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Julia Ziegler Is Guiding One of Radio’s Crown Jewels, WTOP

Ziegler began her radio career at WTOP in 2003 and has held many roles within the company during that time.

Jim Cryns

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Julia Ziegler could charm a charging Jaguar to stop in its tracks. Or in her case, a Nittany Lion.

As a former student at Penn State and a current season ticket holder, Ziegler said it’s an all-day affair. “I have to wake up early. I have a friend who has a house near the stadium,” Ziegler said. “We get up at 4 or 5, then drive up on game day, stay the night after the game. I’m a big fan of 3:30 kicks.” 

Ziegler said her obsession with football was in full swing in college. “When I was in school, I was one of those people camping out and waiting in line to get good seats.” 

Apparently, each year in school, you progressed to better seating. The freshman got the tunnel, and upperclassmen got the 50-yard line, the first couple of rows. “I spent many nights out in the freezing cold with my friends to get good seats. It was a lot of fun. Great memories of Penn State moments.” 

Ziegler recalls a Nittany Lion experience that has stayed with her all these years. On September 23, 2000, while playing in only the fifth game of his college career, Adam Taliaferro sustained a career-ending spinal cord injury while tackling tailback Jerry Westbrooks during Penn State’s game versus Ohio State. The game was being held in Columbus. It was parents’ weekend at Penn State, so Ziegler and her friends had gathered to watch the game. 

“Even though it was on television, we watched him get carted off the field,” Ziegler said. “It was his sophomore year, and I was a freshman.” Taliaferro would beat the odds. A year later, he walked back on the field at Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s game against Miami. 

“We were sitting in the tunnel for that game. It was so emotional.”

She grew up in a Penn State family. 

“I had a lot of relatives who went to Penn State, including my grandparents. My mom really wanted me to go to Penn State. It was a great school, and it also meant cheaper in-state tuition.” As a defiant teen, she says she didn’t want to go for those reasons. She had also been accepted to NYU, Boston University, and Syracuse.

It was an official tour to Penn State that sold her. “It was that visit that made me want to come here. I remember telling my mom it wasn’t because she told me to, but because I really wanted to go. I’m so glad I did. It made me who I am today.”

“Penn State is a huge football school, so that was icing on the cake when I decided to go there,” Ziegler explained. “Just the feeling of being in that stadium. The most we’ve ever had is 111,000 people. I have been there for some of the loudest games. Everything reverberates.”

Ziegler had one of those cutouts they used to fill the seats at games during Covid. A big photo of herself. “They allowed you to buy it after the season. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get that.’ We decided to hang it up in my office and face it toward the newsroom. With our glass office walls, you can see it when you walk by my office. Cracks me up all the time.” 

She began her radio career at WTOP in 2003 and has held many roles within the company during that time, including managing editor of WTOP.com’s sister station, FederalNewsRadio.com, for seven years. 

In 2019, Ziegler was named WTOP’s Director of News and Programming. From 2015 to 2019, she served as WTOP’s Digital News Director. Ziegler was also part of the WTOP team that created and produced the award-winning true-crime podcast, 22 Hours: An American Nightmare. 

“A few years back, two of my reporters were covering the trial of a man accused of killing a family and their housekeeper in the family’s home. The story had many twists and turns – not all of which could fit into our headline news format on the radio. The reporters asked if they could do more with the story. So, I told them to start recording every conversation they were having about the trial. After the trial, we decided a podcast would allow us to tell the story of this tragedy in the most complete way it had ever been told. That was important to us. We didn’t want to retell it and potentially open wounds for the family if we couldn’t offer new information. When the podcast launched, it took off like crazy. Ended up hitting number 2 on the Apple charts. Number 1 among their crime podcasts.” 

Ziegler said you just don’t know what is going to take off when it comes to podcasts. A viral tweet can send it to a higher trajectory. There are podcasts that land somewhere in the middle. It can take years for one of them to grow. You’ve also got to determine the revenue side if you can sell ads. 

In 2022, WTOP launched its latest podcast venture, DMV Download. Think the local, D.C. version of The Daily from the New York Times or Up First from NPR. Two WTOP staffers now host that show.

“We like the idea of having two hosts on our podcasts for a couple of reasons,” Ziegler said. “We have that built-in backup if one goes on vacation or gets sick. The other aspect of two hosts is there is more of an on-air dynamic. Conversations. You want to have that camaraderie. We’re in that startup phase right now. Seeing where it will all go.”

As a kid, Ziegler said she was ‘normal.’ She was on the cheerleading squad and also played Lacrosse. “I took school seriously; I was always a busy kid. I also had a job in high school.” Ziegler said she worked her way through high school and college under the Golden Arches. 

“There is some statistic that talks about the large number of successful people who have worked at McDonald’s,” Ziegler said. “I think every person in the world should be forced to work for a while in a restaurant or service industry. The number one thing I learned there is customer service. Good customer service is so important. I learned a lot about how I operate from my time at McDonald’s. How to multitask, how to think ahead.”

Ziegler doesn’t appear to put on heirs. “You roll the way you roll. I just try to be me and be authentic,” she said. “I am genuinely happy. I feel lucky. I love my job. The people I work with. This is not an easy business and I think it helps if you love what you do. But Covid has been rough for everyone. Doesn’t matter if you’ve worked here for 50 years or a few weeks, it has been hard.”

Ziegler said she’s always enjoyed working at WTOP, and I believe her. “From the top down, it’s a great place to work. Mission driven work. All after the same goal. We enjoy each other’s company. Cool place to work. Top down. Not blowing smoke.”

She credits Penn State Professor John Sanchez for a lot of her success. Sanchez still teaches at Penn State. When he worked at American University, just down the block from WTOP, he would send interns to work at the station. 

“My internship was the summer before my senior year,” Ziegler said. “I kept in touch with the managers in the newsroom and as graduation was approaching, I asked if they needed any help.”

They told Ziegler they had some freelance work available. It wouldn’t pay much, and there were crazy hours involved. “I said, ‘when can I start?” She knew the power of a station like WTOP. “I got my foot in the door and worked my ass off. I trusted the process, and I loved what I was doing.”

“Jim Farley came to me and asked if I wanted to help start a new station,” Ziegler said. 

Ziegler answered in a manner consistent with her nature. “Sure! Why not?”

Washington Post Radio was a short-lived attempt by Bonneville Broadcasting and The Washington Post to create a commercial long-form all-news radio network in the style of National Public Radio.

“It lasted about two years,” Ziegler said. “I was producing. When the partnership ended with the Post, we kept it a talk station for another year. When that ended, Jim Farley told me since I’d gone on that journey with him, I’d always have a place at WTOP.”

But, for multiple reasons, Ziegler’s journey next took her to Federal News Radio, where she produced and oversaw the website for the next seven years. 

With Washington Post Radio, Ziegler said it was fascinating to be just 24-years-old, and on the ground floor of a startup. It was an expensive venture. “Ultimately, we didn’t get the ratings we’d hoped for. I appreciate that Bonneville was willing to try something different. Hubbard is that way too. They’re not afraid to try new things.” 

Even early in her career, Ziegler was never really on-air. “I’ve never been an anchor,” Ziegler said. “As a reporter, I dabbled here and there. It’s funny; almost every journalist out of school wants to do on-air work. After I started at WTOP and realized what went on behind the scenes, I was hooked.” 

Ziegler said if you asked her mother, she’d tell you she always knew her daughter was going to be a journalist or a writer in some way. “I loved the English classes much more than math and science. I worked on the high school newspaper, the college newspaper. Oddly, I didn’t work for our radio station in college.”

The Ziegler family was always interested in news. “My parents, for as long as I can remember, read the newspaper every single day. It was part of their morning routine. A few years back, they told me they had canceled their subscription to their local paper. I was so upset when they decided to do that. I couldn’t stand it. I told them they had to have a newspaper in their house. I got them a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer.”

Because of the number of years she’s worked at WTOP, Ziegler knows the place inside and out, which she says helped when the pandemic hit just three months into her tenure as Director of News and Programming in 2020. 

“I’ve worked for this organization; I’ve seen how everything works operationally. I know where the bodies are buried. Going into the pandemic was obviously uncharted territory, but I felt like my operational strengths really helped during that time. We had to train some of the anchors to work from home, get them equipment. Thank god for our technical team.”

During Covid, she recalls thinking, ‘how do we operate a newsroom when we don’t have a newsroom? To facilitate internal communications, they set up an open conference line. Everyone working from home called into the line each day. In the newsroom, another conference phone sat on the producer’s desk. 

The producer dialed into this every day as well, which allowed those working from home to hear the conversations going on in the newsroom just as if they were there. In a way, it was a newsroom. Anybody could chime in at any time with a question or answer. 

“I was proud of the product we put out,” Ziegler said. 

From covering Covid to the racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and January 6, Ziegler says it’s been a tough few years. 

“It was like running a marathon within a marathon every day. You passed off the baton every few hours to sleep. I couldn’t be prouder of the team. What we were able to accomplish.” 

While reporters and the web team were asked to work from home during the pandemic, that was not an option for everyone in the newsroom. Producers and associate producers had to work from the office. 

“Some of our anchors worked from home too, but others never left the building,” Ziegler said. “The thought of working from home and trying to produce a great broadcast. There was a lot of anxiety with that. Everybody’s journey has been unique. We respect that, and we have tried to meet them where they are.”

“When I go back and listen to some of those broadcasts, I tell my staff how incredible our coverage actually was. I’d say, “Damn, that was good.’ We got the news out quickly, succinctly. We helped people. That’s our mission every day; to help people.”

While most employees have returned to the WTOP offices, Ziegler said the pandemic has taught WTOP some good lessons about working from home. In the past, if someone had a contractor or delivery coming to the house, they might have to take off work for the entire day. But that’s not the case anymore. Most employees are now set up to work from home if and when the need arises.  

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Airing The Tyre Nichols Video Was A Necessity

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, hard sounds to hear. But they aired.

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Far be it for me not to address this outrageous and embarrassing instance in humanity. After the videos of Memphis police brutally beating Tyre Nichols were shown on television there really seemed to be more outrage emerging from society this time than from the media, for a change. One would think that’s how we wish things to be.

In instances like this, where the video and audio images are far from brief but are instead chaptered as they unfold, there are few options other than to let them run their course. Clocks — breaks hard and soft — are out the window, just as in live coverage.

Because that’s what this was, only the live this time was us, and as we all absorbed and reacted to actions disapprovingly familiar yet somehow foreign at the same time, the impact was still becoming apparent even though we already knew the outcome.

It’s happened before.

Not always like this but we’ve seen it before, police encounters shown on the news overtakes and become the news.

It takes effect as the sights and sounds are digested, dissected, and discussed, often before their potential impact could really be imagined.

In 1991, when the Handycam footage crossed screens for the first time and we learned Rodney King’s name, we didn’t know then but we had a feeling.

We were on the right track, though as newsrooms evolved and street reporting incorporated a different type of storytelling.

I was a cop in 1991. Changes came. Some.

It’s 2023, I’m no longer a cop. Changes will come again. Some.

Turning points — or the overused watershed moments — mean just as much to the news media as they do to law enforcement.

The “why’s” that make this a turning point are more society and community based this time around than they were in 1991.

At least I think so. And I don’t think it makes a bit of difference who’s involved this time.

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, and hard sounds to hear. But they aired. Where they couldn’t air, they were described in great detail; descriptions sometimes can be worse than the real thing. Sometimes, not this time.

And they should air, they shouldn’t stop airing. This is what happened and this is what people need to see and hear and this is exactly why we are here.

Warn them, provide them with a heads up that they’re not going to like what happens next. It’s life and we show life, and we show what some of us do with it when it’s someone else’s.

Overall, I would say the news platforms held their composure, even after the videos were released. I saw, read, and heard some refreshingly neutral coverage, even from outlets where I expected hard turns into the lanes on either side of the road.

Legitimate questions were asked by anchors and reporters and much of the time, the off-balance issues were raised more by those on the sidewalks and those on the other side of the cameras and microphones.

As much as I find myself in disagreement with what I often see on the cable networks — all the cable networks — I did find a sense of symmetry watching CNN’s Don Lemon speak with Memphis City Council Chair Martavius Jones in the hours after the videos were released.

Regular protocols be damned, Lemon and producers lingered patiently as Jones, visibly overcome by emotion, struggled to regain breath and composure enough to be able to speak. Rather than cut away or move to other elements, they stood fast and it became an example of what often requires no words.

There were fewer punches pulled on other platforms as well.

The sounds of the screams, the impacts, and the hate-filled commands were broadcast through car radios.

As were Tyre Nichol’s calls for his mom. They aired. They had to.

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BNM Writers

Does the Republican Establishment Get It?

For many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections.

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In a move that seemed to go against the wishes of the patriotic American grassroots, the Republican party on Friday re-elected RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel. 

The media immediately took notice, as many on television and radio are now wondering why the party would re-elect a chairperson who has been so unpopular with the base of its party. 

Grant Stinchfield discussed this issue Friday night on his program, Stinchfield Tonight, which airs on Real America’s Voice network.

“Ronna McDaniel holds on to her chairmanship of the Republican Party. By a whopping total of — what were the numbers– 111 to 54. Harmeet Dhillon only received 54 votes. Mike Lindell 4 votes. This is proof to me that the Republican establishment is dug in,” Stinchfield — formerly of Newsmax — said. “Don’t tell me they’re out of touch. See, you tell me they’re out of touch, that implies ignorance. They’re not ignorant about anything.”

As sentiment for Dhillon grew in the days leading up to Friday’s vote, many influential politicians and party donors publicly offered her their support and endorsement. These included Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), as well as donors Mike Rydin, Dick Uihlein, and Bernie Marcus.

Also on board were musician and outspoken conservative John Rich, along with the state GOP of Nebraska and Washington State. Countless journalists and media personalities, such as Charlie Kirk, Miranda Divine, and Lou Dobbs, also came out publicly in support of Dhillon. Former President Donald Trump remained neutral, not making a public choice of either of the three candidates.

For many of Dhillon’s supporters, the deciding factor was public sentiment across the party’s base.

“They’re reading the same chat boards. They’re getting the same emails I’m reading. I will literally post something about this race when I was supporting Harmeet Dhillon. There was not one comment – not one – that supported Ronna McDaniel. Everyone wanted change,” Stinchfield said, noting that the party elite saw the same groundswell of support for change.

“Now, nobody has an issue as Ronna McDaniel is some evil kind of person. I don’t believe she is. I believe, though, that she is part of the establishment. She’s been around too long as far as the establishment goes. And she’s been ingrained in doing business as usual. It’s not working.”

In making their choices known, many Dhillon supporters simply pointed to the scoreboard during McDaniel’s reign.

“Think about where we are. 2018, we lost the House. 2020, we lost everything. 2022, we won the House, but we should have really steamrolled the House and we should have taken back the Senate, which we didn’t do,” Stinchfield said. “That means we’re on a real losing track since she took over. I don’t like being on a losing track. I like being on a winning track.

“Something has got to change when you talk about all of this. So how does Ronna McDaniel get 111 votes and Harmeet Dhillon only get 54 votes, when everyone, every Republican voter I talk to said it was time for change?” pondered Stinchfield.

And even more than the losses, for many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections. The most recent example of which came in Arizona, where presumptive gubernatorial favorite, Kari Lake, was “defeated” when countless voting irregularities occurred in some of the state’s most deep-red areas.

“Under her watch, Democrats instituted a mail-in ballot scheme. That may be even worse than losing, when you talk about the House and the Senate and all these things. The fact that we now have a junk mail-in ballot scheme across the country under Ronna McDaniel’s watch is serious trouble. Very serious trouble,” Stinchfield said on Friday. “And so the reason it is is because the Democrats are rigging the system.”

For years – until Donald Trump descended the golden escalator and took the world by storm – the Republican party had the reputation of being the party of the rich. Rush Limbaugh used to refer to this wing of Republicans as “the country club crowd.” President Donald Trump flipped the narrative completely, offering a clear vision of hope and patriotism to working-class America.

Reputable polling — such as Richard Baris’ Big Data Poll — consistently showed Trump running well ahead of almost every Republican candidate during the 2022 mid-term election cycle. In other words, Trump still maintains considerably more support across the country than most of the individual Senate or House candidates experienced.

Many experts believe this is because voters still view Trump as an outsider, while they view the Republican party much less favorably.

“Let’s tell you how out of touch they are, how elitist they are,” Stinchfield said, calling out the GOP establishment. “This meeting that went on, do you know where it is? It’s at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch in California. One of the most expensive resorts in America. You’re lucky if you get a room for a thousand dollars a night down there on Dana Point. Now, it’s a beautiful hotel, but why is the Republican Party holding an event there? Then I went back and I looked at what RedState did. RedState went back and looked at some of the expenses that the Republican Party under Ronna McDaniel’s leadership was spending money on.

“Take a look at this. $3.1 million on private jets. $1.3 million on limousine and chauffeur services. $17.1 million on donor mementos. $750,000 on floral arrangements. Now you compare this to the Democrats. The Democrats spent $35,000 on private airfare. A thousand dollars on floral arrangements. A thousand. Not $750,000. A thousand. And the $17.1 million they spent on donor mementos, the Democrats spent $1.5 million.

“Democrats know where to put the money. It’s not giving donors gifts. Donors shouldn’t want gifts. If you give money, give money. You don’t need the fancy pin to put on your lapel.”

Following her loss, Dhillon warned her party that it must listen to the base, saying, “if we ignore this message, I think it’s at our peril. It’s at our peril personally, as party leaders and it’s at our peril for our party in general.”

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BNM Writers

The State of the Radio Industry and Technology

“As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.”

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After writing some three-dozen columns for Barrett Media, I often hear that I don’t provide a balanced view of the radio industry. Therefore, this week, I will write about the strengths and weaknesses of the radio industry. It may be a little simplistic, but it will make sense at the end. I promise.

The radio broadcasting business continues to evolve in the digital age, with strengths and challenges to consider. One of the most significant strengths of radio is its ability to reach a broad audience. Radio waves can travel long distances, allowing local stations to reach listeners beyond their immediate area. This makes radio a powerful tool for both local and national advertisers. Radio also reaches audiences in their cars, at work, and at home, providing advertisers with multiple touchpoints. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, radio reaches 93% of adults in the United States each week, making it one of the most widely consumed mediums. Furthermore, radio is a cost-effective form of advertising, with lower ad rates than other media forms. This allows small businesses to reach a large audience without breaking the bank.

Another strength of radio is its role in emergency communication. In times of crisis, radio can provide important information to listeners quickly and efficiently. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all radio stations to have emergency alert systems, allowing them to disseminate critical information to the public promptly. Radio can be a lifeline for communities during natural disasters, power outages, or other emergencies, providing updates on road closures, evacuation orders, and other important information. Radio can reach remote areas where other forms of communication may not be as reliable. This makes radio a vital tool for emergency responders, who rely on it to coordinate responses and disseminate information.

Despite these strengths, the radio industry faces several challenges in the digital age. One of the biggest challenges is competition from other media outlets, such as streaming services and podcasts. The rise of these digital platforms has led to a decline in traditional radio listening, which is likely to continue. 

According to a Nielsen report, traditional radio listening among adults aged 18-34 has dropped by 20% over the last decade. Additionally, many radio stations are struggling to monetize their digital offerings, which has led to a decline in revenue. However, radio has been able to adapt by incorporating streaming services, podcasts, and other digital platforms, which allows them to reach a wider audience and cater to changing listening habits.

Another challenge is the consolidation of the radio industry. In recent years, there has been a significant amount of it, with a small number of companies owning multiple stations. This has led to less programming diversity and less market competition. This can lead to a homogenization of content, with less local flavor and less opportunity for new voices in the industry. However, many smaller independent stations have survived by providing unique and localized content catering to the needs of their community.

Despite these challenges, the radio industry continues to generate significant revenue. The Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) says that radio advertising revenue in the United States reached $18.9 billion in 2019. The radio industry has been able to adapt to the changing market, with many stations now offering a combination of traditional and digital programming. The industry has also been able to monetize digital offerings by incorporating targeted advertising, sponsorships, and other revenue streams.In conclusion, the radio broadcasting business is facing challenges in the digital age, but it continues to have an enormous audience reach and role in emergency communication. 

Additionally, the industry continues to generate significant revenue. As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.

If my analysis seems a little simplistic or this column doesn’t seem like my typical style, it’s because I didn’t write it. The column was written using artificial intelligence (AI). More specifically, by the hottest tech trend these days, ChatGPT.

How hot? Here are a couple of data points from a report in Axios.

  • In June, generative AI was covered in only 152 articles. Just six months later, the topic has generated roughly 12,000 news stories, according to MuckRack data.
  • At this year’s CES trade show, 579 exhibitors were listed under the show’s “Artificial Intelligence” category — more than double of those categorized as “Metaverse” (176), “Cryptocurrency” (19), and “Blockchain” (55) combined.

ChatGPT is AI technology that allows you to have regular conversations with a chatbot that can answer questions and help with tasks such as writing columns. 

ChatGPT is what Siri wants to be when she grows up.

ChatGPT is currently open and free while it’s in its research and feedback collection phase. If it’s not perfect, it’s certainly a lot of fun. It is also quite helpful when researching a topic (as long as the information you need is pre-2021). It is much more efficient and precise than Google, any other search engine, or Siri. I find myself obsessed with seeing what it knows and can do. If you try it, you probably will be too.

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