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Ken Charles’ Radio Story Has More Chapters Left To Be Written

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One of the most successful program directors in the country wanted to be a lawyer. Fortunately for radio, he may have dressed more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

“I’m not a suit and tie guy,” Ken Charles said. “I’d have been the most unhappy lawyer in the business.”

There’s no question he could have held his own arguing cases. The only problem was Charles liked a different kind of argument.

“The wife of my first general manager was Jo Johnson,” Charles explained.

“She told me I loved to argue no matter what the subject. I said that wasn’t true, so we argued about that for a while.”

Charles currently serves as VP of News for Audacy and Brand Manager of KNX-AM/FM Los Angeles (1070/97.1)

Not for much longer, but more on that later.

He went to Florida State University and knew his grades weren’t going to get him into Harvard. “I figured if I could get a 4.0 GPA, I could get into any law school I wanted.”

As it so often does, radio reared its head and it was love at first sight. Law went the way of disco.

“I started at WPLP in Tampa as a board operator,” Charles said. “As it happens, a friend of mine who lived across the hall in the dorms was a commercial production guy for the station. They didn’t want to hire me at first because I was studying political sciences.”

Opportunity knocked at the expense of a lot of other people.

“The station fired one of their news people and a lot of the technical staff said if they didn’t hire that person back they’d go on strike,” Charles explained. “The station did them one better and fired them all.”

They were so desperate to fill roles they hired Charles. “What are the odds that a person who would be instrumental in my 30 year career in radio happened to live across the hall?”

Apparently, they are pretty good.

He didn’t waste a lot of time getting to work. His first press conference was with former Vice President Walter Mondale. There were national news people and reporters he respected in attendance.

“Mondale looked at me and said, ‘He looks like an exciting young reporter,’ and motioned me to ask a question. I wasn’t expecting to be called on. I asked him a question about nuclear submarines. The only reason I asked that was because I was working with that subject for my masters degree. I’m sure everybody in the press corp thought it was a stupid question.”

Charles said he has no idea what Mondale said in response. “He could have sung the national anthem for all I know. Here was a former vice president calling on a political science dork.”

He was born in Edison, New Jersey and had no qualms referring to himself as a radio dork.

“I always listened to WABC on the AM dial,” Charles said. “I listened to Jean Shepherd and his spoken word show on WOR. A lot of stories in his books and other things made it on the air, stories like A Christmas Story. I also listened to Marv Albert calling the Rangers games.”

Like every 10 year-old in New Jersey, Charles wanted to play for the Yankees.

“I couldn’t hit a curveball and was better at football.”

News can be overwhelming, Charles said. “Think about it–since January of 2020 when Kobe Bryant died, it has been non-stop since. We’ve had the Pandemic, George Floyd, the protests, January 6th, forest fires. We just have to keep taking it and it’s not going to stop.”

“If you look at news from the 1950s and 60s, the agenda was set at the station. The news department determined what the news was going to be. You buttoned up your shirt, put on your tie and delivered the news. Now, instead of dictating to the audience, we’re trying to listen to what they think is news, what matters to them.

Charles said there will always be news where part of your audience just doesn’t care about what is happening.

“For instance, fires here are a very interesting story.  A fire in northern LA county has no effect on people living in Orange County. That’s an example where our commitment to the community overwhelms the need to tell stories that affect the most listeners possible.”

Charles said news departments need to be in touch with audiences.

“We live in the community too. We have families, kids in school. In all those ways we keep in touch with people that live around us. As news people, we have to determine what they want. One of the things I preach is think with your heart, not with your head.  We are people and we need to understand the emotional component, what our friends care about.”

“Sometimes you feel the right stories, sometimes you don’t. If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s going to be by doing too much on a story. You’re never going to get an email because you did too much. You will get a negative response if you do too little and the audience will look for that additional coverage someplace else.”

There are also exceptions to that philosophy. Sports can be one of them.

“A good example of this would be when I first took my position in Los Angeles,” Charles explained. “We were all Dodgers all the time, top to bottom, 24/7. The Dodgers had made the NLCS and went to their first World Series in a while. We blew it. We covered it like television. We led with it at the top and bottom of our newscasts. We had reporters all over. But the numbers for our coverage were just not there. We shouldn’t do what television does. They can get that extended information from so many other places.”

Charles went on to say they overwhelmed their audience with Dodgers, and didn’t deliver the promise of a broad range of local news and traffic.

Each market is different.

Charles said some are better sports markets than others. “In my position, you have to learn the expectations your audience has for that topic. If it’s the biggest local news story of the day”

Charles said road traffic can be difficult in any city, not just Los Angeles, but it’s still important. “There’s a lot of debate if we should do traffic as much and as often as we do. After all, you can get it on your dashboard in your car, on Waze, Google. But people respond to traffic. We have empathy because we live here too. It’s not just the older demographic, the 30 year-olds like it too. Reporting on traffic keeps us connected.”

“Tell me a fact I’ll learn. Tell me a truth I’ll believe. Tell me a story that will live in my heart forever”

Charles said that’s his mantra, and he shares it with his team. He tries to live that mantra.

“I saw that when Ed and Steve Sabol were doing an interview with Bryant Gumbel in 2001 on Real Sports,” Charles said. “That was one of those lightning-bolt moments for me. I told our imaging guy at the time to tell us a story that will live in our hearts forever.”

Charles said he strives to bring home a great story every day.

“Ukraine is a good example of a story that affects real people,” Charles said. “At the beginning of the war we provided in-depth coverage with Ukrainian  citizens still living in the country. They told us what they were feeling, seeing, what was going on. There were reporters and experts telling us what was going on, but we had people who were living what was happening. I hope other stations try to do that. I think some days you’re more successful with that than others.”

Charles explained in his mind, radio is the best training ground there is. He said if you want to be a TV person later in a career, you could make that transition. There are skills in radio that you’ll learn and are useful in many other areas. “You learn how to prepare stories, cut tape,” Charles said. “The same skills you’re going to use in TV. We’ve done a terrible job being an evangelist for radio. You can perfect your craft. That’s what I impart to kids. Everyone wants to be the next Robin Roberts, but they’re not willing to put in all of the work. You’ll get more coaching. There’s more opportunity to work, even if you make a mistake.”

He’s seen a few of his former employees go on to greatness.

“Aaron Katersky, was a radio junkie,” Charles said. “He is one of the most talented kids I know. He was a student at Newhouse and worked at WSYR. Aaron was older than his year, more talented than his experience. He worked for me. I left Syracuse and he left radio to do personal things. I hired him as a reporter in Housten. I embedded him at ABC to cover the Iraq war. ABC noticed him, snagged him, and he’s been with the network ever since. Every time I hear him I feel like a proud father.”

A shock to most, Charles is leaving KNX on July 22.

“It feels like the right time,” Charles said. “I’ve spent the past seven years here, longer than I’ve been anywhere since elementary school. I’m proud to be part of this heritage station. Proud of the people I work with. It’s just time. I’m an east coast boy. All my wife’s family is in New York. I’ve only seen my family once since I’ve been out here. Life is too short. I’m not retiring. I’ve got more chapters to write so I’m not done yet. I don’t want to end up dead at my desk some day. I’m not going to give up something I love.” 

He said he thinks everybody should quit their job, even if it’s just for a little while. You get tons of attention.

“I can’t believe the outpouring of love I’ve received since I announced it,” Charles said. “I never would have known how much of an impact people think I’ve had. There was an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where a guy watched his own wake. When I decided to make the move I posted on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ve heard from hundreds of people. Some I haven’t heard from in 20 years. I’m going to miss all that when I’m dead.”

Charles said his departure is bittersweet. It’s hard to leave the people he’d worked with so long. “It’s really cool to hear from all of them.”

Whichever way the future takes Charles, like The Dude, I have the feeling he’ll abide.

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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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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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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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