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When Radio Topics Don’t Matter to the Audience (And How to Make Them Matter)

I’m not suggesting that you ignore what’s happening on social media. I am suggesting that social media is not only not real life, but represents a tiny fraction of public sentiment

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Who determines what stories and topics you cover? Is it a producer, an assignment editor, or you? Maybe you subscribe to the idea that the things about which you talk on the radio are determined by what the audience wants to hear, or you want to talk about what you believe the audience needs to hear.

I suppose it depends on what you do. Reporters will go with an editor’s call, opinion hosts with producers, and producers with “what the audience wants to hear.” There’s another element in play, though, and not enough of you consider it. It’s a simple question that should guide not whether you bring something up but how much play you give it.

Does this have any bearing on the lives of our audience?

And a follow-up: If it does have some bearing on the lives of our audience but it’s not immediately apparent, can we include that context in an easily understood manner so that people don’t tune out?

I’ll give you an example of a story getting huge play in the news media and on talk radio that’s detached from the daily lives of most people in the audience, while being part of a larger story that the coverage, and opinions, seem to be completely ignoring.

I’ll preface it by asking another question: Before, say, about three weeks ago, could you have named the President of Harvard? Or Penn? Or MIT? Sure, it’s a news story when a college president is accused of plagiarism, and it’s a news story when three college presidents botched what should have been a gimme question before Congress.

But, taken alone, how much of a story is it? Are they representative of all college administrators? How many of your listeners, readers, or viewers have kids in Harvard, Penn, or MIT, or are alumni? How many of them – how many of you – could even find those schools on a map? (How many can even use a map that isn’t Google Maps these days?)

And how many of you went to college and noted the existence of campus activists and how they’re usually a handful of Sociology majors with petitions on clipboards outside the cafeteria, ignored by most other students? I mean, I was a Political Science major at a Quaker college, and I can’t even remember what the protestors were protesting. They were probably right, but I couldn’t tell you about what. (We were between wars, so that wasn’t it.)

Yet I’ve seen interminable cable news segments with an array of pundits pontificating about campus activism and administrative inaction, radio talk shows railing against Claudine Gay (whose existence was unknown to them before now), and endless articles on every news site about it. Practically all of the coverage — both on radio and TV — is missing the larger context, and, as a result, it’s all meaningless to the audience. It’s news from another planet.

In truth, there is a story worth talking about here, but it’s not just the Harvard thing, it’s about a concerted effort by political interests (surely you’re aware of Christopher Rufo by now, and maybe you’ve heard about what happened at New College in Sarasota) to remove educators from college administration posts and replace them with ideologues in an attempt to push higher education hard to the right. The individual story at Harvard is of zero relevance to most people, but an ideological takeover of public education is a lot more compelling and relevant to a lot more people.

Meanwhile… really, do I have to explain what else is going on that means a lot more to the audience and is probably a lot more compelling and attention-worthy (and entertaining, if you’re an opinion type) than anything to do with Ivy League schools? Look, right this very minute, some stories and topics have a lot more to do with your audience’s lives, stuff they need and want to know about, and it’s astonishing how they get downplayed or both-sided or ignored even by the paper of record.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore what’s trending. I’m not suggesting that you ignore what’s happening on social media. However, I am suggesting that social media is not only not real life, but represents a tiny fraction of public sentiment, even a tiny fraction of the core audience for what you do.

It’s as if the dozen campus radicals and the dozen campus counter-protestors all got hold of megaphones and are screaming at the same time, drowning out everyone else and really annoying the dozen students who are trying to study in their library carrels. The margins get amplified, and important stuff gets lost.

We’re facing some massive challenges in 2024, as an industry, as a nation, as a world (and not necessarily in that order). Focus on what really matters now and in the long run. Everything else? You can report on it, but don’t dwell on it. And whatever the story, context is key. Dig deeper. Look behind the curtain. Use whatever metaphor works for you, but see what you can do to make those trending stories into something more relevant to radio listeners, viewers, and readers. Don’t get distracted.

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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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