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Make as much fun of him as you want

John Tesh can take it. He's found fulfillment with his thriving upbeat-talk radio show.

April 05, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Say what you want about John Tesh, but the man inspires people.

One blogger was moved to post this remark about the 53-year-old square-jawed celebrity who has sold millions of New Age records and sold out hundreds of concert halls: "The guy's music makes me want to stuff a knitting needle in each ear."

Writer Joe Queenan, apparently filled with the same type of zeal for the former host of "Entertainment Tonight," crowned Tesh a "prince" -- but not of something you'd want to be the prince of. Meanwhile, radio shock jock Howard Stern practically foams at the mouth describing the 6-foot-6 Tesh as "the blond Frankenstein" or "the latter-day Liberace" or "the Lawrence Welk of the Dockers generation."

And that's among the nicer mean comments about a conscientious Christian who for some reason seems to bring out the devil in people. The father of two laughs off the various attacks and instead concentrates on a passion of his own -- "The John Tesh Radio Show," one of the fastest-growing syndicated radio programs in the country.

"When people make fun of you, you have two choices," the self-deprecating Tesh said at his Sherman Oaks recording studios. "I remember when Michael Bolton made the other choice and he just went nuts. You just can't win that battle because it only makes it worse. And having been on the other side of it, having made fun of a few people myself on 'Entertainment Tonight,' hey, you learn you just have to go with it."

Heard daily on more than 220 stations across the United States, Canada and New Zealand, the show debuted locally last November on Glendale's KFSH-FM (95.9) and bills itself as "Music and Intelligence for Your Life." The topics are safe and simple -- health, relationships and family, and absolutely no politics or religion. The mood is always unfailingly upbeat.

During the five-hour show, Tesh frequently chimes in with a bit of advice or informational tidbit. Recent subjects include how to tell if your pet is depressed, how couples can avoid fights over money and how cinnamon can help lower cholesterol. "If it doesn't make you better, healthier or happier," Tesh said, "we don't have it on the show."

Structured similarly to a Top 40 countdown, Tesh is usually on the air for about eight minutes an hour; the rest of the time is music and commercials selected by the affiliates. It's an a la carte formula that many radio programmers, representing a wide array of musical formats, find appealing.

For instance, at KFSH-FM, Tesh is coupled with a contemporary Christian musical format; at CIQX-FM in Calgary, Canada, it's smooth jazz; and at KAYN-FM in Boise, Idaho, it's country-western. And elsewhere, Tesh's good-guy persona -- although critics might argue it's annoyingly vanilla -- mixes just as easily with oldies, adult contemporary or classic rock.

Every bit as versatile is the show's ability to be plugged into any time slot and score solid ratings. Locally, KFSH-FM runs Tesh from 7 p.m. to midnight, but his show has been just as successful in the morning drive-time or afternoon slots in other markets.

Nobody is making fun of how quickly Tesh's radio show has caught on in a jampacked marketplace hungry for wholesome content. In less than three years, Tesh has built a weekly audience between 8 million and 10 million, a figure that is several times larger than Howard Stern now commands on Sirius Satellite Radio (the company won't release ratings for its individual channels).

"He saw the possibility of a radio niche for what you might call 'uplifting talk' that focuses on everyday life," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "He comes across as an extremely likable and credible guy, and when he's getting a point across or even reading the five key findings of a medical research study, you know that his heart's behind it."

Part of the radio show's success, of course, is tied to Tesh's earlier fame gained in other mediums. His decade-long stint as co-host of "Entertainment Tonight" from 1986 to 1996 stamped his name and face into the mass consciousness. That gig even led to a memorable guest-starring role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in 1989 -- he played K'Tesh, a Klingon going through the agony of puberty.

"It sounded good on paper," said Tesh, who regularly flashes his trademark "Nice Guy" smile. "I thought I was going to be Capt. Picard's assistant or something, then I'm sitting down to five hours of makeup and I was too scared to ask what I was going to be doing."

For Tesh, "Entertainment Tonight" brought him a new level of wealth and fame, but ultimately it left him feeling unfulfilled. He wanted to matter on a deeper, more spiritual, level to his audience.

"I probably should have left a couple years earlier than I did," Tesh said. "I didn't believe in what I was doing. I know it sounds corny, but I love being a part of people's lives in a meaningful way and that's really one of the fun things about the radio show."

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