Sean Hannity went from neighborhood paperboy to primetime pundit ... with a lot of hard work in between. He sat down with Townhall's Guy Benson recently to discuss everything from his cutthroat rivalry with another talk radio host in Atlanta--one that prepared him for the big time--to how he handles critics and what he does to blow off steam.
From Townhall Magazine's July feature, "On Set with Sean Hannity," by Guy Benson:
It's just after 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and the set of Fox News’ primetime hit, “Hannity,” is buzzing with activity. The show’s eponymous host sits at his desk, surrounded by a phalanx of support staff. They’re discussing the evening’s rundown and reviewing scripts.
Minutes earlier, Hannity arrived at the network’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, having just completed his nationally syndicated afternoon radio program. He’s hungry.
“Anyone want Chinese food?” he asks, hopefully.
He sweetens the pot.
Still, no one bites, so he settles for an order of fries and a chocolate frosty from Wendy’s.
A producer announces that Republican Svengali Karl Rove is up on the satellite feed, ready to pretape a segment of the evening’s broadcast—an occasional scheduling necessity for an otherwise live show.
“Hey Karl, do you have your whiteboard tonight?” Hannity asks, inquiring about a small dry-erase board Rove sometimes employs to break down statistics on television. (He does.)
The two banter jovially about a raft of new polls on the 2012 presidential contest, a subject they’ll soon discuss for the cameras. Hannity, who entered the building wearing jeans and a well-worn NYPD windbreaker, is now wearing the official television uniform: a jacket and tie, face made up, and hair perfectly in place—his jeans concealed by the desk.
According to Nielsen figures, roughly 3 million Americans will watch the segment he’s about to tape—a prospect that once daunted the star of conservative punditry—but tonight’s Hannity is unfazed. Live television has been a daily ritual for more than a decade. Plus, there’s no time for nerves; the stage manager is counting down from five, and a red light sitting atop the main camera is about to illuminate. It’s showtime.
From Paperboy to Pundit
Hannity is a bona fide political media superstar. He hosts the second highest-rated talk radio show in the nation (Rush Limbaugh remains top dog) and one of the most successful shows on Fox News—by far America’s most-watched cable news channel.
According to news reports, the network recently inked Hannity and fellow Fox star Bill O’Reilly to multiyear contracts, ensuring that the 50-year-old Hannity will remain part of the political media firmament through at least the 2016 presidential cycle.
But the journey to the top has followed a circuitous path for Hannity, who was born into a working-class family in Long Island, N.Y., and who never graduated college.
“I grew up on a 50x100 lot, living in a house with three sisters and one bathroom—talk about a nightmare,” Hannity says with a laugh. “We took one family vacation that I can remember, and we didn’t go to Disney; that sort of thing just wasn’t an option for my parents. There was a point in my life when going to McDonald’s was a big deal.”
His modest upbringing instilled an intense work ethic in a young Hannity, who began delivering newspapers at age 8, and that mindset continues to inform the worldview he now shares daily with his radio and TV audiences. He says a growing culture of American dependency flies in the face of both the nation’s founding and his own experience.
“It’s frustrating. I didn’t have much, but I worked hard, saved money and became self-sufficient. It can be done,” he emphasizes.
“I lived paycheck to paycheck for years of my life, but I never looked at rich people and thought I had a right to their cars or their money. And I never once got hired by a poor person,” he adds, personalizing a tried and true conservative trope.
He did get hired, though. Often. Hannity’s journeyman career included stints at three different colleges, stretches in the restaurant industry and manual labor working for building contractors. After bouncing around from job to job, Hannity finally decided to drive cross-country to California, essentially on a whim.
“I just packed up and went. It was insane,” he recalls, shaking his head. “Maybe that was my liberal side coming out—I was something of a free spirit.” It was on the West Coast that Hannity first tried his hand at the craft that would one day harness a massive following and earn him riches beyond his wildest childhood dreams: talk radio.
Two Love Affairs
Long before he settled behind the microphone of a small Southern California college radio station, Hannity had become enthralled with the medium. He speaks fondly of laying awake at night, riveted to the AM dial: “I used to listen to guys like Barry Farber and Bob Grant. I was fascinated by this stuff because it was an education unto itself. I remember listening to an entire show about Soviet expansionism, sitting there literally holding a globe and listening. It was an amazing tutorial on Communism.”
Hannity’s first taste of what he describes as an intoxicating on-air rush came at age 14, when he called into a show on New York’s WMCA.
“They put me on the air, then hung up on me because I was defending Reagan,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, it was a tantalizing preview of things to come. Hannity wanted more.
After getting fired from his first (unpaid) radio gig at UC Santa Barbara’s campus station in 1988, Hannity aggressively marketed himself and got hired as a daytime host in the tiny market of Huntsville, Ala.
“I was just God awful at first—like, embarrassingly bad. I didn’t have the skills,” he remembers.
As those requisite skills began to blossom in the deep South, so did the most important relationship he would ever forge.
“For a long time, I couldn’t get a date to save my life,” Hannity says, “so I got a little lucky with her.”
The “her” was a local newscaster named Jill; the pair started dating. Roughly three months into the relationship, the young radio host received word of his first big break. Atlanta’s WGST offered Hannity a mid-morning show in a top-10 media market—a spectacular career leap. He knew he wanted to head east, but not without the love of his life.
“When I got the offer, I almost immediately asked Jill, ‘Do you want to move to Atlanta?’ She said yes, and we went straight down to the mall and bought a ring,” Hannity says.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, Hannity assumed his new station’s nine-to-noon time slot, which had been vacated when local talk giant Neal Boortz jumped to competitor WSB to host his show at a new time.
“I was taking over Neal’s slot, which was overwhelming. I was in awe of his talent; he owned the ratings in that town,” Hannity remembers.
He adjusted to the new scenery and settled into the job. After a few months, Hannity finally felt comfortable enough to take his first vacation. As he was preparing to leave town for the brief respite, his career—and life—changed in an instant.
“I was driving in my car listening to Boortz, and he said, ‘Sean Hannity, I know you’re listening. I’m moving back to my old time slot, and I’m going to beat you.’ From that point forward, the ratings battle was on,” Hannity recalls.
It was in the crucible of the resulting radio war that Hannity says he became steeled for the ultra-cutthroat world of big-time radio, and ultimately, television.
Outsmarting the Competition
A simmering, powerful desire to win lurks just beneath the surface of Hannity’s gee-whiz, Boy Scout persona. “People have absolutely no idea how competitive I am,” he admits.
He’s not kidding. As his Atlanta ratings feud with Boortz escalated, Hannity devised ruthless methods to defeat his rival.
“Every morning, Neal would promote his show around 6:15. He would give the whole thing away; topics, everything. So I’d listen, then track down the hot guests involved with all of his topics and book them on my show. Neal didn’t really do guests, so by the time we both went on the air, listeners could choose between hearing Boortz ranting about something, or Hannity, who was actually interviewing the newsmakers. We burned him every single day, and I took pride in it,” Hannity explains, unable to disguise his residual relish.
This tactic hit ratings gold at the height of the O.J. Simpson trial. During his early morning promo, Boortz announced he had landed high-profile Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro for a 10 a.m. in-studio interview.
“Shapiro was the biggest ‘get’ in the business at the time, so I was mad that Neal had gotten to him first,” Hannity recalls. “I flipped the dial and heard Shapiro on a local news station, so I picked up the phone and called their studios, asking to speak with Shapiro’s media representative. I asked if they might have time for a 9 a.m. interview on my show, and they said yes. Not only did I get him in-studio, we were having such a great discussion, I asked him to stay longer. So he did. We ended up stealing Boortz’s guest right from under his nose, then kept him so long, he was late for Boortz’s show. I heard that when Shapiro finally arrived at WSB, Boortz personally came down to the parking lot, yelling and screaming. He was absolutely furious.”
Despite the fierce competition, the rivalry drew in huge listenership for both shows.
“There was one three-book stretch [industry jargon for nine months] when Boortz and I were each pulling 12.5 shares among men 25-54 [talk radio’s key demographic],” Hannity marvels. “Three books!”
In other words, at any given moment between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon in Atlanta, one out of every four men listening to any radio station in the area was tuned in to one of the two programs. Absolute domination.
Although the two eventually became good friends, the protracted mid-’90s brawl with Boortz equipped Hannity with the competitive rigor he would need to excel in the next frontier of his burgeoning career: cable television.
Building a Powerhouse
In 1996, international media titan Rupert Murdoch hired former Republican operative and television executive Roger Ailes to build a 24-hour news network. When the Fox News Channel debuted in October of 1996, its programming reached a piddling 10 million households and its ratings were microscopic. One of Ailes’ early hires was a 34-year-old talk show host from Atlanta, whom he selected to co-host a nightly Right-versus-Left debate program. “Hannity and Colmes” was born.
“When I told people I was moving to New York to work at Fox News Channel, nobody knew what I was even talking about,” Hannity remembers.
When he departed Georgia, the establishment Atlanta Journal Constitution exulted, “[G]oodbye to the talk show host from hell,” a clipping the hellacious host keeps in his office. Soon after landing in the Big Apple, Hannity was offered a late-night talk slot on industry giant WABC-AM, before transitioning to the afternoon drive slot he’s held down ever since. “The Sean Hannity Show” went national on September 10, 2001, one day before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Radio came naturally to Hannity. Television did not—a reality that contributed to a very steep learning curve at Fox News.
“Once again, I was terrible early on,” he says candidly. “I didn’t know what I was doing and I was uncomfortable in front of a camera. Honestly, I could not come onto the cable news scene today with the underdeveloped skills that I had back then.”
When an early media critic wrote that Hannity had “no business” being on television, Hannity phoned friend and fellow Fox News host Neil Cavuto to ask if he would be fired. Though Cavuto assured him he would not be, “in retrospect, [the critic] was right,” Hannity says.
Hannity decided to address his shortcomings the only way he knew how—hard, relentless work.
“I’m not the smartest guy, I’m not the funniest guy, and I’m not the most talented guy; but I will out-work absolutely anyone,” he says.
Slowly but surely, Hannity’s nose-to-the-grindstone mentality began to pay dividends. And Hannity remains grateful for Ailes’ confidence and patience.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself, and I’m still very appreciative of that,” he says.
Hannity’s staff delights in discussing their boss’ metamorphosis from tentative neophyte to powerhouse.
“When I first started here, our show had two relatively unknown hosts and we had to build an audience from almost nothing,” says Fox News producer Tara Nicaj, who has worked with Hannity for the last 11 years. “Our initial goal, which seemed really tough at the time, was to beat [CNN’s] Larry King in the ratings. We ended up doing that many times over. Since then, I’ve watched Sean develop into a real force. He’s successful because of his passion and work ethic, which is as strong now as when he first started. And he really loves what he does, and that happiness shines through in his work.”
The show’s executive producer, John Finley, recognizes the same intensity of purpose and professional fulfillment.
“Sean works very hard. I think he thrives on it,” Finley says. “Even when he’s on vacation, we’re talking every day—so in that sense, he’s never really not here. You’ve got to have that drive in this industry—four hours of broadcast every day can really be a slog.”
A slog, indeed. Twenty hours of live programming per week is a strenuous burden, but Finley isn’t concerned over the burnout factor because “Sean proves every day that he still has the fire I saw the very first day I met him." ...
.... Hannity lingers briefly after the show, chatting with and thanking guests in the green room. Then it’s back home to “decompress for a little bit,” before diving back into the never-ending news frenzy. He browses dozens of political websites—“I’m on Drudge, Breitbart and Townhall every day, just to name a few,” he says— and increasingly engages friends and adversaries alike on Twitter. Hannity’s day finally ends well after midnight—“2 a.m. is typical”—roughly 18 hours after his alarm clock first sounded.
Hannity is cognizant of spreading himself too thin and has adjusted his lifestyle and schedule accordingly. “It’s really important for me to be a father, so I pretty much gave up speaking engagements,” he says, explaining that he’s pared down public appearances to a handful per year. “I miss doing that stuff, but I had to make that choice. We’ve also slowed down our concert schedule [Hannity orchestrates “Freedom Concerts” for charity], and I have no interest in writing another book [he’s written three], so I’ve taken some of the clutter out because my family comes first.”
Hannity says he watches ESPN and enjoys tennis on weekends to blow off steam, and confesses a weakness for the televised talent competition show, “American Idol.”
Another blood pressure-reducer is Hannity’s decision not to read or engage outside critics.
“I make more than my fair share of mistakes, and I’ve said really stupid things, some of which even [left-wing “watchdog” outfit] Media Matters doesn’t know about,” Hannity chuckles.
His eye-popping accomplishments notwithstanding, Hannity acknowledges there is always room for improvement. ...
Editor’s Note: The author interned at Fox News from 2002- 2004.