Rush Limbaugh was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in February 2020, but it wasn’t until the broadcasting giant died a year later that Premiere Networks had to finally act on the immeasurable void in the industry and, specifically, its midday slot.
Rush’s program continued on with “Best of” shows, but behind-the-scenes plans were taking hold for Limbaugh’s successor.
In May, Premiere announced Clay Travis and Buck Sexton would join forces to co-host the 12p-3p ET slot. Their program debuted on Monday June 21st.
“Nobody can fill Rush’s shoes,” Sexton told BNM. “But Clay took one shoe, and I took the other.”
“You’re stepping into the role of a legend,” added Travis during a separate interview with BNM. “Simultaneously, you can’t be held hostage by the past.”
Sexton was already entrenched in conservative media, filling in for Limbaugh many times during the last decade. Travis, though, was hosting morning drive on Fox Sports Radio, and growing his presence with OutKick, and FS1.
“It hasn’t been that hard for me because so much of sports became political,” Travis said. “There was a decent amount of political analysis over the past several years. The storylines [and] the issues have not changed.”
Having a built-in audience helped, but Clay and Buck exceeded their own expectations, tops in several markets including Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Memphis and Sacramento (Limbaugh’s former flagship KFBK).
“To be number one is pretty wild,” Travis admitted. “We set a new podcast record [and] one of the two or three biggest in all of iHeart.”
Although the hosts are bringing new blood to the show–Travis is 42, Sexton is 39–they have a strong work ethic and fresh approach to keeping the three-hour block entertaining and informative for listeners.
“I think it speaks to how important the issues that [Limbaugh] talked about were and how committed the audience is to Rush’s world view,” Travis said.
“In some level the pressure’s off, at least in our minds, because Rush was so widely renowned, not just the most talented in the format, but someone who really built the format in many ways,” Sexton added.
Despite being a Limbaugh relief host on numerous occasions, Sexton acknowledged he never met or spoke to Rush. The Limbaugh influence on Sexton came as millions of others listened to the radio titan.
No Training Wheels
While “Clay and Buck” may have their own take on the issues important to the majority of the audience, the Limbaugh lineage is present with his former staff staying behind to forge a future with Travis and Sexton.
“It’s an incredible honor to his legacy,” shared Travis.
It was Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, who had the foresight to team Sexton and Travis on the 400+ stations.
“We had our own solo shows, so there were probably thousands of hours of us out there. Julie managed us and was both of our bosses,” Travis said. “There were no training wheels here.”
“Clay is a great talent, a true professional [and] a super smart guy,” Sexton said of his co-host. “We’re both sort of put in this position…We’re both going to make it happen.”
Both hosts are proud of the show’s performance over the opening six months.
“I think we’re doing one of the best radio shows that exists anywhere in the country,” Travis said.
While it was direct ascent to the coveted show for Sexton, Travis had to switch formats to make it work. However, regardless of the format or topic, once you are consciously aware of what you are trying to be, “I think that filters into your own authenticity,” said Travis.
The OutKick founder places Limbaugh and Howard Stern as the greatest of the generation, who “consistently educate and entertain their audience in a way that’s better than almost anybody out there.
While Sexton and Travis may have come from different avenues, each enjoying success as solo performers, it’s their connection as a team that’s made the difference.
“It certainly takes a bit of a change of pace,” said Sexton. “You have to get used to the rhythms of having a co-host.”
Since Sexton and Travis have found their best way to format the lunchtime show, listeners will be without the dramatics. There’s no fist-pounding or screaming for controversies.
“We’re both providing different insights, but also a more conversational and relaxed feel,” shared Sexton. “We really want everyone listening to the show to feel like they’re the third person sitting at the table.”
The tandem also has other projects keeping them busy. Travis remains heavily involved with OutKick, the brand he founded, which produces a mixture of sports, news, gambling, and pop culture content. Sexton meanwhile remains connected to television, hosting a daily one-hour show on The First, a conservative digital network.
“It’s good to keep those TV skills sharp and have that opportunity to reach additional audiences beyond the radio show,” Sexton said.
The duo has not shied away from topics that hit nerves and resonate with most, especially the pandemic and mask mandates. Sexton, a former CIA analyst who spent time as a consultant for CNN, was quick to criticize his former employer and its recent decision to fire Chris Cuomo.
“I do not believe CNN is running a journalistic enterprise. I think CNN is running a propaganda enterprise under the guise of journalism. That means that their ethics, such as they are, are highly dependent on situations that benefit them,” explained Sexton. “So they’re very ethically flexible, I think we could say. The fact that CNN didn’t take action against Cuomo earlier on isn’t surprising to me at all. Eventually, it just became too embarrassing for them.”
Some have suggested, given the sexual harassment allegations that, in part, led to Cuomo’s demise, the cable outlet should hire a woman for that prime-time hour.
“It’s not that they need a woman in that time slot; their problem is: What is CNN?” Sexton contends. “Is this an objective news network? Jake Tapper presents himself as an objective journalist. To anyone who knows his work and certainly how he also operates behind the scenes—that’s fraudulent. That’s just dishonest.”
To make the most effective radio, the hosts drill down on the issues together to find the most pressing area for focus. Sexton’s CIA background has provided great training for navigating the broadcasting business.
“Taking in a tremendous amount of information and figuring out what makes sense, what makes a difference, what matters, that in many ways is the quintessential prep skill for a radio host” said Sexton.
Travis on the other hand started practicing law, after graduating from Vanderbilt University. He then ventured into writing, and local radio before arriving on the national circuit.
Though they go out of their way to bring facts to the forefront and see many things in a similar light, Clay and Buck do share a few differences.
“We don’t agree on everything,” Sexton cautioned. “Clay is a converted Conservative. I’m a Conservative since I was probably 15 years old.”
Whether they agree on taking calls or not is a different issue. The show hasn’t done a lot of it, although they are in constant communication with the audience thru social media and make it a point to share messages on the show.
“We want Liberals to listen. We want Democrats to listen, people that disagree with us strongly, we’d rather they hear our version of why Conservatism is correct on a certain issue or why maybe we’re a little ambivalent or some things than what they might get elsewhere,” Sexton said.
The show itself is put together remotely. Sexton is based in Manhattan, Travis is in Nashville. Though that could create challenges for some, both say it hasn’t interfered with the on-air product.
“The technology is such that I don’t think anybody out there listening can even tell,” Travis added, although they are upfront with the audience about it. “Frankly, it’s basically the same, to me, seamlessness, whether we’re in the same studio [or not]. It doesn’t really seem to impact the flow of the show.”
“I think it actually adds to the show and creates a really interesting dynamic,” Sexton said. “I can see Clay in real time very clearly. We’re staring at each other’s faces on pretty large screens.”
Wherever they crack the mic, the duo in short order has built a good working relationship.
“I don’t know exactly what the phrase would be, but we talk for three hours every day, and the vast majority of it is public,” said Travis. “We’re constantly texting and sharing stories, interacting, basically all day, so, we have a great relationship.”
Sexton echoed a similar sentiment, pointing out that the two hosts share a strong work ethic.
“I will do the absolute maximum workload that I can to create the most successful shows and put out the best content I can,” Sexton said. “Clay Travis is an absolute machine as well. I’ve found that [he’s] one of the only people in the entire media industry that I’ve come across who puts in the hours, the effort and energy that I do.”
Jerry Barmash has been a fixture in New York radio for decades with anchor stints on WABC Radio and Bloomberg News. Jerry was also heard on WINS, WCBS and Wall Street Journal Radio. As a media writer, Jerry’s pieces were featured in Broadcasting & Cable, NY Daily News and Watercooler HQ. Jerry also hosts the interview podcast Here Now the News. He’s on Twitter @JerryBarmash and can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.
Pete Mundo is the morning show host and program director for KCMO in Kansas City. He graduated from Villanova University, and has worked for FOX News Talk Radio, WCBS Newsradio 880, Bloomberg Radio. WFAN, CBS Sports Radio, WEER 88.7FM, ESPN 1230/1320, and, K-1O1 and Z-92. He has also won an Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters small-market award for his coverage of the Bobbie Parker trial in the summer of 2011. To interact, find him on Twitter @PeteMundo.
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.
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.
Jim Cryns writes features for Barrett News Media. He has spent time in radio as a reporter for WTMJ, and has also served as an author and former writer for the Milwaukee Brewers. To touch base or pick up a copy of his book: On Story Parkway: Remembering Milwaukee County Stadium, available on Amazon, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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, Barrack 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 Barrack 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.
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He has programmed legendary stations including WIP, WPHT and WYSP/Philadelphia, KLSX, Los Angeles and WCCO Minneapolis. He was Vice President Programming for Emmis International, Greater Media Inc. and Coleman Research. Andy also served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter @AndyBloomCom.