Social Media: Handle with Care

| January 27, 2012

Since this story was published on the morning of Friday, January 27, KTRS, St. Louis talk host JC Corcoran has responded with illuminating details that add even more to the fascinating subject of social media use by talk broadcasters.  Read his letter here.

By Kevin Casey
and Mike Kinosian

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –– Using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to promote one’s radio program, the station brand or to interact with P1s is what most talk radio practitioners are expected to do these days.  After all, used properly, most digital experts agree the explosive nature of social media can reach people –– including potential new listeners –– in a way other media can’t.  But are there damaging aspects to social media?  Is there a potential downside?

Consider the cases of KTRS, St. Louis talk show host JC Corcoran and Current TV (and former MSNBC and ESPN) personality Keith Olbermann.

Corcoran is a very successful, longtime St. Louis radio personality.  Last fall he got into a back-and-forth argument via Twitter with a listener –– complete with salty language –– about his prediction the Cardinals would re-sign slugger Albert Pujols.  Management at KTRS suspended Corcoran briefly for how he handled the exchange.  The theory being that although the FCC’s jurisdiction is limited to only what goes out over the airwaves, a host’s general public image is the concern of station ownership regardless of the venue upon which it is conveyed –– licensed or unlicensed.

Different points of view

There are of course different points of view on this.  Dial Global syndicated star Neal Boortz couldn’t care less about maintaining niceties in social media. He bluntly tells TALKERS, “I love Twitter.  I have about 72,000 followers and it gives me a chance to be irreverent and say things I could never say on the air –– things like ‘dumb ass!’”

Program directors, however, do not always take kindly to that kind of free-wheeling style, including those who are generally favorable to the practice of tweeting.  Skip Essick, PD of Peak Broadcasting’s KMJ-AM/FM, Fresno explains, “This can be a serious problem –– and when it’s in writing, it’s out there forever.  I caution my hosts to be very careful not to engage in nasty exchanges.  The enemy lurks in our behavior and language.”

Bonneville’s sports talk KTAR-AM and news/talk KTAR-FM, Phoenix program director Ryan Hatch tells TALKERS, “It is absolutely absurd that a host would be suspended over giving his opinion.  We hire these people to share their thoughts and observations.  We are very careful in what we consider news versus opinion.  It wouldn’t bother me one bit if one of my hosts tweeted that he guarantees that the Phoenix Suns will win the NBA championship.”  Name-calling though, which is the crux of the off-air Corcoran example, is an entirely different story and, as Hatch suggests, that’s where common sense has to prevail.  “Listeners are our customers –– nothing is more important than our customers and how we represent ourselves to them,” he remarks.  “My take is very different when it comes to a tirade –– I probably would have fired him rather than suspended him.  Our job is to study audiences and we ask for feedback through an open channel and an open network.  People can express their thoughts.”

Polarizing personalities will have their detractors through –– among other avenues –– e-mail or social media tools like Twitter and Facebook.  Vigorous in his advice against a non-response, Hatch stresses, “Acknowledge receipt and thank them for the communication.  We call them ‘listeners’ but they are really ‘users’ –– they ‘use’ radio.  At times, we have had some very intense messages go to our accounts.  Much like e-mail, it makes things immediately better simply by responding.  A respectful approach changes everything.  We try to manage these channels out of the strategy and thought of respect.”

Getting personal

Keith Olbermann announced in early December that he would no longer be tweeting after he took grief from Twitter followers for blocking some of those followers who vehemently disagreed with comments show guest Richard Lewis made on the program.  That move generated a ton of buzz, not all complimentary, in the social media world.

In and of themselves, these incidents involving Corcoran and Olbermann are really not big issues.  But are they symptoms of larger potential problems that talk media pros need to sit back and consider?

Managers and programmers may want to ask themselves the following questions: Does the ability to have a “personal” conversation with a big-time media personality (whether local or national) damage the mystique of being a larger-than-life commentator?  Does it provide an ease of access that has a downside that’s not being considered?  Is the propensity of tweets to get nasty a looming pitfall for opinionated and sensitive talk hosts in a way that taking calls on the air is not?  Does the revealing nature of social media put too much inadvertent control over the program’s and station’s image in the hands of staff –– hosts or others –– who wouldn’t ordinarily be authorized to execute that image promotion?

Nationally syndicated host Doug Stephan of the morning show “Good Day” thinks the larger-than-life aspect of being a radio personality is of another day.  He tells TALKERS, “We are in the person-to-person business.  The more we have each person listening as if they were participating in a one-on-one conversation, the P1 factor goes up, up, and away.  Mystique is over-rated. We want them to believe we are going through many of the same struggles they are.”

Programming and talent consultant Gabe Hobbs generally agrees, as long as the intimacy of social media is used toward productive ends, stating: “Radio is a one-to-one medium unlike television which is a one-to-many.  One of the powerful attributes of any great radio personality is the ability to create an intimate and personal experience.  If we can leverage technology and emerging trends to enhance that experience then it’s a benefit to both the communicator and the consumer.”  But Hobbs adds, “Ease of access in and of itself is a positive term and people are clearly taking advantage of any path that appears to be of the proverbial least resistance.  If social media is one of those paths then we have to go where the consumer is.  Our challenge is to make sure that these paths also lead the consumer to the brand or brands being marketed and promoted.”

Unrepresentative distraction

There can, however, be a distinct downside.  Although he is a huge proponent and practitioner of social media, morning show host Pat Campbell of KFAQ, Tulsa warns, “You must avoid the stalker types that think they can control you, the content or direction of the show.  On air or online, you have to let them know who’s in control.” Plus, Campbell tells TALKERS the host must keep everything in the proper perspective when evaluating social media input and avoid “giving too much credence to a few e-mails, tweets or Facebook postings thinking that they are reflective of the overall audience.  It is only a small sampling of your P1s.”

Radio stations utilize social media in multiple manners, with each component tending to go through different phases.  “It became a major initiative for us and an initial differentiator because KTAR was one of the only news media organizations in Phoenix to immediately become very active with Twitter,” says Ryan Hatch. “It is a fantastic content-pushing tool for a radio station that is live throughout the day.”  However, Hatch is also aware of the potential distraction being overly reliant on Twitter can present to hosts during the course of a program telling TALKERS, “They are trying to read and post during the show and that can be distracting,” he maintains.  “It can also make hosts quite reactive.”

Not that many years ago, the telephone was the barometer that stations used to help gauge whether or not a topic was taking off but as Hatch remarks, “Building content strategy around that was so wrong because you were doing it for less than one-half of one percent of your audience.  Stations reaching hundreds of thousands –– in some cases millions –– of people were letting nine flashing lights determine if the content was good.  If programmers aren’t careful, Twitter can have the same effect because these are the hyperactive, ultra-engaged, probably super-opinionated people using your product.  If you are reactionary to that on a regular basis, it can negatively affect your over-the-air radio content.”

 Maintaining control

Cumulus Media’s WMAL-AM/FM, Washington program director Bill Hess has noticed that passion on Twitter is as valuable as it is on radio and he cautions, “It is smart for talent to remember their brand and not to do anything that will damage that brand in the big picture.  There is a delicate balance.  You want to give people a voice –– that is why you do it.”  Conversely though, you don’t want to have those making the comments to hijack the conversation.  “Most ‘followers’ agree with our talent and want to hear what they have to say, as opposed to wanting to pick fights with them,” Hess observes.  “It is not unlike a talk radio show where debates and disagreements are fine but when it turns personal, it gets uncomfortable for the listener.  It doesn’t accomplish anything to have these discussions turn to name-calling.  When it comes to social media like Twitter and Facebook, there is plenty of growing room for all of us in talk radio.  The more we can become involved where our listeners are, the better.”

Nationally syndicated Dial Global progressive superstar Thom Hartmann –– an expert implementer of social media within his leading edge multi-platform approach –– is also concerned about the potential of one-on-one exchanges tarnishing the image of a host saying, “I think it has that potential –– particularly if the host allows him or herself to get into a ‘pissing war’ type of encounter.”  He tries to turn negatives into positives.  “When people ask very specific questions or try to debate issues in social media, it’s a great opportunity to say to them, ‘That’s a great question –– I’ll get into a detailed discussion of it on tomorrow’s show’ or ‘Great question –– please call into the show, let my call screener know who you are, and ask it of me tomorrow on the air, so we can share the conversation with all our listeners.  It’s an important one, and worthy of a larger discussion.’”

Among talk radio personalities who readily concede to actually enjoying controversy is highly conscientious Compass Media Networks host Lars Larson.  “It gets the backs of some up when I say that President Obama is a Marxist, yet everything about him says that he is,” Larson opines.  “When you put it into Twitter or Facebook, some people get bent out of shape.  On Facebook, I can delete a comment I don’t like as well as the user.  I will reference that the user just went past the limit and can no longer post.  I am happy to reinstate someone after they e-mail my producer promising to be civil.  I have seen some very ugly stuff on my Facebook page.  I will ‘Like’ many comments, even though I might not necessarily agree with them.”

Admitting there are days where he probably over-posts in social media, Larson discloses that, “People sometimes get irritated by that.  I use Twitter quite a bit but have modified the way we use it.  Whenever I post something on Facebook, it is duplicated on Twitter.  Radio tries to be available for people whenever they want to listen but with Twitter, you can let people know that something big just happened and it will be talked about on radio.”

While on the air, Larson wades through the 1,100 or so e-mails he gets in a typical day and valiantly attempts to send a response to every single one of them.  “After 15 years, that’s tens of thousands of people I have answered within five minutes,” the conservative host proudly states.  “People are very appreciative when you do good customer service.  I have never handed it off to an intern or a producer.  I owe it to the listeners who keep me on the air.  They will continue to do so if I am interactive with them.  The big guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity can’t do it.  I could accept it if Rush had someone whose full-time job was to answer in Rush’s voice.  Politicians have speeches written for them and those writers come to know the voice of their boss.  It would be interesting to see how much bigger an audience you would have.”

New standards and institutions

Bitingly witty Tim Conway Jr. of Clear Channel’s KFI, Los Angeles tells TALKERS the amount of time he spends with social media can probably be measured in minutes-per-day.  “I don’t find what I do in my life to be all that interesting,” he deadpans.  “The Twitter term ‘followers’ is so vain and self-righteous.  Jesus Christ had followers; those with a great deal of wisdom and have done something great with their life should have followers; but ‘Stan from Sherman Oaks’ shouldn’t have followers.”

Thus far, Conway hasn’t had anything negative happen with Twitter that involved a listener, although he did get into a heated discussion with KFI news director Chris Little regarding the social media device.  “There was a riot in Hollywood because of a premiere that never happened,” recounts Conway.  “We went on the air and said we had pictures of it from Twitter and we can confirm there are thousands of people running through the streets of Hollywood.  Chris called and said the station doesn’t use Twitter as a news source.  He asked that we stop referring to it that way but I didn’t want to wait until the local television stations did something with it.  We got the exclusive pictures and were able to talk about what was going on through people giving us pictures via Twitter.  It is becoming a new, natural, honest news service that is free with no political bend to it at all.”

More inclined to using Facebook than he is being a Twitter partisan, Conway adheres to his right to vaporize someone on his personal Facebook account but comments it is tough to do unless someone is exhibiting extremely offensive language.  “On the other hand however, if someone has an argument or difference of opinion with us, I think that attracts more people to Twitter than if we were to exclude the person.  Nothing makes a crazy person crazier than when you exclude or de-friend them.”

It happened to Conway when he accidentally dropped someone from his Facebook account.  “This guy was saying something about my daughter and I wanted to delete his post but wound up deleting him,” he recalls.  “He went absolutely ballistic.  I contacted him to say it was an accident and the guy actually did a 180.  He admitted the things he said about my daughter were terrible and he shouldn’t have done it.  It ended up being okay because he said he would re-think his future posts.  Something I learned from Rick Dees always stuck with me: ‘If it’s good, write it –– if it’s bad, say it.’  Before I send an e-mail or post something, I always think about it.  You never get the inflection or tone right in something that is written.  Another rule I have is never send anything after the first beer.  That gets people in trouble.  They are up late at night and fire off something they would not have done if they were sober.”

Get smart

On Facebook since 2004 and a Twitter user the past several years, Martha Zoller is active on Twitter while doing her weekday, three-hour, mid-morning program on Cox Radio-owned WXKT-FM, Gainesville, GA (“Bulldog 103.7 – North Georgia’s news, sports and information station”).  “I tweet what I am about to discuss and tweet during the presidential debates,” the recently announced GOP candidate for the congressional seat in Georgia’s ninth district explains.  “Maybe I should but I tend not to respond to direct Twitter messages and attacks.  Perhaps I’ll change that policy.  Twitter is so fast and furious though that sometimes if you let it go, no one will notice it.  I don’t put anything on Twitter that would embarrass me,” she points out.  “My mother or grandmother might shake their heads a little bit because I am a lot more conservative.  I have the same approach on radio and don’t even use words like ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ on the air.  That is the way I have always been.  Some people have said I’m not very funny, but I try to have my tweets be smart.”

Zoller makes a good point.  The key to effective use of social media by talk broadcasters is intelligence.  As WTKK-FM, Boston program director Grace Blazer puts it, “Smart hosts have the ability to manage their careers effectively both on the air and online.  Social media is an important extension of their brand and it works brilliantly for savvy hosts.”  Gabe Hobbs agrees:  “Sometimes there is a fine line between controversy and stupidity!”

Tools don’t kill…

Terry Foxx, program director of CBS O&O sports talk KDKA-FM, Pittsburgh takes an objective approach to the potential consequences of social media.  “In my opinion, we should not look at social media as positive or negative, but a neutral tool.  It’s like anything else.  It’s how we use it that affect what happens in our world.”

In conclusion, most broadcasters contacted for this article agree that there can be a downside and even a dark side to using social media to reach out to your audience, drive listeners to your show and expand your brand –– but the good far outweighs the bad.  Outspoken talker Lisa Wexler of WFAS, White Plains sums it up, “I take this vocation quite seriously.  The topics we discuss and the way we present them do change public policy –– I’ve experienced it up close.  We have a responsibility to use the mic with an informed opinion and we get to extend our influence past the mic by circulating our audio and the sources we use out there on the net.  Social media helps us enormously to do that, despite its potential downside.  On the whole, I am very grateful for it.”

Kevin Casey is magaging editor of TALKERS.   He can be e-mailed at kevin@talkers.com.
Mike Kinosian is special features editor of TALKERS magazine.  He can be e-mailed at mike.kinosian@gmail.com.

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