November 3, 2005
Thom Hartmann, Now Syndicated on Air America Radio
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Thom Hartmann writes our monthly "Independent Thinker of the Month" book reviews. But, he's also an author himself. Indeed, BuzzFlash has offered a number of his diverse books as premiums.
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BuzzFlash: Your radio program recently became syndicated by Air America. Explain what that means.
Thom Hartmann: Air America has taken over the responsibility for marketing my program to radio stations – getting it on the air on radio stations, and selling the advertising on it. And they also mix the show in New York and put it up on the satellite from New York.
BuzzFlash: Air America is actually producing it and broadcasting the syndication.
Thom Hartmann: Correct. Technically it's originating in New York, and in Portland, Oregon. And they have also put me on Sundays, whereas it had been my Friday afternoon show, which you guys were occasionally on. I’m on their seventy stations on the weekend, and I’m on around 25 stations weekdays on my own. We also have our web streams, plus www.airamericaradio.com now has a web stream of my program.
BuzzFlash: When I listen to Air America, to the full panoply of the hosts, it’s very obvious that the different people who are on have different personalities. Randi Rhodes' show is very different from Al Franken's.
Thom Hartmann: Yes.
BuzzFlash: As funny as Al Franken is, he actually comes off as fairly methodical, with a very wry sense of humor. He’s probing his guests to establish a point, almost as though he’s an attorney. Randi Rhodes is fantastic, but over-the-top stuff. Randi's just going to tell you what she’s thinking and, it's no holds barred. Al Franken comes off as much more restrained. Janeane Garofalo is very outspoken, too, and has a very distinctive personality. How would you characterize your program?
Thom Hartmann: My program is really talk radio. I would say that Randi does a kind of classic talk radio. Rush Limbaugh does classic talk radio. And Father Coughlin started talk radio in the 1930s.
BuzzFlash: Well, we have to quality it – his was anti-Semitic talk radio, and demagogic talk radio.
Thom Hartmann: Father Coughlin had 35 million Americans listening to him. It was an incredible market. That was the power of radio then.
Anyhow, what is my show? Probably half to three-quarters of the show is my take on the news and events of the day. The other half of the show is guests. I rarely have a guest on for more than eight or nine minutes at a time. And I prefer to have on guests with whom I disagree. Today, I had a guy on from the Ayn Rand Foundation. I think having people on with whom you agree all the time makes for boring talk radio, frankly. And I think that having people on with whom you disagree provides listeners with an opportunity to have both sides of the argument, and to have the ammunition that they need to win the water-cooler wars.
I’m trying to model for my listeners how to have a discussion about the issues of our day with somebody you know, or somebody you work with, or somebody who’s in your family. We all have conservatives who fall into that category – and after the conversation is over, there’s not blood on the floor. You may or may not have changed their mind. You’ve made your point; they’ve made their point. An actual conversation was had. And very often on my show, it gets pretty knock-down, drag out. Yet at the end of the program, hopefully we’re still talking to each other. I don’t call people names. I don’t let my callers call people names.
BuzzFlash: I can remember as television reached a zenith in the early seventies, as color television became pretty universal, many people predicted the death of radio, and particularly of talk radio. What’s kept it alive? It’s certainly gone through a rebirth, and Rush Limbaugh was the rebirth on the right. Now we have Air America. What’s still so interesting to people? What has made radio still a very powerful tool in the war over ideas and perceptions?
Thom Hartmann: I wouldn’t underestimate Rush’s or any talk radio program's impact in terms of its ability to influence the influencers. I found it interesting, when Brian Williams took over Tom Brokaw’s chair at NBC, that he said he felt it was part of his job responsibility and duty as an American – if I’m remembering his quote correctly – to listen to Rush Limbaugh every day. That’s one of the areas where talk radio has tremendous power, is the ability to play the ref, to use Lee Atwater’s term. It keeps the discussion going.
In terms of the history of all this, you’re right. In the seventies and eighties, AM radio was fading, in part because of television. Frankly, though, I think it was probably in greater part because of the rise of FM. Car radios started having AM-FM radios in them in the seventies, as opposed to just AM radios, and the sound quality was so much better on FM, and most people were listening to music. Talk radio had not really been big. You had Father Coughlin back in the thirties and forties, and then there was really kind of nothing there for a long time in terms of talk radio. Alan Berg came along in the early eighties, and then he was murdered.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies, when I worked in radio in Michigan, we had a talk show on the station that I was on. It was about where the local bake sales were, and we'd have local politicians come on, and everything had to be very namby-pamby-ish because of the Fairness Doctrine. Everything had to be cut right down the middle. Stations were really afraid to get into controversy. The Fairness Doctrine was set aside by Reagan in ’87. About that same time, Rush Limbaugh came along and, you know, boom – we were off to the races. That was the rebirth of AM radio, because now there was a reason to have radio that is fine for voice but not particularly good for music. Limbaugh built his niche, and we can’t discount that. He did it with a little help from his friends, but he did it.
The fact of the matter is that he created this new niche of political talk radio, where, before, it had been kind of general talk. There was the advice stuff. And the largest niche in talk radio, one of the real money-makers for talk radio, and one of the only things that kept AM going, was sports talk. Sports talk is still very much out there.
But Limbaugh established this niche of political talk radio. He and his associates were successful, over at least a ten or twelve-year period, in convincing radio station managers and owners, and even an entire industry – in convincing the convincers – you know, the opinion makers – that everybody wanted to listen to conservative talk radio, that liberals are listening to it as well as conservatives, that it was representing the whole spectrum of political thought in America, and that nobody really wanted to listen to liberals. And in the early days, we’d call up radio stations, and program directors would say nobody wants to listen to liberal talk radio. They really believed it. Of course, common sense tells you that that doesn’t make any sense, but that was the conventional wisdom for the better part of a decade. They are continually trying to reinforce that myth today, but Air America is growing very strong.
BuzzFlash: Why is talk radio so appealing to so many people? It seems to have an emotion to it - even sports talk radio - there’s an emotional quality to the call. They'll argue about the decision a manager made whether to pull a certain pitcher in a certain inning – people get into arguments about it. There’s a certain level of heat and energy to talk radio. Television is a much cooler medium. O’Reilly comes off as cooler than Rush Limbaugh. What is it about that voice that comes to you out of the darkness of night that’s different on the radio versus television?
Thom Hartmann: That’s a great question. Some people have tried to package radio programs where you’ve got two or three people talking to each other. Those kinds of programs, whether on the right or the left or whatever – tend not to be as successful as a single person talking into the microphone. Television is a voyeuristic medium, you know, a looking into your next-door-neighbor’s picture window at night kind of thing. It’s watching somebody else have a life, distant from you, on the other side of the room. It’s over there.
Radio, on the other hand, is an intimate medium. It is a voice in your ear. Where television is looking through a window, radio is a telephone call. Good radio is felt and heard as intimately as a telephone call is. So a couple of people chatting with each other on the radio is like trying to do television on the radio, which is why it generally doesn’t work anywhere near as well as one person on the radio, talking to the audience. Even when they’re talking to callers, the callers are surrogates for the audience. I think that’s the big distinction that sometimes is missed when people are trying to come up with ideas for programming talk radio. It’s a very personal, intimate medium – it’s you and me.
BuzzFlash: If you’re watching someone on television who thinks like you, they’re to a certain degree reinforcing your perspective, maybe giving you information – reconfirming your viewpoint. But on the radio, if you listen to someone like Rush Limbaugh – it’s almost like, if you think like him, he’s your subconscious talking to you. It’s like he’s inside your head, he’s leading the way you’re thinking, and reinforcing it, almost like your thinking is being heard in him.
Thom Hartmann: Thirty years ago I worked in radio as a DJ and I did news. When I started in progressive talk radio about three years ago, I had bought into Limbaugh’s theory – or assertion - that everybody listens to political talk radio regardless of their political persuasion. So I was expecting that half the people listening to me would be conservatives who’d be outraged by what I said, and they’d be calling up yelling at me. I also assumed, as Limbaugh sort of let us all assume, that the reason that liberals rarely called his show and took him to task was because his call screener kept them out, or because they were such wimps they were afraid to call. That was my assumption, and that was his assertion. I assumed it was just his call screener.
What I discovered very quickly was that the reasons why people listen to political talk radio are twofold. One, they want to reinforce their world view. Maybe they know in their gut that they’re in favor of or opposed to the minimum wage being increased, but they’re not sure exactly why. They just know in their gut that that’s what they’re all about. And so they want somebody to give them the details. They want their world view reinforced and anchored, and strengthened and expanded a little bit. But not pushed in another direction, necessarily, number one.
And number two, they want to be able to be the expert at the office, or at the family picnic or whatever. They want to be able to win the water-cooler wars, is the phrase that I use on my show. "Helping you win the water-cooler wars – the uncommon sense from the radical middle," is my phrase. People want to know how to win the water-cooler wars, they’re looking for ammunition. What I discovered is that, most of the people who listen to my program are liberal, or kind of middle of the road.
It’s clear to me that most of the people who listen to conservative talk radio with any regularity are hardcore conservatives. And they’re looking for the exact same thing. They want their world view reinforced, and they want ammunition to win the water-cooler wars. So it was a myth, that Limbaugh and others spread for years and years, which allowed them to justify the existence of only one kind of political voice on the radio, that being the conservative voice.
BuzzFlash: You wrote an article last year about techniques that are important to know for those on radio. "Liberal Talk Radio - Let The Water Cooler Wars Begin," was about how to do talk radio. Some people think if you’ve got good ideas and a good voice, you can have a program. But there are techniques here. It is a profession. You have to have certain skills to be successful at it. You listed some points in that article. Can you share some of them with us?
Thom Hartmann: Sure. The first was to forget for a moment about projecting that you’re a liberal. You know, "We all agree, the conservatives are trying to destroy America." It’s about the show, not the content. People are consumers of media first, and then consumers of information second. The fact is, those people who think that what’s really important about their show is the content they bring to it are the ones who produce deadly boring programming that nobody listens to.
So the medium has to be entertaining. You have to produce a really entertaining program. It has to be so compelling that, when they stop in their car when they get home, they’ll sit in the driveway for five minutes to continue listening to it – what NPR refers to as driveway moments. You’ve got to be relentlessly compelling.
On the other hand, number two, you have to have actual stuff, you have to have brilliant content. My goal is to give my listeners a forehead slap every hour. At least once an hour, I present them with some fact, some insight, some new frame, some new way of looking at or understanding things, that causes them to slap their forehead and say: oh, my God, I never knew that. Or, yeah, I always knew that, but I never thought of it that way. That’s a good rule of thumb.
Number three on the list was to bring a chainsaw to a knife fight. This was a phrase that the guy who first put me on a little station in Burlington, Vermont, would always say to me. You want to bring your most mind-boggling information. You want to blow people away. You want to take the most outrageous position you can that’s still intellectually honest. Whatever the issue is, you want to push it all the way to its extreme, because that’s the place where people really get informed about things, ultimately. And it’s also where they’re entertained.
My fourth point was to beware of guests who agree with you. There are a few people who are brilliantly competent interviewers, like Larry King and Terry Gross, and what’s so brilliant about them is they’re transparent. They are so good at bringing out of people what’s inside them that the content that the person is bringing is there and available to the listener.
BuzzFlash: My image of Larry King, from watching him on TV, is that he nods a lot when he’s bringing out the person who’s being interviewed. Nodding is good, meaning he’s getting gold out of this.
Thom Hartmann: He’s an aggressive listener, and so is Terry Gross. They listen very carefully and aggressively. Very few people can do that. If you are doing political talk radio and you get on somebody who agrees with you, then you’ve got two guys saying to each other: yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And yeah, yeah. I agree with you. No, I agree with you. Yes, I agree with you. And that’s boring radio. Generally speaking, the only time that I try to have guests on who agree with me is if they know something that I don’t, so I’m being informed at the same time my listeners are. Or they have an authority to speak that I lack, even if we have the same information. So my fourth rule was beware of guests who agree with you.
My fifth rule is to have a take. I got this actually from the Vice President of talk programming for Clear Channel - that you have to have a take. And those are the keys to success in talk radio.
It amazes me how often I will hear people, both on the right on the left, doing talk radio, and they’ll talk and even rant about the news. You get a sense of what their opinion is, but they don’t say: Here’s why I think this is important, and this is what I would do about this. People want to hear that. So have a take, and put that take out.
Now all of these are rules. However, my sixth rule was to throw away the rulebook. In other words, there are always times to break the rules, to do something very different. Don’t be locked in by the rules.
On the other hand, rule number seven is to learn the rules. It’s amazing to me the number of people who contact me and say I want to do liberal talk radio because I know all about liberal politics. I say, well, have you ever done radio? There are very real rules about being on the radio that have to do with timing and pacing, and knowing how to get into a break, and knowing how to get out of a break. And knowing how to interact with a microphone, and knowing how to modulate your voice. You just can’t get away with breaking these rules and maintain an audience. You have to do the things that make radio listenable, that make radio work. The people who I know who are really good at talk radio – pretty much all of them started out as DJs. You learn the industry that way. You learn the medium that way. You learn the timing, the pacing. You pay your dues.
BuzzFlash: I have two questions on technical issues which I’ve always wondered about, having been a guest on many programs. First of all, commercial breaks. The key thing is keeping the listener through a commercial break, so you won't lose your advertisers. What’s one of the techniques for getting a person to hang on for the interval until the program starts up again,?
Thom Hartmann: In the industry, this is called TSL - time spent listening - and it’s measured by Arbitron. It indicates your stickiness, your ability to hang on to your audience. The things that drive higher TSL are, number one, it’s compelling radio. If you’re doing really good radio, and people are going, "This is great - I want to hear what else this guy or this woman has to say," then they’ll just hang on through the break. And number two is fairly obvious. It’s teasing your upcoming content before you go into your break. I might say, "We’ll be talking with the founder of BuzzFlash, who's got his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the news in America - right after this break." You try to get that drama. It’s done really conspicuously in television.
BuzzFlash: I used to be a regular radio guest discussing some advocacy issues, and I was always amazed at the approach to handling phone callers. You can get people who are long-winded. Or they never get around to asking a question. Some people are hostile. Some just want to argue endlessly. There seems to be a definite skill to handling phone calls, and hosts handle them very differently. Randi Rhodes has got a certain abrasive personality. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Thom Hartmann: That’s part of her appeal. That’s her persona.
BuzzFlash: Right. If you’re a host and you don’t handle phone calls well, you could really come off sounding pretty incompetent, and the phone caller wins if it sounds like the host is weak.
Thom Hartmann: I agree. Each host brings their personality to the calls, and it may seem like different hosts are handling their callers in vastly different fashion simply because their personality is being brought to the show and to the call.
But there’s also a very specific skill set, tool kit, that has to do with dealing with callers – with knowing how to prevent a caller from taking over your show, knowing how to get the actual question out of the person who’s taking fifteen sentences to say a one-sentence question. Cutting off the person who wants to try and filibuster you, in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re being brutal. Or if your persona is to be brutal, you know, to sound like you’re brutally cutting off somebody when you’re not being particularly brutal. There’s a skill set there, and it’s learnable. It’s something that anybody who does talk radio has to learn. Some people never get good at it, and they tend not to take the callers.
BuzzFlash: Radio lends itself to a certain type of voice. Not everyone has a good voice on radio. Not everyone comes across sounding effective on radio. What determines who sounds best on radio?
Thom Hartmann: That is a mystery to a lot of people. In ordinary conversation, the way you know I’m being emphatic is that I get loud. Volume is the way that we normally modulate our voice to place emphasis. We say, marginally louder, "This is really important." That’s how normal people communicate.
But in radio broadcasting studios, you must have a certain level of signal loudness. When you drop below that threshold, people can’t hear you, and if you go above that threshold you’re blowing their speakers out. So they have these things called compressors and limiters. The compressors, when you talk softly, make your voice louder. And the limiters, when you talk loudly, make your voice softer. What you end up with, if you talk normally like I’m talking to you right now, is something that sounds absolutely flat in a monotone, because all the volume modulation has been stripped out of it.
The skill that a person learns in Radio 101 – and this is why I say be a DJ first - is how to use tonal modulation to produce your emphasis, in addition to your volume modulation. When you do it live and in person, it sounds affected. It sounds silly. It sounds like Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. In contrast, TV doesn’t have compressors and limiters like radio does, so people don’t need to use radio voices on TV, and when they do, they sound silly.
If you talk to somebody in person and do tonal modulation at the same time that you’re doing volume modulation, it sounds really weird. If you’re hearing both kinds of modulation at the same time, it sounds like the person is just going over the top. But on the radio, you modulate the tonality of your voice – and you can’t stop yourself from modulating the volume of your voice – and the transmitting equipment strips all of the volume modulation out, leaving only the tonal modulation. For somebody listening in their car or in their homes, their brain translates that tonal modulation back into volume modulation. They don’t notice that the modulation – that the change in voice that’s happening from moment to moment – is tonal rather than volume. It just sounds normal to them.
BuzzFlash: In addition to that, there are some voices that just don’t sound well. The timbre of the voice.
Thom Hartmann: It is an art form as much as a science, and really what we’re talking about is some people have more tonal range than others, and some people have more ability to modulate. Some people have a more natural sense of how that works, and how to do it themselves. But it’s also, in my experience, something that can be taught.
BuzzFlash: You wrote an article, "Talking Back to Talk Radio," that helped start Air America Radio.
Thom Hartmann: Yes. Shelly Drobney tells the story of his reading it in his book, The Road to Air America - and he reprinted it at the end of this book.
BuzzFlash: And now, roughly three years later, there are strong indications that progressive talk radio has taking root in many cities, showing measurable and significant growth - and that in certain markets, Rush Limbaugh is going down. Progressive radio is doing better than the naysayers had thought. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s clearly on an upward trend. What are your thoughts about that?
Thom Hartmann: Progressive talk radio is clearly finding a niche and growing. The biggest challenge that progressive talk radio has right at this time is to become more professional and make use of the tools - for example, imaging - that traditional radio stations use.
BuzzFlash: What is imaging?
Thom Hartmann: Imaging is where a radio station produces a certain sound, so that you can pretty much flip the dial around and you just know, even if you had your eyes closed - you’re turning the dial and you hear that station and you know, oh, that’s AM 620.
BuzzFlash: It’s like branding, but through sound.
Thom Hartmann: That’s right. And it’s done by taste. It’s done by the kind of bumper music that you use. It’s done by having an interesting voice. Stations that are very well-imaged will have one voice that does all the announcing throughout the day. There are people who do this professionally, and some stations have somebody good enough on their station to become the voice of the station. That’s one dimension of it.
For instance, I’m on in Portland on AM 620, KPOJ – and the program director there is probably one of the real geniuses in this business. He’s also running one of the most successful Air America stations in the country. When I go out of a show segment, I'll say, you know, "It’s 5:27. I’m Thom Hartmann on AM 620, KPOJ, Portland’s progressive talk station." And then there will be a commercial. Coming out of the commercial, maybe we'll go into the traffic report. And the traffic person will say: "This is Valerie Rain on AM 620, KPOJ, Portland’s progressive talk station. Here’s the traffic." Then she’ll close the traffic by saying: "That’s the traffic on AM 620, KPOJ, Portland’s progressive talk station." And later, "Here’s Joe Blow with the weather on AM 620, KPOJ, Portland’s progressive talk station."
So in a seven-minute period of time, with a couple of show elements in it, the listener may literally hear, "AM 620, KPOJ, Portland’s progressive talk station" seven or eight times. It's about asking the listener to be involved with the station, or telling the listener how important they are to you. That kind of stuff really sticks with people. When Arbitron is doing their surveys, and they’re calling around asking people what’s up, people can’t not remember our station.
BuzzFlash: It’s seared on their brain.
Thom Hartmann: Yes, but it’s done with a sufficient elegance that it doesn’t feel like they’re being beaten over the head with it. They remember what they’re listening to, and they tell Arbitron.
I’ve been on other stations that actually do no imaging at all. You can listen to the station for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, and the only time you hear the station call letters or slogan is at the top of the hour, when by law, they have to do a legal ID. That type of professional stuff at the individual station level is what the stations that are picking up progressive formats need. Just flowing Air America radio on the station isn’t enough, in my opinion. You’ve got to build an identity for the station, even if you don’t have any local programming.
BuzzFlash: Another example here in the Midwest, is WGN radio. They have a very, very clear branding image.
Thom Hartmann: Yes, and other classics – CKLW, WLS - WJR in Detroit. Even forty years after I left Michigan, when I go back to Michigan and visit my folks, I can tune across the AM dial, and when I hit WJR, I know I’m listening to WJR. They’re not using J.P. McCarthy’s voice any more, because he died, but it’s a guy who sounds just like him.
BuzzFlash: This has been very informative. Thank you very much, Thom, and best of luck with your syndication relationship with Air America. Air America has assembled a lot of very excellent talent.
Thom Hartmann: What’s amazing with Air America is that, within three months of starting, they had a million dollars’ worth of brand equity. That’s just unheard of. It’s never been done before in radio.
BuzzFlash: It’s a great name, too. At BuzzFlash, we don’t believe in letting the right wing take all the names that seem patriotic. This is Air America. This is the people of America speaking.
Thom Hartmann: Yes. On the other hand, they started out with basically only one radio professional, and that was Randi. A lot of others have learned the ropes as they went along, and they’ve come a long way. I’m very pleased to see Air America continuously producing increasingly more professional programming.
BuzzFlash: It seems that a lot of people who are pro-democracy were just waiting to have radio that they could relate to. That’s what I think is happening with Air America.
Thom Hartmann: I agree.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much.
Thom Hartmann: Good to talk with you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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"Liberal Talk Radio - Let The Water Cooler Wars Begin" (Common Dreams)
"Talking Back to Talk Radio" (Common Dreams)