AN INTERVIEW IN THREE ACTS
By David Ferrell Jackson
From the Winter 1993 Edition of
The Bay Area Radio Digest
Meeting Of The Mouths takes place in a news studio at ABC Broadcast Center in San Francisco, the enclave of KGO Newstalk AM 810. This particular studio, on the third floor, is usually the late-afternoon habitat of Ed Baxter and Rosie Allen and the KGO Afternoon News team; today it is being commandeered by the station's talented triumvirate of talk Ronn Owens, Jim Eason, and Lee Rodgers who are brought together on this rare occasion to expound their views on their craft.
[In Order Of Appearance.]
JIM EASON. From North Carolina, speaks with a mellifluous voice that minutely masks his early career path toward the ministry. Spent nearly a decade in the Air Force, getting his entree into broadcasting as a weather forecaster for the Armed Forces Radio Service; this led to initial forays into disc jockeying and enrollment in San Francisco State University as a radio and TV major. He left State without graduating, taking work behind the scenes in radio, moving up the food chain to production work at KCBS, then on the air with KNEW (in its talk incarnation), a first foot-in-the-door at KGO, then KSAN (in its free-form incarnation, playing music and discoursing on various subjects on the graveyard shift). In 1970, he came to stay at KGO, staking out the afternoon plot as his own, and has been unmovable since.
LEE RODGERS. Also a native son of the South Corning, Arkansas, to be precise although, on casual listening, no hint of his birthplace is apparent in his voice. Educated at Memphis State University and Kansas University, then broke into broadcasting in 1963 at WIND in Chicago, spinning records and announcing college sports. Moved to KSD, St. Louis, in 1970 as Program Manager, then to WGBS, Miami, for the same job in 1973. After five years in Florida, he returned to WIND as its morning newstalk host. In January 1984, Rodgers came to KGO where he has become its acknowledged "open-line king," chairing the 7-10 p.m. weeknight shift. Off-mike, Rodgers enjoys piloting airplanes and on longer stretches away from the studio is a world traveler, with his wife, Susie. He also continues to own a travel agency back in Chicago.
RONN OWENS. Of New York, originally, and educated at Temple University, where he received his bachelor's degree in sociology (with honors). Was on his way to a Master's degree in communications when he got bored with his thesis and quit. Was an elementary school teacher (fifth graders) in Philadelphia for a year and a half before giving it up for a fill-in job at WCAU. Built reputation as stellar talk host at stations in Cleveland, Miami and Atlanta (where he was the self-described "Yankee liberal smart-ass"), before being recommended to management at KGO as "One of the top five talk-show hosts in the country." ("...But I can't think of the other four," the Owens-booster added.) The recommendation was recently solidified by Radio & Records, which named him as one of the top three talk-show hosts in the nation. Joined KGO in 1975 for the eight-to-midnight run, expounding on current events, politics and, on Friday nights, rock trivia. Was moved into the mid-morning slot upon the departure of mid-morning fixture Owen Spann a few years back. Born with only one n in first name. Husband of KCBS news anchor (and former KGO teammate) Jan Black.
AN INTERVIEWER. Who, at times, feels as though he is a slow, five-foot-ten high school basketball player trying to get the ball away from Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
SCENE: Inside the third-floor studios of KGO Newstalk 810, in the concrete-and-glass fortress it shares with KGO-TV on Front Street in The City. Outside, it is a frigid and rainy Thursday in November; dark clouds cling low on the tall buildings of the Financial District. JIM EASON and LEE RODGERS take their places in a vacant studio along with AN INTERVIEWER.A chair remains empty, awaiting the delayed arrival of RONN OWENS.
INTERVIEWER. What kind of effect do you have, or can you have, on shaping the opinions of your listeners?
RODGERS. Next to none.
RODGERS. Yeah, really. I'm being serious.
EASON. If I shaped the listeners' opinions, the elections recently would have gone a lot differently than they did. (Laughter.) People are always asking us if we mold opinion or if we reflect opinion; like, are we a mirror of what's happening out there. And I always say both. Sometimes we say something on the air and it gets people stirred up and they start thinking about or doing something they hadn't done before. Other times, people just call up and bounce things off us, take the program in a direction we didn't intend it to go. We're not opinion molders, or pundits or anything like that.
We're sort of like a sounding board. You could just put somebody here and say, 'Okay, call up and say what you think,' and we might agree, might disagree, but God knows I don't influence people. If I did, the Bay Area would be a lot different than it is.
RODGERS. If you are going to put a number on reflecting versus molding, I'd say about 98% reflect and, maybe, 2% mold, and that's probably high.
INTERVIEWER. Are listeners that you get (nodding to EASON) on your program different from listeners that you (looking to RODGERS) are going to have on your program? Are they going to more reflect your opinions on things?
EASON. Sure. If you consistently disagree with a talk-show host, you're not going to listen to him very long, unless unless he's got something going besides just 'opinion.' The most frequent thing I hear, and Lee probably hears the same thing, is 'I don't always agree with you, but I love to listen to your show,' and that's exactly what I want to hear.
RODGERS. Yeah, that's the highest compliment you can get.
EASON. People who listen to Lee are probably not the same people who listen to me, because: different day time, different people. A lot of things change about that. There are a lot of people who listen in the afternoon who don't listen at night, and vice-versa. There are some people who listen all night long and sleep all day, so the hours determine who your listeners are in some respect. Then, too, a lot of folks will listen to Lee and swear by what he says, and do what he says and think what he says, and they just despise me. And vice-versa.
RODGERS. I think there's probably less of that between us, though, than any other pairing of talk-show hosts on the station. Jim and I aren't that far apart, politically. Naturally, he looks to me for advice and counsel ...
EASON. (To the empty chair) Ronn, what do you think?
RODGERS. (Amid laughter) Talk to us, Ronn.
EASON. It's a good thing Ronn isn't here, because everything he says is just absolute B.S. What we're telling you is the facts. He gives you ... nonsense. You can't believe anything he says.
RODGERS. You're getting as much out of him right now as if he were here.
EASON. That's right. Probably more.
INTERVIEWER. What do you think the essence of the station's success is? It's respected not only by the industry, but listeners clamor to it.
EASON. Best radio station in the country.
RODGERS. Be sure to put this in print: It's all a tribute to Michael Luckoff (the station's president Ed.).
INTERVIEWER. Should I stand?
RODGERS. (In a reverential tone) Yes. Hands over hearts. It's all his doing.
EASON. What did he pay you?
RODGERS. (Ignoring EASON) We are just ... little cogs in the wheel
EASON. (Louder) What did he pay you to say that?
RODGERS. I want that in print, with my name attached to it.
EASON. Well, you got it.
Enter RONN OWENS, amid much bluster and fanfare.
EASON. (to OWENS) He was just asking us, to what do we attribute the success of this station. I think a couple of things. First of all, the station has, over the years, tended to hire pretty good people pardon my modesty, but pretty good people. The ones who can't hack it, the ones who just aren't very good at it, tend to disappear; they just leave and go somewhere else. So, hiring good people and then, secondly, leaving them the hell alone.
OWENS. (Emphatically) That's the key. If you ask me, that would be the whole key. Nobody ever tells you what to say, or how to do it
EASON. Not a lot of meetings, not a lot of memos. Just do your job.
OWENS. That's all there is to it.
EASON. If you really screw up, then you talk to the boss.
RODGERS. It kind of comes down to the old Al Davis saying, "Just win, baby."
INTERVIEWER. So, basically, everybody is a "lifer" here.
EASON. Pretty much.
OWENS. Pretty much so. I mean, look at the three of us, how long we've been here.
RODGERS. (mimicking an old man's voice) Oh my god, we're old! We've been here forever!
OWENS. Lee's the youngster. How long have you been here?
RODGERS. Nine years.
OWENS. Nine years. He's the rookie. I'm seventeen
INTERVIEWER. (to EASON) And twenty-five years?
EASON. (nodding) Twenty-five years.
INTERVIEWER. And Jim Dunbar's been here forever.
EASON. Well, Dunbar was born here.
RODGERS. He was looking over Marconi's shoulder and saying "Hurry up and finish that thing."
EASON. And he will be here when the station closes.
OWENS. That's it, too. But the key to it all is being left alone. Every once in a while you hear about other talk stations, be they local or be they around the country, and the minute you hear about interference or try to figure out what to do, you start to laugh.
RODGERS. Thank God we're not there.
EASON. I have to put a P.S. on that, too, by the way: That doesn't mean anything goes, because if the boss were to read in print that we do anything we want to, he would go absolute bananas. We know what the limits are. I described once that working in this business is like somebody telling you that you've got a ten-foot circle to work in, and that means you can work anywhere in that ten-foot circle. You can play around, you can work in a three-foot circle and restrict yourself if you want to, and kind of be very careful. Some of us go out to ten feet and push the edge a little bit
OWENS. We all do.
EASON. But you know that if you go to eleven feet, you're dead, you're in trouble.
OWENS. But I think what makes people listen to the three of us, for example, is that I mean, when you've been here this long, you can become repetitive, you can become boring all three of us will push that envelope. We'll just kind of see, every once in a while ... let's take it a little bit further, let's see where we can go. We know what we're doing. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work.
EASON. Part of the trick of it is, if you get to the point where the program is boring us, you have to do something to change that, cause I'm not going to sit there for two hours and bore myself, and we know that. Now, there are people who come into the business who think, 'I can walk off the street and do a talk show, I mean, anybody can do that sit there and talk to people, just push the buttons show me where the buttons are!' Try it. You can do it once, maybe. Try to do it for a week at a time, or a month, or five or six years, and then you find out, there's a little more to it than just pushing buttons and talking to people.
RODGERS. Especially when you go through a dry spell in the years when there's nothing going on
EASON. When there's no war
OWENS. And the election is over
EASON. And there's no Watergate
OWENS. And the second story on the ABC News this morning is some English archaeologist who discovered some coins. That's a rough day.
RODGERS. You come in every day, and there's a big, open mouth, and its label says, "Three hours" or in Jim's case, two and it says "Feed me." It doesn't matter whether there's anything interesting going on, or not, you've still got to feed it.
OWENS. The other thing, too, if you look at the three of us, is that you vary the programming. All of us, and it's an instinctive thing I don't think any of us sit down and say, "Well, let's see: I did serious yesterday, so I'm going to be lighter today" but there's just an internal mechanism that you know how to kind of juggle it, especially during these slack periods.
RODGERS. (Stentorian voice) It's because we're professional broadcasters.
OWENS. (Also stentorian) That's a good reason, sir, and I'm delighted you brought that up.
EASON. If you have three or four days in a row that are very serious and very tense, and very uptight, after a while you say, "Hey, man, let's let this loose for a minute, and relax." That comes with the territory. I say it frequently: it took me five years to get comfortable just pushing the buttons. I would go home every day just exhausted, and I'd say, 'I just sat there and talked to people. Why am I so tired?' It's watching the clock, it's listening to the caller, it's thinking about what you're going to say, it's watching your commercials, it's making sure you hit the right button.
INTERVIEWER. Do you do your own board work also?
EASON. Lee does.
OWENS. Lee does. We don't.
RODGERS. They're too damn lazy. (Laughter.)
OWENS. No, I got it written into my contract.
EASON. We're too professional.
OWENS. I don't want to do it! I don't want to. (to RODGERS) You like doing it you love doing it.
RODGERS. There are advantages to not looking up and looking through the glass and seeing an engineer asleep when it's time for the commercial.
EASON. Or out of the room. The point I was getting to there is that once you get all the mechanics behind you, then your brain can kind of go with what the caller is saying and what you are going to say. Once you get that sort of thing, you become, in essence, a professional. If you were in the military, you'd be promoted. Fortunately, we're not, but you'd be promoted. After a while, the station says, 'We've got some folks here who've been in the business a while, they know where the buttons are, they know how to do a talk show '
OWENS. It's like Jim says: it's more than just getting off the street and talking. There are things like we just mentioned varying the programming, light or heavy. There's an internal clock that we all have in terms of calls. If we've had a long call with somebody, you can bet your butt the next call is going to be a shorter one. You just know it will be, because you just don't want to have a succession of long calls.
Conversely, if you have a bunch of little ones, you'll probably go a little longer with the first really interesting one. Those are the little things that they don't teach you in talk-show school. Those are the things you've got to pick up.
RODGERS. At least half the job is being an editor. You're an editor all the time.
OWENS. The same thing applies even with guests. I have a simple rule with Michael, and that is, if somebody's pitching something first of all, I don't want it more than a page. If it takes more than a page to pitch it, you've got a problem. Secondly, if I can't understand that page, I'll never understand that guest. It's not even worth doing.
EASON. One of the best examples of that I ever saw was a guy that had written a book and he sent out a little flyer on it saying, "How To Get Your Point Across In Thirty Seconds," and I told my producer, 'Book him ... for thirty seconds.' (Laughter.)
INTERVIEWER. What was the absolute nightmare interview of all time?
OWENS. This studio. Right here. First week this studio was open. Do you remember Dr. _____ ___?
EASON. Ah, yes.
RODGERS. The guy who didn't speak English?
OWENS. We had the old studios, and just as we were making the move, somehow on my desk this was in '84 I get this picture of this guy, Dr. ______ ___. He's the recognized expert on Hong Kong. I felt, well, that's kind of interesting. That was just about the time, People's Republic of China, Britain, what's going to happen, the future. I thought, 'Sure, that'd be interesting.' It's different. It's off-the-wall. We booked the guy. The guy comes in. He's a hundred and thirty-one (years old). He kind of barely makes it to this microphone. I asked him some question; I forget what the initial question was. I still remember the answer: (straining, heavily accented) "Tah asta ha kah, nee tok history." I talked to him for about three or four minutes, then I said, "If you've got a question, give us a call right now. Dr. ___ can only stay for ten minutes." And he said, (again, accented) "Oh, I can stay longer," and I said, "No-no-no-no! It's okay, it's okay!" That was absolutely my worst ever. (Laughter.)
EASON. (to OWENS:) And for that you blew off your entire audience on Grant Avenue? (to the INTERVIEWER:) I'll give you two quickies. One, I had a guy who came in who had been out and had dinner and a couple of bottles of wine. I was working nights, and he came in and he sat down, and I introduced him, and I noticed he kept looking around at my producer and smiling and kind of waving at her. He'd lean way back in his chair so that he was off the mike, and I kept signaling him to come in. I started talking to the guy; it was obvious he was about half-bombed. He would say, (slurring and mumbling) "Yeah, well, you know ..." and after about two minutes, I said, "If there's anything else you'd like to know about this, it's all in the book." He looked at me and said, "Is that it?" and I said, "That's it." Boom, he was gone. About a three-minute interview.
RODGERS. (to OWENS) Did Dr. ___ smell better than the two naked women I had on? (Laughter.)
EASON. God ...
OWENS. I heard about that. Yeah!
EASON. I knew he was going to say that.
OWENS. That's what I heard.
RODGERS. The naked ladies, who had no acquaintance whatever with bathtubs, or basic hygiene. That was only a few weeks ago.
INTERVIEWER. These are the famous Berkeley naked ladies?
ALL. Yeah. Oh, yes. Uh-huh.
EASON. And Lee Rodgers is the one who said they smell bad.
RODGERS. ...And a prominent local comic who came on the show one night, and he was wired to the eyeballs; he was coked out of his head, and was absolutely screaming incoherent. I've never had another comic on the show since.
INTERVIEWER. Prominent, but unnamed.
RODGERS. Prominent, but unnamed.
OWENS. Why? You have Bernie (Ward) on the show.
EASON. What were his initials?
RODGERS. Uh-h-h ...
EASON. Never mind.
RODGERS. ...B. S., and it's appropriate.
OWENS. (Jumping in) Bobby Slayton?
RODGERS. (Frowning) No. I didn't say that, you did. (Laughter.)
OWENS. Interesting ...
EASON. Bernard Shaw?
OWENS. Bernard Shaw! There it is! Bernie on coke what a vision!
RODGERS. I had one guest on who violated, I think, what's a fundamental rule for all of us. The guy had written some kind of useful book, "How To Invest" or something like that, and I asked him the first question, and he said, "Well, you can find the answer to that question in my book." I said, "Now wait a minute. We've got a rule here: in exchange for the exposure, you don't answer questions by saying, 'You can find that in the book.' You answer the question, and you get the book plugged, and that's the way this game works."
A couple of minutes later, I asked something else, and he says, "Well, we cover that in great detail in the book," and I said, "Strike two, you're out!" (Laughter.) He says, "Good! I didn't want to be on your program anyway!"
INTERVIEWER. Who is the absolute dream interview you've had of all time?
EASON. There's always more than one.
RODGERS. I haven't had the 'dream' interview yet.
INTERVIEWER. Who would it be if you could have one?
RODGERS. Oh, I don't know. The talk-show host cliché, I guess. I'd like to spend an hour on the air with lovable old Adolf Hitler.
EASON. (Dead-pan) He's dead.
RODGERS. (Incredulous) Really?
OWENS. Then Lee could talk for a while.
RODGERS. Damn! You've ruined my day.
EASON. (Harkening back to a long-ago question) Barbra Streisand?
RODGERS. (Ignoring him) I've got nothing to look forward to.
EASON. (He tries again) Was it Barbra Streisand? I'm still working on 'B. S.' (Back to the matter at hand:) You mean, some of the ones we've had or some of the ones we'd like to have?
INTERVIEWER. Either way. Who is the best you've had?
EASON. Well, some of my favorites have been the people who are good talkers and who have some sense of what radio is about, so they don't start telling a thirty-minute story when it's five minutes to go; they have a sense about that. That would include people like Steve Allen, Bill Buckley, people like that who have something to say. I love those people. The one I would really like to get, and I'm still working on him I've been working on him for ten years; he never comes to San Francisco, apparently is Tony Randall. I'd love to talk to Tony Randall.
OWENS. Don't smoke in front of him.
EASON. Oh, that's right. We'd have to do it outside, I guess. He's sort of like you, isn't he?
OWENS. Yeah. Just as bad. Happy Great American Smoke-out, by the way.
EASON. Oh, that's right ... I gotta go have a cigarette.
OWENS. I'm like Lee. A talk-show host's memory is about a week. In terms of the best interview, who would I like to have? Richard Nixon, Jackie Onassis. Those are the two I'd like to have.
OWENS. Together would be even better.
RODGERS. Ronn's right. We're like the cockpit voice recorder they have in airliners. At the end of the flight, it erases and starts over. If you finish up at ten o'clock, at ten-oh-one, today's show is erased, you're ready for tomorrow.
OWENS. It is really true that if you stopped any of us four hours after the show and said, 'Who'd you have on?' Yeah, we'd be able to remember, but not instantly.
EASON. You would? I wouldn't.
OWENS. I would if I thought about it. But if you asked who'd I had on last week, forget it. Not a chance.
RODGERS. Actually, if I could, I would like to spend an hour interviewing Jim (Eason) some time, because he's my role model in life, and I look up to him so much
EASON. You're not getting paid for that, either. (Laughter.) There are a lot of people around you'd like to talk to, but you always think, when you think of the ideal guest, you want somebody who's a good talker and who has some sense of rhythm and pace, so they don't get boring. I mean, there are people who tell good stories, but it takes them forever to tell it.
OWENS. And you want somebody who's got some personality. Sometimes it can be an accent, sometimes it can be a "cuteness," but somebody who is just a little bit out of the ordinary.
RODGERS. And we don't want ugly people. Hell, we've got to sit across the desk from them and look at them for a while. We don't want a bunch of ugly guests.
EASON. A strange interview I had once was with Otto Preminger, the director, and I had prepped for this for days. I had every movie he ever made, all the people he worked with, I had questions written up this was years ago, when I used to do a lot more research. I had this big stack of stuff ready for him. He came in and I sat down, and I had a little written intro, and I just forgot the written intro and I ad libbed a line that started the whole interview. I said, "Just now, I met a rather Teutonic-looking gentleman in the hall " And he said, (hotly, with a German accent) "Vott do you mean, Teutonic?" Everything went out the window. Every question, everything I'd ask him. Then I started needling him. I said, "You've never won an Academy Award. Does that bother you?" and he said, (hotly, with a German accent) "Vott do you mean, bother me?" It just went to pieces. If you're locked into your format, you miss that.
OWENS. That's just it: I can't write questions
EASON. You can't write.
OWENS. Well, that's true, too. I can prepare, and I can have ideas as to what I can do, but to sit and write a question, I just can't do it because you never know how an interview is going to go, and you lose the spontaneity
EASON. You also lose several hours preparing for one that goes out the window. Or the guest doesn't show up and you say, "Jeez, I spent all night working on this."
RODGERS. I'll make notes on questions because, usually, any guest who's worth twenty or thirty minutes on the air, there are three or four things that I want to be sure I get out of them, and I don't want to forget it. I don't want a guest to walk out of the studio and then say to myself, "Damn! I forgot to ask so-and-so." But, other than that, after they've answered question number one, it goes where it goes.
OWENS. Our styles for preparing are different. Lee is here what time do you get in? You get in like ten o'clock in the morning?
RODGERS. I live here. I have no home.
OWENS. I get up at five in the morning to read papers. I don't walk into this place until twenty of nine. (to EASON:) You get in around noon or so. Everyone has their own very idiosyncratic style of doing it.
RODGERS. I get in at ten o'clock in the morning and I'm here until ten o'clock at night. I'm not wanted at home.
EASON. One of my mentors in this business, a guy who used to do a talk show here, I was asking once, "What happens if you've got two or three little questions you're going to ask, and you sort of cover the stuff you wanted to know, and you look down and there are no phone calls there. What do you do?" He said, "You look at the guest and say, 'And then what happens?'" (Laughter.)
OWENS. On the serious side, that's my whole key to it. I will prep for a guest to the point where I know that I can sit there for an hour with that person, and if there isn't a single phone call, I can do a good interview. Once I hit that point, it's over.
EASON. I learned that one the hard way. At the old building once, I came in to do a program then it was one to four in the afternoon and I walked in and the engineers told me, 'The phone bank is dead in the studio. You'll have to go in the little announce booth next door.' It's a little, tiny room, and I said, 'I can do that.' I walked in and sat down, and there were no phones. There was no phone bank at all. There was just me, and I had come in with nothing in my hands except the log and the commercials. I sat there and blood started forming on my forehead, dripping down my face, and I said, 'What the hell am I going to do?' Well, the guys in the newsroom started bringing down wire copy and I just started ad libbing, and finally they found somebody in the building I could interview. I said then, I will never go into that studio unprepared or empty-handed again. And I always go in with something.
OWENS. We've all probably had some experience like that. I was in Miami and the phones went out, and I had to do a four-hour talk show. There were no phones, I learned from that point. I have enough material all of us do to carry us through an entire show if need be.
EASON. And sometimes you don't use any of it.
RODGERS. That's usually the case.
OWENS. Most of the time you don't, but it's just there.
RODGERS. That happened to me, very first talk show I ever did. Three hours on the air, and they had just installed this big, expensive new phone system, and there were a couple of guests scheduled, but they were by phone also. At about five minutes into the program, this big, new phone system rolled over and died. It was the very first show I ever did, and I had to sit there and say everything I knew for three hours, and then argue with myself.
EASON. Everything you knew? Everything you knew took three hours? Give me a break.
RODGERS. No, no. That took five minutes
OWENS. The arguments kept on going.
EASON. The day after my telephone situation over there, after I got off the air that day, I went into the program director's office and I said, "Boy, I just had to sweat through three hours. I was ad libbing the whole way. I had nothing going on," and he said, "I'm going to give you a piece of advice that will serve you well. When you're doing a radio talk show, don't ever depend on phone callers, don't ever depend on guests. It's your show. You carry it. If there are no guests and no calls, you still are getting paid to be on the air two or three hours a day and to fill time."
RODGERS. Many's the day we walk out after having guests on the program and say, God, it would have been a much better show if we'd had no guests and no phone calls.
INTERVIEWER. Do you ever feel "used" by people out on book tours?
OWENS. Greatest answer: I talked to Barbara Walters, she was plugging some show, and I still remember what she said. Somehow, that came up, and she said, "Ronn, come on, let's get serious. You're using me; I'm using you." And that's the answer.
RODGERS. (Emoting:) I feel so used.
OWENS. It's a mutual thing: They've got something to plug. They're helping (the program) get an audience. It's not a "use" thing. Are we using them or are they using us? Who knows?
EASON. There are some talk shows that the host makes it a point to not cooperate at all. He won't mention the title of the book, he won't mention the title of the movie or anything. He just deliberately does that because he says, 'I'm here to talk to this person not a salesman, but a person.' As a result, these people are prepped by their P.R. people to constantly mention the book. They never say, "As I say in my book ..."; they say, "As I say in 'The Sun Also Rises' ..." They always give the title, they're constantly pushing, and we have to put the brakes on them. I tell them, 'Look, it's to my advantage to mention the title of your book, otherwise I get 400 letters saying "What was the title of that book?"' And we get phone calls in the back office 'Who was that guest?' So, every time we do a little break and go to a commercial, I tell you who the guest is.
RODGERS. If they start that thing, 'In my book entitled So-and-so,' I tell them on the break, 'Look, you don't have to do that, because it sounds like you're really whoring. And we're going to plug the thing at the end anyway, and mention the publisher and all that stuff, so just stop it. It makes you sound bad.'
EASON. I used to have a little sound cartridge of a cash register ringing.
OWENS. (Amid laughter) I remember that. It was great!
EASON. The guests couldn't hear it. I'd look at the engineer, and when the guest started really pushing, I'd kind of nod at the engineer and then every time they'd mention, 'Well, in my book ...' ching-ching! Then I had Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon on; he'd been on several times before, but this was her first trip, and she was the pushiest. She had written a book and ... everything, everything if you would say, "How was your flight out here?" (Tartly:) "I came out here to talk about my book." So I looked at the engineer and he pulled out the little cart and put it in, and we were running it. Garson knew what we were doing, 'cause he was sitting close to the glass and he could hear it: ching-ching! every time she'd mention it, and he would just kind of look away. At the end of the interview, I told her what we had done. She said, "If I had known, I would have walked out!" And I said, "Well, as long as Garson stayed ..." (Laughter.)
INTERVIEWER. Our next question is along the lines of "What do you think of Howard Stern?": What's going to happen to Rush Limbaugh now?
EASON. (Chortling) I'll wait on that one. You guys go ahead.
EASON. Ronn's going to kill him, right? You're going to kill him
OWENS. I made a twenty-dollar bet with him that, within a year, I would still be beating him in the numbers and I am. My contention has always been that a good local show will beat a good national show. Rush and his success has surprised me to the extent that I wouldn't have thought he'd have had a #1 book, that the TV thing would go. I still view Rush as a very, very good pro wrestler. I mean, he's not a talk-show host; he's a pro wrestler. He's got a good act, and he does it well, and it's a very, very well done show. I still maintain that if we do our show and do it well, we'll beat him in this market. I can't speak for other markets, because if he doesn't have competition in other markets that is up to it, he'll probably succeed and continue to succeed, because he does a very good show.
RODGERS. Yeah, I think he'll have a good, long run. I think he will succeed as long as he wants to work at it. But Ronn's right: a good local show will always beat any kind of network product. Larry King has never really made any impact anywhere in a major market that I know of. Larry's been around for a long time, he has all that CNN exposure, and yet his radio ratings in major markets where there is local competition are just nothing. In fact, the idea was floated recently that they were going to move his show up to daytime
OWENS. It fizzled.
RODGERS. The major-market stations that carry it said, 'No, we're not going to do that.'
OWENS. Jim, you may have a comment, because you listen to Rush all the time.
EASON. (After reflecting for a moment.) Rush Limbaugh is amusing. He has gotten to be very repetitious, and I think very boring, because I do listen to him from time to time to see what's going on over there. He's getting to the point now where he's if I hear that damn "Born Free" with the gun shots one more time, I'm going to throw up. He's been doing it for four years and, you know, after a while, you freshen up the material. He has had a longer run than I thought he would have. I figured he would be a flash in the pan. He's been around longer than I thought. I gave him one year, nationally, and he broke nationally, I guess, what?
EASON. No, when the war was starting is when he really went big and got on here and everything. So, he's been around a little longer than I thought. He is long or short a flash in the pan.
INTERVIEWER. Is he on the downward curve right now?
EASON. I don't know if he's ... he's peaked right now.
OWENS. He's on a plateau. He's not going to go higher.
EASON. He's got his book and he's got his TV show and everything, so I don't think he's going down yet. But I'll tell you a little incident: when I first was put on the afternoons here I used to work nights they said, 'We're throwing you to the lions, and we don't expect much, but just hang in there and do what you can because there's a guy here in the Bay Area who is doing a show called "California Girls"' Don Chamberlain and they said he was red hot. He's got the right numbers; he's got the right balance of men and women; he only takes phone calls from women, so all the young guys are sitting there listening and drooling about what the women are saying; it's red hot, and you've got your work cut out for you. That was in 1972. I'm still here. Chamberlain is long gone.
RODGERS. I think Limbaugh's career has probably been extended by the election, because it's a lot easier and a lot more fun to attack than to defend, and now the election's over.
OWENS. Here is my theory, and it goes along with what Jim said in terms of "how long": I don't counter-program to Limbaugh. I do, ever so slightly, in that he has no female demos at all; so, from that standpoint, yeah, I'm aware of it. But aside from that, I still do what I do, and my theory has always been, People will sample him it makes sense. No matter how much you might like listening to Ronn Owens, if Ronn's got a lousy show, or something you're not interested in, you turn the dial, you sample him. If you discover him for the first time and you get past that first week or two, you start to like him, and he's not bad. You listen to him and I've always felt, you listen to him for six to nine months, until one day you're driving along and all of a sudden say, 'Wait a minute. This is the same old s--- over and over again.' At which point you come back to Ronn, or come back to KGO.
EASON. Lee's right. The election's over now. You can't hammer away at Clinton forever I guess he's got four years of hammering at Clinton; Ray Taliaferro's made a career out of hammering Bush
OWENS. It will get dull after a while.
RODGERS. It will, but I think it's extended his success because it is easier and more fun to attack to defend, so he's got that going for him for a while. For how long, I don't know.
EASON. Something else that the Limbaughs and the Sterns and all the hotshots have to do, and that is they have to keep topping themselves. They have to keep pushing and topping themselves, and eventually you either wear out or you go over the line. What we do is not that exhausting because we're sort of, 'Hello, how are you'
RODGERS. Solid. We're solid.
OWENS. All we have to do is constantly realize that what we're doing is fun, and that we like what we're doing, and so you can't get stale. You always have to come up with different, new angles, but it doesn't have to go to the extremes.
EASON. Every once in a while you do something explosive
OWENS. And it's wonderful! And, of course, when you do it, somebody up front will say, 'Boy, that was great! God, you should do that every day!' and you have to point out to them, a) you can't do it every single day, and b) even if you could do it every single day, it would then get boring. What makes something stand out is because it's so special. If one of the three of us goes off on an edge and has some crusade and goes nuts over something, that's wonderful. But you can't manufacture it. If it's legit, it works.
EASON. So the Limbaughs and the Sterns are going to have to either keep topping themselves all the time, which will exhaust them and burn them out, or they'll have to kind of settle down and do a little different show. And then people say, 'Who needs it?' boom. And they're back over here.
OWENS. They'll be back here. Like Jim, when I came here, I remember when Ed Bush that was the one I remember that was this "big one" they were going to throw at me. The key to it, frankly, from this station is that you don't pay any attention. You just do what you do. We've got a nice, loyal corps of listeners, and we just do it, and we do it responsibly and professionally, and have fun at the same time.
RODGERS. Network shows the good ones will always float along and succeed on their own terms. But that means they're going to get their core audience in Stockton and smaller markets where they don't have any real local competition. Here, (and) in Chicago where they have a WGN, in Minneapolis where they have a WCCO, in St. Louis where they have a KMOX, none of those shows have any real impact at all, because people in Fremont care more about what people in Santa Rosa think than they care what people in Dothan, Alabama, think about any issue.
OWENS. I went on the air this morning, the first thing I alluded to: cloudy, rainy, drizzly day in the Bay Area. Let people know that, because if you're doing a show and it's snowing in New York and it's a gorgeous day out here, you can't relate to that. There's something to be said for a good, local program.
EASON. Yeah, and a lot of local issues that are very important to local folks, the national shows never touch them. They don't know anything about it. And if I were sitting here, say I were a farmer in Iowa and we just had a hail storm that wiped out my crops, I don't care what the people in Los Angeles are doing. I want to do something about my crops; you talk about, 'Here's what you do: you go down to the Agriculture Department, you do so-and-so.' People love that. And I don't think national shows will ever give good local shows a hard time. If you've got somebody like, say, Larry King, who's got Kissinger and Nixon and Ross Perot and all these people, heavyweight guests, all the time, you can support that. But you've got to have the guests all the time, because when Larry has an "open line" (show)
RODGERS. He has no numbers in major markets.
EASON. I know, but what I'm saying is, a national show ... look at The Tonight Show, the Letterman show, all those; they have to have guests, guests, guests, guests, guests. One person can't just sit there and talk to the audience and do it. Even Phil Donahue has guests.
RODGERS. When I was in Chicago, Larry King was on a 50,000-watt, clear-channel radio station, and every time the ratings came out, there was an asterisk, which means, in the Arbitrons, 'audience too small to measure.' Why? Because there were two or three good talk shows in town.
OWENS.(He rises to exit.) I'll give you guys a chance to talk about me. I've got to go. (Amid general clamor, OWENS departs.)
EASON. Good. Now we can talk about Ronn.
RODGERS. (Loudly.) And stay out!
OWENS. Now, behind my back, the real story!
EASON. (Aside.) Rush Limbaugh is eating his lunch. He's killing him. He'll be off the radio.
INTERVIEWER. We only had one more question to ask: could you ever see yourself doing anything else beside this?
RODGERS. You bet! What kind of money are you offering?
INTERVIEWER. If you were doing something else besides this, what would it be?
EASON. Let me put it to you this way, Lee: if someone handed you a check for five-million dollars and said, 'Okay, you can spend the rest of your life doing exactly what you want to do,' what would you do?
RODGERS. (After reflecting) I don't want to compromise myself legally.
EASON. Okay, ten-million dollars.
RODGERS. I could see myself doing something else, because I've done other things. I used to be in the travel business I still am; I own an agency in Chicago and if I weren't doing this, I'd probably be in the travel business, and living a life of dissolution in various exotic locales around the world.
EASON. I would be a successful free-lance writer. I'd live way off in the boondocks somewhere and never see other people. I'd just sit up there and write and watch television and read
RODGERS. Just sit on his front porch with a .30/.30 and shoot at trespassers.
EASON. I underline the word "successful." I don't want to be a starving free-lance writer, thank you.
RODGERS. No, but that takes away from the romance.
INTERVIEWER. Is this the best job you've ever had?
RODGERS. You mean, aside from my career as a gigolo?
EASON. Yeah, but this pays better.
Steve Van Someren of the Radio Digest staff contributed to the preparation of this
Copyright © 1993 by David Ferrell Jackson. May not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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