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WBT Reporter Brett Jensen Couldn’t Avoid Ukraine

“I’m sure they would have killed me just because I was a journalist because the Russians don’t want any of the information of what they’re doing getting out to the rest of the world. That’s when I really started to get nervous. I was stuck in Ukraine and was a potential target.”

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Yes, Brett Jensen went to war-torn Ukraine during his vacation time. But it wasn’t like he went for a vacation.

“I do these long trips every year,” the Breaking with Brett Jensen host on WBT in Charlotte said. “I try to take my vacation days around July 4th to get that extra day. I’ll use 11 or 12 of the days and make it stretch through three weekends or 19 days.”

Jensen had been thinking about revisiting Ukraine after having been there for a week last year as part of an actual vacation, even though part of it was spending 36 hours in Chernobyl. He found his opening for the return visit.

“The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte donated 30 sets of bulletproof vests to the charity Samaritan’s Purse, to be given to its aid workers on the frontlines,” he said.

Jensen explained Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization that provides help to people in physical need. They specialize in going to disaster areas. They’ve gone into Somalia, as well as other major disaster and war-torn areas.

“They’re generally the guys on the front lines,” he said. “They make sure the area has electricity, food, and basic supplies. The CEO is Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham.”

When Jensen learned of the body armor being donated, he knew this was serendipitous with a connection to Charlotte.

“I wondered how cool it would be to be in Kyiv when the armor arrived there,” Jensen said. “I was already going to be in the Baltics so I looked into the possibility of it actually happening. I contacted all kinds of people in Poland, which people had told me was the best route to get in and out of Ukraine. I contacted all the governments and authorities I needed to and then talked to some people I knew in Ukraine. I was on my own time, but I was also a journalist.”

The plan was to fly from Lithuania, to Krakow, Poland where he’d take a bus the rest of the way. The safest route to Ukraine is through Poland; nowhere near the fighting. But it’s also a very long bus ride from Krakow, 21 hours in all. The journey itself proved to be one of the most taxing parts of the trip.

Initially, Jensen was repeatedly told not to go to Ukraine by the State Department. If he insisted, Jensen would have to fill out forms with next of kin information and they wouldn’t be coming in after him if he got in trouble.

“That made it all real,” he said. “They said they weren’t responsible for me.”

But it was that bus ride that Jensen knew was going to be a problem the moment he sat down to settle in for the long ride.

“I sat in the front of the bus with my legs at 90 degree angles with a railing in front of me,” Jensen said. “Periodically I was able to stand, but not all the way up. It was kind of bending over at the waist. We stopped every two or three hours and I was able to stretch my legs.”

When he got to the Poland and Ukraine border, he said he was amazed at the long lines of trucks, trailers and supplies lined up for miles parked on the side of the road. It could take as long as a week for the supply trucks to get across the border.

“First, they’d take everybody’s passports, then we’d sit for a couple of hours,” Jensen explained. “They’d give the passports back and we’d drive a mile, and the exact same thing would happen over again with the Ukraine border patrol.”

Jensen was the only one on the bus with an American passport. There were 66 people on the bus and only four were men, with Jensen being the youngest male. The women were going to see their husbands, sons and brothers left behind.

While at the border, Ukrainian soldiers inspected his passport and asked why he wanted to come to Ukraine.

“There’s two words that everyone in Europe understands, even if they don’t speak English: American journalist,” Jensen said. “It doesn’t matter where you are. If it was Lithuania, Romania, everyone there understands ‘American journalist’.”

Jensen arrived in Kyiv at 8:45 PM after having left the previous night at 11:55. He quickly learned there was a curfew from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM. Every restaurant shuts down at 9:00 PM, so employees could clean up and be home by 11 pm.

“I made it to my Airbnb at 9:45 PM and they had a little kiosk outside on the sidewalk,” he said. “I got the essentials; potato chips, Coke Zero and a muffin. That was my first meal in Ukraine.”

Like most of us, Jensen didn’t really know what to expect when he arrived. He said the western part of the country hadn’t been leveled, but there was still a lot of rubble the closer he got to the capital.

“Once we got 60 miles outside of Kyiv, you started to see the devastation,” Jensen said. “Many of the warehouses and homes were decimated. That’s when we started going through road checks. Picture driving down I-95, then all of a sudden a four-lane highway slimming down to one lane in each direction. You have to do an ‘S’ through the barriers at 10 to 15 miles per hour. They’ve built all these barricades with steel and concrete and you weave your way through. Then it straightens and you go back to 60 miles an hour.”

He said you could look around and see where Russian missiles struck, destroying apartment buildings and creating immense rubble. Jensen said there were soldiers everywhere. There were what they call Czech hedgehogs, similar to the obstacles they had on the beaches at Normandy. They are protecting statues and important entities with sandbags and built structures. Many streets are blocked.

Once there, it didn’t take long for Jensen to experience the haunting air raid sirens.

“At 1:55 AM, I first heard the sirens going off,” he explained. “Of course, I was a little nervous. I was staying in the ‘Times Square’ in Kyiv, Independence Square, where they have all the statues and rallies. I got dressed, grabbed a few extra phone batteries in case I needed to stay in the shelter for a long time, then ran down to the subway. I got there at 2:07 AM. It’s a very deep subway, some of the deepest in the world built by the Russians in the 60s as fallout shelters.”

When Jensen arrived at the shelter, there were only five other people. None spoke English. After a short time, they left, started to head for home. Jensen was perplexed. The next day he talked to his Uber driver, who spoke English, about the situation.

“I asked him why people don’t go down to the air raid shelters. He told me they don’t react to the sirens anymore. He said if they reacted to every siren, they’d never get anything else done. It just wasn’t worth it. The driver then laid some math on me and explained that with 3 million people in Kyiv, he still had only a 1-in-3 million chance of getting hit. He figured he’d roll the dice.”

After the first time, Jensen didn’t bother to go down again. He figured he’d be the only guy down there. On what was to be his last day in Kyiv, Jensen met up with a university student that he had interviewed during his first full day there. The sirens went off five times over the course of nine hours. After one of the sirens finished sounding, the 19-year-old took Jensen to a bar near the university, where tourists generally don’t go. When they walked into the bar, it
was relatively full because nobody had left.

“Five minutes later, a lot of police came in yelling because they didn’t evacuate, nobody in the bar left during the siren,” Jensen said. “They shut down the bar. That was the only time I’d seen anyone in Kyiv chastised for not going to a shelter.”

Jensen arrived on a Wednesday and was scheduled to leave Saturday. He was supposed to take a bus to Warsaw, Poland, and from there take a flight to Estonia to continue his vacation.

His bus was canceled and Jensen was forced to stay in Ukraine and couldn’t get out for another four days. It was Friday and Jensen knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Another Uber driver, who Jensen described as highly educated, had just come in from Poland to take care of his father. He spoke English and this was the only job he could get.

“I asked him if he was working the next day and he said he wasn’t,” Jensen said. “I asked if I could hire him as my personal driver the next morning, not as an Uber driver. We didn’t talk about money or location.”

The driver arrived at 9:30 the next morning. Jensen said he got in the front seat and asked the driver if he’d take him as close to the front lines as he felt comfortable. The driver agreed and they drove for nearly three hours toward the front lines.

This is where Ukraine started to look like a war zone.

“We went through villages that had been completely bombed out, but there were people still living there. They had nowhere else to go.”

Jensen interviewed an older woman in front of her bombed-out house, his driver serving as interpreter.

“Her daughter and grandson were next to her by the side of the house,” Jensen said. “The only thing left standing were the four walls and you couldn’t see the floor through the rubble. I walked around the corner and saw another woman hanging laundry in front of her destroyed apartment building. I asked them if they were scared and they said of course, they were still scared, but that there was nothing they could do.

“The woman told me the Russians still popped in every so often. I’m sure they would have killed me just because I was a journalist because the Russians don’t want any of the information of what they’re doing getting out to the rest of the world. That’s when I really started to get nervous. I was stuck in Ukraine and was a potential target.”

On another occasion, Jensen said things had gotten pretty hairy. During the final day in Ukraine, the sirens blared many times. Then there was the alert that wouldn’t stop and Jensen knew something was different.

“In the streets people were walking very fast toward the shelters. I figured I really needed to take cover. If they were nervous, then I probably should be, too. I’m not sure to this day if something was hit or not.”

Jensen said he was struck by the confidence and determination of the Ukraine people. “To a person, from the landlord of my Airbnb to my Uber driver, they all said the same thing,” he recalled. “ ‘If we have the firepower, we will win.’ In a poll, 80 percent of the people said they were not giving up a single acre to the Russians. They argued that if they did, the Russians would come back and want more.”

According to Jensen, Ukrainian’s have an internal fire. They truly have something to fight for.

“I got out of Ukraine a week and a half before all the crap hit the fan with the nuclear power station and the increased bombardment. They are so steadfast in their beliefs. They’ve got that fire. They’re not going to stop.”

Finally, after doing live reports back to Charlotte on WBT several times a day, interviewing the head of Samaritan’s Purse for 45 minutes about the need for bulletproof vests, and talking to many citizens of the country, it was time to head to the next destination – Ireland, via Poland.

On his train trip out, only sleeper cars were made available. They hold four people in a very small cabin. Jensen was the first to arrive and had to imagine who he’d be sharing the car with. At the very least he knew he could stretch out his legs, and not be forced to travel again like a pretzel.

“I prayed for an electrical outlet to plug in my laptop so I could watch movies,” Jensen said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get a petite woman or a heavy Ukrainian guy living off cabbage. I also prayed there wasn’t a bathroom in my cabin.”

There wasn’t. He lucked out as his cabin mates were two females in their 20s and a woman in her 40s. “There was a power outlet and the women didn’t snore. It was uncomfortably hot in the room, but at least it wasn’t like the bus.”

Crossing the border back into Poland, a guard walked into his cabin. He spoke in Polish and the women answered him. Then the guard looked at Jensen and said, “American journalist.”

“I’m thinking, how the hell did he know that? He asked where I entered Ukraine, and I told him from Krakow on a bus. He asked when, and I said a week ago. He took my passport and about an hour later, he came back and told me to show him the stamps on the passport that proved I had done what I said. The Ukrainian stamp had faded, but you could make it out. He gave me a
weird look that said, ‘Yeah, okay.’”

From there, it was another five hours to Warsaw, Poland, where he finally checked into his hotel at 7:00 PM. Jensen was finally safe and in the comforts of a room with a real bed, not a vinyl bunk bed on a train for 19 hours.

“There are a few things that I would change in hindsight, but I would absolutely go back if given the opportunity,” Jensen said. “There are a lot of great and horrific stories to tell and I’m glad I was able to help tell them. The Ukrainian people basically want two things: weapons for journalists to tell what’s happening there and I was able to do at least one of those.”

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As History Unfolds, It’s Important for News/Talk Radio to Remain Focused on Playing the Hits

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward.

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The age-old radio adage is to “Play the hits”.

It applies more directly to music stations, but the phrase can also relate to sports talk and news/talk. So, suppose you’re like me, and you’ve found yourself behind a microphone on a news/talk station the last couple of weeks. In that case, you might be having an internal conversation about whether you’ve focused too much on the national political discourse since the unforgettable Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden debate on June 27th.

My short answer is: No, you’re not too focused. 

But in an effort to not stop this column at 100 words, I’ll explain further.

I’ve long advocated for focusing your local shows on your local radio markets as much as possible. It will separate your show from the national syndication that can be piped into any station nationwide. Your local flair is what will build your credibility in your community. It’s what will separate you. Local will win. 

And given that it’s been an unusually predictable few months in the election news cycle, there hasn’t been much to lean into on the national political side. Joe Biden was the unimpressive, octogenarian incumbent going up against Donald Trump, who rolled quickly through a primary and was set to be at the top of the Republican ticket for a third-straight election cycle. It was a rematch of 2020, a period in American history most Americans would prefer to forget, given the state of the nation at the time. Unfortunately for many, they are being forced to relive it. 

However, what happened two weeks ago in Atlanta between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has given a massive jolt to an election season that had been relatively boring. Tens of millions of Americans were tuned in that evening, and given Biden’s debate performance, it has kicked off two weeks of speculation of Biden dropping out, party infighting, replacement conversations, various media reports, and drama that we haven’t seen around an incumbent President in an election year since 1968.

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward engagingly and entertainingly while also, when appropriate, bringing on guests who will provide them with insight they can bring to their conversations with friends, at the water cooler, on group texts and on social media.

In a perfect world, you can also localize these national stories by getting reactions from local officials, reading/playing their social media reactions on your show, or if you’re in a swing state, your options beyond that are unlimited.

But now that we are in a national news cycle that has been on fire, don’t force yourself into local talk. Find your top local stories that are compelling and impacting your radio listener’s day-to-day lives, and work to blend it with the historical moment we find ourselves living through on the national political stage. And always be working your hardest to think of and find new angles, while moving the story forward.

In the end, just like your local CHR station has to play Taylor Swift multiple times an hour, you need to give your audience what they want and “Play the hits.” We’re living through history, after all.

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James Golden AKA Bo Snerdley Relishes New Nationally Syndicated Weekend Show

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

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Radio host, radio executive, producer, author, and a jack of all media trades. Since he was 14-years-old James Golden (AKA Bo Snerdley) has devoted his entire life to the media industry.

The on-air talent’s weekend show —The James Golden Show — just became syndicated through Red Apple Audio Networks.

“I really appreciate having the platform that WABC has provided. It’s a wonderful thing to have a show that’s now in a bunch of different markets and growing! It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Long before Golden hit the airwaves as ‘Bo Snerdley’ on The Rush Limbaugh Show, he was a teenager visiting his cousin, DJ Gerry Bledsoe, at work. “It was a mind-blowing experience for me. So many things happened that day. In fact, that day was when one of the older guys there, the guy who’s had a reputation as being a real grumpy, curmudgeon type guy, for some reason, took a liking to me.”

He let Golden into the show where Golden learned how to cut tape. “It took me a lot of years before I actually got a job, and ironically, it was at the same station, doing marketing and research, looking at ratings and learning how to analyze ratings and learning how to do marketing. Later on, I moved into the programming side and started doing music research.”

James Golden was one of the first in the country to do music research which led him to WABC. There he worked with the station’s transition from music to their first talk program.

“I think in life you’re given the sort of the things that you need to fulfill whatever destiny you have. I had always been interested in news, politics, and all of it. This dual love I had for music, it allowed me to transition when the station changed format and to become their senior producer of news. And it was at ABC some years later that I met Rush Limbaugh. And of course, that turned into a 30-year relationship.”

The Author of “Rush On The Radio,” recalled the first time the pair met. “So my first day working on his show, I brought him some news stories. I was in the habit of doing that before I even worked on his show. I developed a friendship. When I saw something interesting, that I thought he would be interested in and I would take it to him. So it was a smooth transition for me being rotated on the show.”

It wasn’t before long James Golden became Bo Snerdley. “So I walked in, dropped off some stories, and on the way out he says, ‘Well, everybody on this call screen has got to be a Snerdley, have you come up with your name?’ So The Daily News was on his desk, and it was on the sports page. Bo Jackson was in the news for some of the headlines, but I just wasn’t able watch it. So I just said ‘Bo’ and walked out. Little did I know that for the rest of my life, I’d be Bo. But it’s great and I love it. I’m comfortable with either one.”

Golden recalled the time spent with his friend saying, “No words can ever describe it. He was the best that there ever was to me, or ever will be in the industry. His talent, as he said, was on loan from God. But it was something unique. The incredibly intelligent, incredibly hardworking. 30 years in, he still brought it. Even when he was sick, [Rush] did as much of the work that he could to make sure that his show was extremely well researched and well delivered.”

While working on Rush’s show, James Golden also had his own weekend show. He worked 7 days a week for years. Today, he is back at his radio home. “Back at WABC, doing six days on air with them, and it’s just been a wonderful ride for me.”

Throughout the years, the former executive producer turned host has seen significant change in the industry.

“For some people, it’s not as much fun as it used to be. And I’ll just speak frankly about that. When the bean counters took over because of corporate interest — instead of it being a lot of different families with smaller radio groups, it moved into more of a big business — for a lot of people a lot of the fun was taken out of it, because those decisions that used to be made locally are now being made by regional managers or by national managers, some of whom had more of a background in sales and didn’t understand the programing,” he shared.

“So there’s always that schism. And so for a lot of people in the industry, I have friends who have left the industry because it just was no longer fun for them.”

Another big difference? You no longer have to work your way up through the markets.

“You had to work your way up through lower markets to get to a higher market. You don’t have to do that now. People that are just good at what they do, if they have very good communication skills, you can learn how to become [one of the] best radio hosts. There’s only one best radio host and [Rush] passed away, but it is still about your ability to tell a good story. To understand and to I think it really is how much you are in love with the medium yourself.”

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The Difference Between News/Talk Radio Programmer and Bureaucrat

The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets.

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Let’s talk about the worst aspect of every news/talk radio programmer’s job: commercial stops, those designed traffic jams that occur every ten or twenty minutes bringing your excellent content to a dead halt. And so, you wait, knowing full well that you’re losing a significant percentage of your audience to button pushers looking for a station where talkers are still talking and news is still being broadcast.

The way most news and talk radio stations operate today commercial clutter takes up 20-30 minutes of each programming hour. It would be nice to say that’s because your inventory is sold out thanks to great ratings but we know better. It happens because it’s allowed to happen. Some of that load is likely bonus spots and far too much of it consists of recorded promos that use branding phrases begging the listener to wait through the clutter.

Yes, commercials are necessary but there are some things to consider that might make them less annoying and potentially informative and entertaining.

Warning: old fart flashback straight ahead.

When I was a young program director I had the authority to reject any spots that I didn’t feel met our standards. Yes, I’m quite serious. I didn’t exercise the option often but if a spot was of lousy audio quality, badly produced, boring, or even just plain stupid, I could kick it back to the sales exec and/or ad agency and ask them politely to make it better.

You might think that could result in an impolite opposite reaction. It never did, not once. From time to time I talked with an advertiser or his agent and they always said the same thing: You’re the expert. I want my time and money spent well on your station.

Sales execs could get annoyed but usually went along as good teammates without too much grousing. Besides, schmoozing clients with better ideas is part of their art; the best enjoy it.

Often these conversations would lead to brainstorming sessions with the production director. (Remember that creative and crucial position?) Ideas were tossed around, writing began and a highly effective ad was usually the result.

If you’re a program director or air talent today your mind must be reeling. It has probably never occurred to you that you could have the authority to actually determine all of your news/talk station’s programming, not just the words between the breaks, every blessed minute. Why not? You’re responsible for your station’s content 24/7 though you have no control over half of it.

Most program directors in corporate-owned stations today have been hired as functionaries at the end of a long chain of corporate bureaucrats. Your days are filled with layers of programming and sales hierarchies. Presidents have lieutenants, regional and format V.P.s, who send out the memos and convene Zoom meetings to address general issues with generalized answers.

They dive into recent studies and charts for boilerplate policies, seldom suggesting anything bold or of local significance because they can’t, they don’t know your town. The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets. They’re smart enough to know that what worked in Boston might not fly in Amarillo – except in a vague, general way.

As a local PD today your log is bloated, your programming is filled with syndicated shows, and your hands are tied. 

Unless you have a creative fire in your belly and the guts to assert it.

Dream up great promotions that will excite your audience in your hometown. Enlist the members of your on-air, newsroom, and production staff. Invite them to a pizza place for some brainstorming. Don’t make it mandatory, suggest it will be fun and exciting because it will. Your crew will be happier and bubbling tomorrow. Before long fresh ideas will start trickling in regularly because everyone is enthused, involved, and feeling appreciated. You’ll all make each other’s great ideas even greater. You’re having fun and it’s contagious.

If you can ignite a spark of excitement and faith from your GM and sales department you might find yourself with the programming reigns in both hands.

You weren’t hired to be a clickbait expert, you are a radio expert. You know more about the stuff that comes out of the speakers than anyone else at the station. And you can identify problems and turn them into opportunities. You need to spend your days refining the product, not in endless meetings trying to implement generalized corporate buzzspeak into local program policy.

Attend the Zoom meetings, be a cheerful good soldier but if called upon speak your mind with truth and passion. It’s infectious.

Explain to your boss why you should be allowed to reduce the on-air clutter by as much as half and that you need to spend most of your time every day with your news and talk talent because they’re your stars. It’s why they pay you. The station and the community are all that matters to you.

Tell her/him you’ll read the interoffice memos faithfully and join digital meetings when you can but that the corporate culture will mostly just have to take care of itself.

And, oh, by the way, you need the authority to reject bad radio commercials.

You may not get everything you ask for but I promise you’ll earn some respect.

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