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Jack Swanson Found Success in Radio Much More Than Happiness

Swanson worked at WLS from 1973-79. Swanson said it was a radio era that included Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, Tommy Edwards. Legendary personalities.

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I’ve had more jobs than Jack Swanson has had hot dinners. Unlike Swanson, I’ve been canned from a few. There’s always the job you loved, and sometimes you wish you could go back. 

“I quit WLS and in many ways I regret it to this day,” Swanson said. “I quit every radio job I had, never fired. If today I could wave a magic wand I would have stayed at WLS in Chicago.”

Swanson worked at WLS from 1973-79. Swanson said it was a radio era that included Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, Tommy Edwards. Legendary personalities.

“One of the best collections of talent ever,” he said. “As my career went on, I was generally more successful than I was happy. I found I always performed better when I was around really crazy-talented people. I think you’ll always perform better on a great team.”

Swanson explained that just doesn’t happen today as great teams are very expensive. 

He worked at KGO a total of three times. Every year he’d sit down with the GM and there was a ‘come to Jesus moment.’ 

“As PD, it was not uncommon to get a budget dropped in front of me and the GM would glare at me and say, ‘Do you have everything single thing in this budget you need to become number one?’ Now that’s a whole new kind of pressure.”

Reading between the lines, Swanson said what they were really saying was, ‘You’d better bring me a winner.’ To accomplish that, you always need a few dollars more. When you have the appropriate budget, you get better performance all around. 

“From your on-air people, producers, and other staff. It’s a great environment when people feel appreciated. Like they’re being paid what they’re worth.”

The third time at KGO, Swanson quit after only three weeks. 

“I just wanted out,” he explained. “I had a three-year contract so that complicated things. The nice people at Cumulus indicated they might sue me if I left. I figured, ‘Have at it. If you want to sue an old man, do your worst. The truth is I didn’t think they knew what they were doing. I had to negotiate a departure.” 

Talking about KGO and their abrupt shift of formats, Swanson said he thinks ownership got desperate. “I don’t fault what they did. They were in a corner. Their money people were getting very edgy. But what fills that gap?”

Unfortunately, San Francisco currently has no local talk station despite being the fourth-largest radio market in the country. KSFO is also programmed, all syndicated. 

“Tragically, it’s all radio from a computer,” Swanson said. “Radio is a crazy business. People don’t want to invest because they generally want to keep their money.”

He said all the time people say radio isn’t what it used to be.

“Not even close,” Swanson said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t honor and respect radio. You should let your talent shine wherever you can let it shine. Back in the day at WLS, it was possible to make money. It’s not really possible any more. It’s like 1,000 points of light. Anybody can go on Amazon and purchase a Mr. Microphone and have their own show and talk to the world.”

The fact that podcasts are the new popular kid on the block isn’t lost on Swanson. With 2.4 millions podcasts today and counting, Swanson said there are just too many, a sensory overload.

“They’re like exploding stars, scattering around and trying to find an audience,” he explained. “There are only so many hours in a day.”

His resume is extensive; VP and general manager at KING AM/FM, VP of programming at KGO/KSFO, director of news and programming at KCBS Radio.

Swanson began his radio career as a news anchor and reporter for WLS Radio in Chicago before becoming the News and Program Director for KGO. 

“While I was at WLS, it was owned by ABC, and we had 25 full-time new people.”

He is the recipient of numerous awards including the best radio program director in America, and the best news talk PD for four years and the best programmer for three years by Radio Ink and Radio & Records.

Having spent most of his time in major markets, Swanson has great respect for people who spent their careers in small, or medium markets.

“If you’re on the endless chase to be in a bigger market, when you get there it can be hollow. If you find a city and community you like, it can become a great home forever. There aren’t any gold watches in radio. My advice to talent is to listen to your stomach. There’s nothing more important.”

Some people are naturally good at what they do, but a PD can only take you so far.

“It’s like being a football coach,” Swanson said. “You can’t make your quarterback a star, he has to do that himself. My career has been satisfying. I’d say it has been 85-90 percent luck. Being in the right place at the right time. That’s absolutely true for my career.”

He’s had great success in radio. But now, things are different. 

“I definitely wouldn’t encourage young people to get in the business or pursue a journalism curriculum,” Swanson said. “Years ago, I had a group of students come into KCBS, journalism students from the University of California. About 13 kids came in and said they wanted to see the real world of broadcast journalism. They asked me for advice and I told them if they were intent on the degree, for God’s sake don’t go on for a masters in journalism. One of the students told me they were all in the masters program. I don’t want to say we’re dumb in radio, but we’re not the smartest people.”

When KGO was part of the ABC group, and ABC was sold to Disney. Swanson was stunned. They sold all the stations for a great deal of money.

“I asked why they were doing it? This was 20 years ago. An executive at ABC told me radio had no growth potential and that’s what they wanted. They took all the money from the sale, billions of dollars, and put it into Pixar. While I was angry at Disney, they saw the writing on the wall.” 

In 1994, Swanson was to program KSFO. He’d done that once and didn’t want to go back. 

“KSFO was a dog, but they essentially offered me a blank check to fix it. So I went back. Within a year I took the station from 36th in the market to number two, just behind KGO.”

Swanson said they went all conservative at KSFO. This was before the Fox News Channel. Limbaugh existed, but there were no all conservative stations with the exception of one in Seattle.

“There were mostly religious stations with conservative hosts, but nobody was listening,” Swanson said. “They waved the flag and I personally didn’t know people like that. Suddenly there was  a need to provide a place where people could say what they never dared to say out loud.”

Anybody in the business will tell you the line between journalist and opinion is evaporating. “They are broadcasting information that we want to hear to make us feel right about our beliefs,” Swanson said. “People may not believe when someone tells them they love them, but they always believe them when they say they’re right.”

He said when he went to school, students tried to find the truth as best they could understand it. Swanson said he’s not so sure that can happen anymore.

“When I started in news, I had an AP and UPI teletype in my station,” he explained. “I knew everything that was going on and listeners didn’t know any breaking news. We had no morning news, no news channels, newspapers came out twice a day. Radio was the only way to learn immediate things. What a responsibility it was.” 

Swanson said the most important things politicians can do today is listen. He explained they stopped listening a couple of years into their careers.

“They no longer hear their constituents. They just say what their base wants them to say.”

Does he have an encounter with someone that he holds dear? Not really. 

“I did encounter Richard Nixon once,” Swanson said. This was during the heat of Watergate and Nixon was in Madison. 

“The President was walking toward Air Force One and the national press was all over him,” Swanson said. “With Watergate crushing him, He wasn’t about to talk with anybody. I was behind the press line and I yelled out, ‘Mr. President, your tan looks great. Where did you go to get it?”

Swanson said Nixon stopped, pivoted and looked his way.

“Nixon turned around and came toward the press line and we chatted a bit. I think he just liked the fact that someone wanted to talk with him as a human being.”

For a moment, Nixon wasn’t such a Tricky Dick. 

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A Message to Radio Leaders About Burnout

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product.

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Life is show prep. That’s what my Dallas radio co-host Amy Chodroff always said and she was right.

If you do a news or talk radio show you get it, it’s non-stop. You spend every day of your life reading news and considering opinions. You scrutinize reported facts, look for bias, gauge your reaction, and think about how you’ll present it on the air.

This is the only way you can do your job. Your listeners expect you to know more than they do, to inform them, and to offer insights into every situation and with every interview you present on the air.

Life is, in fact, show prep. But if you’re a news or talk radio show host you might have trouble explaining that to some people who don’t understand this because they’ve never tried doing it.

Your bosses, for example.

When I retired recently, this conflict was the tipping point. I had a recent health scare that thankfully turned out to be nothing more than a wake-up call. As long as I could remember, I was getting up at 2:30 AM every day to do a radio news show that aired live from 5 until 9 AM.

By 9:05 AM, I was mentally exhausted, but the boss felt I should put in a full eight hours on the clock, joining the newsroom staff from 9:00 until noon or 1:00 P.M.

More than the extra work itself, dodging that insistence wore me out and took me to retirement. I tried but couldn’t effectively explain that I worked as much at home and wherever else I happened to be as I did when I was in the building.

Life is show prep. And I suppose that can sound like a justification for going home after a four or five-hour shift, but if you’ve never done it, you can’t know the truth.

I got breaking news alerts on my phone while at home with family and in restaurants with friends. I was in daily contact with my co-host and our producer. Text meetings and phone calls between us during weekends were frequent. Show prep doesn’t allow time off between air shifts, even when you’re on vacation.

You may be a sales executive, administration manager, or an engineer thinking, ‘Yeah, I think about work away from the office, too.’ But what you don’t do when you’re in the office is perform to the immediate judgment of thousands of people live, non-stop, four hours per day, five days a week. It’s a never-ending multi-tasking job that requires keeping one eye on the clock, part of your brain focused on the real-time on-air content, while other parts are planning what you must do next and 20 minutes from now and next hour as you’re making notes for future reference.

While all of this is going on, you’re also signaling your co-host, producer, and if you have one your board operator. If you’ve never done all of that there’s no way I can explain that being on the air requires more concentration and energy in four hours than your eight-hour work day does. It just does.

Show prep never ends. Never.

You will read far more versions of various news stories than anyone you know except your on-air partner if you have one. Those stories are rabbit holes and you’ll dive into them, looking for red flags and nuance, double and triple checking your sources because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. Now more than ever you can trip an information landmine with any single step. Your credibility and career depend on preparing your show carefully but quickly, 24/7.

Now we have this idea that news anchors and talk hosts should have three or four more hours of additional responsibilities after their show ends, as tomorrow’s show prep continues. It’s ignorant and debilitating. Yet, here we are, in the new era of corporate bean counters and the elimination of trained human resources in radio newsrooms filled with empty workstations and only one or two people on duty to answer the phone, gather information, write or rewrite it, record various sources including their own on-air reports while setting up and performing interviews. These under-appreciated magicians often have hourly newscasts to prepare and perform as well.

Radio news staffs are seriously shorthanded. How can a manager improve efficiency? Why, call on people who have just done a four-hour show preceded by an hour or two of in-studio prep and all that work they did at home.

An RTDNA study published a year ago revealed that nearly 70% of news directors reported their staff were overworked and suffering from job burnout.

Ya think?

There is an implied hint of good news in the RTDNA’s most recent look into the problem: Radio news staffing changes are actually increasing slightly. Hey, great! But if you look at the numbers below the headline you’ll be shocked. How do radio news and talk survive?

“The latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey shows the typical (median) radio news operation has a full-time news staff of two for the second year in a row.”

TWO FULL-TIME NEWS STAFFERS!

(Disclaimer: Your numbers may vary, depending on market size and how many news and talk hosts are folded into the count when they get off the air.)

There was a time when providing factual news and the exchange of ideas was a lofty yet achievable ideal. It was so exciting we couldn’t wait to get to work.

In those days, air talent was paid their actual value related to radio station earnings. My salary as a morning news host in Sacramento was five times more than I made in Dallas, 40 years later. The pressure to do more eventually burned me out. Now I know people half my age making less than half of my salary when I started in Dallas 12 years ago. Major market news and talk talents are cashing paychecks equal to or less than what their grandpas made as medium market top-40 deejays.

I don’t have any solutions to the money problems that face every news/programming/sales and general manager each day. I will suggest a thought, though:

While you’re focused on the bottom line, pay closer attention to the people on the assembly line, the talented men and women trying to crank out an excellent product. What would your profit and loss statement look like without them?

Sit down with your program and news directors, news writers and reporters, producers, and show hosts. Show them a little love. Ask them what they need and how you might be able to help. They’ll want you to pay them more and hire more people, you know that going in so think about it now. Is that possible?

You’re smart, which is why you’re the manager. I’ll bet you can figure out a way to do it.

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How News/Talk Radio Hosts Can Use Caitlin Clark to Reach Broader Audiences

This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

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(Photo: John Mac C.C. 2.0)

Caitlin Clark and Donald Trump have something in common, and I have no idea if it’s their politics. But Caitlin Clark in the 2024 news cycle is Donald Trump circa 2015-16 to the news/talk radio topic selection.

Just like no one had seen anything like Donald Trump in modern American politics, no one has seen anything close to Caitlin Clark in the WNBA.

The WNBA has existed for nearly three decades but has smashed all ratings and attendance records, at least for games involving Clark. Caitlin Clark is bigger than the WNBA, just like Donald Trump when he first burst onto the scene, at least, was bigger than the bubble that was American politics.

The other thing both have in common is that they transcend their respective supposed lanes. Donald Trump was bigger than politics when he entered the political arena in 2015. Caitlin Clark is bigger than women’s basketball. Politics was not the story in 2015; Trump was the story. Now, the WNBA is not the story; Caitlin Clark is the story.

So, if you’re a news/talk radio host and you’re not taking advantage of the Caitlin Clark news cycle, what are you waiting for? As the battle for younger listeners continues in the news/talk space, this is your opportunity; don’t miss it.

Your target, in-demo audience — parents in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s (think 35-54) — who have daughters between the ages of 8 and 18, are probably talking about Caitlin Clark in their homes, around the dinner table, and when driving them around town to practices and friend’s houses. This is what’s going on in their lives, and you have an opportunity to connect with them.

This doesn’t mean breaking down Caitlin Clark’s box score. I admittedly have no idea how many points she’s averaging per game. But it’s about diving into the cultural issues surrounding Clark in recent weeks. From cheap shots on the court to Olympic Team slights, these topics are opportunities to weave a broad, cultural news topic into a radio format and show that extends beyond the hard news/politics/nuts and bolts news stories.

Undoubtedly, those are important, but they remain a lane that isn’t necessarily growing, especially in the coveted 25-54 demographic.

And with a news/talk host’s ability to understand the current cultural and political climate likely better than your competitor on the sports talk station, you have a topic and angle unique to your town and potential listening audience.

In the last two weeks, the most calls we’ve received on a single segment came during a topic on Caitlin Clark being shoved by Chennedy Carter, which went viral two weekends ago. Men, women, young, and old all wanted to chime in and had an opinion. And it came on a Monday morning when most of us in the chair can attest that the phones are usually slower than later in the week. You had sports mixed with culture and race bubbling into one topic that can be seized compellingly by a news/talk radio show.

Caller reaction cannot be the main driver of what makes good radio or a compelling topic, but it can be anecdotal, in that moment, for what the audience is willing to and wants to react to.

So, while I can’t tell you who Caitlin Clark’s team, the Indiana Fever, will play tonight, tomorrow, or the night after (or even if they play), I can tell you I’ll be following for any viral moments that might play in the news/talk space.

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The Case for News Media Outlets to Utilize Paywalls

Why are we giving our work for free?

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As local newspapers across the country shutter Americans are craving local news, but not in the traditional sense. A new Pew Institute Research study found a large majority of Americans believe local news outlets are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their community.

Yet, only 15% say they have paid or given money to any local news source in the last year.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Except, in this case, there is no such thing as free news. People are in need of, and crave, local journalists’ hard work but are unwilling to pay for it. This is unsustainable.

Pew found 32% of those polled are looking to TV for local news, which is still the most common source of news. However, this is down from 41% in 2018. Just 9% look to print and another 9% look to radio for news. It’s no surprise to anyone Americans are looking to get local news online from websites (26%) and social media (23%).

While the transition from print to digital is relatively easy from a strictly content standpoint, having people pay is borderline impossible. The most common explanation is that people don’t pay because they can find plenty of free local news. The answer for our industry to survive is simple: paywalls.

Even with a Borrell Associates prediction of local broadcast TV advertisements growing 5.9% it won’t last. The agency noted the 2024 bump will fall after the election. We can not rely on every election cycle to survive.

In 20 years, TV won’t be able to subsidize digital (in some markets they are already unable to do this). In fact, this business model needs to be flipped around before local TV and radio stations shutter like newspapers have.

As I said in a previous article, it is unethical to have social media companies pay news outlets for content (like the legislation in Australia and Canada pushed through). But the money has to come from somewhere.

Why are we giving our work for free? A dollar per click on digital advertising is only sustainable (and offers a livable wage) when it comes to clickbait. However, the mind-numbing click farm is not why most of us do what we do.

Journalists are supposed to provide information, stand up for the truth, and have some sort of moral integrity. This does not mean we and our colleagues need to live on barely minimum wage. (Full disclosure, moral integrity does not mean “activist journalism,” which is bad and not actually journalism. I mean have the integrity to keep yourself and your view out of the story.)

Suits, this is where I turn to you. In 2022, local TV over-the-air advertising revenue totaled $20.5 billion according to a Pew study. The same study said profits from digital advertising revenue reached $2 billion. So where does this money go? It’s certainly not in the newsroom.

On average starting salaries are $37,600, according to The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). They calculate since 2020 those who work in news on average lost 8.3% in real wages. However, the amount of airtime for local outlets increased by 18 minutes per weekday. Meaning more work, less pay, and even less time to enjoy that breaking news pizza.

People are now making more at fast food restaurants in California than your newsroom associate with a bachelor’s degree. This is not normal. Invest in your people.

Journalists have so much more to offer the community yet they are not being paid. The companies they work for are not making as much as they could because everyone is afraid to put up a paywall.

If all local news outlets unanimously ask their readers to pay (like we used to before the dot com boom when everyone had to buy a paper) people would pay. They need us to be properly informed. While we are fully aware of our industry’s credit crunch, those outside of our world are blissfully unaware of our precarious situation.

Most importantly, local news outlets are facing a news dotcom problem, ‘Dark Money.’ Axios reported this week the number of biased outlets, that say they are impartial, is more than the number of actual local daily newspapers in the U.S.

Not only are we not being paid for the value of our work, we are competing with people who have bad intentions, unlimited money, and unlimited bandwidth. True news might be dead at the national level but we can not let this happen to local news.

There is no such thing as free news. So why does the industry as a whole treat our valuable content in this way?

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