A Sound Salvation

Pick up a phone, call 40 people and you might think you've done a good day's prospecting. Now imagine reaching 1,000 times that number or more in just an hour or two. Ralph Russell, an independent financial advisor in Chicago, reaches 100,000 to 200,000 people in an hour every Sunday night as the host of a financial call-in program on WGN radio. Since his WGN program began in 1999, the 43-year-old

Pick up a phone, call 40 people and you might think you've done a good day's prospecting. Now imagine reaching 1,000 times that number — or more — in just an hour or two. Ralph Russell, an independent financial advisor in Chicago, reaches 100,000 to 200,000 people in an hour every Sunday night as the host of a financial call-in program on WGN radio.

Since his WGN program began in 1999, the 43-year-old independent broker and advisor says his book has doubled to $80 million. He estimates that 85 percent of his current clients have come to him through his show.

Russell may be one of the more successful broker-hosts in radioland. After all, the venerable WGN is a 50,000-watt clear channel station reaching 38 states, Canada and Mexico, but he's far from alone. By one estimate, 50 practicing financial advisors nationwide trade their telephones for microphones at least once a week.

Surprisingly, ratings for financial talk have held up — even in this most horrendous of markets. Financial radio has “always done well and it continues to do well,” says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, a trade publication for radio talk show hosts. Not that financial radio pulls in as well as shows on politics, relationships or sports, Harrison says. But the financial niche is on a par with health programs.

That's encouraging, considering the shape of the markets and the less-than-stellar reputation that some on-air advisors have earned. Probably the most successful broker-turned-broadcaster of all was the late Sonny Bloch, who left the airwaves abruptly in the 1990s as he fled the country to evade the SEC (see sidebar).

The bear market has changed the tenor of financial advice on radio, however. Callers in the not-so-distant past cared for nothing so much as individual stock tips. These days talk centers on asset allocation and longer-term planning, Russell says.

“People still want to understand a mutual fund; they still want to understand how to buy life insurance,” says Charles Ross of Atlanta, who hosts a syndicated weekly program. “They want to know how they're going to reach their financial goals.”

To Market, To Market

Hosting a call-in show can be a unpredictable endeavor, but it's worth it. “I think what the radio did for me was at least introduce people to what I did, to the type of things that I do, and it gave them comfort in taking the next step,” says Rick Bloom, president of Bloom Asset Management in Detroit. Bloom, an attorney and financial advisor, says the show he hosted for 16 years was an important factor in building his book from zero to $220 million since he began managing money seven years ago. (Bloom's show was canceled recently when his station shifted to an all-sports format).

So, how does an advisor become a radio personality? In a variety of ways. Russell, for instance, was a broadcast journalism major who, despite his detour into law and finance, followed his education to its natural end. Bloom got the job at WXYT AM Detroit on the recommendation of a friend, he says.

Gary Goldberg broke into radio on New York's Tappan Zee Bridge in 1984. He was driving to WFAS 1230 AM for an interview, but found himself stuck in a snowstorm, so he conducted the interview on his cell phone. Evidently the station managers were impressed by Goldberg's grace under pressure: When he finally reached the studio, they offered him his own show on the spot.

Another tried-and-true route to the broadcast booth is to do what Bloch did to get started — buy your way in. Now, more than ever, cash-strapped local radio programmers are willing to sell infomercial-style time on their airways. “As long as the check doesn't bounce, [some radio stations] don't care at all,” says Jordan Goodman, a personal finance author and frequent talk radio guest. Ron Cohen, president of CRC Broadcasting of Phoenix, which operates a string of stations in the southwest, has time available. On KFFN, a 22,000-watt station in Phoenix, an hour runs between $500 and $1,000 a week.

Opinions about the value of pay-for-play financial talk programming vary. Russell says buying time is a good way for novices to gain experience; Goodman calls the trend “pernicious,” because it blurs the distinction between providing financial advice and advertising, on-air disclosures and disclaimers notwithstanding.

Harrison of Talkers Magazine, however, says that the prevalence of paid programming — also known as “brokered time” — has made the practice more acceptable with consumers. “There are very legitimate shows that are brokered,” he says.

The real distinction, according to Harrison, is not between which shows are paid and which aren't, but between which are good and which bad. Here's some tips on how you can help make sure your show is one of the good ones:

Do your homework

Russell says he prepares about three hours each week for his hour-long program. Bloom agrees that homework is essential. “If you don't prepare, you're going to come off as real stupid on the radio, and that ain't good for business,” he says.

Don't push a product

Broker-hosts and other radio pros say that even though it's certainly possible to make money touting specific products on the radio, you should resist the temptation. Advising listeners without trying to make a sale — and even without much self-promotion at all — is a much better way to build your business in the long run, they say.

Keep it simple

It's just like when you go to the doctor, Bloom says. “You go to a doctor, you don't want to hear him give you some technical garbage. You want him to tell you in English what it is.”

Don't be boring

Of course, it's not enough just to know your stuff and speak clearly. “[Hosts] really do need to be somewhat dynamic and even gregarious at times,” Cohen says. “Some resort to music and sound effects and things like that.”

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