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Deciphering Through Facts and Opinions

Tony Cartagena

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The Daily / The New York Times

This will never happen, but news broadcasts and podcasts should come with some sort of warning label. Similar to brokered programming on local radio and television, or the people who add ‘opinions are my own’ to their Twitter bio.

‘The following is an opinion formed by the host. May contain personal biases and lack context. Does not necessarily express the views and opinions of….”

As producers and consumers of news media, we have an overwhelming issue on our hands. The cause can be debated. It might derive from having to fill the 24-hour news cycle, advertising dollars, or the pressure to command eyes, ears and clicks on your content at all times.

Either way, news anchors are confusing themselves with commentators and columnists. Consumers have no idea what’s fact and what’s opinion.

News broadcasts on radio, television or in podcast form should be down the middle, factually accurate and allow the listener to form their own opinion based on information provided to them. If you’re a sports fan, equate the news to reading a box score or a game story. Boring, yet helpful.

Think of the podcast ‘The Daily” by The New York Times. Hosted by Michael Barbaro, this podcast is easily my favorite news podcast to listen to and sets the standard for presenting facts, researched by experts, for the listener.

For the most part, personal feelings towards a situation are left at the door. In 30 minutes or less each day, you are educated on a relevant topic, probably before you even finish your morning commute.

A few weeks ago The Daily conducted, edited and posted interviews with members of the ‘anti-vaccine’ crowd.

The following is an opinion: Yes, it was infuriating to listen to and made me question faith in humanity and sanity. But also, it was important for myself to listen to the other side of his hot button debate, and hear their rationale, despite my distain for their behavior.

This dual-prism occurs consistently on the podcast. As it should.

One day they interviewed people working non-stop on the Biden/Harris campaign. The next day a professional journalist was having conversations with religious leaders who supported the Republican party’s candidate, asking how they back a man whose behaviors don’t uphold religious standards.

Obviously I stand on one side of this aisle, but found it important to learn factual news about the other side and the genesis of their opinions. Trying to make it all make sense is easier this way than arguing in the Facebook comments.

The issue we have in news media today is that the opinion disclaimer above, is rarely seen.

Tucker Carlson’s and Chris Cuomo’s opinions on an issue literally don’t matter. They should be writing a political box score. Never be part of the story. Instead we receive daily push notifications on our phones quoting portions of their commentary.

It’s exhausting.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey with 5,035 Americans.

The goal was to determine “whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”

Participants were presented five factual statements, and five opinionated statements.

Here’s a summary of the results:

“A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong

Three out of five is still only 60 percent. And although that may have been a passing grade at your high school, it’s not great overall.

The easiest way I can explain this constant fact versus opinion frustration is through the sports lens.

Another opinion: Stephen A. Smith is one of my all-time favorites. He’s entertaining and he’s in touch with reality. There are a lot of things to love about how he does his job.

Stephen A. however, used to be a journalist. A great one. Now, he’s a commentator with a strong journalistic background.

Essentially every day on the ESPN app, there’s a headline quoting something he said on his daily show “First Take.” Recently it said something along the lines of ‘Stephen A.: I’d love to see Curry team up with LeBron in LA.’ That’s not a direct quote, but it’s close.

That’s not news. But according to Pew, maybe 3-out-of-5 people can recognize the difference. Now we have debates online and in-person about this hypothetical scenario.

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers aren’t discussing a trade. I’m sure he spoke to members of each camp who expressed that it would be a great team, but a quote along these lines is simply an opinion, nothing else.

This is just about a fake super-team, nothing important. Now imagine if that same approach occurred by a major news personality.

On Tuesday morning, at 7:00 am EST, there is a headline on FoxNews.com that simply reads:

“Hannity: ‘Because of the Biden administration, 13 Americans are dead”

How many Americans can decipher whether that’s a fact or opinion? How many are going to click on the link to read more? For those who click, will there be fact or opinion on the website? Will accurate context be provided? Will 2-out-of-5 readers walk around actually thinking that the Biden administration killed 13 people?

It shouldn’t be this complicated.

Journalistic integrity needs to make a comeback. It’s important. We need it now more than ever.

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BNM Writers

It’s Time for News Media to Freshen Up Their Emergency Plans

Be ready for anything. It’s why we do what we do.

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A photo of a tornado

It’s that time of year again, and by that I don’t mean Kyle Schwarber’s annual June home run barrage or the snowbirds returning to Long Island and making the wait for a table at the restaurants down here manageable. No, June 1st means Hurricane Season, and along with the already (and horrifically so) tornado season, it reminds those of us in the news media to be prepared for emergencies.

You know that, I’ve preached it for years (thank you, Howard Price), and it should be obvious by now that whether you’re a broadcast radio or TV operation or an online media outlet, you should be ready for weather emergencies – alternate broadcast sites, system redundancy, generators, all-hands-on-deck work schedules, contacts with all the relevant agencies, all of that. If you don’t have all of that ready by now, you haven’t been paying attention. You should have it ready year-round. No excuses.

But weather isn’t the only emergency. What’s your plan if a major news event happens? And what qualifies as a news event major enough to break into programming or send out a bulletin or shift gears and drop everything else to cover it 24/7?

Take the Trump trial. Do you break into regular programming to cover the verdict? If you do, do you have reporters to handle the live coverage, or experts to explain what happened? Are you ready to cover the story in full, or with just a headline, or just posting on social? Someone has to make that call, and in this case, at least, you have the luxury to make that call before you need to implement the plan.

The emergency could be the death of a notable person. How notable would they have to be before you’d change your programming? For music stations, how big a star would merit changing your playlist on the fly to fill it up with that artist’s music? Do you have obituaries for major figures prepared in advance so that you’re not scrambling to write a suitable story when the news hits?

Remember, some figures transcend formats, some don’t, and some might fall in between; the passing of Bill Walton, for example, was undeniably a sports bulletin but his fame was wider than just basketball, and a rock station might drop a Grateful Dead tune into the hour to honor the band’s biggest (or tallest) fan.

The fact is, while we’ve pointed out how unprepared many broadcast stations are for things like hurricanes, and wildfires, and tornadoes, preparedness is also an issue for other news and programming.

Now is the time to get your experts and contacts lined up and your procedures in place – especially, who makes the call to treat a story as a bulletin, especially if the person normally responsible for making that decision isn’t in the building. Have your social media plans in place as well, and your email bulletin plans ready to go, and make sure everyone knows whose job it is to do each task. The last thing you want is for something to fall through the cracks because someone didn’t know that it was their job.

Of course, you also have to be prepared for those weather emergencies, and with things getting increasingly unpredictable, you need to prepare for anything to happen. Last year, hurricanes threatened the West Coast and tornadoes began to become more frequent here in South Florida. Wildfires are already active in Canada this year, and the power outage season has begun in Texas. Things that used to be mostly isolated to one region or another can happen anywhere.

While it’s safe to assume Miami doesn’t need to worry about blizzards, most other natural disasters – storms, earthquakes, floods, fire – are everywhere. Make sure your station can stay on the air throughout anything, and if your tower falls down and you don’t have an auxiliary antenna someplace else, stream and let people know about it through social media. Arrange the means to go on the air from your local or regional emergency center. You should know the drill by now. You should have a drill to know.

Be ready for anything. It’s why we do what we do.

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BNM Writers

Pittsburgh Native Colin Dunlap Knows the Importance of Hosting Afternoons on KDKA

“It not lost on me — even if it is with some people my age — what that mic flag means … There’s a responsibility that when you talk into that microphone.”

Garrett Searight

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A photo of KDKA afternoon host Colin Dunlap
Courtesy: Derek Futterman, Barrett Sports Media

After dipping his toes in the news/talk genre, Pittsburgh native Colin Dunlap was named the afternoon drive host at KDKA after the departure of Rick Dayton amid a round of layoffs from parent company Audacy.

Dunlap is no stranger to both the talk radio format — spending several years hosting mornings at Audacy Pittsburgh sports talk sister station 93.7 The Fan — or the Steel City, as the native Pittsburgher knows the significance a station like KDKA holds in the community.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that’s for sure,” Dunlap said. “Maybe people outside of radio don’t understand, but I do think that many people inside radio do understand that when you speak into a KDKA microphone — particularly when it’s a drivetime spot — it’s very akin to putting on a Notre Dame football uniform or wearing a Yankees uniform or a Dodgers uniform in so much as the heritage, and the lineage, and responsibility that comes with it. Especially being someone from Pittsburgh. I know that responsibility and that understanding of history is never lost on me.”

“I see KDKA as a civic trust, just as much as been elected official,” he continued. “We have identifiable quotients that mark our city that people can rely on. And I see KDKA as that for, it’s not an exaggeration to say, generations.”

Dunlap began his media career as a newspaper reporter before jumping into sports talk. And despite switching formats, he believes he has a solid foundation on what it takes to succeed in news/talk.

“Don’t be a paid actor. Be the person that got you in this position which is simply the person tasked with the responsibility and also lucky enough to be on the other side of the mic,” he said. “But very simply put … really all I am is a 47-year-old born and bred lifelong Pittsburgh guy who potentially is listening on the other side and I have much more in common — I think — with the people who are on the other side of the speakers than most people in this industry. Because nothing turns me off more in any realm of talk radio — sports talk, news/talk, whatever — than paid actors. Schtick pedalers.”

And while Colin Dunlap pledges to be his authentic self every afternoon from 2-6 PM ET, he also is cognizant that he’ll get a little more leeway with the tribal Pittsburgh audience than an out-of-town host.

“We might be the most provincial place in the world,” Dunlap joked. “They’re not going to warm to you if you’re not (from Pittsburgh), but (listeners) would absolutely use it against you the very first opportunity they’d get if you’re not. That’s the thing … If a guy comes in from another town, they’re not going to say ‘I’m not listening to him!’, but they’re ready to pounce if he doesn’t do it right.

“And one of the first pieces of ammunition they’re going to use is ‘You don’t get us. You’re not from here. Go back to where you’re from.’ Even if they disagree with me, they know they can’t use that. Call it provincial or what it is, it merits a level of respect. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s how Western Pennsylvanians are wired. We stick together even if we disagree.”

He added, however, that that attitude isn’t a bad thing.

“People are more apt to understand if you’re on a different side, if you’re from here and you live it. If you don’t, then they won’t even give you the time of day,” he said. “I think that’s indigenous to the Rust Belt and it’s why I think this medium has persisted probably better in the Rust Belt is it is a communal sense. If you take a nice scoop out of the country and run it from Detroit and through Toledo, and then Cleveland, and then Pittsburgh, up to Buffalo … we have a sense of a tied-in community, in good times and in bad in a sense of trust with each other.”

A hardcore news/talk listener might be dismissive of a host coming to the genre from sports, where the topics aren’t as serious and a little more fun can be hand. However, Dunlap believes there’s a natural defense against such charges.

“I found that preparedness trumps all in all of this,” he shared. “I still draw out a topic tree the same way. And I found that if you have a multi-layer discussion and multi-layered preparedness, that it’s a transferable skill. If you go into talking about the Steelers, or you go into talking about the mayor’s office, and you just have one point and no depth, then your discussion is going to suck. If you go into talking about the Steelers or the mayor’s office, and you have tangentially 14 different things that come off of your main point, you’re generally going to have a successful discussion.

“And the key to both of those is preparedness. Preparedness in depths and layers to your discussion. So from that standpoint, it’s different clay but it’s pliable the same way.”

With his Pittsburgh roots, it might be easy to diminish the importance of a legacy brand like KDKA. However, Colin Dunlap noted he’s often reminded about how important the station is to not only those in Western Pennsylvania but around the nation.

“You have people from Los Angeles, or Dallas, or Denver, or Miami, or wherever, and it always takes me aback in a way, but it doesn’t surprise me when they hear KDKA. They know what it is,” he said. “And there’s a responsibility whenever you talking to that microphone — not to diminish the merits of other stations — but when you’re talking into that microphone … that’s a big deal to me.

“I remind myself every day before I go in that all these words mean something because there’s still a portion of the listening audience — and I would hope it continues in perpetuity — that there’s a big trust variable with them because of who we are and what those four letters are.”

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A Reminder to News/Talk Radio Hosts About Authenticity and the Character You Play on the Air

We are all putting on a performance. It is quite likely that if you are not performing, you will not have an audience. But you must be real.

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A photo of a radio board

There are many personalities — both on news/talk radio and outside the format — that are no longer real. They have become their character. These people have lost the ability to stop performing off the air. Anyone who is on the air amplifies an aspect of their personality. I will explain why this is essential, but how to control it. 

Being frank, many of us on-air personalities have deep insecurities. That microphone allows us to create a character that we wish to become. Your shyness disappears. You’re now the life of the party and you are everything that you envy. There is a trade-off, though. You can become lost inside your fantasy of how you wish to be perceived. There is an old wrestler named Ric Flair. Ric lives his high-flying character, 24/7. Ric has burned through some marriages. His high-living character guarantees that he always needs money. Ric Flair, the human, has been buried by the character.

As a Program Director, I generally have a rule about no air names. You are on the air to connect with your audience. Air names may create an artificial barrier. This can create real problems in life.

I have a former co-worker who I allowed to have an air name because he was an institution in the market. He told of some of the problems having with his nom de plume. He met a lady at an event. They started to date. About three months into the relationship, someone greeted him by his given name. He eventually married this lady, and she occasionally yells at him over his deception.

There was nothing wrong with his given name. A station owner had given him the name when he was 19 and the dude was using the air name 40+ years into his career. This guy is often angrily reminded by the wife that he deceived her. I am sure that if he could have kept his character name from her he would have done it forever.

Another friend had used an obviously fake first name. This monicker went back to his disc jockey days. I have known this guy for almost a decade and really have no idea who the real guy is. Nice enough fellow, but his “character” has overcome reality. I used to spend a lot of time with this guy. He has lost connection with reality. He is always in character. When you contact the real guy, it is always a very brief moment.

Your life is always enhanced when you can be your true self. You may not be as exciting as I am. You must be authentic.

This is show business. We are all performing. It is quite likely that if you are not performing, you will not have an audience. But you must be real.

There is a relatively well-known talk show host. He is exceptionally talented. I was at a dinner at a radio event where a network was thinking about giving him a syndicated show. This guy was unable to have a conversation. He destroyed the actual offer that was going to be coming to him. This guy was totally unable to have a conversation out of character. It ruined a perfectly nice dinner with some awesome people.

You need to know your surroundings. This guy just couldn’t be a normal guy. He was not on the air. He was surrounded by radio people. You don’t need to be a huge personality. You are not on the radio. Shut it down a bit. Listen.

I know a lovely woman. She has been a top radio personality on many amazing stations. An amazing disc jockey, talk show host, and human being. I don’t know who she is. I have spent time socially and at radio events with this woman. She is an awesome wife, mother, and friend. She can totally be exhausting to be around.

How to solve this? You are not in a radio studio. Shut up. Listen. You are not performing. Be real. Are you lost as to who you really are? Therapy. You may need to speak with someone. You also are an amazing person. People need to accept you for you. While I never used an air name, as a daily host. I was always authentic to who I was.

If you cannot come to grips with this, therapy may be for you. I have had a couple of rounds of therapy. It can be good for you. It was for me. I went through a divorce. It is a tough thing. I felt like I was ripped in half. Radio was certainly part of my recovery. I needed to discover who I was again.

If you are living in an alternate universe, therapy may be the thing for you. You have a radio show. People know who you are. You go into a restaurant and are likely greeted by a fan. I often think about what it is like to be Brad Pitt. The women? Ok, a slightly unhinged woman named Angelina is trying to rip poor Brad limb from limb emotionally. Brad does not look like he could be a radio guy. He doesn’t seem like he will be pitching Jenny Craig with Marie Osmond.

The truer you are to yourself, the happier you will be. Remember, the greatest lie that you can ever tell is the lie that you tell yourself.

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