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iHeartMedia News/Talk EVP Chris Berry Encouraged By Radio’s Future

“I’m a huge believer in radio and the future of radio because, especially radio, news and sports content, because those are things that are happening right now.”

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A photo of Chris Berry and the iHeartMedia
(Photo: iHeartMedia)

While many journalists are the first to record history, there are very few who make history. iHeartMedia’s Executive Vice President of News, Talk, and Sports Programming, Chris Berry is one of the few who have made history during his career.

It’s taken a lot of skill and tenacity to make it to the top. This combined with his warmhearted disposition and belief in journalism made it all possible and it all started in a Florida high school.

“I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter. In fact, when I was in high school I took a test on what your career should be. It said I should either be a newspaper reporter or a cop,” Berry told Barrett News Media over a Zoom call.

Falling short of wanting to risk his life as an officer of the law, Berry took his passion for print news to TV. His first station after graduating college was at the NBC affiliate in Memphis. Just a few years later, “I heard about an opening [as a news writer] at KNX News Radio in Los Angeles. The CBS-owned, all-news radio station.”

Berry paid his own way out west, took a writing test, and later accepted the job. His idea was to get back into TV after a stint at KNX, but his success put him on a different path. “I’ve spent the rest of my career in radio from the time that I started there.”

Spending 14 years in Los Angeles, Berry then Executive Produced in Washington, D.C. He later moved to WBBM in Chicago as Assistant News Director and later, News and Program Director. During the 1996 DNC Convention, Berry met up with a friend who suggested taking a look at ABC News Radio. Heeding the advice, he set off to New York as the General Manager of Operations for ABC News Radio right after the election. He moved up the ranks at the then-newly minted House of Mouse. It was there when the Ole Miss graduate’s career became historic.

While at ABC, Berry was also on the board of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. He played an instrumental role in the airing the first Supreme Court case. “One of the things that I’m very proud of was during the election of 2000, there was a Supreme Court challenge, Gore versus Bush. We petitioned the United States Supreme Court to broadcast that case,” Berry said.

The historic petition had never been done successfully until Berry’s advocacy. Because of his efforts, oral arguments of Supreme Court cases may now be broadcast. The first taped courtroom remarks aired December 12, 2000, when Gore versus Bush was heard.

While at ABC, Berry was awarded News/Talk Executive of the Year by Radio and Records magazine in 2002. Later, Berry and his team won a Peabody Award and a Marconi Award. In 2012, he left Disney for Clear Channel, which would later evolve into iHeartMedia.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve watched the news media evolve. Consumers of news now has so many more sources and places where they can get content. I’m a huge believer in radio and the future of radio — especially radio, news, and sports content — because those are things that are happening right now.” Berry said.

He added social media is a great help to the medium grow listeners. “It helps a lot because it is a great way to inform people of something happening. For example, if you have a newsworthy interview or if you have an event happening like a tornado, you can do a push notification through social media and it can actually drive listening.”

As technology changes and evolves, the newsman with a storied career believes it can only help, as long as things like Artificial Intelligence are used responsibly. “[AI] is a terrific tool that radio stations also have to be very careful about how they use it. As it exists today, is only as good as the content that’s being fed into it.”

Berry believes there is nothing better than having a real live person broadcasting nor does he see an AI robot taking to iHeart’s airwaves anytime soon. “It’s moving very fast as a technology, but my company, iHeartMedia, has publicly said we have no intention of using AI to voice any content because it’s just not something that works right now.”

In other words, AI does not make good radio.

“Good radio has to be compelling. Jack Swanson once said, ‘To inform without entertaining is time squandered.’ When you take a look at, especially talk radio, there does have to be a certain amount of entertainment value as you’re providing the information. Especially now, because people’s attention spans are as short as they are.” Berry added, “You can never lose sight of being factual.”

This sense of good radio touches more than just your dial, it affects podcasts, too. “Radio research over the years has often shown when people are asked to describe why they listen to the radio, they say it’s because it’s a friend. It’s the one-on-one relationship that a listener has with the broadcaster.”

Outside of radio, Berry does have some concerns about the future of the industry. “One of the things that scares me, as a citizen really, is the decline of local newspapers, because they are the places that actually go to the school board meetings or the city council meetings and things like that. When you don’t have a watchdog out there, you run the risk of corruption and people taking advantage of the fact that nobody is watching them.”

For those looking to follow in his footsteps, Berry’s advice is simple.

“Don’t sell radio short because it is a very intimate medium. As a result, it has the ability, if you’re a good radio communicator, to really connect with your audience.” Berry went on to say, “Radio really does provide a relationship with the media consumer that I haven’t really been able to find anywhere else. It’s just different.”

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Is Radio Ready to Move at the Speed of AI?

We can only imagine where AI will lead us, and yet we can’t.

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A post-it note with A.I. written on it

Who are your favorite radio personalities from your past? Wouldn’t it be great if you could listen to The Real Don Steele, Dan Ingram, or Dr. Don Rose every single day again playing the latest hits and yakking about current issues? What if the late, great Vin Scully still did current Dodgers games?

It’s not only possible, but it won’t be long before it happens.

I would love to hear Paul Harvey’s folksy commentary on yet another Trump-Biden election. (I’d love to hear it but it would still be creepy and somewhat offensive because he’s dead. But that’s just me.)

AI voice and image-mimicking technology are about to become the biggest practical and ethical problem facing the radio, TV, and movie industries.

If it can be done it will be done. That’s an observation accredited to several sources including and beyond the Bible but regardless of who said it first it’s an inexorable truth and ethics has nothing to do with it.

Artificial Intelligence is a genie that can’t be stuffed back into the bottle. AI radio disc jockeys are already here. So are nonhuman voice actors.

“There are jobs that would have gone to voice actors that are now going to synthetic voices.”

Tim Friedlander is president and co-founder of the National Association of Voice Actors. He told me that AI can’t yet replicate human emotion but admits some of that doesn’t matter.

“For the most part you can definitely tell the difference, an AI can’t act the same way or perform the same way that a human actor can, but in a lot of these e-learning or training videos or informational videos it’s purely a transaction of information. There’s no need for an emotional transaction. It’s just purely getting information across.”

Friedlander says he’s hearing regularly from voice actors who are losing gigs. All he can do is advocate on their behalf to protect human rights from being plowed under by new voice and image-mimicking technology.

“There are no federal laws that give you the right to your voice. So, none of us own the right to the sound of our voice. We potentially have rights over a (specific) performance we’ve given. If we’re a celebrity, we have some right of publicity that could possibly protect us in some capacity but we, as citizens in the United States don’t have the right to (own) our voices.

“That’s a thorny problem when it comes down to trying to codify it, to pass laws, especially when you’ve got a bunch of people who are passing the laws, who barely know how to use their phones.”

Tim’s undeniably right about that. But the bigger question is, after we’ve pounded on our Congressional representatives to preserve individual rights for actors, narrators, and audiobook readers will it make any difference in the long run?

Spotify already has a very good AI disc jockey who not only sounds realistic but can address you by name, play the specific music you want to hear, and relate to you personally. In its inception, it impressively mimics the voice and delivery style of real-life deejay, Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s Head of Cultural Partnerships, who previously hosted Spotify’s morning show, The Get Up.

After hearing the Spotify demo I reacted with a mind-blown “Whoa!” as if I was Kramer in Seinfeld. Now I’m wondering if I can get Robert W. Morgan and Bobby Ocean as my personalized deejays.

Like it or not, AI-generated content and voices, mimicked and newly created, are changing what we anachronistically call radio.

It’s time to get up to speed and deal with it.

Though we try to reassure ourselves that AI voice technology will never be able to match the soul and nuance of life expressed by living, trained human voices, we’re required to ask ourselves two questions: First, are we sure of that? Second, will anybody care?

Unanswerable questions aside, we still have work to do.

We must stop resisting inevitable change—not because our ethical concerns are invalid, but because we can’t stop the inevitable. All we can hope to do is manage the challenges and that’s a tall order.

Two bills stewing in Congress at the moment, the No AI Fraud Act and the No FAKES Act, both designed to establish voice and image rights, are good first attempts to deal with the issue but they only address AI use as far as the technology can currently be defined and used. They can’t anticipate future developments and legal loopholes. Opponents of each bill as written say they would cause more problems than they would solve.

Constitutional Law and Supreme Court expert David Coale, partner with Lynn, Pinker, Hurst, and Schegmann in Dallas, explains the legal considerations.

“I’m sympathetic but we already have two complicated bodies of tort law in this area—defamation laws where you can’t lie about someone, and fraud laws where you can’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. Beyond that, you’re well into activity protected by the First Amendment. Adding another complicated body of law on top of all that really does risk causing more problems than it solves.”

Coale is just bringing us back to reality. Lawyers will continue writing contracts, filing suits, and arguing the Constitution. Infotainment entrepreneurs and those who go by the trendy title “influencers” will ply their trades as profitably as possible. In what we still think of as radio, we will, too, as long as there’s an appetite for information and an exchange of ideas.

If we’re to meet the future we have to embrace new ways to create, disseminate, and sell content. We need to leave nostalgia in our shoebox of old pictures and forget much of the how but not the why of what we’ve learned.

Once we’re on that road we can let the marketplace guide us.

I’m not sure I want to hear Vin Scully explain the ghost runner at second going into the tenth inning. Even the best AI can only draw upon his public record to guess what he might have thought and how he would have said it. I like to think Vin hated the idea and would explain that to us with his famously clear and convincing clarity.

I knew Dr. Don Rose and my first thought about listening to him again in real-time was, as much as I miss him I don’t want to hear a genuine-sounding fake of him cracking one-liners about personal pronouns or Taylor Swift. Or, do I? He would make us laugh at the silliness of both subjects without offending anyone, and he’d stamp it with a horn honk and a giggle that perfectly hit the vocal.

We can only imagine where AI will lead us, and yet we can’t.

What would Jesus do in a given situation? We’ll soon be told and probably even hear it in his own impressively imagined and digitized voice. A lot of people will be pissed.

In radio, we need to stop hand-wringing about these things and start planning how to use it all to create a wonderfully enhanced experience for listeners and to turn a profit in the process.

“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.” -Kahlil Gibran

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Kate Rooney Has Become One of Tech’s Leading Reporters After Nearly a Decade at CNBC

“You have to just do it to get better and it’s so public but you have to mess up to get better.”

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A photo of CNBC reporter Kate Rooney
(Photo: CNBC)

She’s smart, funny, and positively positive. CNBC tech reporter Kate Rooney is always looking to make “the next right move” and ask Silicone Valley the hard questions, even if it sometimes makes her feel like a “party pooper.”

“A question [I ask] every time I talk to someone is ‘What’s the risk?’ or ‘How do you think about the risk?’ Because it is something people out here don’t think about. But I think Silicon Valley and tech is such an inherently optimistic group of people. And that’s been paid off in a big way,” Rooney said on a recent Zoom call.

Being a naturally optimistic person, Rooney said she’s learned to be skeptical at times, especially during her time covering Sam Bankman-Fried. “[He] is basically the poster child of [Silicon Valley and crypto] industry and ended up being one of the biggest fraudsters of all time — one of the biggest financial frauds in history. It is just a good reminder that regardless of who the investors are, regardless of how accredited and bona fide a founder is, you just always have that in the back of your head.”

She later added, “One of the things that struck me about Sam Bankman-Fried was how fast it happened. Bernie Madoff was over multiple decades. And it took years and years and years to build that reputation, to build his Ponzi scheme, really. Bankman-Fried did this in a couple of years.”

Rooney never expected her aspirations of being a print reporter would lead her to a TV job, but her years of hard work across four continents prove otherwise. As a communications student at Boston College, Rooney wasn’t sure she wanted to go into journalism until her last year of college.

“I started writing for The Heights — which is the Boston College newspaper — my senior year and took a great journalism class. And one of my professors there recommended journalism school.”

Attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Kate Rooney said she received a real hands-on experience that “opened a lot of doors” for her.

“It’s a one-year program, so that really accelerated the journalism move. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so many options,’ because you do print, do broadcast, do some investigative reporting.” It’s here where she was able to travel the globe reporting from Argentina, Israel, and the Philippines before coming back home to tackle Washington, D.C.

“I was in a print path, and that’s where I thought I wanted to go and cover politics. I went to D.C. for one of the quarters, and you get a press pass to go and work on Capitol Hill. And you’re kind of a stringer for these local papers. So that just felt like it was the most exciting thing you could possibly think of.”

While the field changed for the Division I lacrosse player, she found a lot of similarities between sports and politics. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually it’s kind of like sports. There’s a winner and a loser, and it’s exciting.’ Just being in D.C., you kind of catch the bug.”

Toward the end of graduate school, Kate Rooney landed an internship at Bloomberg before coming home to close to where she grew up in New Jersey.

“[A friend of mine] introduced me to someone at CNBC. I came in and started interviewing and got this job in the news associate program, which is sort of when you rotate and you jump around. You start on one team for three months and then you go to the next team.”

She’s been with CNBC ever since.

Since 2015, Kate Rooney has grown with the station from segment and field producing to reporting on the markets and now Big Tech. “I was so nervous before [going on air for the first time], but I felt after I ripped the bandaid and was on air once, I was like, ‘Ok, I think I could actually make this happen as a career.’”

Rooney did note there were some difficult points in broadcasting. “It’s like anything, you have to just do it to get better and it’s so public but you have to mess up to get better. You have to make mistakes. And when you make mistakes on TV, it’s one of the most painful feelings you can imagine. It’s just so embarrassing. But yeah, you get better with time. It’s one of those things that you kind of just have to be out there and try it.”

Today what Kate Rooney loves about her job is learning something new every day. “[I am] talking to some of the smartest investors in the world, and you walk out and you’re like, ‘That was fascinating.’ Just getting to hear their take and they’ll spend the time explaining one of these interesting tech topics.”

For those looking to follow in her footsteps, Rooney to two pieces of advice. One, “Say yes to everything, especially in journalism.”

“If you have the mindset of saying yes and taking on whatever assignment somebody gives you, you’ll learn something and you’ll become a better journalist.”

Two? “Make the next right move.”

“My grandfather, who is a huge role model of mine, would always say ‘Make the next right move,’ because you get so ahead of yourself. If you’re ambitious and you want to get somewhere, you can kind of spiral quickly to say like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not exactly what I wanted to do.’ But if you make the next right decision again, those compound and you’ll get to where you want to go.”

Rooney loves what she is doing at CNBC but noted what comes next is evolving her reporting skills as the industry changes.

“Adapting to whatever the news is going to look like. I think that’s probably going to be a challenge for a lot of reporters. Not that any of us want to go and be a TikTok reporter, but just making sure, like we’re finding our audience where they are [because] people are consuming news really differently than they used to be.”

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Is Buying a Radio or TV Station Even Feasible in 2024?

For those of you still fantasizing about picking up a radio or TV station on the cheap and putting together the programming of your dreams, how realistic do you think you’re being?

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A photo of a radio station studio

A million years ago, when I was young and carefree and just starting out in the business, my goal was to own a radio station. One would have been enough, just a local-yokel operation with low overhead and a list of grateful local advertisers. We actually came reasonably close to making a deal for exactly that kind of station, but I couldn’t get the money together quickly enough.

It’s just as well. The fantasy of owning a station evolved into this reality: a) I was never going to own a station, and b) today, I wouldn’t be interested in putting any of my own money into radio. Or television. Or newspapers. I still see people posting on Facebook that they want to own a station, and good luck to those brave souls, but I’m not among them anymore.

This came to mind when it was reported by CNBC this week that Sinclair Broadcast Group is looking to sell over 30% of its television stations — that’s about 60 stations nationwide – including those in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, and Fresno. Whatever the reason they’re selling, the question is who would even buy those stations? Broadcast television, like broadcast radio, is not exactly in growth mode.

When the big broadcast networks appear to be putting more eggs in the streaming basket and rumors have all of them willing to sell their broadcast licenses, that’s not a great sign for their affiliates, either.

Nevertheless, the price for Sinclair’s stations will not be cheap, and in television, it’s hard to see too many companies willing to buy unless they’re giving it all away. Who’s willing to pay more? Tegna? Apollo/Cox? Byron Allen? Who’s left to buy into broadcast TV when streaming is becoming so pervasive that the NFL is putting more and more games online?

The price will also be fairly high if Audacy sells off some or all of its assets, or Beasley, or Cumulus. And even if the price correlated to some metric of reasonable success, it would take someone with the cash in their personal account to do a deal, because Wall Street is not impressed by a business that breaks even or makes a little money. Do you think you could get a meeting with investors and convince them to back you in buying radio stations, even if the price would otherwise be right? Go ahead and try.

And if you’re looking to buy a large group, remember that private equity investors are looking for businesses they can strip-mine for saleable assets. They don’t care about the operation, they care if there’s real estate to be sold off. Ask anyone in the newspaper industry how that works out.

All of this is a shame because there are people making a go of it in all of these businesses. There are radio and television stations unburdened with debt making a tidy profit that might not get Wall Street excited but can support a staff, a news department, a promotions budget, and the light bill. Most of them have been in the same hands forever, though, and can thrive as long as the family members who inherit the facilities are interested in keeping things going. I’m not sure we have too many more generations left who would be interested in keeping an increasingly past-tense business going.

It’s like inheriting a typewriter repair shop; even if there’s enough business right now, you can see the typewriting on the wall.

So, I’m out. But for those of you still fantasizing about picking up a radio or TV station on the cheap and putting together the programming of your dreams, how realistic do you think you’re being? Do you think you could put together the money? How much debt would you be comfortable taking on? Is growth really a possibility with a broadcast station? How much would you need to see? Is it possible in 2024 to do that, or is this the radio or television version of fantasy football?

Whatever it is, I’d love to see someone give it a shot. Hey, it’s not MY money.

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