by Dan Smith, Founder and CEO
Back in the early days of Smith Publicity, when I had to make money any way I could, I worked with lots of interesting people and books. I had some amazing experiences with some amazing, if not sometimes strange, authors. I was fortunate to have been part of, or witness to, many genuinely weird, funny, sometimes scary, sometimes freaky, sometimes just unbelievable things back in “the old days,” … when my hair was thicker, with no sign of gray, and I was still really good at basketball.
I call them the “Book Marketing X-Files.”
I tell stories about these early days a lot, probably too much. Some people can't or won't believe them. It’s your call.
All I can do is tell the stories.
It was 1998, and it was a nasty September night in Blunt, SD, along Interstate 14. Fifty degrees, sheets of rain, and fog. The few hundred residents of the town were nowhere in sight.
A man, I’ll call him “James,” was making the long drive from his home in Minneapolis to his vacation cabin in Montana. He was trying to get away. Away from a problem. A really, really big problem, one that had him in a $10,000,000 jam. There was no solution to his problem – he’d thought of everything. Killing himself crossed his mind, and as he sped by Blunt, he seriously thought about quickly turning the steering wheel of his Mercedes and sending his car tumbling down a hillside.
James was drinking too. Going 90 miles per hour, a fifth of Jack Daniels between his legs, in torrential rain, in the pitch black was a recipe for disaster, but he didn't care. He had nothing to lose.
He tried to find something to stop his mind from spinning. He hit the seek button on his radio and static rolled through the speakers as it searched for stations without success. Then it stopped. A crystal clear signal came through, and two men were in deep conversation. Just as quickly, the station started to fade. James pulled over and backed his car up until the station came through again.
As he listened to the conversation, he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Chills went down his spine. He looked around as if he was searching for someone watching him.
James grabbed a notebook from his briefcase and furiously started taking notes.
In his messy Los Angeles office, my client, who I’ll call “Robert,” was on the phone, his feet kicked up on his desk, chatting away, gladly answering questions from the person on the other end.
Robert, you see, was an author of a tiny little book about how to get out of tax problems with the IRS. He was also an attorney, and he made his living helping people resolve tax debts, often for a fraction of what they owed the government. His typical client owed perhaps $75,000 to $150,000 in back taxes of some sort. Robert made money by taking a percentage – I was never quite clear on how that worked, and how the percentage was determined, but I knew he made a decent living. Not rich, but doing OK.
Robert paid me a small monthly fee to get him some media exposure, mainly radio interviews. Smith Publicity was essentially only me back then, with one part time assistant. I worked out of a tiny bedroom office. Robert didn't pay me much, but in those days I took whatever business I could find.
Robert was a great client. He would do any interview I set up, regardless of how small a station might be. He loved talking and he loved having people listen to him.
In 1998, we still used the giant green “Bacons” printed directories – huge tomes, one for each type of media, with thousands of contacts listed. I had to go through the directories and manually create lists, one contact at a time, or just use a pencil and make calls to contacts, putting a check mark next to them as I did. I used a pencil so I could erase and start anew for each client, but nevertheless, every page was a mess with things written in every possible open space. This was old school book publicity. Printed directories, fax machines and phones. Sure, I used email too, but nothing close to how we use it now.
Anyway, while looking for stations and shows for Robert to do for interviews, I came across one strange listing for a station in Blunt, SD. Almost all stations had power listings in the directories, i.e. 5,000 watts, 50,000 watts, etc. But this one just had the station call letters, and phone and fax numbers. That was it.
I didn't care, Robert was paying me to do a job. The number of interviews had slowed, and I had to do whatever I needed to make good things continue to happen for my paying client. I called and within 30 seconds of my pitch the man on the other end who had answered the call said “Yes, let’s book him.” It turns out that he, actually, was the station. He had created some type of super low-power transmitter that the FCC somehow approved. He was station owner, producer, and host. His station’s signal supposedly had a 5-mile reach. My call with this mysterious man was so fast, I never even got his name.
I called Robert, and told him to call a number at 9 PM Central Time, and talk to the owner/host of some odd, tiny station for an interview. I remember telling him, “Robert, from what I can tell, this station might literally only have an audience of a few dozen listeners.” He didn’t care, he’d do it.
And so he did.
Back to that special September night with the drunken, desperate James pulled over on the side of the road, and a $10,000,000 IRS debt hanging over his head.
James was listening to Robert being interviewed by a most unusual station/talk show owner and host. The owner/host was indeed weird, talking in a frantic, peculiar cadence, but he actually wasn’t a bad host. He asked good questions and had obviously read Robert's book. Robert was in his glory, going on and on about how people could reduce their tax debts, and also talking about the tactics he used for his clients. He could have been talking to 1 million people or the couple dozen he probably was -- it didn't matter to him.
James, meanwhile, was hearing providence meeting destiny and maybe, he thought, even something supernatural. What was happening, and the string of events that led to it from all sides – was meant to be. He had no doubt.
The next day, a sober James called Robert.
It turned out to be a very profitable conversation for Robert. James needed serious help, and Robert was the perfect person to help him.
Robert called me a few days later and told me about James. “Jackpot!” was how he greeted me when I answered the phone. Calmly, but barely hiding his excitement, he said that based on James’ IRS debt, and if Robert could do what he normally did for his clients, he could make $200,000.
A few months later, I got a check from Robert for $5,000. "Thank you" was scribbled in the memo line. A note paper-clipped to the check had “Danny boy, call me when you get this,” written on it.
It turned out that Robert was indeed a Godsend for James. He worked his magic and got his $10,000,000 IRS debt cut down to under $1,000,000. For his work, Robert made $300,000. For James, he could move on with his life and smile again.
Robert had told me early on in our relationship, “You know, people who owe insane amounts of money to IRS almost always still have a ton of money. To owe a huge amount you had to make a huge amount.” James turned out to be a case in point. He owed a crazy amount, but he had a lot of money, and when most of that money didn't go to the IRS, he still had a lot of money.
So, the setting, players, and summary of the curious case of the $300,000 interview:
The setting: A rainy night on the roadside near Blunt, SD, population around 300; a sloppy, small office in downtown Los Angeles; and a cramped, tiny, equally sloppy bedroom office in Levittown, PA.
- James – the wealthy man in a big-time money jam.
- Robert, the tax-expert author and attorney
- Me, the struggling book publicist
- Some guy broadcasting from his home-brew station in the basement of his home in Blunt, SD.
I call some guy whose name I never knew or found out and schedule a radio interview on some mysterious, ridiculously small radio station in Blunt, SD. James - drunk, depressed and suicidal -just happens to be driving by Blunt and hears Robert talking with the mystery radio man. James calls Robert. Robert helps James, and earns $300,000.
A side note: A few weeks after the interview, I called the mystery station owner/host to pitch another author. The number was disconnected. I never found out who the man was or what happened to him or his station. Also, Robert told me he had sent a $3,ooo check to the mystery radio man, but the envelope got returned with "no forwarding address" stamped on it. The basement mystery radio man was gone, almost as if he never was.
And there you have the curious case of the $300,000 radio interview.
For authors and/or those curious about book marketing, (and paranoid, conspiracy theorists, for the matter) the take-away is "You never know who is listening."
The truth is out there …