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Philly Special: Catching up with Alex Silverman of KYW

KYW recently added an FM simulcast for the first time in its long history. I wanted to talk about that, Alex’s thoughts on the format and how his team handled Wednesday’s shocking events in Washington D.C.

Ryan Maguire

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I recall one afternoon early on in my tenure at KIRO in Seattle, my General Manager at the time called me into his office to introduce me to some partners of the station.

“This is Ryan Maguire, our new Director of News and Programming on KIRO.  People thought we were crazy for hiring him, but we couldn’t find any candidates for the job that were younger than Barbara Bush.”

(The Former First Lady has just died the day before).

My boss’ macabre sense of humor aside, he did have a point.  News-Talk and All-News radio has skewed older in listenership the last few years.  To this day, its one of the biggest challenges for the format.  In some cases, the best way to find younger listeners is with younger leadership.

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to catch up with Alex Silverman, the Brand Manager and Program Director at legendary All-News station, KYW in Philadelphia.  I had heard of him from my colleagues at KIRO (where he also worked previously) and others in the industry who hold him in high regard.

Once I followed him on social media (https://twitter.com/AlexSilverman) and spent time exchanging e-mails with him for this piece, I could see why.

He has an amazing amount of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism for news radio.  He also has the right ideas and the right mindset to take a heritage brand like KYW into new, younger generations of listeners.

KYW recently added an FM simulcast for the first time in its long history.  I wanted to talk about that, Alex’s thoughts on the format and how his team handled Wednesday’s shocking events in Washington D.C.

Wednesday was truly a surreal day in the history of our country.  How were you able to approach it…personally and professionally?

It was surreal, upsetting, and scary for sure, but I knew we had a team that could handle whatever the day might bring. We know that hundreds of thousands of people not only depend on us on a daily basis, but when something of great consequence happens, they turn to us because they trust us. That is a great responsibility which we take very seriously.

The past year has stretched everyone in every newsroom across this country to the limit, but it has also shown me how capable our newsroom is of handling the unexpected and the challenging. My role in these types of situations is to make sure the team has the support and guidance they need. As soon as things started to take a turn, we mobilized two reporters to Washington – one of whom was already in Delaware covering President-Elect Biden. We knew we were the closest Entercom all-news station to DC, so we would not only be able to serve our audience but also millions of listeners across the country. We had additional reporters working remotely who started calling their local contacts, and everyone shifted into continuous coverage mode: the anchors, the editors and production team, and the digital content team – and stayed that way into the night. We needed to not only make it sound big and important, but to place it in the context it deserved – as a dark day in the history of this country – so we talked a lot about the language we would use to communicate that.

What differentiated your coverage from what other media outlets were doing?

We’re fortunate to have the most experienced broadcast reporting team in Philadelphia, and that institutional knowledge and those contacts paid off immediately. One of the great things about all-news radio is our ability to pivot immediately into continuous crisis coverage. While there are a lot of moving parts to our operation, when it comes down to critical breaking news information, once it’s confirmed it’s just “hit the sounder, open the mic, and tell the world.” So, whether you were listening on 103.9 FM, or on a smart speaker in a home office, or on the RADIO.COM app, you were learning what was happening literally as we were seeing it with our own eyes or verifying it. RADIO.COM allows us to send push alerts to a larger audience beyond our typical listeners, and we were simultaneously producing newscasts for our sister stations in Philadelphia because this was a situation where people needed to know what was happening in real time.

Talk about your background and how your career journey brought you to KYW.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intimacy of radio and the one-on-one connection it creates with the listener; it’s something that I recognized at a young age and just knew I wanted to be in the business. I actually started out in management – as the GM of the greatest student-run radio station in America, WJPZ at Syracuse University – before getting my first on-air news job at WSYR in Syracuse. I spent some time in Seattle at KIRO as a reporter and anchor, then eight years at WCBS 880 in New York City, first as an anchor and reporter and later as APD. When the legendary Steve Butler retired in 2018, it was an amazing opportunity to be able to come to KYW Newsradio and lead one of the country’s great all-news stations.

What are the best parts of your job?

Getting to work with such a talented and connected team of broadcast journalists is a huge privilege. I learn something from them every day. When we break news and tell stories that matter to people, we get an enormously positive response from the audience and that’s always a great feeling.

Technology is providing many of the service elements all-news stations would provide (news-traffic-weather, etc.) on demand and instantly.  How does this format stay relevant in 2021 and beyond?

I’d push back on the premise just a bit because there’s a distinction between the content itself and the technology used to convey it. “Technology” on its own can’t produce the service we provide – it can’t replicate the journalism experience and institutional knowledge and storytelling ability. That said, as technology evolves, we are evolving right along with it. If you have a smart speaker at home and want the news from a credible, local source, all you have to do is ask it to “play KYW Newsradio.” All our stories are available on demand in both written and audio form on KYWnewsradio.com and on the RADIO.COM app. We’re on social media at the same time we’re on the air with a story. We have a local news interview podcast, KYW Newsradio In Depth, that focuses on big ideas that we wouldn’t have time to dive into in our typical format. All of this makes us a really strong part of the modern news ecosystem.

As for traffic, sure – the apps are great, I use them like everyone else. But they don’t tell the full story. If I’m stuck in traffic, I want to know what the heck is really happening and why. It takes a human being to provide that color commentary and that’s the service our listeners tell us they appreciate. The same goes for weather. We have a fabulous partnership with NBC10 here in Philadelphia. When weather is a story, people want someone they trust to explain what it means.

Your station was given an FM signal for the first time in its history and got a fresh rebranding as well.  What have the early returns been from your listeners and sponsors?

It’s incredibly exciting for us, and we saw the launch on 103.9 FM in late November as one of the most historic moments ever in Philadelphia media. It not only improves the quality of service for our existing audience, but also allows us to reach some areas where the 1060 AM signal was never particularly strong. I was actually driving around one of those areas in Bucks County the day we launched, and – I swear – the clerk at a deli saw my jacket and said “when’s KYW gonna be on FM? It’s so staticky around here.” I told him, and he was thrilled. So, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from both listeners and sponsors who know there’s more of a chance for new listeners to discover us on the FM band. It’s still too early to make any sweeping statements about the impact, but we’re very optimistic.

Caption- Alex Silverman talks about the FM simulcast on NBC10 in Philadelphia

You’re VERY active on social media which is not common for many Program Directors.  What’s your strategy behind that?

Having spent a lot of time on the on-air side, I’m used to having a public voice and engaging with the audience. It’s a good way to keep in mind that there are real people out there who have opinions and perspectives on what we’re doing, and I think they appreciate that kind of direct engagement. We can’t ever take our audience for granted, so we have to be everywhere they are – and social media is one of those places.

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BNM Writers

A Message to Radio Leaders About Burnout

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product.

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Life is show prep. That’s what my Dallas radio co-host Amy Chodroff always said and she was right.

If you do a news or talk radio show you get it, it’s non-stop. You spend every day of your life reading news and considering opinions. You scrutinize reported facts, look for bias, gauge your reaction, and think about how you’ll present it on the air.

This is the only way you can do your job. Your listeners expect you to know more than they do, to inform them, and to offer insights into every situation and with every interview you present on the air.

Life is, in fact, show prep. But if you’re a news or talk radio show host you might have trouble explaining that to some people who don’t understand this because they’ve never tried doing it.

Your bosses, for example.

When I retired recently, this conflict was the tipping point. I had a recent health scare that thankfully turned out to be nothing more than a wake-up call. As long as I could remember, I was getting up at 2:30 AM every day to do a radio news show that aired live from 5 until 9 AM.

By 9:05 AM, I was mentally exhausted, but the boss felt I should put in a full eight hours on the clock, joining the newsroom staff from 9:00 until noon or 1:00 P.M.

More than the extra work itself, dodging that insistence wore me out and took me to retirement. I tried but couldn’t effectively explain that I worked as much at home and wherever else I happened to be as I did when I was in the building.

Life is show prep. And I suppose that can sound like a justification for going home after a four or five-hour shift, but if you’ve never done it, you can’t know the truth.

I got breaking news alerts on my phone while at home with family and in restaurants with friends. I was in daily contact with my co-host and our producer. Text meetings and phone calls between us during weekends were frequent. Show prep doesn’t allow time off between air shifts, even when you’re on vacation.

You may be a sales executive, administration manager, or an engineer thinking, ‘Yeah, I think about work away from the office, too.’ But what you don’t do when you’re in the office is perform to the immediate judgment of thousands of people live, non-stop, four hours per day, five days a week. It’s a never-ending multi-tasking job that requires keeping one eye on the clock, part of your brain focused on the real-time on-air content, while other parts are planning what you must do next and 20 minutes from now and next hour as you’re making notes for future reference.

While all of this is going on, you’re also signaling your co-host, producer, and if you have one your board operator. If you’ve never done all of that there’s no way I can explain that being on the air requires more concentration and energy in four hours than your eight-hour work day does. It just does.

Show prep never ends. Never.

You will read far more versions of various news stories than anyone you know except your on-air partner if you have one. Those stories are rabbit holes and you’ll dive into them, looking for red flags and nuance, double and triple checking your sources because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. Now more than ever you can trip an information landmine with any single step. Your credibility and career depend on preparing your show carefully but quickly, 24/7.

Now we have this idea that news anchors and talk hosts should have three or four more hours of additional responsibilities after their show ends, as tomorrow’s show prep continues. It’s ignorant and debilitating. Yet, here we are, in the new era of corporate bean counters and the elimination of trained human resources in radio newsrooms filled with empty workstations and only one or two people on duty to answer the phone, gather information, write or rewrite it, record various sources including their own on-air reports while setting up and performing interviews. These under-appreciated magicians often have hourly newscasts to prepare and perform as well.

Radio news staffs are seriously shorthanded. How can a manager improve efficiency? Why, call on people who have just done a four-hour show preceded by an hour or two of in-studio prep and all that work they did at home.

An RTDNA study published a year ago revealed that nearly 70% of news directors reported their staff were overworked and suffering from job burnout.

Ya think?

There is an implied hint of good news in the RTDNA’s most recent look into the problem: Radio news staffing changes are actually increasing slightly. Hey, great! But if you look at the numbers below the headline you’ll be shocked. How do radio news and talk survive?

“The latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey shows the typical (median) radio news operation has a full-time news staff of two for the second year in a row.”

TWO FULL-TIME NEWS STAFFERS!

(Disclaimer: Your numbers may vary, depending on market size and how many news and talk hosts are folded into the count when they get off the air.)

There was a time when providing factual news and the exchange of ideas was a lofty yet achievable ideal. It was so exciting we couldn’t wait to get to work.

In those days, air talent was paid their actual value related to radio station earnings. My salary as a morning news host in Sacramento was five times more than I made in Dallas, 40 years later. The pressure to do more eventually burned me out. Now I know people half my age making less than half of my salary when I started in Dallas 12 years ago. Major market news and talk talents are cashing paychecks equal to or less than what their grandpas made as medium market top-40 deejays.

I don’t have any solutions to the money problems that face every news/programming/sales and general manager each day. I will suggest a thought, though:

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product. What would your profit and loss statement look like without them?

Sit down with your program and news directors, news writers and reporters, producers, and show hosts. Show them a little love. Ask them what they need and how you might be able to help. They’ll want you to pay them more and hire more people, you know that going in so think about it now. Is that possible?

You’re smart, which is why you’re the manager. I’ll bet you can figure out a way to do it.

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BNM Writers

How News/Talk Radio Hosts Can Use Caitlin Clark to Reach Broader Audiences

This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

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A photo of Caitlin Clark
(Photo: John Mac C.C. 2.0)

Caitlin Clark and Donald Trump have something in common, and I have no idea if it’s their politics. But Caitlin Clark in the 2024 news cycle is Donald Trump circa 2015-16 to the news/talk radio topic selection.

Just like no one had seen anything like Donald Trump in modern American politics, no one has seen anything close to Caitlin Clark in the WNBA.

The WNBA has existed for nearly three decades but has smashed all ratings and attendance records, at least for games involving Clark. Caitlin Clark is bigger than the WNBA, just like Donald Trump when he first burst onto the scene, at least, was bigger than the bubble that was American politics.

The other thing both have in common is that they transcend their respective supposed lanes. Donald Trump was bigger than politics when he entered the political arena in 2015. Caitlin Clark is bigger than women’s basketball. Politics was not the story in 2015; Trump was the story. Now, the WNBA is not the story; Caitlin Clark is the story.

So, if you’re a news/talk radio host and you’re not taking advantage of the Caitlin Clark news cycle, what are you waiting for? As the battle for younger listeners continues in the news/talk space, this is your opportunity; don’t miss it.

Your target, in-demo audience — parents in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s (think 35-54) — who have daughters between the ages of 8 and 18, are probably talking about Caitlin Clark in their homes, around the dinner table, and when driving them around town to practices and friend’s houses. This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

This doesn’t mean breaking down Caitlin Clark’s box score. I admittedly have no idea how many points she’s averaging per game. But it’s about diving into the cultural issues surrounding Clark in recent weeks. From cheap shots on the court to Olympic Team slights, these topics are opportunities to weave a broad, cultural news topic into a radio format and show that extends beyond the hard news/politics/nuts and bolts news stories.

Undoubtedly, those are important, but they remain a lane that isn’t necessarily growing, especially in the coveted 25-54 demographic.

And with a news/talk host’s ability to understand the current cultural and political climate likely better than your competitor on the sports talk station, you have a topic and angle unique to your town and potential listening audience.

In the last two weeks, the most calls we’ve received on a single segment came during a topic on Caitlin Clark being shoved by Chennedy Carter, which went viral two weekends ago. Men, women, young, and old all wanted to chime in and had an opinion. And it came on a Monday morning when most of us in the chair can attest that the phones are usually slower than later in the week. You had sports mixed with culture and race bubbling into one topic that can be seized compellingly by a news/talk radio show.

Caller reaction cannot be the main driver of what makes good radio or a compelling topic, but it can be anecdotal, in that moment, for what the audience is willing to and wants to react to.

So, while I can’t tell you who Caitlin Clark’s team, the Indiana Fever, will play tonight, tomorrow, or the night after (or even if they play), I can tell you I’ll be following for any viral moments that might play in the news/talk space.

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The Case for News Media Outlets to Utilize Paywalls

Why are we giving our work for free?

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As local newspapers across the country shutter Americans are craving local news, but not in the traditional sense. A new Pew Institute Research study found a large majority of Americans believe local news outlets are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their community.

Yet, only 15% say they have paid or given money to any local news source in the last year.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Except, in this case, there is no such thing as free news. People are in need of, and crave, local journalists’ hard work but are unwilling to pay for it. This is unsustainable.

Pew found 32% of those polled are looking to TV for local news, which is still the most common source of news. However, this is down from 41% in 2018. Just 9% look to print and another 9% look to radio for news. It’s no surprise to anyone Americans are looking to get local news online from websites (26%) and social media (23%).

While the transition from print to digital is relatively easy from a strictly content standpoint, having people pay is borderline impossible. The most common explanation is that people don’t pay because they can find plenty of free local news. The answer for our industry to survive is simple: paywalls.

Even with a Borrell Associates prediction of local broadcast TV advertisements growing 5.9% it won’t last. The agency noted the 2024 bump will fall after the election. We can not rely on every election cycle to survive.

In 20 years, TV won’t be able to subsidize digital (in some markets they are already unable to do this). In fact, this business model needs to be flipped around before local TV and radio stations shutter like newspapers have.

As I said in a previous article, it is unethical to have social media companies pay news outlets for content (like the legislation in Australia and Canada pushed through). But the money has to come from somewhere.

Why are we giving our work for free? A dollar per click on digital advertising is only sustainable (and offers a livable wage) when it comes to clickbait. However, the mind-numbing click farm is not why most of us do what we do.

Journalists are supposed to provide information, stand up for the truth, and have some sort of moral integrity. This does not mean we and our colleagues need to live on barely minimum wage. (Full disclosure, moral integrity does not mean “activist journalism,” which is bad and not actually journalism. I mean have the integrity to keep yourself and your view out of the story.)

Suits, this is where I turn to you. In 2022, local TV over-the-air advertising revenue totaled $20.5 billion according to a Pew study. The same study said profits from digital advertising revenue reached $2 billion. So where does this money go? It’s certainly not in the newsroom.

On average starting salaries are $37,600, according to The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). They calculate since 2020 those who work in news on average lost 8.3% in real wages. However, the amount of airtime for local outlets increased by 18 minutes per weekday. Meaning more work, less pay, and even less time to enjoy that breaking news pizza.

People are now making more at fast food restaurants in California than your newsroom associate with a bachelor’s degree. This is not normal. Invest in your people.

Journalists have so much more to offer the community yet they are not being paid. The companies they work for are not making as much as they could because everyone is afraid to put up a paywall.

If all local news outlets unanimously ask their readers to pay (like we used to before the dot com boom when everyone had to buy a paper) people would pay. They need us to be properly informed. While we are fully aware of our industry’s credit crunch, those outside of our world are blissfully unaware of our precarious situation.

Most importantly, local news outlets are facing a news dotcom problem, ‘Dark Money.’ Axios reported this week the number of biased outlets, that say they are impartial, is more than the number of actual local daily newspapers in the U.S.

Not only are we not being paid for the value of our work, we are competing with people who have bad intentions, unlimited money, and unlimited bandwidth. True news might be dead at the national level but we can not let this happen to local news.

There is no such thing as free news. So why does the industry as a whole treat our valuable content in this way?

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