Walt Sabo is well known in the industry from his early days at NBC, ABC and RKO and for his consulting work for the launch of “New Jersey 101.5” WKXW Trenton. It was there that Sabo discovered John Kobylt and Kenneth Chiampou doing a “Morning Zoo” show in Atlantic City and hired them for afternoons on the fledgling talk station, which became a hit by giving New Jersey its own talk radio voice on FM. John & Ken are now heard on KFI Los Angeles and WKXW is one of Townsquare Media’s most successful stations.
Sabo also was part of the programming team that launched Sirius Satellite Radio. But nowadays you’ll find him behind the mic, hosting “Sterling on Sunday” from 10pm-1am, using the handle Walter Sterling. The transition to host began quietly in 2014 at “Talk Radio 1210” WPHT Philadelphia – at the suggestion of CBS Radio head of programming Chris Oliviero. Last August Westwood One picked up the show for syndication, giving Sabo an outlet for stories of bad in-laws, trouble with neighbors, and his hatred of cell phone companies.
Inside Radio caught up with Sabo for an update on his return to the airwaves, what talk radio can learn from music stations, where programmers should look for new talent and why radio needs to sound more dangerous. An edited transcript follows.
For years you’ve advised programmers and air talent. As a host, what were the biggest hurdles for you in executing on your own advice?
The biggest challenge for me personally was learning how to prepare. The real job isn’t doing the show, it’s preparing the material and how much time that takes. I’ll never forget when [New York top 40] WABC went from music to talk, they offered Dan Ingram a talk show. At the time he was the king of voiceover talent. So he says, “To do a 3-hour talk show requires 10 hours of preparation and I would lose a fortune.” That’s why he didn't do it. The second challenge for me was that I have no current models for the type of show I do. When Jean Shepherd was asked why he didn’t talk about current events, he said because it’s too easy. I don’t talk about political theory I talk about the politics of our lives – how to deal with the parent teacher conference and what to do when the 14-year old daughter says I want the boyfriend to stay in my bedroom. It isn’t like I can listen to another host and see how they handle that.
How would you rate the job the radio industry is doing in exploiting new technology?
Radio execs are savants at knowing new competitive forces, new technology, new trends and digital opportunities. The challenge is that radio execs don’t have an assistant or even $10 for research and development. Awareness is meaningless without the tools of action. And they have no free thinking time. We have brilliant programmers who say, I think if we did this with Facebook, digital, Spotify, you name it, we’d be able to grow our audience. Can I have $25,000 to research it? But the answer is No. We have a mass medium with no R&D. Each television network has a budget of about $150 million of development money – for pilots, scripts and holding contracts. As an industry we are hyper aware, brilliantly aware, savant aware of all the trends, but we don’t have the tools or time to take positive action.
What were some of the lessons you learned from eight years consulting Sirius Satellite Radio.
Hire PR people. The best investment radio companies could possibly make is in public relations to present the truth about how successful we are, which will have a feedback loop effect. It will remind our sales people, programmers and our executives how successful we are. Because clearly we keep forgetting. Every time Nielsen puts out a press release they’re shocked that radio is so successful. But the listener doesn’t forget, the advertiser selling Universal windows and shutters doesn’t forget. But we seem to forget. That’s why I respect [iHeartMedia CEO] Bob Pittman – he understands that we are in show business.
You once said, “All I have done is taken what I know about successful music programming and applied it to talk,” Can you elaborate on that?
If you listen to any talk station I’ve ever done, they have a format. Here’s how you set up a topic, how many calls you should go for in an hour, how long the calls should be, how you change topics, how you handle guests. And then there’s the audio processing and how you do promos and how many promos you do an hour. It’s like any other format except instead of music it’s phone calls. I’ve never put together a talk station with a political basis or philosophy. All the original hosts that we hired of “New Jersey 101.5” [WKXW Trenton] had never done a talk show except for Jim Gearhart who was on WNBC and WCBS when I was growing up. John & Ken [now heard on KFI Los Angeles] were doing a “Morning Zoo” in Atlantic City and we hired them to do afternoon drive because I could hear the intelligence in John Kobylt’s voice. Brooke Daniels, Roberta Gale – none of them had ever done talk shows.
Where should radio be looking for new talent?
I was on the 23rd Street crosstown bus in Manhattan a couple of months ago. It was packed, it was 5pm and there was a woman on her iPhone and person after person started to participate in her conversation, commenting on what she was saying to whoever was on the phone. Now this is New York City, we ignore each other. But they were paying attention to her and more importantly, she enjoyed the attention. She was giving advice to someone: “Do not live with him before you get married.” And I’m hearing the best radio show I’d heard in a long time. So right before I got off the bus I handed her my card and said, please get in touch with me. And she did and I received this beautifully written email. She had a life story the likes of which you couldn’t believe. Every Christmas show since, I’ve done the show with her. You have to pay attention to whoever draws a crowd and trust them. But the fact is 99% of radio stars are self-cast. We’re born with no choice. We're going to be in radio and that’s that.
You’ve said you’d like some radio stations to sound more dangerous. Please explain.
I was a guest on the “Jim Bohannon Show” and a caller asked, “What would you do if a disc jockey locked himself in the studio and started playing whatever records they wanted?” And I said, “If I had a disc jockey who did that I would sign him to a contract and cut promos.” Please, God, somebody do that. What I pray for is to hear a subsersive station. I would give anything to hear a disc jockey say anything that makes me say, “I don’t know how they're going to get away with that.”
In a sentence or two, what’s you advice for each of these formats, starting with news/talk.
Broaden the conversation. Pay attention to what people talk about in the mall. That’s their news.
Sports talk stations that behave like sports bars, like WIP [Philadelphia] will continue to thrive and grow. The stations that give stats will continue to stagnate.
CHR will always be successful because, by definition, it is playing the most popular songs of today.
The opportunity for AC is to reflect the interests, needs and tastes of the target listener. I’d love to hear something about what to do when the baby cries, how to get your partner up at 2 in the morning to feed the kid and how to shine at partnering teacher conference.
Country has the opportunity to make you a star when we act on our ability to create a great show. The further we get away from the stage and new talent, the more stagnant the format becomes.
The greatest danger in hot AC is to forget that your target listeners are very busy with new jobs, new kids, new homes. The greatest risk is too long of a list and songs that are too new
Can I please hear alternative? The presentation is too safe. When am I going to hear a jock slam the door on the air? When am I going to hear a jock say, “I can’t stand that song?”
Don’t tell me how old the song is. Don’t date the listener. Play the songs as though it’s current and surround it with 100% urgent current information and actual newscasts. But don’t tell me when the group performed at the concert pavilion.