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Ann Thomas Charts a New Course for WJR

“I do not think radio is dying. I think it’s all about what radio can do and what stations can do to make themselves an important part of the community.”

Ryan Hedrick



A photo of Ann Thomas with the WJR logo
(Photo: Cumulus Media)

WJR Program Director Ann Thomas has brought a hardworking attitude to the company for almost 40 years. Her dedication to learning about the industry started when she was a news intern and continued as a producer.

A team of elite journalists at WJR helped her understand the importance of enterprise reporting and investigative journalism during her early years. While working as an Executive Producer for Paul W. Smith, she developed the ability to anticipate a host’s needs and gather compelling content. 

Thomas insists that it never occurred to her that she would eventually be named the station’s program director. Nevertheless, thanks to the guidance and encouragement of WJR General Manager Steve Finateri, she was presented with the opportunity to take on the role. Finateri provided Thomas with the necessary support to guide WJR into the future.

On her initial day as the PD, while walking through the Fisher Building where the station is located, she experienced a nervous sensation that only arises when you have accepted a task that carries a significant amount of responsibility. 

WJR is a crucial radio station located in a resilient American city. This powerful 50,000-watt AM station is heard in multiple states and has been a fundamental part of Detroit’s community for a long time. WJR is renowned in the industry for its charitable work, as many hosts are associated with organizations they deeply care for.

Ann Thomas values news, information, and the audience greatly. She recognizes her immense responsibility towards the listener and is not deterred by the ongoing struggle to maintain AM car radios. WJR is a heritage station that has been broadcasting on the AM frequency for a long time. 

In an interview with Barrett News Media, Thomas shares her thoughts on the long-term stability of radio, WJR’s unique approach to serving its listeners, the similarities between producers and programmers, any potential changes she plans to make at WJR, and her perspective on the current state of women leaders in the industry. 

Ryan Hedrick: Can you tell me about what makes Detroit unique compared to other cities? And how much support does WJR receive in Detroit? 

Ann Thomas: This is a great news and sports town. The listeners and the community want to hear what’s happening. They want to know what’s going on locally. The radio station is committed to providing news, information, and sports to all parts of Detroit [including] Metro Detroit, Southeast Michigan, and the State of Michigan.  

We just changed our slogan to “Where Michigan comes to Talk,” and I think that says it all about WJR.  

RH: Why did you decide to alter the station’s slogan?  

AT: For a while, we were just, “Where Detroit Comes to Talk.” Then we got to thinking, we have a giant 50,000-watt signal, and we have listeners all over Southeast Michigan, and then as the day goes on with a big signal, we have listeners in several other states. It just made sense [to change our slogan].  

Also, we do a lot of Pure Michigan remotes highlighting travel and industry throughout the state, so it made perfect sense to start saying, “Where Michigan Comes to Talk,” because that’s exactly what’s happening.  

RH: What kept you at WJR for so long, and how did you stay motivated during your tenure there? 

AT: You have to love the business. You have to be completely committed to the news business [to stay in it for so long]. I’ve always felt that I had a role in informing people about what was happening throughout the state. Whether it was regarding the auto industry, traffic, weather, or any breaking news. I felt like I had a mission to inform people that it was something that I wanted to do, and I enjoyed doing it.  

You do have to like this business because you have to ride through the ups and downs, and you do have to be resilient. For me, it was always a passion, and I feel like I’m doing something that’s good. It’s good for me, it’s good for the radio station, and above all else, it’s good for the listeners.  

RH: Is there a flagship fundraising program at WJR that you take pride in?   

AT: We have several different fundraisers that we’re known for throughout the community. For instance, Paul W. Smith has his Paul W. Smith Golf Classic. Guy Gordon is committed to the March of Dimes. Mitch Albom has his SAY Detroit charity.  

Overall, WJR has a giant radiothon that we do for the Salvation Army. We are well known in the State of Michigan for our non-profit work. Recently, I spoke at a CATCH (Sparky Anderson’s non-profit) event. One of the things I said about WJR is that we have a mission, and we believe that we can use this giant megaphone to help others in need. That’s one of the signature things about WJR is that if you ask us to help, we have the most generous listeners in all the Midwest. They will step up and help; it’s unbelievable.  

RH: What are your thoughts on people claiming that radio is not an impactful medium, especially when you witness the daily impact that WJR has? 

AT: I think [those statements] are ridiculous. I do not think radio is dying. I think it’s all about what radio can do and what stations can do to make themselves an important part of the community.

I think you have to make an effort to be part of the community. If you do that, there’s no chance that radio is going to die, especially if you are local and you are committed to telling people’s stories and making sure you are there for what the community needs.  

RH: Several program directors, such as yourself, have spent a considerable amount of time producing talent. Is there any correlation between great producers and people who become program stations?   

AT: You do learn a lot producing for a big talent. (Ann produced Paul W. Smith for 24 years). You have to learn to work with that talent and understand what they need, what makes them tick, and what makes the best show, right? I do think that that’s been helpful regarding now being the program director at WJR. I also think that as a producer, it’s kind of like you’re on a treadmill; you’re always looking for the next story.  

You’re always trying to think of content that’s interesting, informative, and compelling. And so, I think that does help with being a good program director because now I find myself listening to all the shows, and I’m asking myself how we can make these shows interesting, compelling, informative, and entertaining.

I think that being required to put together a show day in and day out and talking to movers and shakers all over the state, country, and world does help you be a better program director.  

RH: Do producers and program directors share similar mindsets? 

AT: In both positions, you’re worried about talent, and you’re concerned about getting the best show from your talents. You’re also concerned about content because the content is king. Those are definite similarities.  

I think the difference would be, and I’m finding as the program director, is that you have a lot of different shows to be concerned about, and you have to think about what the overall sound of the radio station is and how you want to move that sound forward or change it up a bit.  

As PD, you also have to work with talent and producers, board operators, and engineers, and you have to think about what their needs are and how you can work together as a team.  

RH: Does having worked at the station for 40 years give you an edge in knowing the layout, audience, and community when making programming choices? 

AT: We’ve had a lot of great program directors here. Mike Wheeler was the program director just before me, though he had some family ties here from the past, he came in from another city. He was a spectacular program director, and he’s been a great mentor to me. I think it’s helpful, but I don’t think it’s everything.  

RH: As the Program Director of WJR, what is your top concern? What worries you the most? 

AT: I’m concerned about having content that is interesting, compelling, informative, and entertaining for the listener. It’s all about the listener; that’s what I care about the most. I care about being a good steward for the radio station.

I also care about working with the talent and their teams and getting to a point where everybody is working together toward the goal of getting as many listeners as possible to listen to the Great Voice of the Great Lakes.  

RH: Do you base your programming decisions solely on ratings? 

AT: They are not. They can’t be when you’re a big 50,000-watt radio station like WJR. We have to think about what is good for the community and what is going to be good for the community because we are a big part of this town. Obviously, ratings are important to us. We want people to listen. We also have to think about what we’re doing daily, as a big station that is good for everyone in this town.  

RH: Do you regularly set aside time to evaluate programs and consider necessary adjustments, or are you content with how things are at WJR? 

AT: We have great talent at WJR. We changed our lineup just before I became program director. Paul W. Smith moved to a new time, and Guy Gordon, who was in the afternoons, went to mornings. So, we’ve already done a lot of tweaking.

A couple of years ago, we lost the great Frank Beckmann (who died of vascular dementia), so we had to make a change to his show.

No, I will not be making any major changes. I’m really excited about this new lineup. This is a good lineup with a lot of talent.  

RH: Do you believe that your recent promotion to become the first female program director in the station’s 101-year history could pave the way for other women to pursue careers in radio? 

AT: I hope it does. There are a lot of women in this business. From the time I started back in 1982 to now, there have been major changes. When I first came into the building, I was one of the first women in here. When I had my first child, they crafted the maternity policy based on me.  

There have been a lot of significant developments for women in radio, and it will only get better. I’m very impressed with all the women who work in radio and the fact that they are climbing in their careers. Companies are starting to take notice, and women are getting good positions in radio. It’s a good time for women in radio.  

RH: What are some important long-term goals that you have for WJR?  

AT: I want us to continue to be one of the top radio stations in the State of Michigan, in Metro Detroit. I want us to continue to have the finest talent that radio could possibly have. I have worked over the years with the absolute best in the radio business. J.P. McCarthy, Ernie Harwell, Paul Carey, Paul W. Smith. There’s been a lot of talent in this building.

I want to make sure that we continue to have top talent, that we continue to be good stewards in this community, and that we do the right thing and inform our listeners.  

RH: Are you worried that the news and talk show audience primarily consists of older listeners? 

AT: I’m not concerned about it because, as we know, news/talk has always trended older. I do think that we should always be looking and talking about content where we can bring in younger listeners and have them become fans of the radio station.

That’s just smart broadcasting to pay attention to that, but I’m not worried about it. I think we have so much content that we can attract a younger demographic, but I’m perfectly fine with where we live right now.  

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BNM Writers

The Time is Right For Rupert Murdoch to Leave, But Is it Right For Fox News?

Murdoch may have never wanted to retire but there’s probably no reason for him to stay. His work is finished.

Jessie Karangu



A photo of Rupert Murdoch

The writers of Succession couldn’t write the script we saw come into full display on Thursday. Out of nowhere, one of the most consequential media leaders of our time decided to resign. Rupert Murdoch will ride off into the sunset having left a legacy that has changed media and the state of our democracy forever.

Rupert Murdoch has elected presidents, changed mindsets, and caused hysteria and pandemonium for billions of people over the course of his career. It may not be hyperbolic to say he is one of the few media titans who could’ve had a direct impact on your personal life. Whether you love him or hate him, he was successful at the machine he wanted to create. He has decisively been a shadow emperor of the Western world for the past 20-40 years.

Because of the blueprint he has set in stone, don’t expect Fox News to ever change, even if he isn’t at the helm any longer. The fact is that numbers don’t lie. Fox News commands retransmission fees that are comparable to ESPN, TNT, and the USA Network without carrying any live sporting events. It is one of Fox’s biggest revenue generators despite losing an epic lawsuit to Dominion. It is one of the networks keeping the cable bundle alive and will help prolong it as much as possible because of its existing base.

Speaking of its base, the fact that it has a base in the first place speaks volumes. Fox News has something every other network on television only envies: super fans. There have been pitfalls along the way over the past three or four years but in general, Fox News finds a way to consistently beat its opponents in the demo as well as in overall viewers.

The network has had to switch out hosts for various reasons over the past couple of years but because of its formula of storytelling and team building, viewers don’t leave in droves.

It may not be journalism but it is the perfect way to keep allegiances and it has worked for Fox. Whether it was his tabloids, his syndicated shows, or his news network, Rupert Murdoch has always insisted on creating an environment of “Us vs. Them” for a group of people whose unique diversity is often underestimated. Murdoch has consistently found a way to turn anger and fear into dollars and if it ain’t broke, why fix the Fox?

The successor taking over for Rupert Murdoch also isn’t an unfamiliar seed of discomfort and madness. Lachlan Murdoch has had a say and has been in discussions about Fox’s direction for decades. Some reports say that his own way of thinking is to the right of his father. If there is any child of Rupert’s who supports the path of destruction and illusion that Fox News has created over time, it’s Lachlan.

One of the few problems that Fox may face is purely logistical. It has been reported that Lachlan enjoys living in Australia more than the United States. Operating a television behemoth from another continent could be risky, especially after the behemoth has allowed anchors to vomit election lies on screen and allegedly commit sexual assault off-screen. But that shouldn’t affect the network’s ability to operate because Lachlan has already been serving as co-chair even before this week’s announcement.

One of the biggest reasons you shouldn’t expect Fox to change is because they’re the only network that has broken the code. Newsmax, Megyn Kelly, Glenn Beck, and Tucker Carlson have tried or are trying. But they haven’t been successful. They achieved a level of prosperity in their own right but their numbers and margins of profitability are nowhere close to what Fox News makes. Their concurrent reach cannot even be compared.

The closest rival that has been able to penetrate some sort of mainstream relevance, although exclusively online, is The Daily Wire. And yet even with Ben Shapiro’s respective empire, it will be hard to match what Fox makes because of the business model Fox falls under. There isn’t any imminent competition that could drag Fox down and truly challenge the amount of viewers they receive or the kind of money they make. 

Murdoch may have never wanted to retire but there’s probably no reason for him to stay. His work is finished. His worldview has a daily effect on the lives of billions. As the business models for media continue to change, it’s better to leave at the top than to try to solve the next problem.

Titans like Bob Iger and Mark Thompson could look back at Murdoch’s decision years ago and wonder why they didn’t leave as a champion as he did. Unless there was a pie coming at his face during a hearing in the United Kingdom, one of the biggest strengths of Rupert Murdoch is that he always knew when the time was right.

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What News/Talk Can Learn From A Sports Host Like Mad Dog Russo

How are you taking the news that is relevant in our space and making it stand out to the audience and making it relatable to your audience?



A photo of Chris "Mad Dog" Russo
(Photo: Scott Cook, Rollins College)

Sports media had one of its best viral moments in recent memory this week when Chris “Mad Dog” Russo shared his Saturday college football plans with the audience of ESPN’s First Take

Russo was talking with Stephen A. Smith and Marcus Spears about this weekend’s game between Colorado and Oregon when Molly Qerim told Russo to share with the rest of the panel his plans for the weekend.

Russo went on to describe his Saturday afternoon, blow-by-blow, which included a cocktail and “half a THC gummy” for the noon ET games. After the first slate of games, Russo planned to make a call to his bookie, place a $10,000 bet on Colorado to beat Oregon, and then another cocktail, along with the “other half” of his gummy.

It was pure entertainment from Russo. He wasn’t trying too hard, it wasn’t over the top, but it was brilliant content.

The clip has been viewed millions of times since it aired because it was real, relatable, honest, funny, self-deprecating and delivered perfectly.

Only a handful would have seen or heard this clip, other than those watching the show in real-time, had they just done the standard “media talking heads break down the big college football game of the weekend”. But to Russo’s credit, he likely understands in today’s media landscape that the die-hards who want a full Oregon-Colorado breakdown can get that in a ton of different places in 2023. What’s he going to bring that’s unique, different, and stands out? And that’s exactly what he did.

As it pertains to news/talk radio, or news media at large, how do you have that Mad Dog-Gummy moment? It doesn’t need to literally be you talking about taking gummies before the next GOP debate on September 27th (although anything that helps get through one of those disasters would be welcomed). But how are you taking the news that is relevant in our space and making it stand out to the audience and making it relatable to your audience?

While it’s anecdotal, whenever I bump into KCMO listeners, the biggest feedback on the show is not my takes on Trump, Biden, Kansas City city council, or anything else for that matter, it’s, “I like when you talk about your girls.”

I have two daughters, four and two, who are absolutely incredible, entertaining, and yes, nightmare toddlers sometimes. When it’s relevant and topical, I will bring them up. I talk about them far less than the news, but they’re the “topic” that always gets the organic feedback.

Like Russo’s moment, it gives the audience insight into who we are as people, beyond what we think about the topic(s) of the day. 

This doesn’t mean that a four-hour show should be about your weekend plans or your kids throwing up in their beds at night (although I could rip off a few of those stories and kill a few segments). But picking and choosing those moments will help you stand out in an overcrowded media landscape where the audience has options galore and needs more reasons than ever to come back to you and your show.

Give them insight into not just you the host/personality, but you the person. 

I can’t think of the last time cable news or news talk had a viral moment like Mad Dog Russo. But maybe you can be next.

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A News/Talk Radio Autopsy After the BNM Summit

The news/talk audience is getting older. This is somewhat self-inflicted. We are still doing our shows in the same template Rush Limbaugh innovated in 1987. Time to change it up. 

Avatar photo



A photo of a panel at the 2023 BNM Summit

After the inaugural BNM Summit, I was more excited about our industry after the two-day event. Radio in many ways is a solitary pursuit.

Teamwork is sometimes not a factor in a morning show with a cast. You walk into the studio, put on the headphones, turn on the mic and go. I needed some excitement, some good news, and the chance to meet new friends and renew longtime relationships. I got it.

As an industry, we have been pummeled by bad headlines: some of which are self-inflicted, and some are challenges for our future. If you believe the headlines, smelting lead would be a better career choice. I don’t believe that, and you shouldn’t either. While smelting lead seems like an exciting career other than the whole lead poisoning thing, perhaps that is better than radio station break room coffee. 

Have you ever considered how bad radio station coffee is? I don’t drink it. I drink a pot of my own before I strut into the office. Perhaps, it is time to call any reputable health inspector in to inspect that thicker than tar swill. 

Radio is a terrific profession. How many jobs provide more laughs than broadcasting? It is fun.  I have worked a bit outside the radio industry. Real-world jobs suck. Our stations develop awesome advertising campaigns for clients. Why not us? We don’t publicize our strengths.  Podcasts are great, but when did a podcast raise money for the local foster children? When did a podcast show up at a client’s office with a smile and donuts? TikTok? Those Chinese Communist bastards are poisoning our kids. YouTube? Cool content, but the Google-owned platform is as likely to build commonalities with your neighbors as a lion is likely to lay down with a lamb. 

Radio is a cool job. One where you can make a difference. It’s not exactly like Mother Theresa….  but it’s better than being an influencer on Instagram. 

I am ranting.

You know who I am sick of? The radio coroner gang. Radio still reaches a majority of the American public. Your local big network TV affiliates may reach less than 40% of the public.  They are no longer a big deal. Don’t give them any respect. Those jerks don’t deserve it, except for that pretty reporter who would be lucky to be my next wife. I know that I am old enough to be her dad, but hey, old dudes need love, too. 

Radio is vital and needed. Radio needs to look itself in the mirror and say “We are essential”. I was in the room in Nashville with men and women who see a future. The BNM Summit delivered that.

By the way, the brother and sisterhood at the BNM Summit was strong. I haven’t been hugged this much since a family reunion. I wish that you could have been there. It was amazing. I really was pumped up. We matter. You matter. Your ideas are important. 

We have challenges. We need to address issues with Gen Z and the generations to follow them. Radio does have issues with innovation. We run the same clocks that we did in 1970. We sweep the corners, which is stupid and does not reflect actual radio listening. If you are in a PPM market and are sweeping the corners, reevaluate your tune-ins per hour. Look at that carefully. So, your host comes out of the break at :27, and news is at “30. I guarantee your tune-out rate is through the roof. 

You need 5 minutes of continuous listening to get credit. A listener is as likely to start listening at 23 minutes past the hour than almost any other time. Yet, we still sweep the corners. It’s insane. You may not like PPM. It is a fair assessment, but adapt or die. We have not adapted to PPM and radio has been using this technology for well over a decade. 

The news/talk audience is getting older. This is somewhat self-inflicted. We are still doing our shows in the same template Rush Limbaugh innovated in 1987. Time to change it up. PPM gives us tools. If you delight in being a political insider, you are going to demo old. Go to a political event. It is geezer-rific. Talk about the interests of a 45-year-old. You can beat this.  You have the tools, you have the data, and you have the talent.

I was watching a YouTube video on East St. Louis. That city in Illinois is now one of the most violent places in the USA. It was not always that way. East St. Louis was once a vibrant community with a bustling downtown, strong industry, and a great future. The community got complacent, and the employers started to leave. The city was not focused on growing and it has become a shell of the great place it was at one time. 

Radio needs to look at that. What is next? Where is the innovation? How do we change the momentum? It’s all up to us. There are thought leaders in our industry reading this. These are brilliant people. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I know where we need to focus.

Being in the room with amazing leaders in the radio industry brought me more excitement.  The BNM Summit was exactly what I needed. I could not be more enthusiastic about our future. Am I naïve? Perhaps. Do I understand the power of radio? Absolutely. 

The power is in your hands. May every moment on your radio station essential. 

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