Zach Sang, the Ryan Seacrest of the Youth, Wants to Save Radio

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LOS ANGELES — One afternoon in June, Zach Sang was curled into an improvised studio nook at the top of a staircase in a warehouse in Hollywood. The setup was ramshackle — right downstairs was the fallow set for Hailey Bieber’s YouTube series “Who’s in My Bathroom?” — but Sang didn’t let the scrappy conditions get to him.

The interview guest on this day was Jake Miller, a onetime frat rapper turned anodyne singer-songwriter, an affable bro with a big smile and an unbothered air. While waiting for Miller to arrive, Sang sipped on a Celsius energy drink as he waited for a Gopuff delivery of snacks. He was dressed comfortably in a gray sweater vest and a worn-in pair of Birkenstock Bostons; his fingernails were painted in a casually intricate design.

Sang is a relentless optimist and a warm landing place. After Miller arrived, Sang attended to their conversation with an uncommon amount of care, from time to time gently pushing him under the cover of affection. When Miller left, Sang reset himself and began his daily live show the same way he has for years and years: “Helloooo, beautiful humannnn.”

At this time last year, Sang was broadcasting to more than a million people each night via his syndicated program, “Zach Sang Show,” which aired on around 80 terrestrial radio stations across the country. But today he’s building from the ground up: In March, he began broadcasting for three hours every weekday on Amp, the still-in-beta radio app recently introduced by Amazon.

“The bedrocks, the building blocks that make radio radio — companionship, friendship, music, personality, discussion — that will remain the same,” Sang said. “But the delivery method at which it gets to the people is going to change.”

The method is still slightly in flux. Several times over the next three hours, while songs played between conversation breaks, Sang tested out the studio’s Alexa smart speaker to make sure it played his show when prompted — mostly yes. He selected songs to play largely on the fly, sometimes inspired by a conversation in the room. It all made for a far looser approach to pop radio, with flickers of the unpredictable energy of livestreaming.

Sang’s new perch allows him to figure out a fresh path for an old format. “I want them to understand that there’s a better version of radio out there,” he said of the listeners he has not yet been able to reach. “Radio that doesn’t play the same songs every 42 minutes. There’s a version of radio out there that doesn’t shove 18 minutes of commercials an hour down your throat.”

Sang is 29 but carries himself with the awe of someone younger. It is a byproduct of a career that began in his teenage years, and has never let up since, a run that has made him something like the Ryan Seacrest of young millennials. During his 10-year tenure on terrestrial radio, he became one of the most crucial interviewers of contemporary pop stars, with clips of his most intimate conversations — with Ariana Grande, Halsey, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, BTS and various onetime boy band and girl group members — often gaining viral traction online.

Sang is an uncommonly gifted interviewer: formidably grounded, fluid, quick with responses and also keen to steer conversations toward more intriguing topics. He makes an intense (but not uncomfortable) amount of eye contact and delivers his questions not brusquely, as can be the norm for radio interviews, but with a balmy, inviting smoothness. He treats interview subjects not as famous people, but rather people who happen to be famous. Sometimes, in videos of his interviews, there are little moments of relaxation a few minutes in, when stars realize they can turn off autopilot, retreat from the hard shell of fame just a bit and ease back into their humanity.

“Deeply personable, researched and funny,” said Finneas, the singer and producer and brother of Billie Eilish. He described Sang’s true peers as much more senior and established: Howard Stern. Zane Lowe, the Apple Music host.

“He has an emotional connectivity with artists that I don’t think I see with anyone else right now,” said Matt Sandler, Amp’s head of business and operations, who recruited Sang to the platform.

When Ed Sheeran appeared last year on the syndicated show, he concluded his time by telling Sang, “I’m sure you get this a lot, but I end up watching your guys’ interviews with other artists, like, all the time, and I really enjoy it.”

Like most daily radio programs, Sang’s has a rhythm. In the past he’s had multiple co-hosts, but there’s currently just one: Dan Zolot, an executive producer who shares the title with Sang. As the show’s longtime counterbalance, Zolot injects cold splashes of reality at unexpected moments. “Awkwardness is always fascinating to watch,” Zolot said. “It brings out a little more personality.” Part of his job includes trimming down Sang’s longform interviews for various social media platforms, because Sang’s true competition now isn’t just conventional radio stars but also YouTubers and podcasters. “Alex Cooper at ‘Call Her Daddy,’ Joe Rogan, ‘Impaulsive’ — that’s who the young kids are going to when they think of radio,” Zolot said.

In recent years, as radio stations have leveraged their access to musicians to grow their presence on platforms like YouTube, some of the best radio hosts have become de facto podcast interviewers. But when Sang began his career, the radio station interview was by and large a banal format, a back-scratching relic of old power structures.

“He treats his audience like they’re smart, which they are and they deserve to be treated like,” Finneas said.

Another way Sang deviated from the strict formatting of pop radio was by sprinkling in progressive political opinions. “To have queer voices on the air in Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile and Montgomery, Ala., I was in the most conservative places in America, right? And I won. I was a queer kid from New Jersey who shared my truth.”

Sang also pushed back against the strict playlisting most radio stations require, programming his show a little more eccentrically and holistically: “I never colored within the lines ever. I always went against the rules. I never asked for permission, I always begged for forgiveness.”

Occasionally, those decisions were met with resistance. “When you’re syndicated, you’re on 80 stations, you have 80 bosses,” Zolot said. “Those bosses have things they don’t want talked about on their air, and they’ll let you know.”

Sang’s negotiations with the radio conglomerate Westwood One went to the 11th hour late last year, but they couldn’t come to terms. The transition was jarring. “Seven o’clock at night would roll around and I would just be driving around my neighborhood, not knowing what to do,” Sang said.

“I’ve been going through a deep depression the last few months,” he continued. “And my friends, who are some of the most famous people in the world, send me 77 texts until I answer. The night of my last show, Joshua Bassett showed up at my studio within 40 minutes, on the night before New Year’s Eve, to be with me while I literally cried on the floor of my studio. And then after that, who was there for me was Ariana, who was on me to figure out what my next step was.”

Losing his syndicated show forced him to assess whether he was in the business of radio, or the business of Zach Sang. When his contract ended, he’d already been having conversations with Amazon for a few months, and he began to see Amp as an opportunity to spread his gospel of the power of radio even more widely.

The very nature of radio is changing and has been for the past two decades. First came the rise of satellite radio, which jeopardized local specificity. Same went for market consolidation. Finally, the ascension of the internet, especially as a facilitator for livestreaming and playlists, threatens — or maybe promises — to undermine the primacy of radio as a delivery system for new music. By July, Sang and his team had relocated to a more substantial studio, the one that Rick Dees, the countdown show kingpin, previously used to broadcast out of. But even though Sang knew how to operate all of the fancy equipment in the room, the entire show was run off his iPad.

“The way I view a microphone at this point in my life is, when I lost the show, it’s like I lost every friend I’ve ever made,” he said, in between playing Beyoncé songs. “It’s about regaining chemistry — it takes time. People find out every day we’re not on the radio.”

He referred to the Sang universe as a “friend group” — the combination of the characters with him in the studio and the listeners.

After more than a decade on the air, part of that friend group are the famous people he’s become close to along the way. That day, he told his listeners about how he’d drunkenly agreed to officiate Selena Gomez’s best friend’s wedding at Gomez’s 30th birthday party, and he mentioned his friend who was playing the role of Glinda, the good witch, in the upcoming film adaptation of “Wicked.” (That would be Grande.)

It is a far cry from how he was raised. Sang, who is of Italian, Irish and Scottish heritage, grew up in New Jersey — first Paterson, then Wayne — and attributes his empathy and openheartedness to a challenging upbringing. His mother was a social worker for 35 years: “I watched my mom cry. She would carry people’s burdens every day.” His parents had a yearslong, protracted divorce. Sang had trouble learning to read, endured abusive teachers in Catholic school and was bullied by other children, who identified him as different.

He got his start in 2008 at age 14, with a show on the BlogTalkRadio online radio platform that he hosted from his bedroom. Soon, he moved over to Goom Radio, a French internet radio concern that was introducing an American service. He booked his own guests, emailing publicists from his BlackBerry during high school classes, leaning heavily on the teen stars of the day. “On Wednesday nights, kids would camp out in front of my studio waiting to see which artists were going to be there,” he recalled.

Sang described his approach back then as “blind confidence, blind naïveté, adrenaline.” In short order, he became a go-to interview stop and developed a quick rapport with his subjects. “They would tell me while on the phone or in person that they were happy, or they’d stay longer, or they’d ignore their publicist when they tried to get wrapped up.”

In school, he wasn’t terribly popular. “I had no friends,” he said, but he built something of a double life for himself: “Not having a single kid talk to me in school, but I’d go home and get to get on the phone with Mitchel Musso from ‘Hannah Montana,’ and he’d give me an hour of his time.”

In 2012, Sang moved to terrestrial radio and began steadily accumulating stations for his nightly program, “Zach Sang Show,” which was syndicated via Westwood One. In short order, he was interviewing some of pop’s biggest stars, deploying the same amiability that made his teen-pop conversations so engaging.

Peter Gray, the head of promotion at Columbia Records, recalled that when Sang was given just a few minutes with Adele, he “just killed it, nailed it. Five minutes with him was a symphony — no fear, no trepidation, no nerves, just a beautiful nonscripted conversation.”

Sang’s show was a crucial entry point into the American media market for the K-pop superstar group BTS. Eshy Gazit, who was tasked in the mid-2010s with helping to break the act in the United States, said, “There was a certain stigma at the time — that K-pop was a bunch of marionettes. The first important thing to me was to show the humanity, that each member has a story, a feeling, a personality.” BTS would return to Sang’s show several times.

Sang’s interviews also populate his YouTube, Instagram and TikTok channels, and in conjunction with his production partner, OBB Media, he’s in the process of building out his own studio. In the coming weeks, “Zach Sang Show” will begin international syndication.

Amp is a creator-focused app meant to allow users to set up their own radio programs, a nod to public access and internet radio and an attempt to harness the democratization of online content creation. Sang’s responsibilities include populating the app with other hosts — currently he’s working with the party promoters Emo Nite and iParty, which specializes in music from Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows. He’s also the service’s most high-profile interviewer — something like the Zane Lowe of Amazon.

Still, the platform is new, and the listener numbers modest. “It was difficult to see the numbers and know that it’s not huge at first,” Zolot said. “That kind of got to him.”

By last month, though, Sang was getting comfortable being indie again. “Nobody listened to me when I was broadcasting from my bedroom — I literally was talking to myself,” he said. “So, been there, done that.”

The friend group he hopes to cultivate, he realized, begins with his own “therapeutic” relationship with the microphone. Everything else good has followed from that.

“Every time, without fail, I have built it and they have come,” he noted, “so this will not be any different.”

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