Lauren Phinney is running late. The comely blonde KUSI-TV morning news anchor is a scheduled guest on the 120th episode of On the Air with Sully & Little Tommy. TV talk-show co-host and media entrepreneur Robert “Sully” Sullivan is ready to start. Phinney’s on the cell phone with co-host “Little” Tommy Sablan. Inadvertently, all of us on set can hear Phinney’s voice. She’s a regular On The Air guest…but she’s lost. Cut her a break; this is the first show being taped at a new location. Loft100 Studios in Carlsbad is roughly five miles from the former set.
The crew isn’t panicking. Members of the funky, bluesy Sully Band seem to be taking a possible delay in stride. Calmly, Sablan announces that Phinney will appear last on the panel show. The other guests will include evening news anchor Logan Byrnes (fun fact: his father played Vince Fontaine in the original Grease movie); Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien (he once shushed Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford during an appearance on the Today show); and Suzanne Husby, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish San Diego (her nonprofit makes the world a better place).
One by one, On the Air guests enter the show’s phantasmagoric Studio A and navigate past roughly 60 applauding audience members to sit on stools at the set’s centerstage “bar” table. Conversation is free-flowing and loose. Sully likes to keep the banter organic. It works.
Looking around the set — twice as big as the former one — you see uncountable pieces of nostalgic musical memorabilia. Posters advertising The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie cover walls and shelves. Many of the knickknacks (antique mics, a statue of Elvis Presley) were moved over from the old studio. Smart move. Just days before this taping, the show’s Jeff Van Gonka won a regional Emmy for Best Set Design.
“Wait’ll they see this new set,” Sully effuses after the taping is over and everybody’s outside eating food truck tacos. He’s inside, resting in a cushioned chair in the studio’s splashy green room. This space is also musically themed and includes framed displays of guitars broken onstage during performances by The Clash and The Who.
Dressed as he was for the show in a casual plaid shirt, white baseball cap, and white sneakers, Sully expresses satisfaction that the first show in his new studio went off without a major hitch.
“It was fantastic,” he says. “This was the first time we stress tested everything. Music. Multiple guests. Studio audience. Sound effects. I knew it would work. But it was exhilarating and also a sigh of relief.”
On the Air is one part of a vast empire under the umbrella of the Sully Entertainment Group LLC. Sully has a full-time staff of more than a dozen employees and utilizes a group of contractors. His troupe also includes the nine other members of The Sully Band.
Sully owns and operates Loft100 Studios, where his team produces three nationally syndicated TV shows that appear in more than 150 markets:
The Big Biz Show. Sully co-stars with Mike Costa. Sully’s beloved on-air partner for 28 years was Russ Stolnack, aka Russ T Nailz, who provided comic relief to go with Sully’s vast knowledge of business topics. Stolnack died of a heart attack last year, right after practicing a song on the old set of On the Air.
America Trends. Sully Entertainment Group chief of staff Mary Burt-Godwin hosts this program, which focuses on ways business leaders can prepare for the future.
The Hunt. Host Trish Hunt’s show zeroes in on how lifestyle and business interact with the world around us. Hunt and Sully are engaged to be married.
Sully also intends to use Loft100 Studios as a recording studio for other bands, VIP performances, a corporate event space for parties, and a location for team-building events focused on making real-life TV productions.
Rounding out his résumé, he’s also a motivational speaker specializing in the topic of business negotiation.
In the late 1980s, Sully started his working career as a newspaper publisher. Then, he turned to investment banking and business consulting.
“The genesis of all this started on San Diego radio and TV,” Sully says. He’s appeared as a business expert on the air at KCEO, KSDO, KOGO, and KUSI; then national FOX News. “I was an entrepreneur at heart. From there, I created this sort of different business model where I own the studio, the brand, the distribution, everything.”
Business wasn’t his first passion.
“When I was a kid growing up in San Diego, of course I took guitar lessons,” Sully says. “Who doesn’t want to be a musician? When I was going to USD, and later San Diego State, I got a record deal with Island Records. And like most development deals, it never saw the light of day.”
When a music career didn’t pan out, he moved on. Successes in the business world started adding up. Still, in his heart, he never put down the guitar.
Decades ago, he was playing regularly in a gospel band at Grace Point Church in Carmel Valley. (As fate would have it, before Sully had it retrofitted, Loft100 Studios was a church shared by Holy Cross Episcopal and Congregation B’nai Tikvah.)
From Grace Point Church, The Sully Band got a gig at The House of Blues. That landed them steady bookings at The Kraken. Over the years, the group has been nominated for a combined dozen awards from the Pacific Southwest Chapter of the Emmys (two wins) and the San Diego Music Awards (two wins).
In March 2022, the band released an album of vintage covers from the 1960s and ’70s. Let’s Straighten It Out! debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Blues Chart. Full circle. From musical wannabe to entrepreneurial whiz and now a legitimate music industry success.
Sully has vision, says his chief of staff Burt-Godwin. “Sometimes I hate how he’s always right,” she laughs. “But he knows what he wants and has the ability and foresight to picture how things will go. His vision is right all the time.”
And that’s the simple explanation for how you become a 63-year-old, nationally-syndicated business guru with your own Emmy-award-winning studio in which you host a one-of-a-kind TV show while also singing and playing guitar in a Billboard-charting blues band.