By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
Completely feasible would be that a two-hour, weekly (primarily weekend) offering presided over by a still relatively new-to-radio talent would be totally buried underneath all that clutter.
Chances of that eventuating, however, continue getting slimmer and slimmer, as the compelling personality involved in this specific instance is methodically building a case that – on several levels – her show warrants industry attention. There is little doubt that she certainly does.
Trained socio-biologist Rebecca Costa became interested in that particular field of examining behavior from the long haul of human evolution in 1975 while attending the University of California – Santa Barbara. “Some come out of the womb knowing they want to be a concert pianist; I was not like that,” the altogether fascinating host of Genesis Communications Network’s “The Costa Report” states. “Whenever I had $10 in my wallet, I roamed the earth like a gypsy. I can never apologize enough to my parents because I drove them crazy.”
Almost instantly following Costa’s birth, she and her family relocated from northern California to Tokyo and it would only be much later in life that she discovered her father worked for … the CIA. “In those days, you thought every family was the same as yours,” she reasons. “You don’t think other families are different. I had no basis to question what [my parents or] the parents of other kids were doing.”
Over and above Costa speaking and writing in fluent Japanese, she still considers that her first language and she had to re-learn English, although to be clear, her Italian-American father spoke English in their home. “My mother was Japanese and I have about 100 relatives in Japan who speak Japanese to me – I was privileged to be raised by such a wonderful family,” she stresses.
Even now, her choice of words can often be considered creative. “People will say I have an interesting way of describing a problem,” she comments. “That comes from the fact that I don’t think of problems in the traditional way.”
Contributing heavily to that approach stems from Costa being the product of a science and engineering background. “My father started out as an aeronautical engineer and my mother was second-in-command at Hewlett-Packard as a quality assurance engineer,” she explains. “Everyone in my family is a scientist and an engineer.”
If not for an expression that Costa’s father frequently quoted, it would seem on first blush that for her to be doing a weekly radio program is quite a stretch. “It was virtually tattooed on our brains,” she declares of the Thomas Jefferson-attributed line, “Science is my passion, politics my duty” and Costa’s father would invoke that at least once a week to his politically active family.
Discussions around their dinner table were about scientific breakthroughs and Costa proclaims, “We probably were the only ones to have a white board in our kitchen. You could not just ‘say’ something about the speed of atoms or a new carbon model, you had to ‘understand’ what [it meant].”
Quite significantly, one of every three exchanges the family had involved public policy. “That was how we ate dinner,” matter-of-factly points out Costa, who lived with her family in Laos during the Vietnam War. “We entertained ourselves with science and policy. Even though I veered out of the engineering field into biology, I believe physics is easy because there are rules that govern the physical universe. Once you learn the rules, everything works that way. What we know about biology though is very limited. It is much more complex than physics will ever be; I like things that are difficult and multi-faceted.”
Name your job
Unaware of her purpose on this planet until she picked up E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Costa remarks reading that book in 1975 was a turning point in her life. “Much more so than people are willing to acknowledge, everything is driven by our biological spacesuit.”
By the time Costa graduated from UCSB with a Bachelor’s degree in social sciences, her parents had moved to Silicon Valley so it was very interesting that, “Whether I liked it or not, my career was going to be influenced by the onslaught of semiconductors and integrated circuits.”
Notwithstanding the Silicon Valley’s technological explosion, a labor shortage existed there and human behavior expert Costa jokes, “They were basically hiring anyone who could spell their own name.”
Human resource directors at United Telecom subsidiary Calma somehow made a connection that, since Costa had excellent writing skills, she would be adept at marketing.
Such assessments actually proved correct as she ascended to the position of vice president of marketing. General Electric purchased the firm and Costa became GE’s youngest director – and then that mega-company’s youngest vice president. After leaving to form Dazai Advertising, the United States’ second largest technology marketing company, which she sold to J. Walter Thompson 10 years later, Costa retired to Pebble Beach (California) and wrote The Watchman’s Rattle. It took seven years to complete that project and, in sweet serendipity, E. O. Wilson wrote the forward.
Odds of the book’s success, Costa contends, were “300,000 to one” but it hit the top 1% of Amazon’s “Non-Fiction” sales and remained there for five years. “This was a dark horse with no vampires falling in love or boy wizards – it should have sold five copies.”
Encountering a different animal
Two months after the book – which explains how “the principles governing evolution cause and provide a solution for global gridlock” – was released, the president of The American Program Bureau recruited Costa. “No one ever paid me to speak [publicly] before and they suddenly were sending me to places such as London, Paris, Sydney, and Japan,” she remembers.
Audiences to hear her were getting larger and larger. This past year, for example, she was the keynote speaker at Walmart, which employs 2.5 million people worldwide. “Name a company and I’ve probably spoken at their conference,” Costa assures.
As that was transpiring, management at 1,000-watt (Class C at 1240) KNRY, Monterey queried Costa about doing a radio program. The first two months her book came out, she did about 50 radio interviews. “I knew I could do an hour of radio, but I was wrong,” she concedes. “Running your own show is a whole different animal.”
Had she been aware of what “really” was involved, Costa alleges she would have been scared off about fronting her own radio show. “I was naive but I gave my word to do a one-hour program so I had to do it. I was lucky that it was at a small station with a very small audience. It was the perfect place to cut my teeth. You are going to make mistakes so make them with as few people listening as possible.”
Grateful that only a limited audience heard her first few broadcasts, Costa began tracking those with considerable industry experience. “I asked for their advice, and I listened to how they transitioned to commercial breaks,” she divulges.
Speed is relevant
Roughly one year after Costa began at KNRY, cross-town Zwerling Broadcasting System president and chief executive officer Michael Zwerling connected with her and inquired – ostensibly with tongue-in-cheek – why so many people were leaving his Santa Cruz station (10,000-watt Class B KSCO at 1280) to listen to KNRY at 2:00 pm – when Costa was on the air. “Before I knew it, I was on KSCO,” she notes. A syndication deal followed. “We were later very fortunate to be picked up by Ted Anderson and the crew at GCN. Ted is as solid and honest as the day is long. We grew to about 60 stations and we are on-target to add five-10 stations a month.”
Most other hosts would be thrilled with the size of that base and ongoing month-to-month station increases to boot, but the refreshingly candid Costa opines, “That growth is slow – things should go faster. From a radio business standpoint, I am told that is fast movement. Radio people think the business moves fast. Compared to the speed the rest of world is traveling though, it is too slow. Some shows are stuck at the same number of affiliates because the host believes it is enough just to do their program. They want everyone else to do the hard work. They scream at their syndicator and beat up their affiliates that they are not doing enough promotion. They do not have an idea of what is going on in radio right now and how very difficult it is. The industry is on its knees and hosts have to figure out how to fix it. That’s what is important – not whether someone has a great show.”
Boasting what she underscores to be “one of the best guest lists in talk radio,” Costa strives to do a Charlie Rose-type broadcast. Hour one of “The Costa Report” has an in-depth interview, while the second hour features a commentary, roundtable, and technology/legal update. “I use the same formula every single time because repetition equals perfection,” Costa emphasizes. “You cannot perfect anything unless you have repeatability. That is a primary tenant in science, but apparently, people in radio do not know about it. Even with the best show in the world and if you [integrate] systems where you can increase quality, it still does not matter if you cannot make money.”
Program directors are hounded all day by syndicators and talk hosts who are imploring them to add their shows. “Believe me,” Costa insists, “I did not want to stand in that long line.”
Bypassing such a sea of hopefuls requires devising creative ways for affiliates to make money and Costa acknowledges that is the toughest question with which a host must address. “Those who do not deal with that,” she steadfastly maintains, “will not have their show grow.”
Talk radio can mean big business
Given her extensive Silicon Valley work history, Costa has had lengthy relationships with numerous high-tech companies, yet the most “sobering experience” was when she asked them to commit as a program sponsor. “Time after time, I was confidentially told that talk radio was on their ‘no-buy’ list,” she details. “They said it was too controversial; they didn’t need the trouble; and there are other ways they can reach that audience.”
After hearing that objection on multiple occasions, Costa wondered “how this business” of talk radio makes any money. “The answer was that it does not,” she vigorously states. “If you – as an industry – have driven off the companies with the world’s largest ad budgets, you have made the decision to go out of business. It is that simple. You cannot drive away the largest customers.”
Flipping it around, Costa readily admitted her listenership was small but she guaranteed advertisers that each of her shows contains a quality interview and there is never any attack on either of the country’s two main political parties. “It is an informative, public service-type interview modeled after ’60 Minutes,’ ‘This Week,’ ‘Meet the Press,’ and Charlie Rose.”
Repeatedly advised there was no audience for a talk show that plays things perfectly down the middle, Costa nonetheless counters, “There absolutely is. Independents are the largest-growing voter demographic in the United States and they are fed up with the left and the right. Everyone has a brain – we can decide for ourselves if something is a good idea. It is not for me to tell anyone what to think. I am a scientist and I am more interested in how to fix a problem. My guests deserve the opportunity to speak to the American people and deliver their message. My job is to make sure their message is clear, understandable, and communicated accurately. I don’t like to make it any more complicated than that.”
Potential advertisers indicated they would be supportive, but they first needed proof. “I said I would have very extreme guests,” Costa reveals. “There is no more conservative company in the United States than IBM and it underwrites my program. It took two and a half years for me to get IBM; two years to get Dole Food Company; three years to get Abbott Laboratories; and four years to get Tableau Software. Mine is the only talk program in the United States that has proven it can bring big business back to talk radio.”
Logic then would dictate that any commercial radio talk show capable of snaring lofty nameplate companies as sponsors should be on every day rather than once a week. Impeccably honest Costa, however, confides there are no intentions to expand because, “I cannot sustain the quality. [CBS] figured out ’60 Minutes’ should not be on every night. My show is more than a 10-minute drive-by. I am going after the people who really want to examine the issues from different standpoints. I write the scripts for the shows myself, do all the research, and read each guest’s book; just about every guest is astonished that I have read their book.”
Distributors are assets
Until approximately five years ago, Costa was a radio outsider and she grants that coming into this business has been eye-opening. “The most discouraging thing is when I call the operator of a 1,000-watt station who is fighting for his life. It is not for their lack of work or lack of commitment. They have no staff – they are working at it 24/7 and still cannot make a living. That is unacceptable to me. It should never have happened, but my mission is to help make them some money right now.”
Part of the process to accomplish that is Costa personally speaking with as many general managers and program directors as she can. “It is amazing how many times I’ve been told they were surprised they could talk directly with me,” she muses. “These people are representing my show. They have been beaten down, but I tell them I want to help them fix it quickly. Shame on any host who is too busy to get on the phone with an affiliate that is trying to represent [his or her] show. Affiliates are partners and they are the distributors of my product. In ‘real’ corporate America, your distributors are an asset so you cultivate a relationship with them. Companies like IBM, General Electric, Apple Computers, and Oracle honor their distributors. Radio is not sophisticated in terms of looking at itself as a business. If it were, these distributors would not take this crap from hosts.”
Once IBM agreed to sponsor Costa’s show, she attempted to locate IBM business partners in an affiliate’s broadcast area. “In most cases, they had anywhere from 50% to 75% co-op that would cover the advertising,” she recounts. “That is something that opens up right away when you have a corporate sponsor. They need local advertising and they set aside money for that in the form of co-op. One-half the ad’s cost, if not more, is already covered. That is the beauty of getting corporations back into talk radio. I send affiliates prospect lists that have unspent co-op dollars.”
Encouraging news for Costa’s affiliates; however, the host herself is not realizing one penny from doing her program. “I put every single dollar back into affiliate support,” she asserts. “I never will make money on radio – that is not my purpose for having a show.
Anyone scratching his or her head in confusion over that statement needs to be reminded of the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson quote, which helps summarize Costa’s intention for participating in the medium. “Your responsibility should be driven by your character and what you are here to do. Politics is my responsibility. I make my money through speaking, consulting, and my book sales. The primary mission of social change always has to be recruitment. My goal is to get information out to the public, and as long as there is a good idea, it needs to be put out there. My affiliates though do need to make money from my show. What I need to do is repair what is broken, as well as to get content out there that corporate America can support and does ‘a public good.’ If I do those things, my radio program will be fine.”
Fast track to fix the genre
The sequel to The Watchman’s Rattle is scheduled to be released later this year and, while the original necessitated seven years, the follow-up, whose working title is The Sum of our Ambition, took six years. “I will always be a writer,” Costa exclaims. “There is no greater regret though than the day after your book is published. You have probably learned a thousand things since it was written and you would want to change all of it. Your ideas do not stay still even though the words on the printed page do. Radio comes and goes. You have spoken the words; it passes through the ether; and it is over. The next week, you can correct anything or move forward to advance the argument. It is a wonderful luxury to write a new chapter every week and amend previous chapters. Your book though is in the Library of Congress and you are stuck with what is put to paper.”
Humbly downplaying her talk radio tenure to this point, Costa quips, “I am just an ant in a gymnasium: Until we get some critical mass, I haven’t accomplished anything yet. The good news is that it will not take much to fix talk radio. Once you get on the right track, it goes rather fast. You tap into corporate coffers and life gets better quickly. For years, radio has been going down the road of ‘large audience equals big advertising revenue.’ If that were true, IBM should be sponsoring Rush Limbaugh instead of ‘The Costa Report.’ Audience size does not matter. The most important thing is having a program that large corporate advertisers can feel good about in their association. That is the first box that should be checked. If you can’t check that one, it doesn’t matter what size audience you have.”
Recorded in the KSCO studios, “The Costa Report” is fed to GCN each Friday at 7:00 am (Pacific Time) for distribution via XDS. Affiliates generally air it Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, but some stations carry it as late as Monday or Tuesday.
Owing to the fact her show opens up inventory, many more than a handful of “Costa Report” affiliates air the program several times a week. “I give stations unlimited rights to re-play the show,” she discloses. “They won’t do that unless they are selling ads, so it is working. I would like to be the top-rated weekend radio show the same way ’60 Minutes’ and ‘Meet The Press’ are on television. When I get there, that will be proof that we are making money again in radio. If I can influence radio stations to start running programming that corporate America will sponsor, everything will fix itself.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be reached at Kinosian@Talkers.com. Meet him at Talkers New York 2015 on Friday, June 12. For information and to register, phone 413-565-5413.