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Thom Hartmann Had to Rethink ADHD and Talk Radio

“We were driving from Vermont to Michigan and I had the radio turned on, and all I could find anywhere were right-wing talk shows. There was nothing else.”

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Even though Thom Hartmann has been on the air nearly 20 years, to me, he seems an anomaly when it comes to a prototypical radio show host. Unquestionably a man of letters, an intellectual, Hartmann just doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a radio talk show host. When you can do so much, possess so much brainpower, why radio?

“I’ve always loved radio, ever since I was seven-years-old,” Hartmann explained. “My father got me an old crystal radio kit, and I listened all the time. I wanted to be a DJ and at 15, I got the chance at a small country and western station. I did that for a couple of years, then I did news for seven years.”

The early Hartmann years were full of curiosity, but all of those brain molecules needed somewhere to take root. After the Russians launched Sputnik in October in 1957, the Eisenhower administration figured they’d better invest in bright kids in America, just to remain competitive with our collective intelligence, to stand toe-to-toe on essentially any concern. Eisenhower dumped all sorts of money at gifted student programs. Progressive radio talker, entrepreneur, and prolific author Thom Hartmann was one of those students.                                                      

“As a young student, I was immersed into studies and was never bored,” Hartmann explained. “By the time I graduated sixth grade at 12 years of age, I’d had two years of Spanish, one year of Latin. I was taking trigonometry and reading at a college level.”

Then came middle school. By that point, the challenges seemed to fade and Hartmann, insanely bored, began to get into trouble. Looking for things to capture his interests. In high school, he found something.

“I started an underground newspaper in the 11th grade,” Hartmann said. He was expelled from high school for writing an article about the principal. “I was kept away from school with a court order. Then I got my GED, got arrested in an anti-war demonstration, and dropped out of Michigan State University.”                                                                                                  

Hartmann had been interested in consciousness and spirituality since childhood,  and has been a vegetarian since he was a teenager. Hartmann’s son was diagnosed with ADHD. Dissatisfied with the prevailing understanding of ADHD, he immersed himself in study on the topic and Hartmann became an authority on ADHD, writing several books on the subject; Thom Hartmann’s Complete Guide to ADHD and The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child,  among several others.

Hartmann cites ADHD as part of the difficulty some sufferers experience in adapting to essentially everything. Being easily bored is one of several telltale signs of ADHD. Hartmann’s Hunter versus Farmer hypothesis is a proposed explanation of the nature of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

After his relatively brief early foray into radio news, Hartmann began a string of successful ventures in business. He and his wife Louise founded an Atlanta-based advertising agency. They sold the agency in 1997. The Hartmann’s started three other successful business ventures. Hartmann and his wife had paid their dues in the work-world. With plans of retiring in Vermont, Hartmann said he figured that would be the end of his working career. He’d already reaped rewards from hard work and four successful companies he started and sold.

During this “retirement”, he and his wife were on a long drive from Vermont to Michigan for Thanksgiving. Hartmann experienced an enlightening moment that essentially catapulted him to a career in radio. In bridge, it’s called a “demand bid”, essentially an obligation to respond to something. That was when Hartmann heard President George W. Bush “talking” the country into a war with Iraq.                                                                                                                 

“I flipped out about it,” Hartmann said. “We were driving from Vermont to Michigan and I had the radio turned on, and all I could find anywhere were right-wing talk shows. There was nothing else.                                           

“What I couldn’t understand was half the country was full of Democrats, and the other half was Republican,” Hartmann said. “It didn’t make sense that only Republicans were represented on the radio. The prevailing wisdom at the time was only conservatives listened to talk radio. That’s what Rush Limbaugh was telling everybody.”

He found this disconcerting and wrote an article for Common Dreams titled, “Talking Back to Talk Radio“. In the article Hartman said he had been in the radio business and acknowledged how it made sense to program something that would sell.

A couple of venture capitalists in Chicago read his article with great interest, and essentially used it as a business plan for Air America Radio. Hartmann was brought to Chicago to discuss possibilities.                    

“My main goal in returning to radio was to be able to have a conversation and not kiss George W. Bush’s butt about invading Iraq. I helped start Air America,” Hartmann said. “But it was taking them seven months to put together and I was impatient.”

Hartmann wanted proof of concept. To show he wasn’t nuts and how something in a more liberal voice could work on the radio.

“A local radio station in Vermont put me on Saturday morning to try it out,” he explained. “It worked and the show was picked up by I.E. American Radio Network and sent to 27 radio stations. Ultimately I went on Air America and that died, but I kept on going.”

Hartmann’s son was diagnosed with ADHD when the boy was young. It wasn’t a mainstream topic although it had been identified in the early 1900s. British pediatrician Sir George Still, described the condition as “an abnormal defect of moral control in children”. He found that some affected children could not control their behavior in the same way a typical child would.                  

Children with ADHD notoriously have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, being overly active, and may act without thinking what the result of an action may be.                     

The doctor informed Hartmann his son would not live a life rich in intellectual pursuits, and would do well to investigate a hands-on career.                        

“When my son was diagnosed with ADHD, we were told that he was unteachable,” Hartmann said. “When he was 12, we were told he was an educational failure. He’s now working on his master’s degree at a major university.”                                

The somewhat irresponsible, but what Hartmann called “well intentioned diagnosis”, prompted Hartmann to do extensive research into the topic and write several books, including Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception. Hartmann also developed a hypothesis which proposes that ADHD represents a lack of adaptation of members of hunter-gatherer societies to their transformation into farming societies.

“It’s not hard science, and was never intended to be,” Hartmann said. That doesn’t mean Hartmann’s hypothesis and other methods haven’t been extremely effective in understanding ADHD.                                                                

Years ago in a speech he delivered to doctors in Norway, Hartmann told the group ‘We live our lives based on the stories we tell ourselves.’ That’s not only a revelatory thought, it reminded me of something mythologist Joseph Campbell would have written. It turns out my instincts weren’t off a smidge.

“Joseph Campbell was a meaningful inspiration to me at one point in my life,” Hartmann said. “His protegee, Stephen Larsen, wrote an authorized biography on Campbell, A Fire in the Mind.”                                                       

Hartmann said we transmit our identity, where we came from, principally through stories in our culture. Stories that reflect behavioral studies.           

“Aesop’s ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ teaches us not to lie,” Hartmann said. “‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’ teaches us not to hold back with truth. Some people have stories about themselves where they are unloveable, bad, a broken person.”

Studies suggest those stories, to a certain extent, are defined by our temperament.

“Temperament is a fascinating conversation, vastly underrated as part of our personality,” Hartmann said. “Part of this is from parents and how they raised us. Parents also tend to project. It’s also about the kids you grew up with, the movies we watch, all the way back to the Bible. Adam and Eve were told they were given dominion over the earth and felt they could destroy it because God gave it to them. They could do whatever they wanted.”

While immersed in the study of ADHD, Hartmann said he was in Taiwan in the late 90s when he experienced something fascinating to him.                           

“I’d learned they were doing remarkable and innovative stuff in their public school systems,” Hartmann said. “I don’t speak Mandarin so I didn’t understand the concept of what was being taught in the class. The teacher stood in front of the class for five or ten minutes explaining a concept. It was only five or ten minutes to lay down the concept. Then she asked by a show of hands, how many students understood what she’d just said. Five or six kids raised their hands. This was something the kids understood as they did this frequently. She said, ‘great.’”

The teacher had those six kids stand up, and the kids who hadn’t raised their hands formed circles around the kids that had. The students in the middle of the circle started teaching the others. This was going on with six different groups. Soon, the kids that hadn’t raised  their hands in the first place were helping others in the circle learn. The teacher made the rounds to make sure what was being taught was correct.                                                                             

“The kids were teaching their peers,” Hartmann said. “That’s always more effective than a teacher teaching kids. Every kid was physically engaged. After class I asked her if they had any ADHD problems. She told me they didn’t even understand the concept. It wasn’t a problem in their classrooms.”                       

We have just scratched the surface in understanding depression, ADHD, and the positives both of those conditions add to our existence. ADHD is perhaps critical to our survival as a species. Hartmann explained why.                                          

“In the 1970s, there was a study involving chimpanzees. Since humans suffer episodic depression, and it’s measurable, they found the same holds true with chimpanzees. A good number of the group was what they deemed depressed. They wondered where it could come from. How a chimpanzee could be depressed in the first place.”                                      

The study was conducted in a natural habitat. Hartmann said those in charge of the study removed the ‘depressed’ chimpanzees from the community. The chimps were tranquilized and physically taken to another location.

“Those in charge of the study assumed the ‘normal’ chimpanzees would celebrate when all the depressed ‘bummer’ chimps were gone,” Hartmann explained. “When they pulled the plug on the experiment a few months later, half of the remaining chimpanzee group were dead. The ‘depressed’ chimps actually kept the others alive,” Hartmann said.

“The ‘depressed’ chimps weren’t sleeping at night. They weren’t socially engaged. They were hyper vigilant. They’d move to the periphery of the group. All classic symptoms of depressed individuals. They were constantly on the alert for danger. They were the community’s early warning system.”

Hartmann said it was these chimps with ‘depression’ and ADHD who spotted the leopard, cheetah, boa constrictor coming towards the group and alarmed them. The depressed chimps were critical to the survival of the group.              

Talk radio is top-heavy with political discourse and argument. Hartmann said politics is the essence of everything. Politics reflect the stories we pay attention to today. He said in practice, politics create, employ and swat down all our stories.

“I grew up in a world that was predominantly white,” Hartmann explained. “Not just the neighborhood around me. I only saw whites on television and in the movies. When I did see non-whites, they were portrayed as villains, buffoons or minstrels. That shapes your worldview. You can’t avoid that.”

In 1965, Hartmann said we started to see a lot of people of color immigrating to the United States. Immigration had been banned since 1924, and in 1965 immigration was subject to the proportion of the majority of the population. If the country was 85% white, then 85% of the new immigration must be white.                

“Today there’s a backlash against immigrants by white people who realize they are no longer the absolute majority,” Hartmann said. “When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in the mid 60s, he told his press secretary Bill Moyers, he believed he may have given the south away from the Democratic party for a generation. He didn’t know the half of it. LBJ underestimated how much race drives politics.”             

Then Nixon came along. In 1968, with his run for the White House, he saw the opportunity to snare a bunch of voters and suggested he should pick up the white racist vote.

“They didn’t know how many were out there,” Hartmann said. “They didn’t really recognize what percentage of the white population was being driven primarily by animus. If there were enough of them, Nixon figured they might be able to help his cause.” Hartmann said that was Nixon’s Southern strategy which he said has metastasized over the years.

“Now it’s one of the principal drivers in our politics,” he explained. “Racism at one time belonged to the left, the Dixiecrats. Then it became a right issue. Seems crazy to me. I don’t know why conservatism would become racially conscious, but that’s what happened.” Prior to the 1960s, Hartmann said Republicans weren’t racist.                                                                        

“My father was an Eisenhower supporter, and he was most definitely not a racist,” he said. “Over the last decade or two, since the Willie Horton ad in 1988, we’ve seen the party shout out to white racists. They’re screaming, ‘dance to the tune of big corporations and billionaires. Come over and vote for me.’”

Hartmann is approaching his 20th year in talk radio in March. Joseph Campbell said when you’re involved in your daily life, things can be muddled, confusing. You wonder why you made a certain decision. As you age, when you reflect on that same life, your actions make a lot more sense. 

“Here I am 20 years later and I’m having a good time,” Hartmann said. “I guess ADHD would be kind of a curse if I’d decided to become a professor. As designed by life, ADHD has been a blessing. Talking on the radio is the perfect job for someone with ADHD. There’s always something new. Always constant change.”

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As History Unfolds, It’s Important for News/Talk Radio to Remain Focused on Playing the Hits

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward.



A photo of Donald Trump and Joe Biden

The age-old radio adage is to “Play the hits”.

It applies more directly to music stations, but the phrase can also relate to sports talk and news/talk. So, suppose you’re like me, and you’ve found yourself behind a microphone on a news/talk station the last couple of weeks. In that case, you might be having an internal conversation about whether you’ve focused too much on the national political discourse since the unforgettable Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden debate on June 27th.

My short answer is: No, you’re not too focused. 

But in an effort to not stop this column at 100 words, I’ll explain further.

I’ve long advocated for focusing your local shows on your local radio markets as much as possible. It will separate your show from the national syndication that can be piped into any station nationwide. Your local flair is what will build your credibility in your community. It’s what will separate you. Local will win. 

And given that it’s been an unusually predictable few months in the election news cycle, there hasn’t been much to lean into on the national political side. Joe Biden was the unimpressive, octogenarian incumbent going up against Donald Trump, who rolled quickly through a primary and was set to be at the top of the Republican ticket for a third-straight election cycle. It was a rematch of 2020, a period in American history most Americans would prefer to forget, given the state of the nation at the time. Unfortunately for many, they are being forced to relive it. 

However, what happened two weeks ago in Atlanta between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has given a massive jolt to an election season that had been relatively boring. Tens of millions of Americans were tuned in that evening, and given Biden’s debate performance, it has kicked off two weeks of speculation of Biden dropping out, party infighting, replacement conversations, various media reports, and drama that we haven’t seen around an incumbent President in an election year since 1968.

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward engagingly and entertainingly while also, when appropriate, bringing on guests who will provide them with insight they can bring to their conversations with friends, at the water cooler, on group texts and on social media.

In a perfect world, you can also localize these national stories by getting reactions from local officials, reading/playing their social media reactions on your show, or if you’re in a swing state, your options beyond that are unlimited.

But now that we are in a national news cycle that has been on fire, don’t force yourself into local talk. Find your top local stories that are compelling and impacting your radio listener’s day-to-day lives, and work to blend it with the historical moment we find ourselves living through on the national political stage. And always be working your hardest to think of and find new angles, while moving the story forward.

In the end, just like your local CHR station has to play Taylor Swift multiple times an hour, you need to give your audience what they want and “Play the hits.” We’re living through history, after all.

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James Golden AKA Bo Snerdley Relishes New Nationally Syndicated Weekend Show

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”



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(Photo: James Golden)

Radio host, radio executive, producer, author, and a jack of all media trades. Since he was 14-years-old James Golden (AKA Bo Snerdley) has devoted his entire life to the media industry.

The on-air talent’s weekend show —The James Golden Show — just became syndicated through Red Apple Audio Networks.

“I really appreciate having the platform that WABC has provided. It’s a wonderful thing to have a show that’s now in a bunch of different markets and growing! It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Long before Golden hit the airwaves as ‘Bo Snerdley’ on The Rush Limbaugh Show, he was a teenager visiting his cousin, DJ Gerry Bledsoe, at work. “It was a mind-blowing experience for me. So many things happened that day. In fact, that day was when one of the older guys there, the guy who’s had a reputation as being a real grumpy, curmudgeon type guy, for some reason, took a liking to me.”

He let Golden into the show where Golden learned how to cut tape. “It took me a lot of years before I actually got a job, and ironically, it was at the same station, doing marketing and research, looking at ratings and learning how to analyze ratings and learning how to do marketing. Later on, I moved into the programming side and started doing music research.”

James Golden was one of the first in the country to do music research which led him to WABC. There he worked with the station’s transition from music to their first talk program.

“I think in life you’re given the sort of the things that you need to fulfill whatever destiny you have. I had always been interested in news, politics, and all of it. This dual love I had for music, it allowed me to transition when the station changed format and to become their senior producer of news. And it was at ABC some years later that I met Rush Limbaugh. And of course, that turned into a 30-year relationship.”

The Author of “Rush On The Radio,” recalled the first time the pair met. “So my first day working on his show, I brought him some news stories. I was in the habit of doing that before I even worked on his show. I developed a friendship. When I saw something interesting, that I thought he would be interested in and I would take it to him. So it was a smooth transition for me being rotated on the show.”

It wasn’t before long James Golden became Bo Snerdley. “So I walked in, dropped off some stories, and on the way out he says, ‘Well, everybody on this call screen has got to be a Snerdley, have you come up with your name?’ So The Daily News was on his desk, and it was on the sports page. Bo Jackson was in the news for some of the headlines, but I just wasn’t able watch it. So I just said ‘Bo’ and walked out. Little did I know that for the rest of my life, I’d be Bo. But it’s great and I love it. I’m comfortable with either one.”

Golden recalled the time spent with his friend saying, “No words can ever describe it. He was the best that there ever was to me, or ever will be in the industry. His talent, as he said, was on loan from God. But it was something unique. The incredibly intelligent, incredibly hardworking. 30 years in, he still brought it. Even when he was sick, [Rush] did as much of the work that he could to make sure that his show was extremely well researched and well delivered.”

While working on Rush’s show, James Golden also had his own weekend show. He worked 7 days a week for years. Today, he is back at his radio home. “Back at WABC, doing six days on air with them, and it’s just been a wonderful ride for me.”

Throughout the years, the former executive producer turned host has seen significant change in the industry.

“For some people, it’s not as much fun as it used to be. And I’ll just speak frankly about that. When the bean counters took over because of corporate interest — instead of it being a lot of different families with smaller radio groups, it moved into more of a big business — for a lot of people a lot of the fun was taken out of it, because those decisions that used to be made locally are now being made by regional managers or by national managers, some of whom had more of a background in sales and didn’t understand the programing,” he shared.

“So there’s always that schism. And so for a lot of people in the industry, I have friends who have left the industry because it just was no longer fun for them.”

Another big difference? You no longer have to work your way up through the markets.

“You had to work your way up through lower markets to get to a higher market. You don’t have to do that now. People that are just good at what they do, if they have very good communication skills, you can learn how to become [one of the] best radio hosts. There’s only one best radio host and [Rush] passed away, but it is still about your ability to tell a good story. To understand and to I think it really is how much you are in love with the medium yourself.”

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The Difference Between News/Talk Radio Programmer and Bureaucrat

The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets.

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Let’s talk about the worst aspect of every news/talk radio programmer’s job: commercial stops, those designed traffic jams that occur every ten or twenty minutes bringing your excellent content to a dead halt. And so, you wait, knowing full well that you’re losing a significant percentage of your audience to button pushers looking for a station where talkers are still talking and news is still being broadcast.

The way most news and talk radio stations operate today commercial clutter takes up 20-30 minutes of each programming hour. It would be nice to say that’s because your inventory is sold out thanks to great ratings but we know better. It happens because it’s allowed to happen. Some of that load is likely bonus spots and far too much of it consists of recorded promos that use branding phrases begging the listener to wait through the clutter.

Yes, commercials are necessary but there are some things to consider that might make them less annoying and potentially informative and entertaining.

Warning: old fart flashback straight ahead.

When I was a young program director I had the authority to reject any spots that I didn’t feel met our standards. Yes, I’m quite serious. I didn’t exercise the option often but if a spot was of lousy audio quality, badly produced, boring, or even just plain stupid, I could kick it back to the sales exec and/or ad agency and ask them politely to make it better.

You might think that could result in an impolite opposite reaction. It never did, not once. From time to time I talked with an advertiser or his agent and they always said the same thing: You’re the expert. I want my time and money spent well on your station.

Sales execs could get annoyed but usually went along as good teammates without too much grousing. Besides, schmoozing clients with better ideas is part of their art; the best enjoy it.

Often these conversations would lead to brainstorming sessions with the production director. (Remember that creative and crucial position?) Ideas were tossed around, writing began and a highly effective ad was usually the result.

If you’re a program director or air talent today your mind must be reeling. It has probably never occurred to you that you could have the authority to actually determine all of your news/talk station’s programming, not just the words between the breaks, every blessed minute. Why not? You’re responsible for your station’s content 24/7 though you have no control over half of it.

Most program directors in corporate-owned stations today have been hired as functionaries at the end of a long chain of corporate bureaucrats. Your days are filled with layers of programming and sales hierarchies. Presidents have lieutenants, regional and format V.P.s, who send out the memos and convene Zoom meetings to address general issues with generalized answers.

They dive into recent studies and charts for boilerplate policies, seldom suggesting anything bold or of local significance because they can’t, they don’t know your town. The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets. They’re smart enough to know that what worked in Boston might not fly in Amarillo – except in a vague, general way.

As a local PD today your log is bloated, your programming is filled with syndicated shows, and your hands are tied. 

Unless you have a creative fire in your belly and the guts to assert it.

Dream up great promotions that will excite your audience in your hometown. Enlist the members of your on-air, newsroom, and production staff. Invite them to a pizza place for some brainstorming. Don’t make it mandatory, suggest it will be fun and exciting because it will. Your crew will be happier and bubbling tomorrow. Before long fresh ideas will start trickling in regularly because everyone is enthused, involved, and feeling appreciated. You’ll all make each other’s great ideas even greater. You’re having fun and it’s contagious.

If you can ignite a spark of excitement and faith from your GM and sales department you might find yourself with the programming reigns in both hands.

You weren’t hired to be a clickbait expert, you are a radio expert. You know more about the stuff that comes out of the speakers than anyone else at the station. And you can identify problems and turn them into opportunities. You need to spend your days refining the product, not in endless meetings trying to implement generalized corporate buzzspeak into local program policy.

Attend the Zoom meetings, be a cheerful good soldier but if called upon speak your mind with truth and passion. It’s infectious.

Explain to your boss why you should be allowed to reduce the on-air clutter by as much as half and that you need to spend most of your time every day with your news and talk talent because they’re your stars. It’s why they pay you. The station and the community are all that matters to you.

Tell her/him you’ll read the interoffice memos faithfully and join digital meetings when you can but that the corporate culture will mostly just have to take care of itself.

And, oh, by the way, you need the authority to reject bad radio commercials.

You may not get everything you ask for but I promise you’ll earn some respect.

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