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After Decades of Reporting, Jim Avila is Enjoying Giving His Opinion

Throughout his amazingly diverse and essentially unparalleled career, Avila covered the White House during Obama’s second administration beginning in 2012.

Jim Cryns

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Jim Avila is a man who thinks before he speaks. He measures his answers before responding. 

Throughout his amazingly diverse and essentially unparalleled career, Avila covered the White House during Obama’s second administration beginning in 2012. Before that, he covered agencies in Washington D.C. for the ABC bureau, mostly assigned to international issues. 

Working for WBBM television in Chicago, Avila got to know Barack Obama when he was a community organizer on the South Side. 

“I did an investigative story about asbestos in a housing project for WBBM television,” Avila said. “Obama was part of the community organization that was going to change things. He had an ongoing professional relationship with Martha Allen, a reporter for the Chicago Reporter. I got to know him through her.”

That investigation stemmed from Allen and Obama peeling up a tile from a kitchen floor and sending it to a lab, which found it contained between 30 and 50 percent chrysotile asbestos. Allen’s muckraking exposé was picked up by the Tribune and Channel 2’s Walter Jacobson, creating a PR ruckus that eventually forced the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from five projects.

Avila won an Edward R. Murrow award for that investigation. In Chicago, he also covered the mayoral administrations of Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, and Richard Daley. 

During his coverage of Obama, he grew to know David Axelrod, and they played basketball together. Axelrod had a long relationship with Obama, going back to his organizing days and was an advisor on his presidential campaigns. 

“I knew David well,” Avila said. “He was very influential in Obama’s career and had been with him since Obama was a state senator. Ax was an advisor to some of the biggest political names in Chicago. Over the years I kept in touch with him. I was out of day-to-day news when Obama ran for president. But I kept in touch.”

After Avila returned to day-to-day news, he reconnected with Axelrod, oftentimes at White House press conferences. When asked if he thought the Obama he knew as an organizer and state senator in Illinois could be President of the United States, Avila wasn’t quite sure.

“I always knew Obama was charismatic,” Avila said. “I think the first time I really knew he was going somewhere was when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I was 35, Obama was about 28 years old. You never know for sure, but I always knew he had the charisma.” 

Avila said he wasn’t surprised when President Obama became the first Black elected president, he said he is still surprised a woman hasn’t been elected. 

There was a huge hatred for Hilary Clinton by so many people. Avila said she would have made a solid president, but was lacking in the charisma department that both her husband and Obama possessed.

“The Republicans made Hilary a huge target, just like Nancy Pelosi,” Avila explained. “These were powerful and marked people who were targeted over and over. When people do it for a long time that enters the psyche of the American public.”

He said there is always a danger to a democracy when 30 percent of the country has gone off the deep end. “They’ll respond to that kind of rhetoric, legitimizing a hatred that was already out there,” Avila said. 

Covering the White House was on Avila’s bucket list. After his family, for Avila, covering the White House during the Obama administration was the highlight of his career. The icing on the proverbial career cake. He said he still vividly remembers walking up the driveway to the White House.

“Not just the first time I did it. I felt chills every single time I went there,” Avila said. “You walk up to the secret service shack, show them what is called a hard pass. They put your stuff through the magnetometer. After that you walk up the driveway toward the press room. It was the White House, with the Marine standing outside the door. There is no experience like it. I was always aware that I was one of the lucky few. I was the first Latino correspondent to sit in the front row of the White House press room, and it has brought me to tears several times. It was one of the most gratifying and patriotic feelings I’ve ever had.”

While covering President Obama, Avila said he didn’t take it easy on him, even though he’d known him years before. 

“He knew our job was to ask him the tough questions,” Avila said. “I never experienced any pushback personally. I did a one-on-one interview with him when I first became a White House correspondent. When I asked the first question, he’d say, ‘There’s Jim Avila, someone I’ve known for a long time.’

Avila said that doesn’t mean it was always a feel-good interaction. “One time I referred to him as the Deporter in Chief, and he wasn’t happy with that. He didn’t attack me. He didn’t call my bosses or anything like that.”

In 2012 while the President was in Malaysia, he warned if Syria used chemical weapons against their own people, that would be a ‘red line’ and the United States would require a U.S. military response. Syria did cross the ‘red line’ and used chemical weapons on their own people. 

“We didn’t do anything about it,” Avila said. “I was the first reporter to ask the President a question on this topic. I reminded him that he said he would respond and he didn’t. I asked him how he could explain that.”

Immediately afterward, Avila said three other reporters from different networks asked the President the exact same question. President Obama was clearly frustrated, he didn’t get angry. He didn’t call them enemies of the state.

While President Obama didn’t call the press corps out on that repetitive question, someone else did. 

“One of the White House traditions, when you’re overseas, is you have dinner with the White House staff,” Avila explained. “Susan Rice, who was Obama’s foreign policy advisor, was not so understanding. She told us we overdid it that day with that particular question. She said we dragged the issue to the ground, and the president had answered it. Why was it asked five times? I had no problem asking tough questions. I had no problems asking press secretary Jay Carney tough questions. Same thing with John Earnest.’ 

Now years later, Avila said he does think the question was asked too many times.

“Here’s the dynamic in that,” he explained. “Especially when the president is in the room the reporters want to be seen asking a tough question for their broadcast. Even if it was the same as the previous question. Susan Rice had the right to say what she did.”

Since he ended his coverage of the White House, things have changed. When the Trump administration suspended CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials, Avila said if he’d still been there, he would have stood up for Acosta’s questions. 

“Jim Acosta is a friend of mine,” Avila said. “He would have had an ally. I would have held Trump’s feet to the fire. I would have objected to every lie, and corrected him after every lie he told.”

Now retired, Avila can be an average citizen, taking a position on anything he chooses and voicing it. He’s personal friends with Mark Thompson, a longtime host on KGO in San Francisco, and now the host of his YouTub show. 

“He’s got lots of energy. He’s a smart guy,” Avila said of Thompson. “I mostly go on his show because I get to say what I want to. As a reporter, I never had the luxury of revealing my own thoughts. Now I have the freedom to do that.’

The life of a network correspondent is demanding, at times it can push you to a breaking point. It certainly has costs and demands you make tough choices. 

“There was so much traveling and everything else, it was tough on the family,” Avila said. The pressures and the demands of the job took its toll on his marriage. He and his wife divorced. 

“We continue to raise the kids together,” he said. “We go on vacation together once a year with the kids. We did our best to keep it together, but the life of a correspondent is difficult for a family. I think I’m forgiven for that. It certainly was difficult for them to not have their dad around all the time. I did most of the traveling when they were kids, one was very young. I made sure after the divorce I only lived a block away from the family house in Oak Park, Illinois.”

Avila keeps up with former colleagues and their work. This past weekend he watched Chuck Todd’s interview with former Vice President Mike Pence.

“While I’m not a big fan of Chuck Todd, and am usually critical, I felt sorry for him during the Pence interview,” Avila said. “Pence lied, made overstatements and exaggerations. I felt bad for Chuck. How often could he be expected to continue to interrupt Pence to correct him. It’s a no-win situation for an interviewer.”

Avila believes Pence could be equally as dangerous to the country as Trump. 

“He made one good call by helping save our country, and he deserves some respect for that,” Avila explained.  It may have pissed off Trump’s base, but he said Pence did the right thing. 

“If Pence decides to run for president, I don’t think he’ll win,” Avila said. “He was complicit in so many things. His stance on abortion will end his run with 70 percent of the population who are pro-choice.”

Regarding the midterms, Avila said the youth in America, many voting for the first time, were critical in the outcome. 

“The kids showed up for the midterms,” Avila said. “I talked to Mark Thompson about this on his show a couple of weeks prior to the election. He’s a pessimist and I tend to be more of an optimist. Mark said there would be the predicted ‘red wave’ in the elections. I was convinced the American people would make the right choices. I told him I thought the ‘red wave’ talk was B.S. Women were registering to vote in record numbers. I don’t know about you, but I know the women in my life don’t easily forget things. If you do something to hurt them, they’re not going to forgive that in a few months. I also think Biden made a shrewd move in forgiving some of the student debt. That brought a lot of younger voters to the Democratic side.”

Avila thinks Republicans were out of touch when it came to abortion. 

“They kidded themselves and figured things would break even,” Avila said. “Especially with women, it was a big mistake. I think that and the disregard for democracy cost them the midterms.”

In regards to gun control, Avila thinks as a country we’ll come to terms with some regulations, but not immediately.

“The biggest problem is money in politics,” he said. “The money given to politicians from groups like the NRA is staggering. I’m a little more pessimistic about gun issues. As long as the Republicans control the house we won’t see much change. I do think in a couple of years we may see background checks. 

I hate to sound like the old guy who tells kids to get off his lawn, but I’m not optimistic about the future of either television or radio. I only see people watching local television for news and sports. They have too many options. They can get everything streamed to them.” 

BNM Writers

Market Still Finding 2023 Footing

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

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While it’s hard to imagine 2023 being as painful for investors as 2022, experts still cannot say for certain we are destined for blue skies ahead. Many in the media are starting the year by sifting through the stock market tea leaves; trying to figure out what historical data can tell us about probabilities and expectations for the next twelve months.

Some think the United States is poised for a market rebound, while others remain quite bearish, feeling that negative policy implications have yet to be fully realized.

Peter Tuchman of Trademas Inc. joined Neil Cavuto on his Fox News program Friday, to offer his thoughts about where the American stock market might be headed in light of the newly-divided United States Congress.

“Markets have a sort of a gut of their own,” Cavuto opened. “Today’s a good example. We’re up 300 points, ended up down 112 points. What’s going on?”

“Markets don’t like unknowns, and markets need confidence. The investing community needs confidence,” Tuchman said. “And I think it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild that. And as we saw the other night with what went on in the House, it feels like people should get busy governing as opposed to all this posturing.”

Six months ago, Tuchman didn’t have a solid feel for the direction of the market. And just two trading weeks into the year, he still doesn’t believe any real trend has been established.

“The market has yet to find its ground. It’s yet to find its footing,” Tuchman told Cavuto. “And still, even coming into 2023, the first week of trading we have not found our footing. We have come in on a couple of economic notes that were a little bit positive. We opened up with a little bit of irrational enthusiasm. By the end of the days we were trading down.”

Meanwhile, some financial outlets, such as CNBC, have dug into the data showing what a market rise during the year’s first week – such as what we experienced this year – potentially means for the rest of 2023. They published a story last week with the headline, Simple ‘first five days’ stock market indicator is poised to send a good omen for 2023“.

On an episode of his popular YouTube program late last week, James from Invest Answers dug into 73 years of stock market data, to test that theory and see if the first five days of yearly stock market performance are an indicator of what the market might do over the full year.

“Some analysts pay attention to this, the first five trading day performance, can it be an indicator of a good year or a bad year,” James began last week, “I wanted to dig into all of that and get the answer for myself. Because some people think yes. Some people swear blind by it. Some people think it’s a myth or an old wive’s tale. Some people think it’s a great omen.”

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

Based on James’ analysis…

If the gains from the first five market days of the year are negative, the market rises 86 percent of the time over the full year, with an average gain of 6%.

If the first five days are positive, the market increases 92% of the time, with an average yearly gain of 16%.

Most importantly, in this year’s scenario, where the first five days saw a jump of more than 1%, the market traditionally ends positive for the year 95 percent of the time. Those years see an average yearly gain of 18%.

“Is it a good omen, does it look bullish?” James asked. “Well, yes, based on history. But remember, there are factors like inflation, interest rates, geopolitical turmoil, supply chains, slowing economy. All that stuff is in play. But history also says that the market bounces bounces back before the market even realizes it’s in a recession. That’s an important thing to know.”

On his Your World program, Cavuto wondered if the recent House speaker voting drama has added to the uncertainty facing markets.

“Historically, Wall Street definitely is a bit more friendly to a Republican administration,” Tuchman said. “We’re in new ground, there’s no playbook, Neil. And I went over it with you the last time. There’s no playbook for coming out of a pandemic. No playbook for what’s gone on over the last two and a half years. Let’s think about it. March 2020, the market sold off so radically. We had a rally of 20 percent in 2020. 28 percent in 2021, in the eyes of a global economic shutdown due to the Federal Reserve’s posturing and whatnot.

“And now we’re trying to unwind that position. In tech, and in possible recession, and inflation and supply chain issues. So, there’s no way historically to make a judgment on what the future looks like in that realm, let alone what’s going on in the dis-functionality of what’s happening in Washington. I would like to disengage what’s going on in Washington and try and rebuild the confidence in the market coming into 2023.” 

So while the data might indicate a strong year ahead, the fact is that many analysts still won’t make that definitive call amidst such economic turmoil gripping the country. 

Along with U.S. markets, they remain steadfast in their search for solid footing.

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BNM Writers

Does Radio Need A Video Star?

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

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Last week numerous stories about using video with broadcasting or audio podcasting became a hot topic of discussion.

A Morning Consult poll found that 32% of Americans prefer podcasts with video, compared with 26% who like just audio better. Among podcast listeners, 46% said they favor them with video, compared with 42% who said they would rather listen without video. It’s worth noting that these are podcast listeners, not radio listeners.

Video has become the latest trend in audio. Almost everybody is trying to do some form of video. Many shows already stream online. A few others simulcast on a television or cable channel. It seems nobody believes in pure audio anymore. It’s a wonder everybody didn’t go into television instead of radio.

Before everybody else starts adding webcams in the studio, it’s worth weighing the reasons to move ahead versus slowing down.

The first person to realize they could use video of their show may have been Howard Stern. In June 1994, Stern started a daily half-hour show on E! network, featuring video highlights from his radio show. Stern added slick production values and faster pacing on the E! show.

Don Imus started simulcasting on cable during the same month. It’s possible others that I’m not aware of started earlier.

Stern’s E! show made sense. It answered the most common questions people asked about the show, in addition to what’s he really like; the first questions people usually asked were: 1) Are the women really as good-looking as he says? 2) Do they really take their clothes off? The E! show answered those questions. In addition, it gave a backstage glimpse of the show.

The same month Stern’s E! Show began, Imus began simulcasting his show on cable networks. I would have feared losing ratings. In fact, Imus’ program director did!

I spoke to my long-time friend and colleague Mark Chernoff (Current Managing Director of Mark Chernoff Talent and on-air talent 107.1 The Boss on the NJ Shore, Former Senior VP WFAN and CBS Sports Radio, VP Sports Programming CBS Radio) about the impact simulcasting Imus’ show had on WFAN. Chernoff may have the broadest range of experiences with simulcasting radio programs with video. 

Imus began on CSPAN but shortly afterward moved to MSNBC. Chernoff told me: “When we started simulcasting Imus, I suggested we’d lose about 15% of our radio audience to TV, which we did.” Chernoff added that there was a significant revenue contribution and that the company was content with the trade-off.

WFAN had a different experience simulcasting Mike and the Mad Dog on YES in 2002. “In this case, TV was helpful, and we increased listenership,” said Chernoff. WFAN also benefited financially from this simulcast.

Imus was on in morning drive while Mike & the Mad Dog were on in the afternoon. Keep the era in mind, too. Before smartphones and high-speed streaming, it was not uncommon for people to have televisions in the bed or bathrooms and have the tv on instead of the radio as they got ready for their day. In the afternoon, fewer people would have had video access in that era.

Ratings measurement moved to Portable People Meter (PPM) by the time WFAN started streaming middays on its website. Chernoff reported streaming had no ratings or revenue impact – positive or negative – on middays. However, the company did provide an additional dedicated person to produce the video stream.

The early forays into video by pioneers such as Stern, Imus, and Mike & the Mad Dog are instructive.

There are good reasons to video stream shows. Revenue is a good reason.

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

Another good reason is if the video can answer questions about the show, as the E! show did for Howard Stern.

On the other hand, audio companies are going to throw a lot of money at video, based on the notion that it’s what they “should” do because:

  • It’s the latest trend. Being late on this trend is different from missing the Internet or Podcasting. Industries already revolve around video; television and film come to mind.
  • Podcast listeners like it (by a slight plurality).

Before turning on webcams, see what viewers will see. The studios at many stations I’ve worked at were better not seen. Considerations include; the set, lighting, wardrobe, visuals, and a plan.

Too many video streams of studios feature the fire extinguisher prominently in the shot or the air personalities milling about during terminally long breaks.

Before going live, watch the video with no audio. Is it interesting? Compelling? Does the video draw you in, or is it dull?

With program directors now spread so thin handling multiple stations, a dedicated person to oversee streaming should be a requirement for stations streaming shows.

Other considerations:

  • How could this help us, and how could it hurt us?
  • How does the video enhance the show?
  • Will personalities do their radio show or perform for the cameras?
  • What production values are you able to add to the video?
  • What happens during those seven- eight-minute breaks if it’s a live radio show (vs. a podcast)? What will people streaming video see and hear? Does everybody on the show get along?

Do you have revenue attached? What do you expect will happen to the ratings?

WFAN earned significant revenue for two. Therefore, the company wasn’t concerned when the ratings took a hit for the first one and were surprised when they helped the second one. They didn’t see any impact on ratings or revenue the third time.

After all the budget cuts and workforce reductions over the past decade-plus, before audio companies invest in video, shouldn’t we get: people, marketing, promotion, or research monies back first?

Most of us decided to get into radio (or podcasting) instead of television or film. There’s a reason they said, “video killed the radio star.”

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BNM Writers

Streaming Platforms Cannot Be Forgotten By News/Talk Program Directors

BNM’s Pete Mundo writes that if you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations and what comes through the streaming platforms.

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If you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations. Didn’t you know that? Oh. Well, you do. 

I’m not just referring to our over-the-air broadcast but also what comes through our streaming platforms. Alexa, Google Home, apps, computers, etc., are all streaming platforms of our radio stations, which for most of us, are airing different commercial inventory than what is coming through the radio.

I understand none of us are unnecessarily looking to add to our plate, but our streaming platforms are the way we are getting more people to use our product. So neglecting, or forgetting about it, is a bad business decision, especially in the talk space. 

Across all clusters, talk radio is far more likely to have high streaming use when it comes to total listening hours. Listeners are more loyal to our personalities and often can’t get the AM dial in their office buildings during the day, or even if they can, they don’t want to hear our voices through static, so they pull up the stream. 

It’s never been easier to listen to talk radio stations, thanks to our station apps and websites (although welcoming some sites to the 21st century would be a good idea). So, given the challenges many of us face on the AM band, why not push our audience to the stream and make sure the stream sounds just as good as the over-the-air product?

The tricky part in putting together a quality stream sound is trying to balance what ads are programmatic, which ones are sold locally, where is the unfilled inventory and what is filling that gap?

And unlike your over-the-air product, where you can go into a studio, see what’s coming up, and move inventory around, that technology is not available in most cases. So yes, it’s a guessing game.

But as the talk climate continues to change, the best thing we can do to build our brand and trust with the next generation of talk radio listeners is to find them and engage them where they are, which may not always be next to a physical radio. That will be on a stream. How do I know that? Because if they have a smartphone, they have (access to) the stream.

Of course, the over-the-air product remains the massive revenue generator for our stations, as in most cases, the streaming revenue is not close to comparable. But then, if we look years down the road, that will likely start to change. 

To what degree? That’s unknown. But double-digit growth on an annual basis should not be out of the question when it comes to stream listening. It should be a very achievable goal, especially in our format. So our listeners who are P1’s, love the station and want to consume as much of the content as they can, can be on the AirPods in the gym, desk at work, or in their home office and listen to our radio stations. 

Heck, with Alexa and Google Home, they don’t even have to turn a dial! They just speak. So if they’re there, let’s keep them there.

There are simply too many media options today to lose our listeners due to sloppy streaming quality that makes us sound like a college radio station. Instead, listeners, who find us there should be rewarded with a listening experience that is just as high-quality as what they would get on the AM or FM band.

And if we play our cards right, it will be better, serving the industry incredibly well through a new generation of listeners.

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