'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Ryan Seacrest ('American Idol')

"The hardest working man in show business," according to The New York Times, reflects on his lifelong obsession with broadcasting, the weekend decision that changed his life and live TV's uncertain future.
ABC/Eric McCandless

"It's so nice to not have to be asking the questions," says Ryan Seacrest with a chuckle as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. Described by The New York Times as "the hardest working man in show business," Seacrest is, of course, best known as the host of the reality competition show American Idol, which went on the air in 2002, and just wrapped up its 18th season — and first conducted remotely, thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic — Sunday night.

But the 45-year-old has also been the host of the syndicated countdown radio program American Top 40 and KIIS-FM’s morning radio show On Air With Ryan Seacrest since 2004; a host of ABC’s annual Dec. 31 special Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve since 2006 and daily talk show Live With Kelly and Ryan since 2017; and, since 2006, the chief of Ryan Seacrest Productions, which makes reality TV shows ranging from Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, for which he won a producing Emmy in 2010 (he has also racked up 13 other noms, 12 for Idol), to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which has been a ratings machine since 2007.

Why does Seacrest continue to push himself so hard nearly two decades after his rapid ascent to fame and fortune? The answer, he insists, is simple: He genuinely loves broadcasting — especially live — and, perhaps more than anything else, he loves having an audience. "I always wanted it, I never had it and I couldn't believe I got it," he acknowledges. And once he did, with Idol? "I wanted to have a touchpoint to an audience at every part of the day. So that would be wake up and drive in; that would be a primetime TV show; that would be a cable TV show; that would be an award show. My model was to always have a connection with the audience, no matter what time of day or day of the week."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Seacrest was born and raised in Atlanta. A chubby bespectacled kid who experienced more than his share of bullying, he found escape in listening to, studying the hosts of and calling in to radio shows from his childhood bedroom. Eventually, he ventured out of his shell enough to become "the voice of Dunwoody," providing his high school with his own radio-like announcements that were piped directly into homerooms each morning. And at 15, citing that experience, he talked his way into a friendship — and unofficial internship — with the night jock at a local radio station, whereupon, he recalls, "I just fell in love with watching a live broadcast."

He went off to study at the University of Georgia, but quickly grew restless, believing that he should be in Los Angeles pursuing a broadcasting career. So at 19, he dropped out, drove across the country and landed a job doing overnight work at a location radio station. Eventually, he graduated to hosting small-time TV shows, one of which caught the attention of the legendary TV host and media mogul Merv Griffin, who invited Seacrest to audition to host one of his shows. At 21, Seacrest landed that job — and spent the next several years hustling under the radar, sometimes hosting as many as six different TV gigs a day, followed by his radio duties at night — while also studying at Griffin's feet.

In 2001, seven years after heading west, Seacrest received two job offers roughly simultaneously, and had to choose between them over one weekend: the first was to host the long-established TV show Family Feud; the second was to be part of a new program that would eventually come to be called American Idol. (For the latter, the initial offer was to serve as a judge, not a host). "I really, really had a very, very, very difficult weekend not really knowing what to do," Seacrest recalls. Not feeling confident in his ability to be a judge of music, he asked Idol's producers if they already had a host. They told him they had signed one — Brian Dunkleman — but were in the market for a second. "I said, 'Can I audition to be the other guy?' And that's how that happened."

To many, Seacrest — who, in Idol's early seasons, was often ribbed by judge Simon Cowell — appeared to have an easy job. He says that was not unintentional. After the first season proved a hit, he sought advice from Dick Clark, the legendary host of Idol precursor American Bandstand (who he would go on to collaborate with and ultimately succeed on New Year's Rockin' Eve). "I remember him telling me, 'You want to be on the screen and have every single person watching you think it's the easiest job in the world and that anyone can do your job — like, almost insult you that it's ridiculous that you have this as a job,'" Seacrest remembers. "That has stuck with me forever. You don't have to be controversial or that clever or the smartest, most talented person. But if you can create this box of accessibility and comfort, that goes a long way."

Doing live broadcasting is not easy and the stakes are high, but the adrenaline of it has long appealed to Seacrest, and continues to do so to this day — indeed, it is a primary reason he agreed to join Kelly Ripa to co-host the truly live show Live With Kelly and Ryan in 2017, between Idol's stints on Fox and ABC. "For me," he elaborates, "there is a rush and a pace to live broadcasting that is just not there on tape. I'm actually not that good on tape. I think I'm a little bit better live than on tape. I don't know, maybe I just relax too much."

As Idol took off, Seacrest — hoping to grow his audience, but risking being overexposed — began taking on other gigs, as well, from the aforementioned radio shows, which had previously been hosted by Casey Kasem and Rick Dees; to hosting E! News and the E! network's red carpet shows; to New Year's Rockin' Eve. Work-life balance was — and largely remains — a foreign concept to him. "There were five daily responsibilities," he recalls of his peak schedule. "You lose the balance and you are drained by the end of every day and you've gotta go do it again the next day. So that's always been a tough struggle. I mean, maybe it's perhaps why I'm not married now. So thank you for this therapy! I do have to grow up a little bit and realize that there needs to be a work-life balance."

His mentors like Griffin and Clark are gone now, but the lessons they taught him — not least that one should have equity in one's own ventures — remain with him. He may or may not always be wanted in front of a TV camera or a radio microphone, but nobody can stop him from making — and owning a large stake in — things that he produces through his own company, Ryan Seacrest Productions, which was established in 2006 and has become a money-generating machine making reality TV, "a genre in which he is beyond measure the most powerful person in Hollywood," according to a 2011 THR profile. But, for the time being, he remains a devotee of live on-air programming, and hopes to continue making it for the foreseeable future. After all, he notes, "It's the last thing that's rating on traditional television."