Ken Charles’ Radio Story Has More Chapters Left To Be Written
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.
Jim Cryns writes features for Barrett News Media. He has spent time in radio as a reporter for WTMJ, and has served as an author and former writer for the Milwaukee Brewers. To touch base or pick up a copy of his new book: Talk To Me – Profiles on News Talkers and Media Leaders From Top 50 Markets, log on to Amazon or shoot Jim an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Chris Licht Got Right, and Wrong, During His CNN Tenure
Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
The departure of Chris Licht from CNN was abrupt but expected after a string of missteps. His criticism of his predecessor Jeff Zucker spilled into criticisms of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump and the Covid pandemic, which undercut his staff. Journalists who stood up to conspiracy theories and election falsehoods from the very top felt betrayed.
I’ve known Chris for 30 years, when he served as an associate producer at a KNBC/CNBC for a daily half-hour program centered on the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, we were colleagues at NBC and kept in touch while he was at CBS and I was at ABC. He is whip-smart, congenial, worked well with big talents like Joe Scarborough, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King, and, until now, had a stellar track record.
And in his latest and biggest post — despite being put in an impossible position — did some things right, which I will highlight in a moment.
But first that impossible position. His new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery wanted a restructuring and high ratings. They insisted on less calling out of misinformation and more “both sidesism”. So Licht had to derail the CNN train and then try to lift it back on the ratings track. No small job. Especially in a news climate that is in decline.
All the cable networks — who depended upon Donald Trump’s unpredictable, often treasonous and dangerous style — have suffered ratings decline. Fox numbers are down and so is MSNBC. The viewing public no longer has to tune in every minute of the day to see what the President is going to do or say. Life has largely returned to normal for most people.
So CNN, which could once depend upon airing and then fact-checking Trump’s latest absurdity, had to find new content.
Licht’s decision to emphasize down-the-middle news gathering seemed like a solid response to life without a bombastic — some say irrational — President.
Just cover the news, at which CNN is great. It’s the first place to turn during a mass shooting, a war, or natural disaster. But those are inconsistent events and cannot be depended upon for steady ratings. That’s the environment Licht stepped into.
He reacted with some good moves. His midday CNN News Central program, 3 hours of straight news, positions itself well to cover breaking news. It’s followed by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, also emphasizing news coverage.
However, unfortunately, the list of mistakes is a lot longer. Starting with Don Lemon. His “whole thing” in primetime was to be provocative and with a strong progressive bent. Licht attempted to turn Lemon into what he is not, an easy-to-watch, not opinionated host in the morning. A broadcast that was supposed to keynote the Licht agenda blew up in months. Lemon had an opinion on everything and could not get along with his co-hosts, which in morning TV is critical. The all-important chemistry was not there.
His meeting with Republican politicians on Capitol Hill to invite them back to CNN sent a message that they would no longer be challenged for disinformation. And Licht balanced the commentary panels on CNN with GOP election deniers who shouted over questions they could not answer, in turn sticking to talking points. A move that did little to attract viewers from Fox, and instead drove away legacy CNN viewers accustomed to progressive analysis and Republicans who respected opposite opinions.
Next, his attempt to normalize Donald Trump with a CNN Town Hall, somehow expecting the old rules of decorum would work became a disaster. Trump has to be covered. 30% of the electorate supports him, as do nearly 50% of Republicans. But a live Trump supporter audience overwhelmed Kaitlan Collins who was drenched by a firehouse of lies and deception.
And finally, there was Licht’s decision to make his criticisms of staff and their former coverage public in The Atlantic. A profile that made his gym trainer appear to be his top adviser.
To sum up: Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
It was an opportunity wasted and a good man self-defeated.
Jim Avila serves as a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. An Award-winning journalist with four decades of reporting and anchoring experience, Jim has served as Senior National Correspondent, 20/20 Correspondent, and White House Correspondent for ABC News. Prior to his time with ABC, he spent a decade with NBC News, and worked locally in Los Angeles and Chicago for KNBC, and WBBM. He can be found on Twitter @JimAvilaABC.
6 Tips For Dealing With Publicists
I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.
Especially for morning drive shows using the news wheel, ‘newsmaker’ guests are a part of the format. Beware of publicists that may be stealing bread from your station’s mouth. I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.
No Local Pitches From Publicists
We are often told to keep it local. I generally agree with that statement, but working with a local publicist is a bad idea. Publicists usually get paid for any appearance. If this is a local business, you are stealing money from your station’s bottom line. Why isn’t the guest purchasing advertising from the station?
Depending on the market, the publicist may be making enough money that would be better used on a spot campaign on your station. I programmed a station with the news wheel with “newsmaker” guests every half hour. A local doctor was talking about the ‘innovative’ procedure his office provides. Post-show, I called in the morning show host and producer. I asked if they stole from the company. These guys said, “No!”
Then I explained that the doctor was just given 12 minutes of free advertising. The publicist got paid and the station got nothing. I also explained that that the host could have made money with endorsement spots. Now, that was never going to happen. I suggested that the host speak with sales about this amazing doctor. Of course, the doctor never met with the account executive. Lesson learned.
You Are Enriching Them, So Make Them Work for Their Dough
You booked a guest from a publicist. Make them work for the money. Have them provide all the information that you need. A picture of the guest for social media. The interview is on your time, not theirs.
I had a publicist ask if I could pre-record their amazing guest at 4 in the afternoon, I said no. I only do guests live except in extraordinary circumstances. Occasionally, I’ll do a hit with one of the weekend syndicated hosts on my station. He does a local show at the same time that I am on the air. So, that is fine. I would pre-record Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but almost no one else.
It’s Your Show. Ask the Guest Your Questions.
If a publicist provides a list of suggested talking points, shred them. Do not do the interview for the guest or publicist, do it for your audience. Ask the questions that are focused on your listener.
The guest is getting free air time and the publicist is getting paid. If the guest and booker don’t like that? Who cares. I don’t do my show for them. I also never tell any guest about the questions that I could be asking. If there is a news story that is related to the guest, I am asking about that first. Being topical is your job.
The Emails Often Look Like the Endcap at Walmart
Here is what I mean: Publicist offers someone very cool. You contact them. The guest that the publicist offered is unavailable or ‘already’ booked at the time you need. So, the publicist highlights other potential guests that are not that appealing.
Just like the endcap at Walmart, the email looks appealing. Unfortunately, it is only to get you to open the email.
I received an email offering a really top guest that would be perfect for my show. I called the publicist and she told me that her guest was open at my time. Awesome. I thought that I had a good score.
I booked 3 days ahead and the publicist let me know that the guest was unavailable the afternoon before the interview. Since the guest was never confirmed, I didn’t promote it.
When to Cut Ties With a Publicist
If the guest slinger only provides people who are only wanting to sell stuff on your show? Move along. Obviously, all guests need to plug their stuff. We all know this.
About a decade ago, New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was booked on The Dan Patrick Show. Part of the reason was he was going to plug Qualcomm. Well, Matt Harvey didn’t want to speak about anything but Qualcomm. It was a sales pitch and nothing else.
Publicists should have their clients prepped so that they are booked to talk about their expertise and will get a chance to plug their book or service.
How to Get Guests Off the Talking Points
In the ’90s, I produced The Barbara Carlson Show in Minneapolis. The great actor Karl Malden was booked to promote the Oscars.
Let’s say that Karl was not in the mood to discuss anything but the Oscars. So, Barbara wasn’t going to let Karl get away with it. She buttered him up, telling Karl that he had a sexy nose. Then Barbara asked Karl if he had snorted cocaine at those amazing Hollywood Parties.
80-year-old Karl lost his cool. She got him off the talking points. It became an interesting interview.
The publicist was really mad about this. It was really good radio. It’s always about good radio and not pleasing some guest that is a one-time hit. Please the audience. Make memorable radio.
We all use publicists. Realize that you are their meal ticket. I am always surprised that I don’t at least get a holiday card from the publicists that I use on a regular basis. Don’t be naïve about these people. Hey, we all must make a living. They are a tool for you to use as you please.
Peter Wilkinson Thiele is a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. He currently serves as the program director, and morning host of Newstalk KZRG in Joplin, MO. Additionally, Peter has held programming roles in New York City, San Francisco, Little Rock, Greenville and Hunstville. He has also worked as a host, account executive and producer in Minneapolis, and San Antonio. You can reach him on Twitter at @PeterThiele.
Samantha Rivera Is What Every Live Reporter Should Strive For
Moxie. It’s a great word and it is not used enough these days. Maybe it’s not applied enough because not enough people have it, or not enough people show it. Samantha Rivera has moxie.
That is no patronizing remark, it is an unquestionable fact if you ask me, so do not even go there.
Samantha Rivera is a sports reporter for CBS News Miami, but she hit the jackpot in Las Vegas during a live shot at game two of the Stanley Cup Final.
What did she do you ask?
She did her job, with a flourish, strength, and without even breaking eye contact with the camera.
It’s the age-old story; a jersey-wearing nitwit sees the camera, the mic flag, and decides to bust in on the live shot.
Samantha Rivera’s live shot. And as we all have seen by now; she was not having it.
I am no play-by-play champion, so I recommend watching for yourself if you haven’t already. In this instance, watching an act of capability and composure takes extraordinarily little time.
Look, I still like sports and I still understand the motivation some fans have when they’re at a game or at a bar or even on the street outside the arena.
And as one of the inaugural season ticket holders for the Florida Panthers, a former South Floridian, and a guy who shares a first and a last name with the Panthers GM (I came along first, I checked), it’s not like I wasn’t keeping tabs on the game anyway.
But back to the fans, let us remember something: fan is short for fanatic or fanaticism.
Sports fans are much like those with strong political leanings, although in my observations sports fans usually have a little bit more on the ball and they possess a greater knowledge of the facts involved.
But we need to remember something else as well: reporter is short for somebody with a job, a job that has to get done, often in a challenging environment.
When the journalist meets the village idiot, for all our sakes the journalist has to win.
And Samantha Rivera won. And it was a victory we all should appreciate. News and sports coverage remained that one degree smarter as a result of a professional doing her job and doing it well.
We were spared a black eye, a dose of ridicule, and a round of catcalls because Samantha Rivera stepped up to the plate and went to bat for herself and for all of us really, and she did it at hockey game.
A great moment has gone viral, everybody is covering it and CBS Miami has an exceptional story to tell. They even got to interview their own reporter, a reporter who was the story.
This is one of those times when a reporter making the news is a good thing.
No idiot is calling a colleague a reprehensible name and getting fired here.
A professional’s personal life is not sending their career over a cliff in this scenario.
This time the reporter is seen pushing back against wrongful interference and emerging victoriously.
No big fight, no injuries, no penalty box.
Of course, there is at least one mutant out there still looking for high-fives for the half-second of screen time his shoulder and a third of his face got.
A live shot is not a “free swim” for the moronic, that lesson was reinforced in of all places, Las Vegas.
Live coverage is fun because it’s challenging but what I think should be called to attention here is how well Samantha Rivera handled things and did the job all while keeping a “take no shit” attitude.
I believe it’s a good representative look for a reporter.
That’s the way it’s done, the way it needs to be done and all the praise this pro among pros is getting is just.
Samantha Rivera now has the only shot she will ever need for her reporter reel.
So, in this case, it was a good thing that what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.
Bill Zito has devoted most of his work efforts to broadcast news since 1999. He made the career switch after serving a dozen years as a police officer on both coasts. Splitting the time between Radio and TV, he’s worked for ABC News and Fox News, News 12 New York , The Weather Channel and KIRO and KOMO in Seattle. He writes, edits and anchors for Audacy’s WTIC-AM in Hartford and lives in New England. You can find him on Twitter @BillZitoNEWS.