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Soledad O’Brien Was Ready to Work For Herself

“I wanted to create a new model where I could control my own content. I’m not sure I could have made a move like that until that point.”

Jim Cryns

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It’s remarkable when you get the opportunity to speak with someone who has experienced such immense respect and admiration in their industry. And Soledad O’Brien, deserving of both, would be the first to dismiss those notions, with candor and warmth.

Earlier in her career, O’Brien anchored a show for MSNBC, before moving on to co-anchor NBC’s Weekend Today and contributed segments to the Today show and NBC Nightly News.

“I’ve been around this business a long time,” O’Brien jokes.

In 2003, O’Brien transitioned to CNN, where she was the face of CNN’s morning news shows.

Her work has been recognized with three Emmy awards. She was also honored twice with the George Foster Peabody award for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina and her reporting on the BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill.

As a student at Harvard, O’Brien learned an invaluable lesson during a controversial lecture.

“I was a freshman or sophomore in the audience, and I couldn’t contribute because I wasn’t prepared. There were students attending the lecture who understood the minutia and details in the discussion. You can’t debate someone unless you know about the issue. You look like an idiot. That taught me you really had to know yourself.”

O’Brien said she comes from a close and loving family. At college, she said she met so many people that weren’t like her.

“I was able to engage in debate. You might not always agree with someone, but that didn’t stop you from being good friends. There are mentors you have for years, who help shape you. I’ve also had mentors where I didn’t even realize they were mentors. I’m a big believer that mentors make you successful, so glom on to one when you can.”

In 2013, CNN came to O’Brien and said management wanted to take her show in a different direction.

“Which meant they wanted someone else to anchor the show,” O’Brien said.

That was fine with O’Brien as she was ready to switch gears. That included putting her energy into her new business, Starfish Media Group. Ironically, CNN became Starfish’s first client the day after she left the network.

“I wanted to create a new model where I could control my own content,” she explained. “I’m not sure I could have made a move like that until that point.”

When O’Brien started at CNN, her job focused on live, breaking coverage. Whatever was unfolding at that moment.

“I liked that a lot, but it had its limits,” she said. “I’ve always loved long-form work, like documentaries.”

The timing of her move to creating long-form content may have come at a fortuitous time as the news business has been morphing.

O’Brien said straight news could be a loss-leader for organizations.

“You’re dealing with organizations who are trying to make a profit, and that is more challenging today. Journalists and reporters today are judged by how often a story is re-tweeted. How often it is viewed. The quality of the piece no longer seems to be the issue. If you’re not re-tweeted, the story is perceived as not being good enough,” she said. “A reporter has to wonder and worry whether they are going to be able to keep their job by a public that is judging their news story.”

Her personal view of the social media landscape since she left network news is simple. O’Brien said she doesn’t care how many people follow her. She’s not concerned with who she is following, and doesn’t care if something she writes or creates goes viral. For O’Brien, it’s the quality and importance of the work that carry the day.

“If I lose X-thousand followers, I don’t track it,” O’Brien said. “To me, my feed is all about bringing people stories they might not get elsewhere. I like uncomfortable and awkward conversations. Race is an uncomfortable conversation. With Starfish, I did a series focusing on women who were rescuers at 9/11. We checked if they were written out of history, and they were. A lot of stories were done on rescue dogs, but not the women.”

She said her production company has allowed her to tell stories she believes in.

“When you tell people stories about people who have been undercovered, you widen the tent. I think people are interested in the complex narrative which is the American narrative.”

Starfish has given her and the stories she produces a broader reach.

“We’re interested in distribution of our original content,” O’Brien said. “We can allow our content to live on numerous platforms.”

Regardless of where the content ends up, O’Brien said good journalism never changes. The quality of work is what should rule the day. When she left CNN, O’Brien was given her entire vault of work from the network, more than 50 hours of work. She said that the library has been invaluable to Starfish.

“I don’t think I initially knew how important it was,” she said. “Having a library of material has been so important to us. It has allowed us to tell our stories in a more accessible way. Networks can tell journalists how to navigate around a story. We don’t have to do that as I think owning the material is essential to good storytelling.”

At one of her network jobs, O’Brien inquired if she could do a documentary on poverty in America. She met with a response equating to, ‘Ew, nobody wants to see that.’

“Now I can tell that story,” she said. “We’re witnessing the disappearance of the middle class and I can bring that story to people who are interested. You’re dealing with your own content and you can shop it until you find the right outlet. Until somebody says it’s great. I can develop stories I feel passionate about.”

Since she left network television, O’Brien thinks some of the content on cable and television has been less than satisfying.

“Everything today is over the top, crazy,” she explained. “During the 2016 debates, my son asked me what they meant by Donald Trump’s fingers being small. I said I had no idea. That became a constant discussion and that’s unfortunate. The media’s job should be to inform people. To undergird our work with data and analysis. Today, the crazier it is, the more air time it gets.”

In regards to the mid-term elections in November, O’Brien said all the political talking heads got it wrong.

“It was an inaccurate narrative,” she said. “There were completely bullshit stories. People were gobbling it up hook-line and sinker. I’m impressed with the young people and how they responded in the voting booth. It showed me they aren’t necessarily watching the evening news.”

Since 2016, O’Brien has been the host for Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, a nationally syndicated weekly talk show produced by Hearst Television.

With Starfish and SO’B Productions, O’Brien produced the documentary, The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks. It can be viewed on Peacock TV.

“Rosa Parks was a complete badass,” O’Brien said. “The New York Times eulogized Parks as an accidental matriarch. That wasn’t accurate. They treated her as though one day the woman was tired and didn’t want to give up her seat.”

No, Rosa Parks wasn’t a woman randomly snared in history. She was a secretary for the NAACP and was looking to make a statement.

“That cracked me up when she was termed an accidental matriarch,” O’Brien said. “Somebody had to do what Parks did. I’m always amazed by the stories we tell ourselves. Parks was close to the Black Panthers.”

It wasn’t like she was just coming home from shopping at the A&P and decided to take on the establishment. When Parks was 8 years-old, her grandfather would stay up nights on the porch with a shotgun to keep the KKK at bay.

O’Brien doesn’t understand why we were made to believe it was a random experience.

“Who benefits from it being accidental?” O’Brien asked. “It was treated as folklore. There’s no way Harriett Tubman just one day woke up and decided to start an underground railroad. Things like this are planned.”

Her SO’B Productions has produced documentary films such as Hungry to Learn, Who Killed My Son?, Kids Behind Bars, Babies Behind Bars, War Comes Home, Honor Delayed, and Heroin.

“I just like getting history right,” O’Brien said. “It’s easy to get marginalized people wrong. We write people out of a story that deserve to be in there.”

The documentary Heroin exposed the veteran journalist to amazing revelations.

“It’s so sad,” she explained. “In the show a woman has a child, and it’s clear she loved her child. When told by the interviewer she was essentially killing her daughter with her own drug addiction, the mother replied uh-huh.”

O’Brien said the mother was aware what she was doing was in essence killing her child, and she just reacted so matter of factly.

“It was chilling. She knew it, but didn’t choose or couldn’t do anything about it.”

O’Brien said there are so many chilling stories surrounding the opioid crisis. Parents are at their wits end.

“Nothing they were trying to do was working. There was no way they could help someone they loved. Things were so crazy around the house, families were putting valuables in a safe to keep the abuser from ripping them off. Treatment often doesn’t work. There was one person who had undergone nine stays in rehab. That costs a great deal of money.”

In the same documentary, O’Brien said she was interviewing one woman and she’d brought a friend with her to the interview.

“She looked put together, normal,” O’Brien said. “It turns out she too was a heroin addict. I asked her what she did for a living, and she told me she was a kindergarten teacher. She’d buy drugs on the street. It was shocking to me. If you saw her on the street, there’s no way you’d think she was a heroin user. I was completely stunned. Across America, heroin abuse is skyrocketing, and not just in poor communities. In Vermont alone, treatment for opiate addiction, including heroin and Oxycontin, has risen 770% since 2000.”

In all of her work, O’Brien said it’s her goal to always have people feel they can tell her something. Establish a trust. Truly listen to them.

“In Honor Delayed, we looked at a number of people who were eligible for the Medal of Honor, but for whatever reason didn’t get it. A number of these people were Black (or) Jewish. These are people that honorably served our country and were denied the medal for whatever reason. Despite their extraordinary acts of heroism, the nation’s highest honor has long remained elusive for a group of exceptional American veterans.”

Of the nearly 4,000 medals awarded, only 234 have been awarded to minority service members. O’Brien needed to know why.

O’Brien is a child of mixed heritage. Her Australian father is of Irish and Scottish descent and her mother is from Havana of Afro-Cuban descent. “Growing up in the only Afro–Cuban family in my town on Long Island may have given me some appreciation for outsiders, for people who look and speak differently.”

“My mother taught French and English,” O’Brien said. “I don’t really consider myself bi-lingual, but I’m very good at Spanglish,” she jokes. “I think it would be so much easier to interview people in their native tongue.”

She spends winters in Florida where she rides horses, enjoys life. In 2016, O’Brien  appeared in Zoolander 2. “I always seem to play the reporter,” she jokes. “I had so much fun and the people were very nice.”

O’Brien said she also loves doing hair.

“As a girl of color, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

BNM Writers

Airing The Tyre Nichols Video Was A Necessity

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, hard sounds to hear. But they aired.

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Far be it for me not to address this outrageous and embarrassing instance in humanity. After the videos of Memphis police brutally beating Tyre Nichols were shown on television there really seemed to be more outrage emerging from society this time than from the media, for a change. One would think that’s how we wish things to be.

In instances like this, where the video and audio images are far from brief but are instead chaptered as they unfold, there are few options other than to let them run their course. Clocks — breaks hard and soft — are out the window, just as in live coverage.

Because that’s what this was, only the live this time was us, and as we all absorbed and reacted to actions disapprovingly familiar yet somehow foreign at the same time, the impact was still becoming apparent even though we already knew the outcome.

It’s happened before.

Not always like this but we’ve seen it before, police encounters shown on the news overtakes and become the news.

It takes effect as the sights and sounds are digested, dissected, and discussed, often before their potential impact could really be imagined.

In 1991, when the Handycam footage crossed screens for the first time and we learned Rodney King’s name, we didn’t know then but we had a feeling.

We were on the right track, though as newsrooms evolved and street reporting incorporated a different type of storytelling.

I was a cop in 1991. Changes came. Some.

It’s 2023, I’m no longer a cop. Changes will come again. Some.

Turning points — or the overused watershed moments — mean just as much to the news media as they do to law enforcement.

The “why’s” that make this a turning point are more society and community based this time around than they were in 1991.

At least I think so. And I don’t think it makes a bit of difference who’s involved this time.

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, and hard sounds to hear. But they aired. Where they couldn’t air, they were described in great detail; descriptions sometimes can be worse than the real thing. Sometimes, not this time.

And they should air, they shouldn’t stop airing. This is what happened and this is what people need to see and hear and this is exactly why we are here.

Warn them, provide them with a heads up that they’re not going to like what happens next. It’s life and we show life, and we show what some of us do with it when it’s someone else’s.

Overall, I would say the news platforms held their composure, even after the videos were released. I saw, read, and heard some refreshingly neutral coverage, even from outlets where I expected hard turns into the lanes on either side of the road.

Legitimate questions were asked by anchors and reporters and much of the time, the off-balance issues were raised more by those on the sidewalks and those on the other side of the cameras and microphones.

As much as I find myself in disagreement with what I often see on the cable networks — all the cable networks — I did find a sense of symmetry watching CNN’s Don Lemon speak with Memphis City Council Chair Martavius Jones in the hours after the videos were released.

Regular protocols be damned, Lemon and producers lingered patiently as Jones, visibly overcome by emotion, struggled to regain breath and composure enough to be able to speak. Rather than cut away or move to other elements, they stood fast and it became an example of what often requires no words.

There were fewer punches pulled on other platforms as well.

The sounds of the screams, the impacts, and the hate-filled commands were broadcast through car radios.

As were Tyre Nichol’s calls for his mom. They aired. They had to.

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BNM Writers

Does the Republican Establishment Get It?

For many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections.

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In a move that seemed to go against the wishes of the patriotic American grassroots, the Republican party on Friday re-elected RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel. 

The media immediately took notice, as many on television and radio are now wondering why the party would re-elect a chairperson who has been so unpopular with the base of its party. 

Grant Stinchfield discussed this issue Friday night on his program, Stinchfield Tonight, which airs on Real America’s Voice network.

“Ronna McDaniel holds on to her chairmanship of the Republican Party. By a whopping total of — what were the numbers– 111 to 54. Harmeet Dhillon only received 54 votes. Mike Lindell 4 votes. This is proof to me that the Republican establishment is dug in,” Stinchfield — formerly of Newsmax — said. “Don’t tell me they’re out of touch. See, you tell me they’re out of touch, that implies ignorance. They’re not ignorant about anything.”

As sentiment for Dhillon grew in the days leading up to Friday’s vote, many influential politicians and party donors publicly offered her their support and endorsement. These included Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), as well as donors Mike Rydin, Dick Uihlein, and Bernie Marcus.

Also on board were musician and outspoken conservative John Rich, along with the state GOP of Nebraska and Washington State. Countless journalists and media personalities, such as Charlie Kirk, Miranda Divine, and Lou Dobbs, also came out publicly in support of Dhillon. Former President Donald Trump remained neutral, not making a public choice of either of the three candidates.

For many of Dhillon’s supporters, the deciding factor was public sentiment across the party’s base.

“They’re reading the same chat boards. They’re getting the same emails I’m reading. I will literally post something about this race when I was supporting Harmeet Dhillon. There was not one comment – not one – that supported Ronna McDaniel. Everyone wanted change,” Stinchfield said, noting that the party elite saw the same groundswell of support for change.

“Now, nobody has an issue as Ronna McDaniel is some evil kind of person. I don’t believe she is. I believe, though, that she is part of the establishment. She’s been around too long as far as the establishment goes. And she’s been ingrained in doing business as usual. It’s not working.”

In making their choices known, many Dhillon supporters simply pointed to the scoreboard during McDaniel’s reign.

“Think about where we are. 2018, we lost the House. 2020, we lost everything. 2022, we won the House, but we should have really steamrolled the House and we should have taken back the Senate, which we didn’t do,” Stinchfield said. “That means we’re on a real losing track since she took over. I don’t like being on a losing track. I like being on a winning track.

“Something has got to change when you talk about all of this. So how does Ronna McDaniel get 111 votes and Harmeet Dhillon only get 54 votes, when everyone, every Republican voter I talk to said it was time for change?” pondered Stinchfield.

And even more than the losses, for many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections. The most recent example of which came in Arizona, where presumptive gubernatorial favorite, Kari Lake, was “defeated” when countless voting irregularities occurred in some of the state’s most deep-red areas.

“Under her watch, Democrats instituted a mail-in ballot scheme. That may be even worse than losing, when you talk about the House and the Senate and all these things. The fact that we now have a junk mail-in ballot scheme across the country under Ronna McDaniel’s watch is serious trouble. Very serious trouble,” Stinchfield said on Friday. “And so the reason it is is because the Democrats are rigging the system.”

For years – until Donald Trump descended the golden escalator and took the world by storm – the Republican party had the reputation of being the party of the rich. Rush Limbaugh used to refer to this wing of Republicans as “the country club crowd.” President Donald Trump flipped the narrative completely, offering a clear vision of hope and patriotism to working-class America.

Reputable polling — such as Richard Baris’ Big Data Poll — consistently showed Trump running well ahead of almost every Republican candidate during the 2022 mid-term election cycle. In other words, Trump still maintains considerably more support across the country than most of the individual Senate or House candidates experienced.

Many experts believe this is because voters still view Trump as an outsider, while they view the Republican party much less favorably.

“Let’s tell you how out of touch they are, how elitist they are,” Stinchfield said, calling out the GOP establishment. “This meeting that went on, do you know where it is? It’s at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch in California. One of the most expensive resorts in America. You’re lucky if you get a room for a thousand dollars a night down there on Dana Point. Now, it’s a beautiful hotel, but why is the Republican Party holding an event there? Then I went back and I looked at what RedState did. RedState went back and looked at some of the expenses that the Republican Party under Ronna McDaniel’s leadership was spending money on.

“Take a look at this. $3.1 million on private jets. $1.3 million on limousine and chauffeur services. $17.1 million on donor mementos. $750,000 on floral arrangements. Now you compare this to the Democrats. The Democrats spent $35,000 on private airfare. A thousand dollars on floral arrangements. A thousand. Not $750,000. A thousand. And the $17.1 million they spent on donor mementos, the Democrats spent $1.5 million.

“Democrats know where to put the money. It’s not giving donors gifts. Donors shouldn’t want gifts. If you give money, give money. You don’t need the fancy pin to put on your lapel.”

Following her loss, Dhillon warned her party that it must listen to the base, saying, “if we ignore this message, I think it’s at our peril. It’s at our peril personally, as party leaders and it’s at our peril for our party in general.”

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BNM Writers

The State of the Radio Industry and Technology

“As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.”

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After writing some three-dozen columns for Barrett Media, I often hear that I don’t provide a balanced view of the radio industry. Therefore, this week, I will write about the strengths and weaknesses of the radio industry. It may be a little simplistic, but it will make sense at the end. I promise.

The radio broadcasting business continues to evolve in the digital age, with strengths and challenges to consider. One of the most significant strengths of radio is its ability to reach a broad audience. Radio waves can travel long distances, allowing local stations to reach listeners beyond their immediate area. This makes radio a powerful tool for both local and national advertisers. Radio also reaches audiences in their cars, at work, and at home, providing advertisers with multiple touchpoints. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, radio reaches 93% of adults in the United States each week, making it one of the most widely consumed mediums. Furthermore, radio is a cost-effective form of advertising, with lower ad rates than other media forms. This allows small businesses to reach a large audience without breaking the bank.

Another strength of radio is its role in emergency communication. In times of crisis, radio can provide important information to listeners quickly and efficiently. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all radio stations to have emergency alert systems, allowing them to disseminate critical information to the public promptly. Radio can be a lifeline for communities during natural disasters, power outages, or other emergencies, providing updates on road closures, evacuation orders, and other important information. Radio can reach remote areas where other forms of communication may not be as reliable. This makes radio a vital tool for emergency responders, who rely on it to coordinate responses and disseminate information.

Despite these strengths, the radio industry faces several challenges in the digital age. One of the biggest challenges is competition from other media outlets, such as streaming services and podcasts. The rise of these digital platforms has led to a decline in traditional radio listening, which is likely to continue. 

According to a Nielsen report, traditional radio listening among adults aged 18-34 has dropped by 20% over the last decade. Additionally, many radio stations are struggling to monetize their digital offerings, which has led to a decline in revenue. However, radio has been able to adapt by incorporating streaming services, podcasts, and other digital platforms, which allows them to reach a wider audience and cater to changing listening habits.

Another challenge is the consolidation of the radio industry. In recent years, there has been a significant amount of it, with a small number of companies owning multiple stations. This has led to less programming diversity and less market competition. This can lead to a homogenization of content, with less local flavor and less opportunity for new voices in the industry. However, many smaller independent stations have survived by providing unique and localized content catering to the needs of their community.

Despite these challenges, the radio industry continues to generate significant revenue. The Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) says that radio advertising revenue in the United States reached $18.9 billion in 2019. The radio industry has been able to adapt to the changing market, with many stations now offering a combination of traditional and digital programming. The industry has also been able to monetize digital offerings by incorporating targeted advertising, sponsorships, and other revenue streams.In conclusion, the radio broadcasting business is facing challenges in the digital age, but it continues to have an enormous audience reach and role in emergency communication. 

Additionally, the industry continues to generate significant revenue. As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.

If my analysis seems a little simplistic or this column doesn’t seem like my typical style, it’s because I didn’t write it. The column was written using artificial intelligence (AI). More specifically, by the hottest tech trend these days, ChatGPT.

How hot? Here are a couple of data points from a report in Axios.

  • In June, generative AI was covered in only 152 articles. Just six months later, the topic has generated roughly 12,000 news stories, according to MuckRack data.
  • At this year’s CES trade show, 579 exhibitors were listed under the show’s “Artificial Intelligence” category — more than double of those categorized as “Metaverse” (176), “Cryptocurrency” (19), and “Blockchain” (55) combined.

ChatGPT is AI technology that allows you to have regular conversations with a chatbot that can answer questions and help with tasks such as writing columns. 

ChatGPT is what Siri wants to be when she grows up.

ChatGPT is currently open and free while it’s in its research and feedback collection phase. If it’s not perfect, it’s certainly a lot of fun. It is also quite helpful when researching a topic (as long as the information you need is pre-2021). It is much more efficient and precise than Google, any other search engine, or Siri. I find myself obsessed with seeing what it knows and can do. If you try it, you probably will be too.

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