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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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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.

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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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