The closer we've gotten to talk radio, the more obvious it became that the producers, unseen and usually unheard are largely responsible for what really happens in this huge entertainment medium.
Hosts are important, and many of them share the burden doing the producing, but most owe a huge debt to these overworked, underpaid pros. After all, as Medved producer Jeremy Steiner told us: "... a producer should simply be there to make the host shine by highlighting the good qualities and hiding the bad ones."
We've interviewed some of the best we could find in a seemingly interminable series of very long posts. We've let the producers tell the story themselves. If you've missed this yawnable tome, you can read Part 1, here. Part 2 is here. Still coming: the sad truth about paydays.
In this, the last installment, they speak about the thrills, the chills; getting the gets; dealing with politicians and celebrities. They tell listeners one thing they want listeners to know about talk radio.
Getting guests and choosing topics to one of the main duties of the producers, and, for obvious reasons, one of the most important.
Dave Boze, a self-producing talk host at KTTH, (m-f, 5-9a) says, "I'm always amazed at how easy it is to pick up the phone and talk directly with experts, politicians, authors, pundits, and celebrities. You just have to actually make the call."
But the gets aren't all glamorous celebs or name-brand politicians. KMPS morning's Stephanie Rose, on-air sidekick to Ichabod Craine (m-f, 5-9a) who once produced the show, says tracking down no-names is what's more likely to take the time and effort. "Sometimes you'll have just an article from USA Today, a name and a city. Then it's the phone book hoping you'll get the right one of the 12 Joe Smiths in Baltimore."
Reporters in such cases, reflecting the pigheaded meanness of their race, often won't give sources to other media, especially radio: "Unless you kiss a lot of ass about how great an article was," says Rose, "the reporter is never going to get back to you. Producers master the art of kissing them- you have to."
Tina Nole who produces KIRO's Dave Ross and Ron Reagan, says that despite she now has the mayor's home phone, the first three years of her job was building relationships. "The Democratic Nat'l Committee, the Pentagon, the Republican Nat'l Committee, the Congress, the Legislature, you have to build the relations so their communications people know you."
It's constantly a reintroduction process. "House and Senate offices change staff about as often as I change my underwear," says James Holm producer for Ed Schultz. (We're told by Fargo insiders that Holm's underwear is always immaculate.) The recent shift of the majority in Washington has been the bane of many of the producers we talked to. Of a sudden, there's a new cast of characters, one told us.
Being nationally syndicated most times makes it easier to get famous guests. Michael Medved producer, Jeremy Steiner says, "Michael's well-known and guests seem to appreciate that we always try to get the other side on to debate Michael on a given issue."
But sometimes a host's reputation precludes getting guests. Movie/culture critic Medved's longtime feud with Hollywood has made him radioactive to many in the movie industry. Even after Steiner explained that an interview would be friendly: "[Director] James Woods' publicist said, 'We know who Michael Medved is and Mr. Woods will never come on his show.'" With Mel Gibson as a notable exception, it's not worth their time to try to book actors.
The host's politics plays a major part in who gets whom, according to both liberal and conservative producers.
The conservative Medved does better with the Republican power establishment than with the liberal bastion of Hollywood: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Frist, Trent Lott, Karl Rove, and John McCain, and many, many more have been on the show. Medved was included in President Bush's White House meeting with influential talk hosts who were thought to be flagging in their support for the beleaguered administration before the 2006 election.
It sure doesn't hurt to be on the same side as the party in power!
"We have a great working relationship with the White House," says KVI's Matt Haver, producer of the Kirby Wilbur Show. "I've spent time at the White House with the Bush cabinet and had conversations with Rumsfeld, and Rove. He says the they cash in on Wilbur's years on the radio and deep Republican ties. "The Defense Department and FOX News provide many guests, the world round, for us as well."
"But when it comes to cold-calling guests," he says, "most are fairly receptive, unless their hard-core libs or a big-time celebs- then it's often a tough sell."
Producing for a top-tier national liberal host, (almost oxymoronic) gives Holm entree to big Democrats, but even that has been slow-coming, he says, because Democrats have been gun-shy because they haven't had friendly radio as have conservatives.
"Conservatives know how to use radio," says Holm. "They're far more organized and plugged into it than Democrats- it's not even close.
"Congressional press offices are full of Ivy League kids- first job out of school, trained to stay away from the media, to be afraid of the media. They've been the gatekeepers for a long time.
"When someone like Ed who's going to give 'em a fair shot comes along, they haven't figured out yet what to do with him." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he says, "has made talk radio a big priority- "he's told the Senate Dems to figure it out."
The show has a good relationship with Reid, Barack Obama, Patty Murray, and Barbara Boxer, Ted Kennedy. It's not always easy even with the Dems: "When Howard Dean became chairman of the DNC, it got more difficult for us to get him on than when he was a candidate. Chuck Schumer is horrible to work with. Joe Biden likes to look at himself on TV; Feinstein is bad; Feingold and Kerry are pretty good to us."
(D.C. newsmakers and shakers do the otherwise lame Don Imus show because it's on in the Senate gym every morning; and they're sure that a lot of senators will be watching).
Holm says the more nationally prominent Schultz gets, the harder it is to get Republicans.
"We used to get Sen Hagel quite often or McCain." We still get the Pat Buchanans, but elected Republican officials, not so much."
McCain, he says, is "the biggest media whore you've ever seen." But Jeremy Steiner says: '... they're all media whores"
KVI's Travis Box, former John Carlson producer now in Fisher management agrees: "Politicians are predictable. If the show could be of some gain to them or their cause, they're easy." Especially, everyone agrees, in election years.
"I'm always amazed," says Boze, "at how easy it is to pick up the phone and talk directly with experts, politicians, authors, pundits, and celebrities. You just have to actually make the call."
"Most of the gets would be happy to be on your show," says NPR's Luke Burbank, who began his national career producing Seattle AM talk "… it’s their damn phalanx of handlers that get in the way. Every once in a while, you get lucky- I’ve called big newsmakers on the day news broke and because their secretary was out, they picked up the phone. I was able to get them to come on the show."
Burbank: I’ve spent hundreds of hours sending faxes, and cards, and schmoozing people up to try and get “gets” and I’m of the opinion that it really doesn’t work. They're going to talk to you when they have something to promote.
Although we're pretty sure they're just saying this, Boze sums up for several producers: "I’d rather have the best, most recent stories than the biggest guests."
"Most big gets really aren’t," he claims, "Nine times out of ten the famous person on the line is repeating the same old story or policy position you heard them talk about on TV.
It's a different proposition for local hosts getting national gets- even for Dave Ross, with his long radio career and national exposure as a CBS commentator. Nole has to sell the show: "I always have to explain who Dave Ross is, that that we're not one of the bad guys; that he's not sensational; not obnoxious- he leans to the left, but he's middle of the road."
Being well-known doesn't mean you get whomever you want- Ron Reagan's celebrity can either attract or repel guests, "It's good and bad," says Nole, "People know he's the liberal son of the conservative president." Many conservatives consider him the worst kind of traitor, even though he's never professed to be anything but liberal.
"As much as politicos preach bipartisanship," Haver laughs, " or "reaching across the aisle," it's BS. It's always easier to get a like-minded guest. The only exception would be a long-time friend of the show, like [Democratic State Auditor] Brian Sontag or Dan Savage, or if someone has a book to sell."
Producers must describe their show to potential guests without scaring them off. It's not a good idea to exaggerate their show's influence, lie about their politics or soft pedal a host's demeanor in order to land them. It's a narrow line to walk- and fudging it can come back to bite you. Many producers resort to such misrepresentation- and, Dave Boze says, the honest producer is always competing with them.
"I'm really diligent," says Nole, "about who we are and what we're looking for. I'll call and say, essentially, Dave thinks you're full of shit; and he really disagrees with you; but he's really honest and true, he's gonna ask the tough questions, but he'll be respectful. It works ..."
Many listeners think that guests- especially politicians- put conditions on hosts to guarantee softball interviews. But the producers we talked to said they rarely make such agreements. "That takes the best radio off the table and puts them in charge of the interview," says Boze.
Box is a little more pragmatic, "The usual stuff is giving them the questions in advance, no listener calls, taped interview only. Our philosophy was to never concede to any demand, but there are always exceptions. The bigger the get, the more demands we're willing to accommodate."
Bigger... like heads of state? Would a producer host quibble about an embarrassing question George W. Bush's learning disability, or war record if it meant not getting him on? Of course not.
We asked the producers: who'd be your dream get? Jeremy Steiner would love to get earphones on Hillary Clinton; for Box it would be Tony Blair; Matt Haver would book Kiefer Sutherland for his boss; Lewis Black for himself.
Burbank said that a long conversation with Stephen Hawking with his robot voice could be interesting, "but it might not make for good radio."
A producer's job is usually for someone on the way up in radio; many times the goal is to be on-air, where the money's better, and there's more recognition. Burbank, Boze, and Rose have achieved that. Haver is only 24, (he plans to be a host) and Travis Box has done there, been that, and is now in management.
"For me, producing was a gateway for being on the air," said Stephanie Rose.
Steiner's not interested in going on-air, and may share the Tina Nole's sentiments when she says: "I feel like producing is my favorite thing ever. I'd love to do it on a much higher level- get paid more. I feel like I've found my career."
"There are lifetime producers, with no goal to be on the air." says Rose. "The man behind the scenes, pulling the puppet strings- those are your great producers. Like Phil Vandervoort who produces Dori; our current producer, Brandyn DuPaul; or Arik Kormin, who produces Bob Rivers. Those are the people who should make what they're worth and I don't believe they make what they're worth."
Tina Nole talks about moments like when Madelyn Albright came into the studio wearing tennis shoes; or broadcasting from a small town cafe in during the 2004 New Hampshire primary. "It was where everybody went. Howard Dean- I hung out with his whole family, Lieberman- I hung out with his whole family- Kerry, John McCain, James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Teresa Heinz Kerry. I'd just walk up, grab them and convince them to come talk to Dave. He'd be sitting talking to Dave Matthews' guitarist. I threw a note to him- McCain is coming. Kucinich is next. Joseph Lieberman's mother. He'd just go with it. We were in the zone."
Less political, Box tells of spending an hour taping an interview with Ted Nugent for the rock station. "Easiest interview ever…all you have to do is say, 'Welcome Ted Nugent, how are you Ted?' Ted takes over from there…and yes, he was armed."
Matt Haver says," It's not too many 24-year-olds that count among their friends such conservative heroes as Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Tony Snow, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, Oli North and Mark Levin; and from one day to the next are conversing with the SECDEF or a star of "24."
Steiner tells war stories: "Chris Matthews came on our show and swore twice in the same hour. It was a Friday and I think he started his weekend early and we were the unfortunate benefactors. [Outspoken member of British Parliament] George Galloway came into the studio, telling Medved: "Lets not try to be friends," and refused to talk during breaks. "It was very uncomfortable," says Steiner. In another uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous producing moment, "Al Franken threw a chair and almost walked away from our show a minute before we went on the air."
Steiner's favorite story about his job is when the straight-laced Medved was discussing FCC regulations pertaining to swearing. "He was reading a story about Bono using the F-word and out it came! We looked at each other in shock, dumped it, and tried to move on."
We asked producers- if you could impress one thing on listeners about talk radio, what would it be?
Noles: "The most common misconception is that we are told what we can or cannot talk about by government, the man, or the management. I've never once in my career, had somebody come to me and say, you can or cannot talk about this or that. No conspiracy."
Travis Box: "It’s just entertainment; we will not solve the world’s ills in a 3 hour show; but if the line is busy, keep trying. Dave Boze: Hosts really are interested in differing opinions."
Luke Burbank: "People develop very strong opinions about hosts they only know through the radio. They either make them out to be demi-gods, or like the scum of the earth. The truth is somewhere in between. Also, it’s just talking. Don’t take it so seriously."
Stephanie Rose: "We're just average people just like you, no better than you. We're just someone to talk to when you're alone in your car."
Matt Haver: "I'd like to remind listeners of the beauty of radio as a medium of communication. It's instant, it's free and it's time-tested."
Jeremy Steiner: "At the end of each show, I hope we create some kind of memory that will make the listener talk about it later, share it with a friend, come back for more and remember to write about in an Arbitron diary."