One of the longest running and most entertaining voices on the crowded New York radio dial and one of television’s wittiest talking heads, Mark is on the 2013 list of the 100 most important talk hosts in the world. His broadcasts are filled with lively conversation, colorful wit, savvy insight into current events, and an insider’s look at the rich, powerful and famous.
Mark can be heard on WOR in New York weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon.
Richard Torrenzano: Tell me a little bit about some of the trends happening in broadcasting and radio right now.
Mark Simone: Well, first of all radio is not dead as people think it is. I know digital is taking over everything on earth, but if you were around during Hurricane Sandy, when the lights went out, nobody said, ‘quick put on Pandora.’
There is always, always a place for radio. It is the only live medium that works … in fact; it worked during Hurricane Sandy when nothing else did. No TV station on the air only AM radio. FM went off the air, because most of their antennas are in the middle of Manhattan, so it was the AM that stayed on the air.
A portable battery radio is sometimes all you have in the most extreme of emergencies. That always keeps radio alive … that and cars. As long as you are in a car, it is very hard to watch TV even with the Google Glasses, if you are watching anything visual while you are driving, there is going to be a lot of accidents, so that technology would end very fast.
There are trends in normal circumstances to listen online. More and more people listen on their cellphones. I would say half our audience is listening on a cellphone right now or smartphone or on a table. TuneIn radio is a great app, iHeartRadio is probably the best one. You put that on your phone with all your favorites and you have your whole radio dial there.
Most people don’t even own a standard radio anymore. If you go to Radio Shack and ask for a radio, they will look at you funny and go ask a manager what that thing is. But radio connects you to the best content provider — whether through the traditional set or via your smartphone.
T: Now you just changed stations. Some of your listening audience will follow you and some of it will be new, what are your listeners most concerned about in their lives today? What do you think they want to hear more about today?
MS: Well, let’s start with what they do not want to hear about. We just went through a long cycle of political talk, Rush Limbaugh was the king, Sean Hannity. These two guys are still great and their audiences are so huge they will last forever. All those other shows have crumbled and died. It is now an era where people do not want nonstop political talk, they don’t want nonstop arguing, they don’t want a lot of shouting, they don’t want to go into the minutia of every issue.
It is like any market. You have a bubble that bursts at some point and talk radio just zeroed in on politics. That bubble went for about 20 years or something, so now that bubble has kind of burst. The new talk radio has to talk about everything else in the world. You still do politics, obviously people care about the big issues, but that is 5 to 10 minutes of every hour. They also want to know where to eat, what is on television, they want to know how to get along with their wife and everything else, lifestyle and everything else has become important.
RT: How do you make those judgments? How do you determine what you put on the show each day? You have a pretty large show to produce every day.
MS: Gut instinct is the most important thing. You have to think of what is interesting to everybody and sometimes it can be the simplest thing, a rude waiter story in the newspaper. Sometimes you just see something online about…just something you know would annoy everybody or interesting information. People love details. They like to know how things happen, the inside story of any little thing.
RT: So gossip has gotten bigger?
MS: Gossip is big, but they have to learn something while they are listening, so it is not just the gossip, but they have to find out some inside details, like the inside scoop. If you are going to talk about some celebrity that did something, give them some details, some real information, the juicy stuff.
RT: How do you balance what you think your audience wants with what you feel they should be hearing about?
MS: Well, one thing about talk radio, you cannot turn the page, you cannot click on what you want when you want it, so you have to be pretty good at knowing what to start with and what to end with.
The layout of a show has changed. In the old days you actually did a radio show: beginning, middle, end. You cannot do that anymore. In the digital world there is no beginning, middle or end. You used to start a show by going through a five minute laundry list of what was on the show. You would tell them that coming up at 4:30 we are going to have this guy on, and then at 5:30 we are going to have this guy on and at 6:00 we are going to talk about this. You cannot do that anymore.
In the digital world the second that show starts, you better start talking about something. People don’t care what you have an hour and a half from now and nobody cares what is on in 20 minutes. All they want to know is what you got right now. A lot of this is due to the DVR world … where it is up to you what you want to watch and you do not wait for anything. Even in the Hulu world and the Netflix world, people are watching without commercials, without interruptions, they are clicking on whatever they want to watch, they are shutting it off as soon as it is boring.
RT: What impact has social media had on somebody like yourself who is a known personality or on the stations for that matter?
MS: Social media has had a big effect on a lot of media. All the music stations have to really get busy with their social media; TV shows have to get busy making social media part of the show. In talk radio it is not that necessary, because no one ever stopped to realize, talk radio is the original social media. It is the original Facebook. It is the original Twitter. It is people calling up talking about…just the same as Facebook…what they had for lunch, telling you about their trip, what they are mad about, commenting on politics.
RT: Talking over the neighbor’s fence or down the hall.
MS: Yes, exactly. I have never seen anything on Facebook that was not traditionally a talk radio caller.
RT: What topics do you think are important that the mass media have not covered enough?
MS: Well, the inherent problem with mass media is just that … it is too mass. They look for something that applies to everybody. It is one of the problems with talk radio becoming national. Every show is syndicated, every show is national with the exception of what we do now at WOR. Go back to local radio, so suddenly we can talk about what is going on in SoHo or how bad the Long Island expressway is and the traffic. One thing about Rush Limbaugh and all these shows they have to worry about making sure the issue applies in Oklahoma, applies in Texas, applies in New York City and nothing always does.
RT: How do you determine if there is something on the show you do not want to talk about?
MS: There are certain little tricks to decide if something is relevant for air. There was one of the greatest programs of all time that had a rule, everything was in threes. For instance, any topic had to appeal to three totally different demographic groups or three different types of groups.
Let’s say there is a guy that lives right in the middle of Manhattan; a woman on the South Shore of Staten Island and another guy that lives way off in the suburbs of Connecticut. Connecticut’s not so worried about the problems at PS89 or gang violence in the city like the other two may be, so you try to find something that applies to all three groups.
RT: It is basically about life.
MS: Yeah, and if you are talking about the hottest club in the Meatpacking district, you have now a 25 year old who will be right there with you, but a 45 year old has limited interest. And the 65 year old is probably not interested at all. So, you better tackle it from an angle that could appeal to all three groups.
RT: You’ve booked a broad array of people from all walks of life in the last year or two. Who are your one or two most favorite guests?
MS: I was just talking to someone about this. The worst question you could ask a great talk show host is, who is your favorite guest, because if you have had thirty thousand guests and you have done 20 years of shows, if there is a favorite guest, you really have a problem.
But there are certain guests who are just natural born guests. Regis Philbin for example. You just say hello and it is going to be funny. Don Rickles is another like that. He just takes off. Larry King says hello and you will get a hundred great stories.
Politicians are the worst if they hold office at that moment, because every word they say is triple – vetted before it comes out of their mouth.
The worst guest in the world was Ed Koch as mayor, because he was so careful about everything he said.
RT: Now you were one of the last guys to interview Ed Koch.
MS: Yes, Ed Koch, when he left office, suddenly was the most fascinating guest ever, because it was like he’d finally taken a dose of truth serum. He could say everything he wanted to say.
RT: As you look at this year, anything popping out at you in terms of politics or pop culture or sports that you think will become a normal part of your show for the next couple of months?
MS: Everybody is now sick of every politician, Republican, Democrat that we…both sides … have come to realize that. Because we are so tough on anybody trying to get elected … the press would go after them, they would dig into them, they would tear them apart…we scared away all the greatest talent from politics.
Steve Jobs’ dream was to go into politics. If you read Walter Isaacson’s book it was finally explained to him, he would never survive. They would go after him, his terrible relationship with his daughter, the bad things in his life, so we lost him. I know Lee Iacocca did not go into politics, because he did not want his personal life torn apart. Jack Welsh did not want to go through it.
Because of this we lost all the greatest talents in America. We now in politics you have Anthony Weiner. You now have Mitch McConnell. Would anybody hire John Boehner to run their company? Would anybody hire Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi to run their company? You have the worst collection of mediocrity in politics and everybody is now starting to realize this, so I think everybody will rise up now and want to do something about this.
RT: With the gridlock in Washington, the state of politics, do you see people getting more involved in government issues?
MS: Not so much on the issues, people just get angrier and angrier and will show that at the polls. I think you will see people imposing term limits and starting to throw out everybody. A lot of people watch CNBC or Bloomberg and they watch these CEOs — all day long they are interviewing CEOs — and they’re just amazed at how smart these people are, how bright these people are, how competent these people are. Then you switch over to FOX or MSNBC and the politicians come on and you are amazed at how stupid these people are, how mediocre these people are, how untrustworthy these people are and you start to realize we gotta to do something about this.
RT: Does that frighten you?
MS: Of course. Take a great statesman like Pat Moynihan or Everett Dirksen and then look at Chuck Schumer. They just look weasley; they look like they spend every waking second on the phone with a donor and fundraising. You look at Pelosi and Weiner, and we ask ourselves how did we end up with these people?
RT: And Weiner is changing the shape of the election dramatically at least on the democratic side.
MS: Look at Anthony Weiner. It used to be you had to do something and turn your life around to come back from scandal. Nixon took years. Jimmy Carter…just to make up for his bad presidency was out there with a hammer building houses for five years. Weiner stays at home for a year and thinks that’s all he has to do. Babysit for a year and a half and he’s paid his price and now he can come back.
RT: And say, “I made a mistake and I am sorry.” Without doing anything he has a very good percentage of the vote. Most of it is name recognition I suspect.
MS: It is name recognition, but if you think about that, for two years nobody on this earth would hire Anthony Weiner. He could not find any kind of job. Nobody would hire him and now he comes to us and we are supposed to hire him for Mayor of New York.
RT: Well, no one has hired him yet.
RT: One last question. Is there anything that you want to talk about I have not asked you?
MS: I think you are going to see talk radio have a big resurgence on the radio dial, because most of the music listeners are leaving. They are the ones going to Pandora; they are the ones going to iTunes. So, more and more morning shows…and even some afternoon shows…are now completely talk.