Self-Syndication Has Been Berry, Berry Good

| October 13, 2020

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS
Managing Editor

 

HOUSTON — Seldom are talk radio hosts at a loss to fill two or three hours of airtime.

Situations though have become wildly frenetic in a calendar year that has already seen among countless other things:

  • January impeachment trial of a first-term president that concluded with a February acquittal
  • (Hopefully only) a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic that has taken a toll of American lives rapidly approaching 215,000, cratered the economy, and erased millions of jobs
  • Presidential campaign unlike any other
  • Significant racial injustice, protests, and rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement
  • West Coast wildfires and East Coast hurricanes
  • Controversy over the evenhandedness of nominating a Supreme Court justice only weeks before a presidential election
  • Brief/mysterious hospitalization of the sitting POTUS who tested positive for the coronavirus

Still to come in 2020’s more than two-and-one-half remaining months are the presidential election itself, not to mention the already anticipated precedent-setting intensity possibly contesting it.

No wonder so many talk radio personalities are furiously fighting for every second of precious air time as they lament there aren’t enough hours in these power-packed, uniquely-challenging days.

Let’s do two

Variation on the lack-of-time theme is displayed in the heightened form of exemplary conscientiousness by Michael Berry, who oversees an 8:00 am – 11:00 am (CT) talk show and the “Czar of Talk Radio” returns six hours later for another that is two hours in duration (5:00 pm – 7:00 pm, CT).

It could be accurately pointed out that, while it’s outrageously admirable to do five hours of daily talk in two separate dayparts, a handful of others have actually done (and are doing) something similar. In Berry’s case though, the swerve is that over-and-above being the shows’ headliner, he is the self-syndicator.

Quantity-wise, the two-hour offering has a bit more clearances, but it’s not uncommon for Berry’s affiliates to take all five hours. “When you are independent, you stand on your own merit, which is an extra challenge,” remarks the energetic host whose shows emanate from iHeartMedia Houston news/talk flagship KTRH. “It is frustrating because there are many [managers/programmers who] tell us they want us [yet] we are pulled off some stations because syndicators have a lot of power. I work for the largest radio company [so] I can’t exactly call myself an underdog.”

At the same time though, 10-year, self-syndicator Berry grants that it becomes thorny when competitors couch their pitches in such a way to suggest, if a station wants one particular talent, they have to take another one, as well. “That is the marketplace. I can go a national chain for a burger or to the local guy. There is a time and place for both of them.”

Describing his approach to syndication as being more “old-fashioned shoe leather” than the “big national shows,” Berry declares, “Some stations really like that more localized feel.”

Through his reference of the 2016 film “The Founder,” which starred Michael Keaton as businessman Ray Kroc and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald, Berry assesses of Kroc, “He just outworked everybody and there’s something to be said for outworking – technology cannot replace it.”

Offering hope

Approximately 20 properties (in addition to KTRH) currently comprise Berry’s affiliate list, including iHeartMedia siblings KEIB “AM 1150 The Patriot,” Los Angeles; KEX “1190 News Radio,” Portland; WLAC “Talk Radio 1510 & 98.3,” Nashville; WRNO “News Talk 99.5,” New Orleans; WGY “News Radio 810 & 103.1,” Albany (New York); and WJBO “News Radio 1150 & 98.7,” Baton Rouge. “We have not aggressively sought markets,” Berry reveals. “Folks find our shows on podcasts, streaming, or when they’re driving in another town. They reach out to me through my website and literally ask what it would take to get me on their station.”

One of Berry’s producers then begins the negotiation process. “We don’t actually in the technical, literal sense ‘syndicate,’” he concedes. “I don’t sell an ad to a nationwide company that we place into the show. It’s not syndication in the purest sense. We give stations the show and all the resources they need. If a station makes money from the show, they are going to keep it. I’m still in the building phase and doing it on my own. You lose money for a long time to get a big footprint.”

Held in reserve are several spots in which Berry promotes Camp Hope, an organization aiding veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for which he is a spokesperson. “Veterans who serve in combat deserve to have us give something back,” he emphasizes. “I got involved with them about 10 years ago. When you meet these guys and see what they’ve been through, it really does change your life. We’ve now lost twice as many veterans who served in Vietnam to suicide than we lost in Vietnam. It is more dangerous for some of these guys to come home than it is to serve in combat. My involvement with Camp Hope moves me to tears because it is as rewarding as it gets when you feel you’ve saved someone’s life. More so than having a great show, you feel as though you’ve made a real difference.”

Partisans of Berry’s morning and early-evening programs tend to be found in suburban and rural communities. “I find that a suburban or rural listener in Houston is no different than a suburban or rural listener in Portland,” 2010’s Houston Press “Best Talk Radio Host” winner notes. “I don’t tend to have as many downtown, high-rise dwellers as I do guys who drive trucks in California, New York, Texas, or Tennessee. I find that our listeners have unifying characteristics – maybe not geographically, but socioeconomically.”

 Smaller can be better

Prior to becoming a full-time talk radio superstar (#11 on TALKERS’ 2020 “Heavy Hundred”), Berry performed hands-on operations/programming duties for KTRH, news/talk cluster-mate KPRC, and co-owned sports talk KBME. “I wasn’t a programmer naturally,” the lawyer/former real estate company owner/ex-Houston mayor pro tem readily admits. “I actually started my professional radio career [in 2005] doing a weekend show [‘Michael Berry’s Real Estate Review’]. The opportunity to program three stations [arose even though] I didn’t know how to measure ratings. It was a challenge and a whole lot of fun; [however, being on the air] is so engaging and gets your mind working all the time. I don’t think you can always do that with programming. Having been a programmer for a few years taught me a lot about the other side of the business. I am thankful for that experience and it made my show different.”

Owing to his role as a six-year Houston city council member (2002 – 2008), Berry participated in numerous radio interviews. “Being on the other side of the microphone really just sucked me in,” he enthuses. “I’d do a Monday morning reggaetón show with some Tex-Mex hosts; business radio on Tuesdays; and urban talk radio on Fridays. For each one, I’d go in for an hour and take questions – but from very different audiences. I was bringing a politician’s perspective from a city of Houston government representative. That interactive experience was so much more exciting than doing a television interview where a five-second clip would play eight hours later on the evening news. Immediacy of the interactive feedback in talk radio is so exciting and powerful – there’s nothing like it.”

As someone who has consistently held multiple jobs, the Texas native has no difficulty seamlessly juggling two daily shows, while simultaneously being the self-syndicator of those entities. “Like anything else, this is a relationship business,” Berry reasons. “One thing I  understood early-on was that the minimum you need to have is quality content. In addition, you have to help these stations make money. I do endorsements for all my affiliates. I’ll do a spot for a tractor company in one city; a restaurant in another; and a truck dealer in another. I’m helping [my affiliates] make money in a way the ‘big boys’ in national companies can’t do. It wouldn’t make sense because they don’t have the time. I’m at the point where I can affect their bottom line, which is a big win for me. At this point, I use our ‘smallness’ as an advantage.”

Not directly as a result of anything the 49-old-year Berry is purposefully doing, his programs can attract a younger audience. Conversely, he fully appreciates the benefits of drawing in upper-demos. “I’ve found that 50% of the talk radio audience is 55+, yet when you are only measuring 25 – 54, you are missing out on an opportunity. Some of my [listeners] might be 55+, but they buy trucks, tractors, get eye surgeries – and they have a lot more money than 25-year-olds. The industry has chased younger listeners for so long that they have neglected this very opulent, engaged, loyal segment of society.”

Artform’s raw beauty

 Heretofore, his two daily eponymous talkfests have mostly featured Berry, a philosophy that has recently undergone a slight modification. “I am engaging more guests than ever before. I’ve tried to find guests that are fun and maybe not as overexposed as on the late-night television circuit. It is kind of a ‘where-are-they-now?’ type approach with people like [‘The Six Million Dollar Man’] Lee Majors; [retired US Navy SEAL] Marcus Luttrell; former Olympic greats; and business innovators. I try to be more of a ‘variety show’ and that includes a variety of opinions. We have so many opportunities now to speak to people with vast life experiences that are so different from mine. I don’t just mean in politics. I mean gardeners, mechanics, carpenters, and long-haul truck drivers. They add so much to the show that we have begun doing more of that.”

Phone calls, of course, are a vital staple of the talk radio genre and as Berry elaborates, “They are raw, authentic, and interactive in real time. Callers are disembodied voices who can give any opinion, yet they are so sincere when they do it. That is the true beauty of this artform.”

Songwriters, he further opines, are the modern day poets. “What we [as talk show hosts] do is create and entertain in much the same way the bards did. The more the industry can think of itself that way – the better we are in our craft. We have to see ourselves as being on-stage and entertaining. That doesn’t mean we cannot also be uplifting, inspirational, motivational, or patriotic. If we can’t make listeners laugh, cry, and think, we are missing an opportunity. Many of us are really good at it [but we] only get this stage for a moment. It’s important to think of this as a craft and artform, as opposed to an air shift.”

Six crew members and Berry never disconnect from their show prep. “About 10 years ago, I began hiring people to join my team as comedy writers, bit producers, and show bookers,” he details. “I built a team of folks who work around me and make me better. Conan O’Brien doesn’t write all of his stuff [and] ‘Saturday Night Live’ is really about a team of great writers. I don’t think I’m any better than the next guy as a show host. We have an amazing team of people who are contributing. Working as a unit has made the show grow and develop more than any other single thing. It’s not just my voice and that’s what makes it more of a ‘variety’ show.”

Meet-and-Greet master

Derivation of Berry’s “Czar of Talk Radio” moniker was essentially done tongue-in-cheek. “When President Obama was in his first term, he brought in many people who could not pass senate confirmation,” Berry recounts. “Instead of having them as cabinet secretaries, he would make them the ‘czar’ of this and the ‘czar’ of that. At the point when he named 30 of these ‘czars’ [Obama appointed 38 ‘czars,’ after George W. Bush designated 33], I decided I would be the ‘czar of talk radio’ – it just stuck.”

Late-1990s’ real estate company owner Berry perceived realtors were “frightened” that all houses for sale would be put on the internet; thus, buyers could look at them by themselves. “I’d tell realtors that, if the only reason they were being hired was that they had access to homes that were for sale, they weren’t adding value. I feel the same way about radio. When radio first saw podcasting coming, there was a lot of fear. If the only thing you have to offer a listener is an FCC-approved bandwidth that nobody else can get, you aren’t enriching or improving their life. You aren’t content-worthy of being appreciated.”

Pre-coronavirus, Berry took particular “pride” in doing affiliate visits and meet-and-greets, but in the current socially distanced environment, it’s understandable that stations aren’t exactly eager to conduct such events. Nonetheless, Berry insists he’s ready to schedule them as soon as possible. “[In-market visits] are very important, engaging, and I dedicate hours at a time doing them. More important than the quick speech and the question/answer session we do is shaking a listener’s hand and taking a photo. Talk radio is such an intimate medium that listeners want to interact by bringing up their baby; wearing Michael Berry merchandise; or giving me something. As listeners drive along, they feel as though they know their host and want to meet them in the flesh. Those people are going to be your most loyal listeners for years to come and they are going to spread the word.”

Ensconced at KTRH “News Radio AM 740” from 7:00 am – 7:00 pm, Berry deliberately declines the option of originating his two daily broadcasts from the comfort of his home. “I still go to the station because I feel like I need to,” he comments. “I spent two months this summer in Aspen and did the shows from my living room. When I visit affiliates, I will do the show from their studio or a hotel room. I still like looking at my team across the glass. If I’m making them laugh, I know I’m making listeners laugh; I just need a live audience.”

Inspirational voices

For the same reason that Rush Limbaugh invoked several years ago and other hosts in the genre have cited, Berry limits his monitoring of talk radio. “If I listen to other [hosts], I find myself repeating them and then needing to credit every thought as having been from them, so I’m better off if I don’t.”

Despite the reluctance to sample work of his peers, Berry doesn’t hesitate in listing Limbaugh as “by far” his number one influence, “mostly because he uses comedy to make a very serious point. I learned a lot about that aspect of him doing that. I’ve tuned into him more lately as he has had some health challenges. I hear in his voice a sense that he feels he’s blessed to get the opportunity to do this. All of us can take things for granted and you can tell he appreciates it in a way that perhaps he didn’t before.”

Meanwhile, Berry “marvels” at Mark Levin’s ability to “bring the Constitution to life for a modern audience in an originalist form. Sean Hannity has the ability to get newsmakers on every day so he’s not just talking about the news, he’s literally making it. Glenn Beck’s fusion of entertainment and information was very good for the industry. He is such a fan of historical legacy radio. I admire how he pays tribute to [Orson] Welles and those guys; I try to do some of that. [When it comes to] storytelling, there was Paul Harvey [who died in 2009]. I try to master the art of storytelling that he used to drag people to the radio; they never turned away from it.”

Nearly everyone these days can be a content creator via podcasts. “The marketplace has opened up and I think that’s wonderful,” endorses Berry, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston and a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. “As an industry, we have to be better and can’t beat people over the head with too many commercials. We don’t need to do all the silly imaging and production that was a distraction from the content. I know that my content has to be good and not just for one hour. Many of my consumers aren’t going to consume this [until] a week or two [so] it still has to be timely, funny, or relevant then. It forces you to put greater thought into the quality of your content and that makes us better.”

Suggesting the industry take special note of former “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan, Berry contends, “He has created a very unconventional audience which is the largest, most monetizable podcast audience out there. That should be a wakeup call: We need more diversity. That doesn’t just mean racial, religious, or sexual orientation. It also means doing things differently, and Joe has been very effective [with ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast]. Look at how independent moviemakers made the film industry better. Podcasting has made radio better for that very same reason.”

More than meets the ear

Shockwaves reverberated throughout the world when it was announced last week that this country’s chief executive contracted COVID-19. “When you get big news like that, you cannot just have an immediate reaction,” Berry states. “You have to process it in terms of explaining it. We live in such a crazy time that is creating a fatigue. It’s all ‘breaking news’ and ‘talking heads’/‘breaking news’ and ‘talking heads.’ We have to step back and process what is – and isn’t – important. Our listeners don’t come to us for the news – they can get that anywhere at any time. In some cases, they get it long before we know about it. They look to us for what the news means. What I try to do is be somewhat cerebral and thoughtful. I process it and explain it to people as I put it into context. I explain the importance, overall significance, and how something will change the country, or [a listener’s] life. The election is important – the 58 times you post on Facebook isn’t.”

Politics is such an exceptionally “tough business” that Berry doesn’t miss it. “I still love public policy and get enough of politics through radio, but we get too much politics through our lives,” he puts forth. “That’s one reason why we try to differentiate ourselves by being more of a variety show and slightly less [about] politics.”

Along with his India-born wife Nandita “Nandy” Venkateswaran (Texas’ 109th  secretary of state), Berry has two adopted sons from Ethiopia, and he maintains the 14-year-old and 13-year-old boys have changed him as a person. “It grounded me and made me slightly less self-centered. That was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me. In this field, we tend to get a little megalomaniacal because of all the positive feedback. When I’m not at the station, it’s all kid activities.”

Notwithstanding that virtually every syndicated talent yearns to grow his or her affiliate roster, the “Czar of Talk Radio” acknowledges that his “worst fear” with each added clearance is “worrying” about the potential of changing what he does. “We have the opportunity to push the limits a little more than the ‘big national guys.’ I enjoy being cheekier at times and the fact that we are not politically correct.”

Comfortable to be unlike any of his counterparts in the medium, this son of a DuPont chemical plant maintenance supervisor (father) and nursing home attendant (mother) underscores that each radio personality has their own background. “Each of us is complex and unique [so] don’t assume you know me because I am seemingly conservative on the radio,” Berry cautions. “Don’t assume someone has particular views on a subject until you engage them and give them the opportunity to answer those questions. I can’t imagine doing anything other than talking on the radio every day. I hate to call it a ‘job’ because that suggests it is ‘work,’ but it’s all ‘fun.’ The beauty is you can do this late into your life. I love it and don’t want to walk away from it because it is so invigorating.”

Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.

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Category: Features

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