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The Death of Mikhail Gorbachev, Remembering USSR

Anybody who has been a broadcaster for a long time has heard, “you should write a book.” Gorbachev’s passing causes me to reflect on one of the best stories from the book I’ll write someday.

Andy Bloom



Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the eighth and final General Secretary of the Soviet Union, passed away Tuesday at age 91. There are far better tributes to Gorbachev and his impact on the world than I could write. 

However, because of his policies of “Perestroika” (reform) and “Glasnost” (openness), I was able to experience the Soviet Union as it was going through its period of transformation after seven decades of totalitarian rule. What I saw cemented my beliefs about capitalism, communism, socialism, and democracy. 

Anybody who has been a broadcaster for a long time has heard, “you should write a book.” Gorbachev’s passing causes me to reflect on one of the best stories from the book I’ll write someday.

As the summer of 1987 began, Billy Joel was wrapping up his 11-month 100-date Bridge Tour when he announced he would play concerts in the Soviet Union. 

Although Joel wasn’t the first western musician to play behind the Iron Curtain, he would be the first American to perform a fully staged rock concert in the Soviet Union with a full sound, light, and stage show. To produce a grand spectacle with three dates in Moscow and three in Leningrad, Joel was investing $2.5 million of his own money. 

An entourage of over 100 people, including his then-wife, Christie Brinkley, their young daughter Alexa, and two-film crews, would travel with Joel and his band. Eventually, that list included me and the afternoon DJ at WYSP-FM/Philadelphia, Ed Sciaky (Shock-EE).

At the time, I was programming WYSP. We were less than one year into “Howard Stern all morning, Classic Rock all day.” We had just hired Sciaky from WIOQ for afternoon drive. 

When we hired him, Ed was doing nights at WIOQ. At the time, WIOQ was a soft-eclectic AOR station. It had an incredibly loyal audience that gave it moderately successful ratings. 

Ed was known as the DJ who first played Bruce (Springsteen – is there another?), Billy Joel, and others. Both (and again, many others) had at one time or another slept on an infamous sofa that he still owned years later. He had relationships with many big-name rock stars and tons of Classic Rock credibility, which WYSP needed at the time.

When he announced his Russian concerts, Joel said there would be broadcasts back to the U.S. We jumped into action. We started by finding out if there was already a host for whatever radio broadcasts were planned by having Ed call Billy Joel’s management. They hadn’t gotten that far. Ed offered his services, and the ball was rolling

We had a friendly relationship with the syndicator. They knew of Ed’s relationship with Billy, so they had no objections. It was starting to look like going to the U.S.S.R. with Billy Joel might be possible. There were, of course, the small matters of getting the permission of the Soviet government, our government, not to mention the company we were working for (Infinity at the time), as well as the budget to pull it off.

And so, I started making phone calls. It was Ed and me (as his producer and I’ll use the word “negotiator” – what you didn’t think I was going to let somebody else go, did you?) And as silly as it may sound, it really did require somebody with skills to navigate the maze of Soviet rules and situations that followed.

When you were young, did you ever play your mom off your dad to get something you wanted? You know, “mom, dad said it was okay with him if it was okay with you.” Then you reversed the phrase to your dad until eventually somebody actually did say okay.

For weeks that was the game; we played with the two governments and, to a lesser extent, with Joel’s management and the syndicator (because they had given us the okay). We kept telling everyone that everybody else was good, but we were waiting for their permission.

Miraculously it worked.

We received visas to the Soviet Union. We didn’t join the tour in Moscow. I arrived in Leningrad a few days before Ed to coordinate studio time. We were only granted the studio at Gosteleradio for one day – which may have been a blessing. Gosteleradio’s facilities were built before WWII, at least in appearance. 

Trying to describe the Soviet Union isn’t easy. The best single word is gray. Everything was gray. The people were enigmatic but gray. The sun shined brightly, but the sky was gray. 

From the time we got there, one strange thing after another would happen – little coincidences. 

Ed and I received visas issued for the same number of days. Since I arrived a few days earlier, my visa expired first. Once I received the visa, all communication from the Soviet officials ceased. Therefore, I departed for the U.S.S.R. with two return tickets; one for the day the visa expired and the other on the same return flight as Ed. All I could do was visit Intourist in the lobby of the Hotel Leningrad and explain that my visa came back with the wrong date and I needed to stay a few days longer as part of the Billy Joel tour.

Every day I stopped by the Intourist desk. Every day, the nice woman there robotically smiled, nodded her head, and said: “We don’t have any information. Maybe tomorrow. We shall see.”

The shows were on August 2, 3, and 5. I believe my visa required me to leave on August 4. There was still no news that morning. I packed and headed to the front desk to check out. Literally, a minute before I did, the Intourist woman approached me with news of the approval of my visa’s extension. Several situations worked out at the last moment during our trip.

Not everything in the Soviet Union made sense. There were rules, lots of rules. Across from the hotel was a part of the street where people weren’t allowed to walk. There wasn’t anything there except a police officer who waved everybody away. Ed wondered what was so mysterious there. He asked people we met why they weren’t allowed to walk there. Nobody gave him a satisfactory answer. Always anti-authority, Ed was determined to uncover the mystery. He asked people what would happen if he walked over there. The Soviets looked at him like he had three heads. Their response made Ed look at them like they had four heads: “We don’t know. Nobody has ever tried it before. Let us know what happens if you decide to try.”

A press bus took media to and from the hotel and the Petersburg Sports and Concert Complex. Ed and I missed the bus one night going to the show. We were starting to figure out where we would go to hail a taxi (which weren’t always easy to find) when a local who spoke English well appeared and realized we were in distress. We explain the situation. He told us there was no problem because a bus was coming. A minute later, a bus with an English “out of service” sign stops in front of us. Ed and I look at each other for a minute. The entire ride there, we ask each other if this is a kidnapping or not. It’s not, but we never saw the guy again to say thank you.

The underground economy was prevalent at the time. The Soviet version of work was different than in the U.S. People didn’t work eight-hour shifts, go home, and then do it over again. The Soviets worked for a day or two straight, then off for a day or two. Some jobs seemed made up to me. I guess it’s how they achieved full employment. For example, you didn’t keep your hotel key. Each floor had a key-lady that kept your key when you left your room. They certainly didn’t need to take our key to enter while we were gone.

The key ladies often fell asleep, so it wasn’t too difficult to leave with the key, although we usually left it on their desks. We saw other people asleep at their desks during their official jobs. I recall an engineer at Gosteleradio snoring loudly. I always wonder if this is how Chernobyl happened.

But don’t let that give you the wrong impression of the Soviet people. They may have slept on the clock, but on their time, they were the most industrious people I’ve ever seen.

Nearly every person we met had a side hustle. Soviet collective farms weren’t doing well, but it was amazing what they could grow on the small plots of land that were set aside for personal use. Some set up little gift shops in their flats and sold tchotchkes such as Matryoshka dolls (wooden nesting dolls) or lacquer boxes. Those who drove a car drove as a private taxis. Others exchanged money. All of the trading for American goods, especially cigarettes, blue jeans, and dollars, were huge. A pack of Marlboro reds was the surest way to flag down a private taxi in Leningrad.

We flagged down one private taxi when Ed and I wanted to visit the synagogue. We tried communicating with the driver, who explained that it would be closed for repairs. We understood what he meant when he told us it had been closed for many years. 

Through a combination of a few words in English, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew, we were able to communicate with our driver. He had been a doctor, persecuted because he was Jewish, and reduced to menial work. He had one son who had been able to escape to Israel, where the driver believed he was a doctor. We promised to try to find his son and contact him to let him know his father was alive if we could. We found his son in Israel when we returned. We were able to call him. We called the driver back in the Soviet Union one time. We were able to say, “We spoke to your son; he loves you,” before the line went dead. We were never able to get through again. 

While I still have extensive notes with contact info for every person we spoke with, I cannot find the names of the driver or his son. Nonetheless, it was one of the best results of our trip to the Soviet Union.

When we could not get a studio at Gosteleradio after the first two days, Ed and I had to resort to guerilla tactics so that he could broadcast back to Philadelphia. It was 1987 before there was email, let alone the internet. We came prepared with alligator clips. We took apart the phone and attached the microphone – primitive but effective!

From the hotel room, we fed breaks down the line. Ed and I discussed the television show that Billy Joel had been a guest on. We reviewed the concerts. We talked about the way the people reacted. During the first Leningrad show, the audience got so amped that they reduced several hundred wooden folding chairs in front of the stage to toothpick-size scraps.

We also talked about the official and unofficial jobs. I remember calling it the ultimate tribute to capitalism. That’s when the line went dead. An hour later, the operator told us there were problems with the overseas connections, “maybe due to weather.” It would be more than eight hours before we would get a call through to the United States. We took the hint and avoided such conversations for the rest of our stay.

These are just a smattering of the experiences that Ed and I had in Soviet Leningrad. After we returned home, I spoke with comedian Yakov Smirnoff after one of his shows. 

Just over a year earlier, WYSP participated in a charity to raise money to fight hunger, Hands Across America. It was a 15-minute event to form a human chain stretching across the country. WYSP brought in Yakov Smirnoff for our Hands Across America event, so we had spoken before.

After the show, I went backstage to talk to Yakov. I was excited to tell him these and other stories from our adventures. He said, “I know, I know. You had a fun time. What a country,” turning his trademark phrase around on his homeland. He proceeded to finish my stories, adding “KGB.”

At first, I thought he was being funny. “Yakov, what would the KGB want with us? We are completely harmless and don’t know any secrets,” I asked. Yakov filled in the gaps explaining that they weren’t there to spy on us or get information from us. They were there to ensure we had a wonderful time, and that’s what we would tell everybody back home.” It’s still the best explanation for the “coincidences.”

“Perestroika” (reform) and “Glasnost” (openness)? Da!

I wonder if others traveling to the Soviet Union during this era had similar experiences.

Mr. Gorbachev, thank you for the hospitality. R.I.P. If only Vladimir Putin were so accommodating.

Footnote: Ed Sciaky passed away from complications related to diabetes in 2004 at the age of 55. We called each other “comrade” and loved sharing these stories.

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The Only Path Forward For News Radio is Strong Personalities

Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than News/Talk




If radio wants to keep up, personality has to be the way. The format of choice is irrelevant, but personality has to be the biggest asset for the format and station.

It’s something I’ve written about before in this column, but when it gets reinforced by iHeart CEO Bob Pittman, it’s worth mentioning again.

In a great conversation with Talkers’ Michael Harrison, Pittman pointed out that “25% of iHeart’s stations do not play music”, and that more and more shows on the company’s music stations are “actually talk shows that play little or no music at all.”

Then came the best line of the conversation, when Pittman said, “Even on our music stations, you find us moving much more towards heavier personalities, because as we begin to say, If somebody just wanted music, they’ve got a lot of places to go. We’re probably not their best option, if they just want to dig through music. If they want somebody to keep them company, and hang out with them, and be their friend, and be an informed friend, and connect with them, there’s no better place. So we’re very committed to it.”

That’s it right there. 

Radio’s competitive advantage is being a friend (ideally local), while using personality-driven content to develop that relationship with the listener to then drive listening occasions. 

As has been discussed and addressed for years, music radio simply can’t compete with Spotify, Amazon Music, etc. if your goal is to listen to your music at the exact time that you want it.

Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than news/talk, where the strongest opinions and deepest connections often exist. That’s backed up by the Time Spent Listening for the format, which leads the way in many markets.

In many ways, news/talk is the best — and most exciting — place to be right now in the business, and none of that has to do with what is shaping up to be a fascinating 2024 election cycle. But rather because the industry’s biggest advantage to maintaining and growing its audience is its personalities, so if you’re already in the talk format, you’re ahead of the game. And then if you’re good, you’re a highly valuable asset. 

As Pittman also noted in his conversation with Harrison, “For the first time ever, the radio business is bigger than the TV business, in terms of audience from 18 to 49 [year olds].”

National coastal media won’t write about that, because too many of them aren’t everyday American consumers. However, the data doesn’t lie. Radio is beating TV in a key demo and the leaders in the industry know that personality-driven content is their key to future success. That’s a great combination for those of us working in the business.

Granted, as we all know, it’s not all roses and sunshine. These are still tough times with continuing competition in the ad space and a soft 2023 shaping up. 

However, the show must go on. 

And as radio strategically prepares itself for not just the rest of this year, but the next five to ten years, there are plenty of goals that need to be achieved, but if growing and developing personalities is at the top of the list, that’s a win for the industry and an even bigger win for the news/talk format.

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If CNN is For Sale, Here Are 5 Potential Buyers

CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.

Jessie Karangu



(Photo: Getty Images)

It’s hard to run a cable news network like CNN these days. Just look at NewsNation. It was founded on the principle of being the first centrist cable news network to come into existence in years. But over the past couple of months, the network has peddled by coming from a slightly right-of-center angle with headlines. They’ve tried to steal left-of-center viewers from CNN with the hiring of Chris Cuomo. And now they’re literally going wall-to-wall with coverage of UFOs. I’m not even making that up.

In a world where a big chunk of its denizens believes the truth is a maybe while the other half doesn’t pay attention to the news unless it is bite-sized, does it still make sense to own a cable news network? Given the turmoil Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zazlav has faced lately with CNN it may not be for him. 

The company was forced to let go of CNN CEO Chris Licht this week after a scathing profile from The Atlantic that went behind the scenes into how Licht operated the network post-Jeff Zucker. It was a circus, to say the least. After reading the profile though, you still come away feeling bad for Licht while considering the fact that there is a hand that might have been puppeteering him along the way that was used to having control over everyone.

Zazlav comes from a part of cable where it is necessary to operate like a dictatorship because the formula has proven to work with Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, etc…and because the shows that air on these networks create their own warped reality to spit out for thirsty reality consumers who want it the way it is served.

It’s impossible to have this kind of culture in cable news where the personalities aren’t really the star of the network — the news and facts are and they can’t be warped to fit all interested parties. They just have to be true whether it benefits one side or the other. The truth is the truth. 

There are new ways to tell stories and there’s new technology you can use to tell those stories but at the end of the day, telling stories also has the same formula as it always has and can’t be changed.

Remarkably, Don Lemon comes away from Licht’s profile looking the most intelligent when he says that many critics of CNN like Zazlav are committed to Monday morning quarterbacking. CNN went a little too hard on various things happening in the Trump administration too many times, but at the end of the day, it was the job of journalists to hold politicians accountable to the truth just like it has been since the founding of television news. 

This lack of realization on Zazlav’s part shows that CNN probably doesn’t belong in the same company as Warner Bros. Discovery. The cultures of Discovery and CNN clearly don’t align. Axios has already reported that because of the low ad market, cord-cutting, slumping ratings, and the run-up to the election having not started yet, WBD doesn’t plan on selling CNN any time soon. It also should be noted that CNN still makes almost $800 million a year for WBD so it is not the big loss of an asset that many in the media would make you think it is. 

At the same time, unless Zazlav decides to change his mindset, he needs to sell before this situation becomes unmanageable. CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds democracy and the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.


The Mickey Mouse Club owns the news organization that already has the most trust among conservatives on television besides Fox News (ABC News), so they would help legitimize CNN’s mission of garnering more conservatives.

CNN’s library of content would bolster its digital platforms and provide an avenue to create new documentaries and films. ABC News’ own extracurricular projects would be on a platform that has consistent reach with the audience they’re seeking and wouldn’t get lost in the clouds like it currently does on Hulu.

National Geographic could move its content to CNN and HLN and help Disney get rid of one less cable network (NatGeo Channel) that doesn’t generate revenue.


CNN already has the largest news organization in the world. Their addition would bring NBC over the top. NBC’s ability to promote news offerings on Peacock would get some much-needed help as well since CNN has the number one digital news website in the United States.

Peacock would also be able to add CNN’s library to its app giving viewers who crave live news and sports another reason to subscribe to the app.

Regulatory issues may prevail due to past rulings by the federal government but this may have a chance to go through if the government believes the internet and streaming and the fragmentation of television has created enough competition for a CNN/MSNBC combo to not be too powerful.

The Emerson Collective

In a stroke of sheer awkwardness, could the owners of The Atlantic be contenders? Laurene Powell Jobs has constantly spoken about how much she believes journalism affects the balance of our society.

CNN, despite its ratings drag, still plays a vital role in shaping what we talk about as a society. Jobs’ causes like social justice reform, immigration reform, and the environment might get more attention from the general populous on a platform like CNN

The Washington Post or New York Times

Both entities were hand-in-hand with CNN reporting on the latest developments involving the Trump administration and both also faced public backlash about what they deemed as important with a Trump admin vs. a regular administration.

They all share the same mission and journalism ethos and, in the case of WaPo, have a very wealthy backer who could fund a potential deal.

Byron Allen

The media mogul has become more deeply involved with the industry than he ever was before. He has a stake in the sports RSNs that are currently failing, he owns The Weather Channel — the most trusted name in news right now which is a remarkable feat to achieve in an era where so many deny climate change and he’s in the market to buy more.

CNN being black-owned could quell the accusations of the network becoming white-washed. A partnership with The Weather Channel bolsters coverage of climate change for the cable network.

And for Byron Allen, CNN gives him a seat on the table when it comes to power and influence in the worlds of Wall Street and Congress.

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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.

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