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Todd Starnes Has Retooled KWAM Into a News Talk Radio Powerhouse

“Our slogan is, ‘Where Memphis goes for Breaking News.’ That was an important thing for us.”

Ryan Hedrick

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Todd Starnes recalls his experience growing up in the South during the Carter administration. He vividly remembers how his father changed his political affiliation to the Republican Party due to President Carter’s policies that negatively impacted America. Starnes became politically aware during his junior high school years, which coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a pivotal moment for the country.

Starnes went on to study communications at Lee University and would later come back to the school to give lectures, talking to the next generation of journalism students. Starnes became nationally recognized as his career evolved for his thought-provoking commentaries and work covering President Obama’s administration. Starnes became widely respected for his no-holds-barred analysis of the day’s hottest stories.

Constant change is a common occurrence in the media industry, which Starnes, who was negotiating a contract extension with Fox News towards the end of 2019, can attest to. Every three years, the network assesses its talent deals, and Starnes had expressed dissatisfaction with their offer during negotiations. A controversy involving Starnes, a Hispanic journalism group, and the use of a term to describe illegal immigration also arose around the same time. These events combined to mark the beginning of a new journey for Starnes.

In his interview with Barrett News Media, Starnes talked about his experience leading up to leaving Fox News, his current perspective on the network, his unexpected transition from national political commentator to radio station owner in Memphis, and the reception of his station in both the local community and the industry.

Ryan Hedrick: What motivated you to acquire KWAM “The Mighty 990” and its translator 107.9 through your company, Starnes Media Group?

Todd Starnes: Severe weather. I was back home in Memphis and still at Fox News. I got caught in a severe thunderstorm and was driving through a popular thoroughfare. So, I turn on the radio to try and get an update on what was happening with the weather. The local talk radio station was in syndicated programming, and as I scanned the dial, nobody was doing any coverage.

I thought to myself at the time that somebody needs to buy a radio station and provide local coverage, so when things like bad weather happen, this community has a resource to get that type of information. That was really the seed of that idea.

A few months later, I received a call from a radio broker who informed me that a radio station was for sale in Memphis and asked me if I would be interested. When I purchased KWAM, it had been a pay-for-play radio station, a hodgepodge of different programming. That’s really what led to it.

RH: What can you tell us about the staff at KWAM?

TS: We have a total of 12-13 full-time and part-time people working here. A radio station owner in another market told me that if we really wanted to make an impact, we had to steal something from another radio station in town. It just so happened that we were able to snag the garden show (Mid-South Gardening), which had been around for about 25 years; it was hugely popular.

We just caught them at the right time. We told them we would treat them like rock stars. They brought their audience with them, and that really helped us out in the early days. We launched a morning show (Wake up Memphis) and now have a local afternoon drive show. We also do live, local news.

RH: In terms of KWAM’s success, how crucial is the local news component?

TS: It’s huge. In fact, our slogan is, ‘Where Memphis goes for Breaking News.’ That was an important thing for us. We are finalists for our breaking news coverage of the night a gunman went on a rampage. We broadcasted coverage live on Facebook. We are a finalist for the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters awards for our coverage of that night. Our staff members came rushing back to the station, others called in, and we opened the phone lines.

We really want to be that place where if people know something crazy is going on, we want them to tune into KWAM to get all the news and information. The station won its first regional Murrow award this year, the first time in the radio station’s history. It’s exciting to see journalism and the great work of our team being recognized by our colleagues in the industry.

RH: Since buying KWAM, what difficulties and accomplishments have you had?

TS: One of the things that I learned is that when you buy a radio station, you should not only check under the hood, but you should probably kick the tires. I didn’t realize that every single piece of wiring, every single piece of equipment, had to be replaced. We also have the tower site, which is right alongside the Mississippi River, which is why we have a “K” alongside our name because our towers are in Arkansas, and our studios are in East Memphis. The biggest challenge is getting everything functional. I’m a radio geek, so when that Emergency Alert System (EAS) goes off, it’s kind of cool.

The other part is we’re going up against the big corporate guys. This goes back to knowing your lane. The advantage is that all our decisions are made right here in Memphis. You don’t have to go up the food chain. If you have a problem with KWAM, you can either come to the station and talk to me, or you can pick up the phone and talk to me. That’s a big plus for us.

RH: As a media industry influencer, what changes have you observed over the years, and what challenges and opportunities do you think media professionals can take advantage of?

TS: For people on all sides, we must be great on all the platforms. We have worked very hard to do that at KWAM. We study other radio stations, big and small. If they’re doing something creative, we want to figure out how we can implement that here. You have to be inquisitive, and you have to want to learn. We try to instill that in our team here.

Early on, I received a handwritten letter from a guy with a company near the airport. He had written this letter to our competitor. He was complaining because there were a lot of technical issues, like double audio. In the letter to whoever was in charge at the time, he said he reached out to the impacted businesses to advise them that their advertisements were not being heard.

He sent that same letter to me, and I picked up the phone and called the guy. When he answered, he was stunned. I told him I wanted him to call me directly if he heard anything like that on this station. That was a year and a half ago, and I haven’t heard from him, and he’s listening to KWAM. We work hard to give people a great radio experience. 

RH: What predictions do you have for the future of conservative media, and what part will KWAM play in that evolution? 

TS: We have a unique situation here in Memphis. We are a majority, minority city. I think metro-wide, Memphis is 60/40 Black to white. We have a lot of issues that many cities would never have to deal with. I think that we have one of the most racially diverse audiences on radio. We get a lot of calls from folks that are Black and white. Our issue is how we become that station for all of Memphis. 

One of the things that we started covering is high school football. We do a Friday night football show, and we cover one school. We also have a halftime and a postgame show that incorporates other teams. We have local newspaper reporters call in to give reports, and people that work at TV stations contribute. That’s been a great thing for us, breaking down those barriers. Yes, we’re conservative, but everyone is welcome here. 

RH: The First Amendment and free speech topic is frequently debated. What do you believe as a talk show host is your responsibility in protecting free speech?

TS: This is one of the greatest dangers in our society. We are growing a generation of young Americans who believe there should be restrictions placed on free speech. I think that they’re learning this in public schools. This concerns me because I am a free speech purist and a constitutionalist. I am going to defend the Constitution as best I can.

At KWAM, we have different citizens perform the Pledge of Allegiance. At noon, we play the National Anthem. Those things are important to us because I would not have a radio station without those freedoms.  

People need to understand that we need to hear from both sides. My philosophy is that as long as you’re entertaining on the radio, I really don’t care about your political affiliations. I want you to be entertaining and authentic. I had a guy send me his resume; he was looking for a job. In his cover letter, he said he could be a conservative or a liberal or whatever I wanted him to be. I said, ‘How about authentic? How about your authentic self?’

RH: Can you share any personal experiences that have shaped your perspective as a conservative commentator?

TS: I’m a person of faith, a Christian who grew up in a Christian household. My dad voted for Jimmy Carter and in the South, that was a big deal back in the 1970s when Jimmy Carter was elected. The Southerners really wore that as a badge of pride until he started governing. Then my dad became a Republican, and I remember him voting for Ronald Reagan. I was in junior high school when Reagan was elected, and I really started to pay attention. The policies and philosophies of Reagan really shaped who I became.

The older you get, the more you start to see the big picture. I defend free speech. If you’re a leftist and you’re being shut down, I will step up and defend you because it’s important. It’s like banning books. What’s happening in Florida is not book banning; this is about appropriate material for a child. They banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Dr. Seuss early on. If you don’t stand up for those books being banned, they might one day ban my book.

RH: Why did you leave Fox News?

TS: Every three years, you get a contract renewal, and they made an offer, and I was not happy with that offer. We went back and forth, and at the end of the day, they just said we’re done here. At the same time, there was a controversy about illegal immigration and a phrase a lot of use; we called it “an invasion”. It really angered one of these Hispanic journalism groups, and that was it. I think my contract had already expired. 

At the same time, the KWAM thing was coming along, and I knew Fox News was going to be unhappy with me owning a radio station, and it was amazing how it all worked out. I walked out the door; COVID was breaking out, we finalized the deal to buy KWAM, and I was back home in Memphis. I am so grateful for the opportunities that Fox News gave me because, without them, I wouldn’t own a radio station and wouldn’t know many of the things I know now.

RH: What is your opinion of Fox News at the moment?

TS: It’s a tragedy. You must be your authentic self. I know they’re trying out hosts for Tucker Carlson’s old timeslot, and people are trying to be the next Tucker, but that’s the wrong approach. You have to be the next you. You have to be able to connect with those viewers. Fox News viewers are smart, they get dismissed a lot in the trades, but they know when you’re pulling a fast one of them. If they find someone that can be authentic, they’re going to succeed there. It really is sad what’s going on at Fox News.

RH: How has social media influenced public conversations? Specifically, what do you think about the issues conservative voices have faced online?

TS: I go back to something that Rush Limbaugh said. This is not a verbatim quote, but he said, ‘Don’t base your business on something you can’t control.’ I took that to heart, and I agreed. I love the fact that you can go on Twitter and the other platforms; ultimately, I don’t pay their light bill. We have over 200,000 followers, and we’re lucky to get over 20-30 likes; that makes no sense. I don’t know what’s going on on Twitter. I think if you have such a large audience on a platform like that, unleash everyone. I think that’s better for the business model.

RH: How can media companies make money and keep journalism alive in an era of digital subscriptions and paywalls?

TS: I love making payroll every week. Finding out how to monetize digital content is an ongoing process. For us, it’s trying to package deals that include a digital component as well as terrestrial radio. Finding those things that are unique is key for us.

We have a local jeweler in Memphis called Wiemar’s Jewelry, and the guy said there’s only one thing I will sponsor on your radio station: the Pledge of Allegiance. We just had a pest control company who is a massive Lars Larson fan, and not only did Lars give him a shoutout on the show, but the guy is now a sponsor of The Lars Larson Show.  Buying those great partnerships is huge for us. We love Lars, and we also have some great Salem Radio hosts. 

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The Problem With Radio Interviews and How to Make Them Better

Most interviews suck. Most interviews have little reason to exist in the first place, not if the host, anchor, or reporter isn’t going to ask the tough questions the audience wants answered.

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What was the last interview you remember? I’ll wait. Yeah, not so easy. Most interviews on radio, TV, or podcasts, or in print, are anything but memorable.

Either nobody says anything other than the usual platitudes, or the host fawns over, and tosses softballs at, the guest. The only thing accomplished is to fill a segment the easy way — hey, the guest is doing all the work! Cool! — and the host is, ideally, maintaining access to the guest while pleasing some publicist who will, the producer hopes, send more clients to the show. Everybody wins, right?

What about the audience?

Most interviews suck. Most interviews have little reason to exist in the first place, not if the host, anchor, or reporter isn’t going to ask the tough questions the audience wants answered. Is it entertaining or enlightening to a radio listener or cable news viewer if an interview consists of stock answers, vague platitudes, or ridiculous opinions met with zero resistance from the interviewer? Who wants to hear that? Yet that’s what I see, hear, and read everywhere.

Nobody gets challenged, and in the rare instances when they do get challenged, the interviewer invariably lets them off the hook. Follow-ups are non-existent. Wild claims are unchallenged. And those are among the more interesting interviews, because at least there’s some animated discussion. Others are deadly dull, too polite, interviewers afraid to make things too uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable can be, of course, the kind of memorable interview that people talk about years later, the kind that can define a host and show. I’ve written before about how I saw the light when I was programming New Jersey 101.5 and, from the front hallway of the studio, I suddenly heard John Kobylt (now at KFI Los Angeles) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in a shouting match. I don’t even remember what they were arguing about, but it was a talk show host and a sitting U.S. Senator on the phone screaming at each other and I ran towards the studio, then stopped in my tracks.

Yeah, it was a Senator, but so what? Senators are just people, but also people who owe their constituents answers. John was representing our listeners. I let it go on. And our ratings reflected that attitude: We used our access to get answers for the audience, and they appreciated it. Politeness may get you invited to campaign events and press conferences, but you don’t work for political parties, sports franchises, or college athletic programs, you’re the proxy for the people, and yourself.

(Lately, it’s been fun to watch Jake Tapper let the Philly come through and be more aggressive with politicians; “Be more Philadelphia” is a good rule of thumb, although I might be biased in that regard….)

There are other radio examples, too, from Tom Bauerle in Buffalo challenging Hillary Clinton to Dan Le Batard confronting MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred over the Marlins’ tanking to the recent WFAN/Carl Banks brouhaha, and you surely have other examples, probably because they’re the interviews you remember. (We can skip over Jim Rome vs. Jim Everett, okay?) Honestly, whether they’re pundits bloviating on cable about the latest breaking news or a coach or player spouting the same safe canned responses after every game (“Why didn’t you go for it on 4th and 2?” “We’ll have to try harder next week, but give credit to the other guys’ defense”), the world, and your ratings, would probably be better off without those interviews.

But if you insist on doing a lot of interviews…

1. Listen. Yes, this has become a cliche. So many great interviewers have said this that it’s hard to figure out who said it first. It’s true, though. Prepare all the questions you need in advance — more than you need, really — but when you ask a question, don’t let your eyes move down the page to the next question on the list. Just listen to the answer, because more often than not there will be an opportunity to….

2. Follow up. This is not optional, especially entering an election year when misinformation is going to continue to be rampant. You know when you’re watching a cable news anchor talking to a politician or pundit and the latter says something outrageous and unsupportable and the interviewer just moves on? You know how you want to throw things at your TV when that happens? Don’t be that interviewer. Better yet….

3. Insist on an answer. If the subject doesn’t really answer the question, ASK IT AGAIN. Repeat until you get a commitment. No need to defer to someone who’s avoiding your questions. At least get them on record as refusing to answer the question – and point that out — before you move on.

4. This is out of order, but before you even book the interview, ask yourself: Is this what the audience wants or needs? Is this going to be entertaining or informative, or preferably both? Are people going to remember this past the second it ends? Might this make news or is it just going to sit there accomplishing nothing? Why am I doing this? (The latter question is apropos for everything in life, by the way, and the answer isn’t always pretty.)

It’s not to say that you need to be a jerk to guests, or that you can resort to name-calling or low blows. To the contrary, asking good, tough questions is a sign of respect, a sign you think they can handle it. If they can’t, it’s on them. If you’re the host, anchor, or reporter, you’re in control. Use it.

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How to Take Your Personal Brand to the Next Level

Always respect your brand’s relationship with the station. You are a 24-hour-a-day goodwill ambassador for your employer. Always keep that in the forefront of your skull. 

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You have probably heard about having a personal brand. Well, we all have a brand. 

The definition according to the American Marketing Association: “Personal branding is the act of promoting yourself as a brand by crafting a distinct identity, reputation, and online presence to showcase your skills, expertise, and personality. This type of branding is normally used by professionals, influencers, and entrepreneurs to enhance their careers, attract opportunities, and build a strong online presence.”

How do you represent yourself on the air? Do you have an identity that makes you unique?  What is it? Are you presenting a show that is on-brand? Is there an aspect of your show that makes it special? I have asked these questions to several hosts over the years and when left to identify these attributes…  They can’t. It takes soul searching, it takes a bit of honesty, and it also takes some courage. There is an old marketing adage when it comes to presenting anything to the consumer. What makes your show new, better, and different? I will give you some strategies to develop your personal brand on the air. 

What about your personal brand in life? When you walk into the store, restaurant, or your chosen house of worship, do you present yourself like a star? Gene Simmons of the band KISS once said that rock stars should always look like it whenever they go outside. Do you present yourself as you wish to be perceived? Is it on-brand? 

Longtime talk show host and Founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa is always in uniform. He is wearing a beret and a red jacket with the Guardian Angels Logo. I worked with Curtis for almost 4 years, I only saw him out of uniform twice. A lot of talk show hosts are somewhat shy and socially awkward. Hosts frequently only come alive when there is a microphone in front of them. This is a total mistake. 

Friday Night, I made a work appearance. I worked the crowd, but I was hungry. So, I stopped at a local restaurant, bellied up to the bar, and enjoyed dinner with a beer. Well, one of the businessmen at this establishment recognized me. He moved over and sat near me. I spoke with him for 40 minutes as I enjoyed my beverage and meal. This listener introduced me to everyone at the bar. He must be a regular. 

I followed my tradition of only having one beer. I was on brand. After I was recognized, I had a conversation about the show and the station. I was not dismissive of either being recognized. I didn’t try to diminish my job. Be a regular person when approached. Your show persona and personal presentation may be a little different. Your listeners don’t understand that. I mention this because I have observed radio and TV people just come across as either rude, aloof, or just nutty.

Your station’s brand will always be associated with your personal brand. How many hosts do you know who made the move across town and just got crushed? The ratings sucked, the fit was bad, and the revenue was in the toilet after 12 months into that new gig. 

Always respect your brand’s relationship with the station. You are a 24-hour-a-day goodwill ambassador for your employer. Always keep that in the forefront of your skull. 

I worked with an amazing talent years ago who was really the backbone of the station in the market. He had been in that community for 30 years. Everyone knew him. This guy had a hair-trigger temper, though. I got a call from a listener who was on a roadcrew, and my guy screamed at him over a traffic delay. 

The listener was really sorry that he yelled at my guy. The road crew member wanted to write the talk show host a note of apology. I took that as a learning tool. I called my host and told him about the call. My host dropped the “Do you know who I am?” line on this poor dude. I brought that up. The host was crestfallen. I had to inform him that he was always an ambassador of the station’s brand. 

I also let him know that the “Do you know who I am?” line is a finesse play and should be only used in rare situations. I was also able to bust his chops over this for years. We shared a laugh each time that it was brought up. Don’t let your ego hurt your station. 

So…how do you develop your own brand? I hate to inform you of this, you have one. Now, you have to understand what it is. You also need to understand the three legs of the personal branding stool. What makes you new, better, and different? Ultimately, this should be the goal of every marketing plan. Once you understand these three things, you will have the basics for developing your personal brand. 

Your brand should also be a listener-focused exercise. Once you have your brand in hand, figure out if you need to adjust your public persona. How does that look? Think of the Gene Simmons statement. What do people want to see? How should you present yourself? Think about you should dress. How should you act? The answers are unique to you. 

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Can News/Talk Radio Be the Opposite of the Thanksgiving Table?

I wonder if the delicate dance between honesty and not wanting to offend is the same at the “table” as it is on the radio airwaves. Regardless, the prospect of conversations in both places can be both refreshing and frightening.

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As we get overnight Truth Social rants from Donald Trump, Hunter Biden’s laptop trending, another presidential debate, and more calls for anyone but a Trump-Biden race, the whole ability to be politically independent seems to be increasingly difficult, whether it be on the radio or at the dinner table.

First, what does it actually mean to be independent? Everyone likes to say they’re independent, but before judging them on their merits, what are the defining criteria?

It’s not about objectivity vs. subjectivity. No one is truly objective, so let’s get past that middle school comparison. I view the concept of political independence as two things: Intellectual flexibility and partisan separation.

The first term involves the ability to react to new, different, and dynamic information and actually adjust a viewpoint. Ardent partisans call this flip-flopping. I call it a saving grace of the free mind (cue Matrix theme music). You should be able to evolve and shift a position based on learning. Most adults are not able or willing to do this (see my old column on silos).

Partisan separation is an offshoot of the willingness to be intellectually flexible. If you are 100 percent beholden to a party, you cannot be intellectually flexible. As a human and as a morning radio host, that’s an untenable place to occupy – IMHO, as the young’uns say.

When I review my portfolio of political views, thoughts, and feelings, I accept some that are considered conservative, and others that look progressive, while still possessing several moderate stances as well. The point is not to blindly follow a line; follow what your senses tell you, even if it’s not consistently one side or the other.

Think of it as split-ticket voting, but on issues and not candidates – and try doing it on an ongoing basis.

Critics on either side may say you flip flop or even some call you a coward. I am fine with that, and every day on the air, I am working on the courage to embrace all 360 degrees of my views without fear of the response. My agenda is not to have an agenda.

So, some two weeks after Thanksgiving, I am still processing the many hours of conversation at the “table”. I put that in quotations because we don’t actually have a sit-down meal. With 35 or so people, we set up the food buffet-style and let everyone have at it.

I wonder if the delicate dance between honesty and not wanting to offend is the same at the “table” as it is on the radio airwaves. Regardless, the prospect of conversations in both places can be both refreshing and frightening.

Personally, I like to go there right away and then assess whether it’s worth staying there. At my holiday meal, there were so many options for people to talk to – one could just float around the rooms — and the outs are easy. I could get more food, hit the bathroom, or the simple need to catch up with someone else. As the alcohol flowed, so did the more political conversations.

I know not to give my end-of-day thoughts with the close relatives; I keep that kind of candor to crazy cousins and their spouses.

My wife’s extended family is mostly New England Democrats with a smattering of shy-about-it Republicans. In the past, we’ve had drunken tears over political issues – including one fantastic meltdown over a relative’s vote for Trump — but it’s been mostly quiet for the last few years. Having said that it’s clear that a truly independent – or rather, open-minded – approach is precarious.

Here are some areas, questions, and stances where I’ve learned people get upset, and more disturbingly, judge you — whether it be on the radio or at the dinner “table”. These are all things we should be able to discuss without fear:

Can’t you truly want to expand the vote to the most people possible but also wonder about the merits of voter ID and absentee ballot security?

If you worry about the concept of late-term abortion, you are pro-life.

And If you question the border policy, you are anti-immigrant.

If you at least acknowledge the fact that the world actually seemed more peaceful three years ago, you might as well have a MAGA flag in your bedroom.

Question President Biden’s age? people think you’re going to vote for Donald Trump.

If you lament the death of Palestinian civilians, you are anti-Israel.

If you correct the misuse of the term genocide, it means you support genocide.

Think the government has the potential to be a force for good? You’re a spend-thirsty liberal.

If you want to save Social Security by raising the earnings cap, you’re a tax-thirsty liberal.

If you recognize white privilege and still want to work out how to make opportunity fair in this country, you’re anti-white.

Want to at least brainstorm on what reparations would look like? You are also anti-white.

If you are curious about whether there should be some sort of line at some point between boys and girls sports, you are anti-trans.

If you argue for true free speech, you get in trouble on both sides.

And if you think market-based solutions can work, you are an elitist.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Exploring these issues should not mean an absolute commitment to a stance. These are evolving subjects, and there has to be an evolving discourse in order to even have a chance at intellectual flexibility.

Do I have an answer for how to do this? No. Am I still hesitant to approach some of these topics on the air? Yes. Will I continue to test things when it feels appropriate? Absolutely.

In radio, getting there remains a work in progress, but even though I want to work in the middle a lot, it does not mean that I want to be stuck there.

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