Tom Leykis in his Burbank studios. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
Tom Leykis, the shock jock sidelined for more than three years after his radio station dropped talk for pop music, is infamous for persuading women to lift their tops and for coaching men to spend as little money as possible on dates. Critics dubbed him a Neanderthal. Now he's being called a revolutionary.
Silenced by the changeover at KLSX-FM (97.1) in February 2009, Leykis has resurrected his show online with a shoestring operation that he believes can take on the radio conglomerates — the latest in a cadre of stars staking out new territory for themselves.
"My job here is not to serve the corporate master. I am the corporation here," Leykis said while giving his "mission statement" on a recent show. "I reserve the right to talk about anything I find interesting."'
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After three years off the radio, Leykis has resumed his weekday show on the Internet, once considered merely the realm of amateurs and vanity programs. Now he's streaming his show free on http://www.BlowMeUpTom.com, a reference to the tradition of fans' requests that Leykis end their calls with recorded explosions, among other sound effects. He broadcasts live weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., sometimes 7, with continuous repeats until the following day's new show.
The Internet show began April 2, and at the end of its first week, 401,180 listeners had tuned in for at least five minutes. The first month, fans tuned in from 102 countries — England, El Salvador, Uganda, Australia, the Philippines and Mexico, among others.
"It's an example of how creative talent is adapting to a new reality," said Perry Michael Simon, news, talk and sports editor at the online radio-news journal AllAccess.com. "The number of outlets they've got on traditional media have shrunk. It's wise of anybody on the talent side to be entrepreneurial."
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Behind an anonymous storefront in Burbank, with printers and auto-repair shops for neighbors, Leykis broadcasts from a small studio, dark and spare, standing at a crescent-shaped desk and still wearing his trademark dark glasses in the dim lighting. His KLSX show also aired weekday afternoons, and many fans listened while driving home during rush hour — not sitting in front of a computer. Is he simply missing out on that whole swath of his audience?
During a break, Leykis holds up an Android smartphone he'd been twirling in his hand.
"This," he said, "is a radio."
A few finger swipes, and he's turned on an application streaming radio stations and programs from around the world, with presets for his favorites — like a car radio with a global reach. He presses an on-screen button, and the current episode of "The Tom Leykis Show" starts playing. Plug that into a dashboard, and it's as if he never left the airwaves.
"This is a cultural breakthrough," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry. "You're on the same magic box that major corporations spend millions of dollars to broadcast through. That's a revolution."
And Simon noted that what listeners care about is the content coming out of their speakers, not whether it originated from a broadcast antenna on Mt. Wilson, a satellite overhead or a cellphone tower beaming an Internet stream.
"While the traditional media are shrinking, the opportunities to get your product out there have never been greater," Simon said.
In the short term, online audiences will run smaller than those for radio, he said, but in the long run "there's a much greater upside in terms of numbers."
Leykis is by no means the first radio refugee to take his program to the Internet. Almost immediately after their station switched formats in 2009, his former KLSX colleague Adam Carolla started offering a podcast that emulated his morning show. Among others, former Air America talk host Lionel and longtime Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl podcast regularly via their own websites.
With a podcast, listeners can go to a website or iTunes and download the latest show, then listen to it at their leisure. Likewise, the hosts can produce and post the shows whenever they want and aren't required to be in front of a microphone at a studio every weekday at 3 p.m. sharp.
Leykis' streaming model, on the other hand, better simulates the live radio experience for the audience, with the interaction of callers, host and subsequent callers reacting to earlier comments.
"He's basically offering a radio show without the antenna," Simon said. With podcasts, "there's a delay that takes the communal experience out of it."