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The Value of Live and Local Radio

Barrett News Media was honored to interview two longtime news/talk programmers in WBT’s Mike Schaefer in Charlotte and KMBZ’s Alan Furst in Kansas City.

Ryan Hedrick

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The connection between a radio station and the community it serves can be strengthened if that station maintains live and local programming across most of its dayparts. In cahoots with a strong and consistent digital presence, relatable, timely, and entertaining content is a recipe for success.

I’ve read tons of articles and blogs that rip the industry for cost-cutting measures that produce stations that operate with a skeleton crew incapable of making the kind of content that builds relationships and strengthens bonds with local businesses. That aside, there are some tremendous news/talk brands that commit big dollars and considerable energy to ensure that they stay live and local.

I started listening to the radio at a young age. I understood the magic created when a host talked about my community. Growing up in Southern California, I remember the brilliant work of KFI and KNX covering the Rodney King riots or the 6.4 Northridge earthquake that jolted me out of bed at 4 a.m.

For that reason, I’m sick and tired of hearing that radio is dying or that radio is boring. I refuse to believe the narrative. Instead, I think radio can be great again if it commits to live and local platforms throughout the day.

I was honored to interview two longtime news/talk programmers for this column. Their stations epitomize live and local, and their respective companies have made investments to ensure that they have the resources available.

Mike Schaefer programs Urban One’s WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mike and his team are live and local 15 hours a day from 5 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Alan Furst programs Audacy’s KMBZ in Kansas City, Missouri. Alan and his team are live and local throughout the day and night.

Ryan Hedrick: Why is live and local radio important?

Mike Schaefer: I think it serves the listener to a greater degree. Our listeners are many things, news junkies and political animals. But they are also dads and moms and business owners here in the community. To serve them to the best of our ability, I believe that we need to offer content that is relevant to their local experience.

Alan Furst: We try to relate to people by what’s going on around us every day. In KMBZ’s case, we just try relating to the day-to-day adventures of people. Whether it has to do with schools or the pandemic or sports, all that stuff is so important to people. If it’s topical and people are talking about it, so are we.

RH: How does the connection between syndicated personalities and local personalities differ between radio audiences?

MS: Syndicated personalities can certainly make a connection with their audiencethe biggest names in our business have proven that to be true. It’s not a matter of syndicated personalities not connecting. But I do believe if a local host can talk about a local shop that the listener has frequented, I think that makes a connection that is more personal and more direct.

AF: Most national shows tend to work off the same script. A syndicated host can relate to a local audience, but it doesn’t have the same connection that a local host can make. I think it’s easier to make a local connection. If I listen to a national show, I can almost predict what a national show is going to do, particularly the conservative shows.

RH: What are some of the things that your station does in the community over the air or on its digital platforms, to make sure that your listeners understand that you’re committed to the live & local experience?

MS: We’ve been connected to Charlotte for more than 100 years now. The biggest events we put on, whether it’s “Hancock’s Bike for Kids,” which has given the gift of a bike to over 30,000 children, or WBT’s SkyShow, which started on our bicentennial, it effectively is the fireworks show for Charlotte. People have come to rely on WBT for some of these events in the community. Over the past two years, we’ve been able to raise close to $400,000 to feed local kids in conjunction with a local church here which is pastored by WBT’s David Chadwick. Digitally, I can go back to the coverage we provided during the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, we put up a secondary streaming channel on our digital platforms that we called “Coronavirus 360.” Every day we updated that channel with fresh content related to all things coronavirus.

AF: If something is happening locally, we just talk about it. We get the community engaged using our resources both on-air and online. We take calls, and we use our social media platforms to push those stories out and expand the things we have discussed on the air. We reflect that on our morning news show and all other shows and in our news coverage throughout the day.

RH: When national topics arise, how does your station balance topics that are important locally versus larger issues and discussions that matter nationally?

MS: I think everything affects us locally. The war in Ukraine and the coronavirus are perfect examples of issues and stories that touch us all. To have a host like Brett Winterble in the afternoon or Vince Coakley in middays, whose shows are largely national in content, although they are obviously locally based, it allows them to cover those topics and give our listeners their fill of that type of content. Pete Kaliner’s show from noon-3 has a largely state focus. All our hosts cover those national and global topics. What’s amazing is that they are able to make them relatable on the local level.

AF: I think our first job is to entertain. We don’t always get into a lot of the heavier topics on the FM station. I think it’s just a feel thing for the shows. We try to localize topics and to find that local hook. We try to find the emotion in the story and to try to find ways to bring it home. Sometimes, there are a lot of national topics where we don’t even go there. A lot of things we just don’t do because they become too toxic. Our first rule on the station is to entertain and so we look for topics that are more entertaining than the heavier stuff. We’ll talk about movies before we talk about politics.

RH: From a business perspective, how much does it matter in your local market to advertisers that your shows are local? Does your station see more dollars attached to specific types of shows, personalities, and dayparts?

MS: I think a great deal of the business that WBT does, is because our hosts endorse local clients. I think that if [morning host] Bo Thompson and [co-host] Beth Troutman tells you about a business that they endorse, you’re going to know that if you’re ever in the market for that product or service, you’ll know it’s trustworthy, or they wouldn’t be talking about it otherwise. WBT’s success from a revenue standpoint is clear. The station is the number one billing station in Charlotte.

AF: All I know is what I’ve seen here and in other markets. Strong personalities do a great job for advertisers. That’s a great strength of being local. In the end, our real business is helping other businesses grow. I can’t think of a better way than a well-respected friend recommending a store or restaurant to you. That’s what we do; it works.

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Gordon Deal Takes Pride In Balancing Serious Politics With Lighter News Stories

“This is not an opinion-driven show. The news is just the news to us. So it’s a little chance to to be a little lighter, since obviously we do a lot of death and destruction…”

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A photo of Gordon Deal
(Photo: Compass Media Networks)

Available on over 300 stations Hundreds of Thousands wake up and tune into to Gordon Deal and his co-hosts for their daily dose of news. Even when the microphones are off, something in the world is happening.

“Next is always now. The news never goes off, you know?” Gordon Deal told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call. He continued to say, “There’s always some alert coming across in your phone. How am I going to process this? Is this something I’ll be talking about tomorrow morning? To what level does it rise? How is the radio show going to be prepared to handle this particular piece of news tomorrow?”

Deal added, “The news button never goes off. It’s not like it’s not like when the final buzzer sounds, you know, in a basketball game or the final goal goes in or something like that. It just never ends.”

However, Deal’s path to news wasn’t direct but instead developed from his sports passion. “ I was a student at Rutgers and I thought I was, going to have a career as a professional soccer player. When that didn’t work out, I thought, ‘I need to do something better with my time.’ I saw an ad in the Rutgers student newspaper about, looking for help at the radio station, which, the school has and operates.

“So I thought, ‘Wow. Doing sports play-by-play would be a good way to kind of keep my hand in sports.’ So that was how it all began. Just saw an opportunity and jumped on it in college.”

Shortly after graduating, Gordon Deal transitioned his talents from sports to news.

“The transition was hard at first because I needed to know a lot of things that I did not know. I could tell you who the assistant football coach was at Utah State University back then. But I didn’t know who the governor of New Jersey was, even though I lived in the state.”

Deal added he also needed to learn how to write. “When I was doing play-by-play, I really didn’t do a lot of writing unless I was making notes about a particular player or coach or team or scribbling down statistics.

“So I really learned how to write local news, breaking news, and how to deliver it differently. So there was a lot to learn, especially the writing part. But I had a really good mentor in my first job out of school, so it was really helpful.”

That mentor, Bruce Johnson, took Gordon Deal under his wing. “He agreed to take me on as a young news guy with the carrot. He dangled the carrot that I would be able to do play-by-play, since I loved sports at the time. But he said ‘You’ll be on the bottom rung. But through attrition and experience, you’ll get your shot.’”

This experience allowed Deal to learn news. He recalled, “[Johnson] was such a good teacher. He knew how to write and teach you how to write. It’s one thing to know how to write yourself, but to teach somebody else is a real skill. So he had a lot of patience with somebody like me, who didn’t have a ton of news experience. He really rolled the dice and took that chance on me.”

Deal later added this chance “Set all the wheels in motion for my whole career. Being able to have that [writing] skill allow me to do more than sports.”

Today on his show This Morning with Gordon Deal, the longtime radio host delivers hard news but does have some higher moments with his Executive Producer, Mike Gavin in their segment ‘The Mic Drop.’ Deal told us, “[Gavin and I] come in with a couple of stories, that seem to be funny or silly or worthy of talking about and it’s the only time we really share opinion.”

He added, “This is not an opinion-driven show. The news is just the news to us. So it’s a little chance to be a little lighter, since obviously, we do a lot of death and destruction and bad news and serious politics. So any chance to kind of make it a little bit lighter with that segment and then a little human interest story at the tail end of the show. We feel it’s just kind of captures life.”

While most of his show deals in politics, Deal believes most Americans are not focused on politics and don’t live in an echo chamber. “I think the folks that are in the echo chamber tend to make a lot of the news sometimes, but I don’t think most Americans fit in one. I think most Americans don’t bleed politics.”

Of his show, Deal noted, “We take our politics very seriously, and we do a good portion of it on the program. But I don’t go home and think, ‘I can’t wait to discuss politics again tomorrow.’ I have other fish to fry in my life.”

For young people looking to get their start, Deal said, “As somebody said to me one time, ‘There’s no substitute for being on the air.’ So if you want to do news radio, get on the air. It doesn’t matter how small the radio station is, how big the radio station is, or how small or large the network is. Do it. And these days, unlike when I started out, you can podcast and practice on your own.”

Deal went on to say, “You can link it to social media…There seems to be so many ways to gain at least some level of experience these days. It’s really up to you.”

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In Radio, Just Like Politics, Authenticity Wins

For people who need to communicate with audiences for a living, whether as a politician, musical talent, actor, or radio personality, being authentic is the key to winning.

Andy Bloom

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A photo of Scrabble Pieces spelling out Real is Rare

I grew up listening to legendary Top 40 jocks. Accordingly, my radio career began in Top 40 radio as well. I hadn’t developed the big pipes that most of the people I listened to had (and never would), but that didn’t stop me from trying to push my voice. It also made me a pretty poor jock.

By the time I was in college, I had moved to AOR radio, where I started to figure out that a big voice wasn’t the most important quality for on-air talent.

Authenticity is the most essential attribute for air talent and anybody who has to communicate with people.

Watching a documentary on the early days of Rock N’ Roll, it struck me how The Beatles’ authenticity (and irreverence) in radio interviews set them apart from the stilted interviews and alter-egos of the rockers who came before them.

It’s certainly true in politics.

When President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump visited the southern border on the same day, it was a reminder of how authenticity impacts people’s thinking.

Wading into political waters here means alienating at least half of my readers instantly or at least risking my credibility. But this isn’t about politics. Stick with me; maybe I can offer insight into what the other half sees and even the difficulty Joe Biden has communicating messages.

Their border visits provide an interesting contrast. It’s been Trump’s signature issue since 2015. While I wouldn’t use, or advise a political client to use, the language and descriptions Trump does, he identified a problem that has become the number one overall issue in most current polls.

Biden invited immigrants, legal or not, to come to the United States during the 2020 campaign, and they have come – in record numbers. By any measure, more immigrants are entering the U.S. illegally and seeking asylum from more places than at any time in the nation’s history.

Once in office, Biden used executive orders to undo as much of Trump’s immigration policy as possible, including:

  • Halting all construction on the border wall
  • Implementing a pause on most  deportations – including criminals
  • Ending the Remain in Mexico policy for asylum seekers

Biden claimed the border was secure for three years, and there was no problem. His Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, also denied an issue at the Southern border. 

Suddenly, Biden acknowledged that there is a border problem. I’m uncertain Biden woke up and realized the problem at the border. I’m more confident that he or his team recognizes a political problem.

Trump visited Eagle Pass, TX. In December 2023, upward of 4,000 people were illegally crossing there daily. The state took over in January and has implemented several measures that have significantly reduced illegal crossings there.

Biden, who announced his border trip after Trump’s, went to Brownsville, TX, where the state has reduced illegal crossings to a trickle.

While Biden is talking about efforts to reduce illegal crossings, his administration is suing the state of Texas for buoys it deployed in the Rio Grande River, razor wire that it has placed in locations along the border, and to block a state law that would have given police broad powers to arrest people for crossing the Texas-Mexico border illegally.

Considering his history on the issue, Biden lacks authenticity to those without partisan affiliation.

But it’s not just at the border or this this past week.

Trump’s strength is with rural areas and with blue-collar voters. On its face, this seems illogical. How does a slick-talking New York City billionaire, millionaire, or whatever he’s worth appeal to people with whom he has no common life experiences?

Trump has never pretended to be one of them. He never wore a flannel shirt, drove around Iowa in a pick-up truck, or claimed to be like the people he’s asking to vote for him. He never claimed to be a regular churchgoer. Trump was his authentic self: a wealthy real-estate developer, deal-cutting businessman, and television reality star.

Those who despise him will argue that he’s lied and committed all kinds of crimes, but as far as his fans are concerned, he presented himself as he is and didn’t try to pretend to be somebody else.

Again, detractors can disagree with how he presents himself versus reality, but if you want to understand those who believe in Trump, it’s his authenticity that speaks to them.

Biden claims blue-collar origins, but “Scranton Joe” is a 70-year-old memory and lacks authenticity.

Authenticity would help Biden on the economy, too. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton famously said, would benefit Biden much more than “Bidenomics is working.”

I understand that not everybody feels this way about Trump and Biden. Believe what you will. But if you talk with enough Trump backers, you can’t help but come away feeling that authenticity is one of the primary reasons for his loyal base.

After 50 years in Washington, maybe authenticity is one of the reasons Joe Biden has such a difficult time communicating a message.

For people who need to communicate with audiences for a living, whether as a politician, musical talent, actor, or radio personality, being authentic is the key to winning.

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Can Radio Still Garner Enough Interest to Craft a ‘Farm Team’ in 2024?

Talk to anyone in the industry and ask about young people using broadcast radio, even if they can stream it.  Do we compete well with Spotify, podcasts, and satellite?

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A photo of the cast of KDKA and its Next Take show
(Photo: KDKA)

If you read the trades, you probably saw the recent announcement that KDKA radio in Pittsburgh is trying something new with overnights. They’ve turned it over to students from the University of Pittsburgh! What a great idea! I’m placing a bet that my friend, Dave Labrozzi, who recently announced his retirement from the station, had something to do with it.

The new show, Next Take, airs five mornings a week from 1 to 5 AM. I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet, because we retired folks tend to go to sleep early, but I want to give it a listen and hear what these students are coming up with for content. 

In the past, talent came up through the ranks, usually by working in a very small market for low pay. The next move up was to a bigger market doing nights or overnights. Eventually, if you were good enough and had the drive and desire, you worked for a major station in a major market doing a daytime shift for real money and fame.

But is that possible today? Talk to anyone in the industry and ask about young people using broadcast radio, even if they can stream it. Do we compete well with Spotify, podcasts, and satellite? Can we still pull in solid audiences?

It seems that every day, the trades have an announcement of another veteran radio person ending up “on the beach”. I was shocked to see that my friend, Val Garris, was “out the door” at Cumulus. He had been there so long that it’s not Cumulus without him. The carnage isn’t restricted to commercial radio. Just the other day, one of the stalwarts of public radio, WAMU in Washington, ended their DCist project and informed 15 people that they would need to find other sources of employment. 

If you were considering a career in media, either as a college student or a high school student just starting out, would you want to go into radio after reading about our industry? And if you did, where would you start? College radio is great (full disclosure: I spent ten years in college radio including two stints as a PD and one as a student general manager), but at some point, you’ll leave the bosom of the university and have to go to work. Where do you start?

Long ago when I was the student general manager of the carrier current system at Michigan State (this was prior to the advent of WDBM-FM, which was delayed for years due to having an analog channel 6 in Lansing), I approached the late Steve Meuché the general manager of WKAR radio and TV, MSU’s public broadcasting operation. WKAR-FM was a blowtorch, one of those “superpower” FMs that ran 125,000 watts at the time. Michigan is a pretty flat state, so the signal could just about reach most of the Detroit suburbs as well as Grand Rapids to the west. At the time, the station signed off at 1 AM each morning.

I pitched Steve on letting the students have the hours between 1 AM and sign on on Friday and Saturday nights. We’d program the alternative rock format that was on our student operation most of the time and it would give our kids the chance to be heard over the air (carrier current could only be heard on AM in the dorms and not very well, plus we had a cable FM link which not many people knew about). 

Steve was a great guy, gave our demo tape a listen, but I think the rest of his staff was not excited about mixing ‘80s alternative in with the classical music that ran during much of WKAR-FM’s day in the ‘80s. Once again, I was a little ahead of the curve.

So, I’ve been there and done that but without success. Congratulations to the minds that came up with this idea, ran with it, and brought it to fruition. I hope it succeeds, not because the various syndicated overnight shows are not good, but because radio needs a “farm team” to build talent. 

Perhaps if this shows some level of success, however KDKA chooses to measure it, other stations will do the same. Considering how much revenue we see from overnights (yes, I’m being snarky here), what do we have to lose?

Let’s meet again next week.

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