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Lars Larson’s Journey Through Radio & Television

Larson said he was out of radio for less than a year and learned there was more freedom working in radio. 

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Nearly thirty percent of the world’s goods are manufactured in China. If you flipped veteran News/Talker Lars Larson over and checked his nether regions for a stamp, you’d find one that reads, Made in China.

“I was born in the good part of China. In Taiwan,” Larson explained. “This is the Democratic, self-determining China. It has its own leaders, stands up to mainland China, all that good stuff.” Larson still has a soft spot in his heart for Taiwan. His parents were both in the Navy, and they traveled quite a bit. 

After both of Lars Larson’s parents left the Navy, his father went to school on the G.I. Bill and studied forestry. At one point, the family lived in Inglewood, California, when he was a kid. Larson said the area was then known for old ladies and sedate streets. “It’s not a place you want to drive through today,” he said. “I do remember playing in the yard, watching the Culligan man drive up.”

He’s only been what he calls racially profiled once in his life, and it was in Inglewood. Larson was visiting Los Angeles on business, doing some promotions for the Unicef Telethon with Lou Rawls, and rented a car. He thought it would be nice to take a drive and find his grandmother’s old house. He was a kid when he was last in that area and didn’t know the address. Instead, he was going to ‘feel’ his way around.

“It was the middle of the day, and I was searching for her house,” Larson said. “A cop lit me up and pulled me over. He drove alongside me, rolled down his window, and said, “What are you doing here?”

Larson innocently explained to the officer how he was looking for his grandmother’s house. “The cop looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the world,” Larson said.

“It’s really not safe for you to be driving around here,” a bewildered officer told Larson. Larson finally got the message and drove straight for the highway. What he lacked in street smarts was compensated by a strong survival instinct. 

The family lived in Missoula, Montana, and Mount Rainier National Park. “It’s great to live there as an adult,” Larson said. “But when you’re a kid, you’re essentially bear-bait.”

(Thanks for the tip. *Don’t move to Mount Rainier with the kids.)

His father worked for the National Park Service had its upsides. The living conditions weren’t one of them.

“Do you remember the Quonset huts on the Gomer Pyle show?” Larson asked. “A tin shack with a door? That’s what we lived in. Very shaky housing, but then again, that was part of the deal. It was a wonderful experience.”

The family also lived in Northern California. “When you hear people talk about Northern California, you might think of San Francisco,” Larson said. “Well, we lived twenty miles from the Oregon border. That’s Northern California.”

Larson’s mother was killed in a car crash when he was young. His father kept on, as fathers with kids must. He got a job as a State Park ranger in Tillamook, Oregon, known mostly for its cheese production.

The 10-year-old Lars wanted to be a space scientist, an astronaut. “I really didn’t have the math skills,” he said. “I’m okay at math, just not good enough. I was good at speech and debate. I had four solid years of each in high school.”

His listeners today are probably glad the man had questionable ciphering skills. “I thought about law school, but I’m glad I didn’t go in that direction.”

In Tillamook, Larson met a man who took over the local radio station, KTIL. That man’s name was Larsen. “It wasn’t spelled like my name, not the way God intended it,” Larson jokes. “For the rest of my life, I had to explain I didn’t get my first radio job out of nepotism. That Larsen was no relation at all.”

The radio guy Larsen invited several high school students to intern at the station because they were good at speech; the young Larson was one of them. “When the internship was over, he let the other kids go but asked me to work with him. It was a 10 to midnight shift, and I was only 15-years-old.” Larson said. This was even before 8-track carts were around. Guglielmo Marconi was barely cold in his grave. “We used reel-to-reels,” Larson recalled. “It was awful.”

He was on the air for the last two hours of the day. “They shut down at midnight to save money,” Larson said. “These days, that’s rare. The only day I ever deliberately skipped school was to go and take the third-class license test to work at the station.”

Primarily not required today, people on the air back then needed to have the ability to take readings off the transmitter, and sign off on the transmitter log.

“I had to have that third-class license on the wall,” Larson said.

Aside from his 10 to midnight shift at KTIL, the unofficial Mighty 1590, as they called it, Larson said he’d fill in for the news anchors when they were off. “We were full-service,” Larson said. “We had a morning news program, top of the hour news, bottom of the hour weather. There wasn’t much car traffic on the roads where we were, so that wasn’t much of an issue.” 

The station carried high school football and basketball games, as well as Oregon State games. “If the Trail Blazers were on, we’d bump the other and then pick up the high school or college game in progress when it was over.”

He said he loved his time at KTIL. “I learned everything there. A lot of people at the station were young, in their 20s. They tried to make you laugh during your newscast, set your news copy on fire.”

Wow. Those really were the good old days of radio.

Larson said like many small radio stations did, they would read obituaries on the air. “There were forms that people filled out,” he said. “Basically, it was a form where you filled in information. It read something like, ‘Friends will be sad to learn the passing of ________ after a long battle with _________. People would just fill in the blanks, and we had a stack of them to read.”

Here are these young radio kids telling a community of 4,000 people who passed away. “It’s one thing to make somebody laugh during a newscast,” Larson said. “It’s quite another to try and make them laugh during an obituary. But they tried.” Boy, did they try.

“One night, I was reading an obituary,” Larson began, “and we had a very large Swiss community in Tillamook. So, I began, “Friends will be sorry to hear of the passing of Oscar Mayer. That’s when I lost it. You can lose your composure during the weather, but not there.”

Larson attended the University of Oregon in Eugene but quit after a year to work in radio and television.  

“I took some more classes at Gonzaga,” Larson said. “I plugged away at it for a while, but it just wasn’t working for me. I got a job offer in Spokane at KXL in March of 1980. I was there for nearly four years when I got into television.”

Larson said he was out of radio for less than a year and learned there was more freedom working in radio. 

“For one thing, technologically, television is overly complicated just by its nature,” Larson said. “I bet that idiot Brian Stelter at CNN has about 25 people behind him putting that show together. On the radio, it’s just you and maybe one other person.”

Have we touched a nerve with Stelter? 

“He’s such a political partisan,” Larson explained. “Nothing he says is supported by facts. Having been an investigative reporter myself, I took it very seriously. What I’m doing now is largely entertainment, but I am also a journalist.”

Larson said when he was a television managing editor, it was his duty to make sure the news wasn’t slanted or unsubstantiated. “My job was to take opinions out of the stories,” he said. “If a reporter came to me with something that was not attributed, I let them know it was their opinion.”

As a former news anchor, there were people who questioned how he could deliver the news on television, and at the same time, give his opinionated views on the same topic on the radio.

Larson provided an informative illustration of this apparent conflict. “There’s an Irish cop,” he began, “and he’s sent to protect an abortion clinic. He may not agree with abortion, and it’s his job to hold people back who agrees with to facilitate the young women. It’s not his job as a cop to shut this place down. He’s supposed to do his job. There are people in that situation all over the world, working in a field they might not totally agree with.”

Larson says he recalls Walter Cronkite delivering a daily commentary throughout most of his career. This was aside from the news he’d just delivered to the nation. “I don’t think he was unbiased on the news, but he did a commentary,” Larson said. “You can trust someone to give the news without bias, but he still has a radio show to do.”

We’re all caught in the crosshairs of news and propaganda today from both sides of the issue.

“When you read an old-school magazine, you could identify when a piece was well-written,” Larson said. “You’re thinking, ‘Huh. I wonder who this guy is who wrote this?’ You could read their bio at the bottom of the piece and see they support the NRA or they’re with the Civil Liberties Union. You see where they’re coming from.”

He hosts his daily program from noon-3 p.m.with his Northwest show on 570 KVI, taking calls and talking about life in the Pacific Northwest. He has earned more than 70 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional journalists, and the National Press Club. Larson has also chalked up an Emmy and a Peabody for his reporting and documentaries.

I could almost hear Larson’s blood pressure rising through the telephone when he talked about the fledgling Disinformation Governance Board, designed to stop disinformation from spreading on the Internet.

“Tell me that’s not right out of 1984, The Ministry of Truth,” Larson said. The ministry is a fictional department in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

“This is all Orwellian stuff. It’s whitewashing, gaslighting in its highest order. This is being conducted under the auspices of Homeland Security, the people who are supposed to be catching terrorists and other dangerous people. Suddenly, their job has become monitoring American speech for disinformation.”

If you have not read 1984 as of yet, I get the feeling you might be picking it up soon. 

BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Move Highlights Growing Appetite for News/Talk

Kayal moving to News/Talk is a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

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AUDACY

Sports Talk to News Talk.

The trend continued this week when Nick Kayal announced would be the next morning show host at WPHT in Philadelphia. In full disclosure, I know Nick, as I was an intern as he was an employee and growing his career at 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. Nick built a very solid sports talk resume, but decided to make the move to news/politics.

As I was reading his announcement on social media this week, I felt like I was reading my own reasons for leaving sports talk for news talk on a permanent basis five years ago. Nick wrote, “Over the past 6-7 years, my apetite for political content has increased and now I finally get to voice my opinion on these subject matters.”

Expect this to be a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

First off, sports talk is oversaturated. There’s just too much of it, and at some point we’ve crossed the threshold where supply has exceeded demand. There will always be room for great sports talk hosts, but jobs aren’t growing in that space, and in fact, are likely to shrink in future years.

Meantime, if we flip to the News Talk side of the business, the number of jobs expanding is admittedly also not a big part of the equation, but there is less competition in the space for those jobs when compared to Sports Talk, especially when it comes to younger hosts and employees. 

I say the following with all the love in the world for my News Talk colleagues: I was at this week’s FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) Radio Row event, and as a 34-year-old, I felt like a college kid given that I was significantly younger than most of my fellow hosts. There’s nothing wrong with that for right now, as many of them are still sharp, on their game, and delivering great ratings and revenue for their respective stations, but if we look 5-10 years down the road, they may want to find themselves on a beach or ski slope on a more regular basis. So, the next wave of News Talk hosts may not be in the News Talk space right now, and given the greater number of employees in Sports Talk, they may very well be over there. 

This is a natural migration for both sides. The News Talk bench is not deep and as the younger Sports Talk employee gets older, their interests may change. Most 25-35 year-olds care more about sports than news and politics. But as a generation that grew up during the explosion of Sports Talk approaches and enters their 40’s, their interests and desires could shift as well.

Just as important in this conversation is the fact that we all know sports, politics and culture continue to collid, for better or for worse, and those who may have more conservative-leaning beliefs and opinions are more likely to try and make that move.

As someone who spent several years in sports talk and maintain strong relationships there, I know those who don’t pray at the “Alter of Woke” feel like their opinions aren’t welcomed and will be shunned by their colleagues and bosses. They mask it, as they like to a prefer to talk about the games anyway. But when sports and culture collide, they clam up or just toe the line. 

How long will that last? How long will they want to continue to bottle it up?

I’m not here to answer it for them, but I know that for me, there was a point where I thought I’d rather spend four hours a day talking about things that impact my city, state and country than discussing whether or not a quarterback missed an open receiver on 3rd and 10 or a pitcher was left in a game too long. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love sports and love being a sports fan, but hosting a daily, local show where that is part of the job became less appealing when given alternative options. And I don’t believe I will be alone in this regard, especially as we move forward through the next several years in our business. 

Additionally, the icing on the cake is that in many towns, major sports news that a News Talk host will find interesting is, in fact, news, and will be a fit for the program. In Philadelphia, the Eagles are news on Monday after a loss to the Giants. In Kansas City, the Chiefs are news. Nothing is bigger. I do a Chiefs segment on Friday and Monday during football season. You can’t do four hours on it, but mixing it in is part of the job if you’re in a big sports town. 

Now, there is a downside. As I told Nick Kayal in a personal note after his announcement, “Be prepared to be shunned by some of your former sports colleagues”. 

A sad reality, but true, in my experience. Hey, that’s the “Tolerant Left”, right?

If you can get over that, which should be easy, then come on over. We’re having fun, making great content, and always looking for who and what is next.

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BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Transitions from Talking Sports to News/Talk

Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities, but made the switch to talking politics.

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Seasons change, minds change, and jobs certainly do.

Nick Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities. He most recently left Sports Radio 92.9 The  Game to do mornings on 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia. 

This isn’t just a job change for Kayal. It’s an entirely different animal. He’s switching from sports to news and talk. 

“Kayal and Company is the perfect show for me to host,” Kayal said. “I’ve got a multi-voiced show with an outstanding supporting cast. Greg Stocker and Dawn Stensland will have open microphones. We’ll have a guest from time to time. Some calls here and there, but it won’t be caller-heavy.”

Kayal said it will be a ‘good blend of things.’

The change has been in the works since the beginning of the year but was announced just yesterday. Former morning host Rich Zeoli will be moving to afternoons. Kayal said Zeoli has been looking forward to that.

“Rich knew the change was coming,” Kayal explained. “He was involved in the discussions. I think he really wanted to change his lifestyle. He even said so on air. Afternoons are where he started and I think he wanted to get back to that family balance. Rich is going to continue to do what made him so successful in the mornings. He does a great job at building an audience.”

Kayal said they will keep a lot of the same segments on the show. Instead of talking about Jalen Hurts of the Eagles, they’ll be talking about Joe Biden. The passion for sports and politics in Philly is the same, Kayal explained. “I don’t think my prep or delivery will change much. I want to hit on big stories, but I’m not going to filibuster on a topic.”

Getting ready for the new show, Kayal has had lunch with Stocker a few times to chat. Stocker will also serve as the show’s executive producer. The two have kept in touch through the spring and summer, and Kayal has been in Philadelphia for nearly a month.

Kayal said the response to the change has been overwhelmingly positive among listeners. 

“Twitter is usually a cesspool of negativity,” he said. “But this announcement has been 95% positive. Just a couple of negative responses here and there.

Kayal served as a host at crosstown sports 97.5 The Fanatic WPEN from 2009-2015 and doesn’t think the switch of focus will cause the show to lose listeners.

“I imagine some of the people who listened to me in sports might be a little shocked to hear me dealing with news topics,” Kayal said. “Listeners hate change, by and large. After a host change some might say they’re never listening again. That station is dead to me. People have their routines and they don’t like it when somebody or something messes that up. Most usually come back. Radio is very habitual.”

He doesn’t think he’ll miss sports all that much. That isn’t to say he’ll never do sports again, or that he’s sick of sports. 

“After 15 years of talking about nothing but sports, if I spent any more four-hour cycles talking about it, I’d blow my head off.” 

The show may touch on a major sports story if it happens, especially in Philadelphia.

“We might talk for a couple minutes after a win or loss. But one of the reasons I wanted to do this was the diversity of topics. I have an interest in a lot of things, including pop culture. We’re going to be dealing with a full menu of topics.”

He said any time you’re talking conservative news and politics, it’s the best of both worlds. 

“You may not want to listen to some of the mainstream media, so you turn to conservative radio. You have liberals who will listen to call you on your mistakes, but I’m open to that. The same goes the other way.” 

Kayal said he won’t mind admitting if he’s wrong on the air, like some other hosts. 

“There’s going to be some guys that BS their way through everything, stick to script,” he explained. “There are times when conservatives or liberals are off base, say something I don’t agree with. I’ll call them out on that.”

Dawn Stensland will be the news anchor at the top of the hour and co-host. 

“Dawn is like the protective mom who will go to bat for you,” Kayal said. “Rich Zeoli told me that this morning and said she’d go to bat for me too.”

Kayal will have a prep sheet going into the show, but he’s not afraid to dump one thing if another is working.

“I’ll call an audible at the line of scrimmage, so to speak. I want things to be organic on the show. If people are reacting to a topic, you can always get to an item in your preparation the next day. No need to rush. You have to go hard all the way through the show, finish strong. Like every other show I’ve done. There are benchmarks you need to hit during your show. People will listen for a period of time. If they’re in the car on the way to work, they’ll hear something. Then I have to approach the next hour as though nobody has heard the news, reset on the topic like it’s the first time I’m doing it. More than likely it’s a new audience. You can’t afford to have a bad segment.”

Sure, that can be beyond stressful. But if you come in prepared, if you have an opinion, make somebody laugh, make somebody mad, you’re doing something right.

“I want listeners to get the sound of the show,” Kayal said. “You’ll tune in to hear us having an exchange, bouncing off each other. I like to think we all have an innate ability to know where something is going, but chemistry between the hosts is going to be a major thing.”

 If everyone on the show has the same vision and check our egos at the door, Kayal said they’ll have a good show. He explained a show will have great ratings periods, and there’s a chance they will fall off. But the show must always deliver the best it can. 

Kayal went to school for criminal justice and pre-law at Temple. He studied political science for about a year, then changed to pre-law during his sophomore year.  He thought he’d be a defense attorney or prosecutor. 

“Law school only lasted three months,” Kayal said. “I just knew it wasn’t for me.” 

Some of the things he learned during his undergraduate degree and stint at law school helped him craft his arguments on the air. 

“I use those skill sets and traits in a monologue or during an interview,” he said. “It taught me how to ask leading questions. We’ll talk about crime on the show. It’s really about putting on a performance. So many guys are infatuated with being right, getting ratings, and revenue. To me, it’s not all about being right. 

He’d been reading Barrett Sports Media for a long time and came across a job opening for his new station, WPHT. 

“I’d always had the desire to do political stuff,” Kayal said. “I was working for Audacy in Atlanta, so coming to Philadelphia was almost like going through a transfer portal. Going back home has been icing on the cake. The process started in January of this year. They flew me out in March, and we did a two-hour mock show off the air. They had me fill in for Rich a couple of times in April. After the third week, I could tell they were pleased, and they offered me the job in June. I had to sit on it until yesterday.”

We now know Kayal can be trusted with a secret. 

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BNM Writers

The Intersection of Radio and Politics

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

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Four of the most enjoyable years of my life were spent on Capitol Hill as Communications Director for Congressman Michael R. Turner (R-OH). Mr. Turner is currently the ranking Member of the influential House Armed Services Committee. Should Republicans take back the House in November, he will likely become the committee Chairperson.

When talking to old media friends during that period, I often explained that the job wasn’t that different from broadcasting. The Congressman was like the “morning guy,” and the communications position was similar to the marketing and promotions role.

When Texas and Florida Governors Abbott and DeSantis began sending illegal immigrants, or unregistered persons for the more politically correct, from their states to Democrat strongholds, critics referred to it as a stunt. Neither of the governors seems to mind the term stunt.

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

I don’t know if the “Concert for Bangladesh,” the granddaddy of benefit concerts, solved the refugee problem or if “Live-Aid” ended hunger. I am sure that these events, which were stunts when you think about them, created massive attention for important causes.

When we first put Howard Stern on WYSP-Philadelphia, we had no idea what the ratings impact would be. At the time, there was no shortage of critics who said: “it will never work.”

We couldn’t know, with certainty, whether broadcasting a show from New York would work in Philly. We were sure that doing it would get WYSP, a moribund station, a great deal of attention. At worst, it would be a “stunt.” At best, well, that’s in the history books.

Speaking of Howard, I believe Donald Trump, a regular guest on The Stern Show for approximately 20 years, ripped off “The King of All Media’s” 1980s and 90s formula to win the presidency. Think about it:

  • He never apologizes – no matter what
  • The more outrageous, the better
  • He plays to a dominantly male audience who loves and defends him
  • He does what he does for his fans
  • It’s always “us” against the world
  • He picks feuds with others and then sics his fans on the attacked
  • The only thing better than the celebrity feuds is staff in-fighting
  • His live events are huge love-fests

What else do politicians have in common with broadcasters? 

Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator.” Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. Later that year, his public career began as a WOC-AM/Davenport, Iowa sports announcer. He moved to WHO-AM/Des Moines in 1933, where he famously recreated baseball games using ticker tape reports. He went to California to cover spring training for the Cubs, which launched his Hollywood career.

Radio demands storytelling skills: The best in class in politics and radio are great storytellers. What do you know about Abraham Lincoln’s personality? He loved to tell a tale. In the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) tells a couple of free Black soldiers about the travails of barbers who have cut his hair. 

In another scene at the War Department telegraph office, Lincoln offers an anecdote about Ethan Allen, prompting an incredulous Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) to proclaim: “You’re going to tell a story! I don’t believe that I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now.”

At his best, Joe Biden tells stories. He has always gotten confused about numbers and details, not unlike Reagan. But he effectively uses stories to make his point. That’s how he became “Scranton Joe” and why we know “Corn Pop was a bad dude.”

Positioning matters: In 1992, realizing that the recession was the top issue on voters’ minds, Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor, James Carville created the positioning statement, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton stayed on message, promising to “focus like a laser beam on the economy.”

In 2008, Barack Obama simplified his positioning to a single word: Hope, to which he added the slogan, “Yes we can!” It brilliantly captured the zeitgeist and catapulted the first-term Senator to the White House.

Focus on a few big ideas at a time: Over the years, radio programmers have learned to focus on a couple of essential things at a time. When Barack Obama took office, he had a lengthy list of items that needed attention. The economy, unemployment, bank bailouts, and U.S. auto manufacturers were in trouble. Fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden was still hiding, and the president wanted to use his popularity to pass healthcare legislation. It was too much for the public to follow, and it appeared nothing positive was happening.

A 55% to 43% margin agreed that “since he’s taken over in the White House, Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should,” in a March 2009 CNN/Opinion Research survey.

Reagan kept his agenda simple. He wanted to make the government smaller and less intrusive. He did that through tax cuts, known as “Reaganomics.” He wanted to win the Cold War by building up the military. Everything else was secondary.

Radio is a personal medium: Air personalities have always gotten out and pressed the flesh. Many figured out early in the game to use social media to build relationships with listeners.

Bill Clinton understood the power of building connections (no pun intended). Remember the first Presidential Town Hall Debate? A voter asked the candidates (Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot) a question about how the economy (national debt) affected them personally. Clinton walked to the edge of the stage, as close to the audience as he could. Only Clinton answered in human and non-technical language in what became known as the “I feel your pain” moment. 

During the same town hall debate, Bush checked his watch. These two moments pretty much sealed the election for Clinton.

Program to your P1s: In politics, they call it “playing to your base.” Whatever your thoughts about Trump, no president has ever focused so intently on their base.

Biden ran on a “Cume” strategy. He was going to unite everybody. During the Democrat primaries, he may not have been most voters’ first choice, but he was everybody’s second choice. During the general, Biden had broader appeal. According to a Morning Consult exit poll, 44% of Biden voters said their vote was more against Trump than for Biden, compared to 22% of Trump voters who said their ballot was primarily against Joe Biden. 

The concepts behind successful radio stations and winning political campaigns are similar. During my four years on Capitol Hill, I used countless lessons learned as a program director. When I returned to radio four years later, the skills I acquired in Washington helped make me a more effective programmer.

With continuing radio “reductions in workforce,” public service provides career options. Because there’s an intersection between radio and politics, the skills are transferable. The work is rewarding, and the experiences are fantastic. 

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