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Why The News Media Feels So Broken

“The news product of the past has been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.”

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“I just want some news.”

A few years ago, I was sitting in a diner, tapping away on my laptop, slurping down coffee and eating pancakes, trying to block out the conversations around me.

The chatter from the table right behind me rose up. I listened as they chewed over the first few outrages of the Trump administration and debated the credibility of the Russia probe.

“I just want some news,” said a woman at the table.

I felt myself nodding in agreement, conjuring up an image of Peter Jennings anchoring the 6 o’clock news circa 1983. 

That kind of news product still exists – barely.  In reality, it’s been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet  — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.

So why does it feel like our news diet is so anemic? Or, perhaps more accurately, junk-filled?

And why do respectable and reliable public interest organizations that measure such things put out report after report showing that public trust in the news media continues to nosedive?

There’s plenty of blame to go around – the Internet and its multiple disruptions, the rise of opinion journalism, the Twittersphere, and political polarization coupled with a sped up news cycle and the death of legacy media’s ad-based business model.

But I’ll start with the elephant in the room: the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

James Fallows

Staff writer at The Atlantic

The title of James Fallows September 15th article in The Atlantic could not have been more stark:

“.”

In it, Fallows, who warned of growing bad habits among news professionals in his 1996 book ”Breaking The News,”  outlines how White House journalists have lost the plot since confronting the norm-busting president, who has repeatedly deemed the press “the enemy of the people.”

In short, Fallows makes a compelling case that reporters keep naively responding to a president who, to put it mildly, isn’t playing by the same rules.  And, writes Fallows, they’ve yet to pivot, instead leaning on the traditional fact-check,“both-sides-ism,” and horse race coverage in a futile effort to hold Trump accountable.  

New York University journalism professor and writer Jay Rosen echoes this critique, arguing in his PressThink blog that White House reporters have repeatedly and mistakenly applied legacy notions of covering a president who has long since thrown the rule book out.

“My number one lesson after five years of Trump and the press: Common practices in journalism rest on assumptions about how candidates and office holders will behave. If those assumptions are incorrect, the practices break. This happened to fact checking.”

Rosen goes so far as to urge White House reporters out of the briefing room, arguing they merely serve as a vessel for the president’s distortions of reality.

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”

Bari Weiss

Journalist

Former New York Times op-ed Editor

The culture wars had long since broken out on the pages of The New York Times when conservative journalist Bari Weiss announced she was leaving the paper of record on Twitter just a few months ago. Her letter of resignation read like a college journalism professor’s admonition to a wayward student.

In short, Weiss called out the paper of record for failing to make up for its own self-inflicted wounds of 2016: that is, failing to see the rise of President Donald Trump and the longstanding grievances of his supporters. She claimed to have been bullied by her post modernist far left former colleagues for “wrongthink,” and decried editorial decision-making driven by satisfying the narratives of the what she described as the “narrowest of audiences” and governed by the politics of the Twitterati.

Her resignation came on the heels of the abrupt departure of her former boss James Bennett, who was forced out after publishing a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, making the case for a military response to widespread civil unrest following the release of gruesome video of the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

On the same day Weiss announced her departure from the New York Times came another: this time from pioneering blogger and conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who said on Twitter that he would be leaving New York Magazine. 

He explained his departure in his final column for the magazine on July 17.

“What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”

Sullivan told readers he would resurrect the blog that put him on the digital publishing map The Dish (this version would be a weekly, not a daily) by migrating to Substack, where he would join other non-mainstream journalists, such as Matt Taibbi, to write without limits.

All three resignations were high-profile, controversial, and highlight two increasingly worrying trends from elite news outlets: an overtly politically-driven approach to editorial decision-making, and the harsh realities of digital disruption.

“These technologies that all of us are using: iPhone, Google, Instagram, Twitter, go down the list….In terms of human history and certainly communications, these are all baby products and we’re treating them like babies. We’re still very adolescent in usage of these really cool technologies that if used right, can be very transformative in a positive way. If abused, they can really grind up and grind down our country.”

Jim VandeHei

Axios & Politico founder & CEO

In 2006, Twitter was launched to be followed just a year later by the unveiling of the first ever smartphone. Longtime print journalist and later CEO and founder of Politico and Axios Jim VandeHei believes the disruption of digital technology can only be described as a profound transformation, one that the news media are presently confounded by.  A notable concern of his is the loss of a once “shared understanding of the news” that leads to our collective self-sorting and siloing into news bubbles.

Combine that with the scale of social media platforms like Facebook and what you have is the loss of traditional informational gatekeepers and news literacy – the ability to determine which sources of news and information are credible and which aren’t.

“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times, put it in a Tweet in late August. 

In this hyper-sped up information environment, political polarization rushes in, especially with a highly unusual commander in chief who skillfully uses it to send a torrent of messaging and policy changes on Twitter.

No matter their protestations to the contrary, journalists being human beings first have undoubtedly changed the way they perform their craft.  And some days it can seem as though they have collectively gone mad.  Just spend a few hours watching CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

But before we fall into total despair, history tells us we’ve been here before.

“Imagine that we are suddenly at a moment when everybody can read and everybody can write and suddenly, the people who used to control all the sources of information no longer have access to it. And good things are multiplying and information is traveling more quickly, but so is disinformation and so is political scandal and things are moving very quickly and they’re leading even very quickly to wars and conflict of kind we couldn’t imagine before.

And no I’m not talking about the present moment. I’m not talking about the invention of social media and the internet.

I’m talking about the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which was a previous moment in history when there was an information revolution that very quickly became a religious, culture and political revolution.”

Anne Applebaum

Journalist & historian

We survived the fallout of the printing press.  I’ll place my bet on the news media, warts and all, surviving the Internet.

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Radio Has an Overloaded Spot Block Problem and Here’s How to Fix It

Raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership.

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While the radio industry insists that our medium is still king, I’m skeptical. I hope the numbers are being spun properly, I just have doubts. In either case, we’re sweeping a lot of stuff under the rug. People may still be “sampling” radio but are they listening? Do they buy what you’re selling?

The typical news/talk station airs 22 minutes of commercials per hour. When you add in five minutes of network news and spots plus recorded promos (commercials for ourselves), we’re talking half an hour of content killer.

I’m a typical listener. With rare exceptions, I only listen while I’m driving. Behind the wheel, my habit is standard: punch around my presets until I hear something of interest or at least actual content and not commercials. When a talk segment ends, I listen to the tease and then punch out. I don’t sit through what I know will be a five or six-minute commercial break. If the tease was done well and it interests me, I’ll try to remember to come back. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

Here in Dallas these days, I mainly listen to our two excellent sports talk stations, The Ticket and The Fan. And I always smile when I hear them constantly trying to convince me that by choosing to listen to their particular station I’m part of an exclusive club. That’s nothing new really but the branding is ingenuous.

105.3 The Fan cleverly labels listeners “TOLOs”, implying people who wisely “Turn it On, Leave it On”. The Ticket merely plays the highest authority card, referring to their listeners as “P1s”. I know what it means but the average listener has no clue. It’s an inside joke. I’ve never heard the station explain it but their faithful listeners supposedly wear the badge proudly.

I’ve never seen any figures on shared listening but I expect the crossover between the two sports talk stations would be nearly 100%. People do what I do, punch back and forth looking for interesting content.

After hiring and inspiring great talent and setting the tone for a station’s identity, a news/talk programmer’s primary job is trying to navigate a sea of clutter. There are various ways to do it but anything short of reducing the number and length of commercial breaks is just rearranging the furniture.

One of the most common tactics is promoting a commercial-free segment. In my opinion, that’s just calling attention to the problem and admitting that commercials are a necessary evil. I’ll bet your clients love that.

I admire and pity radio salespeople who have always had to fight to survive in a dog-eat-dog world but now also have to sell clients on the idea that their money will be well spent even though their message might be buried in the middle of a five-minute cluster.

Are there too many commercials on the air? Hell yes. 22 minutes per hour for talk and news? Why do people sit through that?

They don’t. They pop around the dial as I do, and are increasingly learning that podcasts offer information and entertainment with far fewer interruptions. The RTDNA and the RAB don’t want to admit that. Nielsen puts a rosy spin on the numbers because broadcasters are their main customers. Even highly respected news outlets report the idea that radio is doing great but read this and see if you don’t share my skepticism below the headline:

Americans Listen To Far More Radio Than Podcasts—Even Young People, New Data Shows

“American adults still spend an overwhelming majority of their daily listening time on radio broadcasts despite the rise in popularity of podcasts and music streaming services, new Nielsen data on listening habits in the first quarter of 2024 shows. Though younger audiences are starting to buck that trend by choosing on-demand audio at a higher rate than their elders.” Forbes, May 1, 2024

I’m not the smartest guy in any room. I’ve never been a GM or Sales Manager. I have been an air talent and program director, though, and I can smell as well as hear the problem. There are far too many commercial interruptions for radio to survive this way for much longer.

Retired WGN morning legend Spike O’Dell agrees.

“Are spot breaks too long? Coming from the talent side of this issue my answer is absolutely. I’m a realist and understand that they’re necessary but a five-minute stop set is a show killer and a ratings killer,” he said. “Why in the world would a listener want to wait through that amount of time unless the content was the most fascinating subject ever?

“When I left the airwaves, we were at 23 minutes of spots an hour, and even I got bored with my own show. Spot breaks and amount of spots played per hour is a long-time sore subject to discuss or ponder. But, it didn’t take this talk show host very long to learn that I was never going to win this issue. Money will always win out. Sometimes management should do the wrong thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Journalist, former media exec, and USC professor Jerry Del Colliano agrees and has an audacious idea: do what every other industry does and raise prices.

“Charge more for spots and limit to 12 per hour.  If there is demand for more, stick to 12 and raise the price of an ad,” he said. “Programmers have known for decades that commercials don’t build time spent listening — and they aren’t doing advertisers any favors by crowding too many spots in and creating an impossible situation to help advertisers succeed.”

Guy Zapoleon is famous for his music radio expertise and innovations but he’s also a veteran radio programmer who has to deal with clutter. He agrees. Cut the spot load and raise the rates. He says it should have been done long ago.

“Telecom and the major companies becoming publicly traded companies along with overpaying for radio stations derailed that idea. Look, I’m a fan of what Now 102.3, a Hot AC type station in Canada, is doing. They only run six minutes an hour versus 12 minutes for most of the competitors but they charge more to meet budget demands. They also go overboard helping their clients with remotes and ideas to drive customers to their clients to increase their ROI value.”

Now, there’s a thought: raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership. Offer them more personal attention, and hands-on assistance than you’ve had time for while juggling a client list and spot load that would choke a horse.

Back to Jerry for a moment. I asked him how and when programmers should design breaks. He brushed aside quarter-hour maintenance and stayed focused on the much bigger consideration.

“Where you place them is less important than the total number per hour but the idea of loading up two-quarter hours to run all your spots obviously isn’t working, hasn’t worked, and won’t work.”

Cutting more jobs can’t improve profitability. Increasing your spot load chases away your audience and your sales strategy. The only thing left is raising rates and reducing inventory.

Explain to your clients that by paying more they are getting an exclusive opportunity to be center stage rather than being shoved to the back of a very crowded bus. Assure them your programming is the best in town.

And make that true.

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Libsyn’s Rob Walch Has Watched Podcasting Grow From Infancy to Audio Juggernaut

“When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

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A photo of Rob Walch and the Libsyn logo
(Photo: Libsyn)

Libsyn Vice President of Podcaster Relations Rob Walch is one of the founding fathers of podcasting, helping and inspiring countless people to start their very own webcasts.

“I’ve been in [Podcasting] since 2004. Got in it early on. I read it in an article in Engadget on October 4th, 2004 and it said, ‘If you want a podcast, just add this enclosure tag to your blog feed and you can podcast.’ I went, what the heck does that all mean?,” he told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

“So I figured it out and launched a podcast. There wasn’t many, maybe 100, podcasters at the time. And my podcast was about podcasting. So it was the first podcast specifically about podcasting called podcast411.” Getting the inside scoop from other podcasters, the podcast about podcasting focused on tech and promotions.

His hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Just three years later, Rob Walch joined Libsyn. He now runs podcasting relations, business development, “and a whole lot more.”

The former engineer turned podcaster has seen a lot change since the industry’s beginnings, most notably accessibility. “When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

A “convoluted method” of uploading, transmitting, and manually adding each podcast into iPod tracks and then syncing to iTunes was laborious, and finding a new podcast wasn’t any easier.

“There was not really any centralized directory. There was Podcast Alley and a bunch of other places. Then Apple, in June of 2005, launched iTunes and it supported podcasting and that really was like the first inflection point of podcasting.” Another change to amplify podcasting came two years later with the launch of the iPhone.

However, Walch noted the most notable change that amplified podcasting came in 2015.

“The real big one was iOS 8. When it came out, the Apple podcast app was native and people can tap this purple app on my iPhone, and ‘How come I can’t delete it?’ They they started learning about podcasting.”

Rob Walch believes Apple gave the podcasting industry so much growth because, “At one point in time it was six iOS downloads to every one Android download.” Today the ratio is less skewed with 3.2 iOS downloads to every one Android download.

“I think the other change that happened after — it wasn’t an inflection point, it was a slow burn — was all the apps that you listened to music on began to have podcast directories … I think that, combined with everything else that led to where podcasting became ubiquitous, where we are today.”

Rob Walch also noted no matter what you read, “Apple Podcasts, is the number one place where podcasts are consumed. It’s 50% of consumption.”

Today, Walch believes the biggest trend in podcasting might be hindering to the audience. “People overly expecting video to take them to the next level and finding out that that’s not really the case. I think there’s way too many people that think they can just convert a traditional audio podcast into a video podcast, and it’s going to flower and bloom. Some do. Most don’t.”

“Most people forget that the reason podcasting is popular is because there’s more time in the day to consume audio than there is video,” he later said. “And if your audience is more of a B2B audience and you’re not good with video, don’t do video. Concentrate on the audio.”

Doing this also puts your podcast in direct competition with every video maker on YouTube instead of just podcasters.

Walch’s passion for podcasting has been evident since the very beginning of his career.

“My goal has always been to help people get into podcasting and that was what podcast411 was about. It was the first that said, ‘Here’s how you podcast. Here’s how you get done.’ That was the whole idea of the podcast was to teach people how to do it. I wasn’t selling webinars, I wasn’t trying to sign people up into this mastermind group or any of that into any of those slimy, hyper-marketing type things. I just wanted people to be able to podcast.”

For those looking to take to the mic, Rob Walch has several words of wisdom.

“Anybody could do it. That there is no magic bolt. There’s no secret sauce. There’s no way you’re going to instantly grow an audience. You have to get lucky for a show, in some ways. But you also have to be dedicated to it.”

He also noted people do not ask the right questions when it comes to launching their own podcast. “You got to answer these two questions, which is: What are you going to call your show and what’s it going to be about?”

“When you go into search, it’s called predictive search results. As you start typing, it starts giving you the results. The first word in the title of your podcast is so important. So if you’re starting a podcast, the thing you really want to make sure is: What is the one word that you think people would be searching for your topic? And it’s not your name. If they know your name, they’ll find you. Put that at the end. But what’s the one word in the topic if you’re going to spend money on Google AdSense?”

Rob Walch suggests going to Google Trends and looking at the top three popular words for the topic you want your podcast to be about. He gave this example, “I had a friend whose podcast was called the Fifth Race Podcast, and people are like, ‘What’s that about?’ It was about Stargate because it was this obscure reference in Stargate to the fifth race. And if you were Stargate fan, you got it right. But that’s not what people would say, or even people that were into Stargate don’t search for the fifth race. They search for Stargate.”

“I just said to just put ‘Stargate: The Unofficial Fifth Race Podcast.’ He just changed his title around. He went from not being searched and not being found when you search Stargate, to being the number one show when you search Stargate. Just making sure you know what people are searching for and optimizing the title of your show really will help people stumble upon your show. And that’s so important to grow your show.”

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How Radio Personalities Can Be Both Likeable and Opinionated in Difficult Conversations

Don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast.

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We often talk about being as relatable as possible as a talk radio show host. Be present with where your listeners are. Think like they do. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to do on paper, but there’s always that push and pull as a talk radio show host. You’re interacting with business leaders, politicians, sports figures, and other prominent folks in your community to whom your listener may not have access.

That is part of what makes you credible in their eyes, and it’s part of what gives you insights on topics that the “average listener” cannot get access to. It’s why they listen to you.

But in the end, they — at least in part — want to listen to you because they like you and relate to you. Which means you have to relate to them. And please, don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast. Likable and wildly opinionated can, and ideally should, work in conjunction.

I bring all this up to discuss a topic that can apply to news/talk or sports talk radio hosts: stadiums and subsidies. It’s an incredible topic that can cross both formats. 

In Charlotte, city leaders are expected to vote next week on whether to approve the funding of $650 million for renovation projects at Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers.

In April, voters here in Kansas City rejected a ⅜-cent sales tax extension for the Chiefs and Royals. That topic is back in the forefront this week as the State of Kansas held a special session and passed legislation to use its STAR Bonds program to try to lure one or both teams to the Kansas side of the state line.

I’ve heard overwhelming media reactions suggesting stadium projects involving taxpayer subsidies are no-brainers. Cities or counties, a.k.a. Taxpayers, must help out where needed to fund the building, or upkeep of stadiums. Of course, the fear is that the team(s) will always leave their current city.

Sports media folks typically will support it because, if God forbid, a team were to move, their livelihood would be at stake. Plus, they deal directly with players, coaches, and team executives who can sell them regularly all the perks a new stadium can provide for the team and media members.

News/talk folks can fall victim to hearing too much from their political contacts who often promote and sometimes are the ones who vote on these projects. They’re influenced by lobbyists and others who are legally doing their job but are also on the payroll for the big-money entities involved. 

But who’s looking out for the little guy? That should be you.

While you may have the access and contacts in the higher-end social circles of your community, that’s not where most of your listeners live.

Political feelings always ebb and flow, but we are living in a country where populism is becoming more popular. The last few years have been hardest on those from the middle class on down. COVID’s economy benefited work-from-home white-collar workers, where one parent could stay home with kids who were stuck learning from home.

In contrast, the same economy hurt working-class folks, who were less likely to be able to work from home and certainly could not watch their kids daily as they tried to learn from home. On top of that, the stock market has gone gangbusters the last couple of years, while the working class has struggled to pay for its groceries.

The economy has been very different since COVID, depending on your socioeconomic level.

That said, as populism grows in popularity on the right and the left, understand where your radio listeners are at in their lives and their likely unwillingness, or at the very least, fair skepticism, to fund stadiums for billionaire team owners.

Don’t let your relationship with a player, coach, or team executive overly influence your opinion. Don’t let your buddy, the politician or a lobbyist, get into your ear on how amazing their plan would be.

I think back nearly 15 years, when the New York Giants and New York Jets opened MetLife Stadium to much fanfare. Then, the dreaded PSL (Personal Seat License) came into being, which simply gave fans the “rights” to purchase their seats.

It was, and remains, an all-time scam. Former WFAN host Mike Francesa obliterated the teams. To his credit, while he had relationships with the franchises going back decades and could easily afford nearly any ticket in the building, he never lost touch with where the “average fan” was.

So, as these stadium projects continue to pop up around the country—and they could be coming to a town near you soon—I’m not telling you how to think or what to say on your radio show. Just be aware of the political climate in the country today, and always put yourself in your listener’s shoes first and foremost. You’ll never regret it. And they’ll trust you even more for it.

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