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The Problem with Television News in America

Jon Stewart offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.

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The sh***y model of news that we are fed is based on an antiquated system that is not reflective of who’s watching it.”

Jon Stewart offered the insight during last week’s opening moments of his Apple TV+ program, “The Problem.” The program offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.

Many have grown accustomed to hearing news critiques from more conservative American enclaves. But to come from the liberal side of the spectrum was both refreshing and, as Stewart himself predicted might happen, just the match to ignite a blowback from inside the industry.

“Generally, our news media has been collected into two major categories, for the most part. You got your, what they call the mainstream, liberal corporate media. And then you got your right-wing, also mainstream, corporate media,” Stewart said, “One side of this media equation believes they are purveyors of truth and justice. The guardians of our democratic republic. The other side is effective.”

Stewart did not hold back during the program, stating that television news has largely become a vessel to deliver ratings-tested material to willing and eager viewers. In his opinion, the industry focus is now on delivering what the viewer wants, rather than on what the journalist believes is worthy of time or trust. He feels a journalist’s job should be to lay out the facts and truth as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may.

The host didn’t hide the fact that his bias may lead him to see a specific tilt to a story. His main point, however, is that television news should provide what the journalist believes to be true, rather than offering up what they think will simply be popular or agreed with by their audience.

Stewart zoned in on the issue of “Critical Race Theory,” offering up a montage of conservative media opinion, referring to CRT as “poison,” “marxist,” “communist,” and “racist.” He blamed the conservative media for creating the issue and “lighting the fire” of outrage across America.

“The right-wing media, working seamlessly with their political arm, made that happen,” Stewart said. “That’s how fucking good these guys are. If you’re going to battle this coordinated effort – political and media together – we’re gonna need a hero.” Stewart feels that this narrative was born not from truth but rather from the corporate media’s effort to create the hullabaloo only to exploit it to the max.

“Unfortunately, if they are the one thing that stands between America and chaos, we are in trouble. Because rarely has there been an institution that has such a distance between its aspirations and its execution,” Steward said. “The media keeps informing us how incredibly important they are to our survival because knowing keeps us free. But when given crucial informational tasks, they instead build us prisons of what the fuck are you people talking about?”

The program then moved on, with its host saying the media was correct in its initial pursuit of the Trump “Russia conspiracy.” However, he said they quickly descended into absurdity, hurting their credibility in the process. Stewart played montage after montage, featuring mainstream media claims of “bombshells” about President Trump and featuring the qualifier, “if true.” Most of these “bombshells” turned out to be either untrue or far different than what had been portrayed. Try as they did, the media’s claims of “walls closing in” on the former president turned out to be nothing more than false promises to their eager audiences.

“The media is such an important part of a democracy’s immune system, but can the saviors of our democracy be saved themselves,” Stewart asked.

“The problem is that we’ve become moral imbeciles, as we are being spoon-fed little pieces of outrage day by day, no, stay with the story, stay with the story. You can’t lose any number. The death knell is if your numbers go down,” said Chris Stirewalt, former Politics Editor at Fox News. “That’s why we only get one story at a time. Producers know that that will work and that will rate, so we’re going to stick with the thing that people are expecting and that they know, because if you take it away from them, they may get mad, the number may go down, and they may go someplace else to get it.”

During his time at Fox, Stirewalt was known for his wit, political expertise, and, when the situation dictated, for offering a less-than-popular opinion.

“I think what people don’t realize is that it’s a ratings-driven business, but it’s also driven by meetings. People have meetings and make decisions every day that affect the tone, tenor, and direction of coverage,” Stewart said. The panel added that producers are guided by ratings showing minute-by-minute audience reactions, a trend that allows decision-makers to remain focused on the stories and angles that attract and keep the most eyeballs.

The table is set, giving the audience what the networks feel they want and will pay for, regardless of what many of the producers and journalists feel are, in actuality, the most important and relevant stories or angles of the day.

“There are meetings that set the agenda for the network, that set the agenda for the morning shows, that are gonna set the evening show agendas. You have to divvy up who’s gonna have which guests because you can’t have everybody shared on every single show,” former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien said. “And then the shows themselves have specific meetings. What are we gonna start with? What are we gonna end with? Who’s the guest? How long do they get? I think this idea of, hey, we just report the news, is ridiculous because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re covering something, then that means you’re not giving coverage to something else.”

In addition, social media is now the shiny new object attracting news producers and compelling them to chase left and right. The excitable cat is trying to land his paw on the laser pointer.

“You can see a television news story in which people are like, this idiot said this about this idiot on Twitter, and they treat it like it’s a whole new story,” Stirewalt said. “So it has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it’s made us dumber,” Stirewalt said in the ten years he was at Fox; he saw the business change from keeping away from ratings talk to relying on it before all else.

Stewart added that when he started the Daily Show at the age of 35, he led with what he believed in, hoping it would attract an audience, rather than starting with what he thought the audience would want and “backing into it.” In his words, this purity of intention led to a more honestly-rooted journalistic effort.

“I think what this is really about is a lack of courage of changing the model,” Sean McLaughlin, V.P. of News at E.W. Scripps, said. “The part about the minute-by-minutes, you’re looking at data that is already incredibly flawed from the beginning.” He explained that today’s hyper-fragmentation makes the Nielsen-collected data much less reliable than in years past. And even then, many have felt that the reliance on a relatively small set of households recording their viewing patterns was an already-skewed method, to begin with. “At some point, you just start realizing, I wonder if what we’re looking at is any degree of realism at all,” McLaughlin added.

O’Brien said most newsrooms now perform under essentially the same set of unwritten rules.

“I think for most of the journalists working there when I was there, they loved journalism, as I did, and I do. But I think the mission was to do the best job you could do and win,” O’Brien said. “Win as in the ratings. Win is making sure that you’re getting picked up by the New York Times. Win is not about educating the public. It’s not so complicated.”

The prevailing theme of this episode of “The Problem” was that television news has become an all-too-tailored production. Especially in cable news, the product has become opinion-driven entertainment.

“What differentiates news from entertainment is that sometimes we have to tell you what you don’t want to hear,” Stirewalt summed up. “We are supposed to be the vegetables. We are supposed to be the nutrient-giving portion of the plate. Not dessert. What cable news has tried to do, and what local news sometimes does, is get the green beans in the shortbread, and you’ve got now you’ve turned the news into entertainment, and you’re treating entertainment like news. Both of those are bad things. News should be news; entertainment should be entertainment.”

The episode concluded with a conversation between Stewart and former Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger. Iger felt news organizations may currently be on the defensive because they feel they’ve been under the microscope like never before.

“My advice to them was to not hear the noise as much, to continue doing the job that we’ve entrusted them to do,” Iger said about his 30-plus years overseeing ABC News. “Which is, to tell the truth, to state the facts. To present the news in an accurate and a, fair and a timely basis. But we never sought to drive ratings or even bottom-line success at the sacrifice of what we consider to be quality. It wasn’t part of our discussion.”

BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Move Highlights Growing Appetite for News/Talk

Kayal moving to News/Talk is a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

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Sports Talk to News Talk.

The trend continued this week when Nick Kayal announced would be the next morning show host at WPHT in Philadelphia. In full disclosure, I know Nick, as I was an intern as he was an employee and growing his career at 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. Nick built a very solid sports talk resume, but decided to make the move to news/politics.

As I was reading his announcement on social media this week, I felt like I was reading my own reasons for leaving sports talk for news talk on a permanent basis five years ago. Nick wrote, “Over the past 6-7 years, my apetite for political content has increased and now I finally get to voice my opinion on these subject matters.”

Expect this to be a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

First off, sports talk is oversaturated. There’s just too much of it, and at some point we’ve crossed the threshold where supply has exceeded demand. There will always be room for great sports talk hosts, but jobs aren’t growing in that space, and in fact, are likely to shrink in future years.

Meantime, if we flip to the News Talk side of the business, the number of jobs expanding is admittedly also not a big part of the equation, but there is less competition in the space for those jobs when compared to Sports Talk, especially when it comes to younger hosts and employees. 

I say the following with all the love in the world for my News Talk colleagues: I was at this week’s FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) Radio Row event, and as a 34-year-old, I felt like a college kid given that I was significantly younger than most of my fellow hosts. There’s nothing wrong with that for right now, as many of them are still sharp, on their game, and delivering great ratings and revenue for their respective stations, but if we look 5-10 years down the road, they may want to find themselves on a beach or ski slope on a more regular basis. So, the next wave of News Talk hosts may not be in the News Talk space right now, and given the greater number of employees in Sports Talk, they may very well be over there. 

This is a natural migration for both sides. The News Talk bench is not deep and as the younger Sports Talk employee gets older, their interests may change. Most 25-35 year-olds care more about sports than news and politics. But as a generation that grew up during the explosion of Sports Talk approaches and enters their 40’s, their interests and desires could shift as well.

Just as important in this conversation is the fact that we all know sports, politics and culture continue to collid, for better or for worse, and those who may have more conservative-leaning beliefs and opinions are more likely to try and make that move.

As someone who spent several years in sports talk and maintain strong relationships there, I know those who don’t pray at the “Alter of Woke” feel like their opinions aren’t welcomed and will be shunned by their colleagues and bosses. They mask it, as they like to a prefer to talk about the games anyway. But when sports and culture collide, they clam up or just toe the line. 

How long will that last? How long will they want to continue to bottle it up?

I’m not here to answer it for them, but I know that for me, there was a point where I thought I’d rather spend four hours a day talking about things that impact my city, state and country than discussing whether or not a quarterback missed an open receiver on 3rd and 10 or a pitcher was left in a game too long. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love sports and love being a sports fan, but hosting a daily, local show where that is part of the job became less appealing when given alternative options. And I don’t believe I will be alone in this regard, especially as we move forward through the next several years in our business. 

Additionally, the icing on the cake is that in many towns, major sports news that a News Talk host will find interesting is, in fact, news, and will be a fit for the program. In Philadelphia, the Eagles are news on Monday after a loss to the Giants. In Kansas City, the Chiefs are news. Nothing is bigger. I do a Chiefs segment on Friday and Monday during football season. You can’t do four hours on it, but mixing it in is part of the job if you’re in a big sports town. 

Now, there is a downside. As I told Nick Kayal in a personal note after his announcement, “Be prepared to be shunned by some of your former sports colleagues”. 

A sad reality, but true, in my experience. Hey, that’s the “Tolerant Left”, right?

If you can get over that, which should be easy, then come on over. We’re having fun, making great content, and always looking for who and what is next.

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BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Transitions from Talking Sports to News/Talk

Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities, but made the switch to talking politics.

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Seasons change, minds change, and jobs certainly do.

Nick Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities. He most recently left Sports Radio 92.9 The  Game to do mornings on 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia. 

This isn’t just a job change for Kayal. It’s an entirely different animal. He’s switching from sports to news and talk. 

“Kayal and Company is the perfect show for me to host,” Kayal said. “I’ve got a multi-voiced show with an outstanding supporting cast. Greg Stocker and Dawn Stensland will have open microphones. We’ll have a guest from time to time. Some calls here and there, but it won’t be caller-heavy.”

Kayal said it will be a ‘good blend of things.’

The change has been in the works since the beginning of the year but was announced just yesterday. Former morning host Rich Zeoli will be moving to afternoons. Kayal said Zeoli has been looking forward to that.

“Rich knew the change was coming,” Kayal explained. “He was involved in the discussions. I think he really wanted to change his lifestyle. He even said so on air. Afternoons are where he started and I think he wanted to get back to that family balance. Rich is going to continue to do what made him so successful in the mornings. He does a great job at building an audience.”

Kayal said they will keep a lot of the same segments on the show. Instead of talking about Jalen Hurts of the Eagles, they’ll be talking about Joe Biden. The passion for sports and politics in Philly is the same, Kayal explained. “I don’t think my prep or delivery will change much. I want to hit on big stories, but I’m not going to filibuster on a topic.”

Getting ready for the new show, Kayal has had lunch with Stocker a few times to chat. Stocker will also serve as the show’s executive producer. The two have kept in touch through the spring and summer, and Kayal has been in Philadelphia for nearly a month.

Kayal said the response to the change has been overwhelmingly positive among listeners. 

“Twitter is usually a cesspool of negativity,” he said. “But this announcement has been 95% positive. Just a couple of negative responses here and there.

Kayal served as a host at crosstown sports 97.5 The Fanatic WPEN from 2009-2015 and doesn’t think the switch of focus will cause the show to lose listeners.

“I imagine some of the people who listened to me in sports might be a little shocked to hear me dealing with news topics,” Kayal said. “Listeners hate change, by and large. After a host change some might say they’re never listening again. That station is dead to me. People have their routines and they don’t like it when somebody or something messes that up. Most usually come back. Radio is very habitual.”

He doesn’t think he’ll miss sports all that much. That isn’t to say he’ll never do sports again, or that he’s sick of sports. 

“After 15 years of talking about nothing but sports, if I spent any more four-hour cycles talking about it, I’d blow my head off.” 

The show may touch on a major sports story if it happens, especially in Philadelphia.

“We might talk for a couple minutes after a win or loss. But one of the reasons I wanted to do this was the diversity of topics. I have an interest in a lot of things, including pop culture. We’re going to be dealing with a full menu of topics.”

He said any time you’re talking conservative news and politics, it’s the best of both worlds. 

“You may not want to listen to some of the mainstream media, so you turn to conservative radio. You have liberals who will listen to call you on your mistakes, but I’m open to that. The same goes the other way.” 

Kayal said he won’t mind admitting if he’s wrong on the air, like some other hosts. 

“There’s going to be some guys that BS their way through everything, stick to script,” he explained. “There are times when conservatives or liberals are off base, say something I don’t agree with. I’ll call them out on that.”

Dawn Stensland will be the news anchor at the top of the hour and co-host. 

“Dawn is like the protective mom who will go to bat for you,” Kayal said. “Rich Zeoli told me that this morning and said she’d go to bat for me too.”

Kayal will have a prep sheet going into the show, but he’s not afraid to dump one thing if another is working.

“I’ll call an audible at the line of scrimmage, so to speak. I want things to be organic on the show. If people are reacting to a topic, you can always get to an item in your preparation the next day. No need to rush. You have to go hard all the way through the show, finish strong. Like every other show I’ve done. There are benchmarks you need to hit during your show. People will listen for a period of time. If they’re in the car on the way to work, they’ll hear something. Then I have to approach the next hour as though nobody has heard the news, reset on the topic like it’s the first time I’m doing it. More than likely it’s a new audience. You can’t afford to have a bad segment.”

Sure, that can be beyond stressful. But if you come in prepared, if you have an opinion, make somebody laugh, make somebody mad, you’re doing something right.

“I want listeners to get the sound of the show,” Kayal said. “You’ll tune in to hear us having an exchange, bouncing off each other. I like to think we all have an innate ability to know where something is going, but chemistry between the hosts is going to be a major thing.”

 If everyone on the show has the same vision and check our egos at the door, Kayal said they’ll have a good show. He explained a show will have great ratings periods, and there’s a chance they will fall off. But the show must always deliver the best it can. 

Kayal went to school for criminal justice and pre-law at Temple. He studied political science for about a year, then changed to pre-law during his sophomore year.  He thought he’d be a defense attorney or prosecutor. 

“Law school only lasted three months,” Kayal said. “I just knew it wasn’t for me.” 

Some of the things he learned during his undergraduate degree and stint at law school helped him craft his arguments on the air. 

“I use those skill sets and traits in a monologue or during an interview,” he said. “It taught me how to ask leading questions. We’ll talk about crime on the show. It’s really about putting on a performance. So many guys are infatuated with being right, getting ratings, and revenue. To me, it’s not all about being right. 

He’d been reading Barrett Sports Media for a long time and came across a job opening for his new station, WPHT. 

“I’d always had the desire to do political stuff,” Kayal said. “I was working for Audacy in Atlanta, so coming to Philadelphia was almost like going through a transfer portal. Going back home has been icing on the cake. The process started in January of this year. They flew me out in March, and we did a two-hour mock show off the air. They had me fill in for Rich a couple of times in April. After the third week, I could tell they were pleased, and they offered me the job in June. I had to sit on it until yesterday.”

We now know Kayal can be trusted with a secret. 

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BNM Writers

The Intersection of Radio and Politics

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

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Four of the most enjoyable years of my life were spent on Capitol Hill as Communications Director for Congressman Michael R. Turner (R-OH). Mr. Turner is currently the ranking Member of the influential House Armed Services Committee. Should Republicans take back the House in November, he will likely become the committee Chairperson.

When talking to old media friends during that period, I often explained that the job wasn’t that different from broadcasting. The Congressman was like the “morning guy,” and the communications position was similar to the marketing and promotions role.

When Texas and Florida Governors Abbott and DeSantis began sending illegal immigrants, or unregistered persons for the more politically correct, from their states to Democrat strongholds, critics referred to it as a stunt. Neither of the governors seems to mind the term stunt.

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

I don’t know if the “Concert for Bangladesh,” the granddaddy of benefit concerts, solved the refugee problem or if “Live-Aid” ended hunger. I am sure that these events, which were stunts when you think about them, created massive attention for important causes.

When we first put Howard Stern on WYSP-Philadelphia, we had no idea what the ratings impact would be. At the time, there was no shortage of critics who said: “it will never work.”

We couldn’t know, with certainty, whether broadcasting a show from New York would work in Philly. We were sure that doing it would get WYSP, a moribund station, a great deal of attention. At worst, it would be a “stunt.” At best, well, that’s in the history books.

Speaking of Howard, I believe Donald Trump, a regular guest on The Stern Show for approximately 20 years, ripped off “The King of All Media’s” 1980s and 90s formula to win the presidency. Think about it:

  • He never apologizes – no matter what
  • The more outrageous, the better
  • He plays to a dominantly male audience who loves and defends him
  • He does what he does for his fans
  • It’s always “us” against the world
  • He picks feuds with others and then sics his fans on the attacked
  • The only thing better than the celebrity feuds is staff in-fighting
  • His live events are huge love-fests

What else do politicians have in common with broadcasters? 

Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator.” Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. Later that year, his public career began as a WOC-AM/Davenport, Iowa sports announcer. He moved to WHO-AM/Des Moines in 1933, where he famously recreated baseball games using ticker tape reports. He went to California to cover spring training for the Cubs, which launched his Hollywood career.

Radio demands storytelling skills: The best in class in politics and radio are great storytellers. What do you know about Abraham Lincoln’s personality? He loved to tell a tale. In the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) tells a couple of free Black soldiers about the travails of barbers who have cut his hair. 

In another scene at the War Department telegraph office, Lincoln offers an anecdote about Ethan Allen, prompting an incredulous Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) to proclaim: “You’re going to tell a story! I don’t believe that I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now.”

At his best, Joe Biden tells stories. He has always gotten confused about numbers and details, not unlike Reagan. But he effectively uses stories to make his point. That’s how he became “Scranton Joe” and why we know “Corn Pop was a bad dude.”

Positioning matters: In 1992, realizing that the recession was the top issue on voters’ minds, Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor, James Carville created the positioning statement, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton stayed on message, promising to “focus like a laser beam on the economy.”

In 2008, Barack Obama simplified his positioning to a single word: Hope, to which he added the slogan, “Yes we can!” It brilliantly captured the zeitgeist and catapulted the first-term Senator to the White House.

Focus on a few big ideas at a time: Over the years, radio programmers have learned to focus on a couple of essential things at a time. When Barack Obama took office, he had a lengthy list of items that needed attention. The economy, unemployment, bank bailouts, and U.S. auto manufacturers were in trouble. Fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden was still hiding, and the president wanted to use his popularity to pass healthcare legislation. It was too much for the public to follow, and it appeared nothing positive was happening.

A 55% to 43% margin agreed that “since he’s taken over in the White House, Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should,” in a March 2009 CNN/Opinion Research survey.

Reagan kept his agenda simple. He wanted to make the government smaller and less intrusive. He did that through tax cuts, known as “Reaganomics.” He wanted to win the Cold War by building up the military. Everything else was secondary.

Radio is a personal medium: Air personalities have always gotten out and pressed the flesh. Many figured out early in the game to use social media to build relationships with listeners.

Bill Clinton understood the power of building connections (no pun intended). Remember the first Presidential Town Hall Debate? A voter asked the candidates (Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot) a question about how the economy (national debt) affected them personally. Clinton walked to the edge of the stage, as close to the audience as he could. Only Clinton answered in human and non-technical language in what became known as the “I feel your pain” moment. 

During the same town hall debate, Bush checked his watch. These two moments pretty much sealed the election for Clinton.

Program to your P1s: In politics, they call it “playing to your base.” Whatever your thoughts about Trump, no president has ever focused so intently on their base.

Biden ran on a “Cume” strategy. He was going to unite everybody. During the Democrat primaries, he may not have been most voters’ first choice, but he was everybody’s second choice. During the general, Biden had broader appeal. According to a Morning Consult exit poll, 44% of Biden voters said their vote was more against Trump than for Biden, compared to 22% of Trump voters who said their ballot was primarily against Joe Biden. 

The concepts behind successful radio stations and winning political campaigns are similar. During my four years on Capitol Hill, I used countless lessons learned as a program director. When I returned to radio four years later, the skills I acquired in Washington helped make me a more effective programmer.

With continuing radio “reductions in workforce,” public service provides career options. Because there’s an intersection between radio and politics, the skills are transferable. The work is rewarding, and the experiences are fantastic. 

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