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Jesse Kelly Was at the Right Place at the Right Time

Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.

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Some people are born to greatness; others have a horseshoe–you know where. He may not be the biggest name in radio yet, but he’s in the running for tallest. 

“I’m 6’8”,” Jesse Kelly said. “Everybody else in this business is short.”

Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.

“I remember we had our senior song,” Kelly said. “It seemed to be the same song for every graduating class; Time of Your Life, by Green Day. A great song, but man, like anything else, it can get old.”

Kelly said he’s all about classic rock. Aerosmith and classical music are on his playlist as well.

“I wasn’t allowed to go to the senior prom,” Kelly confessed. “I chose not to attend some of my classes. (Most of his classes.) I had more of an interest in camping, pretty girls, and great weather.” Kelly said he actually missed two-thirds of his classes in high school, ditching, and whatnot. 

What in the world was the 16-year-old- Jesse Kelly thinking about? 

“I was just into Mountain Dew, basketball, and video games,” he said. “I lived in Montana. There wasn’t much else to do. We were surrounded by mountains. Every weekend we’d grab sleeping bags, shotguns because there were a lot of wild animals.”

All the above, and chasing girls, was a full-time job for Kelly. Who had time for silly old school?

“I don’t mean to sound like an old man,” Kelly began, “but that’s all we did. We’d never heard about drugs outside of pot, and kids today are into fentanyl and what have you. An amazing difference from when I was a kid.”

With his height, you would have assumed he would have been the star basketball player–and he could have been.

“I played until my sophomore year in high school,” Kelly said. “The coach had been licking his chops, anticipating my arrival on his team. I chose not to do it after sophomore year. My dad was mad; the coach was furious.”

The expectations were clear as Kelly’s father played well enough to play basketball on a scholarship. 

“I guess I was a bit rebellious,” Kelly said.

Ya think?

If he lived in Indiana, shunning basketball would have been akin to sacrilege. In Montana, not so much of a big deal.

Moving to Montana was a bit of a culture shock for a guy whose family had deep tentacles in the rust belt in Ohio. 

“My father and cousins were all into the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and mostly the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Kelly said. “I wanted to follow something different, so I picked the New York Giants. In baseball, it was the White Sox. I wanted to be like The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas.).”

Kelly doesn’t put stock in the ‘traditional trap’ set for kids in America. He doesn’t believe a kid has to go to college right away, if ever. In fact, he told his sons they’re not allowed to go to college until they ‘found themselves.’

“My 11-year-old son is my clone,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to see what dad does for a living and thinks it’s cool. He said he wants to be on the radio too. I told him I’d help him as much as I could, but first, he had to live life, gain some life experience.”

His elder son is 13 years old and has a mind Kelly said must have come from somewhere else. “He’s a different cat,” Kelly said. “His mind works differently. He can take a bucket of random Legos, dump them on the floor, and he’ll build a spaceship. I’m not talking about the kind of deal where a parent pats their son on the head for support, saying, ‘Yeah, that looks a little like a spaceship.’ My son actually spends 18 hours on the project and makes a spaceship, down to the minute details; something NASA would be proud of.”

For a guy that hated school, you would have thought books would be like Kryptonite. Surprisingly, Kelly reads a lot. “I’m an obsessive reader. I’d read Louis L’Amour, the frontier guy. I moved on to military books, loved anything to do with the Marines.” He said those books are partially why he ended up joining the Marines. 

So, what was the impetus for becoming a Marine?

“I was a piece of crap,” the candid Kelly said. “I barely graduated high school. My first semester at Montana State, I ‘earned’ a 0.0-grade point average.” That might even qualify for valedictorian at Montana State. They even let him stay for a second semester before he bailed.

I asked Kelly exactly what one would have to do to earn a 0.0 GPA. 

“Remarkably little,” he deadpanned. “Sleeping-in helps. Chasing women. Attending half of your finals.”

Kelly was a kid that watched John Wayne films. He was so inspired by the fictitious-Marine, that he woke up one morning, went downtown, and signed up to be a Marine.

“My parents were furious about me enlisting,” he said. “When I told them I was going into infantry, they were 10-times as mad.”

Kelly soon found himself on a bus headed to San Diego. “You know what’s coming up,” he said regarding boot camp. “You pull up. The drill instructors are lined up and jump on the bus before it comes to a stop, hollering at you.” That was just the welcoming committee. 

He was later deployed to Iraq as an infantry Marine during the Second Persian Gulf War.

In possession of a natural distrust for authority when he joined, it got worse. “The most revealing moment for me in Iraq wasn’t combat. We were invading Iraq heading north. All of us are proud patriots. Word came down we had to take down our American flags, which were draped over our Amtrak train.”

Kelly said he and his comrades felt betrayed by their country. “I guess they didn’t want us to look like invaders.”

This is the part of the show where we talk about how the interview subject got into radio. This one is a doozy.

Kelly was released from the Marines with an honorable discharge after four years. He moved to Arizona, where he worked in construction. 

In 2010, with no political experience but a box full of opinions, Kelly ran for Congress in a Democratic-controlled district of Arizona. Though a virtual unknown in the race, he was only narrowly defeated by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. 

“I got mad about Obama and ran for congress,” Kelly explained.

During a campaign stop, he was waiting to go on air with news/talker Jon Justice. “I was in a separate studio, and a guy I didn’t know walked in. He asked what I was doing, and I told him. He was a radio producer and asked if I’d ever thought of a career in radio. It was kind of strange.”

The stranger’s words planted a seed in Kelly’s brain, and that seed would soon germinate. After the attempt at politics, Kelly moved to Texas with no job; I was flat broke and got a job selling RVs.”

Kelly became active on social media, and the king of talk radio, Michael Berry in Houston, took notice of a post-Kelly had made and asked if he’d like to come on his show. 

“I guess I just killed on the air,” Kelly said. “He kept me on the phone for three segments. We had a blast.”

In a celebratory move, Kelly pulled out all the stops and pulled into a Taco Bell for a real treat. Then his phone rang. It was Michael Berry again, and they chatted for a half-hour, an uneaten Chilupa in Kelly’s hand. “After that, we started hangin’ out, drinking bourbon, and smoking cigars. He convinced me that I had a future in radio.”

Apparently, he did.

KPRC in Houston gave him a 7-8 p.m. slot as a trial. “I just started talking. I didn’t know a thing. Nobody had ever taught me what to do.” He must have really killed again, somehow finding an audience. KPRC gave him a second hour. 

Out of the radio-blue, Key Networks came calling and told Kelly they thought his show had some chops. The Jesse Kelly Show debuted as a three-hour program in national syndication in April 2020. 

It keeps getting better. 

After only a year on Key Networks, Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, kept the fortunate string of success going. 

Kelly joined Premiere Networks’ national lineup on June 28, 2021.

“I didn’t even know who Julie Talbott was, and she was listening to my show,” he said. “After all the fart jokes I told, she was still listening,” Kelly explained. “Premiere offered me a 6-9 slot in Houston. My wife nearly passed out in excitement.”

Kelly is certainly not a guy that sounds full of himself; that alone is refreshing. “I have no idea why people listen to me; I don’t know why affiliates are happy. I’ll take it,” Kelly said.

The man has an honest, authentic approach to radio. That should be obvious, considering he airs on 200 hundred stations nationwide.

Sometimes having a strategically placed horseshoe can take you a long way.

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How Audacy Dallas Has Used Technology to Enhance Already Strong Brands

“What I try to explain (to our on-air staff), is that we’re no longer a radio station. We’re a brand. We’re more than just over the air.”

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(Photo: Audacy)

We used to say sports was the toy department of news. I thought that sounded fun but most news and programming people back then said it condescendingly. Today, sports talk listening is eclipsing the more serious news/talk offerings of corporate or “local” radio. There are two such sports stations in Dallas: Cumulus-owned, multi-Marconi Award-winning 96.7 The Ticket, which always keeps its news/talk sisters, WBAP and KLIF, in its ratings dust, and 105.3 The Fan, the Audacy station that is consistently beating its all-news older sibling, KRLD.

I live in Dallas. It’s a huge sports market, home of the Cowboys, Rangers, Mavericks, and Stars, as well as several NCAA Division I programs. The Fan and The Ticket are engaged in an epic daily battle between two superb management and talent teams. They’re both very good.

Gavin Spittle is the Vice President of News, Talk, and Sports at Audacy Dallas, radio home of the Cowboys and Rangers. I talked with him last week. I’m a fan of The Fan. The station is consistently hitting on all cylinders. Their show hosts are unfailingly informative and entertaining, blessed with the hard-to-find combination of brains, personal chemistry, and humility.

Most of all, they know their craft, staying focused on sports while weaving in an organic flow of personal observations and anecdotes that make you feel you know them. You wish you could sit down and have a beer with them, which you often can because they’re always making personal appearances at local events, family eateries, and barbecue joints.

Am I being too effusive in my praise of The Fan?

GAVIN SPITTLE: Well, thanks. I mean, you just quoted my playbook, Dave, as far as like what I look for in hosts. In sports radio I want to create that tree house feel, I want the listeners climbing up that tree to be a part of it or feel like they’re hanging with their buddies at a bar. That’s what I want The Fan to sound like. I want it to be conversational rather than just throwing out analytic after analytic.

One of the things that we pride ourselves on is having conversations, and that can include debates. The other thing that I will say is, and thank you for noticing, our staff is extremely tight. These guys talk to each other constantly, they genuinely like each other, and they want each other to win. That is a brand manager’s dream when you can put something like that together.

DW: The Fan is the flagship of the Dallas Cowboys and the reigning world champion Texas Rangers. Do those affiliations with major sports franchises pay for themselves in terms of prestige, audience, and profit?  

GS: We are very fortunate in Dallas to have two amazing partnerships where, yes, it is effective for us and it’s effective for them. It’s a very creative partnership where the contract only gets pulled if necessary and it’s like, how can we help each other? So, it’s not (just that) we carry the games. It’s how can we help each other?

Like, for instance, a perfect example is that one of the first appearances the Rangers made with the World Series trophy was in our Audacy showroom. That is so special, to say to our listeners, come see the World Series trophy. We had a line around the corner. That shows how tight and how much we value that partnership. And it’s the same with the Cowboys.

DW: Another thing that I love about your on-air talents is, on one hand, they’re unabashed fans of the teams that you carry, but they also level serious criticism of the teams and never sound like they’re forcing themselves to be unbiased; they’re just being themselves and that creates that tree house or bar atmosphere that you were talking about.

GS: I think that’s a key component when carrying a team’s games, that the team understands that you’re allowed to criticize them fairly, as long as it’s not a personal attack. I think that’s something that we have a lot of wiggle room with the Rangers and a lot with the Dallas Cowboys.

(Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones is a listener and it’s cool that he talks to the guys and has a relationship with them and that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical. We love the Cowboys, but we’re still going to be The Fan. If we allowed a team to dictate what we say our listeners would pick that out immediately and we wouldn’t be ourselves.

DW: Let’s talk technology. How great is it for you as a programmer to be able to embrace the new toys that Audacy is giving you on-air and with their app? We all remember the times we sat in our driveway while listening to a great live conversation so we wouldn’t miss any of it. You don’t have to do that now.

GS: No, the ice cream no longer has to melt. You take the app in and you back it up 30 seconds. You can back up and hear the whole show if you want to.

DW: This morning I was taking our dogs to the groomer and listening to The Fan and I noticed for the first time a little audio control panel within the main touch screen. And I’m going, holy crap that’s not just on the app. I can pause and rewind right here in my car. [Which is 10 years old and still has its original audio system.] 

Correct me if I’m wrong but that’s a technology not a lot of stations in this country have available yet. Radio operators are still trying to compete with the Internet while forcing themselves to send listeners to their websites for clicks. I keep thinking, guys, use it all!

GS: What I try to explain (to our on-air staff), is that we’re no longer a radio station. We’re a brand. We’re more than just over the air. We have so many Audacy app listeners, not just in North Texas, but across the country.  It is absolutely awesome when we get calls from Philadelphia or San Francisco. That’s really, really cool.

DW: Yes, you’re a brand and not just a radio station anymore. I love that. A lot of radio people are still trying to struggle between being a radio station and being a website. And you have to go, ‘Wait a minute, guys, you’re missing the whole point. It’s all of these things working together.’

GS: Yeah, absolutely. When a new technology comes out, we want to be at the front of the line and we want to be the ones doing the beta testing and we want to be the ones saying, let’s give this a whirl because, you know, we feel as though that’s the future. And once again, when you change that mindset, as far as an overall brand success, not a radio station success, I feel as though the radio station success obviously is going to be there.

—————————

I never met Gavin Spittle before this conversation. I like him as much as I love his radio station. We talked about sports and talk radio in-depth, including Gavin’s love of hockey, and his own Dallas Stars-centric podcast, Spits and Suds. To hear our full conversation go to my podcast, Conversations.buzz, or on your favorite podcast app.

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Fox News’ Pete Hegseth Still Has a Soldier’s Perspective

Hegseth’s new book, The War on Warriors: Behind the Betrayal of the Men Who Keep Us Free will release on June 4th.

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Christian, Veteran, and most importantly American Patriot. For Pete Hegseth, service and devotion to our country are undeniable. It’s his experience as a Veteran that inspired his latest book, The War on Warriors: Behind the Betrayal of the Men Who Keep Us Free.

“When only 1% of your population is actually serving, most people are disconnected from the wars that they fight or the service that they have. Which means it becomes an academic exercise whether or not you support the war or don’t support the war,” Hegseth told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

“Meritocracy, lethality, and preparedness,” is what Hegseth believes the military should be focused on, but he’s seeing today’s military is focused on everything else. “There’s been an infiltration of other priorities. Call them social justice, call them politically correct, call them cultural Marxism, call them identity politics, it’s all of the above.”

Things once used as political bargaining tools by the left have now become a necessary survival skill for patriots who want to stay in the service. “[These other priorities] made their way into the general class because the general class knew they needed to adhere to them in order to get promoted. So now you have a lot of warps and warts inside our formations. That has vets like me saying, ‘This is not the military I remember.’”

Awarded two Bronze Star Medals for his service, Pete Hegseth believes it’s common unity and mission that should draw those to the military. “We all get bad haircuts for a reason, we all shave for a reason, we all wear uniforms for a reason. Because we’re supposed to look the same. Because it isn’t about your individual identity. It’s about what you’re going to do for the group and your brother on your left and your right. That’s that’s the kind of ethos we need to restore.”

Hegseth noted when countries are at war, diversity is the last thing on your mind. “You swear an oath to defend the Constitution. You want your leaders to be laser-focused on men making sure they’re trained, prepared, and ranked properly based on how good they are at their job. The standards are high and [service members are] held to them so that if they have to go to war, they’re able to be at their best and come home.”

The Army Major made it clear that he did not enjoy writing this book.

“I’m not out to trash the military. I revere my time in the military. I want [the military] to be what it was for me, for other people, and not look like a college or a university playing identity politics.”

He recognized wars are not perfect but it’s the sense of duty which is most important. “I can still hang my hat on what I was committed to, what my brothers were committed to and that mattered. I want to make sure in future wars, these soldiers have the leaders they deserve and the ethos and the focus on mission that we as the American people in our leadership should be responsible to give them.”

When veterans come home, it’s that very same ethos they need help finding and channeling into civilian life. “[Something the average American might not know when it comes to the life of a veteran is] the gaping hole that is your sense of purpose. And you’re missing how disorienting it can be to be sort of outside of the brotherhood that you forged.”

“A combat tour changes you in ways you’re not even aware of at the time, especially when you see things and do things that shake you to your core. But you did those things with other people, and you did big, difficult, nasty, tough things in the middle of the night, in dangerous places where you never knew if you’d come home.”

Veterans rediscovering their sense of purpose in the next chapter of life is difficult but it could be something as simple as, “Teaching the next generation of third graders the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer.”

There are so many chapters to life after but the VA estimates that 17 veterans a day take their own life, some believe the true number is higher. “I’ve talked to a bunch of guys who say ‘I’ve lost way more dudes at home than I lost overseas to suicide.’ So, I think it does tie back to [purpose]. I think we don’t need to throw more pills at them. We don’t need to throw more government programs at them. We need to remind them of the ethos they had when they served.”

Hegseth noted the importance of faith, community, and peer-to-peer counseling as good ways to help veterans process what happened in the war zone and stay connected to those who love them.

While many talk about veterans on Memorial Day, it is a day to honor those who served our county, fought for our freedom, and never came back. Hegseth believes the best way to honor them is by civic ritual.

“Meaning parades or ceremonies. Find one. Be a part of it. Take your kids. Take your grandkids. It’s easy for us to say, ‘Ok, kids. Remember Memorial Day is the day that we remember all those men and women who gave their life for us.’ And the kids will go, ‘Yeah, Dad. Ok, thanks.’ You can’t expect kids to really process that and understand what that means or the gravity of it.”

It’s events like these that inspired Hegseth to join the Army.

“My parents used to take me to the Memorial Day parade and 4th of July parade in their tiny little farming town in southern Minnesota. I remember as a little kid looking up at these vets, and the whole city and the whole town is saluting and clapping, and it’s not a big town. Like 300 people, but everyone’s there. I remember thinking year after year as I watched it like, ‘Wow, this man is really doing something really important. Whatever they did seems important. And I feel like when I grow up, I think I should do something like that.’”

Today, the father of seven is preparing for the conversation with his sons if they choose to serve in the military. “What do I say to my kids? You know, the same question a lot of people are facing. What do I tell my kids if they are thinking about serving? And that’s the last chapter of the book is actually a letter to my sons. Kind of articulating that thought process to them.”

Hegseth made it clear while he is critical of current military status, “I still think we need our best putting the uniform on, and then we need to get them a commander in chief that they deserve.”

The War on Warriors was published by Fox News Books and is available for pre-order now. It hits bookshelves on Tuesday, June 4th.

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News/Talk Radio Hosts Should Embrace Topics From Every Avenue Possible

Bring your audience into the topic, set the scene, and make it relatable as you intertwine the cultural moment we find ourselves in 2024…

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(Photo: Benedictine College)

The Kansas City Chiefs again found themselves at the center of the sports and news universe this past week. By now, you’ve likely heard about kicker Harrison Butker’s commencement speech at Benedictine College, a small Catholic college in Atchinson, Kansas, that got picked up and covered worldwide. And, if you’re a radio host, you probably have an opinion on his speech. If you haven’t seen his speech in full or read a transcript, you can do both here and come to your own conclusion.

There are two enormous takeaways: one for sports radio and one for news/talk radio.

For sports radio, there needs to be a focus on diversity of opinion, not just diversity of looks. I scanned sports radio across the country, and the overwhelming sentiment was that Harrison Butker was wrong to say what he said, with most misrepresenting his comments during the commencement speech.

It was like they took copy from the MSNBC newsroom and regurgitated it on their radio show. But what happened? As of this week, Harrison Butker’s jersey was sold out on the NFL Shop. And it wasn’t just his men’s jersey that was sold out; his women’s jersey was sold out too.

And when it comes to the political leanings of sports fans, they are overwhelmingly traditional and right-of-center in every major professional sport.

A recent Harris Poll showed the political leanings of every league. A nationally representative sample of 4,116 U.S. adults age 18 and over showed that sports fans are slightly more conservative (55%) in their self-identification.

58% of college football fans identify as conservative (the most of any sport), 57% of MLB fans are conservative, and 56% of NFL fans identify as conservative. Even amongst NBA fans, 51% of their fans identify as conservative.

While there can be value in diversity of background, suits seem to be much more obsessed with favoring physical diversity traits over diversity of thought and ideology. At a time when sports, politics, and culture continue to mix, ensuring any outlet is ideologically representative of the audience is more important than focusing on the melanin levels of the individuals behind the mic and in front of the TV.

Now, for News/Talk radio, these cultural topics are worth discussing. Don’t view them as “sports stories.” They’re not. Harrison Butker is as relatable and engaging a story as we’ve had in recent weeks. 

It gets you away from the day’s politics and into a relatable, easy-to-discuss topic that will likely engage your audience. The day-to-day politics can be mundane and might appeal to the P1s, but broadening topic variety, especially when you can spin it in a relatable way that broadens your audience while still keeping your P1s entertained, is a win-win.

Every adult can relate to attending a graduation ceremony, hearing a commencement speech, and reacting positively or negatively. We’ve all done it as students, parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents.

Bring your audience into the topic, set the scene, and make it relatable as you intertwine the cultural moment we find ourselves in 2024 and how the media has reacted, and you can weave it into politics if you so choose.

The angles and topics have been endless the last week and a half, with several layers to explore and discuss. You don’t want to beat a dead horse unless you’re in the market like I am in Kansas City, but exploring topics that transcend “traditional” News/Talk will only broaden the audience for your show.

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