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Note to Journalists: You’re Not Bigger Than the Moment

Journalists, anchors, and reporters need to understand that moments like this are never about them. Yet far too many act like Kanye West snatching the mic away from Taylor Swift.

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Photo by Alisdare Hickson CC BY-SA 2.0.

This past week, I did what many people around the country did.  I watched the inaugurations of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.

Indeed, we were watching an historic moment.   For the first time, America would have a woman serve as its Vice-President.  She would also be the first African American and Asian-American to serve as VP.

I wanted to witness that moment.  Moreover, I wanted to see how the various networks HANDLED that moment.

I wasn’t surprised at what I saw and heard.

As Harris was sworn in, anchor after anchor had to remind me that I had just “witnessed history”.  Some even added jazzy commentary about the “American Experience”.

Oy vey. 

A constant problem in the news media strikes again.

Far too often, journalists want to make themselves part of the moment.  They look for the catchy line or signature phrase that will forever be remembered, archived and hash-tagged to death.  Journalists, anchors, and reporters need to understand that moments like this are never about them.  Yet far too many act like Kanye West snatching the mic away from Taylor Swift. 

Like many people in the business, I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

I harken back to one of my early jobs, working as a reporter for a small market news station.  One evening, there was a major fire at a warehouse close to where I was living at the time.   I had sprung into action, filled with the exhilaration of covering a breaking story.

As soon as I got to the scene, I spoke with a few witnesses and first responders, took notes, and then called into the newsroom.  They immediately put me on the air with the anchor in the studio, who asked me to divulge what I had learned.

“Oh my God,” I cried.  “It’s like a WAR ZONE out here!”  I then went on to describe the scene of the burning building like I was reporting from Manhattan during 9-11.  I wanted to make sure that I could grab and hold the attention of listeners.

The very next day, I was called into the News Director’s office.  I thought I would be getting a hearty pat on the back.  Instead, I got a swift kick in the ass.

“What the HELL was that last night?” he asked.

“Well, I was trying to report on….” He cut me off.

“You were trying to make yourself part of the story,” he said.  “You need to learn that when it comes to reporting, less of YOU is ALWAYS more.”

He was right.  It was a mistake that I never made again.

NO ONE DID IT BETTER THAN UNCLE WALTER

Walter Cronkite was the Godfather of electronic journalism.  He always knew that it was the moment that would often speak for itself.  He once famously said, “Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.”

When I worked in news/talk, I kept an autographed photo of Cronkite in my office, behind my desk.  I wanted to make sure that he was always looking over my shoulder.  I also wanted my anchors and reporters to see him glaring back at them whenever they would sit in front of me.  He was a permanent reminder of what our job was: we report the news without trying to BE the news.

Here are a few famous examples of how Cronkite mastered that philosophy.

“THE FLASH APPARENTLY OFFICIAL…”

All the major networks covered that fateful day on November 22nd, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  However, it was Cronkite who is most remembered.  It wasn’t because of some catchphrase or commentary he came up with to encapsulate the moment. 

Cronkite delivered the facts as he knew them.  The painful pauses you could see him take to contain himself made him come across as genuine.  In that moment, nothing else was needed.  The nation was in pain and he was there with the nation. 

Can you imagine how MODERN journalists and news anchors would have handled this?

“OH BOY!”

Not every moment Cronkite covered was marred with tragedy.  There was that historic occassion on July 20th, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  Cronkite was sitting at the CBS Anchor desk preparing to deliver the news as it happened.

“I had just as much time to prepare for that landing as the space program did,” he said.  “I watched it from the beginning.  And yet, when that vehicle landed on the moon, I was speechless.”

The look on Cronkite’s face when ‘the Eagle had landed’ was one of the great moments in the history of journalism.  There was no need to wax poetic about the moment itself.  He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning…just as the rest of the country was.  Once again, he came across as genuine.  There was no shame in being speechless because it was the best thing he could have done.

I cringe to think of how modern news networks would have handled that.

“AND WE’LL SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT!”

I’ll end with a brief segue into sports (as I’ve spent a few years in that format as well).

One of the greatest home run calls of all time came from Jack Buck.  It was also one of the simplest home run calls of all time and epitomized the idea of “less is more”.

It was October 26th, 1991.  Game 6 of the World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves.  The Twins needed to win to force a tiebreaking Game 7 or else their season would be over.  In the bottom of the 11th inning, star outfielder Kirby Puckett came to the plate.

Buck was the Cronkite of sports.  He didn’t need to do anything but sign off with a reminder that there would be one more game to be played the following evening.  The sounds and images of that scene didn’t need further explanation or commentary on his part. 

Ironically enough, by not trying to become part of the moment, he becamepart of the moment.

Viewers knew they were watching history in the making.  They didn’t need to be reminded of it. As Uncle Walter would say, “And that’s the way it is.”

BNM Writers

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.

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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.

Ya think?

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. “Premier 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.

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BNM Writers

Events That Create Trauma 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.

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MATT ROURKE/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

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.

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BNM Writers

Dan Mandis Has Done Every Job Imaginable in Radio

Mandis has been in the news radio business for a long time, which means it presents him the opportunity to wear many hats throughout his career.

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When WWTN personality Dan Mandis was ten years old, he wanted what every other red-blooded young man wanted; to have something to do with professional baseball. 

Only one problem; he sucked as a player.  

“I played little league, but I was terrible,” Mandis said. “They stuck me out in right field. I was Lupus in Bad News Bears.”  

Wow. Lupus? He must have really sucked. But Lupus made a mean martini for coach Buttermaker. Mandis had another baseball dream.  

“I wanted to be Vin Scully,” he said. “He was the greatest play-by-play guy in history, the absolute best. He drew pictures with his words.” His love of baseball hasn’t aged well. Instead of current teams and games, Mandis said he likes to flick on YouTube and watch the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers. 

“If you grew up with baseball, it has a place in your heart,” Mandis said. “I collected baseball cards, and I was the kid who had the transistor glued to his ear listening to games.” 

There are two things I know for sure about Nashville; Minnie Pearl and the drinks are way overpriced.   

“We’re all about the free market,” Mandis said. “People from the north can come down, and we’ll take their money.” He’s been working in Nashville for eight years and just signed for another four years. According to Mandis, Nashville feels comfortable because the city embraces ‘everything that makes this country great.’ Oh, and there’s no state income tax. To avoid the exorbitant drink prices, Mandis suggests you go to a liquor store and pre-game before you go downtown. If you don’t know what that means, ask one of your kids.  

“I hate to sound like I’m pandering, but this state is ripped right out of Americana,” Mandis said. “Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are crime-ridden and have massive homeless issues. Down here, we have southern values.” He admits Nashville has its share of crime but nothing like other cities. The suburbs, he says, are second to none. 

If you find yourself in Nashville and are into presidential history, he says you have to visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. There are lots of wineries and whiskey producers. Mandis sounds like a public service announcement for Tennessee.  

He loves baseball films too, like For Love of the Game and Moneyball. 

“For me, those are comfort movies,” Mandis said. “If it has baseball and a love story, I’m hooked.”  

Mandis likes prequels more than sequels, especially the Star Wars franchise.  

“I prefer Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad. Saul is one of the more intriguing characters in history.” He said movies don’t pack the same punch they used to.  

“I was a terrible student in high school. My passions didn’t really lend themselves to do a lot of reading. With one exception, I’m fascinated by the Civil War and so much of that went on down here. If I could go back in time, I’d be in the crowd for the Gettysburg Address.” 

That seems like a wasted wish. Lincoln’s speech was only two minutes long. 

The south and things southerners love have been a target during the past few years. Mandis said he understands when folks became upset when some of the statues were taken down. “I’m against it,” he said. “If you’re going to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, that’s a mistake. He’s an important historical figure, and many in the south appreciate his role in the Civil War.” 

Mandis said he wouldn’t think of going up to someone and tell them to tear down their statue because he didn’t agree with them. 

What would he do if he got fired after the next four years? Retire and go off into the sunset? “I work in radio, and I’m a man of modest means,” Mandis said. “My goal in radio has always been to be that morning guy who has been in the market forever.” He’s not looking for syndication, a major market, or hoping to be a top-ten radio personality. That’s not on the radar. “I’ve had a long and pleasant career.” 

You can listen to Mandis daily from 5:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. on Nashville’s Morning News on WWTN.

Working in radio for as long as he has, Mandis has become a deft interviewer. He counts his interview with Steve Perry of Journey as one of his best and favorite.  

“I was allotted 20 minutes to talk with him,” Mandis said. “We ended up talking for about an hour and twenty minutes. He found the first question I asked to be interesting, and it was golden from there.” 

He said it pays to do your research on a subject. “I cared enough to really know about him, prepped for the interview, and I could tell Perry respected that.” Mandis said rock star Perry used to clean Turkey coops for a living.  

Mandis has done it all; worked as a call-screener, board operator, producer, news anchor, a news and traffic reporter, and now host. He also worked with Dr. Laura Schlessinger for many years.   

Mandis said his favorite all-time radio gig was traffic reporting in his hometown of Los Angeles. “I loved it. It goes back to my dream of play-by-play. Back in those days, all the reports were (for the most part) live. In a region the size of Los Angeles, it was a blast to do live reports on big-time radio stations as the traffic situation evolved. Such a blast.” 

“I was an off-air PD, then became a full-time host. I believe that’s unusual, but not sure.” He has amassed a collection of awards, including the Colorado Broadcasting Award for best radio imaging. Mandis was an AP winner for best reporter in Indiana and was nominated for a Marconi last year. “I was robbed,’ he jokes.  

He said his father was a big talk radio fan, listening to KABC in Los Angeles. “Early, I hated it, but tastes change,” Mandis said. “It was always a dream of mine to host a show on KABC in honor of my dad. I kind of did. I guest-hosted Red Eye Radio, and their LA affiliate is KABC. Given my lack of success in getting an opportunity on KABC, that will have to do.” 

“I’ve never really worked in anything but talk radio,” Mandis said. “It’s the greatest and most viable format, in my opinion.” 

If the radio gigs dry up, he’ll always have Lupus’ spot in right field.  

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