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Philly Special: Catching up with Alex Silverman of KYW

KYW recently added an FM simulcast for the first time in its long history. I wanted to talk about that, Alex’s thoughts on the format and how his team handled Wednesday’s shocking events in Washington D.C.

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I recall one afternoon early on in my tenure at KIRO in Seattle, my General Manager at the time called me into his office to introduce me to some partners of the station.

“This is Ryan Maguire, our new Director of News and Programming on KIRO.  People thought we were crazy for hiring him, but we couldn’t find any candidates for the job that were younger than Barbara Bush.”

(The Former First Lady has just died the day before).

My boss’ macabre sense of humor aside, he did have a point.  News-Talk and All-News radio has skewed older in listenership the last few years.  To this day, its one of the biggest challenges for the format.  In some cases, the best way to find younger listeners is with younger leadership.

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to catch up with Alex Silverman, the Brand Manager and Program Director at legendary All-News station, KYW in Philadelphia.  I had heard of him from my colleagues at KIRO (where he also worked previously) and others in the industry who hold him in high regard.

Once I followed him on social media (https://twitter.com/AlexSilverman) and spent time exchanging e-mails with him for this piece, I could see why.

He has an amazing amount of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism for news radio.  He also has the right ideas and the right mindset to take a heritage brand like KYW into new, younger generations of listeners.

KYW recently added an FM simulcast for the first time in its long history.  I wanted to talk about that, Alex’s thoughts on the format and how his team handled Wednesday’s shocking events in Washington D.C.

Wednesday was truly a surreal day in the history of our country.  How were you able to approach it…personally and professionally?

It was surreal, upsetting, and scary for sure, but I knew we had a team that could handle whatever the day might bring. We know that hundreds of thousands of people not only depend on us on a daily basis, but when something of great consequence happens, they turn to us because they trust us. That is a great responsibility which we take very seriously.

The past year has stretched everyone in every newsroom across this country to the limit, but it has also shown me how capable our newsroom is of handling the unexpected and the challenging. My role in these types of situations is to make sure the team has the support and guidance they need. As soon as things started to take a turn, we mobilized two reporters to Washington – one of whom was already in Delaware covering President-Elect Biden. We knew we were the closest Entercom all-news station to DC, so we would not only be able to serve our audience but also millions of listeners across the country. We had additional reporters working remotely who started calling their local contacts, and everyone shifted into continuous coverage mode: the anchors, the editors and production team, and the digital content team – and stayed that way into the night. We needed to not only make it sound big and important, but to place it in the context it deserved – as a dark day in the history of this country – so we talked a lot about the language we would use to communicate that.

What differentiated your coverage from what other media outlets were doing?

We’re fortunate to have the most experienced broadcast reporting team in Philadelphia, and that institutional knowledge and those contacts paid off immediately. One of the great things about all-news radio is our ability to pivot immediately into continuous crisis coverage. While there are a lot of moving parts to our operation, when it comes down to critical breaking news information, once it’s confirmed it’s just “hit the sounder, open the mic, and tell the world.” So, whether you were listening on 103.9 FM, or on a smart speaker in a home office, or on the RADIO.COM app, you were learning what was happening literally as we were seeing it with our own eyes or verifying it. RADIO.COM allows us to send push alerts to a larger audience beyond our typical listeners, and we were simultaneously producing newscasts for our sister stations in Philadelphia because this was a situation where people needed to know what was happening in real time.

Talk about your background and how your career journey brought you to KYW.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intimacy of radio and the one-on-one connection it creates with the listener; it’s something that I recognized at a young age and just knew I wanted to be in the business. I actually started out in management – as the GM of the greatest student-run radio station in America, WJPZ at Syracuse University – before getting my first on-air news job at WSYR in Syracuse. I spent some time in Seattle at KIRO as a reporter and anchor, then eight years at WCBS 880 in New York City, first as an anchor and reporter and later as APD. When the legendary Steve Butler retired in 2018, it was an amazing opportunity to be able to come to KYW Newsradio and lead one of the country’s great all-news stations.

What are the best parts of your job?

Getting to work with such a talented and connected team of broadcast journalists is a huge privilege. I learn something from them every day. When we break news and tell stories that matter to people, we get an enormously positive response from the audience and that’s always a great feeling.

Technology is providing many of the service elements all-news stations would provide (news-traffic-weather, etc.) on demand and instantly.  How does this format stay relevant in 2021 and beyond?

I’d push back on the premise just a bit because there’s a distinction between the content itself and the technology used to convey it. “Technology” on its own can’t produce the service we provide – it can’t replicate the journalism experience and institutional knowledge and storytelling ability. That said, as technology evolves, we are evolving right along with it. If you have a smart speaker at home and want the news from a credible, local source, all you have to do is ask it to “play KYW Newsradio.” All our stories are available on demand in both written and audio form on KYWnewsradio.com and on the RADIO.COM app. We’re on social media at the same time we’re on the air with a story. We have a local news interview podcast, KYW Newsradio In Depth, that focuses on big ideas that we wouldn’t have time to dive into in our typical format. All of this makes us a really strong part of the modern news ecosystem.

As for traffic, sure – the apps are great, I use them like everyone else. But they don’t tell the full story. If I’m stuck in traffic, I want to know what the heck is really happening and why. It takes a human being to provide that color commentary and that’s the service our listeners tell us they appreciate. The same goes for weather. We have a fabulous partnership with NBC10 here in Philadelphia. When weather is a story, people want someone they trust to explain what it means.

Your station was given an FM signal for the first time in its history and got a fresh rebranding as well.  What have the early returns been from your listeners and sponsors?

It’s incredibly exciting for us, and we saw the launch on 103.9 FM in late November as one of the most historic moments ever in Philadelphia media. It not only improves the quality of service for our existing audience, but also allows us to reach some areas where the 1060 AM signal was never particularly strong. I was actually driving around one of those areas in Bucks County the day we launched, and – I swear – the clerk at a deli saw my jacket and said “when’s KYW gonna be on FM? It’s so staticky around here.” I told him, and he was thrilled. So, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from both listeners and sponsors who know there’s more of a chance for new listeners to discover us on the FM band. It’s still too early to make any sweeping statements about the impact, but we’re very optimistic.

Caption- Alex Silverman talks about the FM simulcast on NBC10 in Philadelphia

You’re VERY active on social media which is not common for many Program Directors.  What’s your strategy behind that?

Having spent a lot of time on the on-air side, I’m used to having a public voice and engaging with the audience. It’s a good way to keep in mind that there are real people out there who have opinions and perspectives on what we’re doing, and I think they appreciate that kind of direct engagement. We can’t ever take our audience for granted, so we have to be everywhere they are – and social media is one of those places.

BNM Writers

WGN’s John Williams Was Determined To Get Into Broadcasting at Any Level

Sending out tapes every six months was a part-time job for Williams and anyone else who wanted to venture out to a larger market.

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WGN broadcaster John Williams knows two things for sure; Coffee’s for closers, and someone out there has eaten the entire left side of a menu at a restaurant.

“There are movies that enable male bonding,” Williams said. “In Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s bonding in terror. In Diner, the bond is about growing up with friendships.” (You can correlate each of the opening intentions with the movies above.)

Williams said he believes these types of bonding opportunities make us better as human beings. “My dad was in the Air Force, and we predictably moved around quite a bit,” he said. “I always envied my friends who had a steady upbringing, who were able to feel the consistent ground under their feet. They’d known each other for years, shared inside jokes together.”

A 10-year-old John Williams found himself in fourth grade in Honolulu. “Once again, I was an outsider. We lived in Taiwan before that. Most of the kids were Japanese or Hawaiian, and I was one of the ‘haole,’ or white kids. I never had to spell the word, I just was the word.”

Williams was in second grade at the public school in Ewa Beach as one of two white kids in his class. “The racial difference wasn’t a factor but the fact that I was an outsider was.” He transferred to a Catholic School and, over the next three years, made friends and gained some confidence. Like most any of us, he just wanted to be accepted.

“I was a mild, meek kind of kid who never really got his bearing. I read a lot and was always curious enough. I asked the right questions. I’ve always been interested in everything. I wasn’t a recreational reader then.”

When he was young, Williams said comedians helped shape his thought processes. “I grew up with comics and their albums. We memorized the bits from George Carlin; later, it was Richard Pryor, Steve Martin. They were insane. Before his reprehensible behavior was realized, Bill Cosby influenced a lot of comics.” Cosby taught a lot of us how to tell a story.”

Throughout his childhood, Williams said he always thought he’d be a writer. “Becoming a broadcaster was so presumptuous to me. When you wrote, you didn’t have a microphone in your face at a radio station. Who was I to think I could pull that off.”

He kept busy writing short stories, poems, always typing away at something. “One year, I got a typewriter for my birthday. A Corona. I even had the click-out eraser cartridge, the whiteout. I still have a lot of that stuff around. But I always could find a sheet of paper, right?”

Hhmmm…a nerd and a hoarder. 

He attended Joliet junior college and earned what he said was an ‘associates degree in nothing,’ leaving him unqualified to do anything. In defense of junior colleges, Williams also said he felt an associates degree can, in fact get you ready to do anything well. “It was excellent,” he said. “It primed me to talk about anything.”

“After that, I went to Southern University of Illinois in Carbondale. They had a good broadcasting school. I tried getting into Northwestern, but that didn’t happen. I transferred to SIU as a junior. I couldn’t partake in any real broadcasting classes until my senior year. Couldn’t get in front of a microphone until then.”

His ambition was to be able to get into broadcasting in any form, at any level. “During my senior year, I was so nervous. I couldn’t hold a piece of paper without shaking,” Williams said. “I’d have to put the paper down on the counter in front of the microphone so it wouldn’t shake, and I could read the copy.”

Sending out tapes every six months was a part-time job for Williams and anyone else who wanted to venture out to a larger market. “This was in the late 80s,” Williams said. “I’d enjoyed a good career at WMBD in Peoria from 1982-1992 but looked for more. I was doing well in the mornings.”

Demo tapes went to cities like Cincinnati, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and all the mid-major markets. All the ads read, No Phone Calls. In attempts to get around this roadblock, Williams felt he was kind of slick.

“I’d call and say, “Hey, I’m not calling about my tape; I just wanted to see if you got it.” You never knew how that would play out. More tapes went to Orlando and Miami, Florida.

“I called and did my ‘follow-up’ and was put through to the program director at WIOD in Miami. I couldn’t believe it. I got through. The voice on the other end asked, ‘Are you John?’ He knew my name! I answered a feeble ‘yes.’ ‘John,’ the program director continued, ‘Apparently you can’t read because the ad said, NO CALLS!’”

After swallowing a trough of pride, a big break was getting from Peoria, which was 188th in the market at the time, to Minneapolis, which was 15th. The salvation manifested in the form of WCCO. He worked there from 1993-1997. “To go from 188-15 was a leap in every sense of the word,” Williams said.

Then, a really big break. After the usual barrage of outbound tapes, he got a call from WGN and was told he was on their short-list. He couldn’t believe it. “To go from 15th market to number three was beyond my imagination. The place where Wally Phillips, Bob Collins worked was like hallowed ground.”

Williams arrived at WGN Radio in September 1997 as a midday host. 

Planning out a show can be like walking a tightrope. “I don’t see the upside of talking too much about push-button and red meat topics. WGN is not a silo-broadcasting company. Other stations take a narrow approach and then preach to that choir. They are safe in that silo. But we’re a big tent station. We want to accommodate as many people as we can. You can get your tough talk politics elsewhere. There’s no point in running listeners off when they disagree with you. And frankly, those who would agree with you are exhausted with politics right now, so we don’t really need to go there. At least not much.”

How does Williams approach his day? He said he gets up in the morning, does his ‘clicking’ for news. “I go to NewsNation, Fox News, The New York Times. I buckle down. If I don’t, my show suffers.” He has a whiteboard in his office, and he breaks it all down, breaks it into half hours. 

“I go for a mix on my show,” Williams said. “I don’t do all interviews. I don’t want to do all open lines. I better have some breathing area, a chance to get the lay of the land.” Williams says it’s all about relatability, not an overdose of what Putin’s strategies might be.

“I had a great interview recently. I spoke with Kyle Buchanan, who wrote Blood, Sweat & Chrome, The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road. We talked about director George Miller and other things.”

After 41 years in the business, Williams feels he’s hit his stride. “I was miscast a couple of times,” he said. “There were times I didn’t feel I was doing well. I don’t worry about my longevity too much now, but you do think about it. My motto was and is to stay in the game. Be versatile. You say you need someone to cover Chinese hockey? Where do I go to learn Mandarin?”

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BNM Writers

Everyone is Welcome at Keven Cohen’s Table

“For the first eight months, The Point was hemorrhaging money,” Cohen explained. “Bleeding would be too tame of a word.”

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Somebody had better step up and take the blame.

Ostensibly, both his mother and father are responsible for the odd spelling of Keven Cohen’s first name—probably more his mother.

“I think she had too much of the epidural medicine,” Keven Cohen jokes.

He likes the uniqueness but said it has caused its share of problems.

Cohen was born in Detroit, but the family moved to Florida just before his 13th birthday. He later studied broadcast journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Where a lot of kids wanted to be a ballplayer, Cohen wanted to be Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers.

“In our neighborhood, we didn’t ask when the Tigers played; we asked when Ernie was on.” That’s how revered the man was in Detroit. “To this day, I’m an obsessive Detroit fan. I like to say you can take Keven out of Detroit, but you can’t take Detroit out of Keven.”

Growing up, Cohen said he was inseparable from his older brother Marc. “We have been best friends since the day I was born,” Cohen said. Cohen was able to convince his mother and brother to move to Columbia so they could be around each other.

His sister was the lone holdout, but Cohen does speak to her every day, as a rule. Marc was a teacher but hung that up for corned beef, opening his Groucho’s Deli. His sister is a physical therapist. They’re like peas and carrots…and more peas.

Cohen started out in radio at WRUF in Gainesville. He spent five years at that station.

“After graduating college, they created a position for me as assistant sports director,” Cohen explained. “They were grooming me to take over for the sports director. The problem was that I realized that the sports director wasn’t going anywhere soon.”

In 1994, Cohen began searching for a new opportunity, but he still didn’t want to go too far from Gainesville. He’s truly a man dedicated to his family.

“My father died in a car accident when I was young, and I couldn’t bear the thought of moving too far from my mother in Florida,” Cohen said.

After enjoyable years at WRUF, Cohen began exploring new opportunities. He recalls landing his first dream job in Columbia, South Carolina. He knew he was as talented as the other 267 applicants for the sports job, but he had something else. Moxie.

“The guy that hired me in Columbia now does the radio play-by-play for the Atlanta Braves. Jim Powell,” Cohen said.

Cohen knew the competition would be tough, but he had his sights set firmly on the job. Interestingly, when many young radio people send out tapes, they send them everywhere around the country. This wasn’t the case for Cohen. Family is so important to him; he again didn’t want to go too far from home. The only tape he sent out was to Columbia. The distance between cities was doable.

“I called Jim Powell and pleaded with him to give me fifteen minutes with him,” Cohen said. “I told him I’d gladly drive the nearly six hours to Columbia, meet with him, then turn around and drive back to Gainesville. That’s how serious I was about the job.”

Powell was impressed with the young man’s spirit, and they talked for more than an hour and a half. A week and a half later, Powell called Cohen. Powell told Cohen there were candidates for the job with better demo tapes, but he liked Cohen’s tenacity and drive.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” Powell told Cohen. The bad news was the station wouldn’t pay moving expenses. The good news was he had the job if he wanted it.

“When Jim Powell speaks to colleges and high school students, he still uses my tenacity as an example,” Cohen said.

After 18 years in a community, Cohen had developed some deep roots and friendships.

He was at WVOC in Columbia from 1994 until 2012, a good run in any radio market. Then management decided to go in a different direction and fired Cohen. This happened ten years ago, but you can still hear the pain in the recollection.

“I was devastated,” Cohen said. “I’d cut my chops on the radio there. I put in more than 18 years there. I was blindsided.” At the time of his firing, Cohen was hosting pre-game shows for the South Carolina Gamecocks, and it was the middle of the season. An election was just a short time away. Management figured that would be the perfect time to give him the ax.

For the ace-kicker, hours before his firing, Cohen had lunch with one of the salesmen and returned with a $64,000 sales package from a local business. They still fired him.

Isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do?

“My firing made the front page of The State newspaper,” Cohen explained. “There were protestors outside the building, upset that I’d been fired. Personally, I never felt any bitterness toward Clear Channel—publicly or privately for the firing.”

As they said in The Godfather, It was just business. Most people reading this are well aware of that sting. People in this business get stung so often that they don’t even bother putting baking soda on wounds.

WVOC gave him the talk all fired people know too well. They put him on the sidelines with a non-compete clause.

“I told them to keep their severance package; I just wanted to work.”

No dice. WVOC said that wasn’t going to happen.

“I’m the kind of guy who turned the firing into motivation,” Cohen said.

Cohen was offered a job in Jacksonville, Florida, but wanted to wait. He was promised a job by another station in Columbia when the non-compete expired.

“The call never came,” Cohen said. “I was so discouraged as I’d turned down the Jacksonville job. There were no other talk stations in Columbia. I either had to leave Columbia or leave radio.”

There were plenty of opportunities Cohen could have grabbed that required a briefcase. Banking or insurance companies would have begged to get him. He had earned a stellar reputation in the community, and many businesses felt he’d be good for their business if he worked for them.

Now it gets a little weird.

One night, Cohen couldn’t sleep, so he went down to the basement. He was able to fall asleep and was visited in a dream by a friend who’d died from cancer.

“In the dream, Rick told me everything was going to be alright, and I should start my own radio station.”

Thanks, Rick. Not like that’s a tall order or anything.

“It hit me that starting my own radio station was something I could and should do,” Cohen said. “I ran up to tell my wife about the dream and asked if she’d support me if I attempted to create my own station. She said if I let her go back to sleep, she’d support me.”

What a gal.

“I’d never considered this before,” Cohen said. “The only thing I’d ever done on radio was my show. I reached out to some people to get the ball rolling.”

Cohen said four banks were no help. “They knew me well and loved me, but realized I’d never run a radio station before, or anything even close to that. I don’t blame them.”

The dream (the one with Rick) paid dividends. Cohen was fired from WVOC in November 2012 and started his radio station in October 2013, less than a year later.

“For the first eight months, The Point was hemorrhaging money,” Cohen explained. “Bleeding would be too tame of a word.”

He said advertisers were initially wary, and he understood that as well. But they started to come around.

“Things were very lean at first,” Cohen said, “but when we hit the 10 ½ month mark, we broke even for the first time. Then, we started making money. Not a ton, but it was coming in.”

The Point, 100.7. FM, 1470 AM, has become a player in the market. “The community has been so supportive,” Cohen said.

The Point has evolved in its format. “I wanted an old-school talk radio station,” Cohen said. “I always wanted it to be community-driven. I’ve never pressured my hosts or news people to lean a certain way, politically or otherwise. They are on their own, as long as it’s ethical and moral.”

Cohen doesn’t like to micromanage. “I do all the traffic, schedule all the commercials, create all the sales. I’ve tried to create a family. We socialize together; I go out to lunch with hosts. They feel like they can talk with me about anything.”

On his morning show, Cohen doesn’t utilize a call screener; he just answers them as they come in. “There’s no way of picking and choosing which so many hosts like to do. Everyone is welcome at our table,” he said.

Which to me sounds a lot like, ‘We’ll leave the light on.’

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BNM Writers

The Biggest Story in America According to Bill O’Reilly

According to O’Reilly, the biggest development in the country in recent weeks is the disastrous situation at our nation’s southern border.

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Bill O’Reilly says the biggest story in America this month is mainly under-reported by politicians and the media. And its impact may extend much further than we can currently comprehend.

It’s not a Hollywood trial, exploding gas prices, economic pain, or a potential Supreme Court ruling.

According to O’Reilly, the biggest development in the country in recent weeks is the disastrous situation at our nation’s southern border. He joined the Glenn Beck Radio Program on Friday morning to discuss the country’s ongoing disaster and predicted that it will become the impetus for major developments in the next six to twelve months.

“Three million foreign nationals are estimated to cross just into Texas this year, this fiscal year,” O’Reilly began, chronicling the emerging siege of Texas’ border. “And a President doesn’t call the Governor of the state that has to deal with that one time? So everybody listening just says, oh, he’s just incompetent. It’s not that. And I keep telling everybody this, and few believe me. I think you do, Beck, but I’m not sure. The President of the United States does not know what he is doing. He is incapable of assimilating – word of the day – information. You can tell him something, and he’ll look at you, and maybe he’ll understand what you’re saying. But two minutes later, he will forget it.”

O’Reilly told Beck there are actual, devastating consequences for citizens when the President cannot seem to effectively react to or deal with this ballooning crisis.

“So Biden, who has not been to the border, another unbelievable occurrence, because if you add up the human toll of this, plus the narcotics traffic that’s killing hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, you add it up, this is a catastrophe,” O’Reilly said.

“I don’t believe the Constitution is a death pact. You know, it’s not a suicide pact.” Beck replied. “This is an invasion, and the government is doing nothing, and the government has the constitutional responsibility for the border, not the states. So that’s what’s kept the states out of it. But again, are we in a constitutional suicide pact?”

Responding to Beck, O’Reilly predicted that American citizens themselves are poised to react decisively.

“You elect a President; he comes into office. Americans have this idealistic view of that. Many times you elect someone who is destructive to the country. Alright, I mean many times. Not a few. Many. So what happens now?” O’Reilly asked rhetorically. “Well, everybody can whine and complain and talk about it, but what happens is this. In November, there is a course correction possible, whereby the American people would say, I recognize what a disaster Joe Biden is, and I’m sorry he’s the President. And if I voted for him, I made a mistake. So now I’m going to correct that mistake, and I’m going to give Congress the authority to deal with Biden. That’s our system. That’s how the Founders set it up.”

O’Reilly believes that this issue, among so many others going dreadfully wrong in America, such as punitive gas prices and unnecessary economic hardship, will galvanize voters to fight back in November.

“I fully expect that the Republicans will take both houses of Congress. I’ll be shocked if that doesn’t happen. Because of inflation, primarily, and the economy. That’s the driver of the vote. But second is the border,” O’Reilly predicted. “Now, once the Republicans take over, I can assure you articles of impeachment will be drawn up in January and February 2023 against Biden, on this issue. Dereliction of duty.”

And while the country endured the Democrat-fueled impeachment of our 45th president, O’Reilly thinks this time will be different. This time, he says, will be based on substance.

“He’s the commander in chief. This is dereliction of duty. Just like a corporal or a sergeant, if they were in the field with the military unit and they didn’t follow orders, that’s dereliction of duty. This is dereliction of duty,” O’Reilly said.

“Does everybody get this? Biden’s President, but he’s also the commander in chief of the armed forces. So you can impeach on those grounds. Now, will he be convicted in the Senate? Probably not. But it’ll be such a hammer blow to the country. The Trump impeachments were jokes. Everybody knew what that was. A setup by Pelosi on any grounds at all to embarrass Trump. This is much more serious because the numbers are there. The deaths are there. Verifiable. Not a phone call to Zelensky in Ukraine. This is people dying every day because their government will not stop the importation of deadly narcotics from Mexico. That’s what this is, and that is why this is the story of the week.”

Time will tell if Bill O’Reilly’s prognostication proves true and whether the lack of border security will continue to mushroom as a focal issue for voters.

If he is correct, what we are seeing in May will become an even bigger catalyst in January.

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