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What Works for Ronn Owens

By Marty Nemko

With today’s column, I begin an occasional feature in which I ask a successful person, “What works in your worklife?”

My first interviewee is KGO Radio’s Ronn Owens, the Bay Area’s long-time #1 talk show host. His show attracts more listeners than Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern.

MN: Many jobs, including yours, require the ability to size people up quickly. When you have a radio guest on for the first time, is there anything you look for?

RO: I try to size a guest up in the first ten seconds and adjust accordingly. When her Royal Highness, Princess Michael of Kent came on the show, she was very proper. So my first question was, “May I call you Mike?” She said, “No!” But I had a hunch she was malleable. So I kept playing with her and by the end of the interview, she was calling herself Mike. I remember her giggling, “Mike is at the mic.”

MN: How do you deal with time management?

RO: I work first, play second. I would never come, home watch TV, and then prepare for the show. I do the work first.

MN: You manage one person, Mark Silverman, your producer. Do you have a philosophy of management?

RO: The first thing I said to Mark was, “Please understand: This is a dictatorship, not a democracy, but if you disagree with a decision, come to me. He and I debate, argue, and about half the time, I agree with him. Some bosses give orders without listening. Others listen and listen and nothing ever gets done. I tend to be in the middle.

MN: Anything else key to your management philosophy?

RO: I don’t care when Mark comes in and when he leaves, as long as the job gets done.

MN: Do you have a strategy for dealing with conflict?

RO: I’m a cut-to-the-chase guy. No game playing.

MN: What’s your philosophy of salary negotiation?

RO: I’m delighted the station makes money from what I do and I want to be compensated for it.

MN: So, it’s a fairness issue for you.

RO: To be honest, and I’m a little embarrassed about it, it’s also a bit of an ego thing. People often judge you in part on your income. I mean, people won’t just say, “Carly Fiorina screwed up and got fired.” They’ll say admiringly, “and she got $22 million as a parting gift!”

MN: What makes you a good talk show host?

RO: I’m like an orchestra leader. I know when the “music” needs to go faster or slower, more serious or less.

MN: That’s key in any manager: adjusting the approach to the particular employee.

RO: Right.

MN: How do you adjust when I’m on the show? (I’ve been on every three months for years.)

RO: With you, I don’t need to talk a lot--I don’t get paid by the word. When you get a little too intense, I just throw in a one-liner to keep the show in balance.

MN: You are a moderate: liberal on some issues, conservative on others. Has that helped or hurt you?

RO: It hurt me when I wanted to go national. Jack Swanson, KGO’s operations manager, a brilliant guy, said, “You’ve got be really to the left or really to the right.” I’m a moderate by nature. I wasn’t willing to play extremist to make more money. (Owens wrote a book, Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right are Wrong.)

MN: What’s ahead for Ronn Owens?

RO: I have a contract until 2012. At that point, who knows? If Sarah (his older daughter) wants the job, I’d love her to take over the show. She’s a natural. And she can have my younger daughter Laura, who will become a vet, as a regular guest!

MN: How do you deal with stress?

RO: I’m never stressed behind the mic, but off the air, I’ve found yoga immensely relaxing.

You spend a lot of the time in positions you wouldn’t think are comfortable but really are. You’re in a middle zone: not asleep, not awake. It’s fantastic.

MN: Anything else that has helped your worklife?

RO: The sign-off passed on to me by my mentor, the late Al Julius: Illegitimis non carborundum.

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