By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Tom Leykis, the shock jock sidelined for more than three years after his radio station dropped talk for pop music, is infamous for persuading women to lift their tops and for coaching men to spend as little money as possible on dates. Critics dubbed him a Neanderthal. Now he's being called a revolutionary.
|Tom Leykis in his Burbank studios. (source: Los Angeles Times)|
Silenced by the changeover at KLSX-FM (97.1) in February 2009, Leykis has resurrected his show online with a shoestring operation that he believes can take on the radio conglomerates — the latest in a cadre of stars staking out new territory for themselves.
"My job here is not to serve the corporate master. I am the corporation here," Leykis said while giving his "mission statement" on a recent show. "I reserve the right to talk about anything I find interesting."'
After three years off the radio, Leykis has resumed his weekday show on the Internet, once considered merely the realm of amateurs and vanity programs. Now he's streaming his show free on http://www.BlowMeUpTom.com, a reference to the tradition of fans' requests that Leykis end their calls with recorded explosions, among other sound effects. He broadcasts live weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., sometimes 7, with continuous repeats until the following day's new show.
The Internet show began April 2, and at the end of its first week, 401,180 listeners had tuned in for at least five minutes. The first month, fans tuned in from 102 countries — England, El Salvador, Uganda, Australia, the Philippines and Mexico, among others.
"It's an example of how creative talent is adapting to a new reality," said Perry Michael Simon, news, talk and sports editor at the online radio-news journal AllAccess.com. "The number of outlets they've got on traditional media have shrunk. It's wise of anybody on the talent side to be entrepreneurial."
Behind an anonymous storefront in Burbank, with printers and auto-repair shops for neighbors, Leykis broadcasts from a small studio, dark and spare, standing at a crescent-shaped desk and still wearing his trademark dark glasses in the dim lighting. His KLSX show also aired weekday afternoons, and many fans listened while driving home during rush hour — not sitting in front of a computer. Is he simply missing out on that whole swath of his audience?
During a break, Leykis holds up an Android smartphone he'd been twirling in his hand.
"This," he said, "is a radio."
A few finger swipes, and he's turned on an application streaming radio stations and programs from around the world, with presets for his favorites — like a car radio with a global reach. He presses an on-screen button, and the current episode of "The Tom Leykis Show" starts playing. Plug that into a dashboard, and it's as if he never left the airwaves.
"This is a cultural breakthrough," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry. "You're on the same magic box that major corporations spend millions of dollars to broadcast through. That's a revolution."
And Simon noted that what listeners care about is the content coming out of their speakers, not whether it originated from a broadcast antenna on Mt. Wilson, a satellite overhead or a cellphone tower beaming an Internet stream.
"While the traditional media are shrinking, the opportunities to get your product out there have never been greater," Simon said.
In the short term, online audiences will run smaller than those for radio, he said, but in the long run "there's a much greater upside in terms of numbers."
Leykis is by no means the first radio refugee to take his program to the Internet. Almost immediately after their station switched formats in 2009, his former KLSX colleague Adam Carolla started offering a podcast that emulated his morning show. Among others, former Air America talk host Lionel and longtime Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl podcast regularly via their own websites.
With a podcast, listeners can go to a website or iTunes and download the latest show, then listen to it at their leisure. Likewise, the hosts can produce and post the shows whenever they want and aren't required to be in front of a microphone at a studio every weekday at 3 p.m. sharp.
Leykis' streaming model, on the other hand, better simulates the live radio experience for the audience, with the interaction of callers, host and subsequent callers reacting to earlier comments.
"He's basically offering a radio show without the antenna," Simon said. With podcasts, "there's a delay that takes the communal experience out of it."
Leykis' new show is much like his old one. He gives advice to mostly male callers – who refer to him as "dad" – on how to negotiate their world of conniving gold diggers, where nice guys finish last in the dating game. During his Thursday "Leykis 101" segments, the "professor" tells women "how men really think," and tells men how to get more women, without spending money on them. But he said part of his new autonomy is to explore other, non-relationship topics – whether mocking Mike Huckabee's radio show or riffing on the anachronism of the phone book or the barbarism of the Kelly Thomas beating in Fullerton.
"Frankly, I don't think the average listener wants me to talk about the same thing all of the time," he said on-air one day. "I refuse to be a cartoon character."
Simon said it's too soon to tell whether one method will eventually win out with listeners, streaming or podcasting. Leykis is hedging his bets and also ensuring income by offering premium subscriptions for $99.99 a year, which includes on-demand access to all previous shows.
He's also selling merchandise and advertising on the air and on the website and has a dedicated link to Amazon.com, through which he gets a cut of anything purchased. He owns outright the computers, sound boards and other scant equipment he needs and works with only three other people — executive producer Gary Zabransky, engineer Art Webb and screener Dean DeMilio, all of whom return from his KLSX show.
Leykis said he will have spent about $1 million to get the show up and running and expects to make a profit by the end of the first year — more than some of the nation's biggest broadcasters can say about their bottom lines. He doesn't have the expense of an FCC license, transmitters or antennas or any debt from buying new stations.
For example, Clear Channel, which operates the nation's largest radio chain with 850 stations, had a profit of $330 million on revenue of $1.3 billion in the first quarter of this year but is saddled with nearly $20 billion in debt from a leveraged buyout in 2008.
"Now you've got these companies that are so over-leveraged," Leykis said, "they have turned the radio business into a bunch of scrap metal and homogenized formats."
KLSX had been the longtime home of Howard Stern until the "King of All Media" bolted for Sirius satellite radio in January 2006. KLSX then struggled until February 2009, when parent company CBS Radio flipped the station to the Top 40 "Amp 97.1" format it still broadcasts, which led to an immediate ratings jump.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do next," Leykis said, and for the rest of 2009 he "went to veg" on his 20-acre ranch in northern Santa Barbara County. His CBS contract paid him for three more years, so "I always had the option of not coming back. I could have stopped."
"It became apparent that anyone with a laptop and a cheap microphone was doing a podcast," he said, but few had his experience or following. He saw a chance to circumvent the traditional business model and "create a radio station without a transmitter."
He spent the next six months studying digital content, streams and podcasts. "I wanted to be one of the first to claim some of that beachfront property."
He used an e-mail list of 10,000 culled from his former show and 35,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about his return.
"It feels fabulous. I haven't worked this hard in 20 years," he said, keeping his hand in every aspect of the do-it-yourself radio station — even standing in line at Burbank Water and Power with a deposit check, to get utilities turned on at the studio.
"I have no time to feel like a revolutionary," Leykis said, grinning. "Someone's got to go to Costco and get paper towels."