By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — A number of actors, politicians, television anchors, lawyers, and writers are among those who have succumbed to the allure of talk radio, trying their hand at being on-air hosts in the genre.
Various members from this group, however, lacked the requisite passion and swiftly faded from their fling.
Generally speaking though, longstanding fiercely loyal partisans making their living as talk radio personalities tend to remain in the profession and keep doing it as their primary source of income for as long as possible.
Over the course of an approximately four-year tenure that commenced in January 2004 at 50,000-watt iHeartMedia Los Angeles talker KFI, John Ziegler ventured into a different career path by signing a deal to do his first documentary film. Believing at the time there was no overriding reason to continue in an arena after performing at the highest level, the often times controversial personality “did not miss talk radio at all.”
Three documentary endeavors, including “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected,” which focused on coverage of the 2008 election and featured the only extended interview Sarah Palin granted regarding that campaign, propelled Ziegler onto numerous cable news shows.
Memo to medium-market managers
Stints at Philadelphia outlets WIP (where golfing enthusiast Ziegler did sports talk) and WWDB; Nashville’s WWTN-FM; and WHAS, Louisville preceded his ascension to KFI. With that kind of background, it did not come as a complete shock that the radio bug would again strike him.
Intermediary assistance of venerable former Premiere Networks’ president and chief operating officer Kraig Kitchin served as a conduit for Ziegler to link up with Danno Wolkoff’s Envision Radio Networks.
Taking shape in October 2014, the “John & Leah Talk Show” renews a professional association with Leah Brandon and has Ziegler broadcasting from a studio in suburban Los Angeles, while tag-team partner Brandon appears via Birmingham, where she has been morning news anchor on iHeartMedia talker WERC the past eight years. “It has been interesting, fun, and a lot of work,” Ziegler succinctly states of the three-hour Sunday night broadcast. “Our ratings on WHAS have been out-of-control. It has been so fantastic that we actually put up a couple of billboards there. I am pretty sure we are the only syndicated weekend show in a medium market with major billboards. Louisville has been very good to us and our ratings success there has been amazing, so we are hoping to capitalize further on that.”
In addition to iHeartMedia-owned WHAS, charter affiliates popped up in New York City and Ziegler’s hometown of Philadelphia (Salem Media Group’s WNYM and WNTP, respectively). Ever since the January 2015 launch, other markets followed, including Salem Media Group-owned facilities in Los Angeles (KRLA), Houston (KNTH), Washington, DC (WWRC), Boston (WMKI), Seattle (KLFE), San Diego (KCBQ-AM), and Sacramento (KTKZ).
Fifteen of the 22 stations carrying the “John & Leah Talk Show” are located in the top 28 markets, but Ziegler strives for added growth in medium-size metros. “So far, I am surprised there has not been more of a bandwagon effect,” he comments. “Many stations are missing a fantastic opportunity to get their weekdays started in a strong way with this great reason for people to tune in on Sunday nights. I think this is a real missed opportunity for many stations around the country. We would like to help them take advantage of that opportunity. If every medium market manager saw our ratings success in Louisville, they would be calling Envision immediately because it is a remarkable story. From a content standpoint, I think we have the best weekend show on radio – it is not even close. We provide analysis of the news of the week that listeners cannot get anywhere else. We do it in a way that is entertaining, informative, and truly unique.”
Of the belief that the Sunday night program is “way ahead” of where most other shows would be after a first-year anniversary, Ziegler nonetheless stresses, “I do not accept mediocrity. I think this show should be on in almost every market in the country. My attitude is everyone should be taking it.”
Patience practitioner versus instant gratification
While it would seem readily apparent to someone with Ziegler’s vast broadcasting background, he admits there has been at least one major lesson he has learned in the past year. “I don’t know why I was slow to pick up on this but it takes a lot longer to gain traction when you are only on once a week. I have done weekday shows in major markets and you get traction much faster. There is a lot more patience required, but when I know I am on the right track, I can be very patient; I know this show is on the right track because it is the best program in all of weekend radio.”
Lack of patience is a natural characteristic for most talk show hosts. “You want success immediately,” Ziegler reasons, “but that is just not realistic, especially in this day and age where everything is so fragmented. There is so much clutter out there. If content means anything, this show will be a huge success because our content is better than [that of anyone else]. We are the only show that together has a male and a female with the expansive and unique backgrounds that Leah Brandon and I have. We are also the only show that can do both hard news and soft news in an informative and an entertaining way. No one else can bridge that gap. Leah and I have each had strange careers and incredible experiences in our lives – both good and bad; that is what makes our show unique. No other weekend radio show is like it.”
Essentially, the two cultivated an on-air KFI evening union on “The John Ziegler Show,” where the multi-talented Brandon served as the newsperson. “Most of the time, she was there to comment,” he notes of the fetching Brandon, whose credits include being a Los Angeles FM music personality at then-hot AC KYSR “Star 98.7” and CHR powerhouse KIIS “Kiss-FM”; prior to that, in Roanoke. “This was a natural transition to have her be there for all three hours as a true co-host. She obviously has the female perspective that I cannot possibly bring to the table. In addition, she ‘gets’ me and that is the most important thing. Leah knows my history. It is amazing how many times in news stories we joke about it being ‘six degrees of John Ziegler.’ There is always a connection with something I have done in my life or in my career. She already knows the stories and in some cases, she is part of the story. We disagree on many things, but we agree on big-picture business stuff, and how to do a show. If we didn’t mention on the air that [we are doing the program in separate cities], I doubt anyone would ever know it.”
Explicit differences in opinion between the two co-hosts have surfaced in this wacky presidential election year. “I am more cynical and Leah is a little more naive,” maintains Ziegler, who turns 49 later this month (3/28). “I have been pretty prescient about choosing which candidates were going to fade away because they are frauds. She is more idealistic, having a soft spot for Ted Cruz and [Dr.] Ben Carson [who suspended his campaign after ‘Super Tuesday’]. I was finally able to persuade her that those guys were not going to hack it. Carson and Carly Fiorina are frauds, but it is obvious Donald Trump is the biggest fraud that has ever been. Cruz is a bit of a fraud, while Chris Christie is a total fraud. I have always been in favor of anyone who could beat Hillary Clinton. Marco Rubio is far better suited to do that than is Donald Trump, but it does not matter now – Trump is going to be the nominee – it is over.”
Firmly believing that Trump will ultimately lose the general election to former Secretary of State Clinton, Ziegler asserts, “Talk radio is going to have a lot of responsibility when that happens. Some of our biggest stars allowed Trump to get the traction that he did during a very slow period last summer. He was smart to realize that was the time to announce [his candidacy]. I don’t know if he anticipated it, but I am sure that he hoped some talk radio hosts would give him a lot of attention. They created an evil genie they cannot get back into the bottle. Will conservative talk radio listeners blame and punish talk radio for having so many hosts vouching for the person who ends up being a horrible candidate? I do not have the answer, but [the industry] needs to be aware of that very important, fundamental question facing conservative talk radio today.”
Correlations between the Trump candidacy and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon are present in that each has electrified a particular voter base, but Ziegler opines there is not a talk radio industry that was financially invested in Sanders’ success. “The mainstream news media has not given Sanders anywhere near the same amount of attention as Trump, who has talk radio discussing him 24/7. Sanders does not have that because – for all practical purposes – there is no liberal talk radio. It is all about ratings and even MSNBC knows that Trump is better for ratings than Sanders.”
Despite the fact that Sanders has amassed an eye-popping amount of money, Ziegler still contends nothing is keeping the Vermont senator going. “He is a ‘dead man walking,’ surviving purely on the perception of momentum,” he observes. “With that perception now gone, he is toast with no chance – Hillary is 100% the nominee [for the Democrats] and Trump is 90% the nominee [for the Republicans].”
One rather amazingly curious – if not contradictory – element about Trump is that, while lavished with tremendous concentration, he will often brutally criticize the media. “This is someone who gets offended if you do not acknowledge his deity,” Ziegler quips. “If you say anything other than he is a god, you are a bad person in Donald Trump’s mind, but he hasn’t seen anything yet. If he is complaining about media coverage now, wait until it is clear that he is the nominee. They are going to turn on him as hard as they have turned on anyone.”
Particularly in light of Trump’s bobble to disavow David Duke’s endorsement, it has already started to happen. “[MSNBC ‘Morning Joe’ host] Joe Scarborough, who was a big Trump supporter, now basically calls him disqualified to hold the office,” Ziegler points out. “That was fast, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. It is absolutely astonishing to me that supposedly credible members of the conservative pundit class – including many talk radio hosts who have made careers out of correctly educating listeners about the nefarious nature of the mainstream news media – either refuse to see – or cannot see – what will happen to Trump in the general election. The news media is going to destroy him. Not only is it going to be easy, it is going to be profitable. The media created this monster in Donald Trump. Either you let the monster take over your party or you have to try to kill the monster. It is sometimes ugly to kill the monster so there is no good option there. The horse was out of the barn once Trump won the New Hampshire primary.”
Ironic turning point
Another contributing factor enabling Trump to rack up a series of decisive victories is that others have been “too selfish,” Ziegler laments, by continuing to stay in the race. “Even if it became a Trump-Rubio race, it might be interesting and close, but it is too late now. There is no silver bullet at this point – it does not exist. When we look back on this, we will see that Trump won the nomination by finishing second in Iowa. If he finished first, there would have been an immediate panic and it would have been soon enough to stop this train. When he placed second, it lulled everyone into a false sense of security. At the time, I said on the air that it was the greatest thing that could have happened to Trump. The feeling was he was not as strong as everyone had thought. Had he won Iowa, we would have seen an entirely different dynamic and there would have been enough time to stop him.”
Major events such as “Super Tuesday,” Mitt Romney’s blasting of Trump, and Thursday night’s debate (3/3) can make doing a Sunday night radio talk show exasperating, but on the other hand, Ziegler counters that he likes to be fully organized. “Since we are only on once a week, there is no faking it or repeating yourself. We almost never get through all the content we have prepared for the three hours. When you do a show five days a week, you repeat yourself because there is not enough content on a daily basis – although there might be in this campaign because it is so nutty. Thank goodness that we have Twitter and Facebook. I express many opinions on both of those [social media platforms] and we get a lot of listener interaction. We have over 10,000 Twitter followers so there is a healthy audience for me to talk to there.”
After having spent years monitoring many of his talk radio colleagues, Ziegler has altered his listening pattern by only occasionally sampling his counterparts. Tremendously forthright and candid about some of them, he matter-of-factly, frankly accentuates that, “Most of them are frauds and it frustrates me to listen to them. Donald Trump has exposed many talk radio hosts for not being what they claim to be. Many say they are about principle. When it came down to it, however, they were about ratings and narrative – not principle.”
Keeping it real
Although politics is clearly the dominating topic in the three-hour “John & Leah Talk Show,” it is not the exclusive focal point. “We talk a lot about pop culture, and no other show discusses real life more than we do,” Ziegler insists. “I have talked openly and honestly about the decision my wife [the former Alison Kallik] and I are trying to make about having a second child. We get into honest – and sometimes intimate – details about that very difficult decision. I doubt many other hosts would even dare to go into that kind of territory. Leah and I talk about our personal struggles to get through real life all the time. There is way too much cowardice and political correctness about race issues and I think it has gotten completely out-of-control. What we saw on the ‘Academy Awards’ broadcast [Sunday, 2/28] was a complete joke. It was so politically correct on the issue of race that you could not even parody it. If there is a subject that no one else will dare talk about honestly – we will – and that is pretty much our forte.”
Research for each Sunday night Ziegler-Bandon broadcast consumes a great deal of Ziegler’s week, but he appropriates considerable time to take care of his three-year-old daughter; write a column for Mediaite; run a small real estate rental business; and coach a high school golf team. “I am probably the busiest once-a-week talk show host that anyone can imagine,” he puts forth. “I have a unique take on world events and I have a pretty darn good record for being correct. I enjoy being able to point out something that no one else is seeing that turns out to be true. I get the most enjoyment out of doing that – whichever medium it comes in and I am actually able to get into some depth with the columns I write. We live in a world of 10-second television sound bites and eight- or ten-minute radio segments. It is very difficult to get into any real substance in any medium [other than] print, which is what attracts me to it.”
Expanding the “John & Leah Talk Show” from Sundays to five times a week is actually not something 1989 Georgetown University grad Ziegler sees happening in the foreseeable future but he is “open to it,” should things work out logistically. “It is a great show that deserves a wider airing so if an opportunity arose, I would strongly consider it. This is a crazy business so you never know.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.