Thom Hartmann is one of the most recognized voices of progressive talk in the country and probably one of the most intelligent. His weekly show is syndicated by Pacifica and is heard on SiriusXM and terrestrial radio, including KPFK in Los Angeles, the largest FM in the U.S.
His noon-3 p.m. eastern eponymous program features Hartmann’s look at the news of the day from a progressive perspective.
The show was quick to adapt to the pandemic in 2020, having a live set-up for remotes, but Hartmann brought it into his home and upgraded to commercial-grade Internet.
Hartmann returned to the studio after a year, but adds “we’re being very careful.”
Even though his talk show started in 2003, it’s safe to say Hartmann is a radio lifer. He’s been on the air dating back to the late 1960s.
The seed was planted as a child.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got really into electronics,” Hartmann told BNM.
It quickly became more than a hobby for the budding broadcaster, who got a 100-milliwatt transmitter kit. He hooked it up to a turntable in his parent’s living room.
“[I] created a radio station for the five houses nearby where three of my friends lived,” Hartmann said.
By the time he was 13, Hartmann had his ham radio license. Still a teenager, Hartmann’s first radio gig was as a weekend country music disc jockey at WITL in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan. He was just 16 years old, the same age he started college.
Hartmann also took to radio at Michigan State University.
There were a handful of stations in Lansing for Hartmann to “spin the hits.” Eventually, he returned to WITL, evolving to newscasting for the next seven years.
However, in 1978, he left the state and radio to concentrate on a co-owned small business.
“I’ve been a serial entrepreneur,” he said.
Other fields would follow, including founding an advertising firm and launching a travel agency.
Hartmann would find his legendary voice with an op-ed piece in 2003 indicating progressive talk radio was a viable business mode.
“That became the first business plan for Air America radio,” he said. “There were still a lot of skeptics out there and I wanted a proof of concept.”
Living in Vermont at the time, Hartmann got a radio station in Burlington to let him do a couple of hours on Saturdays to test his theory.
“America is 50-50, Democratic, Republican, and talk radio is not an intrinsically or inherently political medium,” he said. “It’s just a tool. It’s neutral.”
Within six months his show was picked up by a national network—now defunct I.E. America Radio—owned by the United Auto Workers in Detroit. More than two dozen stations formed the initial group of affiliates for Hartmann’s broadcast, and Sirius, where he remains to this day.
During his time away from radio, Hartmann started a community for abused children in New Hampshire. His wife Louise spearheaded the project that was “designed to blow up the big institutional model of how children were too badly damaged to foster care,” whose only options were “children’s jails or state mental hospitals,” he said.
That led to a 1978 school for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Hartmann wrote books about psychology, including best sellers on ADHD.
He got himself officially on the roster of psychotherapists in the state of Vermont.
“It was more like a professional credential than a way of making a living,” Hartmann recalled.
Although he supervised the clinical staff, Hartmann said he never practiced as a therapist.
The program lasted into the 21st century.
That love of electronics helped cut corners for Hartmann, who could assemble a studio in his living room for his show in Vermont.
When Air America began, the largest affiliate (KPOJ), located in Portland, Oregon, asked if he’d do the national show there and a local morning show specifically for them.
His youngest daughter had already moved to Oregon, so, Thom and Louise moved and were joined by all of their children. Hartmann still broadcasts from Portland.
While liberal radio is not the prevailing popular choice among the masses, some on the left side have broken through. Alan Berg was one Denver host, heard on KOA and across 29 stations. He was murdered in 1984 by a neo-Nazi, the basis for the film Talk Radio.
Michael Jackson, who died earlier this month, also found success with his liberal views.
“Progressive radio has deep roots,” Hartmann said. “It has been around a long time, but nobody had really done it nationally like [Rush] Limbaugh had.”
Time for TV
Although Hartmann would be part of the Air America lineup, “I never chose to be an employee. I always owned my own show.”
Hartmann hosted a daily, one-hour program, The Big Picture. He took it to Washington for the RT news network when Barack Obama went to the White House. The international broadcaster also hired Larry King and Ed Schultz to build a quality television network.
But when Donald Trump got elected, RT, formerly known as Russia Today, took an active role in supporting the new president.
“The summer of 2017 I exercised a 90-day early termination clause in my contract and went back home to Portland,” Hartmann said. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot about doing TV from it.”
His radio show does continue to simulcast on TV through Free Speech TV on Dish Network, DirectTV and numerous cable systems.
“Probably between one third and one half of my calls are coming from Free Speech TV and YouTube,” Hartmann said.
His show is not currently heard in New York City, although he was on WBAI in the past.
But with internal strife at WBAI, Hartmann said the station has “devolved into a disaster scenario.”
Despite being a leading progressive talker, the country’s airwaves are predominantly filled with right-wing narratives.
Hartmann pointed to President Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act in 1996, lifting the cap of stations by an owner.
Clear Channel and Cumulus grew exponentially following the government’s ruling.
“Ownership of these stations was pretty overtly conservative,” Hartmann said.
Beyond that, the longtime progressive host has seen it firsthand: “Radio, as a whole, is a very conservative industry.”
He said that does not refer to politics, but the cautious nature within the business.
“No program director ever got fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air,” Hartmann said. “When something’s a winner, everybody wants to jump on it. But nobody wants to take chances, and nobody wants to be the outlier.”
Radio faces a challenge from online platforms and podcasting becomes a more accessible option for listeners to find their content.
But Hartmann isn’t worried about the future of his beloved business.
“Most radio is consumed in people’s cars,” he said. “Radio is still alive, well and strong in rural parts of America, and in cities where you have long commutes.”
However, in the smaller towns where people aren’t staying in vehicles for long stretches, “radio’s dying,” he said.
Not only does Hartmann welcome listeners and guests from the other side of the aisle, he
encourages it, but admitted it is getting harder to find conservatives to engage in debate.
“It’s damn near impossible,” he said.
As for right-wing-slanted callers, Hartmann doesn’t shy away from them either.
“If a conservative caller calls into the show, someone wants to disagree with me about something, they go to the front of the line,” he said.
As a ratings ploy, Hartmann said those interactions are the drama listeners enjoy.
“But people aren’t really fully informed about an issue until they’ve heard a couple of different sides of it,” Hartmann said.
Prior to the pandemic, Hartmann would make it a point to listen to his conservative brethren.
“I loved to listen to Michael Savage and Mark Levin. I listened to Limbaugh for years,” he said. “I’m a big fan of talk radio. I also learn from it. Not just politics; a lot of my radio technique I learned from listening to Limbaugh and Michael Savage, in particular, who, in terms of politics, he’s nuts, but in terms of radio he’s a genius.”
Thom Hartmann Program
Hartmann has used their template for creating his host-driven show, building a relationship with the listeners by sharing his opinions each day.
He typically highlights the top handful of topics and a 10–15-minute rant with as much information and his views will follow. Hartmann will then take as many calls as necessary on the given topic, usually resetting at the top or bottom of the hour.
“We keep the whole thing fairly tightly focused,” Hartmann said. “My show’s only as good as the host.”
Hartmann said liberal hosts need to move away from just doing interview radio, because host-driven is “the most popular medium,” and doing it effectively means “willing to be absolutely honest with your audience and yourself.”
It was Hartmann’s first mentor, Chuck Mefford, former owner at WITL, who told his protégé, “In radio, when you open that microphone there’s only one person on the other side.”
But on the same side, listeners will find Randy Rhodes and Stephanie Miller are among the other progressive stars. Still, Hartmann knows his competition comes from conservative talkers.
“Frankly, I think most people, if they listen to good talk radio, can really get into it,” Hartmann said. “It’s just there’s not that much good talk radio out there anymore. Now a lot of it is just screaming and yelling.”
Hartmann’s midday slot is also home to Buck Sexton and Clay Travis for Premiere Networks, and Dan Bongino on Westwood One.
“I used to debate [Bongino] almost every week when I was in D.C. But not anymore,” Hartmann laughed. “He’s a big deal now.”
He doesn’t think the loss of Limbaugh will make a difference in his audience. Instead, he’s certain the Trump presidency had a better impact. Show hosts historically perform better when an opposing party is in office, acting as the de facto foe.
Hartmann, though, has no problem criticizing a Democrat, including the 46th president.
“I will criticize Joe Biden when I think he’s doing something wrong or stupid,” he said.
Like Biden, Hartmann is a septuagenarian, but has no plans of retiring.
“I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m not that old yet. My brain still works really well,” he said. “I think engaging in the scrum on a daily basis is one of the things that keeps it working.”
Radio is a Sick Patient In Need of Surgery
“Fewer people listening for less time is a dangerous combination and should be a flashing red light that dramatic action is necessary.”
If you didn’t participate in Jacobs’ TechSurvey or see the presentation of the results, you missed radio’s annual “physical” report. With the permission and help of Fred Jacobs and Jacobs Media, this column reviews highlights (and lowlights) from the data. Jacobs Media has also provided some data specific to News/Talk fans.
When I get data, I write, a lot. Perhaps I use too many numbers? If you don’t like a lot of numbers, I’ve made it easy to find my conclusions and recommendations. You’ll find those paragraphs in bold and italics.
The results are based on over 30,000 online surveys. There are nearly 5,000 News/Talk format fans in the study. Most respondents came from radio stations’ databases. Therefore, the results tend to show radio in its most favorable light.
First, we turn briefly to the RAB website, which shows Nielsen data with Radio’s Weekly Reach consistently at 92 or 93 percent of persons 12+ from 2009 through 2013. From 2014 to 2016, the figure dropped to 91%, then to 90% in 2017. Weekly Reach fell to 89% in 2018 and 2019. The cliff came in 2020 when the percentage plunged to 83%. The most recent data suggests it will hold steady for at least another year.
Jacobs TechSurvey 2022 shows that the amount of time spent with radio is dropping among those who remain. The number listening to radio for an hour or more on a typical day has steadily eroded from 92% in 2018 to 86% this year. Again, this is among people who are in radio station databases.
Fewer people listening for less time is a dangerous combination and should be a flashing red light that dramatic action is necessary.
TechSurvey tracks the percentage of people with a radio in their homes. The number has consistently shrunk, from 88% in 2018 to 81% this year.
The device known as “a radio “is also in fewer people’s homes and consciousness. This finding has profound implications for broadcast radio.
Twelve percent (12%) of total respondents say they are listening to radio less. Half of those spending less time listening say it is because they are in the car less. Similarly, 48% are listening less because of “lifestyle changes.” During the TechSurvey webinar, Fred Jacobs pointed out that Covid affects these levels. Before the pandemic, “less time in the car” consistently received about 30%. Last year it jumped to 71%. At 50%, Jacobs concluded, “we’re not back to normal yet.”
Less time in the car during Covid and lifestyle changes are not actionable but important to keep in mind. Still, the impact of technology and management decisions is clear.
Among those listening less:
- 33% say it’s because they have more audio options in the car,
- 26% report it is because they use their mobile phones or apps more.
- 21% mention listening to Sirius XM instead.
- 19% are spending more time with Podcasts or on-demand content.
The new reality is these technologies are the competition. Each one is a reason why broadcasters must produce better content than ever.
- 27% state too many commercials are why they listen less.
- 20% say they are not enjoying the programming.
Radio broadcasters cannot afford to make short-term programming decisions in today’s hyper-competitive environment. At the risk of preaching to the choir, loading up on low-rate commercials may drag a station, cluster, or company over the finish line for the month, but the long-term damage to the entire industry is immeasurable. The same is true about hanging on to shows that, you know (deep down inside), lack star power. Anything less than “error-free” is a suicide trap.
TechSurvey 2022 draws attention to the audio options consumers have in the car. The data also shows that these options are becoming increasingly easy to access.
Eight out of ten (80%) who own a smartphone and spend time in a vehicle can connect the phone to their car. The percentage who can connect their phone and vehicle has steadily risen from 73 in 2018 to 80%.
The numbers for those who will connect their phones and vehicles will undoubtedly rise. The data shows that 12 or 13% plan to buy a new car annually. This year, Bluetooth (76%) overtook FM Radio (70%) as the most important feature new car buyers want (last year, FM Radio led 74 to 73 percent). AM Radio is an important feature for just 33%.
Increasing numbers now have full audio entertainment systems or “connected cars.” Between 2018 and 2022, the number of connected cars rose from 24% to 30%. We should expect that number to increase by several percentage points every year.
Connected cars don’t bode well for AM/FM radio listening. TechSurvey asks respondents to estimate what percentage of time they spend listening to AM/FM Radio in the car. Since 2018 the number has steadily gotten lower, dropping from 62 to 56% overall. However, among those with connected cars, the time spent with AM/FM radio drops to 47%. A positive finding for News/Talk stations is format fans still devote 61% of their time to AM/FM listening,
Technology is changing how people tune in to radio, not just in the car but also at home and work. Participants estimate how much time they spend listening to their favorite station on various platforms in a typical week. Tuning in via a “traditional” radio accounts for 61% of respondents’ listening time. They spend 35% of their time with digital delivery methods (Computer stream – 17%, Mobile apps – 8%, smart speakers – 6%, podcasts – 4%). In 2013 85% of listening was through traditional radios, with 14% digitally. Today it’s traditional 61%, digital 35%. News/Talk format fans are slightly more likely to listen on traditional radios (65% vs. 31% digital).
Fewer people have radios, and less listening is on “traditional” devices. As people listen more on other devices, they increase their options. Again, radio must play “error-free.” Mistakes aren’t just an invitation to punch and see what the competition is doing. An error is an opportunity for the consumer to flip the game board over and play a different game.
The Jacobs presentation notes: “Mobile devices and apps continue their amazing growth trajectory.” Among P1 listeners who stream, they use the stations’ website less (68% – 65% – 61%), and its mobile app more (42% – 46% – 48%) since 2020. Further, station fans are aware of and downloading station apps in increasing numbers. It probably shouldn’t surprise anybody because of who is in the sample, but the P1 stations’ own app is the most downloaded radio or music app. What may surprise some is iHeartRadio at just 32% and Audacity below 9%.
I believe using aggregate apps exclusively for local radio stations is a colossal blunder. I understand the corporate sales philosophy. The revenue results suggest that using aggregate apps is not the answer to combat the revenue of the others on the chart. Many radio stations have spent decades building a brand. Creating new aggregated app brands merely allows the other names on the chart the time to bloom (excuse the pun). Long ago, my friend Pierre Bouvard drilled into my head that changing images is like melting icebergs with a Bic lighter. Aggregate radio apps are Climate Change for radio.
TechSurvey asks the reasons why people listen to AM/FM radio. The top three reasons:
- Easiest to listen to in a car: 65%. Here’s an advantage radio has had but is rapidly losing.
- DJs/Shows/Hosts: 62%. This year, a major finding is that among all respondents, personalities have become more important than music.
- It’s Free: 59%.
We look here specifically at News/Talk listeners compared to the entire survey:
Among News/Talk format fans, staying informed about news leaps ahead of all other answers, including: “easiest to listen to in the car” (4th 57%) and even “enjoy the talk shows” (second at 67%).
TechSurvey suggests information elements are a critical part of the mix to these listeners, even among talk show fans.
Following “enjoy talk shows” is a more specific mention of hosts and personalities (61%).
More than half (54%) of News/Talk fans say they listen to AM/FM radio to find out “what’s going on locally.” In the overall sample, 35% list local as a reason for listening to AM/FM radio.
Local is a potent weapon for managers and programmers of News/Talk Radio stations. Local should be kept in mind when making personnel, topic, strategy, and promotional decisions.
I believe one of the advantages that radio should have over the new digital options is brand equity and heritage. These ideas show up in statements such as “feel a connection with radio” and “in the habit of listening.”
Talk Radio fans report both branding measures below the overall average (“Habit” 54% overall vs. 45% among News/Talk fans and “connection” 51% for the total compared with 48% for News/Talk fans).
The lower scores on these measures suggest that, overall, News/Talk stations need to work on appointment building, listening occasions, and strengthening the relationship between the station and listeners.
Thanks, Fred and everyone at Jacobs Media, for doing the hard work and running News/Talk data for us. I encourage as many stations as possible to participate in next year’s TechSurvey. Your data will drive better decisions.
If this was a patient, say Mr. or Ms. Radio, and the TechSurvey 2022 data were the results from a physical, we would conclude that we had a very sick person. We might call it an emergency. Please, while there still is a pulse.
Todd Starnes Uses the Quirky Side of Life to Bring Both Sides Together
“I infuse my national show with a lot of humor. We try to take a look at the quirky side of life, bring both sides together,” Starnes said
Todd Starnes was an embedded reporter in the final six weeks of Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. He’s respected, vociferous, and holds his beliefs close to his heart. But don’t offer him any raw fish.
“The Obama campaign was notorious for being a very health-conscious group,” Starnes said. “On the plane, they served us sushi. When I wasn’t eating it, the flight attendant noticed and came up to me to ask what was wrong. I told her they forgot to cook the fish.”
He was joshing, but he certainly would have preferred a traditional southern Memphis dish like fried catfish and hushpuppies.
Starnes said Jen Psaki traveled with him on the Obama campaign. “We had a lot of fun talking a few times. Valerie Jarrett was there too,” Starnes explained. “We had a rigorous discussion about the difference between gumbo and jambalaya. We found the main difference was the use of rice.”
Starnes is an American conservative commentator, author, and radio host. He has appeared on Fox and Friends and Hannity. In June 2017, Starnes began hosting a syndicated talk radio show on Fox News Radio.
Starnes joined Fox News Channel in 2005 as a radio news anchor. He said the world today is operating beneath an umbrella of chaos. “Under our form of government, whether you’re Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or atheist, you have a right to live your life,” Starnes said that can’t be said for other countries.
He said separation of church and state is not in the Constitution of the United States. “We are endowed by our creator, not mankind’s laws. We have God-given rights. That’s why religion is ingrained in every one of our founding documents. That’s where they were coming from. Look at what’s happening in the world without that order. We were meant to be a Christian nation,” Starnes said. “Under Judeo Christian philosophy, God doesn’t force your decisions.”
He says it’s all a version of the truth. “What happens when your truth conflicts with my truth? What takes precedence?”
On the lighter side, his entry into radio started with a gift. “My grandpa gave me a transistor radio when I was young,” Starnes said. “I remember listening to WWLin Lousianna. Stations in Cincinnati. I was fascinated by radio.”
Starnes said he always had his radio with him as a ten-year-old kid. Cassette tapes were all the rage. “I ran my own talk show,” he said. “I was the host, the guest, and the crew. It was really out there. It was a lot of fun.”
Unfortunately, low ratings doomed the ambitious ten-year-old’s show, and he had to go back to fourth grade.
“On my imaginary show, I talked about your traditional southern life, great experiences,” he said. “We lived close to the Mississippi River.” The ghosts of Mark Twain and Huck Finn undoubtedly played a role in his literary development.
Starnes was in college during the Limbaugh years and said he learned a lot from listening. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next. I’m on during the lunch hour from 12-3, and we talk about the crazy issues of the day. That doesn’t mean we always know where it’s going.”
He loved radio so much he bought a radio station during a pandemic. This is something Starnes admitted was a little crazy.
“If there’s ever a question on Jeopardy about who was stupid enough to buy a radio station during a pandemic, the answer would be, ‘Who is Todd Starnes.’”
Why did he buy a radio station? Starnes said corporate radio did a number on local radio.
“We had these rich heritage stations in Memphis,” Starnes said. “I was driving on the road when severe weather broke out. The streets were flooded, power towers were down. It was second nature to tune in to the ‘local’ station when severe weather hit. They were in Fox programming. No mention of the dangerous weather.”
After the clouds dissipated, Starnes told himself if he ever had a chance to purchase a radio station, he would.
A month later, he got a phone call from Legacy Media. The owner said if Starnes was ever interested in buying a station, they should talk. That conversation convinced Starnes to purchase the Memphis talk station 990 AM KWAM for $685,000. It’s now the flagship station for Starnes’ radio show.
Prior to purchasing the station, Starnes sought counsel from friends. He put the deal together quickly, and business has been phenomenal.
“I was told the first thing I should do is steal the competition’s garden show. We did.”
The garden folks weren’t happy where they were, and Starnes made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“I told them they’d be treated like royalty, and I’d double what the other station was paying them.”
When I reminded Starnes that might not be the ‘Christian’ thing to do, he reminded me we should ‘Do Unto Others.” He was joking…I think
Starnes has written numerous books, including The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again and God Less America.
“I love the product after the writing,” Starnes jokes. “Editors may not feel the same way. I’ll outline everything and often start with a phrase I’ve heard, some sort of clever anecdote.”
Starnes said he was influenced by the writings of southern humorist Lewis Grizzard and sardonic Irma Bombeck, who achieved success with her newspaper syndication. He said he had to be discreet when he indulged her columns.
“If someone in junior high had caught me reading Irma Bombeck, it wouldn’t have been pretty.”
Molly Ivins, a liberal columnist from Texas, was also on his list of influences.
“She once called George W. Bush a shrub,” Starnes explained. “Then there was Art Buchwald, a fine-tuned satirist.” Buchwald appeared to some as a curmudgeonly writer. “Buchwald was a friendly, affable person,” Starnes said. “I’m kind of a curmudgeon.”
Starnes admitted the differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t always that big of a chasm, then again.
“We’re living in such an odd time,” he said. “Something nefarious is happening. I know a lot of liberals are true patriots; they love their country. They are dead-wrong on issues.”
Some of these incendiary sentiments are echoed in Starnes’ book, Cultural Jihad: How to Stop the Left from Killing a Nation. In the book, Starnes accuses progressives of bulldozing through American history. He goes on to say ‘We the People’ are the only ones who can stop them. He says America is on the verge of another Civil War; socialism is on the rise. Free Speech is under assault. People of Faith are facing persecution. Gun owners are in the crosshairs.
“Progressives are turning our history into a pile of rubble,” Starnes said. “That kind of thing concerns me as a free speech purist. It’s all a cancel culture mob. They dug up the body of a confederate general and tore down his stature. Are they going to tear Harvard down because one of the founders owned a slave a hundred years ago?”
On an even lighter side, you wouldn’t think a man like Starnes would be into radical comedy.
“I love Dave Chappele,” Starnes said. “I love his sense of humor, his presentation. He takes on culture issues of the day. And he’s spot-on.”
Starnes said we need more humor on the whole. “I infuse my national show with a lot of humor. We try to take a look at the quirky side of life, bring both sides together.”
And he believes that’s possible. “There is hope for us as America,” Starnes said. “I’ve had the chance to travel all over the nation and speak to thousands of people every year. What I talk about is not based on a political party. It comes from a higher source.”
Starnes is a frequent speaker at churches, Christian conferences, and Christian universities. He has delivered messages at the Ronald Reagan Ranch, the Billy Graham Training Center. Visiting Starnes’ early days, he said he was a follower of William F. Buckley. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan. “They framed the conservative movement,” he said. “It is a religious battle. On my show, we talk about matters of faith, morality. If we don’t have a shared value, morality, you have the chaos we see today.” He said Buckley, Reagan, and Goldwater would be very happy with the way things have swayed. “Let’s Make America Great Again was a Reagan campaign slogan. Trump borrowed from that.” Is he saying we need to make new red hats that read LMAGA?
Starnes said there’s no need to worry; talk radio will be around for a very long time.
“You get to call in with your opinion. Share your opinion, have a conversation. You never know where it’s going to go, what they’re going to say. You don’t get that on television. You can’t really capture that on a podcast.”
Starnes also issues a word of caution. “Talk radio isn’t supposed to be three hours of screaming,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. As far as the hosts, he says being authentic is critical. “Don’t be something you’re not. If you do, you’ll fall flat on your face.”
Hopefully, into a big plate of catfish and hushpuppies.
News/Talk AM 1130’s Drew Lee Just Wants To Understand and Help His Colleagues
Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic.
In radio, your most vital partner in life might be your co-host. You do spend an incredible amount of time in a cramped room, sharing ideas over mediocre coffee and talking about life experiences. It’s a lot like a marriage, without the laundry and dirty dishes.
Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic. “That’s what the company wants from us,” Drew Lee said. “On AM, it’s a little wider, maybe 35-64 as a target audience.”
“Jon Justice was my morning host in Tucson, Arizona,” Lee continued. “I think the best thing about Jon is his attention to detail,” Lee said. “His attention to detail when putting the show together. He’s meticulous with his prep.” Lee said Justice reads every word of every story, finding nuggets in mundane stories to talk about on the air
Off the air, not Mr. Excitement.
“Jon is like a brother, but there is one thing that irritates me. He’s such a homebody,” Lee jokes. “It’s impossible to get him out of the house. I’d like to see us get the show out more often to events, openings.”
Lee said he’s definitely an extrovert, and he has no hesitation having fun with Justice and himself. “It’ll be six years this summer we’ve been together, and we’re still having a good time,” Lee said.
The duo start out topical, addressing the big points of the day in news. “Those are obviously going to get our attention first,” Lee said. “We don’t want to drag something on for three hours; that’s just overwhelming for an audience.”
Lee said he and Justice don’t find they’re delivering their best shows in an angry vein. “It’s best when we have fun,” Lee said. “I try to figure out what’s in Jon’s wheelhouse. I do work hard to sprinkle in any reference to the Marvel cinematic Universe.”
Now we’re starting to see what makes Lee click.
Lee is also a big Star Wars fan. Not as big as Justice, but still big. Lee said he’s always been motivated by Monty Python. Lee referenced a Monty Python documentary on Netflix. Monty Python, Almost the Truth. The Lawyer’s Cut.
“It’s a six-part series,” Lee explained. “I’ve always loved Python. We were just talking about Monty Python on the air today. I remember in drama class; I lifted Python material all the time.”
As a kid, Lee said he knocked heads in football, on defense, and offense. “I was huge into sports,” he said. “I wanted to be a Miami Dolphin. I played football in high school in Ocala, Florida. I wrestled as well.”
He admits he rode the pines a lot in football, but that didn’t deter his love for contact sports. “I’m a big guy. I love physicality. As a lineman, I enjoyed practice. Hitting. In wrestling, it was all about imposing your will on the other guy, tossing him around.”
Perhaps that’s why he enjoys ‘wrestling’ with Justice on the air. Outside of the wrestling match, Lee said he didn’t mix it up much. “I was only in a ‘real’ fight once in my life. There were a couple of punches thrown; then we were pulled apart.”
Other than sports, Lee said he spent a lot of time reading. “Ocala is a very rural area. If I wasn’t wrestling, we were lighting a bonfire, chasing beer and girls.
(See Jesse Kelly story for a similar youth.)
Kelly’s on-air work has resonated with Lee. “He’s fearless,” Lee explained. “He will say some stuff on the air that just blows me away. It’s nice to see talk show hosts that aren’t afraid to talk and sometimes put their foot in their mouths.” Lee said people that are willing to push the envelope are always welcome. Lee said he’s happy Kelly has enjoyed success. “I just wish we’d have grabbed on to his coattails,” he jokes.
Lee was delivering pizza in Florida and attending an audio recording vocational school. “I wanted to be a music producer,” he said. While delivering pizzas, he listened to WTKS 104.1 FM in Cocoa Beach.
Jim Phillips hosted afternoons on WTKS-FM from 1992 to 2018. Phillips worked in the Orlando market since 1972, first as a news reporter
“I also listened to Russ and Bo on WTKS,” Lee said. “They were very similar to Howard Stern. They became the “Monsters in the Morning,” and still have a podcast on IHeartRadio.”
Rus and Bo were looking for an intern, and Lee answered the call. “I drove to Orlando and applied, got it,” Lee said. “Apparently, I was the only person who applied.”
His duties on the show were a bit of everything. Cleaning up, booking guests, whatever was necessary. That morphed into a weekend gig for about a year.
He welcomed his first daughter, and radio wasn’t paying the bills, so Lee took some time off. The lure of radio called him back at WSKY FM in Gainesville.
“The Sky was a conservative news and talk station,” Lee said. “It still is. I was hired as a board-op, then morning show producer. Six months later, I was PD.”
His new job demanded about 80 hours a week, Lee said. “A good PD must have the ability to listen. Get the best out of the people you have, then put them in situations where you maximize their strengths.”
Understanding the people that work for him was his primary goal. “I might chew one guy out and be gentle with another,” Lee said. “It’s especially that way with talent. You have to find those ‘buttons’ to press. Some people like a combative relationship. They like to shake hands and move on.”
Still others, Lee said you have to coax things out of them. “Everyone has insecurities, flaws, strengths. Part of being a good manager is understanding that.”
Lee said his personality as a PD and on-air host includes trying to see the other person’s side. “I don’t like people trying to convince me of something I don’t believe,” he said. “At the same time, I respect what they believe. I’m going to assume a person has put some thought into their beliefs. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have a relationship with anybody.”
Covid did a lot of nasty things, including kill a pretty cool podcast Lee had going. It was called Minnesota Beercast.
“I started that show because I witnessed all the beer taprooms popping up just about everywhere,” Lee said. “We’d do remotes from the brewery. We’d talk almost exclusively about beer. Sometimes the brewing process. Other times we talked about food, wine, and spirits.”
What’s the future hold for Justice & Drew?
“We don’t talk about the future a lot,” Lee said. “I’d say five years ago; my big dream would have been syndication, to be distributed more widely.”
He said that goal has dwindled a bit over the past couple of years. However, with today’s technology, he can be heard almost anywhere. “We’ve got listeners all over the country, from New York to California,” Lee said. “I find that amazing. Here we are, this little Minnesota-centric show growing an audience at the national level. I’m excited about where we’re going organically. People seem to be gravitating to our content, telling friends about it. I want to see how far we can take this fun little morning show.”