EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared in Inside Radio in 2008 when writer Mike Kinosian served there as special features editor.
By Mike Kinosian
ATLANTA — Proudly boasting a divergent work history, Herman Cain was relatively new to the radio industry a dozen or so years ago, but was keenly aware of how to persevere – or much more precisely flourish – in the face of formidable odds.
Barest of necessities to the boardroom to the broadcast booth all too swiftly capsulate his intriguing journey.
Neither a burning aspiration nor long-held ambition factored into him becoming WSB-AM, Atlanta’s 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm talk host, yet that’s what eventuated on January 2, 2008.
Hard knocks alum
Intriguing career choices were nothing new for the Peach State native who, at age 58, woke up one day in 2003 and matter-of-factly decided to run for the United States Senate. “I was sick of politics as usual and hearing the same old political speeches,” Cain commented.
Candidates running for office with whom Cain was familiar neglected to address solutions to major issues. “I looked at the political/governmental scene and wondered what was wrong with these people – it isn’t rocket science,” he quipped. “We know how to fix most things that are [broken] in this country but politics gets in the way. My wife [Gloria] thought I lost my mind. After being blessed with my other achievements, I thought I needed to do something that wasn’t for money or recognition. I did it strictly because it needed to be done and perhaps I have the talent.”
Although Cain stressed that being a trailblazer wasn’t his motivation, that candidacy marked the first time a black person ever ran for statewide office in Georgia as a Republican. “The Republican Party aligns better with my ideologies and beliefs. I believe in fewer taxes; more individual responsibility; and a strong national military defense.”
The fundamental free-market thinker and Horatio Alger award recipientopined that the more government a country has, the less likely free market is able to work. “I developed those principles by way of experience and the school of hard knocks. My parents were Democrats and, at one point, I was one too, but knew the things I wanted to do would never be embraced by the Democratic Party.”
Finishing in what he refers to as an “impressive” second-place to Johnny Isakson in the 2004 Republican primary for that U.S. Senate seat, Cain contended many of his 172,000 voters encouraged him to keep speaking out. “Several of my staff members came up with the idea of developing a radio show. I thought about it and put together ‘Herman Cain With The Bottom Line,’ connecting headlines and what it means to listeners in their life.”
Marketing hat securely in-place, Cain made a presentation to Atlanta’s WGKA, which resulted in him getting a Saturday afternoon (4:00 – 6:00 pm) program. “Six months after I started, they noticed movement on the radio Richter scale and asked if I’d like to do three hours,” he recalled. “You’re not supposed to be able to generate an audience on Saturday afternoon.”
Also taking note of positive audience feedback was the then-program director of Cox Media Group’s market dominant talker, WSB-AM, Pete Spriggs, who initiated dialogue with Cain. “My staff was elated because they knew about WSB-AM’s reputation and reach but I had no idea,” Cain admitted. “I began comparing [WSB-AM’s] 350,000 listeners to WGKA’s 18,000 so [making the switch] wasn’t a hard decision. WGKA gave me my start, but the people there understood my objective was to inform and educate people.”
Approximately 90 days into Cain’s WSB-AM weekend tenure, he was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer; surgery was performed in summer 2006. Six months later, Cain was given a clean bill of health. “Thankfully, I was one of the three in ten who goes from almost dead to cancer-free,” he proclaimed.
Just several months later, Spriggs told Cain he wanted to bump him up from Saturday 12:00 noon – 2:00 pm to weeknights, 7:00 – 10:00 pm. “I asked why he thought I’d want to work that hard,” Cain playfully jested. “Then, I prayed about it which is what I do when I’m faced with making unexpected decisions. I thought about advantages of having that sort of platform. Government has run amuck but we still have the power to fix it. If I couldn’t [inspire people] from the floor of the U.S. Senate, maybe it was God’s will for me to do it on a weeknight talk show.”
That’s how the-then 62-year-old Cain, with no prior radio interest, found his way to an esteemed station in a top ten market.
Emotional fond farewell
Arriving at that destination was anything but typical and it would be the height of understatement to suggest Cain was totally surprised at his sudden career as a talk radio host.
From the time Cain was 16, his driving ambition was to earn a lot of money, completely understandable since his father juggled three jobs to make ends meet. “I didn’t need to be a [Bill] Gates or [Warren] Buffett,” he underscored. “My goal was financial security and financial success.”
High school teacher Charles S. Johnson encouraged his student to major in mathematics at Morehouse College. “My father said I could be whatever I wanted if I worked hard enough and long enough; that stayed with me,” affirmed a reflective Cain, who graduated from Morehouse in 1967 and later earned a Master’s Degree from Purdue. “He didn’t make excuses about growing up in the segregated south or going to an inferior high school. You didn’t leave Morehouse without feeling an obligation to be the best you could be.”
Having risen through Atlanta-based Coca-Cola’s blue-collar ranks, Cain’s father became chauffeur and personal valet to chairman/chief executive officer Robert W. Woodruff. “He didn’t talk about it a lot but one of my dad’s dreams was that my brother and I would be financially secure and to be the executive riding in the back of that town car.”
When Pillsbury named Cain vice president of technology, his dad witnessed his son become a corporate honcho. “He also envisioned me going even further because of the education I received and my drive and determination.”
Among other restaurant nameplates, Pillsbury was the parent company of Burger King.
Technology executive Cain opted to shift gears to pursue a career at the home of the “Whopper,” but the very day of Cain’s 1982 going away party carries significance for a more somber reason. “It’s the day my dad died. The fact he died the day I was making a career change wasn’t coincidental. My father has always been an inspiration to me. I left for the restaurant business and never looked back.”
Pie offer he couldn’t refuse
In terms of sales, new store growth, and profitability, Philadelphia ranked at the bottom of Burger King’s ten national regions, and it’s where Cain was assigned as vice president/general manager.
Certain situations required him to get corporate approval, but Cain essentially was in charge of 400 restaurants. By the time he left nearly four years later in 1986, Philadelphia was “number one in everything,” the former chair of the National Restaurant Association asserted. “Quite simply, I focused on the basics. I got the organization excited about blocking and tackling – basic customer service. I changed the culture of the employees’ attitude and stuck with the burger manual. That’s how we succeeded. It wasn’t any great secret, other than focusing on fundamentals.”
Exactly the same approach served him well after arriving in Omaha as president of Godfather’s Pizza on April Fool’s Day 1986.
Frequently asked to give speeches at various events, Cain built a strong community image and was approached by the Federal Reserve’s branch manager to consider joining its board. “Based on my participation there and on my outspokenness, I was asked to do the same on the Kansas City board. It wasn’t a fulltime position, but it’s the Federal Reserve with all its rules, regulations, and expectations. It was a great learning experience.”
Up by mid-morning, Cain briefly relaxed before tackling any needed correspondence and then, at noon, began several hours of show prep. “I don’t accept any commitments past 3:00 pm,” he noted. “I like to spend about an hour of preparation time for every hour I’m on-air. I prepare more material than I use. I have my weekends back giving me greater flexibility for golf – which I love.”
Writing was another favorite pastime for Cain, who authored several books, including “They Think You’re Stupid,” with “They” referring to career politicians. “Most of them pander to whatever group [from which they are trying to get support] and a politically uninformed public,” stated Cain, a senior advisor to the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential campaign. “Most people who vote don’t have a clue about real issues or real solutions. Unfortunately, 50% of those who vote do so on the basis of soundbites and political commercials; professional staffers who work for these politicians know that.”
One dad’s downfall
It was Cain’s contention that the voting public was extremely lazy. “Many of us are notoriously bad at holding our elected officials’ feet to the fire and for having short memories,” he maintained. “Democrats revere Bill Clinton as a great President but I don’t see him that way. He was a great politician and there is a difference. In order to spend more money on governmental social programs, he cut the military dramatically. I can go through a litany of all the things Republicans didn’t do. They didn’t adhere to their philosophy about being fiscally responsible when it came to spending during the first four years of having a Republican President and a Republican [majority in] congress.”
Thoroughly disappointed and frustrated at the way the party of his choice behaved, Cain conceded it was a missed opportunity. “[George H.W.] Bush would have been a two-term President if [it weren’t for], ‘Read my lips – no new taxes.’ That was his downfall and what killed him. [George W.] Bush had to grow into the job. I wasn’t a big supporter of his during the primaries but [backed] him in the general election. I don’t think he did a good job making necessary people changes in his administration.”
At the time of our interview, another political run didn’t appear to be in Cain’s immediate future; however, he eventually did make an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2012. “I’ve learned so much about how politics works and how it does not work,” he declared. “I’d have to make a 15-year commitment to politics and would get very little out of it. [Conversely], I can make a ten-year talk radio commitment and feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.”
Syndication of his WSB-AM show was a possibility, although not his primary focus. “One of my rules is to make people enjoy the product so much that they are going to come back for more,” Cain emphasized. “I have some personal goals regarding what I want my show to do. All people need to see is what we do in the ratings and they’ll come knocking. I’ll be the first to say I do not know this radio business and didn’t go into it claiming I did. There are many dynamics about this particular industry I’m not familiar with because I didn’t grow up in it.”
Concepts for two more books rattled around in Cain’s brain when we chatted; two others were on the drawing board; and he wrote a North Star Writers Group-distributed newspaper column. “I went so far as to develop outlines for [the book ideas] before I got cancer and had to put them aside,” he lamented. “My hope is that, as I get into a groove of doing the radio show, I’ll be able to get [at least one] of those books onto the shelf. I really do enjoy writing and it complements the talk show because it allows me to crystallize, synthesize, and organize many of my thoughts and use them as my radio show’s talking points.”
Despite having a demanding corporate career which included frequent travel, Cain raised two well-adjusted children. “The fact they turned out right is absolutely my greatest accomplishment. My kids never had drug problems; don’t drink alcohol; and I never had to get them out of jail. On their own, they decided to [go to] the church my wife and I attend so they’ve embraced the religious environment they grew up in. My career and professional accomplishments were simply a means to an end and not the end in itself.”
Talk host, Atlanta Antioch Baptist Church associate minister, writer and professional speaker Herman Cain hoped to be thought of a great communicator which he defined as, “Someone who is informative, inspiring and compelling. I know how to communicate with people. No one ever gave me a decades-goal speech when I was a young man. It was something I internalized. I never dreamt I would have such a multi-dimensional career. It has been one of unprecedented accomplishments.”
Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com