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The radio star alive and well: Q&A with Tom Leykis

Music streaming services, satellite radio and online radio have made it so that the future of terrestrial radio is uncertain, much like other traditional mediums. And yet, the radio star is very much alive and well. “Shock jock” Tom Leykis, host of the Internet-based “Tom Leykis Show” talked to inVocus about the benefits of online radio and the future of AM/FM radio. The show was previously distributed on air by CBS, but ended in 2009. In April, he brought his show back online at Blowmeuptom.com. He is also currently the host of “The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis.” As someone who has experience both on air and online, Leykis has a number of insights into the radio world.

KMM: What has it been like going from hosting a radio show on FM radio to online? Has there been a transition involved?

Tom Leykis (TL): Technically, and from a production standpoint, we have strived to make the show sound as much like our previous radio show as possible. After seven weeks, the biggest difference is in which topics draw an audience and which ones generate phone response. One major difference is that we know the exact number of listeners at any moment, and so we can adjust what we do on the fly. We found that serious news topics, which generally get less phone response, actually draw a large audience when we do them. Silly topics, such as an hour of unscreened calls, get the most phone response.

And, when you do a show for the Internet, you are doing it hand-in-glove with social networking if you want to succeed in today’s digital world. Radio has a lot to learn in this area.

KMM: Do you miss being on FM radio? Why or why not?

TL: The only thing that FM radio has that I would like to have is a large, built-in base of users who know how to find their content. We have to spend a lot of time and effort to explain all the ways people can hear us. In actuality, we can be found in many more ways and on many more devices than most radio stations. We can never be so arrogant as to believe that most people know that. Yet.

We don’t miss being regulated by the government or being told what to do.

KMM: What are the benefits to being on online radio? The benefits of terrestrial?

TL: One benefit of being online is that we now have total flexibility. There was a time when, if something happened in the news at 8 in the morning, we had to wait until 3 in the afternoon to have our say. Nowadays, our show appears 24/7 (through continuous replays) and so we can go on at any time if something interesting is going on. We have no limits as to what topics we discuss, how long we discuss a topic, or what guests we can have on. We are not slaves to the clock, which means we can bail from a topic easily if we’re not happy with the response. We can end a show early or we can stay late. We know immediately how many listeners we have and whether or not people are digging what we’re doing in any given hour. We give the audience the show they want and actively vote for, rather than the show that is dictated by a corporate headquarters or a political party that is two or three thousand miles away.

The main benefit of being on terrestrial radio is that radio is an old school appliance that everyone knows how to use.

KMM: What have you found to be the greatest differences between the two?

TL: The audience online is 20 years younger than the average radio audience. We spend our time doing our show for the most passionate P1 fans as opposed to radio’s constant obsession with trying to appeal to P2s and P3s. There are less people tuning in by accident now. There is no scan button for Internet radio. Someone has to invite a listener to get them into the fold.

KMM: Do you think terrestrial radio will ever go away? Why or why not?

TL: No medium ever completely goes away. The old media become the province of the older user, the technologically challenged, or the economically disadvantaged. The U.S. Mail is still there, but those who use it are more likely to be grandmothers who like to send greeting cards than to be younger or more economically lucrative users. AM radio is the province of older males and listeners who are deficient in speaking English. Old-school talk radio is now moving to FM, which has the oldest listeners it’s ever had, and they will continue to get older. Some people still play vinyl records on turntables, but I wouldn’t try to build a business based on that user base.

KMM: What do you think will be radio’s future?

TL: Let me say first that I am not happy about what I’m about to say. Radio is my oldest friend. We’ve had so much fun together for so many years. When I was a little kid, it kept me company when it was dark and I was afraid. It brought me an amazing music revolution. It was the center of my world, and one that I wanted very much to be a part of. And I have lived my dream. Now, however, my old friend is very, very sick. In fact, I miss radio as I would miss a very sick or even a dying friend. Years of private equity consolidation and draconian budget cuts have left radio weak and increasingly irrelevant.

Today’s broadcasting companies love to quote big numbers about how much revenue they still bring in, but a quick look under the hood will show that the biggest companies are so overleveraged, they can’t make a profit, even with revenues in the billions. In the most recent fiscal quarter, Clear Channel, Cumulus and CBS Radio made zero profit. At the same time, thousands of talented people have been put out of work, young people are listening less than ever, and as a result, young people don’t think of radio as a future profession any longer.

I believe that radio will continue a long, slow decline, ultimately culminating in billions of dollars of destroyed equity and, in the way that TV went to digital broadcasting and handed back its analog spectrum allocations, I do believe that a day will come when radio content ultimately does en masse what we have just done and moves to IP delivery.

Then, when everyone is on an equal playing field, the best content will win. Some of that may come from the remaining big companies. And some of it definitely won’t.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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