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Ken Kragen: Life Is A Contact Sport

When life brings us towards that razor edge of disaster, the initial reaction of many is to just give up. However, for this guest, maintaining his cool amidst high stakes and pressures allowed him to pull off a miracle. The man behind “We Are the World,” “Hands Across America,” and Cisco System’s “NetAid,” Ken Kragen reveals how he battled against all odds and managed it all. Ken takes us back before the Memorial Day of 1986 when he was organizing Hands Across America and how he pushed through the event just when the plug was about to be pulled.

Proving how he can manage not only events but people as well, Ken - as a famous music manager and TV and film producer with over 95% of his acts becoming stars - shares what he does to get the most out of his clients. Opening up about his book, Life Is a Contact Sport, he gives an inspiring advice on failures and decision-making and shows us that while we have failed, it has nevertheless given us the best lessons to work from.

Dustin
I am here with a true icon, a legend in many different industries. I am here with Mr. Ken Kragen. Ken, thank you.
Ken
It's a pleasure to be here.
Dustin
I am super excited about our conversation. I want to go back. It was days before Memorial Day in 1986. You've been organizing Hands Across America with millions of dollars raised and 5.5 million people ready to stand in line from coast to coast to fight hunger and homelessness when you were told that you have to cancel the event because you don't have insurance. You're at the finish line when the stakes are high and the pressure is great, how do you maintain your cool and pull off this miracle?
Ken
It's naiveté. Not knowing you can't get something done works. It’s child-like. You never learn to go, "There's no way to do that. I better throw in the towel." I've never done that. I don't throw in the towel. I figure out some way. Sometimes you go to bed on the problem and the next morning you wake up and it's okay. In that case, it was a little further than that. It was about maybe in the area of a month or two away from it when my board said, "If you don't get this insurance, there's too much risk involved." Because the insurance actuaries were telling us, for every 200,000 people that stand in line, you're going to have one death. It's total BS but they were saying things like that.
In fact, I called Peter Ueberroth who had put on the Olympics and talk to him about it. He said, "Forget those guys. They would tell me when we did this torch run across the country, we're going to have all these people getting hurt and killed." He said, "We had one person we got a problem when a truck accidentally ran away. Nothing happened." He said, "Forget them." We had to get insurance. My board said, "No event are you going to get,” and I figured out a way to do it. I found one company that would ensure it. The great line is aligned from Thornton Wilder. He says, "Every great thing balances at all times on the razor edge of disaster." You realize, "If I'm on the razor edge, I must be doing something right."
Dustin
You know that now. You pick that up throughout your career. How do you know going in? Is that a sign or a tell and you're on the right path?
Ken
If I thought back on it carefully, I never do. I would probably find moments when I should have thrown the towel in because what ended up wasn't that successful. The truth of the matter is it’s something internally. I don't know where I got it. I assume it's almost like in my DNA that says I'm fighting through and I'm going to make this happen. I am extremely goal-oriented. I will often set shorter-term goals before trying to get to the biggest one, but something I can reach. If I've decided to get to that goal, whether it's working out, walking, lifting weights, whatever it is, I'm going to do it. It's going to be there. I'm going to get to that.
Once I get there, I'll say, "You got there, you can go there and go there." In a case like Hands Across America, you had to figure. Here's the other thing, at the time all this happened, we had at best two million people that agreed to sign up in the line that had to have at least five and a half million to work. Insurance wasn't the only problem. The other question was, are people going to show up? We had 400 paid employees. We had 40,000 volunteers. The volunteers were like many of the marshals out there organizing the people so they'd stand in the line. They said people came over the streets, down the streets, over the hill, like the Cavalry at the last minute, that fifteen, twenty minutes before the event, ten minutes before, they thought this is a disaster. All of a sudden people were showing up from everywhere and standing in line, holding hands.
I've been there on everything. The We Are The World when I did it, the same thing two nights before. The night before, one of the artists' managers, a guy who later became her husband came to me and said, "The rockers don't like the song. They don't want to stand on the stage next to the non-rockers. We're leaving." I said, "How many?" He said, "I don't know. It's about half of the people that you've got." I said, "We're recording tomorrow. I can't do anything about it if you go." What happened is they went to Bruce Springsteen. They said, "You’ve got to go." He was the boss." Lionel Richie has a great line, "You are who you hug." Everybody wanted to stand on stage and hug Bruce Springsteen. The rockers felt two things. They didn't like the song and they didn't want to stand next to the non-rockers because they felt it would make them less hip.
If Bruce was going to be there, they all wanted to hug Bruce Springsteen and they all showed up. Nobody left. He saved the day. I didn't have any choice. We were 24 hours before the recording session. We were going through it. You have those things happen over and over every big thing you do. I've done a lot of big ones, you get a little cocky. I try never to feel there's anything that can't be solved. That old thing about a way a rabbit gets through a hill, go around it, go over it or dig through it. The funniest thing in my business was the crisis. I was managing big clients, big stars. You were filled with crises every day.
Trisha Yearwood called from the road and her bus is on fire. She says to me, "I can hang on here on the bus until the media get here. You'd probably want me to do that." I said, "Get off the bus, Tricia." She did go back and get her boots, but she got off the bus. It's was every minute, every day we're in the middle of some kind of crisis. Making movies, which I've done a lot of them, a lot of television films and TV shows, you are constantly in crisis mode. It's a war. Talk to any producer, I swear, they always say, "When I finish this one, I'm never going to do it again." You're out there doing it again. It's a belief in what you want to accomplish."
Dustin
Sometimes I've been in those situations where it's so emotional. As you're saying, you have to get insurance, but that was only one battle you were working on at the time. You used to let it go, get people and the weight of that sometimes in certain situations I felt personal where you break down and some of us cry.
Ken
I left that board meeting where they told me "If you don't have insurance in a week, we're pulling the plug on this." As I drove home, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "If they pull the plug, I'm still doing the thing. I'm still doing it on my own." We put too much into it. We put six or seven months. We've got millions of dollars that we got Coke and Citibank to put up. We're doing it. I'm not going anywhere. They can drop it, but I'm doing it. I don't think I'm alone in that. There are a lot of successful people who figure out, they fight their way to make these things happen. There is a moment in certain things when maybe pulling the plug is the more honorable or smarter thing to do.
Dustin
I want to talk about knowing when to fold. You in the '80s lost $150,000, but now it's $363,000, according to the Great Google, on a musical featuring Harry Chapin's music because you had an incredible passion for it. I would imagine Ken Kragen, reading the book and knowing what I know about you, you're waiting for that moment, that razor's edge for things to turn around but it didn't. You’ve got to make a call now to pull the plug because you're funding this. How did you come to that decision in that particular situation?
Ken
We didn't have a choice there because the more we kept that open, the longer we were going to keep losing, unfortunately. We couldn't find an audience. It's a great show. Several people from that went on to do well. Amanda McBroom who was one of the stars with her, then husband. They were in the show. She wrote a number one song later. People went on to good things after. There is a moment there. The biggest lesson from that project for me was two of my partners at the time decided they were going to sue me. I had never been sued in my life.
I've still only been sued once and it never went anywhere. It was dropped almost immediately. I never sued anybody. They were going to sue me. They came in for a meeting. I sat with them. I always said, "Sit on the same side of the table and look at the problem from the same direction and negotiate that way so that you're all looking at the issue together. We did. I pointed out to them that there was a third party that was probably responsible for the problem. By the time we were done, they were saying we should sue them. I said, "No, I'm not suing anybody as long as they're not suing me." I'm not joining a suit to sue anybody else. I've had my setbacks. Even earlier than that, I lost probably everything but my house, my car and a piano in a production that we did in Las Vegas.
We had to sneak out in the middle of the night. We had to drive a truck back up to the Flamingo Hotel in the back and sneak this stuff from the set, the piano and the other stuff and an old antique car. We drive it all back to LA out of Vegas. I've been there. Those moments are there, but you do recover from them. You do realize that you can learn from them. The interesting thing is learning from failures. When I looked at my whole career and tried to find the things that worked, the best lessons I worked from failure. When we get into the magic of threes, I will explain the best example of that when I failed, when it didn't work. I looked at it and I went, "That shows you for sure" because we weren't doing what we should have done there, what I learned, but I didn't know it yet. We didn't do it and it didn't happen in the same way. Failure is a great lesson teaching device if you learn to look for those lessons.
Dustin
I want to ask you around failure, decision making. In your book, Life Is a Contact Sport. You quoted one of your clients, Burt Reynolds and his line says, "I always find that if I make right decisions for my life, it turns out, in the long run, to be the right economic decisions as well." It's one thing to know that and to not necessarily chase the easy, quick money and the short-term decision. How do you weigh that in your mind? What advice do you have for others when they've got that easy, quick hit versus that long-term better decision?
Ken
It goes back to something that I teach in my classes that I have heard from every guest I've ever had in my classes at UCLA. What are you passionate about? What do you care about in your life? If you direct yourself to work on the things that you're passionate about, irrespective of the money part of it. If you do that, I find you're going to be successful and when you're successful, the money is going to flow in. I never ran after the dollars in my whole life and yet I've been very successful. It made a good life for me. Find your passion, every single person I know, whoever guested in the class I taught or a lecture I gave, said the same thing. You're looking for something you're passionate about. That's where your direction needs to be, not just what will earn you a living. Otherwise, you may earn a living but you're not going to be happy.
Dustin
You've managed some of the biggest stars in the world: Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Trisha Yearwood, the Smothers Brothers and Gallagher.
Ken
A lot of people now would know him, but he's still around doing comedy. A couple of years ago, I went and saw him at a club and he was as funny as ever. Smashing watermelons, that's what people remember that far back. He was good. Comedians are difficult guys to handle. I went to lunch with Gallagher. I took my wife. I had lunch with him to talk about whether we're going to manage him. He had trashed the whole business. Every aspect of the business, he told us what was wrong with it.
We're walking away and she said, "I guess you're not going to handle him." We're talking about the managing business because I was managing careers. My wife says to me, "You're not going to manage him." I said, "No. He's brilliant." I am like a moth to fire when it's brilliance. I said, "He's unique. He's different than anybody else. He may be difficult to handle. He was not easy, but I loved what I saw. He was creative in a way that blew my mind. We ended up making some great work together. We've got a whole series of Showtime specials. If people want to be entertained, they can go back and look at the Gallagher specials.
Dustin
How did you get the most out of your clients? It's one thing to have stars, but sometimes stars have an opinion. I know your job is to get the most out of it. That's what they hire you for is to not only get them gigs and help their careers but also to make them better people and develop. How did you get the most out of your clients?
Ken
First, in terms of getting clients, I would send them home and say, "Sit down with your significant other or with yourself or whoever you're living and figure out what's most important in your life. What's going to give you the most fulfillment, pleasure, enjoyment and fun in your life? What are you most passionate about? Come back to me now. Let's design that career to serve your life." That was the first step because if the careers designed to service the life as opposed to the other way around, then you're at least on the right course with it. The second thing and sometimes took me as long as six months with a new client, is learn as much, do your homework, my homework on who are they? What are they? What are their skills? I need Kenny Rogers' ability as a photographer, we use that as a major career step at times.
Some of the other things he did, some of the athletics he did. He was a good golfer and a basketball player and stuff. We staged tournaments at his farm in Georgia. You find ways to take what they are, the real person. My standpoint when you're managing a career and a life, in this case, is you don't want to create something that they have to work at being that's not real. If you're creating something natural for them, that they can feel that they're themselves, they're going to have much less problem with it. It's going to be easier to maintain. I know entertainers this way, who is one person when they get on stage and totally different person in private, particularly comedians very often. It drives him nuts in their personal life because comedians, "Be funny, come on."
You look at the tragedy of Roger Williams. It wasn't hard being that guy those times. It's so important to find that. The other thing is every client is an individual. For example, the best way with Kenny Rogers, as wonderful as he was, you would want him to think it was his idea. He would do it. He was great. You could take a list of questions to him and he would go, "Yes, no. Yes, I'll do that. No, I don't want to do that" or he'd say, "I don't know about that. What would Frank Sinatra do with that?" "Maybe you're right." We had a pact. Our deal was Kenny or me, either of us was passionate enough or believed strongly enough that something was either good or not good for him, that the other one would then say, "We will or we won't do it depending on the attitude." If I said to him, "Ken, I know I'm right about this, you’ve got to do it." He would then say to me, "I'll do it." He would never back out. He said, "I'll do it but you better be right."
Dustin
Did you have that with most of your clients?
Ken
I had different things with different clients. I found at times with Kenny that if I tried to talk him out of something, that was the perfect way to get him to do it. He had that attitude that if you said, "That's not something you could do." He goes, "No, I could do that. What do you mean I couldn't do that? I can," or "I don't think that's a good idea. Are you sure about that? Maybe I should try doing it." He caught on to me after a while on that. Lionel Richie was another different example. Lionel Richie was generally late to everything. If it was a TV show starting at 3:00, he was there and ready to go at 3:00. He wouldn't do that.
If it was a rehearsal starting at 3:00, he might be there at 4:00. You tell him it was at 3:00 or 2:00. You tell him it was 2:00. He'd show up at 3:00. After a while, he realized I'm doing that and it all wouldn’t work. Every client was totally different. There were clients who were stubborn. Gallagher at the time would argue with me on lots of stuff. Travis Tritt, my wonderful and talented country client, when he felt he was right about something, you pretty much wasting your time to try and talk him out of it.
He was sure and he was not going to do it or he was going to do it based on his own opinion. You could make a lot of other arguments, but you are pretty much wasting his and your time. He was going to do it the way he felt was right. I give him that. It's his career. I would argue when I thought it was wrong. It got tougher and tougher over the years. In the early stages, I'd been successful. By the time he was a major star, the dynamic changes. I always say as a personal manager, which is what I did. You either work your way in or you work your way out of managing, of representing somebody.
You do such a good job for them. They look at it and they go, "Look at all the success I'm having, I don't need him," or you do a bad job, which hopefully I rarely did. If you do a bad job, they go, "I don't need him. I'm not getting anywhere." It's funny. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Kenny at one point. I remember right where we were in a nightclub upstairs waiting to go on. He said to me, "Ken, I feel like we're a couple of old salmon swimming up the stream and we're not getting anywhere. We go up a little way and the water pushes us back." I said, "No, Kenny. Careers aren't like that."
I started to explain to him a basic theory I had about careers that you're like in a small plane. This can happen in any career. It can happen in the life of any business. You need a blast of power in a concentrated period of time to move you to a higher level. The higher levels you get at, the easier it is and the longer you're going to glide. Even if you turn the engine of that plane off, if you're a mile up, the ratio is ten to one, you'd still be able to glide for ten miles. If you're five miles up, you'd be able to glide for 50 miles. If you're 100 miles up, you could go glide for ten times out of 1,000 thousand miles. I said to him, "Kenny, your career is up so high at this point that even if we turn the engine off now, even if we don't have these bursts of energy along the way, you're going to stay up there probably a lot longer than you're alive." There was a pause on the other line. I heard him say, "Ken, I think I'm planning to live a lot longer than you think." It was such a great comeback.
Dustin
Did you feel the need that I have to sell the client, the people that you were working?
Ken
I got lucky. I got very successful with the first client. I got out of Harvard Business School and instead of going the route of all of my contemporaries. One of them became president of IBM eventually and another one president of Kodak. I didn't go that route at all. I started managing a group for a lot less than any of my guys were making there. Within two years, I was making more than all of them, but I was having fun too. I was on the road with a singing group. The group got successful in the early '60s, but they broke up. The day they broke up, I signed the Smothers Brothers. They weren't huge at that point, but they'd had some good exposure. We got hot with the Smothers. We got our own show. They became the number one show in the country at the end of the '60s.
Once you establish this reputation for success, you really don’t have an idea. Once in the early-mid ‘60s, I went after The Righteous Brothers. I can't remember running after another single client in my life and I didn't get The Righteous Brothers. Years later, Bill Medley came on. I managed him. At the time, we got turned down by The Righteous Brothers and they were the only client I ever can remember chasing because I was totally blown away by their talent.
Dustin
When you talk about you need that puff, you need that burst to get to that next level, did they think like "At some point, I don't need Ken anymore and I need to trade up," or were you at the top?
Ken
It eventually happens but in Kenny's case, we were together 33 years without a piece of paper. I never had a contract with a client. This is good. People can use this in any business. It's maybe a bit cocky, but it was my attitude. My attitude was they need me more than I need them. I'm as good at this as anyone around. I can do it. I had tremendous, not arrogance, the self-belief that I knew what I was doing. I kept clients for longer than almost any other manager because I didn't even make him sign anything and my attitude was I can do something better for you than anybody else. I didn't necessarily say that.
I wasn't Donald Trump out there saying, "I'm better than everybody else." I was reasonably humble about it because I've never thought of myself as a big deal. I exuded comfort and never was nervous about it. It's like any relationship if you try and hold on to hard, it tends to push somebody away. I never was holding on. I had the true belief that if a client left me, something better was around the corner. At the very least I wasn't going to have whatever problems I was having with that client at that point or whatever demands or whatever work, I could have a little more free time. That something better was going to come along. This doesn't come from a religious belief because I'm not strongly religious. I am a little bit but not strongly.
I strongly believe that everything happens in life, happens for a good reason. If you believe that, even the negative things that happen, you can find something good in it. You can find some reason. It can be a horrible thing like the mothers against drunk driving, who lost their children to drunk drivers who formed an organization that saved millions of lives and meant that their kids didn't die in vain. They turned this worst negative in your life pretty much around into a positive thing that they could feel that their daughter's deaths weren’t in vain. I've had that when clients leave me, something better is going to come along. In the case of Harry Chapin, he was killed in an accident on the Long Island Expressway. In the first two hours that I heard about it, I raised over $200,000 for his charities because I figured while people are grieving, which everybody was that knew him. Let's get them to do something to help keep going, things he was working on. I always look for everything for a reason it's happening, for a belief that it's all happening and something good is going to come from it somehow. It works as much because of my attitude about it than it does because of some inherent master plan.
Dustin
Ken, you're such a cool character. What's your advice for keeping your cool? How do you remove that emotion that's easy to get wrapped up with?
Ken
If I look at my life, the central thing of my life was I want to have a good time. At fifteen, we were Jewish and I didn't do Bar Mitzvah but I was being confirmed. You can get confirmed at fifteen. The Rabbi called three of us in there, a very famous Rabbi. The three of us at each fifteen-year-old boys. This is part of the Jewish religion. He said, "We don't have any strong belief in an afterlife." Think of this like you didn't know what was happening before you were born. He said, "There's every chance you won't know anything after you die. Maximize this life. Enjoy this life. Do the best you can with this life."
At fifteen, that was like somebody chiseled that in stone in my brain because from there on, I would find confirmations of that in things that were happening in the world. I would strengthen that belief over time. It meant that I was constantly looking for that idea that is I going to enjoy this. Is this going to be fun? If you're excited, enthusiastic and optimistic about stuff, that's what you take on. That's what you do with your life. You're having fun. I'm 82 and I've got six projects going. I can't talk about it in detail yet, but I've got the biggest project in my life, perhaps the biggest project was ever done in the world that I'm working on right now. The only thing I can say is that it should have a huge effect on climate change in a major way. You'll know about it in a few months.
Dustin
Despite you keeping your cool, you know when to bite back. You did it with Helen Kushnick.
Ken
That doesn't come up that often but to get your audience to know what happened there. I had Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood were my three clients. My company sometimes would manage as many as twelve. In my personal case, I always felt that if I handled more than three, there were too many conflicts. I had those three clients. They were all pretty hot at the time. Trisha Yearwood got booked in May to do The Tonight Show with Jay Leno because the music director on the show love Trisha. She had an album coming out. It was a logical time. She's going to be in LA. We're going to bring her here. She'd do The Tonight Show because in those days, Tonight Show could make your career. In the meantime, Travis Tritt was coming to LA but The Tonight Show wasn't interested in him, but Arsenio Hall was.
I booked him on Arsenio Hall and that was great. Arsenio had a little more cutting edge. Travis was a little more of that type of performer. He's like Hank Williams Jr. He was a little controversial and stuff. It was a perfect pairing. They were delighted to have him. That was in June. Kenny Rogers had such a career, but during the music career by becoming an actor. I did the Gambler for him and all those movies and stuff, which by the way, we're about to redo. I want to do the same with Travis. I figured we'd get him around The Arsenio Hall Show. I need to create a lot of buzz around it.
I bought billboards on the Sunset Strip. I bought the front page of The Hollywood Reporter. We spent some real money in some real time building around this. Everywhere you looked at the time he was here, that you would see Travis Tritt and he will look much bigger and much hotter than he was. The day after the Arsenio Hall show, we'd take him in to meet with casting directors, producers, studio heads and everybody and that way get him started on an acting career. There was a plan for it. Suddenly, I get a call from The Tonight Show and Debbie Vickers, who was at The Tonight Show as the associate producer, Helen. Jay Leno's manager was a lady named Helen Kushnick. Helen was executive producer of the show. The producer of the show was this lady, Debbie.
She called and said, "We want to book Travis Tritt on the show." I said, "He's booked on Arsenio Hall when he's here, I can't." She said, "No. You can't do that. It's no good. Get him on for our show." I said, "I can't." I get another call from Fred De Cordova, who was a consultant for the show. He'd been Johnny Carson's producer. He said, "Helen's going to get very upset about this, Ken. You better get Travis off of Arsenio and get him on The Tonight." I said, "I can't do it." I get a call from Helen. You can see this on a movie called The Late Shift, where I played myself and Helen Kushnick was played by Kathy Bates, which was a lot of fun. She said, "Ken, we see Travis Tritt's going to be in town. We want to put him on our show or when can we have him in June when he's here?"
I said, "Helen, I can't give him to you now. He's booked on Arsenio." She said, “The host, Arsenio, is in the toilet. That show is terrible. It's not going anywhere. Get him off of that show." I said, "Let me check, Helen." She said, "You owe us a favor," which I didn't think we did. I called the show and talked to the booker at the show. She said, "Helen Kushnick is doing this with everybody we book. She is forcing them to get off our show or they'll never get to do The Tonight Show or she's telling the record company or the agency or the managers, you'll never have another client on our show if this happened." I called Helen back. I said, "Helen, we can't do it." She said, "No. Okay." She used every swear word you could hear telling me that we would never talk again. This was it and that was the end of it and the whole thing.
Ten minutes later we get a call from The Tonight Show, they've thrown Trisha Yearwood off. Now they've got an excuse. They're saying now this is June. They're telling me that in October they can get another country artist, a bigger one. That they can't have terrific Trisha Yearwood that week. They moved her to a week later, "I was accommodating you, people. No, we can't do it." I'm pissed off. It's clear she's thrown Trisha off the show because I wouldn't give her Travis. Five minutes later, Robert Hilburn, who was at that time the music editor of the Los Angeles Times calls because he'd written a beautiful article on Trisha. I said, "Robert, you won't believe what happened." I told him. The next day it was half page in the front of the calendar section of the LA Times and all hell broke loose. Helen ultimately ended up losing her job as an executive producer. Jay fired her as his manager.
She'd not been doing it to me. I got 100 letters from people she'd been doing stuff too that were unhappy with it. NBC put a picture of her at the front gate and she couldn't even come back on the lot. The head of NBC at the time called me and said, "We're dedicating a wing in your name." The head of William Morris, who was an expert attorney, a brother of mine, called and said, "We're building a statue of you in her lobby." All these people were having problems with her. They didn't want Kenny at that time. They felt he was too old for them or whatever. At the time, he wasn’t as hot. They didn't want Travis and they'd thrown Trisha off. I had nothing to lose. My big three clients were off the show. That wasn't the only reason I did it. I did it because it was the truth but all hell broke loose. It was great. I ended up eventually playing myself in the movie, which was pretty funny.
Dustin
How do you know when to bite back? You gave us that incredible story.
Ken
I told her, "Trisha, I don't react well to threats." I don't recognize that side of me normally. There are a lot of tougher managers and business people around. It's nice to know that when you're pushed to the wall that you'll strike back. It's fun.
Dustin
I want to get to the power of three. It's one of my personal favorites. Ken, to share with you, I stumbled across this one day when I was doing seminars. I had done a print newsletter, maybe something online had popped up for this individual and something else occurred. I remember him. He said it in this Southern twang, he's like, "Dang boy, you are everywhere." I realized it was only I had done small things but in his world, it showed up on his radar. It was in a short time. I didn't realize it. I'm like, "How do I replicate that?" Now reading your book and you codifying it and saying the power of three, I was like, "That's why that worked."
Ken
I got this job teaching at UCLA part-time. In those days when I first started, I was teaching extension courses, evening classes.
Dustin
Why did you do that?
Ken
My father had been a professor of law at Berkeley after having an incredible legal career. We moved back from Los Angeles to Berkeley at a fraction of his salary, 10% of his salary, $12,500 a year to teach in law school there in the 50s. It hit home to me. It was another one of those life lessons, follow your passion and do what you care about. He stayed there for 42 years. He became vice chancellor. He chaired committees until he's 95. He died in his sleep at 98. He had a great life. He taught me that great lesson. What happened was a couple of agents at the William Morris Agency at the time were teaching a class at UCLA and they invited me to come over and lecture at one of their classes and I did.
The weirdest thing happened. I was standing there on stage but no, I wasn't. I was standing in the audience, watching me on stage and thinking it's my dad, but I was seeing me. It was an out-of-body experience, a weird one. I only had one or two of those. During We Are the World, I felt Harry Chapin crawled up inside of me and was controlling everything. In any event, in this case I went, "I like doing this." It's emulating my dad. I put on a show, as you know, you've seen me speak. When you do a good job, it's like being a performer up there. It's very akin to the people I managed for all these years getting up there. I put a lot of work into it. One of the things I did was look back at my whole career. Suddenly, I discovered that if you didn't reach people at least three times in a tightly concentrated period of time from three extremely separate directions.
In other words, not three social media, not Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or whatever else, those are one direction. All that social media comes from one direction. What about something is written? What about a handwritten note? Nobody ever gets those anymore. What about something in the paper, something on television, something on by a billboard outside their window where they work? I don't know what it is. Figure out a way that in a short period of time, I'm talking about a day, a few hours a day, a week and maybe most even a month is almost too long. When you get multiple impressions coming at you from different directions, that's the best way to get anybody to take action. What that means is the recipient has to get at least three impressions in a concentrated period of time as opposed to if I'm trying to get to you, I can direct three things right at you.
What if I'm trying to get as many people as possible to tune into a television show, go to the movie theater, buy my record or whatever. Now you've got to emulate what you see the movie studios do, which is they put out stuff every direction you look. You're now seeing something about that project, that film. Now you're going, "I read it. That was in the newspaper. My friends were talking about it and I saw that. I heard I was on the radio and I looked at The Today Show and they were interviewing the stars. All of a sudden, it's coming at you and you. There you need a bunch of impressions. Maybe ten, twelve, the studio has probably put twenty different directions at once because the recipient has to get at least three to make that move to action.
I've seen it happen to myself. I've seen it where I heard about some singing group. I turned on the radio that same day and they were on there. I got home and somebody was reviewing their record on television. I can't remember the group now. It was many years ago. I remember it happening to me after I learned how it works. Once I learned how it works, I learned. Now I told you the best of the lesson is negatives. The best example of the magic of threes was when it didn't work and when it didn't work Atlanta Richie story, Lionel Richie. I got Lionel Richie booked on the Olympics to do the closing ceremony, singing the number one song in the country to a couple of billion people, at least watching on television.
It was the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. That's all we did. He had 1,000 dancers. He had pyro techniques. He was singing the song. It was a great performance. It did nothing for his career. It may be maintained things, but it didn't advance his career. There was no explosion. I've talked earlier about an explosion of activity like that small plane and revving the engine up. There was none of that. That was in August of 1984. In January of 1985, he hosted the American Music Awards. As a result, he was on the cover of TV Guide, the biggest magazine in the world practically at that time because he was hosting the awards show. He won six American music awards that night. He sang on this show and right afterward he went over to A&M Studios to record, We Are the World, which he'd written with Michael Jackson.
The following week we got all kinds of press. We did all kinds of interviews. Within three weeks, he was on the Grammy's, performed and won three Grammy awards. Nothing happened from the Olympics with billions of people, far fewer people saw if you total them all up, the stuff that happened in January, but people saw multiples. They came at them from different directions. Lionel Richie's career, which was already successful, exploded to another level. It's the magic of threes. You can use it everywhere. I don't have time to go into some of the other ways, but you can use it in your personal life. You can use it in your school or use it everywhere.
Dustin
You gave great examples in the book and your books. I would tell people to go get the book.
Ken
I don't make a penny off it but go to Amazon. You can buy it for a penny in some cases. They'll charge you $10, but you can get it for a penny.
Dustin
Ken, it's obvious you're an enthusiastic guy. You say that's one of your main secrets to success. How can one be more enthusiastic? Is this a learned thing or are people born with it?
Ken
I will say some people are, that's for sure. If you're not, figure out a way to get there because people want to work with people who are enthusiastic, who were optimistic. Your life's better when you are. I find that everything I do, I try to take on the things that I truly am excited about, that I'm enthusiastic about and stay away from the others. It's hard to teach this. I always felt that my biggest strength was my gut ability to read whether somebody had a talent or whether they excited me or whether this project or this product or whatever I was going to get or get involved with, made a difference. I could feel it in my gut that there was something unique about it, exciting about it, fun about it and that I wanted to get involved. That's the only time I would get involved.
If that didn't happen, I would steer clear of it. I have had continued to have a very high success record. At one point, it's probably not true totally now, but I was at 90% of my client's being successful in about 95% of the projects I worked on but that's because I chose it carefully. I learned to read my first initial reaction to it. Every time I talk myself into it that was the mistake. The few mistakes I've made have been where I found all kinds of reasons or where I allowed somebody else to talk me into it or I did it to do somebody a favor. Do it because it excites you. Do it because you get your adrenaline up or do it because you love it. That's the other point, if I care that much, if I'm that excited, I can sell you on anything.
You're going to react to that enthusiasm. In fact, I raised a bunch of money from a friend who I sent a whole big proposal too. He never read the proposal. He's a very rich guy and he said, "Ken, do you believe in this?" I said, "It's one of the greatest things that I've ever done in my life, if not the greatest." He said, "You'll have a check tomorrow." I wrote him a thank you now and I immediately got back and he said, "I love your enthusiasm. Keep me apprised. My wife and I look forward to seeing how it all work out." There it is. We'd been turned down over and over by people. I called a friend and he read my enthusiasm. He sent us a check to get us off the ground and started.
Dustin
I want to ask you to jump in here because I've been known to be an enthusiastic character. In the back of my head, that little voice goes off. Am I pushing it too much?
Ken
One’s aggressiveness is excitement and enthusiasm. I go over the board at the time. We went to a restaurant that I love in LA, a place called Bandera. We took another couple. We loved the restaurant. I said, "Every bite you take here is going to be great." They did not enjoy it. I realize you oversold that one. That's not so good. I still liked everything I had, but I realized there are times you can push too hard. It's particularly true with some of the people I'm dealing with now where we're looking for major funding for a couple of things.
You have to basically temper at times but if you're excited, share that. I'll never forget right after We Are the World, I'm going to give a speech to accept an award at USC. I don't know if it was from USC or what. On that same program was the vice president of the United States, George Bush. There were two big-time actor and actresses. Harvey Korman was one of them. He was funny, clever and everything. I'm sitting next to the executive director of the USA for Africa. I turned over and I said, "Marty, how am I going to follow these people?" He said, " Share your heart with them and give them your enthusiasm."
I got up there and got a standing ovation. As I was sitting down, Harvey Korman looked at me and said, "Where did you come from?" I learned that lesson at that moment. You saw it when you saw me speak. I'm out there. I'm having fun. I've never had a nervous moment ever getting up on that stage. I'm myself to that crowd. I've watched speakers who I think, "I wish I could have that energy." It's real. It's from the heart. I believe I'm doing you good, talking to you, helping you and giving you something of value. It's important.
I'm not a motivational speaker. That's wonderful. I feel often it's like a Chinese meal. A day later, you're still pretty hungry and you've forgotten what was motivating you when walking down. I want to give you real tools, real things that you can utilize. That's my motivation for doing any of these things. When you get home, like I'm teaching at UCLA, you read the evaluation to your class. They say, "Best class I ever had, the most fun I ever had in class changed my life." You read that. I'm sitting in bed with my wife, I look up my wife and I said, "I’ve got to teach this again next year. How can I not? How can you have that effect on 140 young people and not do it again?"
Dustin
You've most certainly given us some tools. This is very inspirational.
Ken
There are some fabulous inspirational speakers. I go hear them and I love them. It's one thing to go out there being excited, but you are going to fall back into the old habits unless it's something as simple the magic of threes or all the other techniques that I teach. You can immediately apply and see results from and that will keep you doing it. That's the key to it.
Dustin
You expanded your TV politics with Bill Clinton. That story blew my mind in the book, social service, sports and philanthropy. Why did you expand? I can't imagine you knew you would have a passion for politics or for some of the other things that you would get into. Was this about being more influential or touching more people? Why go into all these different niches?
Ken
I go where opportunities lead me. You read the Bill Clinton the story. If it wasn't for managing Burt Reynolds, meeting Hillary Clinton and spending eight hours with her on a plane, all of that and eventually playing basketball with the president, I wouldn't have gotten involved there. You don't know what the next opportunity was going to be. I often heard this said and that is luck is taking advantage of opportunities. I haven't got a defined career path. The career path is, is it fun? Am I excited? Am I passionate about it? Can I be of help? The big thing is I get calls constantly from people because of We Are The World, Hands Across America and Live Aid on the Clinton inauguration and the big things I’ve done. They're calling me thinking I have some miracle work to do that I can solve their issue.
I don't ever get involved. My first question is before we talk about you paying me to do this or my getting involved in any way, let's see if there's a way I can make a contribution. If I go to bed at night knowing that I'm earning a buck for something I'm not delivering, I can't sleep. I'm miserable. I want to have fun. I want to be successful at it. I want to find a way to be of help before I get involved and that's what I look for. Is there something that sparks me here? I might not have the solution right away, but as long as I can make some contribution.
A lot of what I do, although I'm pretty tied up in a couple of things that are taking all of my contacts, is connect people a lot. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory calls me and wants me to work on the Juno Spacecraft to Jupiter, putting music and artists with the project and stuff. I realize my two passions, space, which is one and music are coming together on this project. I jumped into it. The first call I make is Herbie Hancock. He gets Pharrell Williams and Bono. We're all now meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those are the kinds of things that make you feel awfully good about what you can do.
Dustin
We have many entrepreneurs tuning into the show. You were seduced back in the day by taking your enterprise big. You said your company was up to about 50. You were seduced by that and you were growing it, but you ended up scaling it back. How did you come to that decision?
Ken
In the first place, once it got big, I got a call from another manager, who had been a big-time manager in a management company. He said, "I know you're getting big. I know that you're not going to do what I tell you. One day you're going to wake up and regret the size because it's so hard to go back again. You will find, you'll have less fun. You'll make less money and it won't be as good for you the bigger you get. Because personal management can be an assistant and me and that's it. That's where it started. I didn't even have an assistant in the early days. It was me doing everything.
I didn't need all that, but what happened? What brought it home to me? Finally I had 50 employees, I had three buildings. I was all over the place. I had an art department and a production company and a press department. Two of my key employees left with five other employees and five clients. I sat down and did the work. It's a couple of clients who were pretty big. One of them was BG. I sat down and did the math. I was $200,000 better off after they left than I was when they were there. I looked at the rest of the company, I started cutting back. I got it down to 25 and down to about a dozen. Somebody offered to buy my office building, the main building and I wasn't going to sell it.
They said, "Make us an offer." I came back. I talked to my wife, "Let's put something ridiculous out there." They said, "You're out in 30 days." I moved to my house and started working out of my house with an assistant. Now I don't even have an assistant. They're surprised with me answering the phone. I'm not managing anymore, but I'm having fun. I got a lot of projects. It's a good time. When I moved out of my office building and moved home, I looked at that and I was saving $50,000 a year without that staff and that building. We got a lot for the building at the time. It came logical. It was the next right thing to do.
In a way, I should have listened to the guy who called me in the first place. In another way, I had a good time doing it. It was fun. Society pushes you to grow, to get bigger and to be more successful. One of the first times I started lecturing. I lectured about something called the Taco Stand Theory. It was the guy who had this taco stand that made the best tacos in town. They were incredible. People were standing in line to get those tacos. He thought, "If I've got a Taco here in LA, I could go over into the San Fernando Valley and have one too." We opened a stand in the San Fernando Valley. Now they were both booming. He got another one and another one. Now he started to go out of state. All of a sudden, he was a small version of McDonald's.
What happened was all the personal nature went, the business slacked off, the quality of the product went down. Were you having a good time running your small taco stand? Was it good for your life? You were always busy. You were making money. Are you happier now or were you happier then? Some of the best times in my life were the first group I was managing when I did send the laundry out. I booked the air tickets. I traveled on the road. I threw outlines at the concert that we're supposed to come from the audience to help create funny stuff that they could do on stage. I was doing everything. I can't think of a better time. It was just me. I was everything. I was a stage manager, the manager, the chef, the laundry guy, everything, every single thing and I had a blast. Nowadays, I physically probably couldn't do all that, but the thing is for that point in my life, that was some of the best years ever. What came from it? Number one show on television, one of the hottest groups in the country, a career I've never had to look back. I call those my Wild West days. It feels like the Wild West. They were fun. You made mistakes, but they were new and everything was fun. You couldn't believe who you are handling.
Dustin
I know you're not the guy to look back, but I was curious to ask if there was one person you could have managed and maybe not in music but in all the genres. Who would it be and why?
Ken
It's probably more than one because of the only common denominator. I manage from comedians to rockers to pop stars, actors, to everything you can think of. It's hard for me to pull one person out. I was friendly with Streisand. We lived literally with our houses backing up to each other. Talent-wise from the standpoint of the difficulty with decision making and issues. She would rethink everything from what I could see. I'd never managed her but her talent alone, it was like Gallagher. I was being attracted to talent. The people that I would always look to handle would have been where the uniqueness of the talent was special.
Nowadays, if I looked back on it, not so much earlier, I think I also would have looked for the people that make a difference in the world. It might be somebody like DiCaprio because he's so out there doing something about the climate issues that are critical to the Earth. I could be of so much help there in addition to whatever else I was doing. The funny thing is I don't think so much about management. I feel like I had as good a group of management clients as you could ever have for me. They were the right ones for me. I didn't last with any that were too difficult. I know one thing crossed my mind over the years. I'll look at some guy running a studio or running a network and I'll go, "I could have done that."
I came out of Harvard Business School too. I'm capable of doing that. I thought, "You'd be miserable. You'd be playing corporate politics. Do you want to do that? You'd be caught up in that. You'd be worried about whether the board was going to fire you tomorrow.” Even my little board on the USA for Africa used to resign every meeting because they wouldn't do what I wanted. Entrepreneurs are risk takers. Boards don't take risks. Boards get rid of entrepreneurs eventually. I was at Wendy's or Carl's, one of them, the guy built this incredible business and chain. This board got rid of him. I do look at those. I look at those people partly because they're so comfortable financially and successful. I think, "I could have done that." I snap out of it. I go, "No, you wouldn't have been happy at that. You're happy having fun, having a good time, making a difference in the world in some way or other, something people remember you by.
Dustin
Ken, I could chat with you for hours. We're incredibly grateful for you spending time with us here and sharing your message. If folks want to keep tabs with you, what's the best way for them to do?
Ken
I have a Facebook page. I don't put a lot on it. It's Ken Kragen or Kenneth Kragen. I don't spend a lot of time putting a lot out there. There is a website which I haven't updated in a long time, but it's a nice website, KenKragen.com. The biggest thing is I'm working on one of the biggest projects in my life now. Keep your eye out for something that's going to have a major worldwide impact on climate change. We'll hopefully we won't be announcing it for a while. When we do announce it, you'll hear about it. You won't be able to escape.
Dustin
Ken, thank you big time for being on the show. Thank you for reading this special episode. Stay tuned and let us know what you think of the show, what your biggest takeaways were? There were some incredible nuggets in this show. It's definitely one worth going back and reading it again. Thanks again. I can't wait to have you back for the next show.

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