Steve Harvey: From King Of Comedy To Master Of Morning Radio (03/05/07)
Crossover success is hard to achieve in the entertainment business. Many radio stars try their hand at movies and TV, and many TV and movie stars try to conform their talents to radio. Some fall flat, while others thrive. Count Steve Harvey in the latter group. Years of success as stand-up comedian landed him the opportunity to star in his own TV sitcom, The Steve Harvey Show, which ran from 1996 to 2002.
In 2000 Harvey decided to try his hand at radio, launching The Steve Harvey Morning Show on Radio Oneís KKBT-Los Angeles. During his tenure there, the show was also heard on that companyís KBFB-Dallas, but in May 2005, Harvey and Radio One parted ways. Harvey signed on with Premiere Radio Networks that September, and began doing the show from ICBC Broadcast Holdingsí WBLS-New York. The show has grown steadily ever since, and is now heard in nearly 50 markets.
While Harvey has built his nationwide audience quickly, he says the secret to that success is fairly simple: laughter. ďIf I wasnít a stand-up, none of this show would work the way it does,Ē he says. ďWhen a DJ tells a joke on the air, he imagines thousands of people cracking up at their desk and behind the wheel of the car. He imagines that. Itís not imagination for me. I know that there are thousands of people cracking up because Iíve done my thing for 22 years behind the microphone, live in front of huge crowds, so I donít have the same anxiety as a DJ. What Iím doing in radio is different because I didnít go to the Columbia School of Broadcasting; Iím not your typical DJ guy. I donít know the rules, and Iíve broken every last rule over my radio career that you can break.Ē
By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief
RADIO INK: This issue of the magazine recognizes influential African Americans in all of radio, but you and Tom Joyner are the only two air talent on the list. How you feel about being included among so many high-level executives?
STEVE HARVEY: Itís an honor. But I also look at it as a huge responsibility. I donít just wake up to do radio, I wake up with a purpose for radio. And itís not to get paid; thatís a sideline. Iím not saying itís not major, because if they told me they werenít going to pay me anymore, there would be a situation, but that has nothing to do with the purpose or the message that I deliver in the morning. Iím just glad that people find it important enough to recognize me in the same breath as these pretty powerful people.
RI: You mention responsibility. Do you feel a responsibility to stay on the safer side since some of your affiliates have a lot of young listeners?
SH: Itís not really a worry of mine, because I never really work blue when it comes to television or radio. Up until this point in my career, Iíve saved all of the comments that included any profanity for the stage as a standup. Iíve even reduced that tremendously over the past few years. We have a lot of Hip-Hop stations that pick up the Steve Harvey morning show, but comedy can cross all barriers, and as long as you keep that comedy clean, funny is funny. A teenager will laugh at the same thing as a 50-year-old guy will, if I put it out there in the right way. I have been blessed and fortunate enough to have the very unique ability to tell it for the masses. I recently turned 50, but you know, Iím 50 and fly. Thereís not a lot of cats that can say that. Iíve got to be the flyest 50-year-old dude in the country because my attitude is always fresh. I donít have an old guyís attitude. I respect the fact that there are young people listening, and I phrase my message so young people get something from it, but also so an adult can relate to what Iím saying. We probably have one of the most relatable products on radio.
RI: Youíre on some Hop-Hop stations, but youíre also heard on other formats. When youíre out doing appearances, whoís coming up to you? Who are your listeners?
SH: I have such a cross-over market because I was a TV star for years before I went into radio. A lot of adults have been watching me on TV since Ď93. So the 14-year-old kid who was watching me then is 28 now. The 28-year-old guy who was watching me then is 42 now. Plus, Iíve done some movies and other stuff, so I bring a lot of people to the table in radio. So when a station picks me up and puts my face on an outdoor billboard campaign, people can look up and say, ďHey, thereís Steve Harvey. Heís on the radio now? Let me check that out.Ē
RI: Does the composition of your audience reflect the movement of traditionally Urban music and culture into the mainstream?
SH: Hereís the deal. When I was growing up, it was just one music, and we all listened. Hip-Hop created two different styles of music: It became for the young guys, and the Hip-Hoppers were saying, ďIf you old school, you ainít cool; you gotta get on this new groove.Ē That created a division in radio. Now you have stations that just play Hip-Hop, and others that just play R&B. But I donít understand what the division is about, because if Tyreese comes out with a record, Iím gonna make it hot. The same goes for Musiq, Beyonce, Fantasia, or Ruben Studdard; if they come out with new records, Iíll make them hot on my radio show. Iíll also play Jay Z or Tupac or some Hip-Hop that you can listen to without being offended, because I try not to do anything to offend my audience musically. As long as you donít do that, I think everybody will accept you. I bring in the younger guy who doesnít need to have Hip-Hop beat into his head all day; you can also hear some people youíve grown up listening to. At the same time, I bring the benefit of laughing, being inspired, and hearing some thought-provoking conversation.
RI: In terms of the showís revenue, do you still encounter advertisers who question the value of Urban radio listeners?
SH: Youíre going to have that until the end of time; I really believe that. But I donít know an advertiser who has the ignorant mindset to think black people donít use Pampers, donít drive Fords, donít need eyewear, donít use salt, donít drink Pepsi. I donít know a single product that doesnít touch our community. That said, there is still an element of ignorance among us as people, and I canít change that. I take advantage of my status with 18-34 and 25-54 age groups. We could truly say that weíre one of the few morning shows that can produce sizeable numbers in each category in every market weíre in. We make a dent 25-54 when we come to town, but what startles a lot of people is the 18-34 that we bring to the table. Now, if an advertiser doesnít want that, then they just donít want to advertise to our audience.
RI: What about locally? What do you hear from your affiliates?
SH: Itís a sad statement about our country, but all of the affiliates have struggles. When you have an Urban format, youíve got to convince people that they should advertise with you. And that is sad. I donít know what else has to be done to prove to advertisers ó and Iím just talking about the ones who donít advertise ó that we have an audience that uses your product. Black people do everything that everybody else does; we are 11-14 percent of the population, and when it comes to general market products, we are all over the board; we're a very, very viable people in that economic structure. I will say this to any advertiser: If our listeners that you want to call urban stopped using your product altogether, your company would be in trouble, whoever you are.
RI: Do you think Radio Ink and others should still be compiling lists like this?
SH: Yes, you have to. There has to be some horn-tooting to draw attention because people just donít know. Some people donít pay attention, or have never been exposed to the greatness of what so many African Americans have done and are continuing to do on a daily basis, making a huge dent in this business called radio. If people like you donít toot the horn, some people just wonít pay attention. If you donít ever listen to Urban radio or hire urban air personalities or play that music, you live in a world thatís false, thatís not indicative of our country. We are everywhere. Okay, we ainít real big in Montana or North Dakota, but nobody is. Thereís more cattle in Montana than there are people. But, when you come out of there and cross the rest of America, weíre everywhere. And, if you live in a world that does not contain us, youíre not really in the world as it is today. I see white people everywhere I go, and black people, and Latinos and Asians and Muslims. If youíve created this world that does not include everybody, youíre not really in America.
RI: Do you think society will ever get to the point where people stop talking race and just focus on individuals?
SH: In my lifetime, no, but eventually. I would love for it to happen so my children could have a different life. I would love for it to be, but in the meantime it is what it is. I donít mind the horn-blowing because it sends a message. You've got to look at the people who never even thought of it. Like the Super Bowl; there were two black coaches, and it was the first time a black head coach had ever appeared in a Super Bowl. So you say it a lot, because itís a major accomplishment, and it sheds light on the fact that for a time there were no black head coaches and nobody was saying nothing about that. It is kind of nice when you hear them mention it in a positive sense. When there were no black coaches, black people were just sitting in front of their TV in misery, saying, ďWow, we can play the game, but we canít teach the game? Help me understand that. Weíre some of the greatest players, but somehow we canít teach another guy how to do that? Somebody taught us how to play the game, and most of these kids grow up with black coaches, but once we get there, we canít teach?Ē Itís great that theyíre making noise about it, but it will be even greater the day that they donít have to make noise about it.
RI: How can radio, which isnít perceived as a cool medium, stay connected with young people who are into iPods and YouTube?
SH: We have to remember that radio becomes great because of the personalities. Radio is not great because of music, because everybodyís got music. We all play the same hits. I might beat you to a song, but yippee ó tomorrow, you beat me back. Radio should be personality-driven. Your radio station is ineffective when youíre playing 40 songs in row; 40 uninterrupted hits, and then what? Nobody sits in the car waiting on when youíre gonna play Jay Zís new one. But they will sit in their car, or wake up early, if they know they are going to hear something specific. Steve Harveyís Top 10 comes on at around 7:35, man, I gotta catch that. Youíve got to have stuff on your show that is so compelling, people have to listen. And, thatís what we do; this show is based around my talents and the talents of the people around me. We give them something to talk about, and thatís what makes it compelling. The more personality-driven radio becomes, the hipper and the cooler it is. You can play all the Hip-Hop you want, if the person playing it is not compelling, they have no reason to listen to your station.
RI: Youíve worked in industries that require a lot of preparation ó TV, stand up comedy. How much of your radio show is prep and how much is improv?
SH: Itís going to make people sick, but I do no show prep at all. I come in that booth at five minutes to 6 and I get started. When I open up the show with that 12 minutes of inspiration, Iíve been inspired by God. I really believe in God, so thereís really nothing that I have to prepare for. After that, my gift is off the top of my head, my gift is people, my gift is knowing how to read people, how to talk and how to generate comedy off the top of my head. We were told that when you do a syndicated show, youíve got to get a staff of writers to help you come up with ideas. We have no writers; you canít write an instant thought for me. Iím going to say whatís on my mind right there.
I do have people who put in a lot of prep, who read every e-mail that comes in. When I get the e-mails, Iím reading them for the first time and that keeps my answers and responses honest. The Top 10 is usually written on the two commercial breaks before it; I donít write them the night before. Today, Tommy wanted to know if I brought in some golf equipment. Around 7:05, Tommy said, ďMan, you didnít bring me a golf glove?Ē And I said, ĎWell, I bought you one, but it is too big, you donít wear XL, you got little hands. ďMy hands are not little, what size you wear?Ē So, todayís Top 10 was: Top 10 Things You Canít Do ĎCause You Got Little Hands. I wrote that on the two commercial breaks before, and you know how we know it was hysterical because people e-mailed us right away. ďSteve, Iím crying at my desk because you were talking about Tommyís little hands.Ē Thatís really how the show works, man.
RI: You donít ever worry that one day, the inspiration just wonít be there?
SH: Part of what makes the gift work is the pressure. Doing stand-up, the more people who paid to see me, the funnier Iím going to be because itís pressure. This is what God gave me to do. Itís like watching Tiger Woods play golf; you can go out there and play golf every day if you want to, but youíre not going to play like him, because that is his gift. Youíre just not. Iím sorry! Some days donít work as well as others ó I just have the faith that this is what I do, so Iím going to throw it out there. All of them ainít solid-gold hits, but a great percentage of them work.
RI: Do you think doing stand-up prepared you for being able to think on your feet like that?
SH: Absolutely. If I wasnít a stand-up, none of this show would work the way it does. When a DJ tells a joke on the air, he imagines thousands of people cracking up at their desk and behind the wheel of the car. He imagines >that. Itís not imagination for me. I know that there are thousands of people cracking up because Iíve done this thing for 22 years behind the microphone, live in front of huge crowds, so I donít have the same anxiety as a DJ. I listen to DJs all the time tell jokes, and I go, ďOK, he canít be serious with that one. Does he really think somebodyís laughing that hard at this?Ē Oh, his crew in the booth is howling, like itís the funniest thing heís ever said, but Iím sitting here going, ďThat isnít even remotely humorous.Ē But this is what I do, Iím a stand up.
RI: What did you think when you first started in radio? What were your preconceived notions about how radio would be, and what have you learned? What surprised you?
SH: I didnít know about formatics, this thing that you have to do all the time ó like tell people what time it is, what the traffic is, what the temperature outside is. You have to do these segments at the same time every day. That was a shocker to me, because I thought that if you did the same thing all the time, people would get used to it and say, ďOh, here he comes with the Top 10 again.Ē That stunned me. That was the most difficult thing for me to give in to. I thought if I just did it whenever I wanted to, it would make people have to listen to me longer to catch that segment. Well thatís stupid. Letís say a guy drives to work for one hour. If thatís the segment he likes to hear at 7:30, and you donít do it there, he doesnít get his segment. This may be the thing that he wants to hear, and people set their clocks by these segments. That was the toughest adjustment for me.
Being a stand-up man, I canít do the same joke in front of the same crowd twice. So how come you play this song at 6 and again at 7:30? We just played that. But itís a hit, and people set their clocks by this stuff. They expect certain things at certain times. That was a tough one for me, man; it killed the spontaneity. So what Iíve done is create segments that allow me to be spontaneous within these formatics. For instance, the e-mail bag is different every day. Itís a different e-mail, so even though I gotta do e-mails, itís a different one every day. Iíve gotta do Top 10, but I can make it different every day. That was a tough one for me.
RI: What would you like to change about radio?
SH: I love this radio show because of the spontaneity. Iím able to cover a majority of facets of myself: Iím a spiritual person to a degree, so I get to show that side. Iím a humanitarian, and I get to show that side. Iím a comedian, I get to show that side. Iím an entertainer, I get to show that side. Iíd like to get rid of all the music, and just talk for four hours. That would be great, but that would tick too many people off, so I have to play.
RI: You mentioned you donít work blue. Do you tell your guests and callers to watch what they say?
SH: Itís all live. Itís weird, but our audience gets the take on the temperature of the show. They see that weíre cool, that we go only this far. Weíve had our share of slip-ups, but nothing that was so disastrous. But I like working on the edge like that.
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