“I just want some news.”
A few years ago, I was sitting in a diner, tapping away on my laptop, slurping down coffee and eating pancakes, trying to block out the conversations around me.
The chatter from the table right behind me rose up. I listened as they chewed over the first few outrages of the Trump administration and debated the credibility of the Russia probe.
“I just want some news,” said a woman at the table.
I felt myself nodding in agreement, conjuring up an image of Peter Jennings anchoring the 6 o’clock news circa 1983.
That kind of news product still exists – barely. In reality, it’s been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.
So why does it feel like our news diet is so anemic? Or, perhaps more accurately, junk-filled?
And why do respectable and reliable public interest organizations that measure such things put out report after report showing that public trust in the news media continues to nosedive?
There’s plenty of blame to go around – the Internet and its multiple disruptions, the rise of opinion journalism, the Twittersphere, and political polarization coupled with a sped up news cycle and the death of legacy media’s ad-based business model.
But I’ll start with the elephant in the room: the presidency of Donald Trump.
“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”
Staff writer at The Atlantic
The title of James Fallows September 15th article in The Atlantic could not have been more stark:
In it, Fallows, who warned of growing bad habits among news professionals in his 1996 book ”Breaking The News,” outlines how White House journalists have lost the plot since confronting the norm-busting president, who has repeatedly deemed the press “the enemy of the people.”
In short, Fallows makes a compelling case that reporters keep naively responding to a president who, to put it mildly, isn’t playing by the same rules. And, writes Fallows, they’ve yet to pivot, instead leaning on the traditional fact-check,“both-sides-ism,” and horse race coverage in a futile effort to hold Trump accountable.
New York University journalism professor and writer Jay Rosen echoes this critique, arguing in his PressThink blog that White House reporters have repeatedly and mistakenly applied legacy notions of covering a president who has long since thrown the rule book out.
“My number one lesson after five years of Trump and the press: Common practices in journalism rest on assumptions about how candidates and office holders will behave. If those assumptions are incorrect, the practices break. This happened to fact checking.”
Rosen goes so far as to urge White House reporters out of the briefing room, arguing they merely serve as a vessel for the president’s distortions of reality.
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”
Former New York Times op-ed Editor
The culture wars had long since broken out on the pages of The New York Times when conservative journalist Bari Weiss announced she was leaving the paper of record on Twitter just a few months ago. Her letter of resignation read like a college journalism professor’s admonition to a wayward student.
In short, Weiss called out the paper of record for failing to make up for its own self-inflicted wounds of 2016: that is, failing to see the rise of President Donald Trump and the longstanding grievances of his supporters. She claimed to have been bullied by her post modernist far left former colleagues for “wrongthink,” and decried editorial decision-making driven by satisfying the narratives of the what she described as the “narrowest of audiences” and governed by the politics of the Twitterati.
Her resignation came on the heels of the abrupt departure of her former boss James Bennett, who was forced out after publishing a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, making the case for a military response to widespread civil unrest following the release of gruesome video of the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
On the same day Weiss announced her departure from the New York Times came another: this time from pioneering blogger and conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who said on Twitter that he would be leaving New York Magazine.
He explained his departure in his final column for the magazine on July 17.
“What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”
Sullivan told readers he would resurrect the blog that put him on the digital publishing map The Dish (this version would be a weekly, not a daily) by migrating to Substack, where he would join other non-mainstream journalists, such as Matt Taibbi, to write without limits.
All three resignations were high-profile, controversial, and highlight two increasingly worrying trends from elite news outlets: an overtly politically-driven approach to editorial decision-making, and the harsh realities of digital disruption.
“These technologies that all of us are using: iPhone, Google, Instagram, Twitter, go down the list….In terms of human history and certainly communications, these are all baby products and we’re treating them like babies. We’re still very adolescent in usage of these really cool technologies that if used right, can be very transformative in a positive way. If abused, they can really grind up and grind down our country.”
Axios & Politico founder & CEO
In 2006, Twitter was launched to be followed just a year later by the unveiling of the first ever smartphone. Longtime print journalist and later CEO and founder of Politico and Axios Jim VandeHei believes the disruption of digital technology can only be described as a profound transformation, one that the news media are presently confounded by. A notable concern of his is the loss of a once “shared understanding of the news” that leads to our collective self-sorting and siloing into news bubbles.
Combine that with the scale of social media platforms like Facebook and what you have is the loss of traditional informational gatekeepers and news literacy – the ability to determine which sources of news and information are credible and which aren’t.
“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times, put it in a Tweet in late August.
In this hyper-sped up information environment, political polarization rushes in, especially with a highly unusual commander in chief who skillfully uses it to send a torrent of messaging and policy changes on Twitter.
No matter their protestations to the contrary, journalists being human beings first have undoubtedly changed the way they perform their craft. And some days it can seem as though they have collectively gone mad. Just spend a few hours watching CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
But before we fall into total despair, history tells us we’ve been here before.
“Imagine that we are suddenly at a moment when everybody can read and everybody can write and suddenly, the people who used to control all the sources of information no longer have access to it. And good things are multiplying and information is traveling more quickly, but so is disinformation and so is political scandal and things are moving very quickly and they’re leading even very quickly to wars and conflict of kind we couldn’t imagine before.
And no I’m not talking about the present moment. I’m not talking about the invention of social media and the internet.
I’m talking about the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which was a previous moment in history when there was an information revolution that very quickly became a religious, culture and political revolution.”
Journalist & historian
We survived the fallout of the printing press. I’ll place my bet on the news media, warts and all, surviving the Internet.
Content Culture – Cumulus, Connoisseur, and SiriusXM
“I’m not the only person noticing what the satellite broadcaster is up to these days.”
In last week’s column, we considered if the consortium led by Jeff Warshaw (CEO of Connoisseur Media) to acquire Cumulus Media would be an improvement over the current management. We used the single metric of employee (past and present) reviews from the website Glassdoor to arrive at this decision.
The 32 people rating Connoisseur gave it an average score of 2.9 (out of five) compared with Cumulus, which averaged a 3.2 with over 800 reviews. As I wrote last week:
“These reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt as former employees may have an ax to grind, but this caveat holds equally true for all employers.”
Based solely on this one admittedly narrow and unscientific measurement, I wrote:
[The] “Glassdoor reviews suggest that a new Cumulus led by Warshaw wouldn’t be an improvement over the current management. “
Glassdoor reviews aren’t necessarily a fair barometer of Connoisseur or Cumulus Media management. Therefore, I invited people who work for or have worked for either company to contact me with comments.
Several people familiar with Connoisseur did reach out. They felt the company had the best intentions, but cuts inevitably came when the station or cluster didn’t make budget. So, no different than the other major groups. These employees were less afraid of Connoisseur’s management than they were of getting sold, which did happen in a couple of instances.
Among the other major radio broadcast groups reviewed on Glassdoor:
iHeart also scores a 3.2 (over 2,200 reviews).
Audacy receives a 3.5, based on 23 reviews. Entercom had 691 reviews and rates a 3.1.
SiriusXM appears to have the highest current score at 3.6.
It begs the question: What makes SiriusXM a better experience for the people who work there? Where do we look to find an answer to that question?
If you’ve never listened to a corporate earnings call, you should. Listening can offer insight into the soul of an enterprise.
Cumulus Media’s first-quarter 2022 earnings call was on May 4th. The Liberty SiriusXM Group’s Q1-22 earnings phone conference was two days later (May 6th).
I did some analysis of the transcripts of each call. If these calls don’t demonstrate the companies’ values, they suggest what they are thinking about these days.
The transcription of the Cumulus Media earnings call clocks in at just over 4,000 words. Over about 32 minutes, President and CEO Mary Berner; and CFO Frank Lopez-Balboa mentioned “radio” three times. Talking about radio took two percent (2%) of the time.
Ms. Berner and Mr. Lopez-Balboa spoke about content four times. These exchanges occupied four percent (4%, 164 words) of the call. They referred to audience levels once, less than one percent (1%) of the total.
Since the Warshaw-led buyout offer of Cumulus started my curiosity on this topic, it’s worth noting that Berner made one reference to it. She called it an “unsolicited, nonbinding and highly conditional indication of interest…” She stated the offer “significantly undervalues the company and is not in the best interest of its shareholders.” Berner also announced a $50 million stock buyback program. She dispensed with the matter using 127 words, three percent (3%) of the call.
The Liberty SiriusXM Group earnings call was longer. At 47-plus minutes, the transcript is over 7,400 words. There were four participants from SiriusXM, including:
- Hooper Stevens – Senior Vice President, Investor Relations and Finance
- Jennifer Witz – Chief Executive Officer
- Sean Sullivan – Chief Financial Officer
- Scott Greenstein – President and Chief Content Officer
Including its “President and Chief Content Officer” forbodes what transpired next.
Leadership brings up audience levels eight times. Discussing audience size takes two percent (2%) of the total call. They discussed content 19 times throughout the call. They use over 1.100 words, 15% of the time describing content. This earnings call suggests the importance SiriusXM leadership places on content.
I’m not the only person noticing what the satellite broadcaster is up to these days. Recently, Jacobs Media presented its TechSurvey 2022. During the webcast, Fred Jacobs said:
“The more I look at the data, the more I keep coming back to SiriusXM as the bigger threat…”
–Fred Jacobs, From TechSurvey 2022 Presentation
Although he was directing that quote more specifically at music stations, in the next breath, Fred adds:
“The only formats that are well above average (to have a SiriusXM subscription – either free or paid) are Sports and News/Talk Format Fans.”
–Fred Jacobs, From TechSurvey 2022 Presentation
There is much more data in Jacobs’ TechSurvey that illustrates why the need to create compelling, entertaining, and original content is more important now than ever.
We can’t know for certain if there is a correlation between the amount of discussion about content during the Liberty SiriusXM Group earnings conference call and the higher scores it receives on Glassdoor. However, it is a good bet that content is driving the progress the satellite broadcaster receives in Jacobs’ TechSurvey and its own metrics. The people running broadcast companies should take notice and perhaps the hint.
Jesse Kelly Was at the Right Place at the Right Time
Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.
Some people are born to greatness; others have a horseshoe–you know where. He may not be the biggest name in radio yet, but he’s in the running for tallest.
“I’m 6’8”,” Jesse Kelly said. “Everybody else in this business is short.”
Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.
“I remember we had our senior song,” Kelly said. “It seemed to be the same song for every graduating class; Time of Your Life, by Green Day. A great song, but man, like anything else, it can get old.”
Kelly said he’s all about classic rock. Aerosmith and classical music are on his playlist as well.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to the senior prom,” Kelly confessed. “I chose not to attend some of my classes. (Most of his classes.) I had more of an interest in camping, pretty girls, and great weather.” Kelly said he actually missed two-thirds of his classes in high school, ditching, and whatnot.
What in the world was the 16-year-old- Jesse Kelly thinking about?
“I was just into Mountain Dew, basketball, and video games,” he said. “I lived in Montana. There wasn’t much else to do. We were surrounded by mountains. Every weekend we’d grab sleeping bags, shotguns because there were a lot of wild animals.”
All the above, and chasing girls, was a full-time job for Kelly. Who had time for silly old school?
“I don’t mean to sound like an old man,” Kelly began, “but that’s all we did. We’d never heard about drugs outside of pot, and kids today are into fentanyl and what have you. An amazing difference from when I was a kid.”
With his height, you would have assumed he would have been the star basketball player–and he could have been.
“I played until my sophomore year in high school,” Kelly said. “The coach had been licking his chops, anticipating my arrival on his team. I chose not to do it after sophomore year. My dad was mad; the coach was furious.”
The expectations were clear as Kelly’s father played well enough to play basketball on a scholarship.
“I guess I was a bit rebellious,” Kelly said.
If he lived in Indiana, shunning basketball would have been akin to sacrilege. In Montana, not so much of a big deal.
Moving to Montana was a bit of a culture shock for a guy whose family had deep tentacles in the rust belt in Ohio.
“My father and cousins were all into the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and mostly the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Kelly said. “I wanted to follow something different, so I picked the New York Giants. In baseball, it was the White Sox. I wanted to be like The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas.).”
Kelly doesn’t put stock in the ‘traditional trap’ set for kids in America. He doesn’t believe a kid has to go to college right away, if ever. In fact, he told his sons they’re not allowed to go to college until they ‘found themselves.’
“My 11-year-old son is my clone,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to see what dad does for a living and thinks it’s cool. He said he wants to be on the radio too. I told him I’d help him as much as I could, but first, he had to live life, gain some life experience.”
His elder son is 13 years old and has a mind Kelly said must have come from somewhere else. “He’s a different cat,” Kelly said. “His mind works differently. He can take a bucket of random Legos, dump them on the floor, and he’ll build a spaceship. I’m not talking about the kind of deal where a parent pats their son on the head for support, saying, ‘Yeah, that looks a little like a spaceship.’ My son actually spends 18 hours on the project and makes a spaceship, down to the minute details; something NASA would be proud of.”
For a guy that hated school, you would have thought books would be like Kryptonite. Surprisingly, Kelly reads a lot. “I’m an obsessive reader. I’d read Louis L’Amour, the frontier guy. I moved on to military books, loved anything to do with the Marines.” He said those books are partially why he ended up joining the Marines.
So, what was the impetus for becoming a Marine?
“I was a piece of crap,” the candid Kelly said. “I barely graduated high school. My first semester at Montana State, I ‘earned’ a 0.0-grade point average.” That might even qualify for valedictorian at Montana State. They even let him stay for a second semester before he bailed.
I asked Kelly exactly what one would have to do to earn a 0.0 GPA.
“Remarkably little,” he deadpanned. “Sleeping-in helps. Chasing women. Attending half of your finals.”
Kelly was a kid that watched John Wayne films. He was so inspired by the fictitious-Marine, that he woke up one morning, went downtown, and signed up to be a Marine.
“My parents were furious about me enlisting,” he said. “When I told them I was going into infantry, they were 10-times as mad.”
Kelly soon found himself on a bus headed to San Diego. “You know what’s coming up,” he said regarding boot camp. “You pull up. The drill instructors are lined up and jump on the bus before it comes to a stop, hollering at you.” That was just the welcoming committee.
He was later deployed to Iraq as an infantry Marine during the Second Persian Gulf War.
In possession of a natural distrust for authority when he joined, it got worse. “The most revealing moment for me in Iraq wasn’t combat. We were invading Iraq heading north. All of us are proud patriots. Word came down we had to take down our American flags, which were draped over our Amtrak train.”
Kelly said he and his comrades felt betrayed by their country. “I guess they didn’t want us to look like invaders.”
This is the part of the show where we talk about how the interview subject got into radio. This one is a doozy.
Kelly was released from the Marines with an honorable discharge after four years. He moved to Arizona, where he worked in construction.
In 2010, with no political experience but a box full of opinions, Kelly ran for Congress in a Democratic-controlled district of Arizona. Though a virtual unknown in the race, he was only narrowly defeated by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“I got mad about Obama and ran for congress,” Kelly explained.
During a campaign stop, he was waiting to go on air with news/talker Jon Justice. “I was in a separate studio, and a guy I didn’t know walked in. He asked what I was doing, and I told him. He was a radio producer and asked if I’d ever thought of a career in radio. It was kind of strange.”
The stranger’s words planted a seed in Kelly’s brain, and that seed would soon germinate. After the attempt at politics, Kelly moved to Texas with no job; I was flat broke and got a job selling RVs.”
Kelly became active on social media, and the king of talk radio, Michael Berry in Houston, took notice of a post-Kelly had made and asked if he’d like to come on his show.
“I guess I just killed on the air,” Kelly said. “He kept me on the phone for three segments. We had a blast.”
In a celebratory move, Kelly pulled out all the stops and pulled into a Taco Bell for a real treat. Then his phone rang. It was Michael Berry again, and they chatted for a half-hour, an uneaten Chilupa in Kelly’s hand. “After that, we started hangin’ out, drinking bourbon, and smoking cigars. He convinced me that I had a future in radio.”
Apparently, he did.
KPRC in Houston gave him a 7-8 p.m. slot as a trial. “I just started talking. I didn’t know a thing. Nobody had ever taught me what to do.” He must have really killed again, somehow finding an audience. KPRC gave him a second hour.
Out of the radio-blue, Key Networks came calling and told Kelly they thought his show had some chops. The Jesse Kelly Show debuted as a three-hour program in national syndication in April 2020.
It keeps getting better.
After only a year on Key Networks, Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, kept the fortunate string of success going.
Kelly joined Premiere Networks’ national lineup on June 28, 2021.
“I didn’t even know who Julie Talbott was, and she was listening to my show,” he said. “After all the fart jokes I told, she was still listening,” Kelly explained. “Premiere offered me a 6-9 slot in Houston. My wife nearly passed out in excitement.”
Kelly is certainly not a guy that sounds full of himself; that alone is refreshing. “I have no idea why people listen to me; I don’t know why affiliates are happy. I’ll take it,” Kelly said.
The man has an honest, authentic approach to radio. That should be obvious, considering he airs on 200 hundred stations nationwide.
Sometimes having a strategically placed horseshoe can take you a long way.
Covering Traumatic Events Are Part of the Job in News Media
There are countless instances, and events that create trauma and angst that can disassemble us from the inside out yet are part of our jobs.
There were different plans for this week, different ideas, and certainly an unrelated topic of discussion in mind. But of course, what happened in Buffalo last weekend cannot be ignored or pushed aside, just as similar failures of humanity could not and should not be.
We can certainly be more than a dozen people walking into a supermarket on that day with different plans and a separate map for the day. The police officers, the firefighters, and EMTs were not planning on the radical change to their shifts. Store workers certainly weren’t expecting the day to change their lives.
I’m not going to speak of the purported source of this calamity except to say he was in court this week, and the criminal justice system will progress and unfold as it does.
To keep our purposes on track for the moment, let’s look at the news, people, and no, I’m not talking about the coverage brought to us by the cable network shows. Think what you want, but I’m not very interested in what this person or that person sitting behind a desk has to say about the latest tragedy as they point fingers at what went wrong and search for the failures of this agency, that parent, or an administration past or present.
It’s not helpful, and there’s another time for all that.
I’m talking about the first responders of news people. The radio and TV are right there in Buffalo. The print and digital people work with the smallest of the weekend staff. They were planning to cover other things that day; a festival, a charity event, and maybe work on a feature report they were preparing for sweeps.
Who was thinking the nod from the assignment desk would change everything? Suddenly, the scene was going to become one of absolute frenzy and horror. The time before, the news trucks, reporters, and stringers were pushed back by police as the building was entered. Then just that quickly, the media briefing spot, if there is one established, is set further and further away.
There are countless instances, and events that create trauma and angst that can disassemble us from the inside out yet are part of our jobs. Among the most unimaginable to me is the act of pointing a camera at or holding a microphone towards those whose worlds in mere seconds were destroyed by the callous act of another.
And yet, doing so is not a reprehensible deed. It is what the position calls for, the story is to be told, and we must say to it correctly and honestly, often brutally. And believe it or not, more often than we find those most horrifically impacted by these horrible crimes that scream the loudest. Who wants their outrage known, their devastation felt.
Whether or not it becomes exploitation is up to the journalist there and then.
There’s an expectation from the viewer, the listener, and the reader that’s what the news is going to do; the reporter will get a reaction from those with the most right to react, those who lost so much.
And the reporter, the good reporter, will get just that.
It can come at a cost, though. Like many vocations, there’s a price to pay for it all, for having the ability to look into the eyes of someone crushed by tragedy and then elicit a response, to get them to open their souls when they are at their very worst. It’s difficult enough to witness such scenes, the carnage, and the aftermath and then talks with those at their most vulnerable.
However, good reporters can easily find themselves caught up in the tragedy and bewilderment that others are enduring. How can a person witness such sadness and horror and not be adversely affected? Is it even a possibility?
There are precedents too numerous to list, too obvious and familiar to need mention. Mass shootings alone fill books to make individual acts of terror, war and conflict, and natural disasters.
But what makes that journalist any less vulnerable?
With visual and audible reporting, a human response is readily apparent; with the written word, the author’s humanity comes across in how they interpret the events, but the result is the same. It is a skill and often a curse to not appear overly impacted by tragedy without appearing robotic.
But you cannot deal with people with it penetrating. Unfortunately, what has happened in Buffalo (and countless other cities) is still happening. All one needs to do is read between the lines of social media posts from news people covering these horrible stories.
I do not know how anyone could not go to such places, cover such stories and not grieve with those grieving, not be changed somehow. What is remarkable is how such people can come away from and still do their jobs.
So with that, a caution and a hope.
Trauma and the after-effects do not generally come via an instant diagnosis from a mental health professional.
Our esteemed members of the press out there owe it to themselves to stop and note what they’re putting those fine journalistic minds and hearts through when the complex stories come their way.