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Todd Starnes Uses the Quirky Side of Life to Bring Both Sides Together

“I infuse my national show with a lot of humor. We try to take a look at the quirky side of life, bring both sides together,” Starnes said

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Todd Starnes was an embedded reporter in the final six weeks of Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. He’s respected, vociferous, and holds his beliefs close to his heart. But don’t offer him any raw fish. 

“The Obama campaign was notorious for being a very health-conscious group,” Starnes said. “On the plane, they served us sushi. When I wasn’t eating it, the flight attendant noticed and came up to me to ask what was wrong. I told her they forgot to cook the fish.”

He was joshing, but he certainly would have preferred a traditional southern Memphis dish like fried catfish and hushpuppies.

Starnes said Jen Psaki traveled with him on the Obama campaign. “We had a lot of fun talking a few times. Valerie Jarrett was there too,” Starnes explained. “We had a rigorous discussion about the difference between gumbo and jambalaya. We found the main difference was the use of rice.”

Starnes is an American conservative commentator, author, and radio host. He has appeared on Fox and Friends and Hannity. In June 2017, Starnes began hosting a syndicated talk radio show on Fox News Radio.

Starnes joined Fox News Channel in 2005 as a radio news anchor. He said the world today is operating beneath an umbrella of chaos. “Under our form of government, whether you’re Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or atheist, you have a right to live your life,” Starnes said that can’t be said for other countries.

He said separation of church and state is not in the Constitution of the United States. “We are endowed by our creator, not mankind’s laws. We have God-given rights. That’s why religion is ingrained in every one of our founding documents. That’s where they were coming from. Look at what’s happening in the world without that order. We were meant to be a Christian nation,” Starnes said. “Under Judeo Christian philosophy, God doesn’t force your decisions.”

He says it’s all a version of the truth. “What happens when your truth conflicts with my truth? What takes precedence?”

On the lighter side, his entry into radio started with a gift. “My grandpa gave me a transistor radio when I was young,” Starnes said. “I remember listening to WWLin Lousianna. Stations in Cincinnati. I was fascinated by radio.”

Starnes said he always had his radio with him as a ten-year-old kid. Cassette tapes were all the rage. “I ran my own talk show,” he said. “I was the host, the guest, and the crew. It was really out there. It was a lot of fun.”

Unfortunately, low ratings doomed the ambitious ten-year-old’s show, and he had to go back to fourth grade.

“On my imaginary show, I talked about your traditional southern life, great experiences,” he said. “We lived close to the Mississippi River.” The ghosts of Mark Twain and Huck Finn undoubtedly played a role in his literary development. 

Starnes was in college during the Limbaugh years and said he learned a lot from listening. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next. I’m on during the lunch hour from 12-3, and we talk about the crazy issues of the day. That doesn’t mean we always know where it’s going.”

He loved radio so much he bought a radio station during a pandemic. This is something Starnes admitted was a little crazy.

“If there’s ever a question on Jeopardy about who was stupid enough to buy a radio station during a pandemic, the answer would be, ‘Who is Todd Starnes.’”

Why did he buy a radio station? Starnes said corporate radio did a number on local radio. 

“We had these rich heritage stations in Memphis,” Starnes said. “I was driving on the road when severe weather broke out. The streets were flooded, power towers were down. It was second nature to tune in to the ‘local’ station when severe weather hit. They were in Fox programming. No mention of the dangerous weather.”

After the clouds dissipated, Starnes told himself if he ever had a chance to purchase a radio station, he would.

A month later, he got a phone call from Legacy Media. The owner said if Starnes was ever interested in buying a station, they should talk. That conversation convinced Starnes to purchase the Memphis talk station 990 AM KWAM for $685,000. It’s now the flagship station for Starnes’ radio show.

Prior to purchasing the station, Starnes sought counsel from friends. He put the deal together quickly, and business has been phenomenal. 

“I was told the first thing I should do is steal the competition’s garden show. We did.”

 The garden folks weren’t happy where they were, and Starnes made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“I told them they’d be treated like royalty, and I’d double what the other station was paying them.”

When I reminded Starnes that might not be the ‘Christian’ thing to do, he reminded me we should ‘Do Unto Others.” He was joking…I think

Starnes has written numerous books, including The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again and God Less America. 

“I love the product after the writing,” Starnes jokes. “Editors may not feel the same way. I’ll outline everything and often start with a phrase I’ve heard, some sort of clever anecdote.”

Starnes said he was influenced by the writings of southern humorist Lewis Grizzard and sardonic Irma Bombeck, who achieved success with her newspaper syndication. He said he had to be discreet when he indulged her columns. 

“If someone in junior high had caught me reading Irma Bombeck, it wouldn’t have been pretty.”

Molly Ivins, a liberal columnist from Texas, was also on his list of influences.

“She once called George W. Bush a shrub,” Starnes explained. “Then there was Art Buchwald, a fine-tuned satirist.” Buchwald appeared to some as a curmudgeonly writer. “Buchwald was a friendly, affable person,” Starnes said. “I’m kind of a curmudgeon.”

Starnes admitted the differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t always that big of a chasm, then again.

“We’re living in such an odd time,” he said. “Something nefarious is happening. I know a lot of liberals are true patriots; they love their country. They are dead-wrong on issues.”

Some of these incendiary sentiments are echoed in Starnes’ book, Cultural Jihad: How to Stop the Left from Killing a Nation. In the book, Starnes accuses progressives of bulldozing through American history. He goes on to say ‘We the People’ are the only ones who can stop them. He says America is on the verge of another Civil War; socialism is on the rise. Free Speech is under assault. People of Faith are facing persecution. Gun owners are in the crosshairs.

“Progressives are turning our history into a pile of rubble,” Starnes said. “That kind of thing concerns me as a free speech purist. It’s all a cancel culture mob. They dug up the body of a confederate general and tore down his stature. Are they going to tear Harvard down because one of the founders owned a slave a hundred years ago?”

On an even lighter side, you wouldn’t think a man like Starnes would be into radical comedy. 

“I love Dave Chappele,” Starnes said. “I love his sense of humor, his presentation. He takes on culture issues of the day. And he’s spot-on.”

Starnes said we need more humor on the whole. “I infuse my national show with a lot of humor. We try to take a look at the quirky side of life, bring both sides together.”

And he believes that’s possible. “There is hope for us as America,” Starnes said. “I’ve had the chance to travel all over the nation and speak to thousands of people every year. What I talk about is not based on a political party. It comes from a higher source.”

Starnes is a frequent speaker at churches, Christian conferences, and Christian universities. He has delivered messages at the Ronald Reagan Ranch, the Billy Graham Training Center. Visiting Starnes’ early days, he said he was a follower of William F. Buckley. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan. “They framed the conservative movement,” he said. “It is a religious battle. On my show, we talk about matters of faith, morality. If we don’t have a shared value, morality, you have the chaos we see today.” He said Buckley, Reagan, and Goldwater would be very happy with the way things have swayed. “Let’s Make America Great Again was a Reagan campaign slogan. Trump borrowed from that.” Is he saying we need to make new red hats that read LMAGA?

Starnes said there’s no need to worry; talk radio will be around for a very long time.

“You get to call in with your opinion. Share your opinion, have a conversation. You never know where it’s going to go, what they’re going to say. You don’t get that on television. You can’t really capture that on a podcast.”

Starnes also issues a word of caution. “Talk radio isn’t supposed to be three hours of screaming,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. As far as the hosts, he says being authentic is critical. “Don’t be something you’re not. If you do, you’ll fall flat on your face.”

Hopefully, into a big plate of catfish and hushpuppies.

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Radio Has an Overloaded Spot Block Problem and Here’s How to Fix It

Raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership.

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While the radio industry insists that our medium is still king, I’m skeptical. I hope the numbers are being spun properly, I just have doubts. In either case, we’re sweeping a lot of stuff under the rug. People may still be “sampling” radio but are they listening? Do they buy what you’re selling?

The typical news/talk station airs 22 minutes of commercials per hour. When you add in five minutes of network news and spots plus recorded promos (commercials for ourselves), we’re talking half an hour of content killer.

I’m a typical listener. With rare exceptions, I only listen while I’m driving. Behind the wheel, my habit is standard: punch around my presets until I hear something of interest or at least actual content and not commercials. When a talk segment ends, I listen to the tease and then punch out. I don’t sit through what I know will be a five or six-minute commercial break. If the tease was done well and it interests me, I’ll try to remember to come back. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

Here in Dallas these days, I mainly listen to our two excellent sports talk stations, The Ticket and The Fan. And I always smile when I hear them constantly trying to convince me that by choosing to listen to their particular station I’m part of an exclusive club. That’s nothing new really but the branding is ingenuous.

105.3 The Fan cleverly labels listeners “TOLOs”, implying people who wisely “Turn it On, Leave it On”. The Ticket merely plays the highest authority card, referring to their listeners as “P1s”. I know what it means but the average listener has no clue. It’s an inside joke. I’ve never heard the station explain it but their faithful listeners supposedly wear the badge proudly.

I’ve never seen any figures on shared listening but I expect the crossover between the two sports talk stations would be nearly 100%. People do what I do, punch back and forth looking for interesting content.

After hiring and inspiring great talent and setting the tone for a station’s identity, a news/talk programmer’s primary job is trying to navigate a sea of clutter. There are various ways to do it but anything short of reducing the number and length of commercial breaks is just rearranging the furniture.

One of the most common tactics is promoting a commercial-free segment. In my opinion, that’s just calling attention to the problem and admitting that commercials are a necessary evil. I’ll bet your clients love that.

I admire and pity radio salespeople who have always had to fight to survive in a dog-eat-dog world but now also have to sell clients on the idea that their money will be well spent even though their message might be buried in the middle of a five-minute cluster.

Are there too many commercials on the air? Hell yes. 22 minutes per hour for talk and news? Why do people sit through that?

They don’t. They pop around the dial as I do, and are increasingly learning that podcasts offer information and entertainment with far fewer interruptions. The RTDNA and the RAB don’t want to admit that. Nielsen puts a rosy spin on the numbers because broadcasters are their main customers. Even highly respected news outlets report the idea that radio is doing great but read this and see if you don’t share my skepticism below the headline:

Americans Listen To Far More Radio Than Podcasts—Even Young People, New Data Shows

“American adults still spend an overwhelming majority of their daily listening time on radio broadcasts despite the rise in popularity of podcasts and music streaming services, new Nielsen data on listening habits in the first quarter of 2024 shows. Though younger audiences are starting to buck that trend by choosing on-demand audio at a higher rate than their elders.” Forbes, May 1, 2024

I’m not the smartest guy in any room. I’ve never been a GM or Sales Manager. I have been an air talent and program director, though, and I can smell as well as hear the problem. There are far too many commercial interruptions for radio to survive this way for much longer.

Retired WGN morning legend Spike O’Dell agrees.

“Are spot breaks too long? Coming from the talent side of this issue my answer is absolutely. I’m a realist and understand that they’re necessary but a five-minute stop set is a show killer and a ratings killer,” he said. “Why in the world would a listener want to wait through that amount of time unless the content was the most fascinating subject ever?

“When I left the airwaves, we were at 23 minutes of spots an hour, and even I got bored with my own show. Spot breaks and amount of spots played per hour is a long-time sore subject to discuss or ponder. But, it didn’t take this talk show host very long to learn that I was never going to win this issue. Money will always win out. Sometimes management should do the wrong thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Journalist, former media exec, and USC professor Jerry Del Colliano agrees and has an audacious idea: do what every other industry does and raise prices.

“Charge more for spots and limit to 12 per hour.  If there is demand for more, stick to 12 and raise the price of an ad,” he said. “Programmers have known for decades that commercials don’t build time spent listening — and they aren’t doing advertisers any favors by crowding too many spots in and creating an impossible situation to help advertisers succeed.”

Guy Zapoleon is famous for his music radio expertise and innovations but he’s also a veteran radio programmer who has to deal with clutter. He agrees. Cut the spot load and raise the rates. He says it should have been done long ago.

“Telecom and the major companies becoming publicly traded companies along with overpaying for radio stations derailed that idea. Look, I’m a fan of what Now 102.3, a Hot AC type station in Canada, is doing. They only run six minutes an hour versus 12 minutes for most of the competitors but they charge more to meet budget demands. They also go overboard helping their clients with remotes and ideas to drive customers to their clients to increase their ROI value.”

Now, there’s a thought: raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership. Offer them more personal attention, and hands-on assistance than you’ve had time for while juggling a client list and spot load that would choke a horse.

Back to Jerry for a moment. I asked him how and when programmers should design breaks. He brushed aside quarter-hour maintenance and stayed focused on the much bigger consideration.

“Where you place them is less important than the total number per hour but the idea of loading up two-quarter hours to run all your spots obviously isn’t working, hasn’t worked, and won’t work.”

Cutting more jobs can’t improve profitability. Increasing your spot load chases away your audience and your sales strategy. The only thing left is raising rates and reducing inventory.

Explain to your clients that by paying more they are getting an exclusive opportunity to be center stage rather than being shoved to the back of a very crowded bus. Assure them your programming is the best in town.

And make that true.

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Libsyn’s Rob Walch Has Watched Podcasting Grow From Infancy to Audio Juggernaut

“When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

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A photo of Rob Walch and the Libsyn logo
(Photo: Libsyn)

Libsyn Vice President of Podcaster Relations Rob Walch is one of the founding fathers of podcasting, helping and inspiring countless people to start their very own webcasts.

“I’ve been in [Podcasting] since 2004. Got in it early on. I read it in an article in Engadget on October 4th, 2004 and it said, ‘If you want a podcast, just add this enclosure tag to your blog feed and you can podcast.’ I went, what the heck does that all mean?,” he told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

“So I figured it out and launched a podcast. There wasn’t many, maybe 100, podcasters at the time. And my podcast was about podcasting. So it was the first podcast specifically about podcasting called podcast411.” Getting the inside scoop from other podcasters, the podcast about podcasting focused on tech and promotions.

His hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Just three years later, Rob Walch joined Libsyn. He now runs podcasting relations, business development, “and a whole lot more.”

The former engineer turned podcaster has seen a lot change since the industry’s beginnings, most notably accessibility. “When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

A “convoluted method” of uploading, transmitting, and manually adding each podcast into iPod tracks and then syncing to iTunes was laborious, and finding a new podcast wasn’t any easier.

“There was not really any centralized directory. There was Podcast Alley and a bunch of other places. Then Apple, in June of 2005, launched iTunes and it supported podcasting and that really was like the first inflection point of podcasting.” Another change to amplify podcasting came two years later with the launch of the iPhone.

However, Walch noted the most notable change that amplified podcasting came in 2015.

“The real big one was iOS 8. When it came out, the Apple podcast app was native and people can tap this purple app on my iPhone, and ‘How come I can’t delete it?’ They they started learning about podcasting.”

Rob Walch believes Apple gave the podcasting industry so much growth because, “At one point in time it was six iOS downloads to every one Android download.” Today the ratio is less skewed with 3.2 iOS downloads to every one Android download.

“I think the other change that happened after — it wasn’t an inflection point, it was a slow burn — was all the apps that you listened to music on began to have podcast directories … I think that, combined with everything else that led to where podcasting became ubiquitous, where we are today.”

Rob Walch also noted no matter what you read, “Apple Podcasts, is the number one place where podcasts are consumed. It’s 50% of consumption.”

Today, Walch believes the biggest trend in podcasting might be hindering to the audience. “People overly expecting video to take them to the next level and finding out that that’s not really the case. I think there’s way too many people that think they can just convert a traditional audio podcast into a video podcast, and it’s going to flower and bloom. Some do. Most don’t.”

“Most people forget that the reason podcasting is popular is because there’s more time in the day to consume audio than there is video,” he later said. “And if your audience is more of a B2B audience and you’re not good with video, don’t do video. Concentrate on the audio.”

Doing this also puts your podcast in direct competition with every video maker on YouTube instead of just podcasters.

Walch’s passion for podcasting has been evident since the very beginning of his career.

“My goal has always been to help people get into podcasting and that was what podcast411 was about. It was the first that said, ‘Here’s how you podcast. Here’s how you get done.’ That was the whole idea of the podcast was to teach people how to do it. I wasn’t selling webinars, I wasn’t trying to sign people up into this mastermind group or any of that into any of those slimy, hyper-marketing type things. I just wanted people to be able to podcast.”

For those looking to take to the mic, Rob Walch has several words of wisdom.

“Anybody could do it. That there is no magic bolt. There’s no secret sauce. There’s no way you’re going to instantly grow an audience. You have to get lucky for a show, in some ways. But you also have to be dedicated to it.”

He also noted people do not ask the right questions when it comes to launching their own podcast. “You got to answer these two questions, which is: What are you going to call your show and what’s it going to be about?”

“When you go into search, it’s called predictive search results. As you start typing, it starts giving you the results. The first word in the title of your podcast is so important. So if you’re starting a podcast, the thing you really want to make sure is: What is the one word that you think people would be searching for your topic? And it’s not your name. If they know your name, they’ll find you. Put that at the end. But what’s the one word in the topic if you’re going to spend money on Google AdSense?”

Rob Walch suggests going to Google Trends and looking at the top three popular words for the topic you want your podcast to be about. He gave this example, “I had a friend whose podcast was called the Fifth Race Podcast, and people are like, ‘What’s that about?’ It was about Stargate because it was this obscure reference in Stargate to the fifth race. And if you were Stargate fan, you got it right. But that’s not what people would say, or even people that were into Stargate don’t search for the fifth race. They search for Stargate.”

“I just said to just put ‘Stargate: The Unofficial Fifth Race Podcast.’ He just changed his title around. He went from not being searched and not being found when you search Stargate, to being the number one show when you search Stargate. Just making sure you know what people are searching for and optimizing the title of your show really will help people stumble upon your show. And that’s so important to grow your show.”

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How Radio Personalities Can Be Both Likeable and Opinionated in Difficult Conversations

Don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast.

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We often talk about being as relatable as possible as a talk radio show host. Be present with where your listeners are. Think like they do. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to do on paper, but there’s always that push and pull as a talk radio show host. You’re interacting with business leaders, politicians, sports figures, and other prominent folks in your community to whom your listener may not have access.

That is part of what makes you credible in their eyes, and it’s part of what gives you insights on topics that the “average listener” cannot get access to. It’s why they listen to you.

But in the end, they — at least in part — want to listen to you because they like you and relate to you. Which means you have to relate to them. And please, don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast. Likable and wildly opinionated can, and ideally should, work in conjunction.

I bring all this up to discuss a topic that can apply to news/talk or sports talk radio hosts: stadiums and subsidies. It’s an incredible topic that can cross both formats. 

In Charlotte, city leaders are expected to vote next week on whether to approve the funding of $650 million for renovation projects at Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers.

In April, voters here in Kansas City rejected a ⅜-cent sales tax extension for the Chiefs and Royals. That topic is back in the forefront this week as the State of Kansas held a special session and passed legislation to use its STAR Bonds program to try to lure one or both teams to the Kansas side of the state line.

I’ve heard overwhelming media reactions suggesting stadium projects involving taxpayer subsidies are no-brainers. Cities or counties, a.k.a. Taxpayers, must help out where needed to fund the building, or upkeep of stadiums. Of course, the fear is that the team(s) will always leave their current city.

Sports media folks typically will support it because, if God forbid, a team were to move, their livelihood would be at stake. Plus, they deal directly with players, coaches, and team executives who can sell them regularly all the perks a new stadium can provide for the team and media members.

News/talk folks can fall victim to hearing too much from their political contacts who often promote and sometimes are the ones who vote on these projects. They’re influenced by lobbyists and others who are legally doing their job but are also on the payroll for the big-money entities involved. 

But who’s looking out for the little guy? That should be you.

While you may have the access and contacts in the higher-end social circles of your community, that’s not where most of your listeners live.

Political feelings always ebb and flow, but we are living in a country where populism is becoming more popular. The last few years have been hardest on those from the middle class on down. COVID’s economy benefited work-from-home white-collar workers, where one parent could stay home with kids who were stuck learning from home.

In contrast, the same economy hurt working-class folks, who were less likely to be able to work from home and certainly could not watch their kids daily as they tried to learn from home. On top of that, the stock market has gone gangbusters the last couple of years, while the working class has struggled to pay for its groceries.

The economy has been very different since COVID, depending on your socioeconomic level.

That said, as populism grows in popularity on the right and the left, understand where your radio listeners are at in their lives and their likely unwillingness, or at the very least, fair skepticism, to fund stadiums for billionaire team owners.

Don’t let your relationship with a player, coach, or team executive overly influence your opinion. Don’t let your buddy, the politician or a lobbyist, get into your ear on how amazing their plan would be.

I think back nearly 15 years, when the New York Giants and New York Jets opened MetLife Stadium to much fanfare. Then, the dreaded PSL (Personal Seat License) came into being, which simply gave fans the “rights” to purchase their seats.

It was, and remains, an all-time scam. Former WFAN host Mike Francesa obliterated the teams. To his credit, while he had relationships with the franchises going back decades and could easily afford nearly any ticket in the building, he never lost touch with where the “average fan” was.

So, as these stadium projects continue to pop up around the country—and they could be coming to a town near you soon—I’m not telling you how to think or what to say on your radio show. Just be aware of the political climate in the country today, and always put yourself in your listener’s shoes first and foremost. You’ll never regret it. And they’ll trust you even more for it.

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