Interview with Phil Boyce

| November 26, 2018

By Ryan McCormick
Goldman McCormick Public Relations

 

NEW YORK — Phil Boyce has been senior vice president of Salem Radio Network & spoken word formats at Salem Communications since November 2014.  Boyce served as vice president and director of spoken word format of Salem Communications from February 2012 to November 2014.

He is well known for his 14-year stint as program director of WABC, New York. During his time there, he was named vice president of news/talk programming for ABC Radio and later Citadel.  He is credited with hiring Sean Hannity at WABC and taking his show into national syndication for ABC in 2001.  Later he hired Mark Levin at WABC and took him into national syndication in 2006.  He left WABC in October of 2008 shortly after WABC hit a 5 share 12+ in New York (Arbitron PPM Sept. 2008), the highest share the station has achieved since going talk from rock in 1982.

Before joining WABC, he programmed WJR, Detroit where he hired morning host Paul W. Smith and afternoon host Mitch Albom, both of whom are still working there.  

What are three things that you pick up on when first listening to a radio host to determine if they are going to be successful?

1) The most important thing I listen for is: Are they teaching me something I want to learn about an important topic or are they doing a show focused on themselves and assuming listeners are into their every waking moment?

2) The second thing I listen for is related to the first: Are they able to take a complicated issue and break it down in a way that makes me understand and in some cases want to pump my fist in agreement?  Are they saying what I was already thinking?  Listeners want affirmation that they are not the crazy ones on the planet.

3) The third thing is simple formatics: Do they set up a topic well with a brilliant monologue? Do they tease around the break to make me come back?  Do they give me the sense that this is the most fun a human being can have and they are having it?  If it is a team show do they have that elusive “chemistry, camaraderie, and rapport?”

Address the issue of advertiser boycotts and explain how they have affected conservative talk radio over the years.

The Sandra Fluke boycott launched by Media Matters for America had a damaging affect.  It did not change the way we do talk radio but it made it tougher to make money with it.  It was like a drive-by shooting where unintended victims got hurt.  Wall Street Journal Radio Network went out of business because they were heard on Rush Limbaugh stations and the ad boycott took them out.  Ad boycotts are particularly despicable because they are designed to silence views they do not agree with.  To me, every listener has an option: listen or do not listen.  Leave the advertisers out of it.  In many cases the advertisers were targeted by people who were never going to shop there anyway.

Explain three aspects of your talk radio philosophy that have contributed to your success as a programmer in this business?

1) My philosophy of how to win doing talk radio has been my biggest strength.  I learned years ago what listeners want and expect when they come to this format.  They want breaking news and what to make of it.  Our listeners are smart and want to learn something.  If we hire smart hosts who educate, inform, and are compelling all at the same time, we win.  Some stations and companies have moved in a different direction. They created a format that I call “fluff talk.”  How did that work out for them?

2) My second contribution would have to be finding and grooming great talk talent and putting them on the stage to help them succeed.  Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Mike Gallagher and Andrew Wilkow (who happens to be my son in law) all joined me at the great WABC and all three have gone on to greatness.  Two of them have joined the Radio Hall of Fame and the other two eventually will also.

3) At Salem I am blessed to manage the best syndicated lineup on talk radio: Hewitt, Gallagher, Prager, Elder, Walsh, and my newest member of the faculty, Dr. Sebastian Gorka who launches New Year’s Day.

What are three effective ways for radio hosts to establish rapport and trust with their audience?

1) Make sure the show is always about them, the listener.  Some hosts make the mistake of thinking it’s about the host.  Listeners are not nearly as into the host as you may think.  Mix in personal stories like salt and pepper on a steak.  Never make the show all about you and something you saw or did.  Make it about what matters to the listener and you will always win.

2) Teach them something they didn’t know.  Our listeners are like sponges and they come to us to soak up your knowledge.  Make sure you are doing two hours of show prep for every hour on the air.  Never allow a listener or caller to know more about a topic than the host knows.  Never allow a caller to dominate the conversation.  Do not make it a caller driven show.  Listeners are not coming to hear callers.  They want the host to teach them something in a clever and compelling way.

3) Be brutally honest.  Listeners can sense a fake attitude a mile away.

What are two achievements you can point to in your career that were maybe not high profile to outsiders but of which you are particularly proud as a programmer.  

1) When I got to WJR in Detroit in 1991, it was still #1 in the market 12+ but had been in decline every year for five years in a row.  It was still trying to play music.  I had to slowly convert the station into a talk radio giant.  I hired Paul W. Smith as my future morning guy and he is still there today.  After four years I must have done a good job because ABC moved me to New York to take on WABC, the most-listened-to talk station in the nation.

2) My challenge at WABC was re-building the station after I had to fire Bob Grant.  I lost half my listeners overnight and Bob went across town to compete and steal them.  I knew it would take five years to rebuild WABC but I was not sure they would give me that much time.  Fortunately they did and I found Hannity, Levin, Gallagher, and five years to the book I got the station back to where it was and even higher.  I lasted fourteen years there which is a hundred years in dog years (PD talk).  Eleven years after I fired Bob Grant, I got to hire him back.

Of all your rivals in radio, who did you find to be the most formidable?  Why?  And did they challenge you to become better at your craft because of it?

I never think in terms of rivals because every PD is placed in a unique situation.  He or she has to program their station to the market and the audience they want.  I will say that some of them were forced to chase after a 25-54 demographic because that is what ad agencies said they wanted.  You can’t program a station to a 30-year age span.  Talk skews older because listeners don’t fall in love with us till they get to their 40s or 50s.  When they get married,  have kids, have a mortgage, pay car payments and all that it brings, they somehow find us.  So, I never chased the younger end of that demo.  You can’t make a 26-year-old living on mom’s couch grow up.  They have to do that on their own and then they find us.

What are some of the differences between conservative- and liberal-minded audiences in terms of what they’ll be most likely to get outraged about, what they will be passionately supportive of, and what radio hosts they have the greatest loyalty to?

Conservative audiences have a love for America.  Liberal audiences don’t.  It’s pretty simple, really.  If you love this country, conservative talk radio is a great place to find reinforcement.  There never was a truly successful liberal host because liberal audiences just did not gravitate to that kind of talk.  If you remember Air America, their big star was Al Franken.  He did one of the most boring shows on radio.  No wonder it failed.

Do conservative hosts who criticize President Trump (even in a respectful manner) risk permanently alienating a portion of their audience and as well hurting their parent station’s relationship with conservative-oriented advertisers?

I have always told my hosts to support Trump when he does the smart thing and criticize him when he strays from the conservative agenda or says something completely off the wall.  But when we do research I noticed about 30% of our audience do not want us to criticize Trump at all.  So I warn my hosts to not bash Trump because they risk running off that 30%.  There is a difference between offering Trump constructive criticism and bashing him.  Hosts who bash Trump do so at their own peril.  He has done more good for the conservative side than any president since Reagan…some say more good.  So why bash him?  He wins for our side.

If respected leadership figures in Christianity change or modify their stances on a previous held church position in a dramatic way (say for example they are no longer condemning a previous held practice of belief), what impact does that have on Christian family values radio broadcasting?

We are blessed to have some of the greatest teachers and preachers ever on our Christian teach and talk radio stations.  If one of them modifies the teaching they have offered, I know they are doing it for the good of the ministry and the audience they serve. The good thing about the Christian faith is that we follow a teaching from 2,000 years ago and that teaching does not change.  It’s the consistency of the preaching and teaching that draws the audience to us.

Which three radio hosts would you consider to be the greatest of all time in terms of how they made broadcasting an art form and how they affected other broadcasters?

Here are my three in no particular order:

1) Paul Harvey – perhaps the greatest story teller of all time.

2) Rush Limbaugh – who single handedly revitalized talk radio.

3) Sean Hannity – who has become the most influential talk host of our day.

What three radio hosts do think have bright futures ahead and why?

I think we have found a future star in Dr. Sebastian Gorka.  I first put him on the SRN lineup as a sub host last April and he sounded like he had been doing this all his life.  I did not need to teach him formatics.  He already had that down.  What I could not teach him was his intense knowledge of the culture war going on in America.  He is a warrior and I will love watching him grow and succeed.  He takes over the 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm ET time slot for me New Year’s Day…and I know he will succeed.  He’s a natural at this.

I have several other hosts I have targeted that I think can do this and will be successful but, if I told you their names, all my competitors would go after them.  So those are secret.

What are your three predictions about how talk radio talk radio will change in the next five years?

Talk radio will change along with the rest of radio as we gradually move the audience from the analog platform to the digital.  I am seeing that happen on the Salem stations at a clip of about 11-12% a year.  Soon digital will equal and perhaps surpass the terrestrial station audience.  It’s causing a lot of disruption.  Buckle your seat belt.  The audience still loves what we do but, [we] are willing to find multiple different ways to listen to us.  We have to prepare and plan for that and give them those options.

Talk radio will change in about five years when Rush retires (my guess only).  I am so thankful I am not the one who needs to replace him.  I also think talk radio will change in the post Trump era but, it will always be the source for information and entertainment.

Salem Radio Network seems like a marriage made in heaven for you.  How did that happen?

Throughout my career the most enjoyable aspect of what I get to do is to find great talented talk hosts and put them on stage to help them succeed.  Fortunately, I have found some big time superstars and very few failures.  There are others who have done well in this regard but, the best happens to be my CEO Ed Atsinger.  He found all the talent on SRN and then hired me to run it for him.  Between the two of us we have a powerful track record of finding and grooming successful talk talent.  No other company has this mission and it is the bedrock of our success.  So yes, I am blessed to be here.

Ryan McCormick is the co-founder of Goldman McCormick Public Relations (http://www.goldmanmccormick.com) and host of the Outer Limits of Inner Truth (www.outerlimitsradio.com) radio show.

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Category: Interviews