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The Future of News/Talk – Part 1

Part one of a series seeking to find the answers to the question, ‘What’s the future of news/talk radio?’

Ryan Maguire

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Photo by Andrew Magill CC BY 2.0.

As I’ve mentioned before, spoken word media is very much at a crossroads.

The passing of Rush Limbaugh, in a way, was symbolic of the proverbial “fork in the road” that the news/talk format is currently staring at. 

With that in mind, the question needs to be asked; what is the future of news/talk radio? 

Oh, I forgot, “radio” is a dirty word these days.  I should have said news/talk MEDIA.

Over the next few weeks, we’re embarking on a multi-part series to find the answers.

As I’ve often said, when tough questions like this are asked, I enlist the help of people that are far smarter than yours truly.  We’ll get the perspectives of people from all sides of the industry, from talent to management to sales and beyond.

For part one of our series, we turn to a consultant.

Phil Tower has had an impressive career in broadcast media.

He’s been a host in multiple formats, worked in management at various levels and has also spent nearly 30 years as an Adjunct Professor of Communications and Mass Media at several different colleges. 

On a side note, he’s also someone that, for years, I could never get a hold of.

Tower has owned and operated his own media consultancy in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the last decade.  I remember him as the guy I would listen to on WOOD-AM and WLAV-FM.  As an aspiring radio nerd, teenage me tried to call him, introduce myself and get his advice on how I could do what he did.  

Naturally, I never got past the secretary who worked the switchboard at the radio station. 

Thanks to the power of social media, Phil and I finally connected a few months ago.  Now, after all this time, I can finally get his advice.

With the passing of Rush, many of his affiliates seem to have been left in limbo.  What do you think iHeart’s plans will be for that time slot?

Premiere Networks has already been very public about the fact that they are going to continue to honor the legacy of Rush by continuing to keep the show going by utilizing a strong lineup very talented fill-in hosts (Ken Matthews, Todd Herman, Brett Winterble, Mark Steyn) that are already very familiar voices for his audience. I think this is a very wise strategy for Premiere Networks to employ. Rush Limbaugh was bigger than life and his show aired for 30+ years. Given that, Premiere has a treasure trove of timeless audio cuts from Rush Limbaugh that will still be relevant given whatever topic A is for a given day.

What should Limbaugh affiliates be doing right now?

The smartest move is to be patient and stay the course. I highly doubt there will be a serious ratings degradation for the short term and maybe even longer.  A few stations have already made the move to launch local shows and while that may work in the long run, often when stations introduce a new show and host to the audience, they take a much bigger risk of losing ratings and revenue.

There will be syndicated options in that time slot (Cumulus is offering Dan Bongino).  Would stations be better served to look for LOCAL alternatives?

Unless they already have a well-established local option, I would advise stations to look at the offering of syndicated choices if they can’t lock up the Rush Limbaugh Show for their market. I firmly believe that the next 12 to 18 months will present a much clearer picture of how the spoken word format will evolve after the passing of such an iconic host. At the same time, I don’t think Rush will ever truly “disappear from relevance” given the long-lasting impact he has had on the spoken word format.

For stations (even smaller market ones) that want to look for a local solution to Limbaugh, where could they look?

Unless they have a strong option already existing in house, I would look at successful news journalists, TV hosts with a strong brand and popularity in their own market. There may also be options in terms of local bloggers/podcasters who are especially successful as social influencers. I think it’s very important to look at talent who can express themselves confidently both as a speaker and writer. Writing skills are more important than ever.

There are over a million podcasts cluttering the spoken word space right now.  How can terrestrial stations continue to stand out with so many different content choices?

The battle for “share of ear” Is as intense as it ever has been.  Terrestrial stations can stand out by super serving their listeners and by being available on multiple platforms and reminding their listeners of that daily. I think it’s also very critical that successful terrestrial brands make all of their shows contact available as podcasts. I also strongly urge them to go one step beyond that by encouraging/pushing local hosts to create standalone content for podcast. Loyal listeners have already demonstrated they want this content.  In the iHeartRadio ecosystem, the practice of hosts creating standalone content for digital was the norm. That discipline should become standard practice for every spoken word talent looking to extend their personal brand.   I’m very bullish and always hopeful that brighter days are ahead for the spoken word format. The one huge upside to the podcasting boom is that it has by default become a new massive incubator for talent.  Every smart programmer in this format should be aware of who is hosting standout podcasts in their region and they should be paying attention to those talent. I’m also especially hopeful that the format will be more welcoming to women.  Lots of women are creating great dynamic content and killing it as podcasters and there’s no reason that many of them couldn’t be as successful in live radio. I don’t care if they have a political bent or they’re just unique people who are strong storytellers.  In the end, women hosts deserve more seats at the talk radio round table.

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Is Radio Ready to Move at the Speed of AI?

We can only imagine where AI will lead us, and yet we can’t.

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A post-it note with A.I. written on it

Who are your favorite radio personalities from your past? Wouldn’t it be great if you could listen to The Real Don Steele, Dan Ingram, or Dr. Don Rose every single day again playing the latest hits and yakking about current issues? What if the late, great Vin Scully still did current Dodgers games?

It’s not only possible, but it won’t be long before it happens.

I would love to hear Paul Harvey’s folksy commentary on yet another Trump-Biden election. (I’d love to hear it but it would still be creepy and somewhat offensive because he’s dead. But that’s just me.)

AI voice and image-mimicking technology are about to become the biggest practical and ethical problem facing the radio, TV, and movie industries.

If it can be done it will be done. That’s an observation accredited to several sources including and beyond the Bible but regardless of who said it first it’s an inexorable truth and ethics has nothing to do with it.

Artificial Intelligence is a genie that can’t be stuffed back into the bottle. AI radio disc jockeys are already here. So are nonhuman voice actors.

“There are jobs that would have gone to voice actors that are now going to synthetic voices.”

Tim Friedlander is president and co-founder of the National Association of Voice Actors. He told me that AI can’t yet replicate human emotion but admits some of that doesn’t matter.

“For the most part you can definitely tell the difference, an AI can’t act the same way or perform the same way that a human actor can, but in a lot of these e-learning or training videos or informational videos it’s purely a transaction of information. There’s no need for an emotional transaction. It’s just purely getting information across.”

Friedlander says he’s hearing regularly from voice actors who are losing gigs. All he can do is advocate on their behalf to protect human rights from being plowed under by new voice and image-mimicking technology.

“There are no federal laws that give you the right to your voice. So, none of us own the right to the sound of our voice. We potentially have rights over a (specific) performance we’ve given. If we’re a celebrity, we have some right of publicity that could possibly protect us in some capacity but we, as citizens in the United States don’t have the right to (own) our voices.

“That’s a thorny problem when it comes down to trying to codify it, to pass laws, especially when you’ve got a bunch of people who are passing the laws, who barely know how to use their phones.”

Tim’s undeniably right about that. But the bigger question is, after we’ve pounded on our Congressional representatives to preserve individual rights for actors, narrators, and audiobook readers will it make any difference in the long run?

Spotify already has a very good AI disc jockey who not only sounds realistic but can address you by name, play the specific music you want to hear, and relate to you personally. In its inception, it impressively mimics the voice and delivery style of real-life deejay, Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s Head of Cultural Partnerships, who previously hosted Spotify’s morning show, The Get Up.

After hearing the Spotify demo I reacted with a mind-blown “Whoa!” as if I was Kramer in Seinfeld. Now I’m wondering if I can get Robert W. Morgan and Bobby Ocean as my personalized deejays.

Like it or not, AI-generated content and voices, mimicked and newly created, are changing what we anachronistically call radio.

It’s time to get up to speed and deal with it.

Though we try to reassure ourselves that AI voice technology will never be able to match the soul and nuance of life expressed by living, trained human voices, we’re required to ask ourselves two questions: First, are we sure of that? Second, will anybody care?

Unanswerable questions aside, we still have work to do.

We must stop resisting inevitable change—not because our ethical concerns are invalid, but because we can’t stop the inevitable. All we can hope to do is manage the challenges and that’s a tall order.

Two bills stewing in Congress at the moment, the No AI Fraud Act and the No FAKES Act, both designed to establish voice and image rights, are good first attempts to deal with the issue but they only address AI use as far as the technology can currently be defined and used. They can’t anticipate future developments and legal loopholes. Opponents of each bill as written say they would cause more problems than they would solve.

Constitutional Law and Supreme Court expert David Coale, partner with Lynn, Pinker, Hurst, and Schegmann in Dallas, explains the legal considerations.

“I’m sympathetic but we already have two complicated bodies of tort law in this area—defamation laws where you can’t lie about someone, and fraud laws where you can’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. Beyond that, you’re well into activity protected by the First Amendment. Adding another complicated body of law on top of all that really does risk causing more problems than it solves.”

Coale is just bringing us back to reality. Lawyers will continue writing contracts, filing suits, and arguing the Constitution. Infotainment entrepreneurs and those who go by the trendy title “influencers” will ply their trades as profitably as possible. In what we still think of as radio, we will, too, as long as there’s an appetite for information and an exchange of ideas.

If we’re to meet the future we have to embrace new ways to create, disseminate, and sell content. We need to leave nostalgia in our shoebox of old pictures and forget much of the how but not the why of what we’ve learned.

Once we’re on that road we can let the marketplace guide us.

I’m not sure I want to hear Vin Scully explain the ghost runner at second going into the tenth inning. Even the best AI can only draw upon his public record to guess what he might have thought and how he would have said it. I like to think Vin hated the idea and would explain that to us with his famously clear and convincing clarity.

I knew Dr. Don Rose and my first thought about listening to him again in real-time was, as much as I miss him I don’t want to hear a genuine-sounding fake of him cracking one-liners about personal pronouns or Taylor Swift. Or, do I? He would make us laugh at the silliness of both subjects without offending anyone, and he’d stamp it with a horn honk and a giggle that perfectly hit the vocal.

We can only imagine where AI will lead us, and yet we can’t.

What would Jesus do in a given situation? We’ll soon be told and probably even hear it in his own impressively imagined and digitized voice. A lot of people will be pissed.

In radio, we need to stop hand-wringing about these things and start planning how to use it all to create a wonderfully enhanced experience for listeners and to turn a profit in the process.

“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.” -Kahlil Gibran

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Kate Rooney Has Become One of Tech’s Leading Reporters After Nearly a Decade at CNBC

“You have to just do it to get better and it’s so public but you have to mess up to get better.”

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A photo of CNBC reporter Kate Rooney
(Photo: CNBC)

She’s smart, funny, and positively positive. CNBC tech reporter Kate Rooney is always looking to make “the next right move” and ask Silicone Valley the hard questions, even if it sometimes makes her feel like a “party pooper.”

“A question [I ask] every time I talk to someone is ‘What’s the risk?’ or ‘How do you think about the risk?’ Because it is something people out here don’t think about. But I think Silicon Valley and tech is such an inherently optimistic group of people. And that’s been paid off in a big way,” Rooney said on a recent Zoom call.

Being a naturally optimistic person, Rooney said she’s learned to be skeptical at times, especially during her time covering Sam Bankman-Fried. “[He] is basically the poster child of [Silicon Valley and crypto] industry and ended up being one of the biggest fraudsters of all time — one of the biggest financial frauds in history. It is just a good reminder that regardless of who the investors are, regardless of how accredited and bona fide a founder is, you just always have that in the back of your head.”

She later added, “One of the things that struck me about Sam Bankman-Fried was how fast it happened. Bernie Madoff was over multiple decades. And it took years and years and years to build that reputation, to build his Ponzi scheme, really. Bankman-Fried did this in a couple of years.”

Rooney never expected her aspirations of being a print reporter would lead her to a TV job, but her years of hard work across four continents prove otherwise. As a communications student at Boston College, Rooney wasn’t sure she wanted to go into journalism until her last year of college.

“I started writing for The Heights — which is the Boston College newspaper — my senior year and took a great journalism class. And one of my professors there recommended journalism school.”

Attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Kate Rooney said she received a real hands-on experience that “opened a lot of doors” for her.

“It’s a one-year program, so that really accelerated the journalism move. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so many options,’ because you do print, do broadcast, do some investigative reporting.” It’s here where she was able to travel the globe reporting from Argentina, Israel, and the Philippines before coming back home to tackle Washington, D.C.

“I was in a print path, and that’s where I thought I wanted to go and cover politics. I went to D.C. for one of the quarters, and you get a press pass to go and work on Capitol Hill. And you’re kind of a stringer for these local papers. So that just felt like it was the most exciting thing you could possibly think of.”

While the field changed for the Division I lacrosse player, she found a lot of similarities between sports and politics. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually it’s kind of like sports. There’s a winner and a loser, and it’s exciting.’ Just being in D.C., you kind of catch the bug.”

Toward the end of graduate school, Kate Rooney landed an internship at Bloomberg before coming home to close to where she grew up in New Jersey.

“[A friend of mine] introduced me to someone at CNBC. I came in and started interviewing and got this job in the news associate program, which is sort of when you rotate and you jump around. You start on one team for three months and then you go to the next team.”

She’s been with CNBC ever since.

Since 2015, Kate Rooney has grown with the station from segment and field producing to reporting on the markets and now Big Tech. “I was so nervous before [going on air for the first time], but I felt after I ripped the bandaid and was on air once, I was like, ‘Ok, I think I could actually make this happen as a career.’”

Rooney did note there were some difficult points in broadcasting. “It’s like anything, you have to just do it to get better and it’s so public but you have to mess up to get better. You have to make mistakes. And when you make mistakes on TV, it’s one of the most painful feelings you can imagine. It’s just so embarrassing. But yeah, you get better with time. It’s one of those things that you kind of just have to be out there and try it.”

Today what Kate Rooney loves about her job is learning something new every day. “[I am] talking to some of the smartest investors in the world, and you walk out and you’re like, ‘That was fascinating.’ Just getting to hear their take and they’ll spend the time explaining one of these interesting tech topics.”

For those looking to follow in her footsteps, Rooney to two pieces of advice. One, “Say yes to everything, especially in journalism.”

“If you have the mindset of saying yes and taking on whatever assignment somebody gives you, you’ll learn something and you’ll become a better journalist.”

Two? “Make the next right move.”

“My grandfather, who is a huge role model of mine, would always say ‘Make the next right move,’ because you get so ahead of yourself. If you’re ambitious and you want to get somewhere, you can kind of spiral quickly to say like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not exactly what I wanted to do.’ But if you make the next right decision again, those compound and you’ll get to where you want to go.”

Rooney loves what she is doing at CNBC but noted what comes next is evolving her reporting skills as the industry changes.

“Adapting to whatever the news is going to look like. I think that’s probably going to be a challenge for a lot of reporters. Not that any of us want to go and be a TikTok reporter, but just making sure, like we’re finding our audience where they are [because] people are consuming news really differently than they used to be.”

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Is Buying a Radio or TV Station Even Feasible in 2024?

For those of you still fantasizing about picking up a radio or TV station on the cheap and putting together the programming of your dreams, how realistic do you think you’re being?

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A photo of a radio station studio

A million years ago, when I was young and carefree and just starting out in the business, my goal was to own a radio station. One would have been enough, just a local-yokel operation with low overhead and a list of grateful local advertisers. We actually came reasonably close to making a deal for exactly that kind of station, but I couldn’t get the money together quickly enough.

It’s just as well. The fantasy of owning a station evolved into this reality: a) I was never going to own a station, and b) today, I wouldn’t be interested in putting any of my own money into radio. Or television. Or newspapers. I still see people posting on Facebook that they want to own a station, and good luck to those brave souls, but I’m not among them anymore.

This came to mind when it was reported by CNBC this week that Sinclair Broadcast Group is looking to sell over 30% of its television stations — that’s about 60 stations nationwide – including those in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, and Fresno. Whatever the reason they’re selling, the question is who would even buy those stations? Broadcast television, like broadcast radio, is not exactly in growth mode.

When the big broadcast networks appear to be putting more eggs in the streaming basket and rumors have all of them willing to sell their broadcast licenses, that’s not a great sign for their affiliates, either.

Nevertheless, the price for Sinclair’s stations will not be cheap, and in television, it’s hard to see too many companies willing to buy unless they’re giving it all away. Who’s willing to pay more? Tegna? Apollo/Cox? Byron Allen? Who’s left to buy into broadcast TV when streaming is becoming so pervasive that the NFL is putting more and more games online?

The price will also be fairly high if Audacy sells off some or all of its assets, or Beasley, or Cumulus. And even if the price correlated to some metric of reasonable success, it would take someone with the cash in their personal account to do a deal, because Wall Street is not impressed by a business that breaks even or makes a little money. Do you think you could get a meeting with investors and convince them to back you in buying radio stations, even if the price would otherwise be right? Go ahead and try.

And if you’re looking to buy a large group, remember that private equity investors are looking for businesses they can strip-mine for saleable assets. They don’t care about the operation, they care if there’s real estate to be sold off. Ask anyone in the newspaper industry how that works out.

All of this is a shame because there are people making a go of it in all of these businesses. There are radio and television stations unburdened with debt making a tidy profit that might not get Wall Street excited but can support a staff, a news department, a promotions budget, and the light bill. Most of them have been in the same hands forever, though, and can thrive as long as the family members who inherit the facilities are interested in keeping things going. I’m not sure we have too many more generations left who would be interested in keeping an increasingly past-tense business going.

It’s like inheriting a typewriter repair shop; even if there’s enough business right now, you can see the typewriting on the wall.

So, I’m out. But for those of you still fantasizing about picking up a radio or TV station on the cheap and putting together the programming of your dreams, how realistic do you think you’re being? Do you think you could put together the money? How much debt would you be comfortable taking on? Is growth really a possibility with a broadcast station? How much would you need to see? Is it possible in 2024 to do that, or is this the radio or television version of fantasy football?

Whatever it is, I’d love to see someone give it a shot. Hey, it’s not MY money.

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