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Tony Coles’ Rise to an Industry Leader Started From Humble Beginnings

Coles has been recognized as an industry leader in leadership and management.

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Grow up or get out!

That’s the message Tony Coles received early and often. Born in southeastern Ohio, Coles was informed, on no uncertain terms, that he was expected to get his life together at an early age. His father grew up during the Great Depression and worked as a farmer, worked on oil rigs, anything to keep the family going. In other words, the man knew what hard work was.

“My father molded me into what I am today,” Coles said. “There was one rule in his house. My grandfather used to tell his children when they were older, they had to contribute to the family, or they were out. They just couldn’t afford to feed all the kids with what they had. My father adopted that philosophy, even though things weren’t as financially challenging for him as they were for my grandfather.”

Coles said his father’s lectures were offered frequently and rarely solicited throughout his childhood; more like reminders. His father took every opportunity to make sure the message was heard loud and clear. 

“One day, I came home to find boxes in my room had been filled with my stuff,” Coles said. “My father reminded me I had turned 16, and I’d displayed no effort to find a job. So he packed the boxes so it would make it easier on me as I left the house.”

“I realized, ‘Holy crap, he’s not kidding. He’ll throw me out of the house.’ that’s when I started to look for any job I could find.”

Would he have really kicked him out? Coles isn’t sure.

“I say this to people all the time. If my dad was still alive, I’d say it to his face. I owe everything I have and am to that man.”

At 15, Coles started at WHIZ in Zanesville, Ohio. It was a television, AM, and FM automated station rolled into one.

“I learned a bit of everything there,” Coles explained. “All employees were required to work in all three areas. It gave me an early indoctrination to everything. I remember when the FM would go off the air for some reason, I’d panic. Somebody would invariably say, “It’s no big deal. It’s FM.”

Coles ran the board and remotes but didn’t go on the air immediately. He said he produced the evening news and ran a camera in a small, family-owned company.

In essence, it was the world’s best internship. 

“Nobody will get that opportunity again to cover so many things in one situation,” Coles said. “That era has passed.”

Coles has been recognized as an industry leader in leadership and management. He is a two-time recipient of the Worldwide Radio Summit Senior Programmer of the Year award. 

Before joining iHeartMedia, Coles built the foundation of his knowledge of content creation, brand development, strategy and execution, revenue generation, and human capital management through a variety of on-air and leadership roles in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle.

All of these accomplishments began from humble beginnings. One lucky day for Coles, a local radio program director from a tiny station came to speak at his school. 

“That day was lucky for me,” Coles said. “The program director was intriguing, and radio sounded like something I could do. I went up to him and told him I desperately need a job. I wasn’t even thinking about a career at that point. I just wanted to stay in the house.”

The program director got in touch a couple of weeks later and told him of an opening. He would essentially be a gopher, but that was fine with Coles.

“I got a call saying he needed someone to cover an air shift, and he couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I was the first person who responded to his call. I went on the air, and I was horrible. Marconi must have been spinning in his grave; I was so bad.”

But the program director saw something in Coles. He recognized the effort and vigor Coles put into that air shift and felt he could be taught the rest.

Coles attended Ohio University in Southeastern Ohio. When he ran out of money, he had to go work full-time.

“It bugged me that I hadn’t finished my degree. So later, when I was living in Portland, I went back to school. I ultimately took classes in every city I’d worked in. The frustrating part was sometimes the credits wouldn’t transfer over to the new school.”

Covid has interrupted the ‘college experience’ for millions of kids. With online learning, fewer students take advantage of what previous generations saw as a growth, coming-of-age experience.

“My eldest son starts college in the fall,” Coles said. “We did all the campus tours, but it’s different than when I went. I don’t know if covid has permanently killed off those experiences for good, but I do know the experiences will be different. At the same time, I always learned more outside the classroom than inside.”

Coles believes podcasting is powerful in many regards. For one thing, it’s invigorated younger audiences fascinated with video. “When we were kids, we’d sit in a room and pretend to be on the air—pretending to be a DJ. Now, the kids are doing an actual podcast. The entry-point is different.”

We spoke at length about podcasts and the role they’ll play with the ‘fascination of audio.’

Coles thinks it’s not easy to predict what will work with podcasts as it depends on many factors. 

“Some start a podcast with the expectations of millions of downloads,” Coles said. “If you have that expectation, you should also be investing a lot of time to make it a product with mass appeal. Some can focus on a smaller niche audience. Those audiences may be small, but they’re loyal, passionate, and engaged.”

To illustrate that niche market, Coles admits he’s interested in an area most would find boring–listening to podcasts about boards of directors. 

“I’m fascinated with the individuals on a board,” he said. “There are a lot of broadcasts on the subject from all over the world. I couldn’t have imagined that would be the case.”

Coles said there is a vast audience for true crime podcasts. 

“Some are like an episode of Dateline,” he said. “One reporter at WISN radio in Wisconsin started a podcast that was contrary to the findings of the Steven Avery trial. The reporter covered the trial and said the Netflix series was not accurate. It’s one of our most downloaded podcasts.”

Coles said after listening to some true crime podcasts, he understood why they are so passionate about them.

“When you think of the number of court cases that have happened with verdicts people disagree with, you can imagine the level of audience engagement,” Coles said.”

Coles said app searches will show what’s trending and will populate the search with similar podcasts. He said he’s surprised at the number of podcasters who will freely reference another podcast. “That’s how I discovered other podcasts. It’s like recommending a book or a movie. In radio, it’s been an unwritten, or sometimes written rule, to avoid mentioning the call letters of another station.” 

Throughout his career, Coles has been involved in relationship-building. 

“That’s the cornerstone of everything I do,” Coles said. “This business is about the relationships you have nurtured. Creating a circle of connections you didn’t know existed.”

He said he recently read a book titled, Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi.

“One of the things he was talking about in his book was professionals go to a convention and snare 100 business cards, and they feel they’ve networked,” Coles explained. “If they called those 100 people, only two would return the call.”

Conversely, Coles said when you develop a connection with someone, you can call them day or night. Building relationships helps me enjoy the business more. I’ve developed true friendships and true bonds. 

“I try to approach things like that,” Coles said. “I see a lot of people that may not be great in one position, but if I like their attitude and see they’re trying, I try to mentor them and bring them along. That’s what happened to me. I’ve tried to return the favor.”

Cole’s father was able to see some of his son’s success. “I’m thankful for that. I only wish he’d known earlier on that some good things were happening to me. I think he was a little hurt that I didn’t want to come back and work the farm. As time went on, he understood more and more.”

Coles said his father was a tough guy, experiencing everything from the Great Depression to the Civil Rights era. After his father passed away, Coles discovered a box his father had used to keep special items. 

“Inside were clippings, other things to do with my career,” Coles said. “He saved them all and never told me about what he had in the box. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. That he cared and devoted the energy to assemble these articles.”

“When I think about the impact mentors have played in my life, I am grateful for those who poured into me and encouraged me to achieve the goals I set for myself—personally and professionally,”

“I remember I was working at a radio station, and we didn’t know the name of the song that was playing,” Coles explained. “I called my father and asked him if he knew the artist. Had he heard it? My father replied, “Is this an actual job you’re doing?”

“I always try to respond. If I can connect with someone. We all need that. I recognize that. I would not be here without the relationships I developed. As we get older, we suddenly realize we’re closer to the end than the beginning. I remember being the youngest at the station, working with people that are the age I am now.”

Thanks, Tony. Now you’ve totally bummed me out.

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BNM Writers

Michael Berry Doesn’t Want to Be All Serious All the Time

“I get to entertain everyday and people come and listen to me. That really — more than anything else — is the thrill.”

Garrett Searight

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There are plenty of nationally syndicated radio shows that began as local shows. Not many hosts, however, have both a local radio show and a nationally syndicated show each weekday. But Michael Berry isn’t your average radio talk show host.

In addition to hosting a local show on NewsRadio 740 KTRH, Berry hosts The Michael Berry Show on more than 40 stations throughout the nation. And he believes having a local show in his hometown market — Houston — while still getting to talk about national topics on his afternoon show is the ideal situation for him.

“It lets me sort of keep my hand in two very different pies and do two very different shows. And that fulfills me,” Berry said. “I wouldn’t want to do just one or just the other. And I think part of it — I was the Mayor Pro Tem of the city of Houston, so I got very involved and very entrenched in the political world. I know a lot of the restaurant owners, I know a lot of business owners, and I really enjoy making the fourth-largest city into a tiny town for our listeners.

“But I also want to be able to talk to a national audience on a national level. I get to do both of those. I think that’s ideal for me.”

Michael Berry served on the City Council in Houston from 2002-2008, which gives him a unique perspective about both local and national politics that many others in the format don’t have.

“I think the experience of how bills are made and the backroom deals and how they’re done, I think that informs my opinions in a way that if you haven’t done that, it makes it harder to understand,” said Berry. “Also the blocking and tackling of how you get bills passed and how you win elections and those sorts of things.

“It just gives you that experience and it also helps you understand when a politician or an elected official says something that seems to go against what he believes or what he promised. You have a better sense of ‘Ok, who did he sell out to? Why did he do that? Where is the pressure point?’

“Because I think listeners want to understand not just why is Mitch McConnell doing something that feels like it’s against what the base is doing. The better question is, what’s the pressure point? What’s driving him? Who’s pushing him into that corner? And I think when you’re in the process, you get a very good sense of that.”

One could refer to Michael Berry as an almost new-age news/talk host. While one of the large criticisms of conservative talk radio today is the vitriol and anger most hosts present on the air, Berry is often presenting the opposite. Oftentimes, his show isn’t centered on conservative political viewpoints at all. A constant presentation of hope, admiration, and excitement not just about politics but about culture and the conservative lifestyle is the backbone of Berry’s program.

And while he has an affinity for those inside the conservative talk radio format, he simply believes he’s filling a different, virtually unoccupied, lane.

“There are some brilliant people out there on the radio. Sean Hannity has access to every elected official. Clay (Travis) and Buck (Sexton) are getting access to anybody they want as a guest. Mark Levin is a brilliant mind, a brilliant legal mind. (Glenn) Beck has a great perspective from decades of experience. Dan Bongino’s a really smart guy. There’s some really, really clever, smart, experienced broadcasters. I don’t need to be a lighter version of them, which is all I could ever hope to be. I want to be who I am,” admitted Berry.

“And I don’t see myself as competing with them. I wouldn’t want to. They’re all wonderful. We can all coexist, but I don’t want to watch the same show 24 hours a day. I want to create content that is different than other people are doing,” Berry continued. “Not because I’m better or they’re not good, but because I don’t think I can do it as well as they can. So I want to do what I do well.”

Michael Berry free admits he’d get bored simply sticking to the conservative political script for two separate shows each day. That’s why weaving other topics into his program continues to excite him.

“If all you do is what I call angry, old white man radio, you can’t build an audience and you can’t keep an audience. And the reason is that it becomes tedious. It becomes a chore to listen to. And everybody has heard that type of program that never laughs at anything and especially not that itself. We want to make people laugh. We want to talk about real life things, as well. We don’t have to talk politics 24/7.

“When I think about the influence in this country, on the culture, comedians have always had such an influence. The reason is that when you’re laughing, you’re thinking, and you’re engaging and you’re building your bond. I think that one of the great barriers to success in radio and success for the conservative movement is the inability to bond on the deeper level of let’s share a laugh.

“I think there is a great joy when I find that I’m making a point that I consider to be important, and yet in the middle of it, we can all laugh.”

Ultimately, Michael Berry doesn’t view his role in talk radio as a political pontificator, conservative advocate, or a preacher from behind the Republican pulpit. He views his craft from a completely different angle.

“I view myself as an entertainer. The hardcore conservative listeners don’t like me to say that because that means you must not mean what you say, or you’re not serious. I mean every word I say. And I’m very serious,” Berry stated. “But I’m serious in the way Dave Chappelle is serious. And make no mistake, Dave Chappelle is having a huge influence in America today on how we view the First Amendment or the concepts of freedom of thought…the reason is, is because he’s dead serious while making you laugh.

“When I was really deciding that this was a career I wanted to pursue…I went and studied stand-up comics, because I felt like that was the place. Otherwise, I would just mimic the guys that were already successful, and I didn’t want to do that,” Berry continued. “I felt dishonest about that.

“So what I did, instead, is I went and studied comedians, and delivery and how you engage an audience and how you hold an audience and how you make a point without beating the audience over the head with it. And how you go from point to point, how you pivot, how you make it fun. A lot of these are sort of back porch conversation tricks, you know, parlor games of, of how we keep a conversation going except it’s a one one man conversation without it feeling like I’m lecturing you.”

During our conversation, Michael Berry admitted he can hear hosts around the country who have lost the will to create compelling content, who say things they don’t believe, and are no longer in love with the format that once enticed them to join the industry.

However, he’s made a vow to never lose the excitement that comes with working in a format he still thoroughly enjoys.

“I view it as I get to wake up every day excited to go to the studio. My dad worked for 40 years at a plant in the maintenance unit and he hated every day of it. But he had all us kids to take care of. I get to entertain every day and people come and listen to me,” he shared. “That really, more than anything else, that is the thrill. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true.

“I think that most people probably don’t love what they do…I’m a megalomaniac. We all have to be to have the audacity to think that you can talk every day and people want to hear you, but I love it. It’s a thrill. I love to talk and I love to create stories and I love to create entertainment and create content. And when I hear from people that in some way they enjoyed it. It’s more rewarding than you can imagine, in the way that it would be for a pastor, or a comedian, or a songwriter, or a singer. It is incredibly rewarding.

“We live in an abundance of riches when it comes to content…but for them to choose to come and say I’m gonna let you entertain me,” Michael Berry concluded. “That is the ultimate compliment.”

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Do Radio Hosts Actually Care About What They’re Talking About?

So many shows do topics because they feel like they have to. Maybe the topic’s trending. Maybe it’s leading the news. But if you don’t care, listeners will notice.

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If you don’t care, why should anyone else care about what you do?

That’s one reason why I didn’t watch the NBA All-Star Game Sunday night. You don’t get a 211-186 final if anyone is remotely making any effort at all. It’s an extended version of the pre-game warmup. Everyone’s throwing up threes with no defense. They might as well break into a layup drill. Nobody wants to get injured in a meaningless game. I’ve endured a lot of All-Star games among the major sports leagues, and I stopped bothering to watch years ago. I haven’t missed much.

That translates to other realms as well. This column focuses on the media, so if you’re, say, a talk radio host, you should be asking yourself whether you really care about what you’re talking about. That’s the threshold question: Do you care? Because if you don’t, are you really going to put in the effort to make the topic entertaining so that other people – your listeners – care enough to listen and stay with you for the whole segment?

So many shows do topics because they feel like they have to. Maybe the topic’s trending. Maybe it’s leading the news. But if you don’t care, listeners will notice. And “I don’t care about it” isn’t a particularly compelling talk radio topic, is it?

It’s easier for local sports talk – it’s a given that whatever you’re ranting about and whatever take you have, listeners care because, well, who listens to sports radio and doesn’t care about what’s going on (All-Star Games notwithstanding)?

News organizations, on the other hand, have a different goal: If it’s news that on the surface is dry and boring but still matters, it’s the reporters’ and editors’ job to explain why a viewer or reader should care. Ukraine or Gaza might seem remote to a lot of people, but their importance to a typical U.S. citizen can’t be understated, and it’s important (and often forgotten) to emphasize why they matter and what impact they have on everyone.

The simple fact is that the energy you project on anything you talk about or report upon is a reflection of what you have invested in the story. You can fake enthusiasm, but if you just truly don’t care about Taylor and Travis, you’ll just be going through the motions and that’s what the audience perceives.

On the other hand, if you’ve invested a lot of time digging into an arcane financial story and you know that what seems like a remote, inscrutable radio topic may have profound consequences for many consumers, emphasize that and make clear why the viewer or reader should care, and do it right out of the gate to grab their attention.

Here, a digression: Why do they even bother with the actual All-Star Game anymore? Take the NBA All-Star Weekend: Nobody will remember anything about the game (other than that one team scored over 200 points) but everyone will remember the Steph Curry-Sabrina Ionescu shootout. They may remember Mac McClung’s repeat dunk contest win or the celebrity game or Rising Stars games.

Why not just do the skills and challenges, which are usually entertaining, and skip the All-Star Game itself, which isn’t? Maybe add some contests and honors for past greats. Most of the people who trek to the All-Star venue are there for the parties anyway. And with baseball now doing interleague play all season, none of the All-Star Games involve getting to see players who don’t normally face each other in the regular season face off. They don’t need a game nobody in it wants to play. I recognize this will never happen.

But the main takeaway here is that it’s less true that you can’t make someone care about a thing they don’t care about themselves than it is true that if you don’t care, you have zero chance making anyone else care. Your poker face isn’t that good.

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Radio Was Built For Charity and Volunteer Work

Your charitable activities build a better world. Your radio show and station make a real difference.

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Art Bell once said, “We are all here for a Cosmic Blink. Use your time wisely.”  The wisest man in all of history, a fellow named Solomon said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All of us are drawn to radio for usually a basic human impulse…it is a narcissistic rage that exists in every baby. Look at me! Listen to me! My opinions are important!

Unless you are a completely narcissistic fool, you have looked in the mirror and wondered about why we are here. What is your worth in the cosmic blink? Ok, let old Uncle Peter (Yes, I went full third person) explain.

We have all been given an amazing platform. Not only to spout our beliefs, biases, and humor, but to touch our communities. Does your show have a charity? Why not? Does your station have a charity or a “Day of Action” to support local causes? The answer should be yes. Radio shows and stations raise millions of dollars to improve our society. We raise awareness of issues that create change. It is why we are here. 

Before I give you some random idea starters for your show/station, let’s talk about the charities that you personally support. Do you give a portion of your income to religious, humanitarian, or conservation projects that you believe in? You should if you don’t make these donations. I don’t know what floats your boat, but I think it is important psychologically to donate to organizations that do good things in our world. 

These donations allow a portion of the cosmic blink of our lives to pay it forward. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, a small donation helps you feel connected to our world. If you are particularly blessed by the fruits of your hard work, make that donation bigger. Investing in the charities and religious organizations of our choice gives us significance. Instead of the narcissistic screaming for change, it is an action step.

Your show can unify your community through service. There was a movement that is still going on today by some churches that take a Sunday off from a religious service to spend their day serving their communities. This can be painting an elderly widow’s home, cleaning a park, feeding the homeless, or other things. If you speak to homeless shelters, lots of people want to volunteer on Thanksgiving morning, but not so much in the middle of February. 

So how about a day of service for your radio show? Reach out to a local charity that needs volunteers and make it an all-day affair. Perhaps you can do your show from the homeless shelter. Interview the people who serve the downtrodden every day or interview listeners who donated their day with you? Make it big and use your platform to make someone’s life better.

For those of you who have been doing radio for a decade or less, I have had listeners reach out to me about something that I said on the air 25 years ago. It’s very humbling. Every day you get on the air trying to perform. Heck, have you ever wanted to scream “Is anyone listening?” I have. I had someone reach out to me on Twitter to share a moment that meant so much to him. When those moments happen, I thank them for listening and what an honor it was to impact their memories in such a way. You are making a difference for people every day. 

Your station may broadcast a big charitable event each year. Be involved in every aspect of the planning process. Buy in 100%. When you take full ownership of the station event, your interest will take this fundraiser to the next level. Talk about a way to build goodwill in the community. 

Do you want to create an unbreakable bond? Help a local charity. You will go viral. Take selfies with all of the volunteers and organizers. Put this on your social media. Make it big. Do something that makes a difference. Go to their events and volunteer to do anything. Likely, you will be an emcee, but, if they want you to wrap presents, shovel up some stuff do it. Be a servant. 

In our post-COVID world, I keep reading about disconnection. Civic groups and religious organizations are experiencing a crisis of participation. This is terrible. Our society’s drift into solitude is damaging. Census figures show that the average household size in the USA is about 2.5 people. This means there are a lot of people sitting in a home or apartment alone. These people are disconnected from society. They go to work, go home, and live their solitary life online. Humans are not built for this. Your radio show is a connection for them. By the way: Your community’s average age is probably around 37 years. Think of this. You are a lynchpin for building community. Your station’s charitable events help people belong to something greater than themselves.

You are an influencer. Be a leader. Build a community. Create belonging.

Your charitable activities build a better world. Your radio show and station make a real difference.

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