By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Especially when summoned up to describe talk radio personalities, certain words such as “controversial” and “colorful” have a pronounced tendency to come across as a crutch or a hackneyed cliché.
It is simply unrealistic to paint every single talk radio talent as controversial or a genuinely colorful character.
Rather than having either or both of those labels affixed to him, one well-known talk radio entertainer prefers to be called “authentic,” and this Southern California-based personality continues the process of taking a weekend show he co-hosts to a national stage.
Deliberately limited exposure
Late last fall, John Ziegler and Leah Brandon (pictured together at right)renewed their professional association by beginning to collaborate on the aptly-titled “John & Leah Talk Show”; the two worked together approximately 11 years ago at Los Angeles talk powerhouse KFI.
Renowned industry executive Kraig Kitchin, former president and chief operating officer of Premiere Radio Networks, was responsible for connecting Ziegler with Envision Radio Networks, which is syndicating the three-hour Sunday night program. “He has an amazing track record and he has been very good to me,” Ziegler respectfully affirms of Kitchin, founder/co-president of Sound Mind LLC; co-president of Big Shoes Productions; and chair of the Radio Hall of Fame. “It is hard to argue with his success.”
Originating from Jeri Lyn Broadcasting-owned KHTS-AM, a small suburban Los Angeles facility in Santa Clarita (not affiliated with iHeartMedia San Diego CHR KHTS-FM), the “John & Leah Talk Show” has built its affiliate base over the past several months to include other metros such as New York City (WNYM); Philadelphia (WNTP); Louisville (WHAS); Akron (WNIR); and Rome, Georgia-licensed WRGA. “It is a slow process,” Ziegler admits, “but I think we are doing pretty well. Leah and I have great chemistry. Once listeners realize the show exists, they will gravitate toward it. I am hypercritical of all sorts of media content, but I am very proud of this show. No one else is doing anything like it.”
There were occasions when Ziegler guest-hosted Matt Drudge’s Sunday night radio program and he always thought that was a great timeslot. “It is exceedingly difficult and very draining to do a show several hours a day, five days a week,” Ziegler emphasizes. “I find once a week is eminently doable and quite enjoyable. I always anticipated bad things were going to happen in my career, so I have saved a lot of money. I am not doing this – or anything else – because I have to put food on the table. That allows me a little more flexibility. While liberal bias is one of the more benign problems in the news media, I fundamentality believe that all elements of the news media in this country are broken.”
Somewhat amazed that Drudge, in September 2007, abandoned his Sunday night Premiere Radio-syndicated show, Ziegler remarks, “He was really good at it and he seemed like he enjoyed it. Drudge is very talented and more influential than people in the business realize. He definitely had a knack for that Sunday night spot. I do not listen to much radio, but that was ‘can’t miss’ radio for me. He had a great way of creating the drama of what was about to come up the following week. ‘The Drudge Report’ is so incredibly influential, and that created intrigue because you didn’t know if he was about to break a big story [on the radio show].”
Notwithstanding those positive comments, Ziegler – who writes a column for Mediaite – has been of critical of Drudge’s role in the 2008 election. “Matt took a dive,” he flatly asserts. “I don’t know if it was because he hated [Hillary Clinton] and wanted Barack Obama to win the nomination, or if he thought Obama would be great for business. It is clear to anyone who looked at it carefully that Matt Drudge was a huge reason why Obama won the nomination and eventually the presidency in 2008. No one has made more money individually from Barack Obama’s election than Matt Drudge. There is no question that he is a very good businessman and not an ideologue.”
Slugger in Louisville litigation
Interest in the talk radio genre intensified for Ziegler when the ex-sportscaster “kept getting fired” from television jobs. One rather noteworthy Ziegler dismissal was from Fox affiliate WRAZ-TV, Raleigh (channel 50) in 1995, after he made a “joke” about O.J. Simpson’s lack of innocence. “It would have been a huge news story if it happened today, but it was well before the internet,” recalls Ziegler, who formerly dated Ron Goldman’s sister, Kim Goldman. “I thought my ‘controversial’ nature would work better on talk radio, which was sort of in its infancy.”
An evening assignment at Nashville’s WWTN-FM was followed by overnight duty on WWDB in his “hometown” of Philadelphia; Ziegler was born in Heidelberg, Germany in a U.S. Army post. “The day before the 2000 election, WWDB made the brilliant decision to switch to all-Madonna, all-the-time,” he reveals with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I went back to doing sports talk [on Philadelphia’s WIP] and then had the chance to do a daily radio show on WHAS, Louisville in addition to a weekly television show at the NBC-TV affiliate.”
That marked the first time in Ziegler’s career that things were coming together for him. “I am sure it was circumstances and nothing to do with me, but I got ratings that were crazy – 15-shares in the demo,” he boasts.”
All it took though was one off-the-cuff on-air comment about Darcie Divita, a WDRB-TV, Louisville morning show host Ziegler dated, to get things unraveling. “She was fired the day I did an ‘Ask John Anything’ segment,” he recounts. “Several questions were about her and I thought I did a masterful job of politely answering the first one. It probably instilled too much confidence as I answered the second one because I went a little too far on it.”
Inquiring minds in Louisville apparently hungered to ascertain why Divita always wore slacks, rather than dresses or skirts. It just so happened she previously mentioned to Ziegler that, “She didn’t like wearing underwear. My answer was she did not want to have a ‘Sharon Stone moment’ [as in the film ‘Basic Instinct’] but that no one would notice because she is ‘well kept there.’ If I said that on an FM morning show, there would have been zero controversy, but it became a firestorm. I was taken off the air and eventually fired from WHAS.”
Alleging there was libel and defamation of character, Divita sued Zeigler for $2.7 million; however, he maintains, “The trial had nothing to do with what I said, which was true. Women on the jury actually hated her more than they hated me. That trial should be studied in legal annals as an absolute abomination. There was no case to give to the jury, but the judge didn’t want to make the decision himself. Against all odds and very bias media coverage, we ended up winning on all counts. Still, it was quite an extraordinary experience.”
Not only did Ziegler survive that ugly “extraordinary experience,” several months after being terminated by WHAS, he took a dramatic jump in market size (Louisville to Los Angeles) when, in January 2004, KFI hired him to do evenings. Of further significance and irony, both were/are Clear Channel/now iHeartMedia properties.
Describing KFI as “the #1 talk station in America at that time,” Ziegler seemed to be in a perfect career position – until he hit a consequential road bump on September 11, 2006. “[KFI afternoon drive co-host] John Kobylt and I got into an on-air battle regarding his flip-flopping on the Iraq war,” Ziegler notes. “Kobylt’s on-air partner Ken Chiampou was on vacation, so John was doing the show alone. He was tired, cranky, and going off on George Bush. John was a huge proponent of the war when it was popular, but as soon as it became unpopular, ‘John & Ken’ went in the opposite direction, which is how they do things. John was completely inappropriate and totally wrong in the way he handled it. He realized that the best defense is a good offense so, while I was on the air, he complained to the bosses. It was absurd but I ended up getting suspended. It poisoned the well at every level. It is not even debatable that they went on a concerted effort to have me quit. They did everything they could including trying to drive me insane. They took away promotion, staff, and even put me in a different studio.”
Given that Ziegler had a rather hefty contract, he was determined not to walk away, but he and the station did part ways. “The whole thing left me bitter about the entire industry,” he confides. “I had done an excellent show and I got good ratings. Most people would bounce back and go to another station, but I did not even try. I don’t think I applied for one job after that because I had no interest.”
During his nearly four-year KFI tenure, he had signed a deal to do his first documentary film and Ziegler states, “I thought I would try that as a new career. I did not miss talk radio at all. There is not much of a point once you have done something well at the highest level.”
Fragility of freedom of speech
Exiting KFI at the end of 2007, Ziegler would, in fact, shoot three documentary films, two of which debuted with him doing “Today Show” interviews with Matt Lauer. “The DVD market is basically dead or dying,” he laments. “There is a lot more video-on-demand, which makes it more difficult for people like me who are outside the mainstream. If you are not in lockstep with the liberal mainstream mentality, it is much more difficult to get distribution streams. Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected focused on media coverage of the 2008 election and it got me on every cable news show. My film featured the only extended interview Sarah Palin did about that election.”
Over and above being the most high-profile one Ziegler has ever done, he declares his conversation with Alaska’s ex-governor is “the most significant interview” done about the 2008 election. “I mean that sincerely and am quite sure of that. When you watch the complete interview, you get a completely different perception of her as a person and as a candidate. Bit-by-bit, we go through things completely distorted by the news media in what I believe was a concerted effort, driven by ratings and agenda, to destroy her. It is not a stretch to say that for almost one year after that interview, I became Palin’s de facto spokesperson. I was never on the payroll but I was in constant communication with her.”
Ultimately, the relationship soured as Ziegler repeatedly provided Palin with harsh reality. “I became part of her very small inner circle and I presumed that she welcomed – or at least gave value to – an opinion that was not necessarily popular,” he reasons. “That is what I was bringing to the table.”
The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee accidentally copied Ziegler on an email that she forwarded to her staff. “The note [read], ‘If I have to endure a Ziegler email, we all have to endure it.’ I was putting my neck on the line for this woman but I was beginning to see what was happening. I gave her amazing advice, but it was clear that she really did not value anything unless it had sunshine wrapped around it. This sounds arrogant, but if she had listened to what I told her to do in our very first meeting, she would potentially be the leading contender for the Republican [presidential] nomination in 2016.”
Vital among Ziegler’s suggestions was that Palin not even think about running in 2012 and that she should be as inconspicuous as possible. “The news media would be thrilled to have her back and write the ‘comeback’ narrative,” he contends. “She and her family endured a ridiculous amount of media coverage.”
As a result, Ziegler does not quarrel with Palin ignoring his counsel. “She thought her celebrity could be short-lived. Rather than being sequestered as governor of Alaska, she decided to cash in on her fame immediately. It was her right to sell out and make sure her family was taken care of [financially]. Once you sell out though, you cannot pretend that you are a viable presidential contender or a political entity. You cannot have it both ways. When she tried doing that, it was too much for me.”
Supplying what he views as a unique perspective on stories is what Ziegler enjoys most and that could be longform via documentary films. “I definitely have a unique take on the world and I do not fear being outside the norm,” he acknowledges. “I cannot be intimidated and I really do not care what people think of me. Having taken as many bullets as I have relieves me of the burden of caring what people think of me. I am not a conspiracy person – this is not Alex Jones talking – but I believe truth is in grave peril in this country. I had no idea that, 10 years after I wrote The Death of Free Speech, we would be in this current state.”
Umbrella name under which the “John & Leah Talk Show” airs is “Free Speech Broadcasting” and Ziegler claims, “It is unbelievable how quickly we are losing freedom of speech. I have no idea, for example, how standup comedians will exist five to 10 years from now, since you are not allowed to joke about anything anymore. We have created a situation where popularity dictates everything. We know immediately if a story or concept is popular. Popularity though is inherently against the concept of truth. A popular myth will always trump an unpopular truth. The media does not seem to feel an obligation to cover important stuff anymore. It is all fluff/all the time to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
Pros of partnership
Working with the multi-faceted, highly engaging Brandon affords Ziegler the opportunity to play off somebody. “I enjoy working with Leah – she ‘gets’ me and I think I ‘get’ her.”
For a nine-year stretch commencing in 1995, Roanoke, Virginia native Brandon was heard on Los Angeles’ KYSR when it was hot AC “Star 98.7” and later for that market’s juggernaut – CHR KIIS “Kiss-FM.” According to Ziegler, “She is a pro and she understands her role very well. It is easier to be humorous when you have a partner. It is very difficult to be funny when you are alone. A partner can burst your balloon or keep you in line whenever need be. It makes things more entertaining and can sometimes create more tension. Leah and I agree on most things but it is nice when someone disagrees with you. Having good, honest disagreement is fun. It would not work for me to talk three hours, so having Leah really helps. It is a great combination.”
Phone calls are a low-priority component of the three-hour show, although that was not particularly by design. “I love audience interaction, but it is pointless to take calls just to take them,” Ziegler opines. “We are barely able to squeeze in all the content as it is, without any phone calls.”
Local versus national is similarly unimportant to Ziegler, who suggests his aim is to do a program that is relatable to Americans, regardless where they live.
Whenever appropriate, he and Brandon, who relocated from Los Angeles to Birmingham, focus the news to markets where they currently have affiliates. That might become more difficult, of course, as the show adds more stations, but Ziegler believes, “It is possible to incorporate that. My audience cares about the truth and they want to hear a view they cannot get elsewhere. I have never done a national show before, so this is obviously a work-in-progress. Frankly, I am unimpressed with most national shows. We don’t have much content-oriented competition from weekend shows. Unfortunately, much of weekend, talk radio programming has become brokered, but we are not trying to sell anything: We are here to entertain and to inform. Without doubt, my life has changed quite a bit since I was at KFI. I have learned more in the last seven years than in the rest of my career – combined.”
Perhaps the paramount nugget Ziegler has gleaned about the talk radio business is that caring too much about the product can actually be a detriment. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he recommends.
Freedom to be fearless
Virtually every story with which Ziegler gets involved seems to be completely contrary to public opinion. “I have never had a situation where reality and perception are remotely equated,” he insists. “This will be utterly shocking to people who have not followed the case, but my ‘hobby’ is to try to get [Penn State’s former assistant football coach] Jerry Sandusky out of prison. I have spent over three years looking into the so-called Penn State ‘scandal’ and it is the most fascinating case there will ever be. It is the most incredible example of what happens when the news media gets out of control. People have bought a premise for which there is no evidence. The math isn’t a ‘little’ wrong – it is ‘all’ wrong.”
Barring the unforeseen, however, the 71-year-old convicted serial child molester will die in prison and Penn State’s late longtime football coach Joe Paterno will have, in Ziegler’s words, “his entire reputation destroyed for all time based on something that never happened. It is just amazing and tragic. The media has moved on and no one cares. I am the guy who says, ‘Hey, wait a minute – let’s look at this to make sure we have everything correct.’ I have proven this whole thing is a fraud and if it gets ‘fixed,’ this will be my greatest achievement.”
Not many other programs purposefully explore stories or subject matter that will potentially make the host(s) look bad. “I will occasionally do that,” points out Ziegler, whose trophy case houses a regional Emmy. “Our show is about what Leah and I can add to the public conversation that particular week and we are completely unafraid. All we care about is providing three hours of informative entertainment. Our business model allows us the freedom to do things other shows would never do. I am the CEO of the corporation, so this time I cannot get fired and that gives us a huge advantage. No one is over my shoulder telling me not to do something, or that I have to do something a certain way.”
Even though 48-year-old, 1989 Georgetown University grad Ziegler “hates” Twitter, he is very active on that social media platform, as well as on Facebook. “You have to fit everything into 140 characters, so Twitter is emblematic of our short attention span; however, it is a necessity. I ‘tweet’ voraciously and have more than 8,000 followers.”
Under the correct circumstances, it is possible to expand the present one-day a week “John & Leah Talk Show” into a weekday offering, although that is not the present game plan. “This is such a crazy business that it is difficult to say what is going to happen,” concedes golf enthusiast Ziegler, who is married to the former Alison Kallik and coaches a high school golf team. “I am focused on making this as successful as possible. I am trying to do the best I can at taking this ‘one show at a time’ and ‘one station at a time.’ My primary goal is to turn our Sunday night show into something close to what Drudge did when it was appointment listening nationwide.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.