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Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Jim Cryns

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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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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