By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Faithful devotees of quite possibly the greatest sitcom of all-time – “The Larry Sanders Show” – will recognize this classic “Hank’s Contract” line delivered in season one/episode seven by producer “Artie” (Rip Torn): “My TV stops at channel 13 the way it is supposed to.”
By way of context, announcer/sidekick “Hank Kingsley” (Jeffrey Tambor) is bluffing that he is weighing an option to leave Sanders (Garry Shandling) to join Dick Cavett in a similar role on CNBC, with “Artie” feigning ignorance of the cable outlet’s existence.
Proliferation of cable channels since that particular “Larry Sanders” installment aired on HBO more than 23 years ago (September 1992) has, of course, only intensified.
Incidentally, 1992 is the same year Bruce Springsteen released “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).”
Lyrics of that song from “The Boss” include, “Home entertainment was my baby’s wish, so I hopped into town for a satellite dish. I came home and pointed it out into the stars – there are 57 channels [but] nothin’ [is] on.”
Stark contrast, indeed, to the days when television viewers such as “Larry Sanders” producer “Artie” could (only) choose from over-the-air VHF channels 2 through 13 and primetime programming limited to ABC, CBS, and NBC. Later major developments were to receive channels 14 through 83 on the UHF band; debut of evening programming on Fox in April 1987; and the explosion of a little thing called cable.
It might seem as far back as dinosaurs roaming that rabbit ears were a vital requirement to the television viewing experience and when variety shows and westerns were among the most popular fare; however, it only serves to underscore the vast alterations that have occurred in the visual medium.
Putting it all in perspective each week from flagship KCBQ-AM, San Diego is television historian Jim Benson, whose one-hour syndicated “TV Time Machine” is billed as “a radio show about television’s past, present, and future.”
Formative years’ memorable moments
Radio and television – in equal portions – were his greatest influences. A talk radio listener at the tender age of seven, an enthusiastic Benson cites Hilly Rose (heard on Los Angeles outlets KABC, KFI, and KMPC) and the late Bill Gordon (KSDO-AM, San Diego) as particular favorites. The Starlight Room atop downtown San Diego’s El Cortez Hotel was the early-1970s’ radio setting for Gordon and as Benson remembers, “One night, my mother took me to his overnight show. We sat there and watched him for three hours.”
Accompanied by his mother to a number of Southern California radio outlets, Benson would stare through the station windows and occasionally go inside broadcast facilities. “Things were different then,” he gladly recounts. “You could just walk right into the station – frequently, you could even meet the hosts. One even let me do the station ID at the top of the hour, which was a great thrill.”
Significant enough that it helped inspire Benson to later become involved with his high school’s five-watt radio station, although he laments the facility folded after his freshman year.
After that, he shifted his concentration more to television. “I was then – and still am now – a huge fan of Rod Serling,” Benson points out. “That got me into the mindset and the mode that I somehow wanted to be involved in television history. I started my own archive business, began consulting various production companies, and I created TV Time Machine Productions.”
Rejecting an opportunity to attend college, Benson instead elected to become an entrepreneur. “It is very difficult to [turn your back] on making your own money,” he comments. “I have always pursued my passions and college really did not fit what I wanted to do in life. Although I am sure it would have been great, this has been far more fulfilling – I would not trade my life experiences for anything.”
Approximately 13 years ago, he launched his program on what he claims was “one of the first internet radio stations,” World Talk Radio. “It was totally ahead of its time,” Benson asserts. “Things we were doing became more mainstream several years later. Technologically, World Talk Radio was certainly on the cutting edge. Since it was fully digital, I saw the potential of what digital could do for radio – and particularly for my show.”
Whenever he conducted a long-form celebrity interview, Benson incorporated as much production as possible. “I would play audio drops during the interview,” he explains. “Any clip I used would act as a springboard for further conversation during the hour. I found that was a very effective way to interview celebrities. Many of my shows dealt with the past and this brought the past into the present.”
Those profiled – as well as listeners – were whisked back to that time and Benson maintains, “It evoked many memories, emotions, and sentimentality. At that very moment, I decided my radio interview show would be a highly-charged, highly entertaining Hollywood production.”
Occasionally, it would even be over-the-top. “I wanted to use audio on radio in a way that it had not been used before,” Benson declares. “I wanted to entertain the ear of the listener so they would tune in the next week. Whenever talk hosts have stars on from classic television shows, their phones light up like Christmas trees.”
An increasing number of present-day television offerings are topics of Benson’s broadcasts, thus his radio show is not quite as nostalgia-based as the “time machine” imagery might suggest. “I am doing more programs on reality television, which I find makes for great radio,” he opines. “Even though certain aspects of reality TV are not that real, they are still based on reality. That caters to what an AM radio listener wants to hear. Some of my best interviews are with stars of reality shows.”
In his radio program’s embryonic stages, Benson would take phone calls from listeners, but he contends, “Doing it that way did not have the dynamism of a pre-taped show. Now, I can add a tremendous amount of audio production, which is really the soul of the show.”
A pre-produced introduction segues into Benson’s interview with the star of that week’s featured television show. “I have been doing shorter, one-segment interviews [about 10 minutes in length], but I also do a show where my interviews can be as long as two hours,” he states. “It depends on the prestige of the guest.”
Conversations with Mel Brooks and Peter Falk, for example, lasted 90 minutes and two hours, respectively. The last interview Falk ever did was on “TV Time Machine” – television’s “Columbo” was 83 when he died in June 2011. “The strength of ‘TV Time Machine’ is that each show can run at any time,” Benson notes. “Generally speaking, the shows do not date themselves.”
Depending on the guest and Benson’s level of expertise, it will generally require several days for him to package a one-hour radio program. “It takes that long mainly because I am pulling clips and I am trying to find the right one for the right question,” he elaborates. “Sometimes, it can take longer. My show is very research-intensive and I am a huge believer in a four-letter word – ‘prep.’ It is the most important thing any talk show host can do. Guests notice and appreciate it when you have curiosity. When they know you have done your homework, they open up to you; it makes all the difference in the world. I will deliberately pick topics I have a particular fondness for or like.”
On the other hand, he is receptive to dealing with TV shows with which he is unfamiliar. “I want to be comprehensibly well-versed in all aspects of television, especially current-day TV,” Benson stresses. “In addition, it allows me to discover great television – sometimes long before the mainstream audience does. I interviewed [the creator of AMC drama series ‘Mad Men’] Matt Weiner before the show became such a huge phenomenon; our 90-minute interview was in its first season. My wife was in advertising on Madison Avenue for 20 years. I knew she would have tremendous insights he would appreciate, so we had a three-way conversation about advertising.”
Deriving more from less
Given that Benson has been associated with television history for virtually all his adult life and has numerous connections in that industry, it is relatively easier for him to secure guests than it is for many other radio hosts. “If you have a good reputation and people have a great time on your show, word spreads,” he emphasizes. “I am very proud of the level of guests we have and I would venture to say my celebrity guest list rivals that of anyone else in radio. Some had never done radio before. Especially with comedians, I take elements of what they have done on television or in movies and recreate it during the interview. A good friend of mine was the late Leonard Stern, the executive producer and the brains behind [the 1965 – 1970 Don Adams sitcom] ‘Get Smart.’ In post-production, I created some reverb so part of our interview sounded like we were doing it in the ‘cone of silence’ [a running gag on the show, which aired on NBC, and in its final season, on CBS]. I prepared a script for him and it came off great.”
Perhaps, as logic might suggest, “TV Time Machine” would make an entertaining television show but Benson believes it is actually better-suited on radio. “There is the challenge of translating something that is visual to an audio medium,” he remarks. “If you do it correctly, it works. That is what makes the show unique, entertaining, and intimate. When you talk to a ‘celebrity’ as a human being, rather than someone who is promoting something, it makes for really great radio. When I interview someone, I try to ‘be’ personal but I do not ‘get’ personal. I do not get controversial or dig up dirt – this is not a ‘gotcha’ show.”
Aforementioned Jeffrey Tambor consented to an albeit short “TV Time Machine” interview regarding his role in Amazon Studios’ “Transparent,” yet Benson proclaims, “It was one of the best I ever had. He was amazing as he dealt with a very delicate subject [of portraying retired college professor Mort Pfefferman who becomes transgendered Maura Pfefferman]. It was a challenge for me but the insights and things Jeffrey said during the course of the interview were very surprising. I know a particular celebrity is there to promote that one show and I respect that, so I do not digress. It does not mean it is any less of an interview, and in many respects, it is more. You stay on-point and drill down to the television show that they are talking about and the character they are portraying. I like to get into the psychology of their character because actors absorb themselves into their characters. They really understand what makes their character tick.”
Although Benson has never actually calculated how much television he watches in a course of a week, the total could be as much as a whopping 90 hours. “If I have to prepare for an interview, there are times I will binge-watch a series. The era of the 1950s was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of television; we are currently in the second ‘Golden Age’ and I think television is better today [than it was five or 10 years ago]. That is evidenced by the fact that so many movie people have moved over to TV, and, as a result, I end up interviewing many [film] stars. I never expected that I would be interviewing people such as Andie MacDowell (of Hallmark Channel’s “Cedar Cove”) and JoBeth Williams (ABC’s “Private Practice”). They see that quality people have moved over to television and they want to be part of that. Hulu and Amazon are doing great stuff for TV and that is why they are winning all the awards. You just have to know where to find the good stuff on television.”
An “answer” to weekend radio programming
Featured several years ago on an episode of Penn & Teller’s Showtime series “Bullsxxt” that dealt with the “good-old days,” Benson mentions that the position of hosts Penn (Jillette) & (Raymond Joseph) Teller was that the “good-old days” were not all that sensational. “My biggest concern going in was they were going to eviscerate me and make me look like a complete fool,” he somewhat sheepishly admits. “They had fun with me, but it was not as humiliating as I had anticipated. For some reason, they took pity on me. The full one-day shoot in Los Angeles was a total kick.”
Along with Scott Skelton, Benson co-authored Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, a 397-page book Syracuse University Press released just over 17 years ago (December 1998). “I have contributed to other books, but that is the only one I have co-authored,” reveals Benson, who attributes lack of time as the chief deterrent for such endeavors. “The ‘Night Gallery’ book took four years to write. Early on, Scott and I decided we were going to do the definitive book about the latter half of Rod Serling’s career and a show that was lost in the shadow of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ We thought ‘Night Gallery’ did not have the reputation it fully deserved. Working on that book gave me the training to know how to interview a celebrity properly. [Oscar and SAG award winning actor] Benicio del Toro was such a huge fan that he wanted to do the DVD with us and audio commentary; he was one of my best interviews.”
Implementing “Phase Two” of broadening the “TV Time Machine” roster base is currently one of Benson’s top priorities. “It is really time for this show to break out and I have some wonderful people [including Watkins Media president Jim Watkins] helping me on the affiliate end to propel the show to a greater number of stations and listeners. Atlanta [on WGKA the past four years] and San Diego [KCBQ-AM] are our two biggest markets. It would be fantastic to have our show discovered on a greater number of stations reaching a greater number of ears and appreciated by a larger audience, specifically on AM talk radio. We want to be an entertaining, viable alternative to weekend programming. Many stations carry infomercials, which is fine, but radio does not have very much broad-spectrum entertainment on the weekend.”
Each using “The Answer” as its on-air handle, Salem Media Group talk siblings KCBQ-AM and WGKA air “Television Time Machine” on weekends: San Diego’s KCBQ-AM does so Saturday 12:00 midnight – 1:00 am, Sunday 5:00 am – 6:00 am, and Sunday 12:00 noon – 1:00 pm, while Atlanta’s WGKA runs the show Saturday 5:00 am – 6:00 am.
Exceptionally proud that he has “had the opportunity to merge two mediums,” Benson observes that, “Everyone has talked about convergence and it has finally happened. It is tremendous to have radio, television, music, technology, apps, and software platforms converging into one space. I would love to see terrestrial radio continue to thrive, despite the fact that so much of radio is moving online. I appreciate changes in technology but I still love talk radio and I am a big believer in terrestrial radio. If it offers a broader scope of hosts, shows, and topics – it can have as bright a future as it will online. Terrestrial radio will still exist but will be in a different form that no one can predict right now. It seems to be headed online – but you never know.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.