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Todd Herman: A Conservative Voice That Cuts Through the Clutter

He never comes off angry, but instead calm, confidant and curious. When I would challenge him on an issue his first response was not to challenge me back, but to discover why I thought the way I did.

Ryan Maguire

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In a past column I wrote for Barrett News Media, I mentioned that some of my best interactions have been with colleagues who oppose most (if not all) of my political views.

Todd Herman is one name that stands out.

The morning man on Seattle’s KTTH-AM and guest host for The Rush Limbaugh Show is a fascinating person who has led a fascinating life.  He’s worked for Microsoft, founded startups, and spent time working for the RNC.  Yet, his passion for storytelling led him to where he is today.

He’s not your typical conservative talker.  He never comes off angry, but instead calm, confidant and curious.  When I would challenge him on an issue his first response was not to challenge me back, but to discover why I thought the way I did His faith drives him to look for the good in people.

I caught up with Todd recently to talk about his work with Limbaugh, the radio industry, and where conservative media is headed.

You earned the very rare opportunity to be one of the regular guest hosts on The Rush Limbaugh Show. What has that experience been like for you?

If you had the opportunity to do fill in work for the person you admire most in your industry what would that be like for you? For me, it caused to me speak a word I had used all once before in my life: “Surreal.” Since I have been honored to fill in for Rush, for a number of years, it’s now a lot of fun. It’s a joy, and that is because of the EIB team and the Rush Limbaugh callers. Being around the show, even as a rodeo clown fill in, I wish more people really got to know what Rush and his team at EIB have built. This is beyond a media company or a radio show; the connection Rush’s listeners feel to him is not a soft bond, it’s a strong bond. What I experience when doing the show, comes partly from what I feel from callers. The EIB team–and, in that, I include Ken Matthews and Mark Steyn, also guest hosts–is an obsessive focus on serving that audience. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves: Rush’s Team has been with him for up to thirty-years! Think of this industry or media in general! Where do teams like that stick together that long, with this much success? I know a little bit about culture and longevity, and the focus on delivering excellence isn’t accidental. What continually strikes me when I work with EIB, is the culture of graciousness. “Bo Snerdley” and Kraig Kitchin have helped me understand when I am at my best as a host and when I drop below my best and they do that with great bedside manners, albeit with two very different personalities. There are people in radio who would be wise to pay to get their feedback (well, we would all be wise to seek that), and I get paid to listen to it and learn from that. So, it’s graciousness and I extend that assessment to all the show people, the finance, show revenue generators, and right back to the foundation: the audience. But even with all that, when the show theme rolls and I hear Johnny Donovan say my name, I am just struck with awe and gratitude that God somehow decided to make this possible, and of course, to my home team in Seattle at 770 KTTH, for giving me a daily platform of weekday mornings.

You have a unique background. You were an executive for Microsoft during the Gates days, you worked in D.C. for the Republican Party and even [founded, lead, and sold] several startups. Most (if not all) of those fields are far more lucrative than radio. Where does your passion for the business come from and why do you still do it?

I love story. I love to tell them and hear them. I am deeply passionate about proper governance and the rule of law. So, as a host, I am blessed to be able to combine these elements into a radio show. I prefer radio to Podcasting, because I crave walking the highwire of live radio, where what occurs to me, as I analyze news, is a split second from landing with my audience, and the stories I tell are directly shared with the people who make possible my career. I adore extemporaneously expressing my thoughts and getting feedback. My love of this all, got fed to me. During my youth, my father would play Paul Harvey and I especially loved “The Rest of The Story.” In my teens, I got the great gift of a lifelong best friend whose father, Gary Taylor was an important radio and music executive. With he and his son, my dearest friend, I was able to learn from Gary’s play by play critique of radio, and you will hear me reference sort of old time FM radio talk, on my local show–“Oh, I hit the post on that bump!”–I adore the mix of those kinds of performance dynamics with more thoughtful moments, things I heard from people like Jim French (a Seattle radio legend) and good-spirited mockery, like Pat Cashman did (another great radio person from Seattle) and I now get to work with a great monologuer, Dori Monson. My life changed forever, though, when I heard Rush Limbaugh, and all of these pieces came together and all wrapped around one man’s opinions, intelligence, wit, and love of the craft; when I heard Rush’s show, I was sold, I had had to do it. I am certainly not comparing myself to these greats, I am just explaining how I came to love this medium.

Given your background in the tech sector, I had to lob you a question on that front! What are the best things radio can do to evolve itself and reach the younger, tech-savvy consumer base?

I have a firm rule, Ryan; old people have no business explaining how to reach young people unless the old folk are speaking from direct observation at scale and in-depth, evidentiary data. So, with those caveats in place, I would hope radio executives are cool hunting beyond apps and gadgets and down to the “why?” What I mean is this: Why does a young person use TikTok for some content and Snapchat for others? Why are so many young people doing their own cool hunting (their own version of A&R) and finding artists before the labels do. For instance, my daughter was listening to Cavetown, there were about 100 people on that YouTube channel. She has done that with a lot of artists, who have gone on to some good level of fame. So, this is still about content, story and relationship and these young people are far more similar to their parents and grandparents than we are led to believe: My daughter has dumped TikTok and now watches long form documentaries and stories, that has happened as she has aged; as I grew up, I listened to less hair metal and more of the Beatles, stopped Hogan’s Heroes and started watching more sophisticated stuff. Beyond that “focus group of one” comparison, consider the YouTube sensations, Dan & Phil. Where did their careers lead them? To a BBC deal and a hugely successful series of live stage shows. I saw both tours of Dan & Phil, and with the notable exceptions related to cultural shifts, these stage shows were good, old fashion shtick, some Joseph Campbell, some Odd Couple, some Vaudeville. So, these “tech savvy” young people–which I would express as “tech culture” young people–bought tickets, stood in line, bought merch, screamed, and cried when the guys came on stage, and then, in Seattle, chased their tour bus in teen hysteria. Is that a tech story? No, it’s a content story and Dan & Phil–who are now guys in their 30’s–built a strong bond with their audience because they adapted to a new aesthetic: They spoke in intimate terms, close up shots, often with no music, to their audience. Sure, Dan & Phil are performers, but they knew their medium well enough, to know when to emote and when to clown.

You and I have very different political views. Despite that, we had some fascinating conversations and always had the ability to, many times, meet each other in the middle. Can that kind of mentality make for good radio?

Could that mentality make good radio? Sure. Can a radio show like that succeed? No and yes. No: not as a new radio show. The Nation has been divided so completely, and these divisions are being inflamed so brilliantly, that I believe a new radio show with left and right cannot work. You will be losing 50% of the audience every few minutes. Yes: if the radio show pre-existed our Nation being divided so expertly. If the audience got to know the hosts before the great divide, then they can love the hosts without regard to the divide. Yes: if the hosts have a solid basis of friendship that pre-dates the great divide, the audience will sense that. Again, we have a model of that: Tom & Curley in Seattle, their show, and their friendship pre-dates the great divide; it’s fun, engaging radio because they are terrific performers, it still works because their audience grew up with them and with Curley, in his 80th year of radio, they stick with him to help him into old age. I said the mentality we share could make good radio. You and I can find a way to respect one another’s views, because I think you and I enjoy honest debate. You are a guy who likes to think about what people tell you, and I am a person who is fascinated with how people think. My faith calls me to have love for people and your nature, I believe, is to find the good in folks, even dangerous, right-wing lunatics like me. These characteristics make for great conversation, and I imagine it could work well in a Podcast where people choose to listen to a Left and Right dynamic and have success. But, not with radio where tune-ins matter.

What is the future of not just conservative talk radio but conservative media? How will it manage to exist and thrive despite the rise of “wokeness” and “cancel culture”?

That depends on how serious the New York Times is about the government having a “reality Czar” who decides what is or is not “true.” It depends on whether the totalitarians at Facebook, Google and Twitter get to continue to disappear us. If CNN hosts get their way, and OANN and NewsmaxTV are stricken from Comcast and Verizon pipes, it will be a hard path. We will have to buy our own servers, our own networks, pipes, and that clearly would take enormous investments. What’s happened in content, though, is fascinating: I firmly believe we are the news media. My audience knew about eight months ago the 35 Cycle PCR tests used to justify the deadly, medically useless, politically targeted lockdowns of schools, churches, and small businesses, were tragically flawed and delivered up to 98% false positives for Covid. Now, the World Health Organization finally admitted these tests are deeply flawed. My audience knew in March of last year, that all of the evidentiary data indicated children are at less risk from Covid than they are from flu; they knew people ages 20 – 40 are more likely to die playing football than from Covid. My audience heard, firsthand, that Hydroxychloroquine was never controversial until CNN manufactured that false reality, and suddenly it’s safe again. Now–as if by magic–we have Democrat politicians demanding schools open. It’s insane in a way, but my little show, Rush’s huge show, Glenn Beck’s program, in Seattle, my great colleague, Dori Monson, we have become the places where people can hear a counter narrative that breaks with what has, in far too many cases, become what I call the Mockingbird Media; shows and hosts who repeat and amplify the talking points of technocrats and leftist government, without a shred of skepticism. I am not claiming some mantle of infallibility, far from it, but in relation to Covid, somehow, we were right from three days after the partial, selective, deadly lockdowns began. So, unless we are disappeared, we will thrive by being the people who are committed to speaking fact and being open about our opinions and biases. However, if Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and CNN and The New York Times get their wish, and conservative news sources are disappeared, then the counter narrative is gone. If that happens, large scale debate is over and with it peaceful dissent. Should those things fall, America is gone. Hopefully, people in our industry with actual power, will not let that happen.

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A Message to Radio Leaders About Burnout

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product.

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Life is show prep. That’s what my Dallas radio co-host Amy Chodroff always said and she was right.

If you do a news or talk radio show you get it, it’s non-stop. You spend every day of your life reading news and considering opinions. You scrutinize reported facts, look for bias, gauge your reaction, and think about how you’ll present it on the air.

This is the only way you can do your job. Your listeners expect you to know more than they do, to inform them, and to offer insights into every situation and with every interview you present on the air.

Life is, in fact, show prep. But if you’re a news or talk radio show host you might have trouble explaining that to some people who don’t understand this because they’ve never tried doing it.

Your bosses, for example.

When I retired recently, this conflict was the tipping point. I had a recent health scare that thankfully turned out to be nothing more than a wake-up call. As long as I could remember, I was getting up at 2:30 AM every day to do a radio news show that aired live from 5 until 9 AM.

By 9:05 AM, I was mentally exhausted, but the boss felt I should put in a full eight hours on the clock, joining the newsroom staff from 9:00 until noon or 1:00 P.M.

More than the extra work itself, dodging that insistence wore me out and took me to retirement. I tried but couldn’t effectively explain that I worked as much at home and wherever else I happened to be as I did when I was in the building.

Life is show prep. And I suppose that can sound like a justification for going home after a four or five-hour shift, but if you’ve never done it, you can’t know the truth.

I got breaking news alerts on my phone while at home with family and in restaurants with friends. I was in daily contact with my co-host and our producer. Text meetings and phone calls between us during weekends were frequent. Show prep doesn’t allow time off between air shifts, even when you’re on vacation.

You may be a sales executive, administration manager, or an engineer thinking, ‘Yeah, I think about work away from the office, too.’ But what you don’t do when you’re in the office is perform to the immediate judgment of thousands of people live, non-stop, four hours per day, five days a week. It’s a never-ending multi-tasking job that requires keeping one eye on the clock, part of your brain focused on the real-time on-air content, while other parts are planning what you must do next and 20 minutes from now and next hour as you’re making notes for future reference.

While all of this is going on, you’re also signaling your co-host, producer, and if you have one your board operator. If you’ve never done all of that there’s no way I can explain that being on the air requires more concentration and energy in four hours than your eight-hour work day does. It just does.

Show prep never ends. Never.

You will read far more versions of various news stories than anyone you know except your on-air partner if you have one. Those stories are rabbit holes and you’ll dive into them, looking for red flags and nuance, double and triple checking your sources because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. Now more than ever you can trip an information landmine with any single step. Your credibility and career depend on preparing your show carefully but quickly, 24/7.

Now we have this idea that news anchors and talk hosts should have three or four more hours of additional responsibilities after their show ends, as tomorrow’s show prep continues. It’s ignorant and debilitating. Yet, here we are, in the new era of corporate bean counters and the elimination of trained human resources in radio newsrooms filled with empty workstations and only one or two people on duty to answer the phone, gather information, write or rewrite it, record various sources including their own on-air reports while setting up and performing interviews. These under-appreciated magicians often have hourly newscasts to prepare and perform as well.

Radio news staffs are seriously shorthanded. How can a manager improve efficiency? Why, call on people who have just done a four-hour show preceded by an hour or two of in-studio prep and all that work they did at home.

An RTDNA study published a year ago revealed that nearly 70% of news directors reported their staff were overworked and suffering from job burnout.

Ya think?

There is an implied hint of good news in the RTDNA’s most recent look into the problem: Radio news staffing changes are actually increasing slightly. Hey, great! But if you look at the numbers below the headline you’ll be shocked. How do radio news and talk survive?

“The latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey shows the typical (median) radio news operation has a full-time news staff of two for the second year in a row.”

TWO FULL-TIME NEWS STAFFERS!

(Disclaimer: Your numbers may vary, depending on market size and how many news and talk hosts are folded into the count when they get off the air.)

There was a time when providing factual news and the exchange of ideas was a lofty yet achievable ideal. It was so exciting we couldn’t wait to get to work.

In those days, air talent was paid their actual value related to radio station earnings. My salary as a morning news host in Sacramento was five times more than I made in Dallas, 40 years later. The pressure to do more eventually burned me out. Now I know people half my age making less than half of my salary when I started in Dallas 12 years ago. Major market news and talk talents are cashing paychecks equal to or less than what their grandpas made as medium market top-40 deejays.

I don’t have any solutions to the money problems that face every news/programming/sales and general manager each day. I will suggest a thought, though:

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product. What would your profit and loss statement look like without them?

Sit down with your program and news directors, news writers and reporters, producers, and show hosts. Show them a little love. Ask them what they need and how you might be able to help. They’ll want you to pay them more and hire more people, you know that going in so think about it now. Is that possible?

You’re smart, which is why you’re the manager. I’ll bet you can figure out a way to do it.

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How News/Talk Radio Hosts Can Use Caitlin Clark to Reach Broader Audiences

This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

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A photo of Caitlin Clark
(Photo: John Mac C.C. 2.0)

Caitlin Clark and Donald Trump have something in common, and I have no idea if it’s their politics. But Caitlin Clark in the 2024 news cycle is Donald Trump circa 2015-16 to the news/talk radio topic selection.

Just like no one had seen anything like Donald Trump in modern American politics, no one has seen anything close to Caitlin Clark in the WNBA.

The WNBA has existed for nearly three decades but has smashed all ratings and attendance records, at least for games involving Clark. Caitlin Clark is bigger than the WNBA, just like Donald Trump when he first burst onto the scene, at least, was bigger than the bubble that was American politics.

The other thing both have in common is that they transcend their respective supposed lanes. Donald Trump was bigger than politics when he entered the political arena in 2015. Caitlin Clark is bigger than women’s basketball. Politics was not the story in 2015; Trump was the story. Now, the WNBA is not the story; Caitlin Clark is the story.

So, if you’re a news/talk radio host and you’re not taking advantage of the Caitlin Clark news cycle, what are you waiting for? As the battle for younger listeners continues in the news/talk space, this is your opportunity; don’t miss it.

Your target, in-demo audience — parents in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s (think 35-54) — who have daughters between the ages of 8 and 18, are probably talking about Caitlin Clark in their homes, around the dinner table, and when driving them around town to practices and friend’s houses. This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

This doesn’t mean breaking down Caitlin Clark’s box score. I admittedly have no idea how many points she’s averaging per game. But it’s about diving into the cultural issues surrounding Clark in recent weeks. From cheap shots on the court to Olympic Team slights, these topics are opportunities to weave a broad, cultural news topic into a radio format and show that extends beyond the hard news/politics/nuts and bolts news stories.

Undoubtedly, those are important, but they remain a lane that isn’t necessarily growing, especially in the coveted 25-54 demographic.

And with a news/talk host’s ability to understand the current cultural and political climate likely better than your competitor on the sports talk station, you have a topic and angle unique to your town and potential listening audience.

In the last two weeks, the most calls we’ve received on a single segment came during a topic on Caitlin Clark being shoved by Chennedy Carter, which went viral two weekends ago. Men, women, young, and old all wanted to chime in and had an opinion. And it came on a Monday morning when most of us in the chair can attest that the phones are usually slower than later in the week. You had sports mixed with culture and race bubbling into one topic that can be seized compellingly by a news/talk radio show.

Caller reaction cannot be the main driver of what makes good radio or a compelling topic, but it can be anecdotal, in that moment, for what the audience is willing to and wants to react to.

So, while I can’t tell you who Caitlin Clark’s team, the Indiana Fever, will play tonight, tomorrow, or the night after (or even if they play), I can tell you I’ll be following for any viral moments that might play in the news/talk space.

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The Case for News Media Outlets to Utilize Paywalls

Why are we giving our work for free?

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As local newspapers across the country shutter Americans are craving local news, but not in the traditional sense. A new Pew Institute Research study found a large majority of Americans believe local news outlets are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their community.

Yet, only 15% say they have paid or given money to any local news source in the last year.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Except, in this case, there is no such thing as free news. People are in need of, and crave, local journalists’ hard work but are unwilling to pay for it. This is unsustainable.

Pew found 32% of those polled are looking to TV for local news, which is still the most common source of news. However, this is down from 41% in 2018. Just 9% look to print and another 9% look to radio for news. It’s no surprise to anyone Americans are looking to get local news online from websites (26%) and social media (23%).

While the transition from print to digital is relatively easy from a strictly content standpoint, having people pay is borderline impossible. The most common explanation is that people don’t pay because they can find plenty of free local news. The answer for our industry to survive is simple: paywalls.

Even with a Borrell Associates prediction of local broadcast TV advertisements growing 5.9% it won’t last. The agency noted the 2024 bump will fall after the election. We can not rely on every election cycle to survive.

In 20 years, TV won’t be able to subsidize digital (in some markets they are already unable to do this). In fact, this business model needs to be flipped around before local TV and radio stations shutter like newspapers have.

As I said in a previous article, it is unethical to have social media companies pay news outlets for content (like the legislation in Australia and Canada pushed through). But the money has to come from somewhere.

Why are we giving our work for free? A dollar per click on digital advertising is only sustainable (and offers a livable wage) when it comes to clickbait. However, the mind-numbing click farm is not why most of us do what we do.

Journalists are supposed to provide information, stand up for the truth, and have some sort of moral integrity. This does not mean we and our colleagues need to live on barely minimum wage. (Full disclosure, moral integrity does not mean “activist journalism,” which is bad and not actually journalism. I mean have the integrity to keep yourself and your view out of the story.)

Suits, this is where I turn to you. In 2022, local TV over-the-air advertising revenue totaled $20.5 billion according to a Pew study. The same study said profits from digital advertising revenue reached $2 billion. So where does this money go? It’s certainly not in the newsroom.

On average starting salaries are $37,600, according to The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). They calculate since 2020 those who work in news on average lost 8.3% in real wages. However, the amount of airtime for local outlets increased by 18 minutes per weekday. Meaning more work, less pay, and even less time to enjoy that breaking news pizza.

People are now making more at fast food restaurants in California than your newsroom associate with a bachelor’s degree. This is not normal. Invest in your people.

Journalists have so much more to offer the community yet they are not being paid. The companies they work for are not making as much as they could because everyone is afraid to put up a paywall.

If all local news outlets unanimously ask their readers to pay (like we used to before the dot com boom when everyone had to buy a paper) people would pay. They need us to be properly informed. While we are fully aware of our industry’s credit crunch, those outside of our world are blissfully unaware of our precarious situation.

Most importantly, local news outlets are facing a news dotcom problem, ‘Dark Money.’ Axios reported this week the number of biased outlets, that say they are impartial, is more than the number of actual local daily newspapers in the U.S.

Not only are we not being paid for the value of our work, we are competing with people who have bad intentions, unlimited money, and unlimited bandwidth. True news might be dead at the national level but we can not let this happen to local news.

There is no such thing as free news. So why does the industry as a whole treat our valuable content in this way?

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