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RADIO | Around the Dial

Counting Pennies

Multimillionaire Clark Howard shares his enthusiasm for everyday savings, calling it 'empowerment.'

March 16, 2000|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I was listening to the L.A. feed of "The Clark Howard Show" last Thursday afternoon, and was so captivated that I missed a call from Howard to talk about his show on the consumer scene. So I dialed up the host of the syndicated show that airs weekdays on KFI-AM (640) 3-4 p.m. and 2-4 a.m. overnight.

The lanky 44-year-old host with an aw-shucks tone, easygoing manner and a crackly, un-radio voice, erupted with near boyish glee: "So we'll let you pay for the call? . . . See, that's a deal."

But it hardly mattered who paid. A multimillionaire who takes pride that his most expensive suit cost just $99, he is a master of life on the cheap. He quickly explained that his Los Angeles-based Big Zoo long-distance discount service would have been "just 3.9 cents a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week anywhere in the U.S. See, for 40 minutes that would have been no money at all."

On air in the Los Angeles-Orange county market just a year, Howard's signature "daily consumer empowerment zone" is geared to "pack a punch in your wallet and help you with better ways to spend less, save more and avoid getting ripped off." The Atlanta-based show is clearly packing a ratings punch.

In the most recent Arbitrons, among overall listeners 12 and older, Howard pulled a 3.2% audience share, or 77,700 listeners per average quarter hour, substantially surpassing his own average of 55,500 listeners who tuned in last spring. Moreover, in the 3-to-4 p.m. hour, Howard led the talk and news field, where his closest competitor was Larry Elder with 56,100 average listeners.

In the core demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds whom advertisers covet, Howard drew a 3.3% share and 49,100 listeners--up 14% from his numbers last summer.

"The people I really hit home with," Howard noted, "are from about 30 to 50 [years old], who are dealing with aging parents, trying to buy a home, dealing with the costs of raising kids, and they're trying not to mess up with credit and cars. . . . Because people are getting married later and having kids later, our lives are kind of like rubber bands, being pulled in every which direction. So I'm the person who helps unstretch the rubber band.

"I get a lot of women listeners because I talk about money in a nonthreatening way," he added. "A lot of the talk shows that are money-oriented, they're using a lot of jargon . . . and I'm much more a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. People find I give them a lot of stuff they can actually use in their own lives."

Syndicated to some 75 stations since January 1998 by Cox Radio and Jones Radio Network, Howard likes to say he came out of nowhere. Not quite.

After graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor's degree in 1976, followed by a master's in business management a year later from Central Michigan University, he opened a travel agency in 1981. The business quickly became five agencies, and in 1987, he sold it to an Ohio firm, which told him he wasn't needed anymore. Coupled with real estate and Wall Street investments, he had more than enough "critical mass" in 1987, at age 31, to retire to a Florida beach house, where he says that he became a beach bum, tuning in to TV reruns.

Back home in Atlanta a number of months later, he was invited to be a guest on Atlanta's WGST-AM to talk about travel. As often happens in radio, the station kept bringing him back, and he soon became a regular host on Sunday afternoons.

In 1989, Howard got a weekday consumer show, following Rush Limbaugh, with the catchy title, "Cover Your Assets." His salary was in the neighborhood of $30 a show. He was ripe for a takeover, and in 1991 when WSB-AM, owned by Cox Radio, asked him to join, he moved without a look back. Not only was it offering radio, but air time on WSB-TV as well. He's been there ever since.

*

Howard's schedule today encompasses five hours on radio from 1 p.m. EST (although the first hour is sometimes taped) to 6 p.m., with the second two hours going up on the satellite for national broadcast--the segments we hear in Los Angeles. Then he's on for two more hours in the local market.

During the television sweeps months of November, February and May, he does eight segments a week in the 5 p.m. hour for the local TV station and scattered affiliates; the rest of the year, it's three segments a week.

But wait, isn't he on radio then? "The funny thing is, we have a camera in the booth, and when we go to commercial break at 5:46 p.m. I turn immediately to my right, and I have anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds till the red light goes on, and I'm on TV." Like a kid in a candy shop, he allowed, "I get two paychecks for the same minute's worth."

But Howard's life isn't only about money. Although he grew up wealthy--"I was a boy of complete privilege"--and went to the best prep schools in the South, he learned as a college freshman while home on Thanksgiving break that the family no longer had money to pay his tuition.

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