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Can News/Talk Radio Pop the Information Bubble in 2024?

The change in talk radio was that stations decided that the road to profit was paved with giving listeners “more of what you came for,” namely lots of hosts who parroted Rush Limbaugh’s politics, not necessarily his style.

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A man in a bubble

This being the season of “peace on Earth, goodwill towards men”– let’s make that more inclusive and say “towards people,” okay? – it’s striking how, in 2023, we have neither peace on Earth nor anything approaching civility, let alone goodwill. Peacemaking is way above my pay grade, but when it’s about how we got to the point where people don’t even want to hear anything on news/talk radio that doesn’t confirm their preset worldview, well, we need to talk.

This didn’t start in the past couple of years. Ever since Gutenberg (and maybe before that, when everything was hand-written in quill pen, or pecked out on stone tablets by birds for Fred and Barney), there have been news media serving up information with a bias one way or another. In the twentieth century, every big city had its conservative daily newspaper and its liberal (or less conservative) daily newspaper. 

Some kept their opinions out of the news coverage, others didn’t. The Citizen Kane era of newspapering lasted well beyond “Citizen Kane” itself; there remain vestiges of those days in places like New York, where you know what you’re getting when you pick up the Post or the Times. Most of the dwindling number of newspapers left are owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital and you’re lucky to find any actual news in them. Newspapers’ impact, save a handful like The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, is not what it used to be.

But you know that, and you know that people are more likely to get their news through social media filters, word-of-mouth filters, and, if they’re, shall we say, older, cable news and talk radio. It is very possible, in fact likely, that you can get through each day hearing only news that’s been filtered through the political and social worldview of your choice. You’re in a bubble even if you’re trying not to be. Your social media accounts are being flooded with one side or another. If a stray dissenting opinion slips through, you tune it out or mute/block it.

Talk radio has been like this for decades. It wasn’t always the case. Talk radio stations in the Jurassic Age of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were not a steady stream of one ideology or another. Most had primarily conservative lineups, but featured liberals and libertarians or we-don’t-know-what-they-are hosts as well.

You listened not because you wanted a confirmation of your political beliefs or for educational purposes. You listened to be entertained, period. A conservative listening in New York to Bob Grant, a rabid, shouty conservative host, could and did listen to liberal WBAI-exile Lynn Samuels on the same station. Conservative Barry Farber shared WMCA with liberal John Sterling – yes, that John Sterling, the “thuh-uh-uh Yankees win!”, John Sterling. The common denominator for good talk radio was an acknowledgment that the goal was to entertain, not gain converts for a political party.

By the way, contrary to what you’ll see from some folks on social media today, the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine did not lead to what came next. The Fairness Doctrine never dictated that equal time be given to both sides of an issue. In fact, it was vague enough that the occasional editorial or Sunday morning public affairs show was enough to ward off any trouble. There were plenty of angry conservative hosts during the Fairness Doctrine years.

I’m not going to go into a lecture about Mayflower and Red Lion, but you can look ‘em up. Anyway, the moment anyone on Xitter or Threads or BlueSky starts calling for a return of the Fairness Doctrine, you can feel free to ignore or mute them, because it’s certain they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The change in talk radio was that stations decided that the road to profit was paved with giving listeners “more of what you came for,” namely lots of hosts who parroted Rush Limbaugh’s politics, not necessarily his style. I don’t know if it was based on research, fear of the audience, or gut instinct, but suddenly talk radio schedules had a lot of angry conservative guys, with the occasional angry conservative woman for variety. Entertainment was no longer the guiding principle. The industry went with the idea that it was the politics, not the entertainment, that the audience wanted.

They were right, to a point. Doing that guaranteed that the audience they would reach would be loyal, smaller but spending more time listening. It would also get older, and older, and older, until they’d die out, but by then, the management would be retired on a beach somewhere around, um, here. (I bet I can find a healthy number of former radio executives within a 5-mile radius of my home, grabbing an early dinner at Flakowitz deli down the street.)

That’s how it played out, and that’s how talk radio ended up all sounding the same, with hard-to-sell demographics, feeding into seniors’ fear and paranoia. Cable news went down the same path, and you know all about how Fox News watchers and MSNBC watchers have completely different perceptions of reality, but you hear about ratings and revenue more than you hear about the primary source of revenue, which involves carriage fees from cable system operators, not advertising. If talk radio could charge radio manufacturers for the right to retransmit their signals, we wouldn’t be talking about how dire things are for the industry… but they can’t and we are.

This brings us back to the holiday and whatever version of Luke 2:14 you prefer, peace and goodwill and all that. 2023 did not bring us enough of that. The media is too far gone to engender goodwill, at least politically, and not in the election year coming up. You might argue that, for some things, there aren’t two sides, that one side is so reprehensible that there shouldn’t be any debating. You might be right about that. That isn’t going to change.

Or maybe it can. If you’re a host or producer, you have a choice. You can do more of the same, or you can entertain. You can be relatable and worth a listen to people who don’t remotely agree with you. You can reach more people, grow your audience, and expand beyond the true believers. And you can make your show less aggravating and more fun.

The election year means you’re going to have an audience no matter what, and most of them have made their minds up anyway. You don’t have to convince them of anything they don’t think already. Might as well try something different. They could use the break.

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BNM Writers

Proof That Both CNN and Fox News Manipulate Their Audiences

Playing with numbers and technicalities is a function of what the media does today. Since the average person just reads the headline, viewers will likely move on if it confirms their own bias.

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When news organizations collide, journalism loses. Last week, CNN posted on X saying “US inflation cooled down in January, offering some relief for Americans who have suffered through the steepest price hikes in four decades.” The same day Fox News posted “BREAKING: Inflation rises faster than expected in January as high prices persist.”

While these are seemingly opposite statements, both can be true at the same time. More importantly, both of these outlets are manipulating their audience.

People like their own opinions and want those opinions verified by others. This is what social media has done to news: You read the post, see your opinion is valid, and then move on to the next clickbait (confirmation bias). More importantly, both of these tweets are true because one is based on an estimate, and one is based on actual numbers.

Looking at CNN, while their post on X seems positive, their business headline is a little less positive, “Inflation cooled last month, but some price hikes continue to cause pain.” The change from tweet to headline is striking. One says Americans are getting inflation relief, the other says inflation continuing to cause pain. In today’s world of “Read the headline and move on,” this is why people feel CNN lies. Its post is in conflict with the headline— even though both are true statements.

It’s not until you read the article that people can see how this is possible. The outlet notes overall inflation did cool when comparing January 2023 (6.4%) to January 2024 (3.1%). Four sentences into the article it says, “CPI rose by 0.3% in January.” It goes on to break down why inflation is still high and causing pain in the pockets of Americans. Although the X post is factually correct, people on the right side of the political spectrum feel CNN is untrue because they see the inflation problem in their bank account.

Meanwhile, the Fox News X post and Fox Business headline are identical, “Inflation rises faster than expected in January as high prices persist.” However, the keyword here is “expected.” Inflation did cool year-over-year. However, because Fox is comparing the January 2024 number to what experts expected the number to be, what they have posted is factually correct. This nuance is sometimes lost on readers.

The article does not mention inflation is down year-over-year. However, nine sentences into the article, the business outlet says, “Inflation has fallen considerably from a peak of 9.1%.” The nuance of “expected” combined with the lack of mentioning year-over-year inflation is down is why the left side of the political spectrum believes Fox lies.

Let’s be clear, neither CNN nor Fox News have lied (on this one specific topic). They both chose to present the same data differently. It also needs to be noted, CNN and Fox News are not the only outlets that do this. They all do. Playing with numbers and technicalities is a function of what the media does today. Since the average person just reads the headline, viewers will likely move on if it confirms their own bias. The problem is twofold.

  • Facts are no longer direct but skewed to fit a narrative.
  • Some viewers accept headlines and posts without diving deeper into the article.

We have been trained to share a headline without reading the article. We’ve known this since 2016 when Columbia University and the French National Institute found 59% of shared social media links were never read. We’ve gone from headlines selling newspapers, forcing people to read the articles, to headlines being shared on social media, but people won’t read the articles.

This is only a small part of why The Messenger failed: neutrality. The sentiment of unbiased news was well-intentioned. However, America has lacked unbiased news since 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. Many on the left believe this has helped right-leaning outlets. This is false. Not only has it benefited both sides of the aisle, it can be argued the progressives have benefited more than the conservatives (but that is a different article for a different day).

When news outlets collide, the American public loses. Not because we lack news, but because we lack the ability to read the full scope of the issues in one place. Outlets are not forced to present all sides of the political argument or present the entirety of data sets. Additionally, news is not being fully read. Headlines are now king. Shares, clicks, and likes keep the lights on in newsrooms. Most importantly, facts are now nuanced. This forces debate instead of continuity and cohesion.

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BNM Writers

Does Dealing With Criticism Ever Get Easier?

Engage in the content of the criticism and ignore the rest – or at least take the high road. If that gets difficult, end the conversation.

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A photo of the word Truth written on a typewriter

Thick skin. If you work in media, you gotta have it. If you don’t, you either won’t last or you won’t sleep – or both.

Even if you are neutral politically, super nice, and in it for all the right reasons, there always will be people who criticize you, and some will even make it personal.

Having “thick skin” is a cliché I’ve been thinking about and dealing with for years. I find it fascinating that, somehow, I am way more sensitive at home than I am at work – and by at work, I mean on the air for hours every day.

Even the angriest of listeners are engaging, and engagement is what I want. Sometimes, it can throw a show off-balance, but if handled properly, it should never fully derail you.

Over the years, I have modified my professional behavior, perspective, and attitude, yet my foundational approach has not changed. It began with my first full-time television job when a journalist/mentor of mine told me not to ever act interested in ratings. Rather, he said, focus on my performance and content — the rest would take care of itself.

In my first two anchor/host jobs, it worked wonderfully. I immersed myself in the job, and the ratings were strong. I thought it was a mandate to always take this approach, although in retrospect, I was probably more lucky than good. Regardless, following that mantra actually allowed me to learn my craft and not be overly aware that ratings mattered.

Ignorance was journalistic bliss.

Flash forward to 2024 and it all seems rather naïve, but I think the approach really works well with criticism, too, whether it be on social media, through phone calls or even with fellow hosts.

Just a quick note on nuance: Look at the sentence four paragraphs above – don’t act interested. Looking back at the guidance given by my mentor, his point also seemed to be that even if you are laser-focused on how a show is rating, don’t make it a major topic of conversation, and don’t let people think it defines you as a broadcaster and journalist.

All of it may seem like advice from Fantasyland, but in an indirect way, this approach also makes me less vulnerable to criticism. I simply don’t focus on it too much, and over time, it stopped bothering me even if I did focus on it. Make sense?

Of course, it’s not as if I like it when a listener rips me or the show, either directly or on social media; but I never engage emotionally, and if I do respond in any way, it’s usually content-focused.

That’s the key.

Engage in the content of the criticism and ignore the rest – or at least take the high road. If that gets difficult, end the conversation.

You have the conch. Never forget that.

Ultimately, you’ll feel better, especially knowing you did not take the bait and handled it professionally – no need to create any more tension than is already out in the media eether.

That brings me to the moment a host of a show on my station was sharply critical of an interview I had done, saying it was soft, and not holding the guest (a sitting U.S. Senator) accountable enough.

Specific questions were put forth that absolutely should have been asked, according to the host, and honestly, it was used as a chest puffer for that person to show why certain guests were scared to come on that later show.

And … I thought it was great.

Great?

Well, maybe not great, but I actually had no problem with it. First and foremost, they were talking about it, which is good. When I can provide that kind of grist, it’s good radio. It wasn’t always easy to listen to — I was still in the office doing some booking — but for some reason, it did not bother me. This from a guy who gets a one-second side eye from my wife of 20 years, and I think our marriage is in trouble.

In the end, a few of the criticisms were helpful, believe it or not: One or two of the suggested questions put forth on the later show should have been asked.

It’s all part of the balance I seek to create a place where members of both political parties feel comfortable coming on our network. I always reserve the right to ask difficult questions, and I do ask them (apparently not enough for some), but I also try and be balanced and manage relationships.

It’s delicate, and sometimes, elicits criticism – sometimes deserved. Meanwhile, I just focus on the content, naïve as that may be.

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CBS Mornings Scores Big Post-Super Ratings Win

CBS Mornings became the most-watched program from 7-9 a.m. in total viewers for just the second time ever for a CBS morning news show.

Doug Pucci

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A photo of the CBS Mornings logo

The historic ratings milestones continue for CBS as a result of Super Bowl LVIII.

Less than nine hours following what turned out to be the most-watched telecast in U.S. TV history to date (120.25 million of the near-124 million watching Super Bowl LVIII did so on CBS), CBS Mornings became the most-watched program from 7-9 a.m. in total viewers for just the second time ever for a CBS morning news show.

For the Monday, Feb. 12 edition of CBS Mornings, which featured co-host Nate Burleson from Las Vegas, the site of Super Bowl LVIII, and a visit from Jon Stewart in New York to promote his Daily Show return (which generated great ratings milestones of its own later that night), it delivered 2.9 million total viewers including 654,000 within the key 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research. It marked its best total audience and demo figures since Feb. 4, 2022.

CBS Mornings topped ABC’s Good Morning America, the usual morning news viewer leader, by a mere 7,000 viewers; it also outdrew NBC’s Today (2.86 million) by 49,000 viewers.

CBS also bested ABC in A25-54 by +103,000; the sixth time CBS Mornings has led over Good Morning America this season based on the key demo.

This was not the first time a morning show benefited from a halo effect of what the network had aired the night prior. Mar. 8, 2021, was the first time CBS won in the morning. It was the day after Oprah Winfrey’s primetime interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry had aired which drew 17.1 million viewers for CBS. The Mar. 8, 2021 edition of CBS This Morning featured an exclusive interview with Winfrey and the premiere of never-before-seen clips from the Meghan and Prince Harry discussion, had delivered 4.793 million viewers with 1.026 million of them in the 25-54 demographic.

The program changed its title to CBS Mornings in September 2021.

For this 2023-24 season, CBS Mornings has the smallest deficit margin in viewers with ABC’s Good Morning America since the 2017-18 season and the tightest margin in A25-54 ever.

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