Tom Leykis, One of Radio's Top Talkers, Is Off the Airwaves -- and Online
Tom Leykis in his Burbank studio
Photo by Nanette Gonzales
"There were a lot of greedy home flippers!" radio talk-show host Tom Leykis exclaims into the microphone. "Everyone who got evicted got exactly what they deserved. They didn't evict enough people."
Leykis is blasting what he considers the avaricious, irresponsible impulses of those participating in the real estate mortgage boom -- and subsequent bust.
"When I saw houses in Palmdale going for $500K," he continues, on-air, "I knew something was wrong. If you got foreclosed, I don't feel sorry for you!"
Until just a few years ago, Leykis worked for CBS-owned KLSX 97.1 FM in Los Angeles, syndicated to cities across America through Westwood One. Hosting an eponymous national show for more than a decade, Leykis was one of the most successful -- and highly paid -- nonconservative hosts in the history of American radio.
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Today, though, Leykis is off the air -- and on the Internet. Broadcasting from a studio concealed behind an old-school east Burbank storefront, he opines daily from 3 to 7 p.m. at newnormalnetwork.com, an online radio network he owns outright. And he couldn't seem more content.
"There's some benefit to being happy in your life," he muses. "Of looking around and saying, 'This is mine.' "
You have to give Leykis this: He's no hypocrite. He frequently tells unhappy employees to start their own businesses. So when he found himself without a radio home, he did just that.
On Feb. 20, 2009, Leykis and his fellow talkers at KLSX -- where he'd started in 1997, after being syndicated through Westwood One since '94 -- were dismissed when the station suddenly switched formats, from all-talk to Top 40. Contractually forbidden to do a similarly themed show anywhere else, he received his full salary for three years.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "Because it gave me the time to sit down and think, and become a futurist rather than having to be at work every day."
A self-taught expert on fine wines, the radio industry and finance, Leykis chilled at his Santa Ynez ranch and dove into the business of the Internet.
"I wanted to see if you could put a prototype radio station on the Internet so you wouldn't have to invest $50 million or $100 million or $150 million to buy a transmitter and a frequency. We found we could do it and with better quality. On KLSX, we were playing 28 minutes of commercials every hour. We have a fraction of that here."
When talking "Leykis 101" -- cynical advice to men on scoring with the ladies without getting manipulated or entangled -- Leykis, 55, often comes across as an apolitical chauvinist. But talking about corporate America, especially the radio business, he's a cross between a true fiscal conservative and an Occupy protester.
"Most radio companies now got overextended -- like homeowners across America," he proclaims. "And they're overleveraged, paying debt service. Cumulus Media and Clear Channel, their business model was: 'The government left the barn door open, allowing us to monopolize broadcasting. So we'll buy as many stations as possible, raise the price of advertising and cut salaries to the people working for us.' "
New Normal's interior is sleek, modern and comfortable -- other than the icy temperature its star purposely maintains in his studio. Leykis is surrounded by a small team of younger radio pros who followed him over from KLSX; they run the tech, as well as hosting their own programs.
Leykis delivers his entire show from a standing position. With his all-black attire, impressive forehead, nearly opaque sunglasses and devious smile, he has the vibe of a stocky Batman villain.
"I don't just preach; I put my money where my mouth is!" he bellows to his audience. "Believe me, I made a shitload of money in radio. But I'm tired of people telling me how to do my show."
When his Internet show premiered April 2 -- one day after the CBS contract expired -- Leykis had about 400,000 unique listeners and a slate of paid advertisers, the product of running a countdown clock for two years on his website. That's a lot of ears for the Internet, though it pales next to the 1.75 million weekly cumulative that Leykis enjoyed in radio syndication. Approximately one-third of his revenue comes from premium subscriptions, which allow on-demand listening to any segment, anytime.
While pointedly liberal through much of the '80s and '90s, a sort of lefty Rush Limbaugh, Leykis mostly dropped the politics after arriving at KLSX.
"The more you talk about politics, the older the audience. And if you're not on AM radio and you want to talk to people with a Facebook or Twitter account, don't let the million and a half people who watch The Daily Show fool you. That's out of 300 million Americans -- that's a very small crowd."
Yet Leykis has kept his "Ask an Atheist" segment, and he waxes liberally on ethnic diversity, touching on his appreciation for his Latino listeners. He grew up blue-collar in the Bronx, and he still thinks of families like his as his target audience.
"At KLSX the managers were Caucasians in their 50s and 60s, and when I first got there they'd send me out on remote broadcasts to Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Huntington Beach. I said to them, 'Our audience doesn't live in a town that's last name is Beach.' Our audience lives on the 60 freeway -- in Montebello, City of Industry, Monterey Park, off the 605. I told them, 'You have to embrace this.' You can imagine these guys who live in Rancho Palos Verdes are very uncomfortable with this idea."
So how congruent is the real Tom Leykis with Tom Leykis, radio host? "A lot of this is comedy," he allows. "When Henny Youngman said, 'Take my wife, please,' no one suggested that Henny Youngman wanted you to take his wife and go away with her. And yet sometimes I say things that are a joke that people take seriously. And so, rather than tell them, 'Hey, it was just a joke,' I'll ride with it."
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