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Soledad O’Brien Was Ready to Work For Herself

“I wanted to create a new model where I could control my own content. I’m not sure I could have made a move like that until that point.”

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It’s remarkable when you get the opportunity to speak with someone who has experienced such immense respect and admiration in their industry. And Soledad O’Brien, deserving of both, would be the first to dismiss those notions, with candor and warmth.

Earlier in her career, O’Brien anchored a show for MSNBC, before moving on to co-anchor NBC’s Weekend Today and contributed segments to the Today show and NBC Nightly News.

“I’ve been around this business a long time,” O’Brien jokes.

In 2003, O’Brien transitioned to CNN, where she was the face of CNN’s morning news shows.

Her work has been recognized with three Emmy awards. She was also honored twice with the George Foster Peabody award for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina and her reporting on the BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill.

As a student at Harvard, O’Brien learned an invaluable lesson during a controversial lecture.

“I was a freshman or sophomore in the audience, and I couldn’t contribute because I wasn’t prepared. There were students attending the lecture who understood the minutia and details in the discussion. You can’t debate someone unless you know about the issue. You look like an idiot. That taught me you really had to know yourself.”

O’Brien said she comes from a close and loving family. At college, she said she met so many people that weren’t like her.

“I was able to engage in debate. You might not always agree with someone, but that didn’t stop you from being good friends. There are mentors you have for years, who help shape you. I’ve also had mentors where I didn’t even realize they were mentors. I’m a big believer that mentors make you successful, so glom on to one when you can.”

In 2013, CNN came to O’Brien and said management wanted to take her show in a different direction.

“Which meant they wanted someone else to anchor the show,” O’Brien said.

That was fine with O’Brien as she was ready to switch gears. That included putting her energy into her new business, Starfish Media Group. Ironically, CNN became Starfish’s first client the day after she left the network.

“I wanted to create a new model where I could control my own content,” she explained. “I’m not sure I could have made a move like that until that point.”

When O’Brien started at CNN, her job focused on live, breaking coverage. Whatever was unfolding at that moment.

“I liked that a lot, but it had its limits,” she said. “I’ve always loved long-form work, like documentaries.”

The timing of her move to creating long-form content may have come at a fortuitous time as the news business has been morphing.

O’Brien said straight news could be a loss-leader for organizations.

“You’re dealing with organizations who are trying to make a profit, and that is more challenging today. Journalists and reporters today are judged by how often a story is re-tweeted. How often it is viewed. The quality of the piece no longer seems to be the issue. If you’re not re-tweeted, the story is perceived as not being good enough,” she said. “A reporter has to wonder and worry whether they are going to be able to keep their job by a public that is judging their news story.”

Her personal view of the social media landscape since she left network news is simple. O’Brien said she doesn’t care how many people follow her. She’s not concerned with who she is following, and doesn’t care if something she writes or creates goes viral. For O’Brien, it’s the quality and importance of the work that carry the day.

“If I lose X-thousand followers, I don’t track it,” O’Brien said. “To me, my feed is all about bringing people stories they might not get elsewhere. I like uncomfortable and awkward conversations. Race is an uncomfortable conversation. With Starfish, I did a series focusing on women who were rescuers at 9/11. We checked if they were written out of history, and they were. A lot of stories were done on rescue dogs, but not the women.”

She said her production company has allowed her to tell stories she believes in.

“When you tell people stories about people who have been undercovered, you widen the tent. I think people are interested in the complex narrative which is the American narrative.”

Starfish has given her and the stories she produces a broader reach.

“We’re interested in distribution of our original content,” O’Brien said. “We can allow our content to live on numerous platforms.”

Regardless of where the content ends up, O’Brien said good journalism never changes. The quality of work is what should rule the day. When she left CNN, O’Brien was given her entire vault of work from the network, more than 50 hours of work. She said that the library has been invaluable to Starfish.

“I don’t think I initially knew how important it was,” she said. “Having a library of material has been so important to us. It has allowed us to tell our stories in a more accessible way. Networks can tell journalists how to navigate around a story. We don’t have to do that as I think owning the material is essential to good storytelling.”

At one of her network jobs, O’Brien inquired if she could do a documentary on poverty in America. She met with a response equating to, ‘Ew, nobody wants to see that.’

“Now I can tell that story,” she said. “We’re witnessing the disappearance of the middle class and I can bring that story to people who are interested. You’re dealing with your own content and you can shop it until you find the right outlet. Until somebody says it’s great. I can develop stories I feel passionate about.”

Since she left network television, O’Brien thinks some of the content on cable and television has been less than satisfying.

“Everything today is over the top, crazy,” she explained. “During the 2016 debates, my son asked me what they meant by Donald Trump’s fingers being small. I said I had no idea. That became a constant discussion and that’s unfortunate. The media’s job should be to inform people. To undergird our work with data and analysis. Today, the crazier it is, the more air time it gets.”

In regards to the mid-term elections in November, O’Brien said all the political talking heads got it wrong.

“It was an inaccurate narrative,” she said. “There were completely bullshit stories. People were gobbling it up hook-line and sinker. I’m impressed with the young people and how they responded in the voting booth. It showed me they aren’t necessarily watching the evening news.”

Since 2016, O’Brien has been the host for Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, a nationally syndicated weekly talk show produced by Hearst Television.

With Starfish and SO’B Productions, O’Brien produced the documentary, The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks. It can be viewed on Peacock TV.

“Rosa Parks was a complete badass,” O’Brien said. “The New York Times eulogized Parks as an accidental matriarch. That wasn’t accurate. They treated her as though one day the woman was tired and didn’t want to give up her seat.”

No, Rosa Parks wasn’t a woman randomly snared in history. She was a secretary for the NAACP and was looking to make a statement.

“That cracked me up when she was termed an accidental matriarch,” O’Brien said. “Somebody had to do what Parks did. I’m always amazed by the stories we tell ourselves. Parks was close to the Black Panthers.”

It wasn’t like she was just coming home from shopping at the A&P and decided to take on the establishment. When Parks was 8 years-old, her grandfather would stay up nights on the porch with a shotgun to keep the KKK at bay.

O’Brien doesn’t understand why we were made to believe it was a random experience.

“Who benefits from it being accidental?” O’Brien asked. “It was treated as folklore. There’s no way Harriett Tubman just one day woke up and decided to start an underground railroad. Things like this are planned.”

Her SO’B Productions has produced documentary films such as Hungry to Learn, Who Killed My Son?, Kids Behind Bars, Babies Behind Bars, War Comes Home, Honor Delayed, and Heroin.

“I just like getting history right,” O’Brien said. “It’s easy to get marginalized people wrong. We write people out of a story that deserve to be in there.”

The documentary Heroin exposed the veteran journalist to amazing revelations.

“It’s so sad,” she explained. “In the show a woman has a child, and it’s clear she loved her child. When told by the interviewer she was essentially killing her daughter with her own drug addiction, the mother replied uh-huh.”

O’Brien said the mother was aware what she was doing was in essence killing her child, and she just reacted so matter of factly.

“It was chilling. She knew it, but didn’t choose or couldn’t do anything about it.”

O’Brien said there are so many chilling stories surrounding the opioid crisis. Parents are at their wits end.

“Nothing they were trying to do was working. There was no way they could help someone they loved. Things were so crazy around the house, families were putting valuables in a safe to keep the abuser from ripping them off. Treatment often doesn’t work. There was one person who had undergone nine stays in rehab. That costs a great deal of money.”

In the same documentary, O’Brien said she was interviewing one woman and she’d brought a friend with her to the interview.

“She looked put together, normal,” O’Brien said. “It turns out she too was a heroin addict. I asked her what she did for a living, and she told me she was a kindergarten teacher. She’d buy drugs on the street. It was shocking to me. If you saw her on the street, there’s no way you’d think she was a heroin user. I was completely stunned. Across America, heroin abuse is skyrocketing, and not just in poor communities. In Vermont alone, treatment for opiate addiction, including heroin and Oxycontin, has risen 770% since 2000.”

In all of her work, O’Brien said it’s her goal to always have people feel they can tell her something. Establish a trust. Truly listen to them.

“In Honor Delayed, we looked at a number of people who were eligible for the Medal of Honor, but for whatever reason didn’t get it. A number of these people were Black (or) Jewish. These are people that honorably served our country and were denied the medal for whatever reason. Despite their extraordinary acts of heroism, the nation’s highest honor has long remained elusive for a group of exceptional American veterans.”

Of the nearly 4,000 medals awarded, only 234 have been awarded to minority service members. O’Brien needed to know why.

O’Brien is a child of mixed heritage. Her Australian father is of Irish and Scottish descent and her mother is from Havana of Afro-Cuban descent. “Growing up in the only Afro–Cuban family in my town on Long Island may have given me some appreciation for outsiders, for people who look and speak differently.”

“My mother taught French and English,” O’Brien said. “I don’t really consider myself bi-lingual, but I’m very good at Spanglish,” she jokes. “I think it would be so much easier to interview people in their native tongue.”

She spends winters in Florida where she rides horses, enjoys life. In 2016, O’Brien  appeared in Zoolander 2. “I always seem to play the reporter,” she jokes. “I had so much fun and the people were very nice.”

O’Brien said she also loves doing hair.

“As a girl of color, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

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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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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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