WABC’s Phil Boyce: This Is As Good As It Gets (10/13/03)
By Reed Bunzel
Think back to 1995: President Clinton was serving his first term in the White House, George W. Bush had just been elected governor of Texas, business was usual at the World Trade Center, and Radio consolidation was still a year away.
That’s also the year that Phil Boyce, program director of WJR in Detroit, was tapped by ABC Radio to fill the WABC programming slot left vacant by the departure of John Mainelli. At the time, WABC was in a somewhat enviable position in the marketplace, maintaining strong ratings, a solid on-air line-up, and an industry-wide image of being the most-listened-to Talk station in the country. Unfortunately, it also had some deep-rooted programming and sales problems that left it with a tarnished public image and turned off a number of advertisers, resulting in a bottom line that hadn’t seen black ink since the station flipped to Talk in 1982.
“There was a negative halo over the station, really hurting it from a sales standpoint and making it difficult to convince advertisers that this was a legitimate Radio station,” Boyce recalls. “WABC was seen as negative, kind of right-wing wacko, maybe even slightly racist. I don’t know that it was racist, but there were certainly things said on the station that were difficult for the company to defend.”
It became quite clear, just months after Boyce moved to the Big Apple, that his primary function as program director would be to “blow the station up” and rebuild it, piece by piece. “If I had known the task ahead when I took the job, I probably would have stayed in Detroit,” Boyce says, with only a slight chuckle. “As it was, I still had panic attacks for several months after I took this job.” But he did “blow it up,” and now — breathing a little easier but certainly not resting on any triumphs — Boyce looks back and sees a station that’s considerably stronger than it was when he lit that first fuse. The station once again is the most-listened-to Talk outlet in the country. “Actually, I knew we could do it, I just didn’t know how much time it would take,” he confesses.
Boyce not only programs WABC, but also oversees the nationally syndicated Sean Hannity program. Boyce originally hired Hannity at WABC in early 1997 and moved him to PM drive in January 1998. Hannity's program has been called “the fastest-growing syndicated Radio show in modern Talk Radio history” — it’s now heard on 350 stations, reaching nearly 13 million listeners a week.
Boyce also created the current WABC morning team of Curtis and Kuby — a.k.a. Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby. Boyce threw them together in 1996 in an experiment called The Monday Night Fights. The show grew into the current WABC morning show that was nominated this year for a Marconi Radio Award as national air personalities of the year. Boyce was the first to put web reporter Matt Drudge on the air, and he developed the Batchelor and Alexander Show, which is now in syndication by ABC Radio Network.
Before coming to WABC from his programming gig at WJR, Boyce was news director of KHOW Denver, KIMN Denver, WFH Wichita, and WKY Oklahoma City. He began his Radio career at age 14 at KFEL, a 1,000-watt AM daytimer religious station in Pueblo, CO.
Widely considered one of the best programmers in the Radio industry, Boyce sat down recently to share some of his thoughts on WABC and the Talk Radio format
INK: When you arrived at WABC in 1995, you had to take it apart and start from scratch. Were you ready for that?
PB: No. I was not fully prepared for what I was walking into. I think I was a good PD, but I didn’t come to WABC with the idea of blowing it up and starting over. I came here wanting to keep it on top. The problem was that there were some internal problems at the station that caused the foundation to crack. There were some things really wrong with the station, and we had to fix them. If I had known the task ahead when I took the job I probably would have stayed in Detroit. As it was, I still had panic attacks for several months after I took this job, wondering if I was good enough to handle it — and that was before I had to blow it up and start over.
How would you describe the problems you faced?
There was a programming problem and a sales problem. WABC had been a Talk station since 1982, and from a ratings standpoint, it was very successful. It was the most-listened-to Talk station in the nation; it was ranked roughly No. 5 in New York and the No. 1 AM station in New York City. But the station had lost money every one of those years since 1982. To be fair, it was close to making a profit and was probably going to turn around anyway, but there was a negative halo over the station, hurting it from a sales standpoint and making it difficult to convince advertisers that this was a legitimate Radio station. WABC was seen as negative, kind of right-wing wacko, maybe even slightly racist. I don’t know that it was racist, but there were certainly things said on the station that were difficult for the company to defend.
Bob Grant being the primary offender?
Well, it was just maybe four months before I got here that our afternoon host was on the cover of New York magazine, wrapped in a red WABC banner with a big headline that was embarrassing to the station. We had to do something, but I was here about a year before we made the decision to blow it up. It was the most difficult and stressful thing I have ever encountered, yet perhaps the biggest challenge and biggest potential success of my career. And I remember thinking, “If I can rebuild this Radio station, I’m in hero country.”
So you cleaned house a little.
Yes. We fired Bob Grant and a night host who was similar to him at that time. I have to say, Bob is a great Talk show host, and he worked very well with me for that year. I had to teach Bob how to tone it down; and in Bob’s defense, I don’t think anyone had ever done that with him. He had been encouraged to do some things that eventually came back to haunt him. The die was cast, and one little slip-up was going to result in his being fired — there were no more second chances. When we made that decision, it was spring of 1996, right in the middle of the spring book. I knew it would take five years to rebuild the station, but I didn’t know that I’d have five years, because in this day and age when they want quick turnarounds, who’s going to give a PD five years? So I kept that to myself. I never told anybody, “Hey, this is going to take us five years.”
How long did it take?
Ironically, it was kind of prophetic, because five years to the book after that happened — in the spring of 2001 — we once again were the most-listened-to Talk station in the nation, we were No. 5 in New York, and No.1 on the AM band. But it wasn’t until that day that I really thought we could do it. Actually, I knew we could do it; I just didn’t know how much time it would take.
How much support did you get from management throughout this rebuilding process?
Management definitely was behind me all the way. Mitch Dolan, who at the time was president of ABC Radio, never lost confidence in me. In fact, he pulled my bacon out of the fire more times than I recall. One time after one of our brilliant ideas crashed and burned, he said to me, “Never let this make you afraid to risks.” And I really needed to hear that, because you can’t win without taking risks, and sometimes you’re going to fail. Tim McCarthy, president/GM of WABC, also has been incredibly supportive. He comes from sales, but he is a product guy at heart, and we agree on virtually everything coming out of the speaker. I think the relationship between the GM and PD is key; and fortunately, I have Tim here to back me up.
How important to you and WABC was putting Sean Hannity on the air?
Bringing Sean on board was the defining moment in WABC’s history as a Talk station, perhaps the most important decision I ever made. I never met a Talk show host — or really anybody in the business — more driven to succeed. When you combine that drive and determination with his natural charisma, personality and work ethic, you get a lethal combination. He filled an afternoon-drive void that nobody else could have filled. Even though today he’s on 350 Radio stations with almost 13 million weekly listeners, he cares most about WABC. Once a month, on ratings day, when the numbers come down at 10 a.m., he’s on the phone with me at 10:01, wanting to know how we did. He’s just incredible. And the truly nice thing about Sean is that he is a great guy. He has become one of my closest friends. He’s like my assistant PD, and it’s not unusual for me to walk in late and find him sitting at my desk with his feet propped up.
How did you find him?
He found me. I’d like to take credit for digging him out of the dirt somewhere, but when I got to WABC in 1995, he started sending me tapes and résumés. The first time he sent me a tape, he was hosting a show on CNN out of that mall in Atlanta. I felt that he was very talented, but maybe better on TV than Radio. Little did I know, he was going to be big on TV as well as Radio. We started to talk, and when we had the opening in afternoon drive, he obviously had to be considered. He came into the city, we had lunch, and he thought I was going to offer him afternoon drive. I said, “I’m not going to hire you right now. But you’re good enough to work at WABC.” He was only 33 years old at the time.
Why didn’t you hire him the first time around?
I’ve always thought that you don’t want to be the guy to try to replace a legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who tried to replace the legend. Sean definitely had the skill and the talent. At that time, I had no idea how skilled and driven he was, but I knew he had the right stuff. I said to him, “If you can get to New York some way, you give me a call, and I’ll find you a place. He was very close to getting the Fox gig. When he got that gig, he called me and said, “I’m here.” So I asked him to sub over Christmas vacation for a week — not exactly the best assignment, but he jumped at it — and his voice just jumped out of the speakers.
So we hired him and put him on late night after his Fox show. The first year, he did 11pm-2am, and he rocked the city at night. He was No. 1 his first book, and he had a ball doing it. It didn’t take us long to figure out that this guy did have the juice to do afternoon drive. We moved him into that slot in January 1998. Within a week or two, Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Hannity was off to the races.
Rush Limbaugh is about the only personality remaining from the pre-blow-up days. Is he your keystone?
I don’t think we would have made it here without Rush. He is the only show still on the air from 1995. Rush was the rock we built the station around, and I don’t know that I could have done it without him. He really should get credit for revitalizing and revolutionizing Talk Radio and the AM band. It’s no accident that he’s the one show still here on WABC when everything else changed.
With Rush and Sean, your line-up still leans considerably to the right. Who is your target audience?
We go roughly 55 percent male, 45 percent female. We really don’t target males; we just target listeners. We don’t want to be a right-wing, wacko, white-male Radio station. We have a lot of female listeners, and if you listen to the station, we have a lot of female callers. Shows such as Rush and Laura Ingraham do attract a younger following.
Did Michael Savage pose a challenge to keeping your current image untarnished?
Obviously, there is some similarity between Michael Savage and Bob Grant. Not surprisingly, they ended up on WOR together — and that will be an interesting scenario to watch. I have every expectation that he will do well over there. He did well here, he developed a following, and unfortunately, he is not here anymore. It was a combination of things that are difficult to talk about. The situation obviously started with KSFO in San Francisco, and once he decided he wasn’t going to work for ABC anymore, that made it very difficult for me to keep him on the air.
You recently picked Laura Ingraham to fill the Savage slot. What does she bring to the station?
Laura is perhaps one of the next stars on the syndicated stage. She is very bright, very talented, a great personality, witty, and a little bit sarcastic. She has the right stuff. We had been considering Laura over the last two years, but we just didn’t have a place for her. How ironic that she ended up taking the Michael Savage spot, and she ended up being syndicated by the company, Talk Radio Network, that distributes both. We’ll see how it works; I like her chances.
Several years ago, you lost the New York Yankees. How did you deal with that loss?
That was difficult, because who wouldn’t want the world champion New York Yankees?
In the last five years that we had them, they were in the World Series I think four of those five years. They definitely helped us from a ratings standpoint by bringing in new younger cume. A lot of people were fearful that if we lost the Yankees, we would decline as a station — instead, the opposite has happened. We did lose cume, but what we lost in cume, we gained in higher TSL, because we replaced the Yankees at night with good-quality Talk shows that the rest of the WABC audience wanted to hear. Our ratings have been very strong, and we obviously now compete with the station that has the Yankees — and so far, we’re doing well.
How do you balance the mix of local and network hosts in the largest Radio market in the country?
We have a great mix of syndicated and local hosts on WABC. It’s difficult, especially in a top-10 market, to survive on just syndicated hosts. You must have local hosts who talk about this city, because this is the greatest city in the world when it comes to Talk Radio, with so much going on — especially after September 11. The only reason to put a syndicated show on WABC is if that show is better than anything I could do on a local basis — some of these people are that good.
You won’t find a Sean Hannity sitting on the tree out there. You do want to develop your own people, but at the same time, you do want to win.
Many Talk show hosts — understandably conservative — believe there’s a liberal bias in the media. What’s your take on this?
I do believe there is an institutionalized liberal bias in the mainstream press. I don’t think they know it, and I don’t think it’s intentional. I also don’t think Talk Radio intentionally went the other way. Rush really started this — he realized there is a huge market for the other side, and it wasn’t being told often enough or accurately enough by the mainstream press. So he came along and blew the doors off.
How important is next year’s presidential election, given the political focus of WABC?
It’s difficult to plan for those kinds of things because the biggest story we’ve had in recent years was 9/11. Instead, every day I get up and ask myself, “What do people care about today, and how can I give them the information they crave, with intelligent hosts who make a difference?” I don’t look at WABC as being a political Radio station, but I definitely think this presidential election will be fascinating. It will be very close for President Bush; some of these things will come back to haunt him. The Democrats definitely have a better chance now than they did even a few months ago, but whether Republicans or Democrats win is immaterial to me as a program director. In the end, the election will be a great Talk topic, and we’ll be all over it because people will care about it.
What lessons learned from the events of September 11 did you call on during the blackout this past summer?
There were a lot of similarities. Looking out my window, I saw maybe 100,000 people stranded on the street below. People in business suits were sleeping on their briefcases — it was an incredible scene. But the most we ever went off the air was seven seconds. Some people did some heroic duty here. We couldn’t get some of our staff into the building, so some people here had to work 48 hours. I personally slept on my couch. I got two hours of sleep. As a PD, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, with this image that I’m sitting in the control room in my underwear with a newscast to be read, and they point to me. This all happened, with the exception that I wasn’t in my underwear. I had to anchor the 5 a.m. news with no copy, no computers, no cable. I’m never going to let anybody hear that tape.
What do you consider your most pressing challenge at WABC today?
We have to win mornings here. Curtis and Kuby have made a huge difference on WABC since they took over mornings, which was about three years ago. They doubled the ratings in AM drive virtually overnight, and the real rewarding thing about these guys was that we didn’t have to steal them from somebody else. I put those two guys together in 1996; I was like the mad scientist in the basement with the petrie dish, wondering what would grow out of it. I knew that, if I could keep them in the studio for an hour without killing each other, I might have a show, but at the time I had no idea that they were going to be the morning show on WABC. We put them in a place where we thought they could succeed, and they did. At WABC, we believe you have to have a bench; these guys were on the bench for a long time, and they kept getting better.
You’ve been in New York for eight years. What’s next for Phil Boyce?
Fortunately for me, I don’t have this burning desire to move on, like I did when I was climbing the ladder. For some reason, I had this desire to get to the top, and I just kept bumping my head against the guy above me until I was able to climb on by him. I don’t have that anymore because, when I look out my office window at the Empire State Building, I realize it doesn’t get any bigger or better than this. This is a great city to do this Radio format, and I have a lot of personal equity in this station. I want to see these people succeed. I also program the Sean Hannity national show, and that has given me an enormous sense of accomplishment. To see this guy we hired a few years ago explode on the national scene is more than we ever dreamed. I also think we have upside on WABC. We’re not done yet. This is the strongest line-up that we’ve ever had, and it’s going to succeed and grow and do better things.
Without question, the events of September 11, 2001, created not just a terrifying visage but also a monumental challenge for anyone covering the story as it unfolded. WABC Program Director Phil Boyce vividly recalls that day in New York:
“September 11 had a profound effect on all of us, because we were right in the center of the action for one of the most horrible things that’s ever happened to this country. Manhattan is a very small island. We are five miles from Ground Zero, and we work right over Penn Station. Every day, 600,000 people go through those turnstiles. We felt as though we were also potential targets. When this all started to happen, obviously the adrenaline started flashing. The old news guy in me jumped up, and I went into the control room and helped the guys through the next six or seven hours, because this is what I used to do.
“The scariest thing for me was that we sent George Weber, our morning anchor, immediately to the scene. He went downstairs and jumped on a subway. Within 15 minutes, he came out at the World Trade Center subway stop. He looked up at the horror, then got on the air with us and did a great live report. Shortly thereafter, the buildings started to go, and we didn’t know where he was for at least 45 minutes. As the minutes ticked by, nobody wanted to say what we all were thinking: ‘Where’s George?’ It became highly personal, and I was never so happy as the moment when that phone rang, and the control room said, ‘Weber’s on News 1.’ We got him on the air, and the emotional moment was incredible.
“At that point, we worried about what might be next. It was an incredibly difficult day. We had launched Sean Hannity’s national show just the day before; and Sean and his producer, board op, and screener were all stranded on Long Island. We found a Radio station out there — WLIR — that was willing to help us, so we got him on the air. There were a lot of stories like that, but looking back, we sure learned a lot about ourselves and about what we’re capable of handling.”
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