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Robin Bertolucci Knows KFI’s Place in Talk Radio Isn’t Specifically on the Right

For KFI, I just want to have smart, interesting people, and I am not trying to be in that genre. To me, that genre is news and talk. It’s not conservative talk.

Ryan Hedrick

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A photo of Robin Bertolucci and her 3 dogs.
(Photo: Robin Bertolucci)

Considering the many options and genres available to listeners, it’s quite an accomplishment for KFI-AM 640 in Los Angeles to be the top-streamed station on the iHeartRadio app. The station’s Program Director, Robin Bertolucci, has a unique approach to running a news/talk station.

Unlike many other stations that focus on political divisiveness, Robin Bertolucci recognizes and values each host’s distinct skill sets and personalities. She believes that listeners are more interested in hearing life experiences shared than having a particular point of view sold or forced upon them. 

KFI has a unique presence in Southern California. Over two decades ago, when Robin Bertolucci joined the station, she aimed to introduce more live and local content. Her goal was to provide Californians with a reliable platform to stay updated about their community at any time.

Fortunately, she had the advantage of being surrounded by exceptional talent on and off the air. However, the industry has undergone significant changes since she started. Nowadays, running a radio station involves competing against various factors, not just one station with a similar format. 

KFI has a significant advantage in its experienced newsroom and remarkable storytellers. Recently, reporter Steve Gregory traveled to Maui to report on the wildfires. Los Angeles serves as a primary entry point for travelers heading to Maui. Furthermore, the two places share strong economic ties through trade and business connections. Many families from Southern California also have personal connections between the two places.

For Robin Bertolucci, growing KFI is a constant balancing act. She understands that the station needs to work hard to promote itself and reach out to potential listeners. KFI has been broadcasting reports on the FM stations that belong to the iHeartMedia Los Angeles cluster to increase its audience.

In addition, all the shows aired on KFI can be accessed on-demand. The station’s recipe for sustained success involves being present and establishing a strong KFI presence wherever the big stories are. 

In an interview with Barrett News Media, Robin Bertolucci talks about the changes that have taken place in the station since she became the head, the importance of gaining the trust of KFI’s listeners, the individuals who can benefit from her coaching, how ratings influence her programming decisions, the one thing that defines her career, and what sets her news department apart.

Ryan Hedrick: KFI has been a staple in LA media. What changes have occurred during your tenure? 

Robin Bertolucci: The biggest change is that we are all live and local. When I first came here, we did have some syndicated programs; we have more and more just really become the live, local Southern California news and talk station.

RH: When competing for the listener’s attention in LA, what challenges does KFI face? 

RB: There is a lot going on, but everybody would say there’s a lot going on everywhere. Even on your phone, there’s a lot going on. We are just trying to continue to stay relevant and interesting and be the place where people want to know what’s going on in the community so that they can come and have big, larger than life interesting, smart personalities that they can count on to bring them the latest and the greatest. Everybody’s life is busy, and we’re just trying to fit into it.

The key for us is having smart talk show hosts who can analyze, entertain, explain, and make things fun and interesting. Also, having a great news department that can bring the facts and let people know what’s going on.  

RH: John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou (John and Ken) have been popular hosts on KFI radio for decades. What do you attribute their success to? 

RB: Their chemistry is amazing, and they have great instincts for the issues that are going on in Southern California that people really care about. They have a laser-focused vision about what people want to know, and more often than not, they get it right.  

RH: How do you approach coaching talented individuals, and who benefits the most from coaching?

Robin Bertolucci: Everybody benefits by being coached. It’s not because I’m smarter or have anything other than just a different perspective on the landscape. I have often used the analogy that our hosts are pilots, and they are flying the plane, and I don’t know how to fly a plane. I have the greatest respect for what they do, but at the same time, I am the air traffic controller, I am a professional listener, and my perspective is different.

They should listen to me for their sake, and for my sake, I should listen to them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I really learned a lot from them, and I hope together my perspective makes them better.  

RH: Bill Handel is an exceptional personality with a unique talent for connecting with people. Tell me more about his abilities. 

RB: He is just himself. He is smart, weird, and wonderful and has had an interesting life with a lot of experience, and he brings that to the table. Our listeners really connect with him, know him, and feel that they genuinely trust him.

That is a powerful thing. He has lived with them through many big news stories and given his perspective, and there’s a lot of trust and confidence in him. That’s why he’s the number show in the morning drive in Los Angeles.  

RH: What does it take for KFI to get and keep the trust of its listeners? 

RB: To me, we are all bombarded with people who are consistently and constantly trying to sell us something. Whether it’s a way of looking at the world that they want us to have, whether it’s a product or service. When you are constantly sold, you get skeptical of everybody. Even news networks people perceive as peddling a point of view. Trust, for me, is the most important thing.

To me, trust does not mean that you do not have a bias. Trust is knowing that the person you’re listening to will tell you the truth as they see it and explain why they see it that way. That you trust not that you’re going to have the same opinion as them but that you’re going to trust the process by which they arrived at it. 

You’re going to trust their intelligence, their experience, and maybe you’ll walk away and say, ‘Hey, I trust them, but I don’t agree with them at all.’ I like people on the air, whether it’s John and Ken, Handel, Mo Kelly, Gary and Shannon, Tim Conway Jr., or whoever it is.

If you have an opinion, I don’t care what it is. We have people with a variety of opinions on a variety of issues. I hope they will not have a certain perspective because I don’t think, as a station, we should sell anybody anything; we should sell them the truth as we perceive it.  

My goal is that everybody with an opinion about anything can explain to me their opinion and why they have it. To say I’m a conservative, or I’m a liberal, or I’m a blank… is not an answer. I really want to understand why you believe what you believe and how you arrived at that conclusion.

To me, it’s all about showing your math, and when you can explain to someone how you arrived at a conclusion, even if I don’t agree with the conclusion, at least I trust you as a person.  

RH: What state do you think the news/talk format is in two years after the death of Rush Limbaugh? I believe the format may be in more flux than people believe. What are your thoughts?

Robin Bertolucci: I would approach it very differently than you might. My format is not conservative talk radio. I have a lot of respect for what Rush did and what Rush felt over the years. I am trying to super-serve a local community. My goal is not to be a political station with KFI. KEIB is (The Patriot AM 1150).

For KFI, I just want to have smart, interesting people, and I am not trying to be in that genre. To me, that genre is news and talk. It’s not conservative talk. Live, local talk is what matters to me. That’s where our successes lie.  

RH: Do you consider KNX News 97.1 FM to be KFI’s main competitor? 

RB: We compete against damn near everyone and everything. We compete with apps on your phone and anything that draws your attention. We compete with KNX, but we also compete with KISS (102.7 FM), with a call to your mother; we compete with silence. We are competing with everything because we aim to have your attention. If you’re on the radio and you’re not listening to us, your competition. So that could be anything. 

RH: Do you make programming decisions solely based on ratings?  

Robin Bertolucci: No, because ratings are always in the past. I definitely make decisions based on data, and ratings are part of that data, but then again, some things are intangible, and sometimes you can have great ratings or horrible ratings, but you know there is something there, and you’ve got to weather the storm, push through.

Ratings are great, data is great, research is great, and experience and instinct and marketplace and the listeners a great things, too. They are all important; they all play a role.  

RH: Have you had a defining moment or experience in your career that led you to where you are now? 

RB: One thing that has defined me is that I have had the luxury of only working at three call-letter stations for my whole career, which is kind of a funny thing. I started at KGO (San Francisco), then I went to KOA in Denver, and now I’m here at KFI (laughs). That’s a corny fact about me.  

A thing that defines me is that I have been able to have a career and do it the way I want to and find a path that is uniquely my own. When you help craft a station or help build a station that feels perfectly right for a community and would only work there and is unique to that place, that’s one of the things I am most proud of. KFI is a very special station, and I feel honored to work there and work with the people and continue to make it uniquely Southern California.  

RH: How does your news department manage to provide such extensive coverage of such a large city? 

RB: We try and focus on what we feel are the most important things. We have incredibly talented people who work in our news department. Our goal is not to cover everything but to cover the most important things.  

RH: What does KFI Reporter Steve Gregory mean to Los Angeles, and what sets him apart from other reporters in the business? 

RB: I think Steve is one of the best, if not the absolute best in the business. I love what he does. He takes you to a story and makes you feel like you are there with him. He takes you there and makes you feel the story and not just know the facts about the story, which he does exquisitely well, but he also makes you feel what is going on. He is an incredibly talented storyteller.  

(Last month, we wrote about Steve Gregory’s reporting in Maui on the devastating wildfires. We asked Robin about the decision to send him there and why it was important for Southern California

Robin Bertolucci: A lot of people in Southern California go to Maui for vacations or weddings. A lot of [Californians] have been there, it’s not that far away, it’s closer than New York City. I think there was a connection, and we’ve faced horrific and tragic fires. So, Steve said let me go, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I was delighted and grateful that he could get there and tell their story, and he did a remarkable job.  

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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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A photo of James Golden
(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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