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No Issue is Off Limits For WABC’s Sid Rosenberg

“Imus was a brilliant radio guy, who tutored guys like me and Bernie, yet when you bring him up now all you hear about is Rutgers.”

Jerry Barmash

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For more than a decade, Sid Rosenberg has been a reliable and powerful voice in New York radio. Not one to pigeonhole himself, the sports broadcaster at WFAN and WNEW’s “The Sports Guys”would eventually become co-host of the 77 WABC morning show. There, politics has taken center stage, culminating with former president Donald Trump calling in to Sid and Bernard McGuirk, days after switching from middays in 2018.

“He was glib. He was funny,” Rosenberg told BNM. “He was very good to me and Bernie. He’s known us both for a long time.”

That longstanding relationship played into their questioning as they opted to hurl softballs at the sitting president.

“Were we easy on him? Sure, because he’s a friend,” Rosenberg said.

Such a major get would have seemed unthinkable years earlier, but the natural transition began in Florida a decade earlier. He worked at three all-sports stations in South Florida but started to ease politics into the mix. The pendulum swung away from sports in 2012 when Rosenberg covered the Obama/Romney debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton. 

It was at his last gig—WMEN 640 AM in Palm Beach— Rosenberg created a politics/sports hybrid show, “much to the chagrin of my program directors and the GM.”

Rosenberg was at a crossroads professionally, enjoying sports, but equally passionate about the future of the country. A more wide-ranging show was born using the Don Imus and Howard Stern blueprint.

Of course, talking politics took an expected turn during the Trump years. It all came to a boiling point for broadcasting companies after the January 6, 2021 deadly insurrection at the Capitol.  A mandate was ordered, included at Rosenberg’s Red Apple Media that owns WABC. Hosts were told to no longer spread lies or misinformation on air.

“They didn’t have to do that with me,” Rosenberg said. “I was critical of Donald Trump from the very beginning. A guy like Bernie did need the edict.”

Overall, media have come under scrutiny for its coverage of Trump. When it came to the Capitol rioting and its aftermath, outlets didn’t lose sleep over the violence according to Rosenberg.

Left-leaning cable networks “loved it,” said Rosenberg. “They spent the better part of three and a half years finding new ways to criticize, if not malign, Donald Trump.”  

As for the top conservative voices, such as Sean Hannity, “They didn’t care. They were so angry with the way President Trump was treated and covered,” Rosenberg said. 

While the opinionated Rosenberg admits it was a bad day for Trump, he said, allowing it to define his presidency is akin to what happened to Don Imus.

“He was a brilliant radio guy, who tutored guys like me and Bernie, yet when you bring up Imus now all you talk about is Rutgers,” Rosenberg said.

The Brooklynite, who could be unapologetic on the mic, grew up listening to Stern as a teenager. Rosenberg kept following Stern’s show as he got older and had a family.

He would work with the I-Man years later, on and off, for close to 20 years at WFAN and WABC.

“Both of those guys have influenced me a tremendous amount,” Rosenberg said. “The one thing Imus did teach me was authenticity. He just wanted to make sure each day he was provocative, entertaining, compelling and gave you who he was. That’s what Bernie and I try to do every day. It used to be Howard, but less and less these days, because he’s become very Hollywood.”

As for Imus, who died in the final days of 2020 at age 79, he was also known as a curmudgeon later in life. 

“He was in a bad mood every f***ing day,” Rosenberg recalled. “You couldn’t discern if that was an act or not, but it wasn’t.”

Aside from that drama, little changed to the “Bernie and Sid” show, save for the move to mornings. Behind the scenes, though, was another matter, as Rosenberg had a front-row seat to ownership upheaval.

Cumulus sold WABC in 2020, when John Catsimatidis, the billionaire tycoon, bought the legendary radio station for $12.5 million. The new owner, who runs the Gristedes supermarket chain, made his first foray into media with the vaunted 50,000 watts at 770 on the AM dial. Catsimatidis, though, had been doing a radio show on rival 970 AM WNYM.

The changes from ownership are “night and day,” Rosenberg explained. “They care, let’s start with that.”

Rosenberg, who turned 54 on April 19, contends Cumulus was more focused on “making a couple of bucks,” and he said Mary Berner [President and CEO] was trying to make it worth something it’s not.

Berner would sell off a station “without any hesitation.”

By contrast, Sid speaks to Catsimatidis every day, a relationship that eluded him with Cumulus. Not long after the ink dried on the Red Apple Media takeover of WABC, they put forth a new contract, this time with their morning show. Rosenberg received a multi-year extension.

Aside from securing Rosenberg for the long term, Catsimatidis has used his love of New York City radio to explore a vintage weekend look.

“Cumulus didn’t give a shit. They sold it out—doctor this, lawyer that,” Rosenberg said. 

Bruce Morrow (Cousin Brucie) is back on WABC for a Saturday night oldies show. The station, thereafter, added Tony Orlando for his own spin on the classic hits from decades ago. It’s believed to be his first radio show.

Catsimatidis and company didn’t stop there.

They brought Joe Piscopo on board from 970 AM for a Sunday night Frank Sinatra program. Despite Piscopo’s morning show hosting duties for the Hackensack, NJ, station, Rosenberg has no concern for his job security.

“I don’t give a f**k if you’re Howard Stern, Don Imus, Craig Carton or Mike Francesa,” Rosenberg admitted. “I never look over my shoulder. I don’t think anybody is nearly as good. Joe is a solid talent. He’s good on the air. There’s no question about it. But he ain’t better than me.”

Under Red Apple’s auspices, Dave Labrozzi is the program director. He moved across the hall when WABC was still located above Madison Square Garden in 2019 after Cumulus’ WPLJ was sold. He replaced Craig Schwalb, now director of content integration and operations at WTOP in Washington.

“Dave and I have bashed heads more than I ever did with Craig,” Rosenberg said. “Schwalb was a little easier to convince than Dave. I would say Dave is a little more old school in the way he operates the station, what he expects from his talent.” 

WABC is keeping a close eye on iHeart’s WOR 710 AM, home to Sean Hannity (who originally was part of the TalkRadio 77 WABC team). As of March 2021, WABC trailed WOR, 2.3-1.9, in the Nielsen ratings. While WABC stayed virtually unchanged in the previous six months, a disturbing trend emerged at WOR, which slipped from 3.6 in November to 2.4 at the close of winter holiday book.

But Rosenberg claims his show has “beaten the shit out of WOR lately” with Len Berman and Michael Riedel.

While Rosenberg may not be going anywhere, the station did make an odd programming choice this year by cutting the morning show by 30 minutes. “The Early Show with Juliet Huddy and Frank Morano” was extended from 5 to 6:30 a.m. Sid, though, is part of the lead-in, providing sports and commentary.

“Three and a half hours is a long show anyway,” Rosenberg said.

Plus, cutting into “Bernie and Sid” for the greater good of WABC is fine with him.  

Staying connected to his “first love,” sports, Rosenberg was given a weekend show –Sid Sunday Sports – although it’s been off the air in recent months.

“The summer is here, and I don’t want to spend two hours on a Sunday afternoon while my wife and kids are going to the beach, sitting in a studio on Third Avenue talking baseball,” Rosenberg said.

He expects to resume this show in the fall for football season, “I believe.”

Rosenberg may not be talking baseball, but he did help WABC hire Ed Randall, his former WFAN colleague for his longtime branded ‘Talking Baseball’ Sunday afternoons.

From Randall to Morrow, weekends give listeners and station brass a chance to catch their breath from the heavier topics and news. However, politics is not eliminated from the weekend programming with Jeannie Pirro, Dick Morris, the owner himself, Catsimatidis and Rudy Giuliani, who also hosts a weekday program.

Giuliani made news on April 28 when feds searched and seized evidence from his Manhattan office as part of their investigation. Which begs the question, is it time for WABC to pull the plug on the former mayor?

“I don’t think so,” Rosenberg contended. “Anybody [who] knew, was involved with, let alone, close to Donald Trump, they’re looking to humiliate, embarrass, if not find a way to put him in jail. There’s nothing here. This goes right back again to the Russian hoax, the Ukraine hoax… You take Rudy Giuliani off the air, you’re basically saying he’s guilty, and he’s not.”

Until proof is shown that Giuliani did something illegal, “you don’t take the man off the air. Once you do that you’re saying, ‘he’s toxic.’”

Rosenberg is proud that WABC bosses are “not going to destroy a man’s career over a lie.”

However, Rosenberg does anticipate his former colleague Curtis Sliwa, who left WABC during a mayoral run this year, will be back on the air. Since leaving, Sliwa’s noon-3 p.m. slot has been co-opted by syndicated Charlie Kirk followed by Newsmax early evening star Greg Kelly with a two-hour local show. Kelly is known to New Yorkers for his several years spent on Fox 5’s “Good Day New York.”

Rosenberg, who is making appearances for the Republican candidate, expects Sliwa will win his party’s nomination in the June 22 primary, but “he’ll have difficulty beating Eric Adams [Brooklyn borough president]” in the general election.

Catsimatidis, who briefly talked about his own mayoral run and a possible gubernatorial campaign next year to oppose Governor Andrew Cuomo, maintains a close bond with Sliwa.

“So, I think these guys are kind of keeping it warm,” Rosenberg said.

Where the Guardian Angels founder will find himself for an eventual WABC return remains uncertain, but “that choice, while not solely up to him, will probably be somewhat up to him. If I had to guess,” Rosenberg said.

Harder to fill is the spot previously held by the legendary Rush Limbaugh, who died in February. Dan Bongino, though, could be the “heir-apparent” for conservatives, as Westwood One’s new midday host. However, Premiere Networks hasn’t named a replacement for Limbaugh’s slot, as they air “best of” clips.

“Rush was magnificent. I don’t care if you liked his politics or not,” Rosenberg said. “The guy knew how to do a radio show and that’s the bottom line.”

With the changes on the New York radio landscape, and at WABC itself, Rosenberg remains a constant, spanning more than 20 years on air. He uses that clout to create the best content.

“[Catsimatidis], along with Chad Lopez [Red Apple Media/WABC president] and Dave Labrozzi have given me a tremendous amount of freedom to do the morning show the way I always wanted to.”

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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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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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