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Radio, TV Allowed Bob Sirott to Tap Into His Creative Side

Radio prepared Bob Sirott to roll with it if things went wrong in television during his media career.

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There are three things any Chicagoan would be familiar with; The Magnificent Mile, The Gold Coast, and Bob Sirott. Generations have grown up with the life-long Midwesterner. First as a top Chicago rock and roll DJ with WLS in the 70s and later as a news anchor on CBS2, NBC5 and Chicago Tonight on WTTW and on Fox32. After several previous stints on WGN Radio, Sirott is back home on “Chicago’s Very Own” AM 720 weekday mornings from 6-10 am.

The Chicago radio legend went to Columbia College located in the South Loop. It leans a bit artsy with alumni such as Pat Sajak, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Richter, and Janusz Kaminski (1982–87) – Academy Award-winning cinematographer for Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan

“I went there for four years in the late 60s,” Sirott said. “The faculty was more radical than the students. A tremendous place to learn. I knew a lot of cinematographers, film people, those like me who went into broadcasting or advertising.”

Columbia’s philosophy is to turn out working professionals, not professors working on getting published or future game show hosts. (Sorry Mr. Sajak.)

“As a student, I was able to do a lot of networking in the city. Al Parker is one person who was instrumental in my success at Columbia.”

I think our mission at Columbia is a very simple one and always has been. And that is: To provide the finest education that we can to our students so that they’ll understand what communications is all about and pick an aspect of it that has some appeal to them, that they are obviously suited for. –Al Parker

Parker’s name is synonymous with the radio/audio department at Columbia. He was a huge influence on Sirott until the day he died. 

“We often had coffee together and I’d ask his advice on this and that,” Sirott said. “I realized early that I didn’t want to go to school to learn how to work in radio, flip switches, and work the reel-to-reel. I could learn that later.”

Sirott said the physical aspects of the job weren’t going to take him four years to learn. Instead, he focused on classes like European literature, the art of cinema, advertising and science classes. He felt he needed a general education. 

“Nobody hires you solely because you went to this school or that school,” Sirott explained. “Especially in broadcasting. You’re better off to have a general sense of knowledge so you’ll be able to discuss things intelligently on the air.”

His father was a furrier in downtown Chicago, near State Street and Wabash.

Sirott is a sharp guy. Always into learning something new. A self-described dabbler. Jack of all trades, master of none. He was also a very introverted kid. “I never had a huge ego. I was always a shy type of kid. We lived in apartments and growing up when my mother gave me the rent check to take to the landlord of the building, I was terrified.”

Growing up, Sirott always liked to learn a little about a lot. 

“I grew up in a household that was interested in news, documentaries. I remember my father always watching programs about U.S. History, watching different kinds of interviews. That served me well. Gave me the desire for a broader curriculum in college.”

Growing up on the north side, Sirott was a Cubs fan. “I grew up watching WGN when all the games were on Channel 9. Then things got weird when not every game was on WGN. You could find them here and there. With Marquee Sports Network, at least the games are in one place. Baseball is all I wanted to do. I wanted to do what Jack Quinlan did.”

Quinlan was best known for doing radio play-by-play for the Chicago Cubs, first on WIND and then on WGN. His broadcast partners were Lou Boudreau and Charlie Grimm. He currently hosts “Icons of the Ivy,” a series of interviews with Chicago Cubs legends, on the Cubs Marquee Sports Network.

“I know a little about baseball. I’m not like an X’s and O’s guy that follows it every day,” Sirott said. “I always made fun of the TV news live shots when they were interviewing fans at a bar. If I want insight or commentary I want to hear it from a player or manager. I can go and interview my friends and ask what they think. It’s the same thing.” 

Sirott said he’s always tried to focus on the personality angle whether on the radio or television. He strived to get to know the players, the musicians. That curiosity served him well in both mediums. 

His radio career began when he was 21. While working as a producer and writer at NBC Radio in Chicago, he landed a summer on-air job at WBBM-FM.  

Way to go, Columbia College.

Sirott achieved great success for the next seven years before moving to television in 1980. 

“Radio is a lot more creative than television,” he said. “It’s harder. My early radio career allowed me to adapt to television. It goes the other way too. I think the television work has made me better at the radio the second time around.”

Radio prepared Sirott to roll with it if things went wrong in television. Doing something live with a news cam definitely helped me on the radio with the kind of shows I do. 

He says he’s a kind of ‘dabbler.’ Likes sports but isn’t interested enough to do it full-time. Likes hard news, but not only hard news. 

“I can’t fake it. I’m a terrible actor,” Sirott said. “I can only be me and it’s sort of worked out okay. I was always this way. Influenced by everybody I grew up listening to. I’ve anchored news at quite a few different stations and I always did it the same way.” 

Sirott recalled it was Johnny Carson who said if you’re always yourself, there is no guarantee of success. But if you’re not yourself on-air, there’s a guarantee you won’t make it. Hopefully, whoever you are, you’ll find an audience who likes you.

“John Chancellor was an NBC news reporter and anchor I always listened to,” Sirott said. “He was natural. “I can go back to tapes and watch him. I was always struck by how he talked to you as a viewer. It wasn’t announcing.”

Sirott said he used to do a newscast for WBBM-FM in the morning in 1971. The FCC required 15 minutes of news. He couldn’t fake the news-guy voice. 

“I just tried to be as conversational as I could. I didn’t want to be a high-energy guy who couldn’t maintain that persona. I wanted to be natural and comfortable.”

He recalled how Conan O’Brien was a real guy when he interviewed him a while back. “I’d interviewed him before,” Sirott said. “He was the real deal as a person. I think that comes through in whatever you’re doing. Whatever that quality is. He was really cool and would go into a lot of funny schtick with me, but I always felt he was the real Conan. He was just talking about things. That’s who I am. I had done quite a bit of research on Conan. I asked him what he was like in high school and he told me he wasn’t the most popular kid. Not a leader. O’Brien jumped in and said, ‘I don’t’ like the way this questioning is going.’ He was joking, that is just his sardonic way.”

After being hugely successful in radio at WLS, Sirott dipped his toe into the hugely competitive Chicago television pool. 

“I did some guest shots on television in 1980 at CBS 2,” he said. “This was during the reign of Walter Jacobson and Bill Kurtis,” Sirott said. Kurtis and Jacobson were a big deal in Chicago–‘newsmen, not announcers,’ as proclaimed in a 1975 promo for WBBM TV.

“The first week I was there I had to do a live shot from Chicagofest, a short-lived music festival on Navy Pier,” Sirott said. “When I got back to the station everybody was very complimentary. I’d just come from a job where I was doing four hours live, six days a week. I do a three-minute segment on WBBM, and I’m a hero.”

Sirott was and still is a bit uncomfortable with the notoriety. 

“When somebody in my family came across someone asking, ‘Are you related to Bob Sirott?’ I’d feel so uncomfortable. I can talk to tens of thousands of people using the microphone or camera, but feel uncomfortable in front of three people.”

Other things kept Sirott from getting a big head. When he joined WLS in 1973, he worked with a great DJ staff that wasn’t afraid to pop the proverbial balloon if it became over-inflated. 

“We were cohesive, worked hard and respected each other,” he said. “If anybody showed a sign of a swollen ego, they’d get shot down by the other six people. We were all very close and hung out off the air. We helped keep each other in line. If you got too big for your britches, you were heckled to death and would never hear the end of it. I was grateful for that, always have been.”

In college, Sirott wasn’t one of those guys that hung out at clubs, despite Chicago having an immense music scene. 

“For one thing I didn’t drink, hated the taste of alcohol,” Sirott said. “To me, it always tasted like the first time you took a sip of your father’s drink. I didn’t like it. If I went to concerts it would be at the Arie Crown Theater. We’d also go up to Belmont to see performers.” Sirott said folk clubs like The Quiet Knight were also a destination to listen to music.

In addition to his morning gig at WGN, Sirott hosts Icons of the Ivy for Marquee Sports Network. It’s all about players, not about salaries or statistics.

“I’m able to get to know players,” he said. “This kind of stuff brings me back to the love of the game. The fun and inside stories. Inside baseball, that’s where the stories are.” 

As a kid going to Wrigley Field, Sirott would sit in the grandstands and then at the end of the game, he would get to work. 

“The grounds crew would give each kid a row and say if you step on the cups in this entire row, we’ll give you a ticket to tomorrow’s game because stepping on the cups would make it easier for the crew to clean it up.”

He still loves going to Wrigley Field. As a fan, he said it’s harder to get access to players than it used to be. But he also recognizes the love of the game is still there. Among players as well. 

“One time I was at Wrigley and saw Mark Grace sitting at the top of the dugout stairs during batting practice before a game,” Sirott said. “I could just tell he was taking it all in. Loved the game. How wonderful it was when you talked to some of these guys who were baseball purists. It’s so generational. My dad took me to my first game. No other sport has the same quality. Poets don’t write about football or basketball. Baseball is romantic.”

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Radio Has an Overloaded Spot Block Problem and Here’s How to Fix It

Raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership.

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While the radio industry insists that our medium is still king, I’m skeptical. I hope the numbers are being spun properly, I just have doubts. In either case, we’re sweeping a lot of stuff under the rug. People may still be “sampling” radio but are they listening? Do they buy what you’re selling?

The typical news/talk station airs 22 minutes of commercials per hour. When you add in five minutes of network news and spots plus recorded promos (commercials for ourselves), we’re talking half an hour of content killer.

I’m a typical listener. With rare exceptions, I only listen while I’m driving. Behind the wheel, my habit is standard: punch around my presets until I hear something of interest or at least actual content and not commercials. When a talk segment ends, I listen to the tease and then punch out. I don’t sit through what I know will be a five or six-minute commercial break. If the tease was done well and it interests me, I’ll try to remember to come back. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

Here in Dallas these days, I mainly listen to our two excellent sports talk stations, The Ticket and The Fan. And I always smile when I hear them constantly trying to convince me that by choosing to listen to their particular station I’m part of an exclusive club. That’s nothing new really but the branding is ingenuous.

105.3 The Fan cleverly labels listeners “TOLOs”, implying people who wisely “Turn it On, Leave it On”. The Ticket merely plays the highest authority card, referring to their listeners as “P1s”. I know what it means but the average listener has no clue. It’s an inside joke. I’ve never heard the station explain it but their faithful listeners supposedly wear the badge proudly.

I’ve never seen any figures on shared listening but I expect the crossover between the two sports talk stations would be nearly 100%. People do what I do, punch back and forth looking for interesting content.

After hiring and inspiring great talent and setting the tone for a station’s identity, a news/talk programmer’s primary job is trying to navigate a sea of clutter. There are various ways to do it but anything short of reducing the number and length of commercial breaks is just rearranging the furniture.

One of the most common tactics is promoting a commercial-free segment. In my opinion, that’s just calling attention to the problem and admitting that commercials are a necessary evil. I’ll bet your clients love that.

I admire and pity radio salespeople who have always had to fight to survive in a dog-eat-dog world but now also have to sell clients on the idea that their money will be well spent even though their message might be buried in the middle of a five-minute cluster.

Are there too many commercials on the air? Hell yes. 22 minutes per hour for talk and news? Why do people sit through that?

They don’t. They pop around the dial as I do, and are increasingly learning that podcasts offer information and entertainment with far fewer interruptions. The RTDNA and the RAB don’t want to admit that. Nielsen puts a rosy spin on the numbers because broadcasters are their main customers. Even highly respected news outlets report the idea that radio is doing great but read this and see if you don’t share my skepticism below the headline:

Americans Listen To Far More Radio Than Podcasts—Even Young People, New Data Shows

“American adults still spend an overwhelming majority of their daily listening time on radio broadcasts despite the rise in popularity of podcasts and music streaming services, new Nielsen data on listening habits in the first quarter of 2024 shows. Though younger audiences are starting to buck that trend by choosing on-demand audio at a higher rate than their elders.” Forbes, May 1, 2024

I’m not the smartest guy in any room. I’ve never been a GM or Sales Manager. I have been an air talent and program director, though, and I can smell as well as hear the problem. There are far too many commercial interruptions for radio to survive this way for much longer.

Retired WGN morning legend Spike O’Dell agrees.

“Are spot breaks too long? Coming from the talent side of this issue my answer is absolutely. I’m a realist and understand that they’re necessary but a five-minute stop set is a show killer and a ratings killer,” he said. “Why in the world would a listener want to wait through that amount of time unless the content was the most fascinating subject ever?

“When I left the airwaves, we were at 23 minutes of spots an hour, and even I got bored with my own show. Spot breaks and amount of spots played per hour is a long-time sore subject to discuss or ponder. But, it didn’t take this talk show host very long to learn that I was never going to win this issue. Money will always win out. Sometimes management should do the wrong thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Journalist, former media exec, and USC professor Jerry Del Colliano agrees and has an audacious idea: do what every other industry does and raise prices.

“Charge more for spots and limit to 12 per hour.  If there is demand for more, stick to 12 and raise the price of an ad,” he said. “Programmers have known for decades that commercials don’t build time spent listening — and they aren’t doing advertisers any favors by crowding too many spots in and creating an impossible situation to help advertisers succeed.”

Guy Zapoleon is famous for his music radio expertise and innovations but he’s also a veteran radio programmer who has to deal with clutter. He agrees. Cut the spot load and raise the rates. He says it should have been done long ago.

“Telecom and the major companies becoming publicly traded companies along with overpaying for radio stations derailed that idea. Look, I’m a fan of what Now 102.3, a Hot AC type station in Canada, is doing. They only run six minutes an hour versus 12 minutes for most of the competitors but they charge more to meet budget demands. They also go overboard helping their clients with remotes and ideas to drive customers to their clients to increase their ROI value.”

Now, there’s a thought: raise rates but don’t just sell airtime. Sell your clients an exclusive opportunity for a media partnership. Offer them more personal attention, and hands-on assistance than you’ve had time for while juggling a client list and spot load that would choke a horse.

Back to Jerry for a moment. I asked him how and when programmers should design breaks. He brushed aside quarter-hour maintenance and stayed focused on the much bigger consideration.

“Where you place them is less important than the total number per hour but the idea of loading up two-quarter hours to run all your spots obviously isn’t working, hasn’t worked, and won’t work.”

Cutting more jobs can’t improve profitability. Increasing your spot load chases away your audience and your sales strategy. The only thing left is raising rates and reducing inventory.

Explain to your clients that by paying more they are getting an exclusive opportunity to be center stage rather than being shoved to the back of a very crowded bus. Assure them your programming is the best in town.

And make that true.

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Libsyn’s Rob Walch Has Watched Podcasting Grow From Infancy to Audio Juggernaut

“When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

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A photo of Rob Walch and the Libsyn logo
(Photo: Libsyn)

Libsyn Vice President of Podcaster Relations Rob Walch is one of the founding fathers of podcasting, helping and inspiring countless people to start their very own webcasts.

“I’ve been in [Podcasting] since 2004. Got in it early on. I read it in an article in Engadget on October 4th, 2004 and it said, ‘If you want a podcast, just add this enclosure tag to your blog feed and you can podcast.’ I went, what the heck does that all mean?,” he told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

“So I figured it out and launched a podcast. There wasn’t many, maybe 100, podcasters at the time. And my podcast was about podcasting. So it was the first podcast specifically about podcasting called podcast411.” Getting the inside scoop from other podcasters, the podcast about podcasting focused on tech and promotions.

His hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Just three years later, Rob Walch joined Libsyn. He now runs podcasting relations, business development, “and a whole lot more.”

The former engineer turned podcaster has seen a lot change since the industry’s beginnings, most notably accessibility. “When I started, Apple wasn’t in podcasting. iTunes didn’t support podcasting yet.”

A “convoluted method” of uploading, transmitting, and manually adding each podcast into iPod tracks and then syncing to iTunes was laborious, and finding a new podcast wasn’t any easier.

“There was not really any centralized directory. There was Podcast Alley and a bunch of other places. Then Apple, in June of 2005, launched iTunes and it supported podcasting and that really was like the first inflection point of podcasting.” Another change to amplify podcasting came two years later with the launch of the iPhone.

However, Walch noted the most notable change that amplified podcasting came in 2015.

“The real big one was iOS 8. When it came out, the Apple podcast app was native and people can tap this purple app on my iPhone, and ‘How come I can’t delete it?’ They they started learning about podcasting.”

Rob Walch believes Apple gave the podcasting industry so much growth because, “At one point in time it was six iOS downloads to every one Android download.” Today the ratio is less skewed with 3.2 iOS downloads to every one Android download.

“I think the other change that happened after — it wasn’t an inflection point, it was a slow burn — was all the apps that you listened to music on began to have podcast directories … I think that, combined with everything else that led to where podcasting became ubiquitous, where we are today.”

Rob Walch also noted no matter what you read, “Apple Podcasts, is the number one place where podcasts are consumed. It’s 50% of consumption.”

Today, Walch believes the biggest trend in podcasting might be hindering to the audience. “People overly expecting video to take them to the next level and finding out that that’s not really the case. I think there’s way too many people that think they can just convert a traditional audio podcast into a video podcast, and it’s going to flower and bloom. Some do. Most don’t.”

“Most people forget that the reason podcasting is popular is because there’s more time in the day to consume audio than there is video,” he later said. “And if your audience is more of a B2B audience and you’re not good with video, don’t do video. Concentrate on the audio.”

Doing this also puts your podcast in direct competition with every video maker on YouTube instead of just podcasters.

Walch’s passion for podcasting has been evident since the very beginning of his career.

“My goal has always been to help people get into podcasting and that was what podcast411 was about. It was the first that said, ‘Here’s how you podcast. Here’s how you get done.’ That was the whole idea of the podcast was to teach people how to do it. I wasn’t selling webinars, I wasn’t trying to sign people up into this mastermind group or any of that into any of those slimy, hyper-marketing type things. I just wanted people to be able to podcast.”

For those looking to take to the mic, Rob Walch has several words of wisdom.

“Anybody could do it. That there is no magic bolt. There’s no secret sauce. There’s no way you’re going to instantly grow an audience. You have to get lucky for a show, in some ways. But you also have to be dedicated to it.”

He also noted people do not ask the right questions when it comes to launching their own podcast. “You got to answer these two questions, which is: What are you going to call your show and what’s it going to be about?”

“When you go into search, it’s called predictive search results. As you start typing, it starts giving you the results. The first word in the title of your podcast is so important. So if you’re starting a podcast, the thing you really want to make sure is: What is the one word that you think people would be searching for your topic? And it’s not your name. If they know your name, they’ll find you. Put that at the end. But what’s the one word in the topic if you’re going to spend money on Google AdSense?”

Rob Walch suggests going to Google Trends and looking at the top three popular words for the topic you want your podcast to be about. He gave this example, “I had a friend whose podcast was called the Fifth Race Podcast, and people are like, ‘What’s that about?’ It was about Stargate because it was this obscure reference in Stargate to the fifth race. And if you were Stargate fan, you got it right. But that’s not what people would say, or even people that were into Stargate don’t search for the fifth race. They search for Stargate.”

“I just said to just put ‘Stargate: The Unofficial Fifth Race Podcast.’ He just changed his title around. He went from not being searched and not being found when you search Stargate, to being the number one show when you search Stargate. Just making sure you know what people are searching for and optimizing the title of your show really will help people stumble upon your show. And that’s so important to grow your show.”

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How Radio Personalities Can Be Both Likeable and Opinionated in Difficult Conversations

Don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast.

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We often talk about being as relatable as possible as a talk radio show host. Be present with where your listeners are. Think like they do. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to do on paper, but there’s always that push and pull as a talk radio show host. You’re interacting with business leaders, politicians, sports figures, and other prominent folks in your community to whom your listener may not have access.

That is part of what makes you credible in their eyes, and it’s part of what gives you insights on topics that the “average listener” cannot get access to. It’s why they listen to you.

But in the end, they — at least in part — want to listen to you because they like you and relate to you. Which means you have to relate to them. And please, don’t confuse likability with vanilla or milquetoast. Likable and wildly opinionated can, and ideally should, work in conjunction.

I bring all this up to discuss a topic that can apply to news/talk or sports talk radio hosts: stadiums and subsidies. It’s an incredible topic that can cross both formats. 

In Charlotte, city leaders are expected to vote next week on whether to approve the funding of $650 million for renovation projects at Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers.

In April, voters here in Kansas City rejected a ⅜-cent sales tax extension for the Chiefs and Royals. That topic is back in the forefront this week as the State of Kansas held a special session and passed legislation to use its STAR Bonds program to try to lure one or both teams to the Kansas side of the state line.

I’ve heard overwhelming media reactions suggesting stadium projects involving taxpayer subsidies are no-brainers. Cities or counties, a.k.a. Taxpayers, must help out where needed to fund the building, or upkeep of stadiums. Of course, the fear is that the team(s) will always leave their current city.

Sports media folks typically will support it because, if God forbid, a team were to move, their livelihood would be at stake. Plus, they deal directly with players, coaches, and team executives who can sell them regularly all the perks a new stadium can provide for the team and media members.

News/talk folks can fall victim to hearing too much from their political contacts who often promote and sometimes are the ones who vote on these projects. They’re influenced by lobbyists and others who are legally doing their job but are also on the payroll for the big-money entities involved. 

But who’s looking out for the little guy? That should be you.

While you may have the access and contacts in the higher-end social circles of your community, that’s not where most of your listeners live.

Political feelings always ebb and flow, but we are living in a country where populism is becoming more popular. The last few years have been hardest on those from the middle class on down. COVID’s economy benefited work-from-home white-collar workers, where one parent could stay home with kids who were stuck learning from home.

In contrast, the same economy hurt working-class folks, who were less likely to be able to work from home and certainly could not watch their kids daily as they tried to learn from home. On top of that, the stock market has gone gangbusters the last couple of years, while the working class has struggled to pay for its groceries.

The economy has been very different since COVID, depending on your socioeconomic level.

That said, as populism grows in popularity on the right and the left, understand where your radio listeners are at in their lives and their likely unwillingness, or at the very least, fair skepticism, to fund stadiums for billionaire team owners.

Don’t let your relationship with a player, coach, or team executive overly influence your opinion. Don’t let your buddy, the politician or a lobbyist, get into your ear on how amazing their plan would be.

I think back nearly 15 years, when the New York Giants and New York Jets opened MetLife Stadium to much fanfare. Then, the dreaded PSL (Personal Seat License) came into being, which simply gave fans the “rights” to purchase their seats.

It was, and remains, an all-time scam. Former WFAN host Mike Francesa obliterated the teams. To his credit, while he had relationships with the franchises going back decades and could easily afford nearly any ticket in the building, he never lost touch with where the “average fan” was.

So, as these stadium projects continue to pop up around the country—and they could be coming to a town near you soon—I’m not telling you how to think or what to say on your radio show. Just be aware of the political climate in the country today, and always put yourself in your listener’s shoes first and foremost. You’ll never regret it. And they’ll trust you even more for it.

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