disagreement
Numerous variables make an accurate forecast of the venture in which “Brent & Meg” are about to embark a dicey proposition.
Uncontrollable elements notwithstanding, it is difficult not to root for this extraordinarily accessible, down-to-earth couple whose fervent respect for each other is instantaneously palpable.
Bantering is the foundation of everything they do; they hold an acute ability to communicate and to converse on important topics without, as Seltzer underscores, “making each other wrong. We do not agree on everything but we can disagree nicely.”
Having known each other for over six years before becoming husband and wife, they possessed a very clear picture of each other as professionals, and since Seltzer went through a divorce, he had “the realization” that he “absolutely hated” marriage. “Marriage was the dumbest thing that ever happened and it should be abolished,” he proclaims. “I would never have the desire to be married – other than to Meg – that is different. The success of our marriage is that we are very clear about what we will no longer put up with anymore. We are our toughest critics and our best friends.”
Mirroring how they conducted their TalkersRadio responsibilities, “Brent & Meg,” who observe their 29th wedding anniversary next month, will originate their daily broadcasts from their 1985-built home studio. “Meg had an office in downtown Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard,” Seltzer points out. “I was a newsperson and my office was – principally – in my car. I probably have more analog equipment than the Beatles had, but I never use it anymore. All I am adding for the GCN show is a Comrex box.”
Interviews will be done in-studio, as well as in the field. “I have dealt with callers in talk radio and in news radio,” Seltzer confirms. “Some callers are great ‘add-ons’ to the show – they bring a lot with good questions or good responses. You engage in conversations among friends and neighbors. Meg and I want to do a show that puts us on a first-name basis with the entire quadrant of the galaxy.”
Listeners will have the opportunity to talk to the show’s hosts without being judged. “We do not have to agree with a caller but it has to be a welcoming experience,” Seltzer maintains. “The thing we aspire to is the simplest phrase in broadcast management: ‘Surprise me – catch me off-guard.’ Go somewhere I did not think you would go and take me with you.”
Cogent communicators doing a national show strive for common denominators that make the audience seem like one community. “A great New York program director once said that New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the country – and they have nothing in common with each other,” notes Seltzer. “As difficult as it was 35 – 40 years ago, it is not as hard to do [a syndicated radio show] today because we are used to ways to communicate over vast distances. We can be one big audience without giving up too much personality.”
Attracting and reeling in younger talk radio demographics will necessitate talents such as “Brent & Meg” do something dramatically out of the ordinary. “Numbers are mostly falling and the nature of the [talk radio] audience is shifting,” Seltzer acknowledges. “‘Everything old is new again’ and we do the kind of radio we listened to when we were kids. It is fun and entertaining. We are the brand new, remarkably hip ‘old guys.’ We know we are an attractive boomer operation, yet we get many young millennials, as well. We rather like the idea of coming in bare bones with the least amount of affiliation because we come from grass roots. Our goal is to make our show a grass roots experience for the listener. We want the audience to have all the same privileges we do.”
According to Seltzer, he and McDonald were “a little long in the tooth to start a family” when they got together in their late-30s. “We do not have children and we do not treat children as if they are children,” he explains. “They are just younger people. We suspect the bulk of our listeners will be female.”
Vaguely similar to the manner in which a MLB team’s farm system provides players to its parent big-league club, the whole purpose of TalkersRadio is to develop programs for terrestrial radio. Therefore, it is a positive situation for Harrison to witness “Brent & Meg” moving on. “I still have not given up on terrestrial radio and am not in the business of building a radio network or being in competition with anyone,” he insists. “We built TalkersRadio to be an experimental theater to spawn new acts. It gives them a nurturing chance where there is no pressure and nothing to lose. Brent Seltzer is a brilliant broadcaster who has remained in the business as a writer, voice, and in other creative ways. ‘Brent & Meg’ are not cookie-cutter wannabes who need to be guided. They are great talents and their GCN show will unfold in a very organic way.” Will Harrison remain involved with the show? He quickly responds, “I will certainly continue to give them my opinion because I do that with everybody.”
Once a competitive enemy against KGB’s Seltzer and Brad Messer, Harrison went on to become friends with both of those talented broadcasters. “Brad is an incredibly intelligent, decent man; he and Brent were extraordinarily good,” Harrison accentuates. “That KGB news team was amazing. I know how good of a raconteur Brent Seltzer is. Brent with Meg brings him back to an incredible relevance to what is needed in today’s talk radio – the male/female energy. There is a huge mid-day need in talk radio for a great chat show as in the past, but the totally hippest, completely newest version of ‘old-school’ you could possibly imagine.”
Some six-dozen programs are produced/distributed by Genesis Communications Network and Harrison describes GCN owner Ted Anderson as, “an extremely forward-thinking entrepreneur who loves talk radio.” Harrison continues, “He comes from a business background and he has created a network with some very exciting talent on it. It is not a network run by political ideology or a network dominated by a concern for superstars. The future of both spoken word and music radio will come from small, independent stations still out there trying. GCN is definitely serving these people with some very interesting programs. When Ted Anderson heard Brent & Meg on TalkersRadio he immediately asked if they would be interested in coming to his network. What an extraordinary opportunity for a show that grew out of a lab project! It is a great moment of pride for me that an up-and-coming, potentially major league syndicator thinks enough of this show to back it by making it available through its very well-honed infrastructure. It is a feather in the cap of TalkersRadio.”
Genuinely holding Genesis Communications Network in the “highest regard,” Harrison believes there is a need for this particular kind of a network. “In fact, there was a time when Westwood One was like Genesis,” reasons Harrison who years ago produced “The Great American Radio Show” for the then Norm Pattiz-run Westwood One. “This is where ‘Brent & Meg’ should be – a network that will give support, even if you are only on 10 small stations. It is the next step after TalkersRadio. Corporate radio would be very smart to put ‘Brent & Meg’ in major markets. They would be fabulous in mid-days on some heritage talk stations because they are a big-time sounding latest version of what has made these stations successful for decades. ‘Brent & Meg’ bring the best of maturity and none of the pitfalls of it.”
Substantial personal charisma – along with individual viewpoints – pervade this news-oriented show and Harrison is convinced that, “This is the kind of thing that radio needs. Brent has a nose for news and comes from an objective news background. He is not a left-winger or a right-winger. I happen to think that millennials will listen and they will wish that their parents were like ‘Brent & Meg.’”
Groundbreaking Group Effort
Consistently in exploration to add more shows on groundbreaking TalkersRadio, Harrison is irked though with those trying to impress him and TalkersRadio GM David Bernstein (former PD of such heritage outlets as WOR, WBZ, WRKO, WTIC, WPRO and more) by how well they are already doing as justification for TalkersRadio to “carry” their show. “This venue is not a potential affiliate for anyone and we are not competing to establish big listenership,” he affirms. “If someone falls on their face, we do not want them to be embarrassed in front of a huge audience. When anyone interested in joining the station asks me how many listeners TalkersRadio has, I tell them we are not the right place for them if they are concerned about having a built-in audience. TalkersRadio is nothing but a bare stage with limited-engagement appearances of shows that run their course. Nobody has an audience already waiting when they start. The mother/son team of Diane and Mickey Gooch have built a worldwide audience in a matter of months with their groundbreaking addiction show, ‘Radio Lifeboat.’ They started with absolutely nothing. We are extremely proud that we have Alan Colmes doing a [one-hour] show about cosmology [each Sunday at 8:00 pm, Eastern]. No radio station has given Lionel a chance to be the [personality he is for one hour on TalkersRadio Saturday mornings at 9:00 am, Eastern]. He is an overflowing bundle of intellect.”
Harrison continues, “Although I take credit for coming up with the idea of ‘TalkersRadio’ and even the ‘Brent & Meg’ show – I cannot take much more than that. With David [Bernstein] doing the GM responsibilities and people like [Talkers VP/executive editor] Kevin [Casey] and Matthew [B. Harrison] on the management team, I play a much smaller role. We also mustn’t forget the technical genius of George Capalbo and the Backbone Network folks without whom none of this could be accomplished.”
Early on, Seltzer and Harrison were competitors in San Diego and they eventually worked together briefly in the mid-1970s as colleagues at Los Angeles rocker KMET. “At this point in our careers, we like to think of ourselves as conspirators,” Seltzer muses. “Michael had a vision for TalkersRadio. Outside of the TALKERS staff, Meg and I were probably the first ones to know about it. We were so enthused and turned on by it. Our goal was to evolve and develop the product to the point where it could be marketed and sold, so that we could graduate. Meg and I are thrilled beyond words.”
TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian will be at TALKERS New York 2014 this Friday, June 20; email him at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.