JUPITER, Fla — Longtime radio innovator, Salem Radio Network VP/content Lee Habeeb longed to create something new and different for radio listeners – a show that would tell stories about American life. They would be stories about our nation’s past and present including sports, the arts, business, innovation, science and everything in-between. It would be a show that would tell the story of America to Americans.
“This is a great country precisely because it is a good country,” Habeeb tells TALKERS. “The American people are longing for programming that’s positive, beautiful and good to lift their spirits, and tell the story of the country we all love – because the schools and colleges sure as heck aren’t doing it. And radio will attract a whole bunch of new listeners if we do it right.”
Thanks to some significant donor support, and the blessing of his bosses at Salem, Habeeb founded American Private Radio (APR), an independent non-profit alternative to National Public Radio (NPR). APR’s debut show is, by all accounts, doing it right – at least if its impressive growth is any indication. Titled “Our American Stories,” the innovative program recently passed the 170 affiliate mark, and announced some big new additions, including daily slots on KABC, Los Angeles and WHO, Des Moines. It is a meticulously produced show, with a wide range of subjects targeted to a wide audience. It is designed, according to Habeeb, to reach Americans who long for a storytelling show to reinforce their values and beliefs.
Advertiser friendly and business friendly
It is also designed to be a place for advertisers to wrap their brand around, and be extremely business friendly. “It is entrepreneurs who built the country, who employ people, and generate the taxes that help pay our teachers, police and our safety net,” Habeeb added. “We celebrate our entrepreneurs, old and new, and their risk taking and their spirit on our show. American life is unimaginable without them.” TALKERS caught up with Habeeb to talk about the show we believe will be one of the big break-out hits of 2019.
TALKERS: You played an important role in creating Laura Ingraham’s national radio show back in 2001 and have been at Salem Radio Network for 12 years as VP of content working with some of the biggest shows in the country. Tell us the back-story about how you came up with “Our American Stories.”
Habeeb: I’d been at Salem for about a decade, and was down in Florida listening to one of our hosts – Bill Bennett – give a speech to some remarkable leaders in the state of Florida. And he started talking about stories and how important they were. That they shaped character. Shaped the nation. And that the real power of stories was their imitative power. And that got me really thinking.
Though I love talking about politics – I went to the University of Virginia School of Law with Laura [Ingraham] – I also longed to do something that did not involve fights in Washington DC. I had a sense that there was a desire – a hunger – for a place on the radio to listen to stories that inspire them, move them, and teach them things. Stories about our nation’s past and present. Stories about the innovators and leaders in our country who helped shape the country and who continue to do great things every day. Stories about the good things going around us every day. Sports, arts and business stories. Stories about love and death, fear and courage, risk taking and adventure.
Up until now, there has been no place on the radio for really good storytelling, outside of NPR and shows like “This American Life.” And I wondered to myself, what a daily show about all those things would sound like if I put together some great producers, writers, and researchers. A positive show that reinforces all the values and good things we care about and love. This is a remarkable country we live in. No other country is quite like it.
So we wanted to create a place on the radio to hear stories about who and what makes our country great. A space for listeners to relax and take a break from the news cycle and hear stories from a viewpoint that believes free enterprise, faith, hard work, love, sacrifice, self-reliance, honor and courage are things that still matter in many people’s lives. That the Constitution was – and is – the most remarkable organizing political document ever created. And that the American people are good, smart people who love their country. We don’t think our country’s perfect, but we love her… deeply.
All of those things led to the formation of a non-profit, which we called APR, and our first show, “Our American Stories,” which was launched on two stations in late January of 2015.
TALKERS: You make a point of telling folks that the show is not political? Why?
Habeeb: Because it might just draw in new listeners to the format who might not otherwise try it, and yet not drive away the folks listening because the stories actually reinforce the core values of talk radio listeners. We went at this thinking this might be a very good way to enlarge talk radio cume.
Because stories and opinions are different things, and sometimes, we’re better off telling a story to teach people about things we care about. Debates and discussions are important, and entertaining when done right. So are stories.
And our stories focus like a laser on the values talk radio listeners believe in. The values that matter to our listeners. Values that appeal to conservatives, but also appeal to millions of Americans who might not consider themselves very political. Values like personal responsibility, hard work, self-reliance, and selflessness. That’s our way of possibly adding value to the format, and bringing in new listeners.
People enjoy hearing uplifting stories about ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things with their lives each and every day – and the amazingly generous things we do for one another, too. Sadly, the news focuses on what divides us. And conflict. We do the opposite. We aim to focus on what makes America great. Mario Andretti, Johnny Cash and Johnny Carson – their life stories couldn’t be more different, and yet more alike, because they are quintessential American stories.
Vince Lombardi, General Patton, Ben Franklin, and Steve Jobs were very different men living in very different times doing very different things, but their lives have some common threads – one of them a quest and search for greatness and excellence.
We told their stories – and in ways most mainstream media outlets wouldn’t. And that’s why we’re getting such a terrific response. We recently passed 170 affiliates and we’ve gotten great testimonials from station owners, GMs and the audience, too. A Country station in Lubbock, Texas added two extra hours each day because the listener response has been so good. We’re on four hours a day there. Indeed, the response from GMs, PDs and others from our affiliates have been remarkable. We’ve received nearly 70 testimonials from our affiliates proclaiming fantastic response and engagement from not only their listeners and sponsors – but from their staff members as well!
In my many years doing this, I’ve never received such feedback – which is why we know we’re on to something. It’s as if we’re somehow filling a deep and unspoken need in the marketplace.
But there’s one last – and one big reason – I launched Our American Stories, which has a dozen full time writers and producers and some remarkable regular contributors. It’s expensive to create the kind of content we make, and my team did the hard work of raising the money to do this right – and there were some very generous donors who believed in the mission of telling the American story to Americans. And bringing it to the American public through the remarkable and powerful medium that is radio.
And while we hope to get on more news/talk stations, and attract new listeners, we are doing well on non-talk stations. Music stations, including a number of country stations. Because the values we explore on our show are some of the same values and virtues country music explores – family, love, loss and faith. And always, country music is about stories.
TALKERS: OAS is such a content-rich program. Do you see the content you create expanding to other revenue silos, and what are some of your favorite of its weekly features that have the most potential for such expansion?
Habeeb: These are scripted pieces we do every day. Hey, “This American Life” was picked up by Showtime. So we know we can re-purpose our radio scripts into a strong podcast series, a TV series, a book tour and a traveling show. That’s why I suspect we’ll find a great distribution partner. We’ve created something that has value above and beyond mere ad sales.
One of my favorite recurring segments we do on the show started when someone from Pittsburgh sent us the eulogies from Arnold Palmer’s funeral. They were beautiful. Jack Nicklaus’ eulogy was spectacular. I defy anyone not to laugh and cry listening to it – and you need not know a thing about golf to appreciate it. So was Vince Gill’s – the country singer, who sang Palmer’s favorite gospel song to a crowd that could barely hold back the tears listening. The feedback we got from that show was amazing, so once a week or so, we now play a eulogy recorded by people from all walks of life – sometimes they’re famous, sometimes not. Some are old, and some new. We call it “Final Thoughts.” We played some of the remarkable eulogies from Billy Graham’s funeral… one by his daughter was absolutely breathtaking. The same with President Bush’s funeral. John Meachum’s eulogy was stunning. We played the whole thing. Nobody else in radio is doing this or creating this kind of storytelling.
We also have an “American Dreamer” segment we do weekly, a “Rule of Law” series, a “Leadership Series”, and we do a “This Day in History” segment each and every day about all kinds of stories from the past.
These segments were designed so that sales teams can sell around them … sponsors for the segments, and the show itself, too. Advertisers love that kind of thing, being the sponsor of such content. Getting the values of the advertisers and the content closely aligned is a critical part of our future success of radio – because it gives affiliates something substantive to sell. Something distinctive to align with their brand and their core values as a business.
TALKERS: What are some of the advantages or “hooks” your team sells to sponsors that affiliates can lock into?
Habeeb: The referral power of spoken word is something we must sell better, especially in this age of so-called “influencer marketing.” We were the original influencer marketers in talk radio, for goodness sake! It is the real power of radio. Radio’s reach, intimacy, and the nature of the relationship between our audience and our content needs to be sold hard to the C-suites of American businesses. Radio – especially – talk is such a powerful medium. It really works. And our team has some great marketing tools for local affiliates.
We are creating customized content/segments that brands will want to be associated with. The local car dealer and local florist. Because our brand is about America and stories about the country we all love..And themes that reinforce those values. “Our American Stories” is a great qualitative sale, and has performed beautifully on the ratings front, too. We designed it to be a differentiator, a difference maker for the sales team. A product that no one else can claim in the market. And most important, it sounds like nothing else in the market.
TALKERS: How do you come up with the stories and subjects?
Habeeb: We make them as a team. The team then sends it to our pre-production team for research, interviews and actualities. And then the post-production team enters. Then we record. I have the easy job of introducing each segment and tossing to the team member who did the piece. My storytellers are the stars. Better still, the subjects they cover are the stars. Each writer has a specialty area, be it sports, the arts, leadership, or history. For “This Day in History,” for instance, we recently did something on the battle of Shiloh, using the book written by Winston Groom (who also wrote a book called Forrest Gump), with Groom doing the talking. It was a terrific 12-minute story. We also did a segment on the day Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game. That was a “This Day in History,” too, and just as good. Did you know that Wilt was so dominant as a player that they actually had to widen the lane? They had to change the rules because he was that good! Even Michael Jordan didn’t do that.
These are great stories no one is telling – anywhere. We tell the rest of the story, as the great Paul Harvey liked to say. The story behind the story.
Each of our writers has to create an air-ready story every two weeks. We do two hours a night, every night – and I do a piece a week myself because I love doing it. I really don’t care who or what the stories are about… as long as they’re good. And redeeming. And compelling. We don’t want things that are dark, or cynical, or condescending or snarky, because there is plenty of that on TV and elsewhere. We want it to be safe for the family. Compelling and entertaining. And… dare I say… interesting.
We recently did an hour on the Wright Brothers. They were bicycle mechanics from Ohio who never went to college, who figured out how to do something no one else had done in world history. Not even the very best scientists, engineers and experts. And that’s fly!
The great powers of the world were determined to get to manned flight first because of the military advantages such a thing would confer. Their story is uniquely American. Two hobbyists accomplish what the greatest scientists in the world could not! You can’t stop listening until the story ends. And we got a great assist from a speech at the Air and Space Museum by David McCullough, who wrote a number one New York Times bestseller about the Wright Brothers.
But what we love the most are stories our listeners send in and that we produce. Stories about their lives. Their lives and families. One recently came to us from a listener from Des Moines, via WHO. Her grandfather had sent five boys off to fight in World War II. Only two came back. She told that story. A listener from KABC in Los Angeles, where we air every night for two hours, told us a story about her life that was harrowing, but ultimately had a redemptive and positive ending.
We don’t have callers on the show, which is such a great feature of talk radio. But we think we have something interesting. Local storytellers! And we keep getting more from our local stations as we continue to grow.
We will soon be launching a national storytelling contest, with some real serious prizes. It is not just a great idea on the content front, but promotion front as well.
TALKERS: What is your plan going forward?
Habeeb: When I started with Laura Ingraham, we just banged it out a market at a time. We got her on one market, started to get good word of mouth, and went from there. The show was different and sounded different than anything in radio. We want to do the same with “Our American Stories.” We want to create a major property, brand it properly, and then push it into other formats. Not just podcasts, but book tours, TV, and videos. Look what short form videos did for Dennis Prager and his Prager University, which has generated billions – billions – of YouTube hits with his five-minute tutorials. And it has been great for his Salem talk show – bringing all kinds of new listeners to his terrestrial show. New media can and must drive old media, just as old media must drive new. That’s just the way we must think. And the industry is doing a great job of adapting at every level. How we think about evergreen material will also be important as we move forward, too.
“Our American Stories” is a nonprofit 501 C-3 and our donors and founders are interested in seeing the show go very wide, and as the show is heard by more people in the industry, and folks see the revenue opportunities, we will continue to grow. Radio needs a new breakout show, and a new kind of show. And a new way of thinking about how to drive revenue. That was our goal when we started this project.
TALKERS: Let’s talk about talk radio in particular, and some of the problems we face down the road…
Habeeb: It’s been a great time for radio because the air is thick with real hard and really important political fights. And that’s a healthy thing, actually. It is what makes America great!
But that’s another reason we wanted to tell stories. I think audiences want to get to know more about their own country, and hearing good stories that make the listener feel better about the world is what we’re all about. And learn a few things, too.
We also work hard at “Our American Stories” to be evergreen material that stands the test of time. Our 10-minute story on the making of “The Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie and Bing Crosby is a classic you can play every year around Christmas. It’s funny, and quirky, and beautiful – like the song itself. So too is the story about the making of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
And that content can be repurposed and rerun, just as TV does so adeptly. Who knows how many Judge Judy reruns I’ve watched over the years? I bet her own team doesn’t know! The content we are creating has real shelf life. Real staying power. That – in the right place and time in a lineup in news talk or country – might be just what the doctor ordered.
I also think that, doing all the right things we are doing with digital will really help us with younger listeners. Young people – and some older ones too – don’t want to be forced to sit and wait for content at a certain time. They want to consume it whenever they want, 24 hours a day – and some of them just might want stories! We are here to help talk and music stations – as we all move into the next decade, and the new ways people will listen to our content.
TALKERS: Where do you see the future of radio in general heading?
Habeeb: When someone like John Malone [controlling owner, SiriusXM Satellite Radio] makes a big play for radio, he’s seeing a tremendous asset that really hasn’t innovated in two decades. One that is vastly undervalued by Wall Street. But what he sees is opportunity. And he’s right!
Look at TV, which has been a haven for sitcoms and hour-long police procedural shows, but now has cooking channels, home improvement channels and reality shows such as “Deadliest Catch” and serial dramas such as “Breaking Bad,” which was a six-year story. All of this innovation in TV programming started when cable and now Netflix came in and disrupted everything.
In radio, we still have classic rock, country and news/talk, great formats. But who knows, maybe there will be a storytelling format down the line! Something maybe the audience didn’t even imagine coming from radio. Something new that they’d love. Much of the best TV programming is basically stories – and a lot of them are scripted.
I’m bullish as can be on radio. Talk especially and spoken word. No other format has the intimacy, the staying power, the referral power – and the connection to the audience.
TALKERS: Where do you see “Our American Stories” in two years?
Habeeb: When Laura Ingraham and I started in radio together after graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, we both knew nothing about the business. That was an advantage for us, actually. People would tell us, “You can’t do this or that. You have no experience. A woman will never be taken seriously as a political talk show host.” And we said, “Huh?” Or “Why not?” We had a huge hit with the show five years later. And now she’s hosting her own show on Fox News, and women are proving they can do anything and everything in our business.
With “Our American Stories,” we are breaking new ground. At least we hope we are. We plan to be a top 10 show in two years, and at our current rate of growth, we will get there.