Sean Hannity: “You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet” (09/18/06)
After Five Years In Syndication, Hannity Believes Talk Radio's Best Days Lie Ahead
By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief
The lifespan of his syndicated Sean Hannity Show follows the timeline of one of the most challenging five years in our nation's history - the New York-based show went national on September 10, 2001. The very next day, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington rocked the world, nearly prevented Hannity from doing his second national radio show, and set the country on a difficult new path. Along the way, Hannity has tackled the most important issues facing the nation - and the world - with a style and commitment that has drawn legions of fans in a fairly short amount of time. As he marks his fifth anniversary, Radio Ink talks with Hannity about guiding his show through those early, challenging days, what he's learned, and why he thinks Talk Radio's best days are yet to come.
RADIO INK: On September 10, 2006, you marked five years in syndication with ABC Radio Network. Your national show launched at a crucial moment in our nation's history. Talk about what's happened in these first five years in syndication.
SEAN HANNITY: We syndicated the program on Sept. 10, 2001, and we all know what happened the next day. Look at the news cycle just in the past five years. It's been an amazing time, some of the toughest times we've faced. But for the Talk Radio industry, it's been an opportunity to rise to the occasion and deliver to our audience what they want, need, and expect. It seems like yesterday we started it; it doesn't feel like five years.
What was really fun, going through this growth phase, was getting wonderful affiliates to sign on board. We added call letter after call letter - that was surprising and fun. I guess everyone has their own insecurity; you don't ever expect to be successful, and you always think you're doing your last show. It was a really strong, pleasant surprise to have ratings success on a lot of these stations, building the show and watching the growth emerge. If you work hard to deliver a very unique product, and you see the benefit of it, that's fun.
RI: I imagine there were months of planning leading up to the debut of your national launch, and then 24 hours after the first show, the world changed. How did that affect your show?
SH: My life and my program changed in one day. We couldn't get into the city to do our second day of the national program. We were lucky because the station out in Long Island was extremely helpful. They had Opie and Anthony in the next studio, and I was in the studio adjacent to that. I think they had a couple of other stations that they kept on the air with a shoestring and a Dixie cup, but they managed to pull it off, and we got on the air that day. Literally, our life changed from that point on - the focus of the show, what it was about. We went from discussing the attacks and figuring out what happened to what we have to do and what we will do. Since then, we've covered the beginning of the Afghanistan war, the Iraqi war and all the politics associated with it, a couple of elections, Terry Schiavo, Hurricane Katrina, and presidential conventions. It's been one heck of a news cycle.
RI: What's your take on the current state of political Talk Radio?
SH: My feeling about political talk is that the best is about to happen - I foresee the single biggest growth period that Talk Radio has ever had. You ain't seen nothing yet - the best is yet to come. I think the challenges for radio are in music, and the opportunities are in news, information, talk, and personality radio.
RI: What is driving your bullish outlook?
SH: It's a combination of things. Number one is the political storm brewing for the 2008 election, with Hillary Clinton. Couple that with events around the world. Since 9/11, I've used the phrase often: World War III. We see WWIII emerging before our eyes. We see what's happening in the Middle East and North Korea, and what's happening with Al Qaeda. We're still fighting in Iraq. With Islamic fascism, we're watching the emergence of a similar situation to what we saw in Nazi Germany. The events will drive people to seek out News/Talk information in greater numbers than they ever have.
Radio's first major phase of growth was Rush Limbaugh syndicating in 1988, when we only had a couple of hundred Talk stations. Now, he's the Babe Ruth of our industry. He's the highest-rated, he's the best on the air today, and I think he will lead the way in this new phase of growth. We're both on WPGP-Pittsburgh, and from the day we went on the air, it was instantaneous growth. We could say Rush saved the AM band; he became such a force and a personality that entire stations flipped, jobs were created, and new formats were developed. It was an unprecedented period of growth. If the AM band was saved by Talk radio, the FM band will be enhanced by it. You'll see more personality as Talk radio takes over the FM band, which means more opportunities than ever before.
RI: How are you going to handle this next phase?
SH: I've thought a lot about it, and the answer is simple: Go on the air every day, committed to do the single best show I can do. Here's my formula: Do a really good show about the really important issues that impact peoples' lives - provide the biggest guests, the biggest names, the best perspective, the best debates, and a point of view that I don't think you'll find elsewhere. We're there to inform and entertain. Honestly, I work harder now than I ever have on the program.
RI: What's the biggest challenge in putting together a daily three-hour show?
SH: The biggest challenge every day is sticking to my discipline regimen, not getting distracted by sales or affiliate calls, keeping my focus on doing the show, and keeping my eye on that ball. Obviously, you have to put aside time for business, affiliates, production, meetings with advertisers, but I try not to allow it to take away from show prep time.
RI: What's the biggest reward of doing your radio show?
SH: As a kid, I was dying to get a radio show, dying to be behind a microphone. I have never lost that feeling. I'm as excited about being on the air as I was the first day I tried it. I enjoy everything that has been associated with this; putting the show together, interviewing people, getting my points of view out there , talking to the people in this nation, and traveling around the country.
RI: How is Talk radio better today than it was five years ago?
SH: What's better is the diversity of hosts. We're getting older and more seasoned, more life-experienced. A lot of young guys will come up to me and say they want to host a Talk radio program. I started my first show in California when I was 27, but I didn't have the depth or the life experience to bring enough to the microphone to really be compelling. But now I've lived through my 20s, and struggled, and had to drop out of school a few times to pay for college. I started my own business, I worked in construction for years, I've lived in six different states. Along the way, I got the maturity and the life experience that is relatable to people in their daily lives.
RI: What is missing in Talk radio?
SH: Everyone's got to find their own way, their own niche, their own identity. The more people do that, the stronger the format will be. Hosts have to identify how they want to entertain people. I think there's going to be a ton of emerging talk formats that are very different than the news and information format. We must remember that we're there to serve our audience first and foremost, and that our obligation is to them. In my case, we focus on giving the best, most comprehensive news information. It's comprehensive, it's all encompassing. I'm obligated to tell them what I really think, and give them the truth as I see it. That will always emerge as successful.
RI: Is there is one area that really needs improvement?
SH: I think you'll see more diversification as part of this growth period that I'm talking about. You'll see formats emerge at stations that tend to be a little bit more conservative, or have some varying views, or lean libertarian, irreverent, liberal. You'll see stations emerging to cater to that format, and they'll do very, very well. Instead of one or two talk stations in a market, you're going to start seeing four and five.
RI: Speaking of different views, Progressive Talk has emerged on your watch...
SH: If the democrats ever got back into power, there is no doubt that their goal would be to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. That's a great danger. In that sense, Progressive Talk plays a significant role, and I think it would help prevent that from happening. One of the reasons for Talk Radio's success is that it provided an alternative viewpoint from the mainstream media. People don't understand why Talk is so successful. Why is Rush successful? He is really bright, insightful, funny, and entertaining - but he also gives the point of view you don't get in the mainstream media. I don't hear that on the left, I just hear a lot of angry Bush-hating stuff.
RI: Does radio have an image problem?
SH: I don't think so. Everyone has predicted the death of radio whenever there has been the emergence of new technology. It never happened, and I don't think it will ever happen. We have to be ready to compete and adjust to the new and emerging competition in whatever form it comes. As radio becomes more technologically advanced and more interactive, they'll find ways to compete in ways nobody ever dreamed of. One of the ways they will compete is by adjusting their formats and being more personality- and talk-oriented.
RI: Has the emergence of publicly-traded radio companies had some effect? Does pressure to deliver profits every three months somehow affect programming?
SH: It's a business, and you have to pay the light bill. Those companies have certain financial obligations to their investors, but I think that encourages them to be leaner and meaner, to deliver a better product, and to be more competitive.
RI: Has the radio industry taken an unfair beating on Wall Street?
SH: I think so. I also think there have been tough times in advertising for the past few years. But those things are cyclical, and I foresee a turnaround that people don't anticipate. Sometimes peoples' expectations get a little out of control. For example, if you have a very aggressive plan that says radio revenue growth will be 15 percent in a particular given year and it is only up 6 or 7 percent, somehow people look at that as a loss.
We must focus on the product we are delivering to our customers and work with advertisers to ensure they get the results they expect and want - or exceed their expectations so they become lifelong partners. We have been myopic in terms of the traditional revenue sources we bring into radio. The Talk example is when Rush brought in a Breathe Right or a Snapple. It wasn't a traditional source of revenue for radio, but it was a phenomenal success story that was the result of a very loyal audience that Rush brought to the table.
We've got to find emerging companies and partner with them, and show them how radio could help build their business, bring them to critical mass. We'll expand the pie of revenue for radio. We've got to look beyond the traditional way of thinking and expand where we can take it. On our show, we have partners that have been with the show almost the entire five years; new ones coming on board, and others waiting to get on board. I always try to under-promise and over-deliver on expectations. I want every one of my listeners to try a Ruth's Chris steak, and a lot of managers around the country they say there is not a day that goes by where a whole bunch of people don't come into Ruth's Chris and say “Sean Hannity sent me.”
RI: Let's turn to current events. How is the war on terror is going? Is it a winnable fight?
SH: It's winnable, but it's a very different from any war we've ever fought before, and it will not be over soon - maybe even in my lifetime. It will be an ongoing effort, because we're not going after a single state or nation. We won't get to a point where we'll get unconditional surrender. And there's the possibility of the emergence of sympathizers and others that will assist in their sick efforts. It will be very difficult to win the war outright. I believe in time it will be won.
Look at all the challenges now. Hezbollah, for example, is getting 100 million dollars in funding from Iran, and they have a functioning outlet of supply coming through Damascus and Syria. Hamas wants to obliterate Israel. The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to annihilate Israel. What's frightening to me is that the extremist element that is killing Muslims, Christians, and Jews and wants to wipe Israel off the map is a much bigger movement than people are recognizing. People have put their heads in the sand. They don't realize the danger - if the extremists ever got weapons of mass destruction, it could be a great threat to civilization itself.
RI: What can the United States do about it?
SH: I think America needs to follow the Reagan model. People ask me on the air if I'm a Republican or a conservative, do I differ from the administration? I differ all the time. I consider myself an independent voice, or a Reagan conservative. If you recall, the former Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons pointed directly at American cities, and their rockets were capable of reaching the United States. Reagan took the position that we will have peace, but from a position of strength; that we'll trust the Soviets, but only after we verify what they say is true. He immediately sought out to lessen what he called the gap of vulnerability. He built up our military and sought to modernize our weaponry in Europe. He was criticized extensively throughout the world for doing it. He said he would pursue strategic defense.
So, following the Reagan model, you deal with this from a position of strength, like President Bush did. You identify the axis of evil, which he's done, and then you actively seek to make the world a safer place. You follow the principle that somebody must stand up to evil in our time.
During WWII, for too long people were unwilling to look at the Nazi ideology and efforts for what they were. It is hard to fathom, but murder and rape and torture in Rwanda, the Sudan, the Congo, and elsewhere, has happened under the watchful eye of the United Nations. It is hard to imagine 6-10 million Jews slaughtered in Germany, but it happened. The more recent example of evil in our time is 9/11.
RI: Meanwhile, the debate continues about when Iraq can be turned back over to the Iraqi people. What is the realistic prediction for that?
SH: It's hard to say. None of this goes as smoothly as anyone plans, or wants. A lot of good has happened. Saddam is out of power, his sons are out of power. They have had three elections, they have a new government, a new cabinet, a new prime minister, and security forces that are now able to take over the day-to-day work from the Americans. We're still dealing with the insurgents, but the lives of the Iraqi people are a lot better. I don't think you can put a timetable on it, but I believe in the next year to year and a half there will be a transition away from U.S. forces toward Iraqi forces. The different factions and groups have to decide if they love their children more than they love whatever their particular faction happens to be.
RI: Extremists pass down their ideology for generations, so theoretically they will always have new recruits for their cause. How do we combat that?
SH: We've got to recognize first that this is a battle of culture or civilization. There is unmatched fanaticism; the enemy straps bombs on their children and sends them into a pizza parlor or a bus or a mall and tells their kids this is a good thing. When you die, you become a martyr and have 72 virgins in heaven for your reward. We are dealing with an ideology or philosophy there.
The 9/11 Commission says these people were at war with us for a long time, but we weren't at war with them. I think the enemy will emerge and engage us, and we have to engage them back. We have to; we can't sit back and watch the USS Cole or the embassies or the World Trade Center get hit. Basically, every corner of the earth now has been infected or affected by this terrorist threat. Wherever we see it, we've got to engage it. The ultimate goal is that good people who believe in human destiny, civilization, and the human spirit have got to defend against it.
This is why the Talk format is positioned for unprecedented growth. These are transformational times, these are consequential times. The United States must stand strong and understand what this battle is about; it's a battle of culture and civilization. Do we really live up to the motto that we're endowed by our Creator? That every human being, in and out of the United States, has a natural inclination to be free? The United States has its biggest challenges, and our business has its biggest challenges because people will be seeking out news, information, and differing opinions more than they ever have.
RI: Given that, what are your plans for the future of your show?
SH: Stop Hillary from being elected. I think it will be one of the most fascinating presidential races in history. That will be fun.
Comment on this story
|| From the Publisher