In a past column I wrote for Barrett News Media, I mentioned that some of my best interactions have been with colleagues who oppose most (if not all) of my political views.
Todd Herman is one name that stands out.
The morning man on Seattle’s KTTH-AM and guest host for The Rush Limbaugh Show is a fascinating person who has led a fascinating life. He’s worked for Microsoft, founded startups, and spent time working for the RNC. Yet, his passion for storytelling led him to where he is today.
He’s not your typical conservative talker. He never comes off angry, but instead calm, confidant and curious. When I would challenge him on an issue his first response was not to challenge me back, but to discover why I thought the way I did. His faith drives him to look for the good in people.
I caught up with Todd recently to talk about his work with Limbaugh, the radio industry, and where conservative media is headed.
You earned the very rare opportunity to be one of the regular guest hosts on The Rush Limbaugh Show. What has that experience been like for you?
If you had the opportunity to do fill in work for the person you admire most in your industry what would that be like for you? For me, it caused to me speak a word I had used all once before in my life: “Surreal.” Since I have been honored to fill in for Rush, for a number of years, it’s now a lot of fun. It’s a joy, and that is because of the EIB team and the Rush Limbaugh callers. Being around the show, even as a rodeo clown fill in, I wish more people really got to know what Rush and his team at EIB have built. This is beyond a media company or a radio show; the connection Rush’s listeners feel to him is not a soft bond, it’s a strong bond. What I experience when doing the show, comes partly from what I feel from callers. The EIB team–and, in that, I include Ken Matthews and Mark Steyn, also guest hosts–is an obsessive focus on serving that audience. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves: Rush’s Team has been with him for up to thirty-years! Think of this industry or media in general! Where do teams like that stick together that long, with this much success? I know a little bit about culture and longevity, and the focus on delivering excellence isn’t accidental. What continually strikes me when I work with EIB, is the culture of graciousness. “Bo Snerdley” and Kraig Kitchin have helped me understand when I am at my best as a host and when I drop below my best and they do that with great bedside manners, albeit with two very different personalities. There are people in radio who would be wise to pay to get their feedback (well, we would all be wise to seek that), and I get paid to listen to it and learn from that. So, it’s graciousness and I extend that assessment to all the show people, the finance, show revenue generators, and right back to the foundation: the audience. But even with all that, when the show theme rolls and I hear Johnny Donovan say my name, I am just struck with awe and gratitude that God somehow decided to make this possible, and of course, to my home team in Seattle at 770 KTTH, for giving me a daily platform of weekday mornings.
You have a unique background. You were an executive for Microsoft during the Gates days, you worked in D.C. for the Republican Party and even [founded, lead, and sold] several startups. Most (if not all) of those fields are far more lucrative than radio. Where does your passion for the business come from and why do you still do it?
I love story. I love to tell them and hear them. I am deeply passionate about proper governance and the rule of law. So, as a host, I am blessed to be able to combine these elements into a radio show. I prefer radio to Podcasting, because I crave walking the highwire of live radio, where what occurs to me, as I analyze news, is a split second from landing with my audience, and the stories I tell are directly shared with the people who make possible my career. I adore extemporaneously expressing my thoughts and getting feedback. My love of this all, got fed to me. During my youth, my father would play Paul Harvey and I especially loved “The Rest of The Story.” In my teens, I got the great gift of a lifelong best friend whose father, Gary Taylor was an important radio and music executive. With he and his son, my dearest friend, I was able to learn from Gary’s play by play critique of radio, and you will hear me reference sort of old time FM radio talk, on my local show–“Oh, I hit the post on that bump!”–I adore the mix of those kinds of performance dynamics with more thoughtful moments, things I heard from people like Jim French (a Seattle radio legend) and good-spirited mockery, like Pat Cashman did (another great radio person from Seattle) and I now get to work with a great monologuer, Dori Monson. My life changed forever, though, when I heard Rush Limbaugh, and all of these pieces came together and all wrapped around one man’s opinions, intelligence, wit, and love of the craft; when I heard Rush’s show, I was sold, I had had to do it. I am certainly not comparing myself to these greats, I am just explaining how I came to love this medium.
Given your background in the tech sector, I had to lob you a question on that front! What are the best things radio can do to evolve itself and reach the younger, tech-savvy consumer base?
I have a firm rule, Ryan; old people have no business explaining how to reach young people unless the old folk are speaking from direct observation at scale and in-depth, evidentiary data. So, with those caveats in place, I would hope radio executives are cool hunting beyond apps and gadgets and down to the “why?” What I mean is this: Why does a young person use TikTok for some content and Snapchat for others? Why are so many young people doing their own cool hunting (their own version of A&R) and finding artists before the labels do. For instance, my daughter was listening to Cavetown, there were about 100 people on that YouTube channel. She has done that with a lot of artists, who have gone on to some good level of fame. So, this is still about content, story and relationship and these young people are far more similar to their parents and grandparents than we are led to believe: My daughter has dumped TikTok and now watches long form documentaries and stories, that has happened as she has aged; as I grew up, I listened to less hair metal and more of the Beatles, stopped Hogan’s Heroes and started watching more sophisticated stuff. Beyond that “focus group of one” comparison, consider the YouTube sensations, Dan & Phil. Where did their careers lead them? To a BBC deal and a hugely successful series of live stage shows. I saw both tours of Dan & Phil, and with the notable exceptions related to cultural shifts, these stage shows were good, old fashion shtick, some Joseph Campbell, some Odd Couple, some Vaudeville. So, these “tech savvy” young people–which I would express as “tech culture” young people–bought tickets, stood in line, bought merch, screamed, and cried when the guys came on stage, and then, in Seattle, chased their tour bus in teen hysteria. Is that a tech story? No, it’s a content story and Dan & Phil–who are now guys in their 30’s–built a strong bond with their audience because they adapted to a new aesthetic: They spoke in intimate terms, close up shots, often with no music, to their audience. Sure, Dan & Phil are performers, but they knew their medium well enough, to know when to emote and when to clown.
You and I have very different political views. Despite that, we had some fascinating conversations and always had the ability to, many times, meet each other in the middle. Can that kind of mentality make for good radio?
Could that mentality make good radio? Sure. Can a radio show like that succeed? No and yes. No: not as a new radio show. The Nation has been divided so completely, and these divisions are being inflamed so brilliantly, that I believe a new radio show with left and right cannot work. You will be losing 50% of the audience every few minutes. Yes: if the radio show pre-existed our Nation being divided so expertly. If the audience got to know the hosts before the great divide, then they can love the hosts without regard to the divide. Yes: if the hosts have a solid basis of friendship that pre-dates the great divide, the audience will sense that. Again, we have a model of that: Tom & Curley in Seattle, their show, and their friendship pre-dates the great divide; it’s fun, engaging radio because they are terrific performers, it still works because their audience grew up with them and with Curley, in his 80th year of radio, they stick with him to help him into old age. I said the mentality we share could make good radio. You and I can find a way to respect one another’s views, because I think you and I enjoy honest debate. You are a guy who likes to think about what people tell you, and I am a person who is fascinated with how people think. My faith calls me to have love for people and your nature, I believe, is to find the good in folks, even dangerous, right-wing lunatics like me. These characteristics make for great conversation, and I imagine it could work well in a Podcast where people choose to listen to a Left and Right dynamic and have success. But, not with radio where tune-ins matter.
What is the future of not just conservative talk radio but conservative media? How will it manage to exist and thrive despite the rise of “wokeness” and “cancel culture”?
That depends on how serious the New York Times is about the government having a “reality Czar” who decides what is or is not “true.” It depends on whether the totalitarians at Facebook, Google and Twitter get to continue to disappear us. If CNN hosts get their way, and OANN and NewsmaxTV are stricken from Comcast and Verizon pipes, it will be a hard path. We will have to buy our own servers, our own networks, pipes, and that clearly would take enormous investments. What’s happened in content, though, is fascinating: I firmly believe we are the news media. My audience knew about eight months ago the 35 Cycle PCR tests used to justify the deadly, medically useless, politically targeted lockdowns of schools, churches, and small businesses, were tragically flawed and delivered up to 98% false positives for Covid. Now, the World Health Organization finally admitted these tests are deeply flawed. My audience knew in March of last year, that all of the evidentiary data indicated children are at less risk from Covid than they are from flu; they knew people ages 20 – 40 are more likely to die playing football than from Covid. My audience heard, firsthand, that Hydroxychloroquine was never controversial until CNN manufactured that false reality, and suddenly it’s safe again. Now–as if by magic–we have Democrat politicians demanding schools open. It’s insane in a way, but my little show, Rush’s huge show, Glenn Beck’s program, in Seattle, my great colleague, Dori Monson, we have become the places where people can hear a counter narrative that breaks with what has, in far too many cases, become what I call the Mockingbird Media; shows and hosts who repeat and amplify the talking points of technocrats and leftist government, without a shred of skepticism. I am not claiming some mantle of infallibility, far from it, but in relation to Covid, somehow, we were right from three days after the partial, selective, deadly lockdowns began. So, unless we are disappeared, we will thrive by being the people who are committed to speaking fact and being open about our opinions and biases. However, if Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and CNN and The New York Times get their wish, and conservative news sources are disappeared, then the counter narrative is gone. If that happens, large scale debate is over and with it peaceful dissent. Should those things fall, America is gone. Hopefully, people in our industry with actual power, will not let that happen.
The Cost of “Thoughts”
Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.
The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”
Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”
Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.
The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.
Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.
I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.
On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”
Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.
The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.
Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.
Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.
Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.
Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening.
After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.
I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory.
However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza.
“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”
What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.
Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2005.
For Pags, the media dream started early on.
“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.”
Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.
Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.
“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”
Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.
He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.
No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.
As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart.
“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.”
Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.
His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.”
San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.
“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”
The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”
Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from?
“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”
Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way.
“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”
Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.
Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”
When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said.
“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”
Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”
Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.”
I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.
“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”
He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.
“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”
Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.
“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”
Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things.
“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”
Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.
“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.
“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”
Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge.
“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”
I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat.
The Rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
According to BNM’s Pete Mundo, Ron DeSantis sounds an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
For at least the last six years, the long-standing belief is that talk radio has been the home for Donald Trump sycophants. While I’ve always viewed this as an overly-simplistic analysis of tens of millions of weekly talk radio listeners in this country, it’s fair to say that certainly, from 2015 through 2020; the news talk audience was supportive of the 45th President.
And now, as time goes on, there are signs that the dam is breaking. There’s anecdotal data I can share and then more scientific data to touch on.
This past Monday, I spent one segment of my show saying I would burn through as many calls as I could over 8-9 minutes on Trump or Ron DeSantis to be the 2024 Republican Presidential nominee. I brought this up in the wake of DeSantis’ criticism of Joe Biden’s energy policy from late last week. He sounded an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
Over those 8-9 minutes, I fit in 14 phone calls. Going into it, I told my producers privately that my guess was that the calls would split fairly evenly but probably lean towards Trump.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, we ended up with nine of the 14 callers in favor of DeSantis, with five going for Trump.
Then there was some interesting polling this week. One poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire found DeSantis edging out Trump 39 percent to 37 percent. The most telling fact about the New Hampshire poll is that while DeSantis leads Trump by just two points overall, he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and among conservative radio listeners by 16 points.
As is always the case, one poll should not be viewed as an absolute, but there are clear signs that Donald Trump’s stranglehold over Republican voters is waning. And from my perspective, it’s waning faster than I expected.
Politics move fast. One day you’re hot; the next day, not so much. And to see DeSantis rise this quickly when all the focus is on Joe Biden and the 2022 midterms, not the Republican primary in 2024, makes this poll even more surprising.
And while I have no interest in getting ahead of myself, talk radio is likely to be the battleground for this issue if and when it does ultimately come to fruition. Talk radio is obviously far more interactive than cable news. Callers, texters, and Facebook/Twitter users can all be participants and have their perspectives shared with thousands of listeners at any given time.
And if those most in tune with the news cycle of the moment find themselves shifting to someone like Ron DeSantis, then the run-of-the-mill Republican voter is likely to follow suit when the time comes.
But, if we do end up getting a Trump vs. DeSantis primary, then 2024 could end up making 2016 look like child’s play. But I’ll stop here because, once again, I’m not looking to get ahead of myself.