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Steve Wexler Is Helping Develop the Future of Radio

“I’m a real believer that we have to understand the relationship between the talent and the audience.”

Ryan Hedrick

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A photo of Steve Wexler

Steve Wexler, a coach specializing in leadership, content, and culture, looks back on his teenage years when he imagined speaking to a large audience on WEXL Radio from his bedroom.

Although the call letters were made up and a pun on his last name, it sparked his interest in radio. At the age of 17, he rode his bike to WTMJ and requested to be on the air. Persistence paid off, as he achieved the broadcasting dream of every Wisconsinite, rising from on-air talent to TV and radio manager to overseeing a broadcast division. 

Wexler is an eternal optimist and wants you to know that he believes in the future of the broadcasting industry. He values on-air talent and believes that companies can promote a culture of excellence while still being profitable.

As he reflects on his WEXL Coaching and Development brand, he recognizes that the word “Excel” is incorporated into it. This word inspires him to strive for excellence, and he strongly believes that a company’s culture directly affects its results. 

As a consultant for only a year, Wexler has become increasingly concerned about how national trade publications portray the broadcast industry. Despite the many challenges facing the industry, Wexler firmly believes that assessing the power of content is essential. By taking a moment to pause and reflect, the industry can create a revolutionary experience that will profoundly change how media professionals conduct their business.

Wexler has observed that audiences are drawn to quality content regardless of where it is found. He also noted that companies like Apple are investing heavily in talent and coaching to build their brand’s channels. If Apple is betting on talent, coaching, and engagement, then shouldn’t broadcast companies do the same?

Ryan Hedrick: Can you provide more information about the WEXL brand and the type of work you do?  

Steve Wexler: I’m trying to help others excel in content, sales, leadership, and coaching. I’m using all my years in content management, running a division for Journal [Media Group] and E.W. Scripps, managing TV and radio stations, and trying to contribute and help our industry thrive and succeed.    

RH: Can you tell us about your transition from a 40-year broadcast career to establishing WEXL Coaching & Development? What inspired you to make this change? 

SW: I had been running the radio division at E.W. Scripps, which had been the Journal Group, which was an amazing time working with incredibly talented people across the country.

When we sold the radio division at the end of 2018, we were so fortunate in Milwaukee to have sold our radio division to Good Karma Brands. Realizing that Good Karma had this incredible commitment and vision for local spoken word content, I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to stick around.  

Meeting Craig Karmazin (Founder of Good Karma Brands) and Evan Cohen and all those guys, I got interested in running stations I had started at when I was a kid. It was an excellent time to manage again. I realized after the pandemic that it was time for me to see if I couldn’t contribute in different ways in our industry, and so I was fortunate at the end of 2022 to continue my work with Good Karma Brands as their coach.

You can call them my inaugural client in my WEXL coaching because I am doing a lot of the coaching for Good Karma talent, salespeople, and some of their managers. I can provide valuable insight and coaching. I’m able to do it across the country. I’m speaking to different broadcast associations and even working with some different companies outside of broadcast on their leadership and culture development.  

RH: What specific services does WEXL Coaching & Development provide to broadcasters and other professionals seeking excellence? 

SW: There are three things that I can contribute to the conversation, and I have received feedback that it is helpful. Content coaching is the cornerstone of what I have been doing, and I provide a workshop for talent, program directors, news directors, and anybody in content. One of the workshops is discovering why so much of our content tends to sound the same. I help talent and producers explore, present, and find unique and compelling content.

I also do a workshop on the 14 traits inherent in breakthrough talent. This is material that I have a license agreement with Bill McMahon at The Authentic Personality, who developed this some years ago.

I provide that to management in TV, radio, and digital. Those are 14 specific traits that you can predict who will break through and who might not. It’s been very popular; there are a lot of groups that are interested in seeing and hearing that.  

The leadership and culture part of my consultancy has been gratifying because, as you can imagine, going from a kid pretending he was on the radio to a little bit of on-air work, program manager, to general manager, to regional TV and radio manager, to the head of a division, I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

I’ve had some nice successes along the way. That leadership and culture piece is so important. The culture is always directly related to the results at the end of the day. I enjoy speaking on that topic and working closely with some companies on their leadership and coaching.  

RH: What sets apart a good radio station from an exceptional one? 

SW: In my experience, the stations that break through share an emotional connection with the fans. There are a lot of brands out there that are fine. I try not to compare what’s great versus what’s bad because I think we can all identify what’s bad pretty quickly. There are a lot of good brands that are fine. They are technically correct, they follow the rules, and audiences enjoy them.

If you think about the ones that really break through and, over time, really connect and are successful through rating measurement, brand loyalty, or digital downloads, I think those brands go beyond being technically correct and have found a way to create a human, emotional connection and that’s much harder to do, but it’s much more gratifying when you get it right.  

RH: How do you approach coaching and developing on-air talent? Can you give us some insights into your methodology? 

SW: I don’t want to say that I’m controversial in my viewpoint, but I know that sometimes my bias either excites people in radio and TV stations or worries them a little bit. I’m a real believer that we have to understand the relationship between the talent and the audience. What’s happened, unfortunately, too often in our business, we’ve allowed formulas and sort-of generic content to win the day.

I don’t start with, what the audience wants from us. I start with, who is the talent? Who have we hired? Who have we recruited? How are they wired? What are they interested in? What do they care about? How do they communicate with their audience?  

What I’ve found over the years is that if we start with who we are and what’s interesting to us, we tend to have a better chance of entertaining the audience as opposed to trying to predict what everybody is interested in. I’ve found that that’s an imprecise, subjective approach.

Obviously, I’m a student of the market and of the audience, and you want to understand how your brand connects with the market. Still, I really start with the individual talent and make sure we’re coaching the coaches to make sure that we get the best out of the people who are presenting our content on TV, radio, and digital.  

RH: In your experience, what are some common challenges that broadcasters face, and how do you help them overcome those challenges? 

SW: If you buy the theory that we need to spend more time with the talent as opposed to spending so much time trying to understand the audience, our chances are much better breaking through. I try to help broadcasters (in this case) spend more time and energy on recruitment.

We can find people that can open a microphone, look into a camera, or write some digital content, but do we really know what we’re searching for, and how do we know when we’ve found it?  

For the most part, I don’t know that we, as an industry, have done a good job at coaching the coaches. I know that when I started out as a program director, I didn’t know what I was really supposed to do.

Suddenly, I was responsible for morning shows, midday shows, and talk shows. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I started trying to act like the boss and tell them what I thought they should do and what I thought a good show sounded like. I realized over time that I had it backward.

What I really needed to do was understand the talent better so that I could help them be great every day or recognize that maybe they weren’t breakthrough talent. I try and turn the paradigm upside down a little bit and make sure that we’re coaching the coaches and understand what we’re doing in recruitment, and that way, we’re aligned about what is the difference between great content and poor content.  

RH: What shape is the news/talk format in two years after Rush Limbaugh’s death? 

SW: Personality radio is alive and well in whatever format you want to call it. It’s where the broadcast industry is going to thrive and succeed or, unfortunately, fade because there are lots of content providers out there now who have recognized that some of the most interesting, amazing talent over the years have left traditional broadcast radio because traditional broadcast radio sort of left them.  

If we don’t get more comfortable with failure and trying new things, then we kind of only have ourselves to blame when Ford isn’t sure that they want radios in their cars. If we’re willing to take risks, innovate, and not freak out at the first sign of trouble, we’ll find more amazing talent, more breakthrough talent; we’ll try different combinations that work. I’m excited about where we are as long as we have a few people that are willing to take prudent risks and not be afraid of failure at the very first turn.  

RH: As a leadership consultant in the broadcasting industry, what are the main principles or strategies you promote for effective leadership?

SW: Jim Collins wrote a couple of books, including one called Good to Great and another one called Built to Last. I read them at a time when I was figuring out what kind of a leader I wanted to be and what kind of businesses I was trying to run. Collins wrote about several things that he realized about culture and leadership. One of them that stuck with me is the power of the word “and.”  

What Jim realized is that the really good companies didn’t operate in an “or” world. For instance, companies said, ‘Are we going to have a nice culture OR are we going to demand and expect outstanding financial results? He found that the great companies insisted on both (and & or). That they were connected and that great cultures and great results go hand-in-hand over time. I realized that he was right and that I had experienced that in my career.  

Part of what I do with my leadership and culture coaching is I try to bring those ideas to life and give real-life examples of what I call the “up with people culture” where we are just thrilled to be with each other every day, but we don’t really demand and expect the hard results. In contrast, the “show me the money culture” where all it is is just a matter of budgets, money, and metrics, and we don’t spend that much time on the people and the culture.

What I find is that high-achieving and successful people want to be in an “and’ culture. They want a high degree of focus on whatever that people’s culture looks and feels like, and they expect to win. They expect to be profitable; they expect to make money. Talking to groups about leadership and coaching is liberating because I think that connection is harder, but it’s fulfilling when you get it right.  

RH: Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for WEXL Coaching & Development in the coming years? Do you have any new initiatives or projects in the pipeline? 

SW: I’m enjoying spreading these lessons learned. Traveling and speaking at a lot of the different state associations has been amazing because hearing some of the challenges that people have across the country has been fun. Plus, I really feel like after this 40-year career, if I can be even a spark of inspiration for ideas, then I feel fulfilled.

This is the first full year of my WEXL coaching, so I don’t know what my grand scheme is; I’m trying to follow my own advice by being authentic and not trying to be something that I am not. For companies that are interested in tapping into some of what I’ve done, I’m interested in doing it. I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel that I’m contributing to our business and our success.  

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As History Unfolds, It’s Important for News/Talk Radio to Remain Focused on Playing the Hits

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward.

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A photo of Donald Trump and Joe Biden

The age-old radio adage is to “Play the hits”.

It applies more directly to music stations, but the phrase can also relate to sports talk and news/talk. So, suppose you’re like me, and you’ve found yourself behind a microphone on a news/talk station the last couple of weeks. In that case, you might be having an internal conversation about whether you’ve focused too much on the national political discourse since the unforgettable Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden debate on June 27th.

My short answer is: No, you’re not too focused. 

But in an effort to not stop this column at 100 words, I’ll explain further.

I’ve long advocated for focusing your local shows on your local radio markets as much as possible. It will separate your show from the national syndication that can be piped into any station nationwide. Your local flair is what will build your credibility in your community. It’s what will separate you. Local will win. 

And given that it’s been an unusually predictable few months in the election news cycle, there hasn’t been much to lean into on the national political side. Joe Biden was the unimpressive, octogenarian incumbent going up against Donald Trump, who rolled quickly through a primary and was set to be at the top of the Republican ticket for a third-straight election cycle. It was a rematch of 2020, a period in American history most Americans would prefer to forget, given the state of the nation at the time. Unfortunately for many, they are being forced to relive it. 

However, what happened two weeks ago in Atlanta between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has given a massive jolt to an election season that had been relatively boring. Tens of millions of Americans were tuned in that evening, and given Biden’s debate performance, it has kicked off two weeks of speculation of Biden dropping out, party infighting, replacement conversations, various media reports, and drama that we haven’t seen around an incumbent President in an election year since 1968.

It’s cliche, but we are living through history. And your audience is coming to you for the latest on this unfolding history, with opinions, analysis, and an ability to move the story forward engagingly and entertainingly while also, when appropriate, bringing on guests who will provide them with insight they can bring to their conversations with friends, at the water cooler, on group texts and on social media.

In a perfect world, you can also localize these national stories by getting reactions from local officials, reading/playing their social media reactions on your show, or if you’re in a swing state, your options beyond that are unlimited.

But now that we are in a national news cycle that has been on fire, don’t force yourself into local talk. Find your top local stories that are compelling and impacting your radio listener’s day-to-day lives, and work to blend it with the historical moment we find ourselves living through on the national political stage. And always be working your hardest to think of and find new angles, while moving the story forward.

In the end, just like your local CHR station has to play Taylor Swift multiple times an hour, you need to give your audience what they want and “Play the hits.” We’re living through history, after all.

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James Golden AKA Bo Snerdley Relishes New Nationally Syndicated Weekend Show

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

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(Photo: James Golden)

Radio host, radio executive, producer, author, and a jack of all media trades. Since he was 14-years-old James Golden (AKA Bo Snerdley) has devoted his entire life to the media industry.

The on-air talent’s weekend show —The James Golden Show — just became syndicated through Red Apple Audio Networks.

“I really appreciate having the platform that WABC has provided. It’s a wonderful thing to have a show that’s now in a bunch of different markets and growing! It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Long before Golden hit the airwaves as ‘Bo Snerdley’ on The Rush Limbaugh Show, he was a teenager visiting his cousin, DJ Gerry Bledsoe, at work. “It was a mind-blowing experience for me. So many things happened that day. In fact, that day was when one of the older guys there, the guy who’s had a reputation as being a real grumpy, curmudgeon type guy, for some reason, took a liking to me.”

He let Golden into the show where Golden learned how to cut tape. “It took me a lot of years before I actually got a job, and ironically, it was at the same station, doing marketing and research, looking at ratings and learning how to analyze ratings and learning how to do marketing. Later on, I moved into the programming side and started doing music research.”

James Golden was one of the first in the country to do music research which led him to WABC. There he worked with the station’s transition from music to their first talk program.

“I think in life you’re given the sort of the things that you need to fulfill whatever destiny you have. I had always been interested in news, politics, and all of it. This dual love I had for music, it allowed me to transition when the station changed format and to become their senior producer of news. And it was at ABC some years later that I met Rush Limbaugh. And of course, that turned into a 30-year relationship.”

The Author of “Rush On The Radio,” recalled the first time the pair met. “So my first day working on his show, I brought him some news stories. I was in the habit of doing that before I even worked on his show. I developed a friendship. When I saw something interesting, that I thought he would be interested in and I would take it to him. So it was a smooth transition for me being rotated on the show.”

It wasn’t before long James Golden became Bo Snerdley. “So I walked in, dropped off some stories, and on the way out he says, ‘Well, everybody on this call screen has got to be a Snerdley, have you come up with your name?’ So The Daily News was on his desk, and it was on the sports page. Bo Jackson was in the news for some of the headlines, but I just wasn’t able watch it. So I just said ‘Bo’ and walked out. Little did I know that for the rest of my life, I’d be Bo. But it’s great and I love it. I’m comfortable with either one.”

Golden recalled the time spent with his friend saying, “No words can ever describe it. He was the best that there ever was to me, or ever will be in the industry. His talent, as he said, was on loan from God. But it was something unique. The incredibly intelligent, incredibly hardworking. 30 years in, he still brought it. Even when he was sick, [Rush] did as much of the work that he could to make sure that his show was extremely well researched and well delivered.”

While working on Rush’s show, James Golden also had his own weekend show. He worked 7 days a week for years. Today, he is back at his radio home. “Back at WABC, doing six days on air with them, and it’s just been a wonderful ride for me.”

Throughout the years, the former executive producer turned host has seen significant change in the industry.

“For some people, it’s not as much fun as it used to be. And I’ll just speak frankly about that. When the bean counters took over because of corporate interest — instead of it being a lot of different families with smaller radio groups, it moved into more of a big business — for a lot of people a lot of the fun was taken out of it, because those decisions that used to be made locally are now being made by regional managers or by national managers, some of whom had more of a background in sales and didn’t understand the programing,” he shared.

“So there’s always that schism. And so for a lot of people in the industry, I have friends who have left the industry because it just was no longer fun for them.”

Another big difference? You no longer have to work your way up through the markets.

“You had to work your way up through lower markets to get to a higher market. You don’t have to do that now. People that are just good at what they do, if they have very good communication skills, you can learn how to become [one of the] best radio hosts. There’s only one best radio host and [Rush] passed away, but it is still about your ability to tell a good story. To understand and to I think it really is how much you are in love with the medium yourself.”

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The Difference Between News/Talk Radio Programmer and Bureaucrat

The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets.

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Let’s talk about the worst aspect of every news/talk radio programmer’s job: commercial stops, those designed traffic jams that occur every ten or twenty minutes bringing your excellent content to a dead halt. And so, you wait, knowing full well that you’re losing a significant percentage of your audience to button pushers looking for a station where talkers are still talking and news is still being broadcast.

The way most news and talk radio stations operate today commercial clutter takes up 20-30 minutes of each programming hour. It would be nice to say that’s because your inventory is sold out thanks to great ratings but we know better. It happens because it’s allowed to happen. Some of that load is likely bonus spots and far too much of it consists of recorded promos that use branding phrases begging the listener to wait through the clutter.

Yes, commercials are necessary but there are some things to consider that might make them less annoying and potentially informative and entertaining.

Warning: old fart flashback straight ahead.

When I was a young program director I had the authority to reject any spots that I didn’t feel met our standards. Yes, I’m quite serious. I didn’t exercise the option often but if a spot was of lousy audio quality, badly produced, boring, or even just plain stupid, I could kick it back to the sales exec and/or ad agency and ask them politely to make it better.

You might think that could result in an impolite opposite reaction. It never did, not once. From time to time I talked with an advertiser or his agent and they always said the same thing: You’re the expert. I want my time and money spent well on your station.

Sales execs could get annoyed but usually went along as good teammates without too much grousing. Besides, schmoozing clients with better ideas is part of their art; the best enjoy it.

Often these conversations would lead to brainstorming sessions with the production director. (Remember that creative and crucial position?) Ideas were tossed around, writing began and a highly effective ad was usually the result.

If you’re a program director or air talent today your mind must be reeling. It has probably never occurred to you that you could have the authority to actually determine all of your news/talk station’s programming, not just the words between the breaks, every blessed minute. Why not? You’re responsible for your station’s content 24/7 though you have no control over half of it.

Most program directors in corporate-owned stations today have been hired as functionaries at the end of a long chain of corporate bureaucrats. Your days are filled with layers of programming and sales hierarchies. Presidents have lieutenants, regional and format V.P.s, who send out the memos and convene Zoom meetings to address general issues with generalized answers.

They dive into recent studies and charts for boilerplate policies, seldom suggesting anything bold or of local significance because they can’t, they don’t know your town. The sad part is these people achieved their high positions by successfully programming actual radio stations to real people in specific markets. They’re smart enough to know that what worked in Boston might not fly in Amarillo – except in a vague, general way.

As a local PD today your log is bloated, your programming is filled with syndicated shows, and your hands are tied. 

Unless you have a creative fire in your belly and the guts to assert it.

Dream up great promotions that will excite your audience in your hometown. Enlist the members of your on-air, newsroom, and production staff. Invite them to a pizza place for some brainstorming. Don’t make it mandatory, suggest it will be fun and exciting because it will. Your crew will be happier and bubbling tomorrow. Before long fresh ideas will start trickling in regularly because everyone is enthused, involved, and feeling appreciated. You’ll all make each other’s great ideas even greater. You’re having fun and it’s contagious.

If you can ignite a spark of excitement and faith from your GM and sales department you might find yourself with the programming reigns in both hands.

You weren’t hired to be a clickbait expert, you are a radio expert. You know more about the stuff that comes out of the speakers than anyone else at the station. And you can identify problems and turn them into opportunities. You need to spend your days refining the product, not in endless meetings trying to implement generalized corporate buzzspeak into local program policy.

Attend the Zoom meetings, be a cheerful good soldier but if called upon speak your mind with truth and passion. It’s infectious.

Explain to your boss why you should be allowed to reduce the on-air clutter by as much as half and that you need to spend most of your time every day with your news and talk talent because they’re your stars. It’s why they pay you. The station and the community are all that matters to you.

Tell her/him you’ll read the interoffice memos faithfully and join digital meetings when you can but that the corporate culture will mostly just have to take care of itself.

And, oh, by the way, you need the authority to reject bad radio commercials.

You may not get everything you ask for but I promise you’ll earn some respect.

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