By Scott Ryfun
Talk Show Host
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — It was the summer of 1991. I’d completed three years of college and was, to be completely honest, totally beaten down. When I first arrived at FSU in Tallahassee, I was a proud, independent conservative young man. But a relentless, 24/7 assault on my values had begun to take its toll. My first day in philosophy class, the professor showed us how to write formulas using logical notation. The formula he wrote? “Proof that there is no God,” he told us. I would go to bookstores and look for conservative reading material, but could find very few conservative books and maybe the occasional copy of National Review. I was dating a girl who was a radical leftist and we agreed that we wouldn’t discuss politics because it never ended well. Of course, the ban on political talk didn’t apply to her friends, who would continually try to insult and degrade me over my beliefs. Honoring our agreement meant I was unable to respond.
I was despondent and even considering not returning to college in the fall, because the atmosphere on campus was so pervasively oppressive. Maybe the things I believed really WERE wrong. I seemed to be the only one who believed them. Then one day, while I was riding in my car changing stations on the radio, I heard a unique voice.
No, not Limbaugh’s. Ted Kennedy’s.
He was singing a song to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer,” called “The Philanderer,” that made me grin from ear to ear. Each successive line of the song was funnier and made me laugh harder. Rush came on after the song and grabbed me. I had a friend from high school who was an early Rush adopter, but I was in Tallahassee most of the time and he wasn’t, so we didn’t really have much of a chance to talk about him, and I’d never listened. Rush was unapologetically conservative and confident in his views. And those views were largely the ones I’d grown weary of trying to defend against the hordes of liberal academia. I listened to this bright, funny articulation of conservative values and principles and commentary on the day’s events and was hooked. I came back to the show every day, and every day he gave me something interesting and funny.
He also gave me ammunition to fire back at the lefties on campus.
Unfortunately that also extended to my girlfriend. I was so excited at the things I was hearing and Rush’s attitude that I couldn’t help myself. I could no longer adhere to our agreement. I had to talk politics and, as we both knew would happen, it didn’t end well and spelled the end of our relationship. That was fine, because that summer I had my first date with the woman who would become my wife and the mother of my son.
Something else was changing in my life. I was happier on campus. I was more than willing to challenge my teachers, which led to my being more engaged in class, which led to my making the dean’s list. I lost weight and got healthy. I was more outgoing and made new friends who accepted me as I was.
I also started having another thought: I think I can do this.
I was studying fiction writing and minoring in film, which I thought would lay a path that I would follow to a screenwriting career. But many of the friends I’d made in the film school decided that my now-outspoken conservatism wasn’t for them, and they decided to have less to do with me. Film is an intensely collaborative medium and it was becoming obvious to me that there weren’t many people in that arena who’d be interested in collaborating with me. I needed to figure out another outlet for my creativity that would be less committee-oriented.
Why couldn’t I do talk?
After college I went home to sort out my future, and after working in retail for a year, I took the plunge into radio. I didn’t want to leave my hometown again after my Tallahassee experience, so my options were limited. My goal was to host an issues-oriented talk show and to be insightful and entertaining, but there was only one local political talk show in town and no one seemed interested in letting me have it. So I decided to learn how to do every job in radio I could so that I’d be a valuable employee while I awaited my opportunity to do the show I wanted to do. I also spent my time trying to deconstruct conservative talk radio and figuring out how it worked and how to make it work for me.
Flash forward 18 years.
I had become program director of the talk station and the long-time morning talk host decided to retire. I’d already put everyone up and down the chain of command on notice that I was ready. In the preceding two years, I’d crowned myself the permanent fill-in host, so when I got the call that the host was retiring, I was prepared to step in. More than prepared. I had formulated the show I wanted to do, and it was largely constructed from nine things I learned from listening to Rush Limbaugh. Eight years later, I have yet to fall from first in the ratings. Recently, for the second time, I finished number one in every major demographic group: People 12+, People 18-34, People 18-49, People 25-54, and People 35-64. If you are interested in a career in talk radio, or if you’re already in the medium, consider these points:
You ARE a Top 40 DJ. One of the jobs I learned to do was being a music DJ. Unlike Rush, I didn’t start with that passion. My enjoyment of the radio as a youth really came from listening to talk radio and old time radio dramas. In fact, when I first started learning the skills to be a music DJ, I often thought about how great it would be when the day came that I wasn’t a DJ anymore. One day, I was listening to Rush’s show and a fill-in host (who shall remain nameless) had the reins. Something wasn’t sitting right. The rhythm of the show was off. After paying attention for a bit, it hit me: the songs are fading out.
In radio, you never let the song fade out, but in Top 40 radio that rule is upped tenfold. Songs never come close to fading out, and the pace and tempo of the delivery should be just as upbeat as the music. In Rush’s case, the stories he covers and the takes he gives ARE the songs. A lot of hosts treat their jobs as a debate tournament. Rush treats his like a morning radio show, a relentless stream of “songs” and entertaining bits.
The fill-in I was listening to would talk about his subject, then follow the subject to its conclusion, then take a pause, then move on to the next subject. He let the song fade. Sometimes Rush will spontaneously switch from one subject to the next in midstream. It seems like he’s abandoning the previous subject in favor of another, but he’s not. He’s just starting the next song before the current song even begins to fade. We don’t mind moving on, and we never regret not going back.
Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. The people who listen to talk radio are curious, they’re inquisitive, and they want to learn new things. You know things they don’t know and can find out things they can’t. But that doesn’t mean they’re not smart and thoughtful. It means that it’s your job to learn things and present them, so you have the time to do it. They count on you to do that. Don’t talk down to them. They’re smart enough to choose to listen to your show, aren’t they? It also means that as big and broad as you have to be to play on radio, you can make room for the subtle remark. I love hearing Rush slip in a gag that I know most won’t be paying close enough attention to get, and I love my messenger inbox lighting up when I do it.
Don’t lose your sense of humor. If you’re old enough to have a record collection, how many comedy albums do you have? How many albums by preachers do you have? I’ll venture to say that the number of comedy albums sold over time has dwarfed the number of albums of sermons sold. It’s not that religion and spirituality aren’t important. It’s that they’re not consistently entertaining. There’s a reason you’re on five days a week and preachers are on one. People don’t want to be preached to. They want to enjoy themselves. Make them laugh. They’ll feel good, they’ll get a dose of endorphins, and they’ll remember you for it.
Liberal talk radio has only worked in local pockets and never really on a national level. A lot of excuses have been made as to why, but I can tell you why, having listened to it with my analytical hat on: it’s dull. Any sense of humor these people had dries up and blows away when they start pontificating on issues, and they turn into professors instead of entertainers, Al Gore instead of Will Rogers. Radio is a wing of the “entertainment industry.” Entertain.
Be Yourself. As a teenager, I remember the Morton Downey, Jr. Show airing on TV in our market. I remember being fascinated by this brash, loud-mouthed, politically incorrect screamer. He was interesting. He was exciting. And he turned out to be an utter phony. We found this out when, in an attempt to get attention, he faked an attack by Neo-Nazis in an airport bathroom. His big mistake? Drawing a swastika on his own face using a mirror. He drew it backwards. Just over a year after bursting onto the national scene as a fascinating personality, he revealed himself to be a fraud. He was essentially playing a character. When people find out you’re not who you told them you are, they feel duped, and they don’t come back. We do a lot to build a bond with our audiences and once you let them know that they can’t trust you, you never win them back.
Rush has gone through a number of personal challenges over the years: hearing loss, opioid addiction, divorce, now cancer. And every time, when the issues arise, he always shoots from the hip and shares the real details of his life with his audience. People stick with him because he is honest with them. He doesn’t cover things up. He doesn’t tell you he’s somebody that he’s not.
See the previous point learned. People are smart. They can spot a phony. Don’t be one.
People Depend on You. You might have stayed up late last night watching the ball game. You might feel a slight scratch in your throat. You might have had a fight with your wife before the show. It doesn’t matter to your listeners. Oh, sure, they care about how you are and how your life is going (if you’ve forged any kind of meaningful bond with them) but when they tune in, they don’t do it it feel bad about how rotten your day is. They do it because they want you to make their day better.
This means you can’t take it easy for the day. You can’t half-ass it because you don’t feel great or you’re tired. Your audience doesn’t deserve that, and they shouldn’t be forced to adjust their expectations downward just because you don’t feel like giving them what they deserve. There are literally TONS of media options out there for people these days. They can easily find someone who’s going to give them what they deserve for their time. Don’t give them a reason to go looking.
When Rush came back after his cancer announcement, I made it a point to tune in. I was expecting a diminished talent to do a diminished program. Instead, I got a guy who was ROARing. He was as quick, as sharp, as funny, as observant as he’s EVER been. If a guy undergoing chemo with stage 4 cancer can give everything to his audience, you can overcome that bad mood and deliver for the people counting on you.
One more thing: most of us are local hosts. Many of us are small market. It doesn’t mean we have to sound local or small market or even think that way. The audience deserves as good a show when you’re on as when any national host is on. I grit my teeth sometimes when Rush refers to local programs as “little podunk shows.” I know he’s just kidding, but those of us who genuinely give a damn are trying to do a show that sounds as good and is as entertaining as anything else on.
Be Positive. Rush’s message of conservatism wasn’t just “Here’s conservatism.” It was “Here’s conservatism and here’s why we’re winning.” At the time I first heard that message, I don’t think I believed that, but I was so glad to hear it. Now, I still don’t know if I believe that, but it’s incredibly reassuring to hear someone who is a voice of authority saying it. People like to go to parties, but they don’t like to go to funerals. Funerals are sad. Funerals are filled with unhappy people. People enjoy going to parties because there’s a sense of fun, positivity, optimism. You will draw more people being positive than negative. How many times have you stopped talking to a friend because all they ever do is complain? Remember, you’re the friend that your listeners ride in their car with. They don’t want to hear you complain all the time. Even (especially!) when times are tough, people want to hear a good story or a positive spin on a negative story.
A Little Dead Air Never Hurt Anybody. I’m talking about dead air due to design, not incompetence. A dramatic pause. A comedic silence. There’s an old school radio rule that any dead air whatsoever—any deviation from the “wall of sound”—is a sin. It’s not. Dead air can be another tool in your broadcaster’s toolkit. Last September 11, I told my audience, “We have a system in the back room that tracks our air feed. When there’s more than ten seconds of dead air an alarm sounds and corporate is informed that we’ve had dead air. I am then forced to write a report telling them exactly what happened and why we had dead air. As we approach the exact moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I am going to create some dead air, and I will gladly write my report explaining exactly why we had dead air at 8:46am on September 11.” I went silent till I triggered that alarm.
Be Addictive. When I first started in the business one of my early bosses told me it was better to be consistently good than occasionally great. His reasoning was that when people tuned in they’d have an expectation that you’d be good and that you wouldn’t disappoint them. He was a great guy and had a lot of experience. For a long time, I tried to live by that philosophy. But a few thoughts started to pester me.
When people think of Hank Aaron, they think of home runs. He’s the Home Run King! Hank Aaron’s career batting average is .305. I had to look that up. Why? Because no one remembers that he was a consistently good hitter. We remember that he hit more home runs than anybody. His home run percentage was .006. We remember him because he was occasionally great.
I love chocolate. Most every kind of chocolate is good: Hershey’s, Cadbury, Nestle, M&Ms… And while I haven’t experienced it firsthand, it has come to my attention that heroin is occasionally great. I know this because of the sheer number of people who have died trying to “chase the dragon,” recreate that mindblowing first experience. Chocolate is consistently good. People don’t throw away their careers, houses, marriages and lives over it. Heroin is occasionally great. People get addicted and will do anything to get more of it.
Rush became the only person out there who would give us Animal Rights Updates and Condom Updates and Caller Abortions. He also gave us the “I Hope He Fails” speech. No one in the media thought coming on the air the day after Obama was elected and saying “I Hope He Fails” was a good idea. But it was exactly the different, empowering, and optimistic message his audience needed that day. It was daring. It was a swing for the fences. Most of all, it was a risk, and it became legendary. He didn’t play it safe and dared to be great.
When you have something special and you are the only one who will give it to your audience, they’ll keep coming back, even if you whiff one every now and then. My advice: be able to be consistently good, but don’t be afraid to be occasionally great. It’s better to go down swinging than to watch the third strike blow past you.
Prep Like a Beast. Everything you see and do is show prep. Every observation may be of relevance to your listeners. Mondays are often my best days, because my brain has been working without an outlet for three days. I am filled to the teeth with show prep. I’ve been reading and watching and thinking all weekend, and all of it goes into the blender that manufactures my program. Know as much as you can possibly know. Have as many answers available as possible.
Then prepare to not use 90% of it.
The point is not to show everyone how much you know. It’s not to be the smartest person in the room. It’s to be prepared for anything your audience or the news cycle throws at you. I don’t have a producer or a screener. That’s right. I have no screener. I have to be ready for anything people come up with. Turns out, I am. I also try to plan out certain takes and perspectives. But I don’t obsessively map out the program. Why? Because you never know what may come up that may lead to something else. I consider what I do to be a very well-prepared, daily, three-hour improvisation, and that can’t happen without intense preparation. You can’t just show up and wing it. There’s very little I have ever heard someone throw at Rush that he didn’t have at least some inkling about. I’ve never heard him not be able to offer up an interesting and compelling perspective on any subject. Because he preps. Even when he’s not working, he’s prepping. When he’s watching TV or visiting with friends or playing golf, he’s prepping.
He changed a medium, he changed discourse in this country, and most importantly for me, he changed the course of my life. And without knowing, he has also exclusively authored a set of rules any of us can follow to success if we have the talent, we commit, and we execute. Learning from Rush has given me the opportunity to pursue a career that I love (I never hit snooze when that alarm goes off at 3:20 am), the ability to pay for my son’s college education, and the good sense to keep my wife in a nice house. I am and remain ever grateful.
Scott Ryfun is vice president of programming at iHeartMedia Brunswick, Georgia and morning talk host at WGIG-AM/W245DO. He can be emailed at email@example.com.