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The Power of “No”

It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space.

Ryan Maguire

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Whenever I speak with friends or colleagues, the topic of “what’s wrong with radio” constantly comes up.  Everyone has different theories and many of them are valid.  Upon further reflection, I feel that it all boils down to one word.

No.

In nearly three decades of working in spoken word media, “no” is the one word I’ve heard more than any other.  It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space. 

No.

It’s a word that has been said about every facet of the business.  For those of you that have worked in radio, tell me if any of these phrases are familiar.

NO, YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS

The recent memo Cumulus reportedly sent out censoring their talk hosts from opinions on the 2020 election did not surprise me in the least. 

Companies are infamous for knee-jerk reactions to quell potential controversy.  Don’t get me wrong, there is ALWAYS a line and some of the mandates that companies hand out are justified. 

Many are just over the top and end up doing more harm than good.

I recall one time as a young Program Director, my morning show host took a very hard stance against affirmative action policies that the local university had been adhering to.  Within an hour after his show ended, the station’s General Manger stormed into my office with a sheet of paper in his hand.

“I need you to sign this,” he said. 

The document was an edict that, as PD, I would have to enforce a strict policy that matters of race could never be discussed on the station again.  I would be solely responsible for said policy and that any violation by any host on the station would result in my immediate termination. 

“Hey, why don’t we talk about it first,” I said.  “Don’t you think this is an overreaction to this morning’s show?”

The GM went on to explain, in no uncertain terms, that I could either sign this document or clear out my office.   Since my rent was coming due, I signed it.

The next thing I did was start calling anyone and everyone to see if they were hiring.  I wanted out.  A short time later, I landed a new gig.

Radio has lost a slew of talent to different content channels because they didn’t want to be censored or overly controlled.   It’s understandable why companies would want to avoid controversy.  Far too often, the cost of doing so has been worse than the controversy itself.   

NO, WE CAN’T SELL THAT

Yes, the pandemic has hurt many businesses, radio being no exception.  The reality is ad revenues for radio have been on the decline since 2006.  While digital services jumping into the competition pool has been a big reason for this, so has radio’s stubbornness.

It was shocking at times sitting in sales meetings with fellow Program Directors and hearing how often they would shoot down a revenue idea.  Often the phrase that was used was “We’re not doing that; it would be a ratings killer!”  Many former colleagues would try to protect ratings points like they were their own children. The irony was, they often did so at their own peril. 

Radio is a revenue, not a ratings business.  People lose their jobs for reasons related to the all-mighty dollar; not because their AQH shares went down because of Neilson’s nonsense. 

While I was never one to roll over and rubber stamp any idea that an account exec would bring to the table, I always did my best to find a solution.  I grew up in a family of salespeople.  I understood what life was like cold-calling and living on a commission-only basis.   You don’t sell, you don’t eat.  I would never tell a DOS, GSM, or AE ‘no’ without trying to come up with an alternative that would work.  There is ALWAYS a middle ground that can be found.  Working on compromises with the sales staff was an opportunity for mutual education.  I’d have a chance to explain to the salesperson WHY their idea wouldn’t work for the brand.  The salesperson, in turn, could explain to me their client’s needs and how I should align my thinking. 

NO, WE CAN’T SPEND THE MONEY

I’ve found far too many radio execs that are comfortable playing defense rather than offense.  Quite honestly, I can’t blame them.  Companies have made it a capital crime for GM’s who can’t properly justify an expense.  In doing so, they’ve created an atmosphere that isn’t about winning, it’s about simply not failing. 

I remember in one market; we had the opportunity to make a bid for the broadcast rights to a popular local sports team.  Getting them would have been an absolute game changer for us.  At the time, the station we were bidding against had been paying $4 million a year in rights fees.  When we put our proposal together, our counter to that was to offer no rights fee at all. 

When we were finishing our proposal, the GM looked at me and our sales managers and said with a laugh, “It will be a fucking miracle if this works.”

Feeling like I had to speak up, I countered, “Aren’t you afraid we’re going to get laughed out of the room when we propose this?”

“Hey,” the GM responded, “I’d rather be laughed out of the room than ask (our company) for $4 million a year!”

Our presentation was an absolute embarrassment.  The Team President looked offended afterwards and insinuated that we were wasting his time.  It was a bad look for us and left the impression that we were low rent in front of a multi-billion-dollar company.  We didn’t get the radio rights and continued to struggle to gain traction in a competitive talk market.

But hey, we didn’t have to ask for any money.

NO, WE CAN NEVER DO THAT! 

Innovation has been sorely lacking from the radio space for far too long. 

I’ve written columns in the past that radio needed to embrace technology, not ratings.   As streaming services continue to haul in billions of dollars, I’ve pleaded for radio to put a value on their content and to not be afraid of the paywall.   These progressive, forward-thinking ideas have generally been rejected. 

Much of this is because many radio fears failure.   

This ultra-conservative approach has not only stymied the industry’s growth, but its ability to be creative.

While a good deal of progress has been made in the digital space, radio has embraced new ideas at a snail’s pace compared to other content providers.

Facebook built a company worth over $700 billion and did so living under the mantra to “move fast and break things.” 

Amazon has a trillion-dollar empire and got there by “treating every day like day 1.”

Apple is a $2 trillion dollar company whose bedrock is coming out with the coolest new tech toys every year. Radio’s mantra?  “Hey, we’re surviving!”

BNM Writers

Conservatives Latch Way Too Often Onto Cultural Figures

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.”

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We’ve been watching in real time the fall of one of the most creative Americans of this generation: Ye West. A.K.A. Kanye West. 

It’s been clear for weeks that Ye has been in a weird place and has been spiraling emotionally and mentally. Things came to a head on Thursday, when in an interview with Info Wars’ Alex Jones, Ye went off on several antisemitic tangents, including this line: “Well, I see good things about Hitler, also. Every human being has value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler.”

The actions are strange (covered in a black mask during the interview). The words are gross (stark antisemitism).

The point of this column is not to try and dissect the mental state of Ye West. That’s a fool’s errand.

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.” Conservatives know Hollywood, Corporate America and Media are mostly stacked against them and their values, so when someone appears to step into their corner of the ring, we fall for them head over heels. We end up like the “soft six” who just scored a date with a “ten.”

It’s pathetic. And Ye West is our latest example of that. 

Whether it’s Ye, Elon Musk or even Donald Trump. No, I’m not putting them all into the same boat by any stretch, but there has been a similarity to each of their purposes to conservatives. Kanye would push MAGA and conservatism in Hollywood and Black culture. Elon would save us from the Big Tech war against free speech. And Trump would just, well, save us in general. Or something. 

We’ve put far too much stock into all of these individuals, at different levels and for different reasons. But we’ve done it. And admitting we were wrong about it in many respects is a good place to start. 

Looking up to individuals to singularly win cultural wars is a losing proposition. It’s all of us. It’s you. It’s me. Donald Trump certainly can play an outsized role. Elon Musk can help the cause. Ye West, nah. But you get the point. 

The reality is that we can’t search and hope for that God-like figure to solve the problem. Swinging the cultural pendulum from the left back to the middle won’t be fixed in one day, or one year, and it certainly won’t be swung back by one person.

In recent weeks and months, there have been cult-like beliefs from many in conservative media that any of the aforementioned individuals would solve our problems.

They won’t. They can’t. And we’re doing a disservice to our listeners to lead them in that direction. First off, worshiping individuals it’s everything conservatism is against. Our ideas are bigger than a singular individual and it sells ourselves and our listeners short to stray from that thought.

While the Ye West debacle in recent weeks has been a glaring example of that kind of mistake, there are certain to be others on the horizon. Let’s not make that mistake again. 

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BNM Writers

Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Jim Cryns

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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BNM Writers

Are Fast Food Sandwich Stories News or Free Advertising?

The majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

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Scarcely a week goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to watch, read, or listen to a “news” story concerning the latest menu item introduced or returned by a chain restaurant or fast food outlet. Yes, “news” is in quotations because I question just how this type of information finds its way into a legitimate rundown.

I’ve always wondered about this and nobody has ever successfully explained, argued, or come close to justifying this practice is legitimate. It’s advertising without the commercial spot break and I don’t know why we continue to do it.

First, let’s lay down the disclaimer that this is no criticism or finger pointing against any particular food, franchise, corporation, or drive-thru operation or employee. Additionally, no blame or negative evaluation is to be inferred against any news station, outlet, publication or staff member.

Frankly, you’re (we’re) all culpable and equally to blame.

I have sat in the control room and watched as a fast-food restaurant graphic popped up in between the anchor team or over the solo anchor’s shoulder as the prompter rolled out copy I myself would fight not to write.

And yet there it is, Murrow and other award-winning journalists enthusiastically telling us about the new chicken sandwich this place is rolling out next month or the latest two-for-one offer at that place if you go and eat there on a Tuesday.

“It’s their new olive burger…now with more olives!”

Actually, the majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

So, again I ask why?

What makes this information suddenly become part of an article or news copy that costs a business nothing and not an ad campaign they should be paying for?

Seriously, we’re at the point where the lines have been blurred by mayonnaise or special sauce or two kinds of lettuce or several kinds of cheese if we’re really lucky.

I am on a soapbox here but not on either a pedestal nor an altitudinous mare. In other words, I myself have tasted the forbidden fruit. Often that fruit has come in the form of a free breakfast sandwich, flavored coffee, pizza or bacon double cheeseburger that found its way to the newsroom before suddenly becoming a topic discussed on the air.

Hey, I can’t review it if I don’t try it, right?

Well, yes and mostly no. I’m not advocating for it and unless I’m being compensated to extoll the wonder that is the addition of guacamole or coleslaw it’s not getting into my headline set.

On radio, the talkers can do it all they want. They’re about other stuff like fun and music and nobody is calling them out on credibility.

The newsroom is different.

When an individual does something good we go to cover it and a business, large or small should be afforded the same courtesy. So many fast-food chains and restaurant franchises do great things for charities and local people in-need and that is part of what we regularly like to showcase.

We get press releases, sometimes distributed as “news releases” from the food chains letting us know about the new offerings. “We’ve Added Wings!” This is not an ad copy, it’s meant to get in our shows and someone, somewhere decided this is okay and not to be questioned.

I tend not to read those memos that say, “don’t ask”.

In a different direction, there are legitimate incidents, developments and news stories that often must go through a screening process because the business involved is a paying sponsor or advertiser for news programming.

I’ve had and seen accurate and justifiable copy stricken, “massaged” until unidentifiable or outright killed because somebody’s commercial ran during the show or one of the dayparts.

No naiveté here, one understands the concern. However, if a pizza joint is facing a class action sexual harassment suit and good journalism has been practiced do we run from it because they’ve bought air time or worse yet have now added cilantro to the cheesy-bites?

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