In February of 2009, after 21 years of outraging Southern California drive time radio listeners, as well as a nationally syndicated audience, longtime LA radio shock jock Tom Leykis left the air . As so often happens in the radio business, listeners were left wondering why he was gone and where he went. One thing was for sure, his departure left a massive hole in the world of his listeners, as well as the radio landscape. Those who have listened to Tom Leykis at length know that he is not the type of man that would fade quietly into the night. He spent his time off-air hatching a plan that would bring him back to the forefront of audio entertainment — a plan that just might serve as one of the final nails in the coffin of the arcane radio industry. On April 2nd, Leykis triumphantly returned to his masses of adoring fans with a new daily show and proved he hadn’t lost a step after an amazing 37 months off the air! As he will be quick to tell you, radio is not the industry it once was and this time, so he’s taking no chances of being made invisible again by the brick-and-mortar terrestrial radio industry. How does he plan on doing it you ask? Easily! This time “The Tom Leykis Show” will be delivered to the people unfiltered via the internet where it can be heard live and on 24/7 streamed replays at www.blowmeuptom.com as well as through media players such as the TuneIn application for Android phones and iPhones — anywhere but on terrestrial radio! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tom Leykis to discuss his humble beginnings, his abrupt departure from the airwaves, blazing the trail of an exciting new medium and much more! Without further ado, “Helllllllooooooo, Tom!”
Tom, we are excited to talk to you. First off, we wanted to welcome you back and congratulate you on the return of The Tom Leykis Show!
Thank you very much!
We always like to give our readers a little background on who we are talking to. You made a tremendous career for yourself. How did you initially get involved with broadcasting?
It all started when I won a contest when I was 14 years old! A radio station had offered an hour of time to a high school student who wrote the best letter. I wrote a letter and they called me to come down to the radio station. That was in Babylon, Long Island — New York. That was where I was at the time.
What was it about that medium that made you pursue it as a career?
Well, I saw you could make money at it and I liked the idea of making money!
[laughs] There is nothing wrong with that idea!
No, not at all! [laughs]
Looking back on the early days of your career, did you think you would be still going strong all these years later?
I would never have believed I got as far as I have gotten, quite frankly. I grew up in a dirt poor working class family in the Bronx. We lived in the South Bronx in an $80 a month, one bedroom apartment with four kids. I had no right to believe that I would ever reach the heights that I have been able to reach or make the money I have been able to make by doing what I love. A lot of people I grew up with were not as lucky.
To what do you attribute your longevity?
I read a lot, I pay attention to what is going on and I always give the listener what they want and I never worry about criticism from people who say my content is edgy or tasteless. I never listen to criticism. I never worry about what people think except for the people in my audience. Those are the only people whose thoughts matter to me and I give them exactly what they ask for no matter what others think.
And we appreciate that, sir!
Can you tell us a little bit about your departure from terrestrial radio a few years back?
The business of radio, the actual business of it, is imploding as we speak. People love radio content. They love audio content. I mean, you can’t drive around and watch television! You can’t look at a screen. Many times when you are on a plane you may just want to close your eyes and listen to something. People want audio content but the radio is an outdated, outmoded appliance. Many people confuse the content of what is on radio with the appliance. In other words, they say, “Oh, this is radio.” In reality, our audio content isn’t treated that way. The example I like to use is of the Rolling Stones. When Americans first heard the Rolling Stones they were being played on vinyl, on 45s. When the 8 track tape came out, no one said, “The Rolling Stones, that is a vinyl act! That will never work on tape!” [laughs] No, it was audio content and it went to another medium. Then cassettes came out and the Rolling Stones went to cassette and then they went on to CDs. There was never any question that the audio content would transcend the appliance. In the radio business, because radio has been around so long and people have so many romantic notions about it. Example — the iconic scene in the film “American Graffiti” in which Richard Dreyfuss is spying on Wolfman Jack in his studio. He is watching from a distance and he gets to meet his idol. We have such a romance, such a passion about the history of radio, we don’t imagine decoupling the content from the appliance. But the reality is that people want the content but the radio business is in such trouble right now, we have to find other ways to get it to people. People want to have their content on any kind of gadget, be it iPhone, Android, iPads and even Blackberries for heaven’s sake, and they want their content when they want it! They want it now! Radio has not responded to the demands of the public. They make it very complicated to find radio content online and have been dragging their feet about providing podcasts in a usable form and a customer friendly form. They still have this idea that radio is complacent listening and that people are going to tune in at a particular time. The reality is that Steve Jobs or any number of other people in the technology field have said, “People want their content wherever, whenever, however and on any device.” Radio has not provided that to the public, so we took what was a radio show and we are giving the people what they want in every possible way. You can listen to us on any device except a radio! Anywhere, any time. Our stream is on 24/7! If you can’t listen to us live from 3 to 6 or 3 to 7 p.m. PST, we run different lengths every day, it continues to repeat 24 hours a day! It is always on. We have hundreds and hundreds of listeners at 3 a.m. People listen from around the world!
The other limitation in the radio business is the arcane syndication system of radio, where syndicated shows are heard in some cities but not others. Our show was wildly popular in New York, Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas but it couldn’t even get on the air in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and most of the time, New York City! But now, because we are distributed by Internet, we can be heard anywhere on Earth with an Internet connection and no people are going to act as funnels. There was a guy in New York that I like to talk about. He is the program director of WFAN radio named Mark Chernoff. He was once the program director of an FM talk station in New York called WNEW FM. We were talking to him about the show being on the station on a regular basis. He said, “This show will never work in New York.” Now, that may be true or it may not be true but how do you know until the people have had a chance to listen to it? You know, the way TV works is, let’s say ABC put a new show on Sunday nights. They put it on and it is on in every city where ABC broadcasts. They don’t say it is on in LA and Seattle but it is not on in Chicago! [laughs] It’s just not done that way! With the Internet, it is the great equalizing force! Anyone, anywhere can listen to my show and decide whether or not it is for them. No curator or as we call them, human funnels, the people who funnel content so only certain content gets to your ears and other content does not. Now, we don’t have to deal with the opinions of individuals.
Was it difficult for you to be away from the scene for so long and how excited are you to be back up and running at full steam?
To be honest with you, the 37 months that I had off, a little over three years, was the best thing that have ever happened to me. The last six months that I had been working in radio, we had been coming in to work everyday knowing that the format might change. It was not a very happy time. I spent that first year just chilling out because I hadn’t had time off since 1994, except for normal vacations and weekends. I really hadn’t had any substantial time to myself. At the end of that first year, that is when I had the idea to create my own company and create my own safe place to create content that people really want instead of using the radio model of trying to monopolize as many radio stations as possible and then shove stuff down your throat. That is the way it works now. I have a ranch up in northern Santa Barbara County and you turn on the radio at 12 noon, AM radio, and it is Sean Hannity, Sean Hannity, Sean Hannity, Sean Hannity, Sean Hannity! Every station is playing the same thing. We wanted to create a place where people could find all new stuff, all new content and not niche content — mass appeal content that doesn’t necessarily spend the entire day discussing Obamacare all day long!
Tell us more about the new format and content you are offering up when listeners hit www.blowmeuptom.com and the options they have there.
First of all, you get all of the options to listen to the show. There is complete information about every media player and how to listen to us on WinAmp, SHOUTcast, TuneIn and all of the devices. You also get access to our other content. We have three 24/7 music formats. There is an active rock format, a Top 40 format and an Indie Music format. We also have a number of podcasts which we produce, including a wine tasting show that I have been doing for years that is also a syndicated radio show. We have two other personalities who do shows related to alcohol, in one way or another. That is done by a fellow named Dan Dunn who was the wine and spirits editor at Playboy magazine, the so-called “The Imbiber.” There is Natalie Bovis, who is a blogger who calls himself “The Liquid Muse.” He has a podcast called “One of The Road.” Finally, we have “The Gary and Dino Show” which was our first original program developed specifically for the Internet. Gary Zabransky is the producer of “The Tom Leykis Show” and Dean DeMilio was the screener. We gave them a place where they could develop their own act and their own show which they have been doing for a couple of years now and it is just hysterically funny. Even though we have continued producing “The Tom Leykis Show,” the “Gary and Dino Show” continues as well!
You told us about the evolution of radio and how it affected the show and made content key. How do you feel you evolved in the process? Is that something you pay attention to?
Well, I pay attention to what people are talking about. When you do what I do, and no one ever thinks about it this way, and thank God because I have very little competition … [laughs] and I do what I do as a result, is pay attention to what people care about and talk about that! Where people go astray in my business is they forget why they are there! I am there to A) draw as many listeners as possible, B) take those numbers and sell them to ad agencies and C) monetize all of that content. That is my job. My job is not to get presidents elected or voted out of office. My job is not to help a particular political party. I am not here to run for any political office myself.
I am not here to change the world. I am here to entertain people who have a little time to kill! Then, we sell a little advertising and hopefully they listen to the ads in between. I am amazed at the number of people who take themselves so seriously, just look at all of the conservative talk shows on talk radio! These guys all take themselves very seriously and they think they are somehow making a difference in politics but last time I looked, the president is Barack Obama! In California, both of the senators are both Democrats, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. The governor of California, who couldn’t be more of a liberal, is Jerry Brown. The mayor of Los Angeles is Antonio Villaraigosa! So, from where I am sitting, you have conservative talk radio and all of these people acting like they are so important but they can’t get anybody elected. They can’t! And Obama is going to win again despite conservative talk radio! These guys, it’s all an act. Look, I worked in talk radio and I know how it works. It is all an act by all of these guys but to anyone who believes they have any power, look at the results!
You tend to put it all out there on a daily basis but what do you think the biggest misconception is about yourself at this point in time?
Many people confuse what I do on the air with what kind of person I am. They somehow think I am manifestly irresponsible, dangerous or that I just do any old thing. What they don’t know about me is that I am a businessman and that every move I make is calculated to make a living and to make money. I may sound irresponsible but I am a self-made multi-millionaire who has made a living for years being on the radio and now I aim to do it on the Internet! It is done by treating it in a business way and by never treating it in such a way that it is an ego trip or that it is anything but a show to be an advertising vehicle.
Do you think there will ever be a point where we get an autobiography out of you to learn more about the man behind the mic and all of your endeavors? I imagine that would be quite a read!
I don’t think it is impossible! I haven’t even thought about it at this point because I am so busy living my life, I haven’t had a lot of time to be introspective about it at this point. To me, I feel that I am in the most dynamic period of my life where I am not only doing a show but I also own and am running a business. I invested a million dollars to start this business. I took on no partners, no bank loans, nothing, to start this business on my own. For me, it is a big crap shoot and I am working very hard to make it pay off! It would be a luxury to sit there, take notes and write down everything that has happened to me over the years because it is still happening.
Despite the current state of the radio industry, I am sure there are many out there still pursuing it as a potential career. What advice do you have for them?
Don’t go to radio. Radio is dying and I don’t say that happily. Radio was my best friend. I think of radio today as if I have a friend for many, many years who is now very, very sick. We can’t plan to take vacations together or go to the beach anymore or party anymore. All I can do is visit him in the hospital every once so often and make sure he is comfortable. That is how I see radio today. I am not happy that radio is dying but it is finally meeting the same ignominious end that the Pony Express, the icebox and the local corner grocery store had to deal with. The business has been Gordon Gecko’d, it has been squeezed like an orange and the result is that working in radio is like working on the first floor of the World Trade Center on September 11th and wondering what is going on. I am sad to see that and frankly, I would have much rather gone to a radio station and continued doing what we were doing that way but unfortunately the government has allowed people to own, essentially, an unlimited number of radio stations. The result is that people have done in this business what they have done in so many others, they borrowed billions of dollars and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in debt services to finance these purchases and when the economy fell off a cliff in 2008, these companies couldn’t make the money back. They were like the underwater homeowners that you find in various American suburbs. It is like the people living here in southern California in Corona or Palmdale who bought houses that sell for $100,000 and they bought them for half a million and now they are underwater. Radio is exactly like that right now. These companies on 800 or 1,000 radio stations and they are underwater. They can’t pay! What do they do in return? They fire hundreds upon thousands of people and replace them with these syndicated programs and play it everywhere — all with the same content and format. It is sad.
I will give you an example. I was at Yosemite National Park not too long ago and I was on my way home. It was about two hours from the hotel inside the park, The Ahwahnee, before you reach the exit to the park. A half an hour later, I am passing through Fresno. Clear Channel still has a number of radio stations in Fresno and we were listening to one of them. At the end of the song, a voice came on the radio and said “That was Taylor Swift. I’m Ryan Seacrest and we have more coming up!” It didn’t tell us what city it was, the name of the station or what frequency it was at. It was the disembodied voice of Ryan Seacrest coming out of a machine! That is not what people listen to the radio for! People want to get information and be kept company. They want to feel like they know the people on the radio. They don’t want to listen to a tape of Ryan Seacrest! [laughs] The radio business is going to find this out as time goes on.
I still believe in the magic of radio. It is very much like “The Wizard of Oz” and going behind that curtain and finding out it is just a guy with a big microphone! [laughs] It is very much like that! There is magic in radio if it is done right! But if you turn it into nothing more than a jukebox with a bunch of disembodied voices, eventually the people will begin to drift away and it is already happening. It is sad and I am not happy to say it but it is true.
It seems you are in a great place creatively these days. What do you feel the future holds for you? No plans on packing it anytime soon, I hope!
Oh, no! No, I am definitely not packing it in any time soon. I am having the most fun I have had in 20 years — not just doing the show but the whole package, from the technical end of getting it up and running and how hard we had to work to get an Internet show to sound like a radio show. I mean, we could have been a podcast and I could have sat at my kitchen table with a can and a string and recorded a show and dumped it out for the public to listen to but we decided to have a real studio and do it live! We have live interaction and live phone calls. Very few people are doing that specifically for the Internet and I would say even fewer even have any background in the radio business and know how to do it that way. As we are looking back from the day we are recording this, (April 10th, 2012) SHOUTcast has us as the number three stream in the world! At that point, it was only our seventh show! I think we are in a very good position here and I think we are the number one or two talk show on an Internet stream. Keep in mind that SHOUTcast has over 53,000 streams at any given time!
That is awesome! Is there anything you would like to add before you are on your way to the studio?
I just want to tell people that they can hear our content 24/7 on www.blowmeuptom.com. We really encourage people to come and check out what we are building here. If someone has a great idea for a show and they are willing to roll the dice and put the content up, we would help them and have them share the revenue with us. We are more than happy to talk to folks about that! All I want to say is that we love being on the Internet, I miss radio and I feel bad that it is in such terrible shape right now. Most of all, I am very optimistic about the future!
Tom, it has been a pleasure getting a glimpse into your world. The show sounds fantastic and we are proud to help spread the word on it. Thank you for your time today, sir!
Thank you! I have enjoyed it very much! Any time!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.