Monday, July 16, 2007

Ken Hoffman of the Houston Chronicle talks to Mike McGuff

Ken Hoffman's column is one of the most read features in the Houston Chronicle. Hoffman was nice enough to sit down for an interview with me on the Mike McGuff Blog to talk about his column, the Houston Post, his syndicated work and his new radio show on 1560 KILE among other things.


Mike McGuff: Where did you work before Houston?

Ken Hoffman: I worked in Phoenix Arizona for the Phoenix Gazette newspaper.
It folded and then I came to work for the Houston Post and it folded also.

Mike: So you're having a bad track record so far.

Ken: Not me. The papers are. I'm doing OK.

Mike: What did you do over in Phoenix?

Ken: Same thing I do here.

Mike: So you started out as a columnist?

Ken: I was a television columnist at the Phoenix Gazette, and I was a television columnist when I joined the Houston Post. And I moved on up to do the job I do know. I was very lucky that when the Post closed that 1) the Houston Chronicle hired me and 2) that the Chronicle allowed me to continue my column. So I was very lucky and fortunate. I didn't have to move.

Mike: How did the TV column change into what you do today, which is just kind of Ken Hoffman?

Ken: Because I was doing a general column anyway as a TV column. It's just much more enjoyable for me to do a general column because I can write about anything that's out there. You know, television -- I love television. I'm trying to cut my television back to maybe 12, 14 hours a day.

Mike: Is that going to be difficult?

Ken: It's very difficult, you know? Because I like to keep it at around 16 to 18.

Mike: Well, I'm sure the TV stations appreciate that.

Ken: Yeah, the TV stations and I get along. But even when I did a television column it was very similar to what I do now. I'm just trying to write things that people find the time to read. Television is just trying to put on stuff that people want to watch, so the actual stuff that's on television isn't about television. It's about normal things. So I was writing about normal things anyway.

And the Houston Post was trying to find anything that would work. So they allowed me to shift focus a little bit but it's not much different.

Mike: I have to admit, we were always a Chronicle family. My grandmother did get the Post. When that place shut down, where were you at that point?

Ken: I was in the building. I was maybe five to ten feet away from the editor who stood on a desk and made the announcement. We all knew it was coming, but it was still devastating to all of us and to me personally. I had to go to the unemployment office. It was very hard because we all had a great affection for the Houston Post.

People talk about how it's a terrible thing for journalism, but for me it was just a terrible thing for me personally. Also, I had a lot of terrific friends at the Post, and it's a hard thing to lose your job. I use to watch TV and see that General Motors is laying off 25,000 people, and just click the remote because it's a boring story. But now maybe I have a little more empathy for those kinds of stories.

Mike: What did you think was going to happen at that point? You have no job at this point. Did you think you were going to have to move?

Ken: Well, I applied to newspapers around the country in warm weather climates. I was hoping for the best. One thing that happened that I found almost entertaining looking back is that I got a letter from the Anchorage Daily News telling me that thought I was a good writer but they didn't have any openings at this time. I never even applied for a job at this paper and I was being rejected.

I wrote back saying, "Things are tough enough. I don't need papers in the coldest state in the country to reject me even after I didn't apply." It was unbelievable. I guess a sister paper must have forwarded my stuff up there.

Then I got rejections... I got one from the Austin paper telling me how wonderful they thought I was and went on and on and on. And then at the end they said, "But, we don't have any openings, sorry." I kept looking through, like "Where's the job offer here?" It was the nicest letter I ever got. I've gotten worse letters from papers that were offering me a job.

Mike: That's got to make you feel good though.

Ken: Oh, the editor of Austin paper said, "Oh my mother reads you everyday. You're her favorite columnist." I go, "This is not helping." You know?

Mike: How'd the Chronicle job happen?

Ken: Like most people at the Post, I applied for a job at the Chronicle. I interviewed several times. Whatever their screening process was I must have passed it. But there was a three month period in-between.

It was weird. I had nine weeks severance pay plus four weeks vacation. So I had 13 weeks of pay, and on the 13th week the Chronicle offered me a job. It's almost like they were watching. "Let's squeeze this guy for every penny he's got," you know? But it was a coincidence. So, I waited 13 weeks before the Chronicle offered me a job.

Mike: And did they say, "We just want you to be Ken Hoffman. Continue what you did at the Post." Or did that take a little bit of negotiation?

Ken: No, no, no. They offered me a job as a columnist. I just resumed. Life resumed. In the meantime, I painted the inside of my house. And then I had to hire somebody to paint over what I had painted. But it was weird being unemployed. It wasn't fun. Maybe it made me a more sensitive person, because even though it's been 12 years I remember that stuff. It was a difficult period to go through, being unemployed.

Mike: People think it's a great time to relax.

Ken: No, they're wrong. I didn't go to the beach. I didn't travel, because I was worried about resuming my career. So I didn't have to move and I continued as a columnist at my hometown paper. So I feel very fortunate and appreciative to the Chronicle for hiring me.

Mike: You talk about being a former TV columnist. You still write about that, and you specifically focus a lot on TV news. What fascinates you about that?

Ken: Well it's the only local stuff there is, TV news. If they were doing local entertainment shows I would write about those. It's not that I'm fascinated by it -- that's an area that people enjoy reading about because people watch the local news. I try to write about things that people are interested in.

So when I go out to lunch with Wayne Dolcefino it is as though I'm sitting there with a celebrity. People come in and I watch other people watch him. People don't draw a distinction between network entertainment shows and local shows. They just see someone on television that's an important person.

So these people are important in their lives. If I write about an anchorwoman who's getting married or having a baby, people love reading that stuff. So I try to write about things Chronicle readers are interested in. So it just plays hand and hand.

Mike: What about TV weathermen? That's been a topic lately in your column.

Ken: TV weathermen need to go. A guy who goes into a Stop-N-Go at night with a mask on and robs them has more integrity than a TV weatherman. They talk about hurricanes and hurricanes, and they just fired the head of National Hurricane Center because forecasters thought they weren't being allowed to do their jobs as effectively.

So now they're admitting what I've been saying for the last few years, that these guys don't know what they are talking about. They scare people to death. I watched a weatherman the other night saying, "Yes, it's very calm. But that doesn't mean it can't change."

And the fact that one channel calls it the Severe Weather Center, and your station is now using the word "severe" in its "Severe Weather Doppler" or whatever it's called. The word "severe" is in there. How many days a year do we have severe weather? It rains heavily occasionally, and nothing bad happens.

When Hurricane Rita was threatening us, what the TV weathermen did was as irresponsible as anything I've ever seen. And I'm the most irresponsible... the second most irresponsible person in Houston. But the weathermen have me topped. They're horrible. I would love to hook them up to a lie detector machine and ask them, "Do you want a hurricane to hit us?" I guarantee it would come up "yes".

And they're all bad. It's not just one of them. They all have to worry if one guy's going to get a leg up on them. After Hurricane Rita is now drizzling in Windsor, Ontario they had an arrow pointing back to us, you know? Like for the first time this thing was going to regain strength, come back and hit us. It was just unbelievable.

I believe it drizzled in Houston that weekend.

They were wrong, and they never admit they're wrong. I never really paid attention to weather, and then I became a little league baseball coach, so now I have to plan practices. So I actually started paying attention to the weather because if it's going to rain Thursday afternoon we can't have a practice.

They're wrong so much, it's out of control. And they never come back and say, "I was wrong." When I make a mistake in my column I print a retraction. I say I goofed up. I would love to see a weatherman say, "Yesterday I said it was going to rain, but it was sunny all day."

One time they said there was going to be severe thundershowers, and we had practice. The only problem we had is that we didn't have enough sunscreen that day.

They're the worst. They're all irresponsible. And the fact that they all lead with the weather now baffles me. It's like, "We're wrong, we stink, but let's move it higher up in the newscast." They're all bad.

Mike: So what is your typical day like? How do plan what goes into the column? Do you actually go into the Chronicle a lot or do you work from home?

Ken: No, I work out of my home. Because the nature of writing a column, especially with the Internet, it's very interactive with the readers and with the people I write about. So a lot of it is people email and tell me, "This is happening, this is happening." And they say, "Here's the phone number."

I'll give you an example. A Houston guy has just been hired by John Fogerty to be his lead guitarist. He's working on a new album with John Fogerty, who is one of my heroes. So I'll call this guy up, I'm going to do a column about a graduate of a local high school is now working in John Fogerty's band. That to me is an interesting column. And he's going to go on tour with John Fogerty.

So a lot of it is just being responsive to what people are interested and what I'm interested in. But I hope the two tastes are similar.

Mike: How did you come up with the 'Pethouse Pet of the Week?'

Ken: The homeless pet of the week feature -- every newspaper has this. They typically will show a picture of a dog and there will be three sentences below it, "If Bingo isn't adopted by Tuesday, he gets it." So when you do something boring and tedious no one's going to read it.

The Chronicle didn't have a homeless pet feature, so I thought I would do one but I'd try to make it a little more entertaining and readable. So I copy what centerfolds in Playboy magazine do, where they have: "Money isn't important to me, I'm looking for a guy with a sense of humor."

Yeah really? You always see these centerfolds with Martin Short, you know? So I just do it as though it's a Playboy centerfold, but it's a dog. But it's just me saying random thoughts.

Mike: And those dogs are actually getting adopted all the time, right?

Ken: They've never missed. But it's more than that. In the beginning they were giving me hard to place dogs like a three-legged dog or a dog that stuttered: "Bu - bu - bu - bow wow", that kind of thing. And that dog would get adopted. But now we've changed it where we run a really cute dog, and so maybe 20 or 30 people show up trying to adopt that dog. And once they're in there, they're leaving with a dog. And that dog goes out at 11:01 every week. So ten times 52, ten years. But it's much, much more than that.

Of all the things I do, that's the one thing that I actually see something positive is done. The other stuff is meaningless. It's stupid, you know?

Mike: People enjoy it.

Ken: Yeah, I really hope they do. But I am an animal rights guy, so I like the fact homeless dogs are being adopted because of something I do. I won't get rejected from it. I'll go straight to Hell a little bit slower than I normally would.

Mike: A lot of people might not know that you also have a nationally syndicated column.

Ken: 'The Drive Thru Gourmet.' When I joined the Chronicle, they were starting a thing called the Dining Guide, and they were going to review restaurants. So I was just sitting there, and they asked me if I would review restaurants, and I said, "I don't know anything about food, I rarely eat sitting down."

So I said, "How about if I review McDonalds, and Burger King, and Wendy's, and KFC, and places like that." And the person who ran the section didn't think it would work. But I said, "Well, give it a try." So we tried it, and I could tell it was working, because I was getting emails and reaction to it. So then, real shortly after, I got a phone call from King Features Syndicate in New York, which is the biggest syndicator of newspaper columns in the world, and they asked if they could syndicate my fast food reviews. So now I'm in papers across the country. And once a month, I'm very appreciative of that. If something comes in the mail.

But the reviews are real. I try to make them funny, but all the information in there is correct. But I try to make it entertaining, you know. Because you can't write about the Whopper week after week, and you know... it's pretty much the same hamburger.

Mike: Do you ever travel, I mean since you are nationwide, do you travel to different fast food places that might not be in Houston?

Ken: No, I have to do them... I wrote about a local place one time, and I got a letter from the editor in some paper in Washington State, saying, "This is unfair to us, we don't have this restaurant." So I only review the national chains.

The one that people think is national, because of its advertising, is Jack in the Box. Jack in the Box is only in about 16 states, but the commercials are so funny and so creative that people think, "Wow, this must be a national company!"

Mike: Right.

Ken: So I can't do Jack in the Box. But there are 50 or 60 national companies, so it's never a problem.

Mike: What's a favorite restaurant that is not here, that you hope we get here?

Ken: Oh, there's... I always hear about this place called In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles.

People LOVE that place. But it's only in Los Angeles and California, or maybe in Phoenix now, but it's not here, so... And I've eaten there, but I can't write about it. But you know... that's not a problem. I don't think they're going to go national. It's hard to go from two states to national, you know. But as long as the Olive Garden is out there, and Dairy Queen is out there…there's way more than you think you know, like Quiznos.

It really comes to 50 or 60 of these places. So if I do them once a year, it's more than enough. I also do IHOP, and Denny's... places like that. That's the fun part of my job. I like writing about that stuff.

Mike: And it's good that you do the MS 150 too.

Ken: Well, I eat... I live an unhealthy lifestyle for 51 weeks a year, and then one week I ride my bike to Austin, and I think, "We're even." And you can say that at my funeral.

[laughter]

Mike: You've been appearing on Houston radio for how many years now?

Ken: Yeah, John Lander and the Q Morning Zoo. I had never been to radio station in my life, and he called me up one day and said, "Would you write trivia questions for me?" So I said sure, because I listened to John. I would wake up and listen to him. I thought that he was terrific and I thought Mr. Leonard was terrific. That show was great.

So when he called me up, I was really flattered that he would ask me to write trivia questions for him. So then he said, "Come up to the station," so I could watch how they do it. And then I started writing the comedy bits for Lander. And then he hired me to be on the show. So I've always had a little bit of a part-time job on the radio just so I could get money for soda and candy. You know, wax lips and candy cigarettes, stuff like that.

It's never been that important to me, and because it was never that important to me, it was just pure fun to do it. So when something isn't life or death, it's easy to have fun on it. So, I enjoy that. But I've never done it like this; with KPRC, it was once a week, an hour with Michael Berry or an hour with Pat Gray. And it's really only 45 minutes. So, 45 minutes flies by.

Mike: Yes, and now you are actually going in to get your own show at 1560 KILE, or whatever it's eventually going to be called. They rumor that's going to be sports/guy talk. What are you going to do? Do you have any concrete idea at this point?

Ken: Yeah, I'm going to do a show from noon to 2p.m. and it will be a lot about sports, because I'm a sports junkie. But it's also going to be entertainment and things like that. Not guy-talk. When people hear "guy-talk", they think Howard Stern; it's not going to be like that. But it will be... like, if someone is playing the Woodlands that night, I'm going to try to get the entertainer in the studios. It's going to be more sports entertainment type thing. Hopefully it'll be that. I don't know what it's going to be. I know it is going to be two hours.

Mike: Are you nervous about actually going out on your own like that?

Ken: Yeah! I'm nervous and excited by it, because it's something new, and I want to try to do a good job, I'm hoping that it's successful. And I think that the station is going to be successful, because it's going to have a lot of people that are well known in Houston, and these are also my friends. John Granato is a friend of mine, and Sean Pendergast, the Cablinasian from the Jim Rome show, is a friend of mine, so it's a chance to do something new with friends. And so I'm going to take a shot at it. I hope I do well. I hope the station does well.

Mike: Being that the station is locally owned, is that going to get you closer to the community, give you more options, you know, outside of the kind of corporate world radio that we have today?

Ken: I don't know. If you're talking about this station vs. Clear Channel, I think Clear Channel is trying to do the best possible show it can do, and to be as local as it possibly can, so I don't think the mission is any different. I think KPRC and Clear Channel stations are trying to get a 100% of the listeners, and we're going to try to get a 100% of the listeners.

But Clear Channel is not putting out a show that doesn't have local flavor. They are trying their best to be local. Especially KPRC which is loaded up with local people.

Ken: But there are other stations that are doing it too. CBS has a lot of local shows, and CBS is a corporate New York company. But KILT (AM), the sports station, they're mostly local now. You know.

Mike: Will we hear Jimmy Buffett on the new show?

Ken: You're going to hear... his music?

Mike: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. Oh, I'm going to have, you know, bumper music. One of the things I didn't like about being on KPRC is that they played this song to introduce me, and it was really insulting, and I asked them not to do it, and they continued to do it. That helped me leave that station.

Mike: What was it?

Ken: It was a song Michael Berry picked, called "You Don't Have to Be a Star to Be on My Show."

Mike: [laughs]

Ken: And I don't like that song, I don't like that kind of music, and I asked him not to play it. And he said, "It's funny, and it's me kind of insulting, it's insulting..." he said it! "It's insulting to you." And I said, "Then why would you do it?" And he said, "It's funny." And I said, "I don't think it's funny." And he never changed it, so when there was an opportunity to leave, that made it a little bit easier.

Mike: Yeah, because you'll be a star on your own station now.

Ken: I won't be a star, but I'll be able to play Beatles songs and Jimmy Buffett, instead of "You Don't Have to Be a Star" by Billy Davis Jr. & Marilyn McCoo. They're not on my iPod.

[Interview end]

I usually ask folks I'm interviewing if they read any Houston blogs. I forgot to ask Hoffman on the day of the interview, but later did via email and here is how he replied to me:

I'm not a big blog reader. I do read your blog and blogHOUSTON as a news source, not so much for the discussion element.

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