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Jack Swanson Found Success in Radio Much More Than Happiness

Swanson worked at WLS from 1973-79. Swanson said it was a radio era that included Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, Tommy Edwards. Legendary personalities.

Jim Cryns

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I’ve had more jobs than Jack Swanson has had hot dinners. Unlike Swanson, I’ve been canned from a few. There’s always the job you loved, and sometimes you wish you could go back. 

“I quit WLS and in many ways I regret it to this day,” Swanson said. “I quit every radio job I had, never fired. If today I could wave a magic wand I would have stayed at WLS in Chicago.”

Swanson worked at WLS from 1973-79. Swanson said it was a radio era that included Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, Tommy Edwards. Legendary personalities.

“One of the best collections of talent ever,” he said. “As my career went on, I was generally more successful than I was happy. I found I always performed better when I was around really crazy-talented people. I think you’ll always perform better on a great team.”

Swanson explained that just doesn’t happen today as great teams are very expensive. 

He worked at KGO a total of three times. Every year he’d sit down with the GM and there was a ‘come to Jesus moment.’ 

“As PD, it was not uncommon to get a budget dropped in front of me and the GM would glare at me and say, ‘Do you have everything single thing in this budget you need to become number one?’ Now that’s a whole new kind of pressure.”

Reading between the lines, Swanson said what they were really saying was, ‘You’d better bring me a winner.’ To accomplish that, you always need a few dollars more. When you have the appropriate budget, you get better performance all around. 

“From your on-air people, producers, and other staff. It’s a great environment when people feel appreciated. Like they’re being paid what they’re worth.”

The third time at KGO, Swanson quit after only three weeks. 

“I just wanted out,” he explained. “I had a three-year contract so that complicated things. The nice people at Cumulus indicated they might sue me if I left. I figured, ‘Have at it. If you want to sue an old man, do your worst. The truth is I didn’t think they knew what they were doing. I had to negotiate a departure.” 

Talking about KGO and their abrupt shift of formats, Swanson said he thinks ownership got desperate. “I don’t fault what they did. They were in a corner. Their money people were getting very edgy. But what fills that gap?”

Unfortunately, San Francisco currently has no local talk station despite being the fourth-largest radio market in the country. KSFO is also programmed, all syndicated. 

“Tragically, it’s all radio from a computer,” Swanson said. “Radio is a crazy business. People don’t want to invest because they generally want to keep their money.”

He said all the time people say radio isn’t what it used to be.

“Not even close,” Swanson said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t honor and respect radio. You should let your talent shine wherever you can let it shine. Back in the day at WLS, it was possible to make money. It’s not really possible any more. It’s like 1,000 points of light. Anybody can go on Amazon and purchase a Mr. Microphone and have their own show and talk to the world.”

The fact that podcasts are the new popular kid on the block isn’t lost on Swanson. With 2.4 millions podcasts today and counting, Swanson said there are just too many, a sensory overload.

“They’re like exploding stars, scattering around and trying to find an audience,” he explained. “There are only so many hours in a day.”

His resume is extensive; VP and general manager at KING AM/FM, VP of programming at KGO/KSFO, director of news and programming at KCBS Radio.

Swanson began his radio career as a news anchor and reporter for WLS Radio in Chicago before becoming the News and Program Director for KGO. 

“While I was at WLS, it was owned by ABC, and we had 25 full-time new people.”

He is the recipient of numerous awards including the best radio program director in America, and the best news talk PD for four years and the best programmer for three years by Radio Ink and Radio & Records.

Having spent most of his time in major markets, Swanson has great respect for people who spent their careers in small, or medium markets.

“If you’re on the endless chase to be in a bigger market, when you get there it can be hollow. If you find a city and community you like, it can become a great home forever. There aren’t any gold watches in radio. My advice to talent is to listen to your stomach. There’s nothing more important.”

Some people are naturally good at what they do, but a PD can only take you so far.

“It’s like being a football coach,” Swanson said. “You can’t make your quarterback a star, he has to do that himself. My career has been satisfying. I’d say it has been 85-90 percent luck. Being in the right place at the right time. That’s absolutely true for my career.”

He’s had great success in radio. But now, things are different. 

“I definitely wouldn’t encourage young people to get in the business or pursue a journalism curriculum,” Swanson said. “Years ago, I had a group of students come into KCBS, journalism students from the University of California. About 13 kids came in and said they wanted to see the real world of broadcast journalism. They asked me for advice and I told them if they were intent on the degree, for God’s sake don’t go on for a masters in journalism. One of the students told me they were all in the masters program. I don’t want to say we’re dumb in radio, but we’re not the smartest people.”

When KGO was part of the ABC group, and ABC was sold to Disney. Swanson was stunned. They sold all the stations for a great deal of money.

“I asked why they were doing it? This was 20 years ago. An executive at ABC told me radio had no growth potential and that’s what they wanted. They took all the money from the sale, billions of dollars, and put it into Pixar. While I was angry at Disney, they saw the writing on the wall.” 

In 1994, Swanson was to program KSFO. He’d done that once and didn’t want to go back. 

“KSFO was a dog, but the essentially offered me a blank check to fix it. So I went back. Within a year I took the station from 36th in the market to number two, just behind KGO.”

Swanson said they went all conservative at KSFO. This was before the Fox News Channel. Limbaugh existed, but there were no all conservative stations with the exception of one in Seattle.

“There were mostly religious stations with conservative hosts, but nobody was listening,” Swanson said. “They waved the flag and I personally didn’t know people like that. Suddenly there was  a need to provide a place where people could say what they never dared to say out loud.”

Anybody in the business will tell you the line between journalist and opinion is evaporating. “They are broadcasting information that we want to hear to make us feel right about our beliefs,” Swanson said. “People may not believe when someone tells them they love them, but they always believe them when they say they’re right.”

He said when he went to school, students tried to find the truth as best they could understand it. Swanson said he’s not so sure that can happen anymore.

“When I started in news, I had an AP and UPI teletype in my station,” he explained. “I knew everything that was going on and listeners didn’t know any breaking news. We had no morning news, no news channels, newspapers came out twice a day. Radio was the only way to learn immediate things. What a responsibility it was.” 

Swanson said the most important things politicians can do today is listen. He explained they stopped listening a couple of years into their careers.

“They no longer hear their constituents. They just say what their base wants them to say.”

Does he have an encounter with someone that he holds dear? Not really. 

“I did encounter Richard Nixon once,” Swanson said. This was during the heat of Watergate and Nixon was in Madison. 

“The President was walking toward Air Force One and the national press was all over him,” Swanson said. “With Watergate crushing him, He wasn’t about to talk with anybody. I was behind the press line and I yelled out, ‘Mr. President, your tan looks great. Where did you go to get it?”

Swanson said Nixon stopped, pivoted and looked his way.

“Nixon turned around and came toward the press line and we chatted a bit. I think he just liked the fact that someone wanted to talk with him as a human being.”

For a moment, Nixon wasn’t such a Tricky Dick. 

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BNM Writers

Should The News Be Minimized on The Holidays?

“I do wonder who is watching or listening or reading and what the return on efforting news programming on holidays really is.”

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This is not by any means a new topic of discussion but I do enjoy bringing it up and batting it around because I think it’s worthy of regular consideration and deliberation. Perhaps it deserves even just a fresh batch of whining and complaining by those of us stuck in a newsroom, in front of a camera or microphone or standing out somewhere in the cold.

There’s no debate that what we do has a level of importance that fluctuates from time to time. There are countless professions that we cannot do without for even a portion of a single day. That said, working the holidays is not unfamiliar or even a question for many people out there.

I, myself have spent most of my adult life in professions where working on Thanksgiving, Christmas, the High Holidays, Independence Day among others was just part of the job. It still amazes me how many people would react in astonishment when I declined an invitation or mentioned in conversation that I was working that day.

Like they couldn’t comprehend the possibility. Must be nice.

Now, let’s be clear about this; covering a parade or a holiday festival or religious services on a particular day is not what I’m focusing on here. Imagine the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July fireworks without reporters and crew coverage.

More people would actually have to go to these things.

No, I’m talking about regularly scheduled newscasts and field reports on these mornings, afternoons and evenings.

Why?

I don’t see it.

More specifically, who is measuring the need for this programming? I cannot identify sitting behind a desk (probably inside an office…what’s that like?) and concluding that there must be 4:00pm-6:30pm newscasts on Thanksgiving Day.

5am news on New Year’s Day is out and out sadism.

“Good morning and Happy New Year…here’s what’s happened in the twenty-three minutes since you went to bed.”

Yes, by all means, let’s open our presents with the soothing tones of morning drive news in the background or lounge in the living room after the two-ton turkey dinner and watch the daily rundown of criminal activity lovingly framed in holiday graphics.

Do people want to drive to Grandma’s house while listening to the latest in Tuesday’s home invasion- assault investigation, this morning’s hit and run fatality or the city council vote on funding a halfway house near the elementary school?

Actually, the inspiration for this semi-rant comes from a conversation I had with a woman I was speaking with about holiday getaway travel. She very innocently asked me why there is news on the holidays. “Who is watching…who is listening on a day like that?” I told her I really couldn’t say. Of course, this was someone who told me she didn’t even pick up a newspaper or peruse social media for a news update on any given holiday.

“On Christmas”, she said, “no news is good news.”

To a significant degree, I’m on board with that. I do wonder who is watching or listening or reading and what the return on efforting news programming on holidays really is.

This is not about those having to work although employee consideration should be part of the equation. There will always be the need to have someone in the newsroom but minimizing that requirement could never be a bad thing.

Many operations do work with reduced staff during the holidays and that’s great. Twenty-years ago the radio station group I worked for dropped most programming during the year-end holidays, simulcasting holiday music across all the stations only cutting in with station IDs, tracked greetings from staff and news updates only if necessary.

I suppose one could argue that people need to know what’s going on all the time so we are providing a necessary service but really, everything we do is on-demand whether we like it or not. Nobody is listening or watching or reading unless they make a conscious effort to do so. They have to turn the TV on and hit the channel, dial the car radio and click on the website. We have no say.

For me, somebody somewhere has to show me that there’s a need and a want for what we do on those special days and at those special times. Convince me.

In the meantime, move the turkey and stuffing closer to my side of the table and keep the cranberry sauce and yams over on your end.

And I’ll be up bright and early talking to the Black Friday shopping crowd.

Don’t get me started.

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BNM Writers

Seth Leibsohn Expected to Move to Phoenix, Didn’t Expect Radio Show

“There wasn’t a huge demand for a white male teaching Aristotle’s teachings. I kind of like the idea I can still teach on the air.

Jim Cryns

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We’re all made up of a unique genetic recipe. Take a graduate student of political philosophy, add a pinch of love of contemporary politics, a dash of popular culture, maybe a trumpet, and you have Seth Leibsohn.

“I was a good trumpet player in high school,” Leibsohn said. Still, that alone wasn’t enough for him to pursue it as a career, even though his parents were fine with him chasing something he enjoyed, even supportive. “Some parents try to push you into a career, but my parents never did. I thought I might be able to play the trumpet as a career, but ultimately decided I wasn’t as good as my trumpet heroes. I’ve heard golfers have hung it up in a similar way.”

Quoting Del Griffith in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, ‘The finest line a man’ll walk is between success at work and success at home.’ To be truly happy you’ve got to have both. Seth Leibsohn couldn’t agree more.

“I don’t know many people who are thrilled with what they do for a living,” Leibsohn continued. “I believe you work to pay bills, not for life satisfaction. Billy Joel said there is no magic secret and everybody has happiness within themselves. If you’re truly happy with what you do, you have it all beat.”

The Seth Leibsohn Show airs live on KKNT 960 The Patriot in Phoenix from 3:00-6:00 PM weekdays. Then the show is replayed as a podcast. “The podcast is essentially the show I do,” Leibsohn said. “It’s fun. I never thought I’d be on the radio. I started in D.C. with a national show with Bill Bennett, The Bill Bennett Show, as co-host and guest host.”

You may recall Bennett was appointed the drug czar in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush.  Bennett still does a podcast and Leibsohn appears as a guest about once a month. He was Bennett’s chief of staff for many years.

Leibsohn decided to move back to Phoenix in 2011 to take care of his parents.

“After I arrived I was approached to host my own show,” he said. “I like that it doesn’t have to be relegated to a local audience. I get calls from Texas, Chicago, Ukraine. Leibsohn describes himself as a ‘different’ radio host, “I started in academia,” he explained. “There wasn’t a huge demand for a white male teaching Aristotle’s teachings. I kind of like the idea I can still teach on the air. The show is a vital seminar, with a bigger classroom.”

Leibsohn works hard on the show as he doesn’t have a producer. “I have to find my own guests, which I average about one each day. Television show hosts don’t have to track down and book their own guests. I start reading from the moment I wake up, searching for something interesting, a guest that can provide some insight to a topic.”

He’s long been a staunch advocate against the legalization of marijuana. He headed the group ‘Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy’, which was instrumental in preventing the legalization of marijuana in Arizona. He has co-authored several articles with Bennett regarding the dangers of marijuana, which was picked up by numerous newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and The Tampa Tribune.

Doing whatever he can to rid the streets of drugs and the pollution of our children is essentially what make’s Libsohn tick. It may be more accurate to say it drives him.

When talking about ridding streets of drugs throughout the country, I was impressed that Leibsohn wasn’t hypocritical. He said he wasn’t above having a good time with friends in college, but recognized there was a time to stop.

“I partied with the best of them,” he said. “Then I saw four of my best friends, who were both far smarter than me academically, ultimately fail in their lives. They just couldn’t give up the partying and substances and succumbed to a lot of drug use.”

Another bolt of realization about the destruction of drugs for Leibsohn stems from his sister struggling with substances her entire life. “I guess I had more of a vector about what it could do to you. Drugs cause so many problems in our society. It’s an ongoing battle to protect our children.”

Working on reducing substance abuse in America has long been a passion for Leibsohn. Working with Bennett helped fuel that desire. Leibsohn spent time working for the Higher America initiative with Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Never a fan of Hilary Clinton, Leibsohn said he agrees with the former First Lady on one thing.

“Hilary said Mexico is a problem regarding illegal drugs, but if the citizens of America didn’t want the drugs, it would be a problem. People want this crud. Since we lost the anti-drug messaging system in America, the problems have spiraled out of control.”

Remember the old ad, ‘This is your brains on drugs?’ That’s the messaging Leibsohn is talking about. Leibsohn said when Bennett was drug czar, 10,000 Americans were dying each year. Since then the death toll has increased 1,000 percent.

“We reduced drug use by 65 percent in 1992,” Leibsohn said. “I attribute that to the messaging. It was hugely important. We embedded the anti-drug message at the movies, in schools, there was a Hollywood sobriety chic. We did for drugs what mothers did for drunk driving.”

Leibsohn cites Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he wrote, ‘Human desires increase with their means of gratification.’

“The narration in the television show Narco opens with the narrator talking about cocaine. He said they had a supply problem keeping up with the demand for the drug in Miami.”

Leibsohn intended to run for Congress in 2018, but his staff screwed-the-pooch.

“My campaign management didn’t get enough signatures,” Leibsohn said. “I made sure everyone who contributed to my campaign got their money back.” He said he has no biting need to run for office again.

Our conversation swerved into another contentious topic–immigration from Mexico. Leibsohn said our immigration problem is currently out of control.

“There are a lot of reasons for the problem,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one single answer or solution. I do know we’re giving billions of dollars annually to illegal immigrants. When the monthly numbers come out regarding the prison population in Arizona, the illegal immigrants count for a huge portion of those criminals.”

He said there have been good examples of cleaning up cities, like New York. “There are things that work,” Leibsohn explained. “We have to replicate those efforts and dump the things that don’t work. Indianapolis is another city that turned things around. There are theories that work when applied.”

Leibsohn spoke of disparate impact, when policies and rules have a disproportionate impact on a particular group.

“I think a lot of Left-wing prosecutors abhor statistics of racial minorities. In effect they turn a blind eye, a deaf ear when it comes to crime. I had hoped by now we could get beyond race, see policies enacted in my lifetime.”

We also talked about what constitutes American conservatism, which is delineated by low taxes, free markets, deregulation, privatization, and reduced government spending and government debt. Leibsohn thinks the definition of American Conservatism is more nebulous than that.

“I think American Conservatism has never had a good definition,” he said. “Perhaps the most prominent recent conservative was William F. Buckley Jr. He never wrote a book on American Conservatism as he said it was too diverse.”

Regarding pinpointing what American Conservatism actually is, Leibsohn said it’s really clay in the hands of those you ask. “Some say it’s a group that believes in limited government,” he explained. “There are some who will fold religious beliefs into that, some may add sociology.”

He said throughout his life, he’s always been in search of discovering the meaning.

“In Buckleys’ National Review Magazine, he debated this all the time,” Leibsohn explained. “He had always been in search of the meaning. In his magazine, Buckley debated this all the time. In my own view it should be a movement based on America’s founding fathers ethos–equity and liberty. There’s not a lot of agreement on these things today.”

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BNM Writers

Producers Podcast: Andrew Marsh, 101 ESPN

Brady Farkas

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Andrew Marsh of 101 ESPN in St. Louis details the unorthodox background that has helped him thrive in the producer’s chair for The Fast Lane.

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