Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sam Malone of KRBE, KHMX talks to Mike McGuff

8/2009 update
Listen to Sam Malone again here!

Sam Malone is a morning radio institution in Houston. He's the voice you've had a cup of coffee with on 104.1 KRBE or 96.5 KHMX on the way to work for more than 15 years!

I caught up with Malone since he left Mix 96.5 KHMX to talk about if he'll ever hit the Houston airwaves again, why he left 104.1 KRBE and if he and Maria Todd are on speaking terms.

Mike McGuff: So first of all, everyone's going to want to know - what happened at Mix 96.5 KHMX? Why did you leave the morning show?

Sam Malone: Well, the station was put up for a forced sale. It was forcibly sold by (requirements of) the DOJ (Department of Justice). It demanded Clear Channel, say if you want this leveraged buyout to go through, you've got to divest of six stations around the country. Because Bain Capital and Thomas H Lee Partners (private equity firm that had agreed to acquire parts of Clear Channel) have interests in stations already in the market (Houston) so they already have a piece of, like my old station, 104. So, that's why they designated stations that must be sold. So, when stations didn't sell, they got into a little panic mode.

As they told me, it was a business decision, but you could tell it was like, OK, get rid of Sam; get rid of the contract. Now, it never sold. It ended up being swapped .

Mike: But, at this point, we don't know what's going to happen with KHMX and KLOL. I mean, the new owners, CBS, says it’s not going to change formats, but of course anything can happen at this point.

Sam: Oh God, yeah, anything. People always say, "We're not going to make any changes right now. We're happy with what we have."
I was at one station that was a Top 40 station. First got started in '88, and it was great. We had a downfall. Everything was OK, and boom, we went oldies [format]. I mean, I think when I left Friday, it was a Top 40 and Monday it was the oldies station.

Mike: Is that the scary thing about the radio industry, because there is a lot of uncertainty?

Sam: I think, the main thing scary about the radio industry, just a lot of people, they're very nervous. A lot of mangers get very nervous, and a lot of managers make very quick decisions on what they think they're going to need for today or tomorrow.

That oldies station crashed. And if you read the trades and you look at all the format changes, you'll see a lot of those, they'll change again. They'll change again. So they might try this format du jour, that format. You know, they might go to this whatever the format, like the jammin' format was real hot for a while and then that's gone.

There's a lot of uncertainties in accounting, a lot of uncertainties in sales, computer sales, a lot of uncertainties in retail, you know, automotive. But, nobody ever walks in and changes a Chevrolet into a plane. You know what I'm saying? Let's make planes today!

Mike: So, why weren't you able to say goodbye?

Sam: I don't know. I have no idea. I mean, literally, I remember doing a show, I think it was a Thursday, and I talked to Mark Steines. He was an old friend from Entertainment Tonight and then one of the actors from Grey's Anatomy, the new guy, the army major.

And I remember walking out of the studio and our operations manager was like, "Can we talk to you?" and I'm like, "Yeah, whatever." I was saying what's it about and he said, "Today's your last day. We're letting you go." And I remember saying, "OK, well, I'm going to say goodbye to coworkers," because we've had a wonderful relationship, but they're like, "No."

"Why not?"
"We have to leave now."
I'm like, "Well, I'm going to say goodbye to my crew."
"No, you have to leave now."
I'm like, "Well, I'll just go back to my office and email. I'll just leave."
"No, we've already locked you out."

And I'm like, "Well, I happen to have a beautiful big office with lots of stuff in it, so what about that?" "We'll have the movers ship it to your house." I'm like, "Well, what do I do?" They said, "Leave." And they walked me out. They had a guy walk me out to my car. And I'm like, "Do I look like a nut bag or something?"

Mike: What is that like? I mean, you're standing there hearing this. I guess, you're just kind of stunned at that point, right?

Sam: Well, you're stunned, but I made a lot of money for this station. We just hit phenomenally. We hit number one. The August book came out, and 30 days earlier I was like, "I'm number one in 18-49 women and number two in 25-54 women."

That's really good. I was surprised, I was like, "What? What?" So I mean, and I have a wonderful relationship, even with the operations manager, the guy who fired me. I was like, "Are you sure? All right. Well, I'll see you later. I'll talk to you later." Because he's such a nice guy.
I was really shocked to be let go and not to be able to say goodbye. I don't know. I don't get it. I don't know. And then they wiped me off the website right away, like 9:05 or 9:10, whatever, early that morning, like I didn't exist.

Mike: So, that day, it was already done?

Sam: It was already pre-planned, you know, whatever. And I remember people were like, "Oh, my God. You're off the website." And it's almost like the radio station was like, "Well, he never worked here. We have no idea who he is."

I don't know. I would let people say goodbye. I think it would have been a great cume builder to have a sponsored goodbye tour, introduce the new morning show.

I did that in Buffalo when I left. We had a 30 day goodbye thing, and it was tons of media and just sold the hell out of it. And then the new morning guy came on my show on the last day and I welcomed him. His name was Bruce. I said, "Good luck. I'm going to Houston." And it was TV cameras, members of the Buffalo Bills. It was just a good vibe.

And the listeners were appreciative because it's like, "Hey, I'm going now, but you're taking over." And here in Houston, it was like, "We don't know who he is. He doesn't exist. He's off the web page."

Mike: So, you've worked in Buffalo. Where else have you worked?

Sam: I started in Philadelphia for three years, and then went to Sarasota Park for three years. And then Buffalo for three years. And then here, it was 16 years.

Mike: For people who really don't know much about radio…that is an incredibly long time for someone to be in one city.

Sam: I think it's the record, at least in Houston. It's impossible to stay. I mean, we jokingly sat down with one of the trades and counted all the morning shows when I got here in '93. And the list was long. And there were names that we couldn't like, sometimes we would remember. Oh yeah, I remember! Oh, wait. So, sixteen years is a long time. It's going to be longer.

Mike: What do you owe that? How have you managed to survive?

Sam: I don't know. Lack of competition. You know, the one thing is we've never had really dominant, huge morning shows in this town, which is why I came here. You know, I'm not that great, it's just that nobody else was really that good.

And the other thing is I love the city. I really do. I mean, I love Houston. And when people get here, they're like they are the next market. Well. it's just a stopping ground, “I'll be two or three years in Houston, then I'll be in New York or L.A.”

And I just love the city. So, when you love it and you come on the air and you talk about the Rockets or the Texans or the mayor or the news anchor or people are doing goofy things, it's like you have a personal interest. I think, the people pick up that you have an interest in it, and they dig it, you know?

Mike: What do you like about the city?

Sam: It's so damn friendly. My hometown is Philadelphia and everyone is just mean. I mean, when you are driving, people are expressing themselves if they don't like your driving. Nobody looks at you in the elevator.

In Houston, they're just, "Hey! How are you doing?" You get on the elevator, "How are you doing? What floor?" You know, it's just a friendly city. It's just a great place to raise your kid and live.

Mike: Another station obviously that everyone associates you with is 104 KRBE. What made you leave there? Because that was obviously an incredibly successful run.

Sam: [laughs] It was. It was 12 years. And Clear Channel, as they told me, their line was, "We're just tired of getting beat by you. Would you just come work for us?" That's pretty much how they laid it out. Guy named Ken Charles.

Mike: So, that's a great compliment then.

Sam: Yeah, it was. So, they just made an offer that was just ridiculous. And I went to KRBE and I said, "My contract's up. You have right of first refusal. Here is the offer from Clear Channel, in writing." And they just said, "We cannot match this." So, I said, "See ya!" [laughs]

Mike: Speaking of that, where did your classic trademark line come from? How did that happen? Where did the "See ya" come from?

Sam: That is high school. That's Philadelphia high school talk. Tough guys don't ever say, "Take care. Look forward to going out and doing it again tomorrow for more beer and broads." It was always, "See ya!" And then you punch the guy when you say it. So, when we'd be out, you don't say, "Good-bye," because that's not very macho. It was always, "See ya!" And you'd just punch the person in the shoulder. Well, obviously, I can't walk around punching people. And that just became the way. In Philly, "Good-bye"? [laughs] I couldn't do that.

Mike: It's kind of like, I guess, the "howdy" here, right?

Sam: Howdy. Right. And if somebody went up north and did a morning show, they'd, "Howdy? Where the hell did you pick that up, redneck?"

Mike: How much of Philadelphia is still in you? I mean, how much of what we see of the Sam Malone on air do we kind of attribute to growing up in Philadelphia?

Sam: A lot. Philly, I grew up in a very blue-collar, tough neighborhood, so I really don't take a lot of gruff from people. I hang up on bad interviews. I hung up on Heath Ledger, hung up on Carmen Electra. I don't really have patience for bad manners and bad attitude. I can fly back to Philly and get that. So, a lot of times in radio, hosts are afraid and get uncomfortable when a guest sucks. It's like, "OK. You've got to go." So, as a Philly guy, I have no problem, [laughs] absolutely no problem, with Heath Ledger: "Dude, you're out. You're done. We're done with you. Good-bye."

Mike: What was he doing?

Sam: He was being a real jerk in an interview. I asked him about... He was dating, I think, Heather Graham at the time, and he goes, "I don't want to talk about Heather Graham." He says, "I'm here to plug my movie [he says in Australian accent]." Well, I said, "Good-bye" and hung up. And I remember Carmen Electra had that same attitude. So, being from Philly, you just don't have a lot of patience for bad manners, especially from a guest. That's the other thing. I throw people out of the studio. I mean, I have no problem with that. The sidekick, she's always like, "Oh my God!" [laughs] Get out. Get out of the studio. You're done.

Mike: It makes great radio, right?

Sam: [laughs] I always left the mike on when I throw people out of the studio. [laughs] Just in case.

Mike: [laughs] What's the audience reaction like when you kick those big stars off?

Sam: OK, how's this? When Heath Ledger died, the next morning I remember coming on the air, right? For like an hour, all people talked about was, "I remember when you hung up on Heath Ledger." So, for an hour, "I remember..." And I don't know if it's one of those things. I don't know if you actually heard it or heard about it, but it lasted - I mean, gosh, that was years ago, and he just passed away this past year. And the other thing is, people agree. They were like, "He was rude. And we're glad that you got him off the show because we don't want our children to get that kind of bad attitude."

I always feel, if you're coming on my show, you're selling something. Nobody goes on Letterman because they like Dave. They go on because they have a new movie, TV, whatever. You should at least be gracious, like, "Thanks for the exposure to come on your show and plug my movie or my whatever." That's when the Philly comes out of me. That's when it gets rowdy.

Mike: There are some morning shows, like in Houston, people would know Stevens and Pruett were kind of the shock jocks. But, you've been on top-40 stations, family stations. How much do you think about that when you're putting on a show? I mean, obviously, you do have, probably, kids in the car listening with mom or dad. How much does that play a part when you're planning the show?

Sam: Well, two things my wife has said, because we were talking about Howard Stern once, and I think he had signed, at that point, like a $20-million-a-year deal. This was a while back. And I said, "Wouldn't that be cool?" And she said, "No, I would never want you to do that, because I never want to be embarrassed by what you do." Right? And all the stuff. Obviously, it really led to a very strong marriage that he had with Alison (Stern's ex-wife).

Mike: Yeah. Right. [laughs]

Sam: And so she always said that: "Don't ever embarrass me."

And the other thing is now I'm a daddy. So my little boy's been in the car for years. He calls the show all the time. I know he's listening. You just can't say things that are blue or overly obvious. If you want to make a double entendre remark and you can mask it well enough that educated people can pick up on it and not kids, right? It'd be like if you have a kid and he's in a car and he's listening to some schmuck DJ saying, and your kid goes, "Daddy, what does that mean?" You're like, "Oh!"

That's what made us number one with women in the morning in Houston is by just being funny. But be as clean as possible. And if there's anything that may be questionable, let the guests say it. Let the guest be the one who says whatever and you go, "Hey, hey, hey. Family show." That's what I used to say all the time. [laughs] It's a family show. [laughs]

Mike: What makes a good host? Why do people listen to one person over another?

Sam: The research has found that the reason people listen is because they can relate quickly to that person. There's a million disc jockeys - well, maybe half a million after next week. [laughs] You're in a car, and a woman's in a car, and they listen. They like the voice, but then like, "Oh, OK. They're talking about things like, 'Hey, I was shopping at the mall, and, oh, yeah! I remember that person-in-line story."

And it's just being relatable. It's just telling stories that everyone can relate to, as often as possible. Sometimes they'll never be relatable, but they're enjoyable stories. Regis on "Regis and Kelly" will tell a story about he lives in a high-rise with Donald Trump. Nobody can relate, but it's an enjoyable story.

But, for the most part, Regis is relating. So, I always try to relate. And once in a while, you're going to tell a story about you and Elton John, or you're at the White House, or you on a private jet with somebody, and you'll just share it so they can enjoy the story.

Mike: How much of the show is spontaneous, and how much is planned out? Because I think people wouldn't realize how much you put into the show outside of the time you're on the air. It's not like you just kind of walk in and go.

Sam: No. You can't. There's a guy I worked with, though in Philly [laughs] who tried it. It didn't last.

The show, I always say - this is my opinion - is about 70 percent planned from the day before. Right? Like I'm here at the gym. I have my text, and I'm watching ESPN, and I'm like, "Oh, my God. Get Kris Brown on. He's going to kick. Make sure the Mayor is on and call Mary Hart” - because you're constantly thinking, but you walk in and Ken Lay dies. [slaps hand on table]

So, you have to be ready to throw out everything. That 70% should be what I call in the can. All morning I’ll be on the phone with the producer the whole time - you know, the kids at the station. It's this and that. Do we have the big sound bite from Britney Spears? Is the - whatever - survey ready? Do we have the video to put up on the web? [snaps fingers]. It's impossible to really walk in and do four hours. You can do it by one day - unprepared. You can't do it five days a week, 20 days a month.

Mike: Speaking of shows, I think everyone will associate Maria Todd with Sam Malone in this city.

Sam: Yeah.

Mike: You two were a big team.

Sam: My wife?

Mike: Exactly. Your work-wife. Right? How come you two work so well together? Is it just immediate chemistry that you can't explain or is there more than that?

Sam: I have no idea. I hired Maria in September of 1990 and we didn't get along. She was my news girl. She was just angry. Oh, my God she had so much anger. She had such a chip on her shoulder. At that point, I would wear nice sweaters and Dockside, whatever. She would have her Malcolm X shirt on and her Malcolm X hat on. She'd look at me and I was like, "Could we be anymore opposite?"
Something made her laugh one day. I said something and she'd just look at you like she wanted to fight, and she smiled. She has a beautiful smile. We were laughing and she started coming out of her shell. I don't know what it was. We just clicked at Buffalo in '92 or something. We realized that - as different as we are - we had so much in common intellectually. We love the same television shows. We love the same food. We love to eat. We both could eat a whole pig [snaps fingers] like that. [laughs] We both love this kind of movie. We both dig Laugh-in, Dick Van Dyke, Hill Street Blues, Bill's football, whatever.

We joined forces on the things that we liked. She is so talented. It wasn't even work with her. You could just say anything - packet of sugar. "Oh, let me tell you something about a packet of sugar." I would jump in and she would jump in. She was really good, really talented. I've been talking to her a lot. She's real sweet. She cracks me up.

Mike: So, she's now in San Francisco? Is that right?

Sam: Yeah.

Mike: How is she doing up there?

Sam: She's bitching about how expensive it is. I miss her and she misses me, because we just have that. Our old station manager called it "lightning in a bottle." It never happens in radio or TV where two people just click.

Mike: Yeah, because you can go through your whole career and never have another Maria Todd.

Sam: Yeah, she's just one-of-a-kind. She's self deprecating, which is so enjoyable. I put myself down like "I'm just a fat loser with a red mustache." She'd go, "Oh, no you aren't fat, but I look, you know. I'm 72 pounds too heavier than I was." It's just enjoyable.

When she tells stories about dating - women in radio want to be the know-all, the end-all, the prettiest, the smartest, "I don't know nothing."


Even if you open up the paper, "Let me see what it says. Oh my God, look who got married." She was an artist. She was a real radio artist. Good girl.

Mike: There was probably a lot of heart-ache when you left for MIX and you had to leave her behind.

Sam: It was tough. Our contracts were staggered so she couldn't leave. I told her I was going to do it. I said, "Listen, I can't turn this down. This is it."

Mike: Yeah.

Sam: When the contract is up, I'm pretty much a by-the-book-guy. So, it would be no hanky, panky with the contract. I just said, "When your contract is up, let me know." We have got to rock and roll together. They may want her to stay after this part.

It was tough, but we're still pretty close. It was just tough to getting away from having her on the radio. She's so talented.

Mike: When you first moved over to Clear Channel, you were doing KTRH, which was a new Sam for us. Right? You're doing news, you're doing commentary. Did you enjoy that?

Sam: I loved it. That's one of the things I really went over there for, aside from the benefits package, was the ability to do a two-hour AM talk show. It was unheard of from when I got out. Unheard of - not like it ever happened again, but they said, "You sound like you could do talk radio. Why don't we give you a show too." I'm like, [pause]. It was so cool to do that and - as I always say - continue the conversation. You can continue the conversation with your listeners, I'll be at 740, whatever. Aw! That was fun!

Mike: People might not understand that that's a big station; 740 has a booming signal. That's a big heritage news station.

Sam: Huge! I was blown away. When Ken Charles was putting together the package and said, "We think we have something for you in Talk." I was like, "Wow! Talk". It just opens you to a whole new avenue. Like here I used to be #1 with moms, but dads weren't really listening to me in the morning - not the kind of shows for them. They're more rock and roll kind of guys.

Then all of a sudden I'm talking to all these dads on AM Talk Radio. Now, I'm talking to moms in the morning and the dads during the midday - almost talking to the family. So, you hear callers say, "Well, my wife heard you say that this morning."

Mike: You've got the whole family.

Sam: I'm like, "Yeah, you know, it's amazing!"

Mike: What's next for Sam Malone?

Sam: Well, I have to get to my kid's school, but other than that... [laughs]. I have to sit out my non-compete (clause in contract that says host will not work at another Houston radio station for a determined period of time) which I did last time, and then I'll be back. The non-competes are immensely strict to the point where the whole [deal with the new station] could just collapse if you say the wrong thing.

Mike: Right.

Sam: So, all I'm going to say is, "I'll be back real soon.” [laughs]

I am enjoying this break. It's so refreshing. I feel stronger than ever, faster than ever, better than ever. I've had a chance to travel a lot. I want to travel again. I was able to go to Geneva, Switzerland, which who the hell has time to go Geneva? [laughter] It's one of those things like, "I don't know - Geneva?"

It's so nice. I've spent all this time, I take my boy to school every day. It's just so nice! I was at Tony's yesterday, having lunch with friends. I'm having lunch tomorrow. It's just one of those things. It's like I’m sure you get busy and you always think, "I would like to have lunch with that person. If only I had time. If only I could get to New York for Christmas and see the Spectacular and walk Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, or something like that."

It's a chance to do it. Sleeping late isn't too bad.

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