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Media Professionals Deserve Safer Streets

“Whether one wishes to admit it or not there are similarities, parallels even, in news reporting and police work.”

Bill Zito

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They stand out pretty much wherever they are; they draw attention all by themselves.

The journalist covering the story, casting an aura all their own; a news crew no matter how large or small often becomes the focus of as much interest by passersby and neighborhood kids as the police crime scene tape or smoldering building they stand in front of.

Picture the enthusiastic sports fan leaving the stadium and spying the camera, the radio mic flag or the live truck and suddenly it’s like kids spotting the ice cream truck coming down the street. That said, what is becoming more and more common are those attracted to the scene not because of the news presence or the story but because of an opportunity, and not the righteous kind. Unfortunately and more often these days making for a story all by itself.

Released this month, reporting from the latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey showing 1 in 5 television news directors describing attacks on their newsroom employees.

One in five, that is a lot.

In addition, one might think it’s only happening at large stations in the big markets or only at the most extreme events or perhaps while covering incidents like protests and demonstrations that got out of control. Nope. Actually, it’s rather evenly spread out across market and station size and happening whether there is a 3-person crew or a 1-person MMJ (Multimedia Journalist) on the story.

The type of assaults and/or attacks are equally diverse. There are random interruptions by the opportunists, jumping in and out of live shots or shouting profanities. Most reporters and photographers will say those are an almost everyday occurrence and just part of the job.

Nevertheless, we have all seen the YouTube and other social media postings where it goes further, sometimes much further. Spit upon, slapped and even punched, news cars and equipment damaged or stolen.

What drives it? Is it a rising dislike and distrust of the media?

Doubtful, only because that has always been there in some form, it is nothing new. However, in decades and generations past we were not regularly attacking our reporters. 

More likely, it’s instance and opportunity, much like any crime or any offense. Sometimes the crew can fend it off but with eyes and minds on the job at hand it’s next to impossible to prevent.

If we wonder why it’s happening more ask yourself what life was like when field producers had a common presence.

So, is this supposed to be the norm for the journalist on the street? A cop on the street maybe, but the reporter? Granted, they are both on those types of scenes and in similar areas but for differing intents and purposes.

I am not saying it is the same but whether one wishes to admit it or not there are similarities, parallels even, in news reporting and police work.

There are lines of demarcation certainly, but the interactions with people and the scenarios are often the same. Knowing the streets does not always mean beating the streets; both cop and reporter have been on the wrong end of that idea.

Cops worry about going through the wrong door, pulling over the wrong car. And while not yet at that level, journalists need to measure the story they are covering, their resources and the environment.

Hopefully news people out there have a heightened sense of danger or the awareness that the potential exists for bad actors with bad intentions. That does not mean incidents can be easily be prevented or stopped in their tracks, but efforts should be made to try.

I think in terms of the first year MMJ in a small market, sent on a breaking news shooting or accident scene.

“It’s 45 minutes before the 11pm newscast…get out there and go live for the top of the show”.

There is no News Director at the station at that time; there might not even be an Executive Producer. The reporter rushes to get there, there’s no real time to do anything else but set up and maybe ask somebody a question or two. Assessing the scene and its safety concerns is not often on the checklist.

Who is thinking safety and security at that time? Who is making the decision? Who has not seen the recent video of the reporter hit by a car during a live shot?

It was professionally handled by that journalist yet who back at that station was looking out for her that day? Who set the plan in motion? While off the path a bit of the primary issue, one still could spend the better part of the day looking at footage or reading accounts of journalists at scenes in similar predicaments or attacked, assaulted and worse.

No, this is not just about MMJ’s…it can be a team or a trio with a live truck, and back to the survey, not everyone cited was working alone or at a volatile scene.

Maybe think about it in terms of the way news covers bad weather: What does a viewer or a listener really thinking about storm coverage? “Why is that reporter standing in a hurricane?” What is the reporter, the photographer, the field producer, or the live truck operator thinking about storm coverage? “Why am I standing in a hurricane?”

By the way, I came to this business late so I tend to ask questions that often get me looks of frustration and annoyance by those who did not. A beloved former coworker once quoted me back to me following a period of long form storm coverage.

WE KNOW IT’S A HURRICANE…CAN’T THEY BE SOMEWHERE SAFE AND SHOW YOU THE HURRICANE? THEY CAN TELL YOU ABOUT AND DESCRIBE THE HURRICANE…NOBODY NEEDS TO BE HIT BY A FLYING STOP SIGN TO BRING YOU GOOD COVERAGE…THEY CAN DO THAT …THEY CAN BRING YOU THAT…SAFELY…THEY’RE REPORTERS.

So, what can be done about it all to keep those out there a bit safer? Consider analysis and preparation when putting staff in various situations. It is done for storm coverage.

It begins before the next story, playing out scenarios in the conference room with staff members, measuring priorities in coverage and making sure the security philosophy penetrates. You’re in a bad situation; let us plan a way to get out of it.Truthfully, it’s not something I’ve heard often discussed at length in planning and editorial meetings. True, storms may be more predictable but so is the unknown. You know it is out there.

Luckily there are those willing to advocate for themselves; I worked with a reporter who abruptly ended a live shot right on the air, before anyone had to chance to say anything. “Guys this isn’t safe, I’m wrapping it up…back to you.” Excellent! It’s not unheard of, it’s certainly prudent and hopefully, we have all seen reporters, photographers and producers make that kind of call.

This is not about bad management, or uncaring or unthinking bosses. They are out there, sure but nobody wants their people hurt or put in dangerous situations. It is however, about asking the right questions at the right time. Where are we sending our people? What is the neighborhood like, the mood on the streets? More importantly, what are we losing or giving away by pulling back from the center of the most vulnerable areas?

When in doubt, send an extra body to the scene. ANY body. If managers want the story, managers need to make it safer to cover. A sports anchor and I would go hit the streets to parallel and back up crews on demonstrations and protests. Generally, not for physical presence or as a deterrent but instead to be the extra set of eyes on a scene and it is often a game changer.

I have seen news directors go out there, sales people and of course interns. Yes, interns have eyes. Interns are often heroes. Stop sending them out for Chick-fil-A and Starbucks runs!

Getting the story means keeping the staff safe. Just as the cop cannot help anyone if they crash the patrol car running code to a hot call or a fellow officer in trouble, the reporter cannot tell the story if they’re sidelined by an attack or a disruption that might have been avoided by having a plan or the right number of people there. No matter what happens out there, the MMJ or one-man band reporter is not likely to go away nor should they. Radio, digital and print are usually alone, they are certainly harder to spot in a crowd but generally, they are solo.

Moreover, who can say there aren’t smarter ways for all platforms to do the job with a little more safety in mind? 

It’s certainly better than showing up on YouTube.

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In News/Talk Radio, Sometimes It’s Ok to Break the Format

Sometimes, it’s ok to skip a break or two if the content is so compelling that you know your listeners can’t get enough.

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photo of radio switchboard

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. As hosts, we spend hours preparing for our radio shows. Reading, listening, and consuming news of all kinds. Putting together a road map for every program. Figuring out where potential guests might fit into each hour, if at all. It’s a daily puzzle, but occasionally we have reminders that plans can, and should, go up in flames when appropriate.

Last week was a week of chaos in Kansas City, as one woman was killed and nearly two dozen injured, including one dozen children, following a shooting shortly after the Chiefs Super Bowl parade wrapped up in front of Union Station.

As broadcasters, we are asked to give the facts to update the public on a minute-by-minute basis as to what is happening in their community, but then, as talk show hosts, we are also required to opine and create engaging content around the tragic news that impacts our communities.

It’s a fine line to walk, at times, especially considering the amount of misinformation that can rapidly circulate on social media, with far too much attention being given to being “first” rather than being “right”.

And while we are working to navigate news that is constantly changing, when there’s a moment to “break the clock”, so to speak, it’s worth doing.

Friday morning, 36 hours after the shooting, FS1’s Nick Wright offered to come on my show to debate gun control, which he had been advocating for on his platforms since Wednesday afternoon. 

I had used my social media to refute many of his points, which led to his suggestion that he join my show that morning and debate on the air. The entire backstory was written about here on Barrett News Media

This came together 30 minutes before he appeared on the air. And there goes the show plans.

The conversation began at 8:05 am, and I thought to myself, if this is going well, I will keep him through a break and wrap around to the bottom of the hour.

It became apparent in the first 60 seconds that this was not going to be a hold-over conversation and that it was going to be intense. At that point, I decided to let the conversation ride as long as it felt like it was engaging content for the audience. 

That meant three breaks and the news reports had to go. Don’t worry, sales staff, we made it all up!

But I also did something I usually don’t do, I monitored our KCMO Talk Radio stream in real-time, which was jumping 15-20% each quarter hour as the conversation continued.

As for the content of the conversation, you can listen to that on our podcast and determine for yourself how you feel it went (and I’d be open to your critical feedback). 

But from a radio formatics standpoint, there are times, albeit very infrequently, when breaking the clock and the format of the hour makes sense. It has to be a feel, as much as anything else, but remember, with real-time streaming numbers that you should have access to, you can use the immediate technology available to you to at least get one data point that might clue you into if your gut is right.

In the meantime, keep hitting your breaks, getting your spots in on time, and playing by the PPM-friendly rules. Your GM, sales manager, and program director will appreciate it.

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Saluting Black Broadcasters: Arthel Neville, Fox News

“Black History Month is a time to focus and remember that we should embrace commonalities. We have more in common than not as a human race.”

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A photo of Arthel Neville

True to herself and true to the truth, Arthel Neville has graced TV screens for over 20 years. From hosting entertainment news, to acting, and for the last 10 years anchoring at Fox News, Neville said her successful career is thanks to, “A lot of hard work and it worked out and paid off.”

Growing up in New Orleans, music and celebrities we a part of Neville’s life, thanks to her famous musician father, Art Neville. Despite the fame, the Neville’s kept home life humble. “He was always daddy. He’d come home, he’d help me with my homework in the daytime because his work was at nighttime. He helped clean the house and mow the lawn and just regular stuff.” She later added, “I was always exposed to celebrities and people who had not your standard jobs, if you will. But I was always raised to just be humble, and it always just normal to me. So that was no different than if your dad went to work at a bank every day.”

After high school, Arthel Neville went to Xavier University, where she turned pre-pharmacy and made the Dean’s list. But while she was in school, “I was doing some local commercials in New Orleans. I got a regional, commercial for Burger King at the time. In my first year of college, I took a gap year.”

Neville went to New York and stayed with her dad’s friends and gave acting a full-time shot.

“I went up there and did the cattle calls like everybody else but I also got an opportunity to work on Saturday Night Live as an extra,” Neville said. She also appeared on All My Children but after 12 months, “I knew my mom told me, ‘You have one year and you have to go back to college.’ So I said alright. I didn’t get this really major part in the soap opera and then I knew that was time to go.”  

Transferring schools, Arthel Neville landed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She picked the school because “At the time Dallas had a major production facility complex. So I could work to help pay for my college.” She put together a tape and a colleague connected her with a KVUE Executive Producer.

KVUE hired Neville and she transferred to the University of Texas. For two and a half years, she went to school and worked as a full-time student and full-time general assignment reporter. Neville said of the time, “I would go to class from 8 AM to 1 PM and then I go to work from 1:30 PM to 10:30 PM.” She later added, “My days off at the time were Tuesday and Wednesday because, you know, low man on the totem pole then. So you see this cycle of just nonstop working and working and rarely I would get a holiday off my vacation time.”

Neville did the market climb until she got her national break  as an entertainment reporter on E! “I had my own celebrity one-on-one celebrity interview show for E!. This was before everybody and their grandmother was doing celebrity interviews. So it was a really big deal and it was a 30-minute show. So again, that was a big deal.” She later added,  “I’m still very, very proud of that work to this day. Really quality work. So once you get on that plane, offers start to come in. You get a lot of attention.”

Arthel Neville made appearances on several shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, and Monk. She noted, “You’re a celebrity at that point and then they call you in and word got around that I can act. So I kept getting the calls and I had a lot of fun doing that. I loved it, really a lot of fun.” She added, “After a while, I decided to leave the entertainment space and get back into hard news because I figured that that is what would provide the most longevity.”

Over the years, Neville has covered thousands of stories. But the most meaningful to her is her work after Hurricane Katrina.

“As a journalist, the story is not about us. When that story was about me, that was personal. That was my hometown ravaged and that was we lost. We lost a collective of ten family homes. I will say no one [in my family] died in this storm, thank God.”

Arthel Neville later added, “I mean, there are times when I’m out there just in a boat going to my house, I’m going to break down because I’m a person. Even writing the story had a lot of crying. I did [cry] some on camera because I’m not trying to make it about me, but I’m also a person. But mostly off-camera. That was the most difficult assignment of my life because it was personal.”

Arthel Neville has made history several times in the industry. At E!, she became the first African-American woman to host a nationally syndicated entertainment news magazine program. More recently being awarded the DeWitt Carter Reddick award from Moody College of Communications in 2017, their first African American female honoree.

When asked what Black History Month meant to her she focused less on race and more on what commonalities we, the human race, have.

“I am a Black woman 12 months of the year, 365 days of the year. So Black History Month is nice for other people who don’t walk my path and live my life to maybe stop, and focus on people who have created created a pathway not just for me, but for you and everybody else. It’s not just for Black people. People who have come in before us, who have made things better for the country.”     

She later added, “Black History Month is a time to focus and remember that we should embrace commonalities. We have more in common than not as a human race. So stop it with the looking at people from the perspective you think they’re different from you because they look different. We’re all human beings and let’s take that. Take this month to focus on that. Love each other.”

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Radio — The Communication Business Where We Don’t Communicate

Corporate policies are cold and rigid.

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When I was a radio program director in the 1970s and 80s personally responding to job applicants was an important part of every work day. Nobody told me to do it, it was just obvious. Replying to letters from people who mailed me their personal introductions, resumes, and airchecks was as important to me as if they had made an appointment and were seated in my office, freshly scrubbed, smiling with hope, and making their best first impression.

Every afternoon I read their letters and resumes. I listened attentively to their carefully packaged tapes as if mining for a rare gem, which I was. I wrote encouraging letters to them whether I had a possible job for them or not. I took unexpected phone calls from job applicants.

Why wouldn’t I? These were passionate broadcasters offering their unique, hard-earned experience. They respected our station and were excited for an opportunity to join us. Besides, I’d been in their position myself and would be again. These hopeful young talents deserved my attention. To me, as a program manager, it was my primary responsibility.

None of this happens anymore. Radio job seekers today have to run a gauntlet of dehumanizing corporate job websites. When you’ve filled in all the blanks and linked the resume you spent hours perfecting you hold your breath and click “submit”. You did it! The website immediately gives you the impersonal assurance that your application has been received. You wonder if that’s true. You may never really know.

Bob Helbig is the media partnerships director at Energage, a Philadelphia-based employee survey firm. He recently found that while 60% of employers surveyed said they felt they regularly communicated with applicants, only 28% of job seekers said they felt the communication was sufficient.

Corporate policies are cold and rigid. I recently talked with a major market talk radio program director who asked to remain anonymous, which in itself tells the tale. He told me he’s not even allowed to take word-of-mouth recommendations for new hires. Email and phone inquiries are out of the question. When somebody tells him, “Hey, I know a great reporter you should talk to,” all he can reply is, “Please tell them to apply online.” The most he can do is file a name in his memory and hope it pops up in the HR-approved list of candidates.

Back in the day, I would have phoned that reporter and invited him or her to come in and talk.

As a job applicant, you know you face strong competition. All the career websites offer volumes of advice about how to prepare a strong resume to stand out from the crowd. You’ve done that. You plug it into the web portal, hoping to make an impression. You count the days since you submitted your application and check your email many times daily hoping for an encouraging reply from a real human, maybe even from the big-name program director who holds the key to your future.

Patience. You have to wait still longer.

After a few days, you wonder if a real person has even seen your application or if the algorithm is just weeding people out. Yes, indeed it is.

Artificial Intelligence now entering the process might speed things up a bit but it won’t help your need for human contact. God forbid AI takes over the screening process entirely but you can’t rule that out.

Nobody writes or calls even to say, “Thanks for your interest, we’ll get back to you.” You’re left to wonder if your love of radio, your hard work, and your beautifully written pitch even landed before a real person’s eyes.

The worst part is knowing that hearing nothing is nothing personal.

Jeff Altman is a career coach and host of the No BS Job Search Advice Radio podcast. He told Forbes, “The hiring process has been turned into sausage-making. People apply for jobs through an applicant tracking system where they are expected to homogenize their experience so they are plucked from the thousands of others. They are asked the same questions by most employers until, eventually, they are chosen and onboarded.”

How did we get to this complex and impersonal process? Laws, of course. Federal and state mandates to prevent any form of discrimination in hiring practices are good things but they don’t allow for human integrity and discretion. They’re ironclad. The difficulty for HR departments lies in making sure that the rules are followed to the letter by management employees who are not lawyers. The list of federal regulations alone is long and daunting.

“For instance, you can’t ask questions that reveal a person’s race, gender, religion, marital status, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, or age on an application or during an interview. This information could lead to biases and discrimination in the hiring process.”

Those restrictions are fairly obvious these days but they’re just the tip of a large iceberg, most of which is hidden below the surface and beyond the limits of what program directors, news directors, sales, and other radio managers are expected to know. So, yes, the software is asking only legally acceptable questions before any live interviews can take place.

I really hate being the “back in my day” old fart but my god, is there no way we can allow a young person to walk into a radio station with stars in her or his eyes, and talk to somebody about their future?

Must we expect job applicants of the 21st Century to understand that’s just the way things are or could the process be massaged a bit to keep them hopeful and feeling less like a piece of uninspected data?

Would it be so hard to send job applicants a pleasant and somewhat personal email along the lines of: “Hi, Mark. I’m in the H.R. Department at BigTime Media and I want to thank you for your application for our on-air opening at News/Talk 95.3 WTF. I will call or text you when your qualifications have been reviewed and let you know whether you can expect a follow-up live interview with somebody at the station. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask. – Sincerely, Mary Sunbeam, BigTime Media”.

Sure, it’s another form letter but at least it addresses the applicant by name, refers to the specific station, and gives them a sense of humanity and hope for future contact. Assigning applicants to a real-life personal H.R. staff member like Mary Sunbeam might require a little more effort but it would be an enormous boost to the company’s reputation.

There might be other ways to go about it. The point is people need to feel their applications are worthwhile and accepted with some degree of sincere gratitude.

The ugly irony is we’re in radio, yet we talk to people, not with them.

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