Eric Zane was once flying high as part of the Free Beer & Hot Wings syndicated morning show. After 15 years on the show, he wore out his welcome and they let him go. Then, in 2016, Cumulus hired him to host mornings in Grand Rapids. Earlier this year, he lost that job. In our interview, Zane admits he’s not easy to get along with and that attitude may have helped nudge him out the door of radio. However, over the years, he’s developed a very loyal fanbase. Now, he’s hoping to take those fans, and a few advertisers, over to his garage where he’s building a new studio and producing a new podcast. Zane talks about how he plans to make the show a success, if he thinks he can make as much money podcasting as he did in radio, and how he’s dealing with mental illness.
Radio Ink: Give our readers, who may not know, your radio background.
Eric Zane: The usual story of bopping around from town to town. I met up with The Free Beer & Hot Wings show in Knoxville. And then we kind of just did our thing. We got a couple of lucky breaks, but we were ready for those breaks because we were all pretty good at the biz. It turned into a nice little syndication deal.
Radio Ink: How did the Hot Wings team come together?
Eric Zane: I was competitors with Greg (Daniels) and Chris (Michels) in Tennessee. I was their competitor. I got fired from my job. I had a relationship with their boss, and Greg and Chris and I all went to the same school, but I didn’t know those guys at the time. I just wandered over there and I said, hey, you got room for this idiot? They put me in touch with a producer. Over time it ended up jelling which led to all three of as leads on the show. That lasted from 2001 to 2016, 15 years.
Radio Ink: What caused that to come to an end?
Eric Zane: Well, it’s interesting because, as time has passed, I’ve established a different perspective on the whole thing. I think that by the time that I did get fired, I feel like I had worn out my welcome. I’ve said this before, I sometimes struggle to get along with people. I can see, and would understand, if anyone said, “Hey, I don’t think this is working.” I probably would have been upset at the time but I definitely understand I’m hard to work with. Probably the two years leading up to the end, it didn’t seem like we were hitting on all cylinders, but whatever. For years, whenever I would step in it with an advertiser, or something like that, my old management team would always take care of it because we had a crazy amount of success. I kind of got used to that. Well, new management takes over, with a different management style, and whenever I would get in trouble they would say, “Hey, you know, this is crap. We don’t like this.” So essentially they just kind of got wore out. Greg and Chris would give you a similar answer. They would probably say, “Yeah, you’re right, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Tell him to hit the road.” So that was it. Nothing more to it than that.
Radio Ink: You don’t often hear people admit what you just admitted.
Eric Zane: Thank you. I appreciate you acknowledging that. Anyone will tell you, and Greg and Chris would probably agree, I have emotional high points and flash points. I’ll get angry. Frankly, I’ve worked on that quite a bit since then. Believe it or not and nobody would admit this either, Ed, I’ve gotten some mental health help and I’m medicated now. Everything’s a little bit easier. I cannot stress that enough as being a positive because life is much easier these days even after just getting fired again. That was a much easier thing to process after I was diagnosed. It is what it is. It’s the truth.
Radio Ink: Do you stay in touch with Greg and Chris?
Eric Zane: No, we don’t speak. Unfortunately.
Radio Ink: What’s it like when the PD calls you into the office and you know what’s coming?
Eric Zane: I’m glad you brought this up because the last time was different. I have been called in the office before. Two firings ago, when I thought I was going to survive but didn’t. That was scary and the guy who fired me was so cheery and sweet and nice. To hear this pleasant man’s voice say, “Well, we got to let you go.” I was like, Oh no, that was a kick in the face.Then the most recent one, I had gotten sick. I had the flu at 7 a.m. I went to the bathroom and that was ugly. I went back on the air, did another hour and it happened again at 8 a.m. I asked my partner to finish out the show without me. I said I’m going home because I’m going to infect people. I left and the Grim Reaper starts walking through the halls at 9:00 severing heads. He was looking for one more head. Mine. Where is Eric? He went home. I’m sound asleep. My phone’s buzzing like crazy. It’s a text from an insider saying two guys just got fired and they’re looking for you. So it happened when I was at the toilet on the phone, and all I wanted to do was get off the phone. I didn’t even care at that point. I was like, I gotta go. Thanks for telling me, goodbye. They did it over the phone. I didn’t have a problem with it because I would have hated it if they made me come back to the radio station to get fired.
Radio Ink: Are you done with radio?
Eric Zane: I’m not going to say that. I love radio. I’m not one of these podcasters who starts to hammer radio. Radio is awesome. I love it. The only thing now is, at least for the next six months, I’m really concentrating on podcasting. If a radio station needs my services, I’m going to make doubly sure that the podcast is not touched and I can still promote it. That’s the only way I would take a radio station job these days. I would use it as a bargaining chip. I’ll say let me have this and we can all work in a nice relationship. There’s a lot of flexibility with this. I’m committed to it. I was planning to get a job selling campers or selling cars or something to make ends meet and then I was like, I can’t do that. In order to be committed to this, I’ve got to be fully on board, and that includes selling it.
Radio Ink: So you’re out of a job and you are thinking about selling campers. You decide “I’m going to do a podcast” while you’re sitting at home. How do you get started?
Eric Zane: When I got fired from Free Beer, I went down this road. I bought all the equipment and built a website but kept it dark. In fact, I was going to go live with it and then I got the job with Cumulus. So I waited and kept everything boxed up. A couple times in the two years nine months I was on BBL, I got in trouble and I thought, Okay this is this is the big one. Then it finally happened this past January. I did a Facebook live video to announce it. I called the guys who run my site and my merchandise and told them to make the website live and please make it so people can buy the t-shirts. It was that simple one phone call on a Friday. I had already had the Patreon site built and I had already subscribed to Audioboom to use as my platform. It was as simple as setting up microphones, rolling a file on Adobe, putting it on Facebook, and on Sunday we were in business. I published that night so people would have it Monday morning. I pushed it out to all the usual podcast apps and we were happening. I say we, it’s just me. I had interest from a local advertiser on Thursday and sold them a package. It’s a comedy club in town. They got the studio naming rights. My audience members are super passionate. I am very close with them and a lot of these people have my personal cell phone number. We’re all friends. They rallied around me. Right now I have a crew finishing the drywall on my studio and then I have a paint crew coming in. Someone donated the flooring. It’s all being built in the dormer above my garage. I don’t have to pay for any of it. It’s like a grassroots vibe that has taken over.
Radio Ink: So these are former radio listeners that followed you over to the podcast.
Eric Zane: Yes. They call themselves The Zaniacs. There’s a fan page, Zaniacs United, and they buy all the shirts. They subscribe. They’re awesome. It’s extremely powerful.
Radio Ink: What is your content?
Eric Zane: That’s a great question because I occasionally swear and let it fly. It just depends on the moment. I don’t like to use swear words in a sexual way, but you know, I say nasty words all the time, which is different than being on the radio. However, I have to be careful with that because the Zaniacs expect a certain thing. I’m figuring out that there there’s a time and a place for it without it being too ridiculous. I think I can hold my own in any conversation or a comedy bit or a rant without doing that. That’s about the only difference. I typically talk about a lot of family things. The nonsense that happens in a busy household and my interactions with people. I pay close attention to that. How can I make that funny. A lot of the times it’s just me with a mic on Facebook live doing it, and I’m very comfortable doing that. It’s not a problem. Talking about pop culture, whatever’s going on in the world.
Radio Ink: Why are you using Facebook Live?
Eric Zane: Initially, on the launch, I was just going to do that for the first week. But Facebook has noticed how populated those videos are. They’re getting a lot of attention and they reached out to me and they want to put some ads in. I didn’t even know that was a thing. So I have to run out that ground ball and see what’s up. It’s been like that since I started doing this. These doors kind of just open just from throwing stuff up there. That’s what led me to, Hey I think there’s something to this.
Radio Ink: Facebook contacted you about running ads in your video?
Eric Zane: I know, right? I was like wait what’s going on here. I don’t know if it’s much, I’m still learning a lot of things. I’m trying to get as techie as I possibly can. The whole process of making money by what we’re doing and getting stuff on all the different platforms. I’ve got a couple pieces of equipment that I purchased that I don’t even know how they work — no clue. I haven’t even had time to take them out of the box, but I know I need them. Every day since getting fired has been acclimating myself with these new things. But I knew I had to get in front of people first. It’s a very rudimentary setup that sounds like garbage sometimes, but doggone it, people don’t care. They just want to see you. They just want to hear you.
Radio Ink: Most podcasters start a show with nothing. They don’t have listeners. They don’t have a former radio audience. They’re just throwing it all out there. What’s it like going from walking into a radio station studio, where you know you’ll get a paycheck, no matter what you say for the most part, to your garage studio where you’re doing everything yourself, including sales.
Eric Zane: It’s very exciting and exhilarating. A feeling you have when you first get into the business. It has this newness to it. Freeing is the word that I’ve heard people say and I’m using now too. I have moments of anxiety and fear because I’m like, Oh boy, this is it.Sometimes my brain does try to trick me. It’s the mental illness trying to convince me that I’m a failure and it’s not going to work. Then my wife helps me or I go to bed and then I wake up and I don’t feel that way. That part is scary. It’s almost like a scare you have when you’re about to go on a rollercoaster. It’s an unknown but then it always seems to work out and you have a good time at it. It’s that type of fear. I really like having what you’ve described. Now I’m doing it my way. I’m lucky. I saw a lot of people who don’t have a following like mine. I am fortunate.
Radio Ink: Do you think you’ll be able to make enough money from sales and the Patreons to live the same lifestyle you were living while you were collecting a radio check?
Eric Zane: I’m approaching 400 Patreon members. They’re paying me five to 10 bucks a month. If I reach 800 I’m whole. So seven podcasts in and I’m approaching 400. Things have slowed down so now’s the hard work. Now I have to go out and sell people on it. I have to get advertisers on the air. It’s going to take a while, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes. Who knows what else can come down the road? All I can do right now is my best at putting out something that people would like to listen to in their spare time or when they’re working. I have a goal in six months to be at that 800 number. I don’t know if I’m going to get there. I’m hoping and praying but I’m not going to be all cocky about it.
Radio Ink: What time is the show on?
Eric Zane: It depends. I have a ridiculous schedule this time of the year. I do public address for the local hockey and basketball teams and I’m a dad so I’m going to cheer competitions. So I vary it. I do post that every day. I’m going live at this time. I don’t have a set time yet. I would like to keep it in the evening when people are home.
Radio Ink: What we hear from the podcasting experts is you have to have a consistent time. Listeners have to know when they can find you.
Eric Zane: I think you’re probably right there. That’s something I should definitely look into outside of when I have to be somewhere else, but it’s really crazy right now.