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How Radio Influenced the Career of WTOP’s Craig Schwalb

Growing up in the St. Louis area, Schwalb said KMOX had a huge influence on him and his career. 

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When Craig Schwalb told his mother he was going into radio, she asked how much he’d get paid. 

“I told her how much the salary was, and it wasn’t a lot,” Schwalb said. “Then she asked me if I was sure I wanted to work in that business. I did and was very excited about it.” 

Adversity struck the family early. Schwalb’s father passed away when he was just 12 years old. He had to figure out how to move ahead with only his mother as a provider and role model.  

“I think my father’s death sparked something in me,” Schwalb said. “I was so determined to work hard and focus. I also tried to be a good person and live up to his name. I think that would be what he wanted for me. My mom had to raise two boys by herself. I just wanted to do right by her. I always had that in the back of my mind.” 

There was a lot of love in the Schwalb family. They were prepared for his father’s death as he’d been sick for several years. 

“We took care of my father as best we could,” Schwalb said. “We didn’t have the most, but we didn’t want for anything. I don’t ever talk much about that.” 

His parents were both teachers and enjoyed helping people. 

“I think I became the same way,” Schwalb said. “A Midwestern upbringing made me easygoing. I think part of the Midwest culture is listening, learning. Making sure you’re working hard. It’s that kind of spirit and style that shaped me.”

He went to school at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Growing up in the St. Louis area, Schwalb said KMOX had a huge influence on him and his career. 

“Anne Keefe and Bob Hardy are voices I grew up with. It was a true blend of news and talk. A terrific format, and it’s still a very influential radio station today. Spoken word was a big part of my life. Through high school and college I was always grabbing those signals.”

He also listened to WGN, WLS, and a huge inspiration for him was The Loop. Schwalb says,  “I had the good fortune to meet Steve Dahl briefly when he was dropped by WNEW/NYC years ago. He’s one of the icons in our business, as a young person who wanted to learn about spoken word radio. I thought Dahl did a lot of things that were amazing. Howard Stern hadn’t come out to my area at that point. We had Brandmeier, Don, and Roma.”

Schwalb said he learned much from listening to Kevin Matthews, Steve Dahl, and Garry Meier. 

“It was all about personality, comedy. Those kind of guys are getting harder to find. There’s so much arguing these days. That just wasn’t part of the genre.”

He cited how Dahl was the man behind the ‘disco demolition’ night at Comiskey Park. “I look back fondly on those times and how those stations informed us what FM talk was all about. I had a lot of great experiences with FM talk in the beginning of my career.” 

Eastern Illinois was the right fit for Schwalb, who said he was able to work at the station as a freshman. “It allowed me to scratch the radio itch early. I was able to start managing from the beginning.”

Schwalb started as music director at WEIU, the college radio station. He was immediately dealing with the stuff behind the curtain, picking the music. 

“I always liked bringing young talent in and watching them flourish. That’s why I took the management side. It has been so gratifying.” 

It’s about a four-hour car drive from New York to D.C. You’d think the lifestyles would be dramatically different, but Craig Schwalb, the director of content integration and operation at WTOP, says that’s not really the case. Schwalb did say there is one huge commonality. 

“It’s hot in D.C., and it’s hot in New York,” Schwalb said. “Everybody is kind of sweltering.”

His family is from Illinois, but Schwalb said he’d traveled to D.C with family and friends over the years. “I think there’s a great feeling for this place, what it means nationally. It just has that feeling of being in the center of power, that powerful vibe.”

Schwalb arrived at WTOP in March 2020, just before the Covid curtain came down on the world. He said his timing was lucky in some regards.

“I was interested in how the station would cover Covid,” Schwalb said. “I was interested in how we’d respond to the community, how we could step forward to help the community. It was a wild time. Even working remotely, we kept the quality high and met our journalistic standards.”

He faced incredible challenges from the start. Schwalb said during Covid, WTOP’s most significant focus was keeping everyone safe. But, in spite of the adversity, Schwalb said things rolled with the highest quality.

“I think that’s a testament to our staff’s commitment to journalism,” he says. “We all did whatever we had to do to keep this station going. It was very important to everybody because of their commitment. Good journalism is hard work.” 

Like most businesses, WTOP had a lot of conference calls and Zoom meetings to keep the business going, to ensure people were on track. 

“I think it was a little more challenging to manage people I’d never even met in person,” Schwalb explained. “I think everybody is mostly back in the office, focused on doing what we have to do now.” 

Before taking the job at WTOP, Schwalb met with GM Joel Oxley and Julia Ziegler, director of news and programming. They discussed the opportunity available. Schwab said their discussions made a lot of sense as he’s always found the multiplatform world exciting.

“One of the coolest things they said in our meeting was WTOP was not just a radio station, it’s a news organization, and that’s what made it more appealing. It’s such a great heritage brand with a family-oriented feel.”

Schwalb said he always liked working for Cumulus and never had any problems. He added an opportunity at WTOP doesn’t happen very often. 

“Anybody who cares about radio, news, spoken word, knows WTOP. You just don’t look at it as an ordinary opportunity. So glad I’m here.” 

Schwalb has managed personalities like Don Imus, Curtis Sliwa, and Sid Rosenberg throughout his career. It’s challenging for a PD when navigating those potentially combustible conditions and delicate egos.  

“I think it’s all about authenticity. I know that word gets thrown around a lot,” Schwalb explained. “I wasn’t the first PD Imus had seen, but unfortunately wound up being the last. I sort of know my spot in their vaunted careers.”

At times, Schwalb can be disarmingly authentic. He admits he’s not perfect but will make strides with his talented talkers. He’s a partner in all aspects of what they’re doing on-air. 

“There are times I’ll disagree with my hosts,  but we’ll have a conversation. I make myself very accessible. They’ve seen so many things, experiences I’ve never had. I’m there to do a job. Make sure their shows are as good as they can be. I do what I can to help them see things in a different way when I need to. I want to be a resource. I also like to share a joke, soften beaches.”

Schwalb said he cannot think of an instance in his career where he threw up his hands and said, ‘I’m not communicating.’

“Part of it is how I approach an issue, how the company allowed me to deal with it. If you come in with good support, quality of character, they can sense it. Do what you say you’re going to do.”

Another component of his communication includes never lying to anyone. “The playbook isn’t that hard if you follow a few basic tenets.” 

Schwalb has developed content and special programming for high-profile personalities like Kim Kardashian, Rudy Giuliani, Bobby Flay, and Julian Lennon, among others.

Schwalb said it was rewarding to work with big brand celebrities. To see how they operate in their world. 

“We’d search for a structure for the show, talk about what we’re looking for. Some were segments of existing talk shows. We were all about generating audience and interest. The Kardashian’s were just getting big, and I created some content with them. We developed a working relationship together.” 

Schwalb recalls Julian Lennon coming in to work with the team at WABC. They decided to focus on Lennon’s children’s books he’d written.

“He came to WABC. We did a panel talk about his book, his life. We also helped him spread the word about his book. It was fun to work with him.”

Throughout his career, Schwalb has sent reporters into hazardous and dangerous situations.

“We had a lot of reporters at the Capitol on January 6th,” Schwalb said. “We took a long and hard look about how we were going to approach the story. We had to make sure our staff was safe. Allow our audience to be apprised of what was going on. You’re trying to react when something is escalating rapidly. In hindsight, you may have wanted some different angles and layers to a story. In those situations, the journalists are hungry for that story.” 

When you work on a story of the magnitude of January 6th, you must marshal your resources. Schwalb directed breaking news coverage of the September 11 attacks in NYC, the Boston bombing, and the Hudson River landing, among many others. The lessons learned were simple but essential. 

“With big stories, we have to figure out how we were going to walk into those situations. We must always make sure we have all our ducks in a row.”

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BNM Writers

The Debate About Debates Will Continue to Rage On

I’ve determined that it’s a no-win for the moderator. Interrupt too much, and you’re a jerk. Stick to time too much, and you’re a neurotic jerk.

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A photo of the 2024 Republican Presidential candidates
(Photo: Fox News)

There’s been so much talk about debates ever since President Joe Biden and Donald Trump agreed to two of them.

Do we need them? If so, how many? Too many. Not enough. Who are they even for?

Microphones: Should there be a kill switch?

Audience: To have or to have not.

Then, there’s the issue of the moderating.

Why does everyone stink at it? How involved should they be? How many should there be? Even on Barrett News Media, their very own existence was put up for debate.

I have done one in my career. It was “meh” at best. It may be one of my legitimate blind spots (and here you are, thinking I can do anything).

Despite all of those above questions and a certain modicum of self-doubt about my ability to perform the duty well, I am all in for doing them locally — whenever and wherever possible.

In studio. At a diner. Library. Church. Ice cream shop. You name it.

Why?

Good, bad, or indifferent, it satisfies a big thirst in the local news desert, and it’s great exposure for the station and the show.

The companies that produce written words (formerly known as newspapers) don’t seem overly interested in leading the way with political coverage. When there’s a news conference or nominating event, they cover it, but there’s very little enterprise reporting at the moment.

Same with television, and some local stations don’t even have a dedicated political reporter anymore.

10 years ago, congressional candidates might not even consider a radio-focused debate. Television was king, and newspapers were thorough. Now, as it sits, things are different, and if I land a congressional or senate race, I can go get TV to simulcast – and not the other way around. Even if the TV stations don’t bite on the opportunity, I can record it myself and post it on YouTube.

Having said all that, I am not 100 percent certain of this, but I think it’s true. And we’re about to test it.

My initial approach is the lowest-hanging fruit – candidates who need exposure badly. In my state, that’s the Republican primary in the race to face two-time incumbent Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). Murphy is a huge favorite, and the Republican primary will get very little attention.

Motivated candidates. Under-the-radar race. Perfect for me.

Then, there’s actually a race garnering national attention that I will take a shot at. Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District has a rematch from 2022, and it’s close – really close. The Republican candidate will take as many debates as possible, and the Democrat may bite because my show has a lot of unaffiliated voters. She needs them to keep her seat.

As for the debates themselves? Let’s be honest, there’s a cringy-ness to political debates. People are nervous. Time is limited, and it’s bizarre to say negative things about a person when they are right next to you.

That’s why we watch and listen even if our minds are made up about voting.

As a moderator, the issues are myriad. What kind of format should you have? Well-defined timing and rebuttals or let them go? How do you fact-check in real-time when you have a staff of two? What kind of questions should you ask? Where should it be? Live audience? Allow parties to have an equal number of “guests”, or have it be a free-for-all for attendance?

I’ve determined that it’s a no-win for the moderator. Interrupt too much, and you’re a jerk. Stick to time too much, and you’re a neurotic jerk. Let them go, and you’re a wimp. Have an imbalance in talk time, and you’re biased.

I don’t care; it’s worth it, especially since single-host radio seems more fluid and better set up for authentic debate. I won’t (hopefully) have to share time with one or two other moderators, and with radio, it feels easier to interject, deflect, and pivot.

Maybe that’s just a feeling, but it’s how I feel.

Oh, and one last thing. Do me a favor: Don’t share this article or tell anyone. I don’t want the TV guys to know I’ve got the jump on them.

Thanks.

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BNM Writers

2024 Presidential Race Has a Media Problem

It’s not just the media’s fault, political candidates typically stick with more friendly outlets.

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President Biden recently said he was Vice President under Barack Obama when COVID started. This is false. President Trump spends more time “truthing” in ALL CAPS than he does in the “Ice Box” New York Courtroom. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has a worm in his brain which gives him short-term memory loss. These are the three candidates who are dominating the media headlines for the 2024 election.

But, are these men the best candidates America has to offer? Unlikely, but it is what we have because the media and the political establishment have drowned out our ability to have rational people running for political office. It’s time for the media to do better.

Most outlets pander to their audience which enables confirmation bias (all things we’ve talked about before). Through all the skewed news, there is one cable news outlet that’s been capable of having substantial air time with all three candidates, CNN. Their coverage, however, is laced with criticism:

Mediaite: CNN Called Out For Not Fact-Checking Biden Interview With Erin Burnett

CNN: Analysis: CNN faces harsh criticism after Trump unleashed a firehose of lies during its live town hall

Real Clear Politics: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: CNN Edited Interview So It Looked Like I Said Biden Was More Of A Threat To Democracy Than Trump

In essence, what these articles say is CNN lets major political candidates slide while subsequently chopping up interviews from third-party candidates. Oliver Darcy’s article does note CNN defended itself for letting Trump rampage on about election interference saying, “That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.” But letting a candidate repeatedly say the 2020 election was stolen is hardly holding him accountable.

This is why it’s not shocking both the Biden and Trump campaigns agreed upon “The most trusted name in news” to host their first debate. Despite the outlet having less than One Million viewers for their day (462,000) and primetime (601,000) Nielsen ratings in March.

It’s not just the media’s fault, political candidates typically stick with more friendly outlets. The media does try and reach out to opposing candidates (okay, some outlets don’t really try to get opposing politicians and that’s a different story) but very few politicians can handle the pressure from the opposing side.

If a political candidate can not take the heat from so-called “journalists” who are challenging you with the opposing side of an argument, how are you going to handle everyone else in the world (because let’s face it even some of our closest allies aren’t the biggest fans of US).

The media is the 4th estate, which means we have to confront, pester, and question our politicians (even when we agree with them). Very few members of the press do this now and the ones who do are labeled as ‘difficult’ by media outlets and often ignored by politicians.

Aside from the labels, some (but not enough) in the mainstream media aren’t openly recognizing the biggest elephant in room, the age of our politicians. In 2023, Statista reported, the average age of the House of Representatives is 57.9 (this isn’t bad). The average age in the Senate is 64 (not great but I’ll take it). Out of all of these politicians, the best we can do are three guys who are in their 70s and 80s. Whenever Joe Biden stumbles up the stairs or opens his mouth I’m not sure if I’m watching a real-life remake of Weekend at Bernie’s or I’m watching elder abuse.

There are over 330 million people living in the United States. Most voting-age adults did not want to see a Trump/Biden match-up again yet, here we are. Mr. Kennedy likely won’t make the Oval Office. He will, however, take votes away from both Democrat and Republican candidates.

The President should represent the best America has to offer. I’d like to think those who’ve held and run for office have been at their best, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Historically some haven’t been, but at least LBJ and Taft tried.

When the media doesn’t confront, pester, and question our politicians it shows they have given up. It is the media saying these three are the best America has to offer, (a guy who might have Alzheimer’s, another who might be a narcissist, and the third who admits to having a worm in his brain). It’s a travesty. A Democratic Republic (because America is not a Democracy) only works when every power does its job correctly. Ben Franklin said it, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Right now the media is not doing enough due diligence to keep it.

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Norah O’Donnell Interview With Pope Francis Leads 60 Minutes to 18% Ratings Jump

It was its most-watched edition in five weeks, and the third-most watched within the past ten weeks.

Doug Pucci

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A photo of Norah O'Donnell interviewing the Pope
(Photo: CBS News)

CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell sat down with Pope Francis for a historic interview that originally aired on Sunday, May 19 on 60 Minutes. This was the first time a pope has given an in-depth, one-on-one interview to a U.S. broadcast network. It also marked the 56th  season finale of the long-running CBS newsmagazine.

Among the topics discussed in the interview were same-sex marriage, clergy sexual abuse scandals, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and the migrant crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the May 19 edition of 60 Minutes averaged 7.33 million viewers. up +18 percent from its prior week and ranking first in the hour. It was its most-watched edition in five weeks, and the third-most watched within the past ten weeks, behind March Madness Elite-8-fueled Mar. 31 (10.365 million) and Masters golf-fueled Apr. 14 (8.588 million). 

One factor of the increase was what led into it: the final round of the major golf tournament, the PGA Championship (4.958 million for 1-7:14 PM ET, above average from a regular golf tournament audience).

A lengthier version of the interview Norah O’Donnell held with Pope Francis aired on CBS the following night on Monday, May 20 at 10 PM ET. That delivered an audience of 2.247 million viewers, which placed behind NBC’s Weakest Link (3.011 million) and Fox News’ Gutfeld! (2.871 million) within the hour.

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