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Audacy’s Bill Smee Grew Up With Radio In His Ears

Smee said he’d hang out with his father when dad worked at the New York Daily News. 

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You don’t need to attend Yale to get a career in radio and television. But it doesn’t hurt. An English major, Bill Smee did sports and news at WYBC, the Ivy League University’s radio station. 

“I did newscasts and was named sports director for a couple of years. I covered hockey, football and other things. It kind of got me into the radio game. My father was an editor and reporter in the 1960s. He was one of the first news editors at 1010 WINS. I grew up with WINS in my ear. My dad was incredibly smart and I admired him. I think I was greatly influenced by him and he did amazing things.”

Smee said he’d hang out with his father when dad worked at the New York Daily News. 

“I enjoyed watching the printing presses,” Smee explained. “It was great early exposure to the business. My dad had a long career. He also taught journalism at Columbia and Fordham.”

After graduation, Smee did some freelance local reporting around New York City in Westchester County. 

When he landed at CNN, the cable channel was relatively new. Smee spent 15 years there in a variety of producing roles, focused mainly on enterprise reporting and documentary. He later oversaw production at a documentary channel that was a joint venture between The New York Times and Discovery and launched and ran a video unit at Slate magazine before being hired at NBC News as director of digital video.

“I got the NBC job in 2013,” Smee said. “NBC was a bit behind the curve on the digital video scene. We launched an original video unit. Prior to that, they were essentially repurposing their broadcast content.”

The industry has come a long way from the early days of digital.

“I would say with the advent of YouTube and podcasting, we have ushered in a whole raft of pioneering and experimentation,” Smee explained.”

After NBC News, Smee went on his own, consulting for nearly four years for a variety of brands, including HuffPost and Mashable, before Audacy tapped him for a newly created position as vice president of news. 

Jeff Sottolano, now executive vice president and head of programming for Audacy, asked Smee if he’d consider a full-time role. Smee said he believes in the mission of local news

“One thing that drew me to Audacy was their strong position in the local news landscape, which has been challenging for media companies for a long time,” Smee said. “Newspapers have cut back or gone under.”

He said Audacy’s news brands have provided outstanding options for local markets around the country and have been doing that for decades.

“Audacy is a company that wants to innovate,” Smee said. “To take what it has done well into new platforms, new frontiers in the digital horizon.”

Smee said the pandemic has had a lot of influence on how news was presented and received. 

“On one hand, it made the quality of local news and information more important. The business side was also challenging. But this went for all media companies, forcing them to face headwinds, as people like to say.”

Smee said the business was in an uncertain macroeconomic climate. There were uncertainties regarding advertising and other aspects of the business.

“I remain bullish,” Smee said. “In this world, we live in, people can get news in 1,000 places. Local market sources are a smaller number. I like our chances to break through. Our strategy at Audacy is local news first. We’re not trying to outdo CNN. We want to bring relevant, practical content.” 

Companies may be throwing the proverbial spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

“I think ‘spaghetti’ suggests a haphazard approach but captures the gist,” Smee said. “Any journalist or reporter these days has to come in with an experimental orientation. Recognize things are evolving. Identify  trends, consumer interests.” 

“You have to be agile,” he said. “We are taking flyers on some things, whether it’s new formats, new forms of telling stories. It’s all about how we package it up. We’re making a number of bets. Some may pay off, some may not. If it doesn’t pay off, you move to the next.”

Radio, according to Smee, doesn’t have the luxury of pursuing passion projects every day. That’s not to say a journalist can’t wake up in the morning to original stories. 

“Sometimes a story may take off, go viral,” Smee said. “Sometimes not. Even with those stories that don’t reach a huge audience, we care about the quality. There’s a mix on the menu. To say they’re under pressure to create stories that appeal to people is true. I think it’s naive for journalists to say they’re not paying attention to that. It doesn’t mean they have to produce clickbait.”

There’s always been pressure to chase headlines. The old ‘If it bleeds it leads’ dictum. This is not some new instinct. 

“I see opportunities every day to tell stories better, to unearth stories that aren’t being told elsewhere,” Smee explained. “I don’t want to see our news default to just the biggest story of the day. I’d like to find possibilities that stem from a story. I like our talkers to explain things to viewers, perhaps discuss different aspects of a story.”

At the same time Smee said at Audacy, they’re not going to avoid the biggest stories of the day to be contrarian. Journalists and talkers are finding ways to connect with audiences. Perhaps some of that connection can come from story ideas outside the newsroom and conversations with listeners.

“I’m not talking about unleashing an army of citizen journalists,” Smee said. “I think listeners can influence where you go; add input. People who worked with Walter Cronkite were smart professionals who knew what to include in the daily lineup. It’s up to us as professionals as to what we’re going to include, what warrants time on the air. We wouldn’t have an open-mic night for listeners. But hearing from them is also really important.”

Smee believes the industry is now less stable than it was when he first broke in. Back then, if you went to work for say CBS, or NBC, you could reliably expect a good long run in the business.

“These days there is a constant state of disruption,” Smee said. “Companies are regularly laying off  people.”

Smee doesn’t see a day when the appetite for journalism goes away. Forms will change faster than ever. But the fundamentals remain. And he believes Audacy’s news brands are well-positioned to deliver. 

“In general, you see listeners turn to our brands in a crisis,” Smee said. 

“Whether it’s a severe weather event or natural disaster, or, tragically, things like shootings at a school or a store. We feel our brands are well positioned and have a great connection to communities to deliver in those situations.”

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Michael Berry Doesn’t Want to Be All Serious All the Time

“I get to entertain everyday and people come and listen to me. That really — more than anything else — is the thrill.”

Garrett Searight

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There are plenty of nationally syndicated radio shows that began as local shows. Not many hosts, however, have both a local radio show and a nationally syndicated show each weekday. But Michael Berry isn’t your average radio talk show host.

In addition to hosting a local show on NewsRadio 740 KTRH, Berry hosts The Michael Berry Show on more than 40 stations throughout the nation. And he believes having a local show in his hometown market — Houston — while still getting to talk about national topics on his afternoon show is the ideal situation for him.

“It lets me sort of keep my hand in two very different pies and do two very different shows. And that fulfills me,” Berry said. “I wouldn’t want to do just one or just the other. And I think part of it — I was the Mayor Pro Tem of the city of Houston, so I got very involved and very entrenched in the political world. I know a lot of the restaurant owners, I know a lot of business owners, and I really enjoy making the fourth-largest city into a tiny town for our listeners.

“But I also want to be able to talk to a national audience on a national level. I get to do both of those. I think that’s ideal for me.”

Michael Berry served on the City Council in Houston from 2002-2008, which gives him a unique perspective about both local and national politics that many others in the format don’t have.

“I think the experience of how bills are made and the backroom deals and how they’re done, I think that informs my opinions in a way that if you haven’t done that, it makes it harder to understand,” said Berry. “Also the blocking and tackling of how you get bills passed and how you win elections and those sorts of things.

“It just gives you that experience and it also helps you understand when a politician or an elected official says something that seems to go against what he believes or what he promised. You have a better sense of ‘Ok, who did he sell out to? Why did he do that? Where is the pressure point?’

“Because I think listeners want to understand not just why is Mitch McConnell doing something that feels like it’s against what the base is doing. The better question is, what’s the pressure point? What’s driving him? Who’s pushing him into that corner? And I think when you’re in the process, you get a very good sense of that.”

One could refer to Michael Berry as an almost new-age news/talk host. While one of the large criticisms of conservative talk radio today is the vitriol and anger most hosts present on the air, Berry is often presenting the opposite. Oftentimes, his show isn’t centered on conservative political viewpoints at all. A constant presentation of hope, admiration, and excitement not just about politics but about culture and the conservative lifestyle is the backbone of Berry’s program.

And while he has an affinity for those inside the conservative talk radio format, he simply believes he’s filling a different, virtually unoccupied, lane.

“There are some brilliant people out there on the radio. Sean Hannity has access to every elected official. Clay (Travis) and Buck (Sexton) are getting access to anybody they want as a guest. Mark Levin is a brilliant mind, a brilliant legal mind. (Glenn) Beck has a great perspective from decades of experience. Dan Bongino’s a really smart guy. There’s some really, really clever, smart, experienced broadcasters. I don’t need to be a lighter version of them, which is all I could ever hope to be. I want to be who I am,” admitted Berry.

“And I don’t see myself as competing with them. I wouldn’t want to. They’re all wonderful. We can all coexist, but I don’t want to watch the same show 24 hours a day. I want to create content that is different than other people are doing,” Berry continued. “Not because I’m better or they’re not good, but because I don’t think I can do it as well as they can. So I want to do what I do well.”

Michael Berry free admits he’d get bored simply sticking to the conservative political script for two separate shows each day. That’s why weaving other topics into his program continues to excite him.

“If all you do is what I call angry, old white man radio, you can’t build an audience and you can’t keep an audience. And the reason is that it becomes tedious. It becomes a chore to listen to. And everybody has heard that type of program that never laughs at anything and especially not that itself. We want to make people laugh. We want to talk about real life things, as well. We don’t have to talk politics 24/7.

“When I think about the influence in this country, on the culture, comedians have always had such an influence. The reason is that when you’re laughing, you’re thinking, and you’re engaging and you’re building your bond. I think that one of the great barriers to success in radio and success for the conservative movement is the inability to bond on the deeper level of let’s share a laugh.

“I think there is a great joy when I find that I’m making a point that I consider to be important, and yet in the middle of it, we can all laugh.”

Ultimately, Michael Berry doesn’t view his role in talk radio as a political pontificator, conservative advocate, or a preacher from behind the Republican pulpit. He views his craft from a completely different angle.

“I view myself as an entertainer. The hardcore conservative listeners don’t like me to say that because that means you must not mean what you say, or you’re not serious. I mean every word I say. And I’m very serious,” Berry stated. “But I’m serious in the way Dave Chappelle is serious. And make no mistake, Dave Chappelle is having a huge influence in America today on how we view the First Amendment or the concepts of freedom of thought…the reason is, is because he’s dead serious while making you laugh.

“When I was really deciding that this was a career I wanted to pursue…I went and studied stand-up comics, because I felt like that was the place. Otherwise, I would just mimic the guys that were already successful, and I didn’t want to do that,” Berry continued. “I felt dishonest about that.

“So what I did, instead, is I went and studied comedians, and delivery and how you engage an audience and how you hold an audience and how you make a point without beating the audience over the head with it. And how you go from point to point, how you pivot, how you make it fun. A lot of these are sort of back porch conversation tricks, you know, parlor games of, of how we keep a conversation going except it’s a one one man conversation without it feeling like I’m lecturing you.”

During our conversation, Michael Berry admitted he can hear hosts around the country who have lost the will to create compelling content, who say things they don’t believe, and are no longer in love with the format that once enticed them to join the industry.

However, he’s made a vow to never lose the excitement that comes with working in a format he still thoroughly enjoys.

“I view it as I get to wake up every day excited to go to the studio. My dad worked for 40 years at a plant in the maintenance unit and he hated every day of it. But he had all us kids to take care of. I get to entertain every day and people come and listen to me,” he shared. “That really, more than anything else, that is the thrill. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true.

“I think that most people probably don’t love what they do…I’m a megalomaniac. We all have to be to have the audacity to think that you can talk every day and people want to hear you, but I love it. It’s a thrill. I love to talk and I love to create stories and I love to create entertainment and create content. And when I hear from people that in some way they enjoyed it. It’s more rewarding than you can imagine, in the way that it would be for a pastor, or a comedian, or a songwriter, or a singer. It is incredibly rewarding.

“We live in an abundance of riches when it comes to content…but for them to choose to come and say I’m gonna let you entertain me,” Michael Berry concluded. “That is the ultimate compliment.”

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Do Radio Hosts Actually Care About What They’re Talking About?

So many shows do topics because they feel like they have to. Maybe the topic’s trending. Maybe it’s leading the news. But if you don’t care, listeners will notice.

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If you don’t care, why should anyone else care about what you do?

That’s one reason why I didn’t watch the NBA All-Star Game Sunday night. You don’t get a 211-186 final if anyone is remotely making any effort at all. It’s an extended version of the pre-game warmup. Everyone’s throwing up threes with no defense. They might as well break into a layup drill. Nobody wants to get injured in a meaningless game. I’ve endured a lot of All-Star games among the major sports leagues, and I stopped bothering to watch years ago. I haven’t missed much.

That translates to other realms as well. This column focuses on the media, so if you’re, say, a talk radio host, you should be asking yourself whether you really care about what you’re talking about. That’s the threshold question: Do you care? Because if you don’t, are you really going to put in the effort to make the topic entertaining so that other people – your listeners – care enough to listen and stay with you for the whole segment?

So many shows do topics because they feel like they have to. Maybe the topic’s trending. Maybe it’s leading the news. But if you don’t care, listeners will notice. And “I don’t care about it” isn’t a particularly compelling talk radio topic, is it?

It’s easier for local sports talk – it’s a given that whatever you’re ranting about and whatever take you have, listeners care because, well, who listens to sports radio and doesn’t care about what’s going on (All-Star Games notwithstanding)?

News organizations, on the other hand, have a different goal: If it’s news that on the surface is dry and boring but still matters, it’s the reporters’ and editors’ job to explain why a viewer or reader should care. Ukraine or Gaza might seem remote to a lot of people, but their importance to a typical U.S. citizen can’t be understated, and it’s important (and often forgotten) to emphasize why they matter and what impact they have on everyone.

The simple fact is that the energy you project on anything you talk about or report upon is a reflection of what you have invested in the story. You can fake enthusiasm, but if you just truly don’t care about Taylor and Travis, you’ll just be going through the motions and that’s what the audience perceives.

On the other hand, if you’ve invested a lot of time digging into an arcane financial story and you know that what seems like a remote, inscrutable radio topic may have profound consequences for many consumers, emphasize that and make clear why the viewer or reader should care, and do it right out of the gate to grab their attention.

Here, a digression: Why do they even bother with the actual All-Star Game anymore? Take the NBA All-Star Weekend: Nobody will remember anything about the game (other than that one team scored over 200 points) but everyone will remember the Steph Curry-Sabrina Ionescu shootout. They may remember Mac McClung’s repeat dunk contest win or the celebrity game or Rising Stars games.

Why not just do the skills and challenges, which are usually entertaining, and skip the All-Star Game itself, which isn’t? Maybe add some contests and honors for past greats. Most of the people who trek to the All-Star venue are there for the parties anyway. And with baseball now doing interleague play all season, none of the All-Star Games involve getting to see players who don’t normally face each other in the regular season face off. They don’t need a game nobody in it wants to play. I recognize this will never happen.

But the main takeaway here is that it’s less true that you can’t make someone care about a thing they don’t care about themselves than it is true that if you don’t care, you have zero chance making anyone else care. Your poker face isn’t that good.

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Radio Was Built For Charity and Volunteer Work

Your charitable activities build a better world. Your radio show and station make a real difference.

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Art Bell once said, “We are all here for a Cosmic Blink. Use your time wisely.”  The wisest man in all of history, a fellow named Solomon said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All of us are drawn to radio for usually a basic human impulse…it is a narcissistic rage that exists in every baby. Look at me! Listen to me! My opinions are important!

Unless you are a completely narcissistic fool, you have looked in the mirror and wondered about why we are here. What is your worth in the cosmic blink? Ok, let old Uncle Peter (Yes, I went full third person) explain.

We have all been given an amazing platform. Not only to spout our beliefs, biases, and humor, but to touch our communities. Does your show have a charity? Why not? Does your station have a charity or a “Day of Action” to support local causes? The answer should be yes. Radio shows and stations raise millions of dollars to improve our society. We raise awareness of issues that create change. It is why we are here. 

Before I give you some random idea starters for your show/station, let’s talk about the charities that you personally support. Do you give a portion of your income to religious, humanitarian, or conservation projects that you believe in? You should if you don’t make these donations. I don’t know what floats your boat, but I think it is important psychologically to donate to organizations that do good things in our world. 

These donations allow a portion of the cosmic blink of our lives to pay it forward. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, a small donation helps you feel connected to our world. If you are particularly blessed by the fruits of your hard work, make that donation bigger. Investing in the charities and religious organizations of our choice gives us significance. Instead of the narcissistic screaming for change, it is an action step.

Your show can unify your community through service. There was a movement that is still going on today by some churches that take a Sunday off from a religious service to spend their day serving their communities. This can be painting an elderly widow’s home, cleaning a park, feeding the homeless, or other things. If you speak to homeless shelters, lots of people want to volunteer on Thanksgiving morning, but not so much in the middle of February. 

So how about a day of service for your radio show? Reach out to a local charity that needs volunteers and make it an all-day affair. Perhaps you can do your show from the homeless shelter. Interview the people who serve the downtrodden every day or interview listeners who donated their day with you? Make it big and use your platform to make someone’s life better.

For those of you who have been doing radio for a decade or less, I have had listeners reach out to me about something that I said on the air 25 years ago. It’s very humbling. Every day you get on the air trying to perform. Heck, have you ever wanted to scream “Is anyone listening?” I have. I had someone reach out to me on Twitter to share a moment that meant so much to him. When those moments happen, I thank them for listening and what an honor it was to impact their memories in such a way. You are making a difference for people every day. 

Your station may broadcast a big charitable event each year. Be involved in every aspect of the planning process. Buy in 100%. When you take full ownership of the station event, your interest will take this fundraiser to the next level. Talk about a way to build goodwill in the community. 

Do you want to create an unbreakable bond? Help a local charity. You will go viral. Take selfies with all of the volunteers and organizers. Put this on your social media. Make it big. Do something that makes a difference. Go to their events and volunteer to do anything. Likely, you will be an emcee, but, if they want you to wrap presents, shovel up some stuff do it. Be a servant. 

In our post-COVID world, I keep reading about disconnection. Civic groups and religious organizations are experiencing a crisis of participation. This is terrible. Our society’s drift into solitude is damaging. Census figures show that the average household size in the USA is about 2.5 people. This means there are a lot of people sitting in a home or apartment alone. These people are disconnected from society. They go to work, go home, and live their solitary life online. Humans are not built for this. Your radio show is a connection for them. By the way: Your community’s average age is probably around 37 years. Think of this. You are a lynchpin for building community. Your station’s charitable events help people belong to something greater than themselves.

You are an influencer. Be a leader. Build a community. Create belonging.

Your charitable activities build a better world. Your radio show and station make a real difference.

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