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Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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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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