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Radio Overnights, and the Company We Keep

Like many people who work outside mainstream occupations, BNM’s Bill Zito spent much time making a living while the rest of the community is sleeping.

Bill Zito

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Radio

Like many people who work outside what is considered the mainstream occupations, I have spent much time making a living while the rest of the community is sleeping. However, it’s usually not that bad once you resign yourself to the fact that the people closest to you think there is something wrong with you.

The most important thing I have found about it is simply owning it. Don’t rationalize it, don’t try and make excuses for it; merely embrace the oddity and move on. I am long past extolling the benefits of always being able to find parking, shop when it’s not crowded, and enjoy being home during the day.

The eccentricities of the night worker tend to broaden as time goes on. So I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the people who have to do their jobs in front of the camera or the microphone and those who must turn words and images into something discernible at 2:45 am.

Yes, I’m one of them, but fortunately, no one has to see me or engage in conversation with me at those times. Call it my gift to humanity.

I’ve generally found myself amazed by those capable of looking and sounding human, even being engaging at those hours. True, I was in the dark (literally) for nearly half of my 12 years in law enforcement. Still, the costume often worked wonders in detracting from the visible signs of fatigue and the tangible hints of irritability.

A couple of decades ago, I think there were more options in the news and talk area for radio. There were undoubtedly more local overnight talk shows for those unable to sleep, so the cryptic and often outlandish topics of conversation were out there. Now, not so much and most of America has only Coast to Coast on the airwaves to feed their fixes.

Now, I know there are delayed broadcasts of many popular talk programs, but I have never been a fan as someone seeking actual company late at night or early in the morning; it’s kind of like playing back your voicemail messages a day later. I prefer life in real-time.

Newsgathering overnight can be a challenging task; newsrooms are so lonely these days that, along with doing the job, you have to find a way to keep yourself sane. Of course, every environment is different, but on the TV and radio sides, it’s not so rare to see midnight staffers doing prep and show stacking for the morning while simultaneously writing and editing for a top or bottom cast and chasing any possible breaker on Twitter or whatever scanner might still be in use somewhere.

What I’m trying to say is those doing some or all of those things need company not just for background noise but also for some subliminal information, and no, not in the form of a succession of Friends episodes or a repetitive cable news playback.

Please know I am grateful for the gift of time zones and the offering of international newscasts, but I’m also greedy and need more.

It is reassuring that the radio network anchors are out there at the top and bottom; there’s a level of camaraderie many don’t even know they’re providing.

Then, at 2:36 am, I get a reprieve when ABC’s World News Now comes on. Living, breathing news people on TV who really help get us through the roughest couple of hours in the morning.

It’s amity of a different variety, television with the right formula.

I’m not doing a commercial for them; I’m just offering up a realization that they have helped keep me afloat no matter what the morning circumstance may bring. And I still flip around to see what everybody else has because that is part of my job. The difference is that I tend to land back at WNN even when I’m not working the desperate hours.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have worked with at least one of their many talented personnel over the years, but that bears little to no influence here. There is simply a marked difference and through time. 

However, the anchor teams have changed and moved on; the show still manages to keep that same level of silliness and sincerity without going full-on camp like Saturday Night Live, only without having to put up with seven bad years out of every decade.

There’s an environment reminisce of what overnight radio used to have. And that’s not such an easy thing. They still have to do the news, which usually isn’t the most positive subject matter even if you try to lighten it up at that hour.

I have woken up with the show, starting my day; I’ve watched while working and even as I’ve attempted to turn in for the night. There is shtick, personal revelation, and inside glimpses at the operation itself. When later in the morning they transition to America This Morning, it automatically tightens up to properly begin the news day.

The show has been around a while, and we’ve all seen concepts and formats fail; we’ve seen shows of all kinds hang around way too long. Some, however, continue on the same path without the need to make constant course corrections and keep getting the job done.

To show my way of thinking…I say M*A*S*H should have ended after season 5; the original Law & Order should have never returned, and why, oh why, is The Simpsons still on? 

WNN/ATM does not have this problem, and I, for one, am glad. 

I like being able to count on it. I hope things don’t change too much because one day, there will no doubt be a doddering insomniac needing some virtual company.

The sleepless need news too.

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BNM Writers

Soledad O’Brien Has Public Service at Heart in Her Reporting

O’Brien admits she didn’t fully grasp what public service reporting looked like until her coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

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A photo of Soledad O'Brien
(Photo: Hearst Media Production Group)

“Fearless,” “determined,” and “kind,” is how many former colleagues would describe Soledad O’Brien. Awarded the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation Insight Award this year at the NAB Show, the veteran journalist spoke with Barrett News Media about her career and what makes her work so impactful. 


Her love of people and figuring things out initially had O’Brien headed to Medical school. Realizing she wanted something else in life, the broadcaster found her passion translated nicely from medicine to journalism.

“I started working in a group called Centro, which was a Spanish language program at WBZ-TV. I just loved going into the newsroom because I loved the energy and the action,” O’Brien recalled. Another appeal was, “No matter if you had a great show or a terrible show, it was over and you started again.”

From WBZ-TV, she moved on to NBC News, KRON in San Fransisco, MSNBC, and back to NBC before joining CNN. For the last 11 years, the native Long Islander has been running a production company along with her own show Matter of Fact, a podcast (Who Killed JFK), and several documentaries.

This year she was honored with the LAFB Insight award for her outstanding journalistic body of work. The award comes after winning several honors in 2023, including a Peabody Award for her documentary on Rosa Parks, plus an Independent Spirit Award for a series mostly centered on Black women who are missing. Also in 2023, O’Brien was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.

Soledad O’Brien was humble about her accolades, saying “It’s always a really amazing thing when your colleagues give you an honor. When people who actually understand the business and know what it takes to do the work that you do say ‘We want to celebrate the work that you’re doing.’”

She noted how beautiful the ceremony was. “It just made me feel, outside of the 10 million hairstyles I’ve had over the years, the range of stories I had the opportunity to tell and be a part of. And, hopefully, I brought some insight and some perspective which was maybe different than what other people brought.”

She noted her most meaningful story was her time in New Orleans.

“I think as a reporter, it was a big turning point. I sort of figured out that reporting was about serving the public, and I’m not sure I 100% understood that before,” Soledad O’Brien admitted. “And it was an opportunity in a story to help people understand not just the storm and the damage, which was massive.

“If you thought Hurricane Katrina was about a storm, it really wasn’t. It was about the have and the have-not in America, right? It was about access, and it was about whose voices get heard, who gets elevated, and what does it mean to be in a relatively large city in America that doesn’t seem to be getting any help pretty fast. And it was about race in America, too, and all those things which made it a very dynamic and complex and complicated story.

“I got a lot of awards for covering that story, but I really enjoyed interviewing people and helping people understand. One question we get, ‘Why don’t people just leave?’ Well, if your parents and your grandparents all live on the same block, where are you going? Can you just pick up and move into a hotel for a month? Well, no, it just doesn’t really work like that. So, I think we were able to bring a lot of insight in that story, and also help people see the lives of people who honestly we don’t really spend a lot of time covering in daily news.”

Swapping out with her co-anchor every month, O’Brien recalled leaving the area.

“We were walking through the Baton Rouge airport, and I remember I had my CNN baseball cap on and there were no showers. I remember packing baby wipes. My kids were little. And I took those big bags of baby wipes, and that’s how we cleaned ourselves up. There were no showers, obviously. We lived in an RV on Canal Street. And I remember we got a standing ovation walking through the airport. I felt like it just was a sign that what we were doing was really valuable and important, and people needed us to help them understand what was happening.

“It was really remarkable. It was very it was very emotional. We felt like, ‘Oh, this job is about serving your viewers and also serving the people whose story is unfolding in their backyards. And they need help to get assistance to understand what’s happening and to get their own perspective out.’”

Today, Soledad O’Brien said she serves the public in several different ways, including on her show Matter of Fact.

“The whole entire ethos of our show is stories as diverse as America. So in an environment where the nation is quite divided and things are often tense and unpleasant, we’re actually, kind of cutting out the middleman.” She went on to say, “We don’t really focus on politicians. We really dig into how policy lands on people. So we’re much more interested in what people have to say about their experiences. And I think that’s been a very interesting perspective for us.”


With her and her team’s focus on voices that are often ignored in the media, she believes this niche is “Exactly an example of serving the public.” Her show is also able to avoid the typical talking heads saying her show is, “Helping people understand complicated issues and stories versus, the two people on TV, they’re diametrically opposed and let them yell at each other for four minutes. And then I’m going to say, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you so much for joining me. We got to go to break now.’ I’m not doing that. And I think because we’re focused on that service, it’s really made the show very successful and popular.”


Part two of Barrett’s conversation with Soledad O’Brien will be coming to a screen near you at a later date.

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Talk Radio Talent and Producer Coaching Tips From A Master — Part 2

“Mostly with the work that I do in spoken word, I think a producer is strongest when they help pull out your point or the best part of a topic.”

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David G. Hall is an international radio programming consultant who achieved fame in 1991 when he reinvented news and talk radio at KFI, Los Angeles.

I recently shared his insights into coaching talk radio talents.

In part two of our conversation, DGH talks about coaching producers and talent of shows
with multiple hosts.

DW: How do you coach producers? What do you need them to do for the talent?

DGH: Well, mostly with the work that I do in spoken word I think a producer is strongest when they help pull out your point or the best part of a topic. So you say, ‘Oh, we got to talk about this bridge collapse in Baltimore, man. I don’t really know what I want to say.’ And then the producer says, ‘Well, what pisses you off about it?’ Or, ‘What’s the thing that nobody gets?’ And you go, ‘Well, nobody understands X.’ Then the producer says, ‘That’s what you start with right there. There’s your way in and then you can explain it.’

So, (the producer’s job is) to kind of pull out from you what you really want to say, because sometimes it’s hard to find that on your own when you’re just doing everything in your head. So, your producer says, ‘Ok, that’s where you want to start right there,’ and then does whatever research is necessary to help you back that up or to come up with examples or come up with audio.

DW: What about two or three people shows? How do you get them on the same page consistently, learning to think like each other, and not make those hard left turns in conversations?

DGH: I have to deal with that a lot with shows where there’s more than one person. It’s important to help people in multiple-person shows understand you don’t have to say too much to get a lot of attention. A lot of people in that second chair want to keep talking because they feel like if they don’t talk, they’re going to be invisible. But it doesn’t work that way.

So I spent a lot of my time coaching people I would call the second chair people, but they’re really co-hosts, on how to be engaging in a certain way and how to not make a hard left where then all of a sudden you have the listeners, and worse, your co-host, going ‘What the hell? How do I respond to that?’ That comes up a lot. And in music morning shows, I try to keep them from talking over each other and stuff like that.

But the hard part comes with the payoff because when they’re doing a bit or they’re doing a benchmark, I want everybody laughing and smiling as the song starts, and as soon as everybody’s laughing and smiling, get the hell out and start the song. What happens is, especially if there’s more than two people, they one-up each other, right?

So somebody has the perfect out where they should hit the song and then the other person goes ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ and then they say something that causes the first person to try to beat that and before you know it you’ve got four punchlines, each one worse than the one before. Start the song, get the hell out, and prepare for your next bit.

DW: This is great stuff. What would you add or how would you summarize all of this for radio talents and the people who coach them?

DGH: I have three things. The first is you have to be consistent and regular. So if you’re gonna tell me to do this differently, you better show up in a week to remind me because all of us on the radio get stuck in habits and in a comfort zone, right?

So I’ll do what you say today and maybe tomorrow, and by the next day, maybe half. And then by the day after that, by Friday, I’m not doing it at all. So you better show up on Friday to say, ‘Hey, I heard you on Monday, man, you sounded great!’ Then help me break bad habits and set new ones, because we all are creatures of habit when we’re on the radio.

Second thing I would say is: be as specific as possible. It was never helpful to me when someone would say ‘Great show.’ Yeah. Ok, thanks, but that doesn’t mean anything to me.

But, when the market manager or PD says, ‘Yesterday when you interviewed that guy and you asked him this question, oh my god that was fantastic!’ As a talent with ego, I’m assuming he heard the entire show, even though he’s commenting on one thing. But that one thing is much more valuable than just ‘Hey, great show’. And then the third thing I would say is Joe Crummey. I don’t know if you know the name Joe Crummey.

DW: Yes, we’ve never met but we’ve become online friends. I love his work.

DGH: When I was first PD (at KFI), Joe Crummey said something key that I think about all the time when I’m working with talent and from when I was on the radio. He said, ‘When you’re on the radio, you walk a plank every single day and you just hope to God that you don’t fall off.

‘Because, unlike television, unlike Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert, we don’t have a writer’s room of 22 people sitting behind us thinking of every brilliant word we’re gonna say. You have to mostly do it yourself and mostly do it right off the top of your head. And if you’re on the radio three hours a day, five days a week, you are coming up with 15 hours of original content every week, walking a plank, not making a fool of yourself, not humiliating yourself, and not losing your train of thought.

It’s tough to create that much original content and to keep your train of thought and not humiliate yourself.’

DW: And to do it with no real-time feedback from the audience.

DGH: Right, exactly. You have no idea how it’s landing. That was one of the most valuable things anybody has ever said to me in this business. And to this day, I think about that. When I work with talk show hosts who are on the hook for hours without anything to hide behind, no songs, maybe a newscast at the top of the hour, but not much else I always think, ‘Man, you are walking a plank and it’s all original content.’

I really respect that, I really respect the talent necessary to be able to do what we do without humiliating ourselves, without getting sued, without getting fired, and with our toes dangling off the end of that plank for hours a day, every single day.

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News/Talk Radio Hosts Need to Remember It’s Ok to Act Your Age

This same strategy can apply to a story that may pre-date your time in the market where you’re hosting your show. Study up, but lean on those who know.

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Professional microphone in radio studio

For many, we all can fall into a groove of trying to be something we’re not. And the audience is bound to sniff you out as inauthentic. The older radio guy wants to seem hip when discussing social media and refers to his account as “Face-Chat” and “You-Book.” Oops. The younger guy wants to pretend he knows everything about the 1980 election, including the myth that Ronald Reagan came from 10 points down in late October to beat Jimmy Carter. You can read about it here.

I bring this up in the wake of last week’s breaking news story surrounding the death of O.J. Simpson. Social media exploded with reactions and hysterical memes, while talk radio re-lived “The Trial of the Century.”

As someone who was six years old during the White Bronco chase and seven years old as the trial unfolded, I have little memory of the trial itself. I remember it, but the day-to-day details are meaningless. As someone interested in historical events, I’ve read plenty about it and watched documentaries, but I wasn’t there. My only memory of it is watching O.J. on the news in my parents’ kitchen.

So, the day after O.J.’s death was announced, I had minimal anecdotal stories to share. And if you’re a younger host, there’s no reason to be embarrassed by this. After all, it was 30 years ago at this point. Now, someone over 55 might think it was 20 years ago, but my dad, pushing 70, believes 1978 was 30 years ago. It was over 45. So, I rest my case. Time is a blur. You have nothing to be ashamed of. 

But at the same time, don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

I spent Friday morning discussing how infatuated I was diving deep into YouTube archives, finding old local TV clips in Los Angeles from the Rodney King riots, mentioning New York Times articles I stumbled upon during the trial in 1995, and weaving that into the content of the day. My approach was to be the authority on the topic since that’s the job, but not pretend that I lived through it in any meaningful way.

That’s when I tapped into guests. Gregg Jarrett from Fox News covered the trial for Court TV. His stories were outstanding. On a whim, I reached out to Randy Cross, a former 49ers player who spent two seasons as a teammate with O.J., and he shared insights that only he could share.

Then, we worked from our local angle, with a great story from former Kansas City sports anchor Frank Boal, who talked about the Bruno Magli shoes that were a centerpiece in the trial. Coincidentally, a photo was used from when O.J. Simpson was on Monday Night Football broadcasting a game at Arrowhead Stadium where he was wearing… you guessed it, Bruno Magli shoes.

So, let your experts be experts. And don’t try to trick your audience into being something you’re not. Let them share their stories as well. Several California transplants to the KC area shared incredible stories from their lives. Let them be the stars and have their moment, assuming it’s compelling content.

This same strategy can apply to a story that may pre-date your time in the market where you’re hosting your show. Study up, but lean on those who know, let your audience participate if and when appropriate, and don’t be the know-it-all, especially when it’s obvious you can’t be on the same level as some of those listening.

Your audience will thank you for it because you’re being authentic with them, and that’s what they want. If you lose your authenticity, you’re done. 

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