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How the CNN Downfall Can Be an Example to News/Talk Radio

The staff was stabbing Licht in the back the entire time. Any program director who has walked into a formerly great station that is failing can relate.

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The CNN logo outside its corporate headquarters in Atlanta
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CNN broke the ground in the 24-hour cable news format. They shocked the ‘Big 3’ networks as they covered news as it happened. The OJ Simpson trial, Reagan assassination attempt, fall of the Berlin Wall, Clinton impeachment and so many huge moments, they were it. 

Over time, they lost their way. They lost it from a combination of factors and CNN’s failure to adjust on the fly. Every empire has a beginning, middle, and end.  In a post-Rush Limbaugh world, news/talk can learn from this.

CNN’s success brought on competitors. MSNBC launched on July 15, 1996, with Fox News following on October 7, 1996. CNN slowly lost audience to both news competitors, but it wasn’t that simple. 

When CNN launched in 1980, there were 28 cable channels. Now, we have 450 channels plus and with streaming, YouTube, Facebook, and numerous other news and entertainment choices.  Upon the launches of MSNBC and Fox News, it was widely believed that MSNBC would be the biggest competition. CNN read those reports and never was able to pivot. 

We all know what happened next. Fox News exploded to the ratings lead and seemingly CNN was blindsided. Instead of focusing and refining its product, CNN panicked. Replaced the long-in-the-tooth Larry King with Piers Morgan, which was a horrible error. CNN changed shows again and created mayhem for their primetime line-up. 

CNN built an empire on breaking news. Big stories from assassination attempts, Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, and more. CNN was on top of it with credible information as it happened. It took Fox News a couple of decades to catch up with CNN on breaking news coverage. CNN still has cameras everywhere when there is a huge story. 

Frequently, CNN sullied stellar news coverage with inane and unneeded analysis. If there is a hurricane hitting Florida, we don’t need a lecture on climate change. We need to know what is happening and perhaps how we can help. 

CNN lost credibility with its ‘stars’. The missing Malaysian jetliner consumed the news cycle for weeks. A missing airplane. How did we lose it? Where did it go? Don Lemon became a laughingstock when he asked if a black hole could have taken Flight 370. Don asked a panel of 7 people. Lemon jumped the proverbial shark at that moment but remained with CNN for 9 more years. Don remained in primetime getting hammered in the ratings. 

Obviously, keeping a failing show in place for that long didn’t help the network. The ratings certainly said that the show was not working. I am guessing that CNN’s brass didn’t feel that they had anyone else who could fill Lemon’s shoes. Which is really scary. 

Anderson Cooper has not been a ratings juggernaut, either. CNN’s New Year’s Eve Show became the only reason to watch the network. Sadly, whatever credibility Cooper had was lost.  Fox News does a New Year’s Eve Show, but it is with backbenchers and was created not to damage the brand.

As CNN’s competitors grew in ratings and prestige, the suits at the Time Warner building decided that they were going to mirror MSNBC. While apparently not understanding how to read the Nielsen ratings, CNN ignored Fox News. It allowed Fox News to continue its dominance without even challenging them. CNN became a copy of MSNBC sans the red meat leftwing activism of that network. 

Ok. How I would fix CNN? Chris Licht was really onto something by bringing back the news tradition of CNN. The staff was stabbing Licht in the back the entire time. Any program director who has walked into a formerly great station that is failing can relate. The longtime staff frequently only sees one way for the station or network to operate. They have been in that culture for years and turning the direction of a radio station is tough enough, imagine with the 4,000 employees at CNN. 

All middle managers would be out if I was hired to run CNN. I would replace them with hand-picked managers who would buy in on my mission on day one. Those managers would be told that any employee not on board has to be out. From all reports, staffers at CNN were bitching to Licht’s bosses from moment one. 

CNN was failing. You have to change the organization’s culture, direction, and focus.  When you go in as a Program Director, you have only 1 or 2 people with authority under you. A long-time assistant program director who was jealous that he or she didn’t get the job, and a news director. I have never had a real issue with either of those people, but I know PD’s who have. I have had a significant staffer in nearly every PD situation that has tried to undercut me. 

Generally speaking, most have left without me eliminating them. If Chris Licht had just a handful of staffers complaining, upper management was perhaps a little weak-kneed. Having middle managers on his team could have given Licht more time to remake the network. 

I would get back to the original mission: the biggest news stories at every moment. I would also really key in on breaking news. Cameras everywhere with images and reporters covering the actual news. If there is a political story, someone from each political side gives their opinion unchallenged by the host. This is a news operation, not a debate society. Let the guests spar and be a great referee. 

MSNBC and Fox News are destroying CNN on the political back and forth. Remember, MSNBC and Fox News have 3 million viewers each at their peak. Of the 98% of the American public not watching the competition, make a place for them.

News/talk radio can learn from CNN’s decline. Rush Limbaugh was a larger-than-life personality who changed radio. Rush launched the careers of many hosts who looked to Limbaugh as a template. Many stations are struggling post-Rush. Rush was not successful because he was conservative. Rush was successful because he provided information, entertainment, and opinions that could not be duplicated. Rush always provided a “Wow” factor. 

I can’t answer this for you, but is there a wow factor in the show you chose to replace Rush? Is there a wow factor in every show on your station? CNN lost its “Wow” factor a long time ago.  Keep on your mission and make sure that you are providing those memorable moments. 

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BNM Writers

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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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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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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