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Kevin Graham Is Just Trying To Enjoy Himself Leading KNBR

“Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal.”

Brian Noe

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If a song was needed to accurately describe Kevin Graham’s radio career, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam would be a good place to start. The guy has been all over the place. As the new program director at KNBR in San Francisco, Graham has also held radio gigs in Boston, New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Columbus.

That’s some serious mileage. Suffice to say, Graham loves moving about as much as he loves watching his New York Jets losing.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If his career were a cereal, it wouldn’t be something simple like Frosted Flakes. It would be much more eclectic like Frosted Flakes mixed with Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Kevin Graham is a former on-air guy who hosted three different stints of sports talk shows in Salt Lake City. He was a Utah Jazz pre and postgame host. Graham was a football and basketball play-by-play guy who also broadcasted parades and beauty pageants when he was starting out. Add in the fact he programmed news talk station WBAP in Dallas for five years and you can see why his career is like an epic cereal medley. What a long, strange trip it’s been. 

Graham provides details about the major lineup change in afternoon drive that was recently made at KNBR. One of the most interesting things Graham reveals is what clicked for him as a programmer that changed his mindset and entire approach to the job. We also chat about what has caused him the most pain in his radio career, involving your star player in big decisions, and living life beyond radio. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?

Kevin Graham: West Virginia is where I was born and raised till about 14. Then right before my freshman year of high school, my parents got transferred to Detroit. I ended up going to high school in the Detroit area, then went to college at Central Michigan University. That’s when the radio world took off from there in all the different markets everywhere I’ve been.

I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be in sports broadcasting just because I played all the sports and was average to below average. Usually, when you’re the smallest and slowest kid on a team, you realize you’re not going to be a pro athlete. [Laughs] That’s when I decided you know what, maybe I can be in broadcasting. The best move that ever happened was my dad getting transferred to Detroit. The school I went to had a radio station, so as a freshman in high school I was in radio. I ended up doing some baseball play-by-play that year and just got hooked on it right then and there. It just took off from there.

BN: What’s been the best and worst part about being all over the country with all the stops you’ve made?

KG: [Laughs] The best part is just the fun of going to new markets. The fun of being a PD for me is working with the talent, the content, the branding, the imaging, the core of what a PD does. To me that’s a blast. All the various markets I’ve done it in.

Most stations that I’ve had to go in, there was a reason they were bringing me in because they weren’t doing as well as they were hoping. Fortunately, I would say all except one, they were in a better spot when I left than they were when I got there, which is cool.

A lot of that goes to the credit of just a lot of talented people. That’s been the fun. Having the impact that you can have on various talents and see what they’ve been able to do and grow.

I look at Detroit, I hired Mike Valenti — who’s number one in that market now for years — straight out of college at Michigan State and paid him not a lot and put him on middays with Terry Foster. Now, 20 years later or whatever it’s been, the guy is dominant. To see that type of stuff, to see the impact you have on people, that’s the best stuff.

The hardest part is just every move — as you’ve probably been around — sucks. It’s just hard to move. It’s taxing for a marriage when you’re moving that much. It’s hard when you have kids. It’s just hard when you move that much. My hope is this will be my last one, but that’s been my hope in a lot of places too. [Laughs]

BN: [Laughs] Hopefully this one comes true, man. The lineup change in afternoon drive, what was that process like for you just getting on board at KNBR and then this mammoth change takes place?

KG: It was a couple of things. First, it was ratings-driven. The ratings of the show had not been up to par with the other shows. We were taking a look at that. A lot of it was just listening and my gut. In the end, I trust my gut.

You hate it. That’s the worst part of the job — and that’s nothing towards Larry [Krueger] and Rod [Brooks], the two guys that we had to replace because they’re both very talented. But for whatever reason when that show was put together, the three-man show which can work in some places, it just wasn’t clicking the way we hoped.

In the meantime, Adam Copeland, who I was listening to regularly on our morning show as kind of a third person there, did a 5 a.m. show, also did fill-ins, Bay Area native, lots of energy, passionate. Talking it over with my general manager and Bruce Gilbert and just going through what we could do, we kept going back to him. Obviously, in that situation it’s hard, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people and you’ve got to figure it out, but in the end we felt, and ultimately my gut felt that it would be a better show. So far, so good.

We’ve only been on I think about a month. Some of it is they just had to get to know each other. You know how it is when you get new shows and new co-hosts and all that. At least they’ve been aware of each other, just never really worked together. One month in, we’re really excited at where we’re headed and how the show is sounding right now, so I’m very hopeful that we’ve got ourselves a pretty good hit there.

Plus, Tom Tolbert’s a star in this market. Again, it’s nothing towards Larry and Rod, but when you have three people, here you’ve got your lightning rod, a guy that’s been in the market for years, a guy that’s been number one multiple times for years including before they made the change. I just felt like you needed to hear more of him.

When you have three people, it’s just harder to do that. Tom being the laid-back personality that he is, wasn’t commanding that he needed more air time. He was a team player, which is exactly what he should be doing. It was a big decision that moving forward we need to hear more of Tom. So far, so good on that.

BN: What’s your approach when involving a star, or not, in a process like that? It’s like NFL teams where some choose to involve their star quarterback with certain decisions, some don’t; what did you prefer to do with Tom Tolbert in your situation?

KG: That goes back to me being an on-air talent, I try to manage how I would like to be treated. I’m very direct and honest, and that’s how I manage people. I try not to be a jerk about it, but hey, here’s what I’m thinking we need to do. What ideas do you have? So in this approach, yeah, I did talk to Tom obviously before pulling the trigger. I felt like he needed to be aware.

To Tom’s credit, he didn’t really want to be aware. [Laughs] He was kind of put in a bad spot and I completely understand that. It’s a tough spot, but there was no way I was going to take our number one star, one of our top lightning rods on the station, and not get his feedback on it because that would be the worst thing, trying to force-feed someone if you don’t have their buy-in in my opinion.

BN: Especially when you’re new. Imagine if you didn’t involve him, made this change and he hated your guts for it.

KG: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. I was just trying to be transparent and open. Those situations, they suck. I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks leading into it. It’s awful. But I’m paid to do what I feel is best for the brand. The company is trusting me to try to put the best product on the air and I felt like at that time, and with others in our building felt like it was the best time to make that change. I felt like Tom needed to be in the loop on it. If there were any red flags I needed to know that because I wasn’t going to make a change and put somebody in there he wasn’t going to like. That would not work.

BN: One of the challenges during the pandemic was that a lot of your hosts were working remotely. What was that like to start in a brand new market when that was part of the equation?

KG: It was hard. My morning guys were coming in. They had gotten approval and got all the necessary vaxxing and all of that. They were in. I was seeing them often. But everybody else was working remotely.

For me, it was good because John Lund is doing middays with Greg Papa. I’ve worked with John in the past. John was my first producer in Salt Lake City. I’ve actually hired him at other spots. That was easy because he’s somebody I’ve known for years. I was able to connect with him.

The others I just called and tried to get to know them. I just talked to them and made sure I tried to communicate as much as I could. At one point I get here and by the way within a couple of weeks of being here I end up with COVID even though being vaxxed and all that. That was hard because now I’m working remotely from a new city and a new place. So I was dealing with all that as well.

Just tried to communicate as much as possible and tried to adapt. When you’re at a station like this too, it’s not just the on-air you have to deal with, when you’ve got the Giants, the Niners, we have 1050 that carries games like crazy. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing. Not only did I have to try to learn the market, get to know my hosts, but also try to learn the systems and everything that needed to be done to make sure everything was running smoothly.

BN: I hear this from a lot of on-air guys where maybe they figured something out, it clicked and then it just really changed their whole approach on air. Was there anything like that from a PD standpoint where you finally learned something and then it was just like oh wow, I kind of get it now?

KG: It’s weird to say this, but I think COVID changed a lot of things from my standpoint. For me, I was always a workaholic. I always felt like I had to work harder than everybody else to succeed. I think COVID just kind of slowed things down in a weird way because we were all in different spots and I think you saw how different people reacted to it. Some reacted very favorably to it and other people had a lot of issues with it. I was probably in the middle.

I was kind of trying to figure out how to manage a staff from a distance and had some personal stuff because at the time my dad was not in good health, so COVID allowed me to go work remotely from where they are to help him. I think after all of that and when I was wrapping up BAP and then coming here, for me it just cemented that okay you know what, there’s more to life than just your job 24/7. 

Unfortunately — and fortunately — I don’t think I probably would have had the success if I didn’t work as hard as I did and learned as much as I did. Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal. Don’t overreact to that. Calm, figure it out, work it out, try to keep everybody else calm.

It’s weird, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and probably everything finally clicked for me in a comfort zone where I finally said okay, you know what, quit being nervous about the next ratings book, quit being nervous about this and that. Just chill it out, enjoy yourself, be in the moment, take advantage of the perks and fun like going to games and all of that.

I used to skip some of that stuff because I felt like I had to get the imaging written up. I had to do this. I had to do that. Now it’s like you know what, I’ve got enough time in a day to get that type of stuff done and I’ve got a great support staff of people that help. I empower people more than I ever used to. I was more of a control freak, now I feel like I empower people because I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want it to be that if I do end up leaving here whether it’s by my choice or not, I would love to have people here who can step up into my role and take over. That’s how I kind of look at it now.

BN: As a New York Jets fan you’ve felt a good amount of pain over the years. I’m curious what has caused you the most pain in sports radio over the years?

KG: The most pain in sports radio over the years — Nielsen by far. Freaking Nielsen still to this day. We’ve got some blips going on now with meters and — just trying to watch my language — it’s very frustrating to have a system that you’re judged by — and all of us have to live by it, programming, sales, everything — that’s based on such a limited sample.

How you can go one month and be dominant and the next month you lose a couple of people. That happened to me in Dallas. It’s happened to me here. It’s happened to me in Boston. No matter what size market, two people can affect your livelihood in such a negative way. I don’t know the answer. It is what it is as they keep saying, but it’s really frustrating when you’re completely judged on this system.

Now we get real data about our stream, and just recently see that Nielsen is giving us 17,000 cume on our stream but yet Triton is giving us 300,000 cume on our stream. It’s like the 300,000 is real, where Nielsen is still based on the PPM technology. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s the biggest frustration and most likely will be the reason I get the hell out of this industry eventually. [Laughs] Whether I want to or not.

BN: Hey man, I totally get it. As far as your professional future goes, if you were able to write out what the next 10 years of your career look like, what would you want it to be?

KG: If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I could have a map. Right now I don’t know. Right now all the moves I’ve made and all of the things I’ve gone through — and a lot of people have gone through particularly through COVID and everything else — I’m just trying to enjoy myself right now. I’m in such a great spot.

I have a great general manager in Larry Blumhagen who’s a brand new general manager and I was his first PD hire. Bruce Gilbert, Brian Philips, everybody in the Cumulus family, Mary Berner obviously lets us manage on a local basis, which I think is a little rarer than a lot of places these days with the way companies are. I’m just in a really good spot. I’m just going to enjoy this ride.

If I ever choose to move along, I don’t think it’ll be another PD job. If I stay in radio per se, I’d like to think all the various experiences I’ve had, could move up into a more senior-level job where I can impact multiple brands for a company. But if that doesn’t work out there are so many places now that create content. Everybody’s a media company now.

The thing about you and me and a lot of us in radio, we think the only thing we know is radio. Well, we know how to do content. If you can get on a mic and entertain people for four hours, you know what you’re doing. You can do the same thing as a programmer, so I do think we as a radio industry, I think we have the ability to get outside of radio if we want to now with audio being as hot as it is. I do believe that there could be other things that we can do if the time closes. As of now, man, I’m just settling in, enjoying myself, trying to figure out how to afford food here in San Francisco and be okay. [Laughs]

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