by Mike Kinosian
Granted, it doesn’t quite convey the magnitude of Howard Stern’s “King of All Media” bravado, but “Czar of Talk Radio” is the tongue-in-cheek manner Michael Berry refers to himself. “If President Obama can name a czar for everything, then I’m the ‘Czar of Talk Radio,’” Berry reasons.
The moniker took off when he started it four years ago and Berry has capitalized on it. “Other talk hosts say they wish they branded it before I did.”
Not distributed in major syndicator fashion, Berry is nonetheless cobbling together a modestly growing roster of affiliates for his daily Houston-based talk program.
Making the feat further impressive is that when the now 42-year-old Berry enrolled at the University of Houston, where he would later be elected student body president, his sights were set on being a courtroom lawyer. “I went to the University of Texas School of Law, and I got another law degree in England,” notes Berry, whose weekday talk shows originate from Clear Channel-owned KTRH. “I came back and wanted to practice law.”
Drawn into politics, Berry became Houston’s Mayor pro tem.
As his third, two-year term expired in 2005, Clear Channel approached Berry about becoming a talk host. “I had no idea how rewarding such an experience could be,” he remarks. “I recognized the power to communicate a message. As I was working on things at City Hall, I could see how you could craft a message and get immediate feedback. It was better than a town hall meeting.”
That was how the radio bug bit Berry when he was an adult; however, there was prior history of him becoming hooked. Growing up in southeast Texas, he would ride his bike to a tiny radio facility that played oldies. “They let me pick some of the songs,” he recounts. “I became somewhat of an expert on 1950s and 1960s music. I remember the fascination I had that you could say the phone number and people would call in. It might have been just for a turkey giveaway, but there was an intimate connection.”
Positive introduction to the medium notwithstanding, the notion that Berry would be a radio personality with a national profile is something he finds extremely surprising. “I would have expected a career in 10 other things before radio,” he exclaims. “I didn’t know you could make any money at it and I didn’t look at it as a real job. When I was a kid, I thought people did radio as a hobby. The idea there is a business model behind this passion is almost like cheating. This is what kids do for free.”
Frequent talk show guest Berry transitioned to host when he replaced Glenn Beck in Houston, although Berry declares, “That was 30 days before Glenn went to CNN and he just exploded. We cannot forget that this is a business. A number of syndicated shows do not make a penny for local stations. My show was local and I could talk about local issues.”
Approximately two years after Berry launched his talk show, the operations manager for Clear Channel’s three Houston AM outlets departed. Management approached Berry, indicating they wanted someone outside of radio to assume programming reins for KTRH, talk KPRC, and sports KBME. It was “an experiment” and Berry explains, “If it didn’t work out, I knew I would be fired in six months. They were very clear about that.”
Simultaneous with this internal station activity, Houston was becoming one of the country’s first PPM markets. “Within three months, I knew as much about PPM as anyone else in America,” Berry states. “I learned the radio business more from a programmer’s perspective, as opposed to those who learn it as a [talent-turned-programmer].”
Given carte blanche since day one, Berry was not intimidated by the steep learning curve facing him as a first-time radio programmer. “I was able to ask questions without having to pretend I knew the answers,” he points out. “I told people I didn’t know anything about how to measure shares, quarter-hours, or time spent listening, but I would learn by asking. Legends in the programming world were patient with me because they knew I was not a threat to them.”
Among the multitude of lessons Berry learned was that programmers tended to say shows were good – or bad – based on personal preferences, rather than audience reaction. “I do not eat at McDonald’s or watch NASCAR, but millions of other people do,” he acknowledges. “If there is a market for a product, let it flourish. Network television would not take [AMC's] ‘Mad Men’ or [A&E's] ‘Duck Dynasty,’ but look at the cult following and financial viability those shows have. Radio has to understand there can be room in the space for many different shows: It does not have to be just Rush [Limbaugh] or Sean [Hannity].”
Implementing a number of PPM-related nuts-and-bolts elements he learned such as how to retain listeners through breaks and how to tease topics, Berry’s program took off, prompting him to relinquish programming duties to further his own on-air efforts.
Battling Listener Fatigue
Word spread and Clear Channel vice president/Portland market manager Robert Dove inquired about Berry’s endeavor. “Someone mentioned that I was ‘southern fried,’ but listeners either love me or hate me,” Berry comments.
Three months later, Dove bestowed a go on Berry’s show for Clear Channel, Portland’s KEX, making it his first affiliate. “I went there and nurtured personal relationships,” he explains. “I met local businesspeople and followed Portland politics. Although an unlikely market for us, it is a programming and sales success. From there, it became a lot easier to pick up new markets.”
In addition to speaking to affiliate programmers as often as possible, Berry allocates one week a month for travel. “In the two and a half years my show has been on in Portland, I’ve been there four times,” he points out. “I am trying to replicate small town radio on a case-by-case basis. I do not want to be so removed from listeners that they do not know me. Obviously, that becomes a struggle when you add more markets. My show is provocative and will ruffle some feathers, so I don’t want to homogenize it or dumb it down to the lowest common denominator. [Clear Channel vice president/Houston market manager] Eddie Martiny is my biggest P1 listener and he has really promoted me.”
Qualitative composition is not as much of a concern as the quantitative aspect to Berry, who “would love” to have a “diverse audience of engaged listeners” across a wide spectrum, but he stresses that he is “comfortable” that, “Talk radio skews whiter, older, and more toward men. I do not think we should push older listeners out to bring in younger ones. I am mindful that we have one auditorium to serve people 30 years old [as well as those who are] 80. There is a balance to draw there. Unfortunately, some trade publications attack the fact that talk radio tends to have an older listener base. That does not suggest the death of talk radio – it suggests the maturation process of human beings. The older we get, the more conscious we are of certain matters.”
Sensing there may be fatigue for politics on talk radio, Berry maintains his show is “less political” than what many of his counterparts offer. “When I talk politics, I mean it but I try to connect with people on a base level, rather than on a political level,” he insists. “We may brush across a topic but then connect on a more personal level. I can talk for 15 minutes at a time in my ‘Food Porn’ segments about chicken fried steak and my grandmother’s cornbread. That is how you can broaden your audience and attract more women.”
Southern by nature, Berry hunts, fishes, and is proud of his drawl. “I have not tried to change any of that and I don’t think I should,” he remarks. “There is a fascination about all things southern, including cuisine and music. I do not try to hide where I am coming from or who I am. Audiences got a sense of authenticity from the fact that I am a redneck at heart. Programmers sometimes get it wrong by wanting to make a show in ‘everywhere America’ and that makes it in ‘nowhere America.’ We should celebrate our biases and dialects.”
A major turning point for Berry’s show came when the home of a 93-year-old Marine veteran with two Purple Hearts was destroyed. Making matters even worse, that happened just two weeks after he had buried his wife. “I had him on the air at 8:00 am,” Berry states, “and by 2:00 pm, 60 different contractors were at his house.”
Within three weeks, the man’s property had been completely rebuilt. “It was over $250,000 worth of work and $50,000 in cash donations,” Berry remembers. “More importantly, it brought a community together and gave us a sense that we had made a difference.”
For a three-hour period, the power of radio resembled a radio-thon. “One person called to say he had the flooring – another volunteered the fencing,” Berry notes. “It was an amazing display of community support. People wanted to help and radio was the medium.”
Typically up by 5:30 am, Berry prepares his 8:00 am -11:00 am KTRH broadcast that later airs on KEX (12:00 noon – 3:00 pm). Comedy bits are produced every day and he admits that, “Some are hits and some are stupid.”
After a full day of business meetings and parental chores, he is usually back at KTRH by 4:15pm readying his second show of the day, a two-hour broadcast, that is fed to his other affiliates.
Common thread regarding the station roster – San Antonio’s WOAI, Nashville’s WLAC, Birmingham’s WERC, Albany, New York’s WGY, Baton Rouge’s WJBO, Beaumont, Texas’ KLVI, and Waco, Texas’ KWTX – is that all are Clear Channel-owned talk properties. The other affiliate, Atlanta’s WGST, will pick up Berry’s 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm program when the station returns to talk next month. “I usually call a client, market manager, or PD during my drive home,” the indefatigable Berry remarks.
Dinner with his wife of 21 years and their two sons they adopted from Ethiopia is followed by email correspondence and resetting the preparation process for the next morning’s show. “For exactly 40 years, my dad was a maintenance worker,” points out Berry, who made a meteoric 28-notch jump from #95 on Talkers’ 2012 “Heavy Hundred” to #67 in 2013. “He worked at a job he hated, but what I do is fun. I get to talk to cool people on the radio. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
No other on-air talent has helped Berry more than Mark Levin, of whom Berry explains, “He took an interest in me early on and he has let me guest-host his show dozens of times. When I was under a firestorm for something I said on the air, Sean Hannity reached out to me. I will never forget that he called when I was on vacation in Austin and he walked me through crisis management. He does things like that behind the scenes a lot more than most people realize.”
Regrettably, the industry has a tendency to measure talk radio hosts based on number of affiliates. At least for now though, Berry does not evaluate it that way. “One day we will, hopefully, have a huge footprint, but more than anything, I want to retain complete creative control over a show that people like,” he emphasizes. “Even with technological advancements, I found there is nothing as intimate as the oldest form of media – radio. Talk radio is not background or passive. To this day, I am always mindful when someone talks about my children and my wife as if they know them. That is a constant reminder of this intimate connection that we have with listeners.”