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Is ‘Talk’ Doing the Heavy Lifting in the ‘News/Talk’ Branding?

Calling yourself a News or a News-Talk station still comes with some responsibilities and obligations but that often is not recognized by programmers who do not have a news background…

Bill Zito

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A photo of a microphone

My two least favorite subjects in the world of media are “Layoffs” and “Talk Shows”.

That’s not to say I don’t find it worthwhile to address their occasion or existence, instead, I just wish they were far less pervasive.

Quite frankly, my head has barely stopped spinning from the most recent job cuts, department gutting, and personnel removals that have hit the business of news, largely in radio once again. And remember, most of us are bystanders in all this, empathetic for certain but fiscally unaffected.

Imagine how the injured must be feeling.

The pattern is evident, largely because it’s a repetitive process. News stations cut the journalism product, which means slicing away more journalists. News/Talk stations, too cut the journalism product, by again, slicing away more journalists.

So, News becomes less news-like and News/Talk becomes more talky.

The circle of life continues.

I say that because to me it’s quite apparent that the common thought process by management and higher-ups is that “news” is not very necessary if at all and that the audience will not recognize the depreciation of the product and therefore not miss the people or the content.

One can only surmise that the modern directorate of these stations and parent companies has full faith and confidence that the Talk shows can keep them alive. They get listener emails and calls so they must be popular. Does anybody bother to check how many of those emails or calls are coming from the same nine people? Probably not.

That’s not to say that stations are actually holding on to their local Talk product with both hands.

Not at all.

Local Talk shows can be pricey to a station, that’s why there are so many across the country that have one, maybe two local shows at most and farm the rest of the day out to syndicated programming. The local hosts offer local topics, some less than others — and to be accurate, it’s usually the same things, over and over — but there is no denying that the topics, while repetitive, are mostly legitimate. But, syndicated shows do the same thing only with national or more generic subject matter and often they come at a bargain or significantly reduced overhead.

Most of the time, actually, the average listener has no idea where their host is broadcasting from anyway. They don’t know if that voice is in the studio or their den at home. Hell, many a time the listener doesn’t know that their “local” host is actually in another state, and because the station overlords aren’t keen on letting the audience know that, their local show ain’t so local.

But of course, these are the same bosses who let their shows take those same nine callers every day and put them on the air. Like, have a free co-host, right?

Not long ago I would sit in a newsroom adjacent to a very empty air studio where the local shows were being piped out all day. There were two local hosts that I did not even see for more than a year even though I was doing the top and bottom-of-the-hour newscasts during their “local” shows.

I eventually met both of them when they came to town for a holiday party.

Does it matter at the end of the day?

The bosses may say no but time will tell and I don’t share their optimism. When you cut people and products no matter the reason, it’s still a self-inflicted wound. It may be a slow bleed but it’s a bleed nonetheless and relying on one or even two-person shows that offer little else than conjecture, gossip, and one-dimensional thinking is hardly a recipe for life-support much less well-being.

That’s not even to recognize what media outlets are doing to the Talk programming that they expect to keep them afloat. We already know that recent layoffs impacted News anchors, reporters, producers, and editors. So that means a local anchor who was once able to focus solely on the news content now must edit that content themselves and often pick up the traffic report to boot. Easier in some markets than others I would guess.

Let’s look at the Talk shows now, the saviors, if you will and what station management thinks made sense to do.

Cut one host from a two-person show to save money, take another host from another day part and stick them with the now solo host, and fill that gap with syndicated programming that you got on the cheap because nobody wants it. Oh, by the way, your new two-person host team, did you bother to check to see if they’re compatible, that they have any chemistry, or that the audience will embrace the now no longer gender or culturally diverse show?

Calling yourself a News or a News-Talk station still comes with some responsibilities and obligations but that often is not recognized by programmers who do not have a news background or do not have a talk history but come instead from the sales and promotions departments.

Here’s a thought: If you’re not selling ad time, do you really believe the problem is with your news staff or one-half of a talk team? Could it be the salespeople who aren’t selling or the promotions people who aren’t promoting? You know, the very jobs you hired them to do? Is business still business or are these individuals in charge simply spinning their wheels and wasting people’s time?

In the current climate, I’m not even so sure that having a talk background is actually a benefit to being a successful talk programmer. Put a blindfold on and stick a pin in a list of syndicated shows or spin the wheel of national programs that you can afford to onboard. Chances are you’re going to mirror the talk lineup offered on dozens of stations in dozens of markets so where’s the risk?

Locally, it’s either stunt casting or a former journalist who crossed over into what they actually believed was something called News/Talk. There’s no such thing or if there was, it’s long gone. You’re Moonlight Graham and you stepped over the baseline. You can’t go back.

So, when there is no more news to cut, the elective surgery will focus almost completely on the last remaining target, exactly what the bosses believe will keep the station afloat and they themselves employed. Talk about repeatedly biting the hand that feeds you.

As you might expect, the focus will soon turn to the very bosses and underbosses who will eventually find themselves the subjects of layoffs, reorganization, and perhaps even the inescapable format flip.

Come on now, everybody loves sports and country music, right?

Either way, for some inexplicable reason, Sales and Promotions will still be there.

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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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