Talk of the Town
David Pakman Builds a Multimedia Enterprise on His Own Terms
The crazier David Pakman thinks someone is, the more he wants you to hear them.
The folks at Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, the virulently anti-gay outfit that pickets military funerals, seem to have figured that out, since they refuse to speak on The David Pakman Show anymore. But there’s no shortage of other, similar voices to take Westboro’s place.
“The more extremist interviews are typically with people like Westboro, or Terry Jones, who was famously planning to burn Korans on 9/11 two years ago, or people like Bryan Fischer, who is an anti-gay radio guy who hosts a show for the American Family Assoc.,” Pakman told BusinessWest. “We had a former Navy chaplain on the show who claimed to perform gay and lesbian exorcisms with a 50% success rate.”
Pakman occasionally gets comments on his Web site asking why he gives such people a microphone and an audience at all, if he considers their viewpoint crazy or offensive. But he believes the exposure doesn’t benefit their cause, but actually damages it.
“Those are entertaining for me to do, and when I do those interviews, there might be 100 new articles or blog posts written about it” across the Web, he said, characterizing that exposure as a kind of public service. “The shows where people libel gay people create discussion, and that’s what I like to see — I like to see that entered into evidence, to expose these people’s lines of thought that are flat-out wrong and indefensible.”
Pakman, who has driven the growth of his multimedia talk show to a national presence and a spot in BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty last year, has no shortage of pluck when it comes to taking on those he disagrees with — which is notable, since he had no aspirations to make a career in politics or radio when he enrolled at UMass about a decade ago.
“It’s a progressive talk show for sure, but when I say progressive, it’s not affiliated with the Democratic party; we’ve been very critical of President Obama and other Democrats,” said Pakman, who nonetheless identifies with much of today’s liberal thought. On social issues and other matters, he tends to be highly critical of conservatives and particularly those who identify with the Religious Right, which he calls “a destructive force.”
“We’re in the genre of progressive talk, but on some issues, we may not be in line with standard Democratic talking points,” he further explained, adding that keeping an independent streak is important to him. “We depend mostly on individual people to support the show, so there’s no industry behemoth that can say, ‘if you don’t change your view on this, we’ll do a, b, or c.’”
He emphasized that ‘independent’ doesn’t mean ‘centrist’ in this context; Pakman stakes out strong positions and doesn’t try to cater to the middle of the road. “But we’re independent from any broader directives, and I think that comes through in the show.”
For this issue, Pakman sat down with BusinessWest at his Greenfield studio to discuss how his radio and TV presence has developed over the past several years, and how both his revenue model and his exploration of new media are blazing new, innovative trails in the field of political opinion.
Pakman was drawn to radio several years ago, during an internship with the nonprofit Media Education Foundation (MEF) while studying economics and communication at UMass Amherst.
“I had no radio experience; it seemed like something that would be fun to do,” he said, so he created a show for Northampton-based WXOJ, known as ‘Valley Free Radio,’ a Pacifica Radio affiliate whose license was held by MEF. The David Pakman Show focused on political topics from the beginning.
“When I started the show, I didn’t want to be a DJ guy,” he told BusinessWest. “I liked sports, but not enough to do a show around it. So I did a political show.”
At first, “it was terrible,” he added. “It was just me reading news. I didn’t know how to read news. There were no opinions. Even my mom, a Jewish mother who likes everything I do, said it was ‘pretty good.’ So I knew it wasn’t great.”
But as he morphed into an opinion show, “I just liked something about it, and I stuck with it.”
As he worked on his MBA at Bentley College, the show was syndicated in 2006 and 2007 to more than 25 Pacifica stations across the country, from Athens, Ga. to Moscow, Idaho, with much more growth to follow.
He made a good decision, he said, by focusing on national politics from the start, rather than local issues. “The show was always in Northampton, but it could have been anywhere; the topics were nationwide.”
In 2007, Pakman brought in childhood friend Louis Motamedy as radio producer, and the show broadened in scope, starting to attract more well-known guests and expanding to commercial radio outlets. Then, in 2009, Pakman decided put cameras in the studio and expand into television and the Internet, hiring his brother, Natan Pakman, to produce the video side. A year later, that show, Midweek Politics, obtained national distribution through Free Speech TV, airing on satellite television and a number of public-access stations.
“That was really big for us,” he told BusinessWest. “Our affiliates now total around 150, and it’s more TV than radio at this point. The YouTube channel does well, with around 10,000 subscribers and 11 million views.”
Best of all, Pakman has forged a mix of revenue streams that allows him to remain feistily independent. He sells advertising, of course, and is a partner in Google’s ad service on YouTube. But he also promotes a membership program by which subscribers pay monthly or yearly for the ability to access extra content.
“That started in April 2010,” he said, “and it’s really grown.” He was reluctant to reveal actual subscriber figures, since they tend to fluctuate, but he did note that membership has been rising by about 15% per month.
“If you like the show, then you can get more of it pretty cheaply — you probably blow more on coffee in a week. It’s a really easy sell for people, and it’s by far our main revenue source.”
It’s also a way, he said, for people to show support for an independent voice in an era of bundled fees for media. “You might pay 80 bucks for cable and watch just 10 or 15 channels. Otherwise, some would go out of business. So they say, ‘we’ll give you the Food Network, but you have to take Golf 6 and Home and Garden 4.’ With our model, people can say, ‘I like this show, and I want to support this.’ I think people appreciate that.”
Meanwhile, he was occasionally asked if he sold mugs, hats, or other tchotchkes emblazoned with the show’s logo, “but I was hesitant to do that, because the perception of having some lame items for sale might do more harm than help.”
Then Pakman came across a friend’s company, Repair the World, that makes clothing from recycled fabrics, including polyester materials from plastic bottles. He felt that emphasis on sustainability was something his listeners and viewers would appreciate, so he began ordering up logo shirts to sell and wrap into membership packages.
Do Your Homework
To prepare for each show, Pakman peruses news articles, blogs, YouTube clips, and other sources of discussion ideas, which he then enters into a database, along with notes and talking points for each; then, “we have to cut tons out of it to fit into our hour.”
Hosting the show during a national election cycle doesn’t necessarily change the volume of that prep work; he and the show’s core fans can mine material out of any day’s news. “Those people are always engaged,” he said. “As for casual political observers, we track Web searches and analytics very closely, and, yes, the closer we get to elections, the more people come into our universe.”
That universe typically includes an interview subject in addition to Pakman’s own opinions, and he has talked to some fairly prominent names over the years.
“If you’re realistic about who you can get, your success rate goes up,” he said. “If I say my goal for next week is George Soros, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and the new leader of North Korea, well…”
That said, the show boasts some prominent regulars, including Ohio’s U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, while Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick, and other luminaries in state and federal politics have made multiple appearances.
“Sometimes I’m surprised,” he said. “You send out an e-mail and assume it’s going through a series of handlers, but then they write back and say, ‘sounds great — let’s get you in touch with my scheduler.’ We also get pitches for interviews constantly. If we accepted everyone’s pitch, we wouldn’t be able to fit them into the week.”
Pakman said his goal is to inch the twice-weekly show toward daily broadcasts, but he first wants to secure additional sponsors and make sure there’s enough cash on hand to ensure against any sudden loss of memberships or revenues, for whatever reason. “I like to be conservative in that sense,” he said with a smile. “But there are so many guests and so much to cover.”
Sparring with anti-gay leaders has earned him particular notoriety around the Web. He once mediated an on-air confrontation between Westboro and the Internet hacking group Anonymous, and the latter essentially took over the church’s Web site during the discussion. The exchange wound up garnering more than 1 million YouTube hits.
“There’s kind of an interesting undercurrent throughout the discussions of whether I’m gay because we interview anti-gay people. I’m not gay, but there’s this assumption that the only reason I stand up for gay rights is that I’m gay myself,” Pakman said. “But I think it’s powerful when people see gay rights supported by someone who’s not gay, and not just supporting something out of personal interest.”
Not all guests are political in nature, he noted; one exception was Bob Werb from the Frontier Space Foundation, who discussed what’s on the horizon in space exploration over the next five to 10 years. “I’m learning as much as anyone when I’m talking to someone like that.”
At the same time, Pakman wants other people to learn more by engaging in their own discussions.
“Between e-mail, voice mail, Twitter, and YouTube, I get probably hundreds of messages to look at every single day, maybe more. Two things are great: positive comments, but also when arguments spin off. It’s great when we put up a topic on YouTube — like, should progressives support Ron Paul? There are some things about him that should be appealing to progressives. It’s a very controversial topic, and many varied opinions about it. We got 500 comments on that one, coupled with 100 e-mails. That’s great, and we’re not necessarily creating the discussion.”
Moving On Up
Obtaining his own studio space, first in Northampton in 2010 and later in Greenfield, was critical to growing the show. “At Valley Free Radio, we had to bring in our own equipment, bring it out, and then edit,” Pakman said. “It was an incredibly long process; it probably took four hours of work to do one hour of program.”
When asked about the possibility of becoming a major national player in talk radio under a syndication deal, Pakman said he’s not pursuing that model, but rather trying to forge a path in new media.
“I don’t really consider this a talk-radio program,” he said. “We’re much bigger on TV, and, combined with the Internet, I consider this a multi-platform show. And already, several automobiles have Internet radio in the car. As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous, being on [broadcast] radio becomes more of a moot point.
“I don’t even have regular radio at home,” he added, “and I don’t think I’m unique in that sense. We’re building an audience with a multiplatform approach.”
So The David Pakman Show — which is now the name of his TV show as well as his radio broadcast — forges ahead with something new, something exciting, something … well, progressive.
“We’re creating a product and building demand for it, and creating a successful revenue model,” he said, adding that he strives to keep the business and his values in balance. “I was once asked, if I could make four times as much money, would I be a conservative on radio and TV?”
If you don’t know the answer to that question, then you haven’t heard David Pakman. Yet.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]