Diamonds in the rough.
The next great thing.
These are all terms that audio brands have kicked around for years as they have tried desperately to find new talent that they can build around.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve tried to always keep my ears open for talent that can cut through the background noise of a cluttered audio space. On the rare occasion when I DO notice someone…on TV, online or on the radio that can grab my attention for an extended period, I make sure to take note. In my cloud of files, I have what I call “The Futures List”. This is a collection of names that I keep should I ever find a content provider that wants a recommendation on a talent, or if I have a need to hire one.
This past week, I was able to add another set of names to the list.
Recently, I spent a Saturday morning doing what I usually do, drinking a Nespresso and watching Real Time with Bill Maher.
One of Maher’s guest panelists was Kmele Foster, identified as the co-host of The Fifth Column podcast.
Truth be told, as much as I enjoy Maher, many of his guests tend to be rather forgettable. I hear them parrot the same talking points that fit their political ideology. By the time, the episode is over, I don’t even remember their names.
This episode presented an exception to that rule.
The more I had the chance to hear Foster speak the more I thought to myself, “How the HELL have I not heard of this person?”
Check out the highlights from his appearance.
After watching that episode of Real Time, I started scouring the internet to find out as much as I could about Foster.
I also opted to do something that I vary rarely do…spend time in the podcast space.
THE FIFTH COLUMN PODCAST
As a rule, I tend to avoid podcasts. There are a million of them on the internet and, with a VERY few exceptions, I find most of them to be garbage. The production values are usually poor and there is little direction to the conversation. As someone that has worked (albeit briefly) in the podcast industry I found many of the people involved to be more interested in the technology that delivers the content rather than the quality of the content itself.
So, I started listening to The Fifth Column Podcast with low expectations. Less than five minutes into my first listen, I was hooked.
These guys were DAMN good.
Foster co-hosts The Fifth Column podcast with Matt Welch, Editor at Large for Reason, and Michael Moynihan of Vice News. Foster described the podcast as a “weekly rhetorical assault on the news cycle and the people that make it…and occasionally ourselves.” Man, he wasn’t kidding. This podcast was all that and more.
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
There are two looming problems with spoken word media; being disingenuous and catering to echo chambers. In a way, these problems go together. Many talents manufacture opinions based on the events of the day and the demos/leanings of their audience. This has made a lot of content predictable. If you tune into Rush, Hannity, Beck, etc., you KNOW what their stance is going to be on an issue. If you tune into Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, or Pod Save America, you know what you’re going to get as well.
Not the case with and The Fifth Column.
Foster, Moynihan, and Welch come across as refreshing voices in an ecosystem of talent that do nothing but parrot the same talking points and cater to groupthink. They are independents in every sense of the word. They take jabs at people on the right AND the left and offer often humorous critiques of both. In one moment, they mock Melania Trump for being vapid. In another moment, they turn around and criticize Pete Buttigieg for being unrealistic about how the 10,000 people who lost their jobs on the Keystone Pipeline will find work. They were very unpredictable. It kept me wanting to listen about what they were going to say next and what surprises I had in store.
They come off as real and understand that issues are not black and white. There are complexities in every problem facing the country and they can’t be solved by adhering to absolutes.
They are also unrelenting in their criticism of mass media. In a recent episode they talked about watching the Biden Inauguration coverage and how ridiculously over the top it was. This exchange between the three hosts literally had me laughing out loud:
Suddenly Joe Biden is this figure of immense…world historical gravitas. It’s like…Joe Biden?
And everyone was comparing him to “The Avengers”. And, I haven’t seen that movie, but I guess it’s a movie about boring corporate Democrats.
It was impossible to watch even one…slice of coverage anywhere on any cable network and not feel, like, totally infuriated by the overwhelmingness of their take.
In a way, I felt a bit of validation as I expressed a similar opinion in a recent column for BNM. In a bigger sense, it was refreshing to hear voices who have no problem rolling their eyes at things that many others see as sacred. While I didn’t agree with everything they had to say, they made me think. They also made me feel comfortable that, if I were to engage with them, I wouldn’t feel attacked, patronized, or shut down. I appreciated the fact that my own ideas were being challenged, yet there was an air of very healthy dialogue throughout their conversations and interactions.
Spoken word media, and in particular the news/talk space, is in dire need of fresh, independent voices. Foster, Moynihan, and Welch present that.
They are a welcome addition to my Spotify playlist, and would be a welcome addition to any audio brand looking for a way to cut through the clutter. Check out The Fifth Column Podcast here.
News/Talk AM 1130’s Drew Lee Just Wants To Understand and Help His Colleagues
Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic.
In radio, your most vital partner in life might be your co-host. You do spend an incredible amount of time in a cramped room, sharing ideas over mediocre coffee and talking about life experiences. It’s a lot like a marriage, without the laundry and dirty dishes.
Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic. “That’s what the company wants from us,” Drew Lee said. “On AM, it’s a little wider, maybe 35-64 as a target audience.”
“Jon Justice was my morning host in Tucson, Arizona,” Lee continued. “I think the best thing about Jon is his attention to detail,” Lee said. “His attention to detail when putting the show together. He’s meticulous with his prep.” Lee said Justice reads every word of every story, finding nuggets in mundane stories to talk about on the air
Off the air, not Mr. Excitement.
“Jon is like a brother, but there is one thing that irritates me. He’s such a homebody,” Lee jokes. “It’s impossible to get him out of the house. I’d like to see us get the show out more often to events, openings.”
Lee said he’s definitely an extrovert, and he has no hesitation having fun with Justice and himself. “It’ll be six years this summer we’ve been together, and we’re still having a good time,” Lee said.
The duo start out topical, addressing the big points of the day in news. “Those are obviously going to get our attention first,” Lee said. “We don’t want to drag something on for three hours; that’s just overwhelming for an audience.”
Lee said he and Justice don’t find they’re delivering their best shows in an angry vein. “It’s best when we have fun,” Lee said. “I try to figure out what’s in Jon’s wheelhouse. I do work hard to sprinkle in any reference to the Marvel cinematic Universe.”
Now we’re starting to see what makes Lee click.
Lee is also a big Star Wars fan. Not as big as Justice, but still big. Lee said he’s always been motivated by Monty Python. Lee referenced a Monty Python documentary on Netflix. Monty Python, Almost the Truth. The Lawyer’s Cut.
“It’s a six-part series,” Lee explained. “I’ve always loved Python. We were just talking about Monty Python on the air today. I remember in drama class; I lifted Python material all the time.”
As a kid, Lee said he knocked heads in football, on defense, and offense. “I was huge into sports,” he said. “I wanted to be a Miami Dolphin. I played football in high school in Ocala, Florida. I wrestled as well.”
He admits he rode the pines a lot in football, but that didn’t deter his love for contact sports. “I’m a big guy. I love physicality. As a lineman, I enjoyed practice. Hitting. In wrestling, it was all about imposing your will on the other guy, tossing him around.”
Perhaps that’s why he enjoys ‘wrestling’ with Justice on the air. Outside of the wrestling match, Lee said he didn’t mix it up much. “I was only in a ‘real’ fight once in my life. There were a couple of punches thrown; then we were pulled apart.”
Other than sports, Lee said he spent a lot of time reading. “Ocala is a very rural area. If I wasn’t wrestling, we were lighting a bonfire, chasing beer and girls.
(See Jesse Kelly story for a similar youth.)
Kelly’s on-air work has resonated with Lee. “He’s fearless,” Lee explained. “He will say some stuff on the air that just blows me away. It’s nice to see talk show hosts that aren’t afraid to talk and sometimes put their foot in their mouths.” Lee said people that are willing to push the envelope are always welcome. Lee said he’s happy Kelly has enjoyed success. “I just wish we’d have grabbed on to his coattails,” he jokes.
Lee was delivering pizza in Florida and attending an audio recording vocational school. “I wanted to be a music producer,” he said. While delivering pizzas, he listened to WTKS 104.1 FM in Cocoa Beach.
Jim Phillips hosted afternoons on WTKS-FM from 1992 to 2018. Phillips worked in the Orlando market since 1972, first as a news reporter
“I also listened to Russ and Bo on WTKS,” Lee said. “They were very similar to Howard Stern. They became the “Monsters in the Morning,” and still have a podcast on IHeartRadio.”
Rus and Bo were looking for an intern, and Lee answered the call. “I drove to Orlando and applied, got it,” Lee said. “Apparently, I was the only person who applied.”
His duties on the show were a bit of everything. Cleaning up, booking guests, whatever was necessary. That morphed into a weekend gig for about a year.
He welcomed his first daughter, and radio wasn’t paying the bills, so Lee took some time off. The lure of radio called him back at WSKY FM in Gainesville.
“The Sky was a conservative news and talk station,” Lee said. “It still is. I was hired as a board-op, then morning show producer. Six months later, I was PD.”
His new job demanded about 80 hours a week, Lee said. “A good PD must have the ability to listen. Get the best out of the people you have, then put them in situations where you maximize their strengths.”
Understanding the people that work for him was his primary goal. “I might chew one guy out and be gentle with another,” Lee said. “It’s especially that way with talent. You have to find those ‘buttons’ to press. Some people like a combative relationship. They like to shake hands and move on.”
Still others, Lee said you have to coax things out of them. “Everyone has insecurities, flaws, strengths. Part of being a good manager is understanding that.”
Lee said his personality as a PD and on-air host includes trying to see the other person’s side. “I don’t like people trying to convince me of something I don’t believe,” he said. “At the same time, I respect what they believe. I’m going to assume a person has put some thought into their beliefs. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have a relationship with anybody.”
Covid did a lot of nasty things, including kill a pretty cool podcast Lee had going. It was called Minnesota Beercast.
“I started that show because I witnessed all the beer taprooms popping up just about everywhere,” Lee said. “We’d do remotes from the brewery. We’d talk almost exclusively about beer. Sometimes the brewing process. Other times we talked about food, wine, and spirits.”
What’s the future hold for Justice & Drew?
“We don’t talk about the future a lot,” Lee said. “I’d say five years ago; my big dream would have been syndication, to be distributed more widely.”
He said that goal has dwindled a bit over the past couple of years. However, with today’s technology, he can be heard almost anywhere. “We’ve got listeners all over the country, from New York to California,” Lee said. “I find that amazing. Here we are, this little Minnesota-centric show growing an audience at the national level. I’m excited about where we’re going organically. People seem to be gravitating to our content, telling friends about it. I want to see how far we can take this fun little morning show.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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.’