The State of News in News/Talk Radio

| May 21, 2012

By Kevin Casey
TALKERS magazine
VP/Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — It’s understood by anyone in the radio business that the big news stories of the day – whether they are local or national stories – generate the topics that drive the conversation on news/talk radio.  But what are the roles of the newsroom, the reporter and the regular newscasts on today’s news/talk stations?  The move of all-news to FM signals, the development of more national and regional radio news products and the addition of newswheel programs to some of the country’s most respected talk stations seem to indicate radio news has received a shot in the arm.  But the decimation of many radio news departments that occurred in conjunction with consolidation still affects many radio operations and raises questions about the relevance of news elements to the successful operation of the modern news/talk station.

We don’t expect any programmers to tell TALKERS that newscasts are unimportant to their station’s programming, but with so much news and information being consumed via digital sources – especially by younger demos – how stations are approaching their news presentation is a timely question.  Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Denver AM operations manager and KOA program director Greg Foster states, “Local news is the cornerstone of 850 KOA.  We have a 24/7 local news operation, with updates every 30 minutes and significant morning drive coverage during ‘Colorado’s Morning News.’”  KOA has a reputation as being the radio source of news in the Denver market and that hasn’t changed, according to Foster.  He tells TALKERS news is a ratings driver for the station.  “News on 850 KOA brings a massive audience to morning drive.  Plus, we have built-in listening occasions throughout the day and night with news on the hour and at 30 minutes past the hour.”

At Cumulus Media’s KARN-FM, Little Rock, program director Dave Elswick says his station is the news/talk station in the state’s capital city and they focus on serving listeners with local news.  “We do local news once an hour during our syndicated programs like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and we do two highly produced newscasts an hour in our AM drive show beginning at 5:30 am and then again from 2:00 pm to 5:30 pm.  My philosophy is to let ABC News Radio do the national and international material – we hyper-serve the local listener.  We have the largest radio newsroom in the state and have a media partner in Fox 16 (KLRT-TV).”

Heritage station KMOX, St. Louis dedicates resources to its news product.  Steve Moore serves as operations director for KMOX and vice president of news/talk for CBS Radio.  He says they view local and CBS news as part of the fabric of their station.  “We don’t run news to fill time just to allow talk show hosts to run to the restroom.  It’s tremendous content that attracts listeners who are seeking information.  We feel it’s the foundation and backbone for everything we do in our news programming and our talk shows.  KMOX just won seven Edward R. Murrow regional awards for news coverage, which included “Overall Excellence.”  Listeners understand they can trust us to cover news in St. Louis and the region.  We have a fully staffed newsroom and are committed to doing local news every hour of the day, seven days a week.  We also carry the CBS national newscast at the top of every hour.”

Emmis’ flagship news/talk station is WIBC-FM, Indianapolis where program director Alan Furst says the station is strongly rooted in news.  “The station’s been largely built on news since…forever.  We have a large staff of around 12 or so and put a pretty big emphasis on it.  Going back to when it was an AC station on AM, it had a very strong and respected news operation.  We also have a statewide network that we do out of our newsroom.  We have about 16 stations on that network.”

Fresno, California ratings leader KMJ-AM/FM draws listeners for Peak Broadcasting because of its local news and local talk content, according to program director Skip Essick.  “It’s the most important thing we do.  We air a three-hour morning news wheel in AM drive and local newscasts throughout the day and on weekends.  We run a fully staffed news department with anchors and reporters.  We conduct ongoing local market research which fully underscores the importance of local news.  We have made a commitment to doing local news better than any media in the market.”

The controversy of the state of the radio newsroom is still a big one for some radio programmers.  A number of those broadcasters wished to speak to TALKERS anonymously for fear their honest assessment of the radio news business might reflect poorly on their employer and endanger their job.

Cumulus Media Dallas owns WBAP-AM/FM and KLIF in the market and operations manager Tyler Cox says, “Local news is exceptionally important to our stations.  We operate and program WBAP NewsTalk 820AM/96.7FM and 570 KLIF News & Information.  KLIF’s format was recently modified to significantly increase the role of news coverage.  WBAP and KLIF are served by a combined news staff, generating local news content 24/7.  It’s also important beyond just WBAP and KLIF.  During recent tornado activity, the entire six-station Cumulus D/FW cluster simulcast non-stop tornado coverage.”

And for WIBC-FM, major news events still drive cume when there is a big story.  Alan Furst says, “You can see it in the PPM meters.  Last year we had the tragedy at the Sugarland concert at the state fair.  That was a Saturday night and we were on within 10 minutes of getting word about it and we went live until 2:00 in the morning with coverage of it.  You can go back and look at those meters and it was huge.”  Obviously, it’s necessary to have a staff to handle coverage of such events.

One thing leads to another as Tyler Cox tells TALKERS it’s about more than just providing the service of news for the listener.  “Talk is about news.  News feeds the talk content.  The newscasts set up content and good hosts know how to tee off from that content.”

Steve Moore agrees that in-house news should make a station’s talk shows better.  “Local news is the foundation for everything we do and that includes providing content and information for our programming staffs.  That relationship goes both ways.  Talent use their connections to flesh out stories that are heard on our newscasts.  A strong, local news department should be the perfect complement to a good talk show host.”

Laurie Cantillo is program director at Hubbard Broadcasting’s WTOP-FM, Washington.  She’s also programmed news/talk outlets WABC, New York and KFYI, Phoenix during her career.  She says she’s a strong proponent of keeping the “news” in news/talk.  “A robust newsroom not only produces unique local content at the top of the hour, forward-thinking stations fully integrate news and talk seamlessly throughout the day.  An enterprise or investigative report becomes a springboard for talk.  The reporter who’s frustrated by the constraints of 40-second storytelling provides more depth and analysis during a talk segment.  A reporter may double as a ‘field producer’ in some cases, not only filing reports from the scene, but bringing newsmakers and colorful characters on the air to interact with host and callers.  The newsroom can be called upon to fact check and advance stories that strike a nerve with the talk audience.  This integration works both ways: A strong on-air interview becomes a great follow-up story for the website and subsequent newscasts.”

And a dedication to local news also ties the station in with the community as Tyler Cox points out.  “We read almost weekly about this or that station in markets across the country recognizing that local news is a way to cement a relationship with the community.”

Which is why it all comes back to local for Dave Elswick, who tells TALKERS that if you’re going to dedicate resources to a local news product, you need local talk hosts to take those stories in depth.  “Nothing drives me crazier than a local host who feeds his listeners national and international stories and forgets where he lives.  We have enough national hosts talking and talking about the same exact material.”

The prevalence of digital news sources has increased the competition in the news business and Alan Furst says that means reassessing how a station approaches its news mission.  “The challenge is everybody – when I say everybody, I mean the newspapers, the radio stations, the TV stations – we’re all in competition in the sense that we’re all doing the same story.  People can get their news from their phone or via Twitter feeds.  They may look at Drudge or Huffington.  They may go to their local paper or radio websites.  The other challenge we have is television stations have all gone to morning news shows which are really radio shows with pictures.  People at home go to their TV before the radio so when people come to us, it’s in the car.  They may already know what’s going on so our part of it is to give the back story or the ‘why’ of the news – the analysis and why it matters to the listener.”  For WIBC-FM, that means going to a depth that many radio news outlets may not have gone in a previous era.  “Our news has to be special and interesting and different from what they’re getting everywhere else because, in a sense, it becomes a commodity otherwise.  We have to evolve pretty dramatically.  That’s where our emphasis is: Do the deeper dive and instead of doing 100 stories, doing five of them really well with a lot of sidebars and different viewpoints.”

New technology can be integrated into how news and news/talk stations deliver news and information, according to Laurie Cantillo.  “I’m energized by the way technology and social media are empowering reporters to do creative storytelling in new ways.  WTOP’s Neal Augenstein does all of his reporting – from multi-track digital editing to producing slide shows – from the field using an iPhone.  We have reporters who are live tweeting events while our digital team uses Storify to produce content for WTOP.com.  WTOP will sometimes assign two reporters to a high-impact story – one on the broadcast side and one on the digital side – to make sure we have a strong presence on all our platforms in a timely manner.”

Broadcasters are working in a world where “journalist” is synonymous with “blogger” to many people and someone who takes a picture of a car crash with his smart phone is considered a “citizen journalist.”  The state of journalism is evolving and some news people and programmers tell TALKERS they are concerned about the quality of young reporters.  Dave Elswick says, “It concerns me that many young people coming out of college have been immersed in advocacy journalism, where they are out to promote a problem instead of reporting on stories.  Listen to your neighbor, the guy in the next booth in the restaurant, that’s where you will get the stories that will ring true with your listeners.”

Steve Moore states the changes in news media certainly are apparent which is why KMOX strives to maintain journalistic credibility.  “People can get information in many different ways and I think there can sometimes be a blurry line between journalism and opinion.  Our goal is to employ a newsroom that does its homework and delivers a credible, accurate and consistent product day in and day out.  We want our users, whether it’s on the radio or online, to develop a trust with KMOX and expect that the information we provide, both locally and through CBS radio news, to be worthy of that trust.”

“Often we hear it said people don’t go to radio for news anymore,” says Alan Furst.  “In a lot of markets, there’s no reason to go to radio for news because they won’t find it.  It’s different here because we’ve been here for so long.”  Furst says he’s aware of criticism of the younger crop of ‘journalists’ in American media today, but he says there are good, dedicated broadcast journalists out there.  “Some of those journalists are working here.  They’re very serious about their craft.  Our news director, Stacy Conrad, came over from television and she really works hard with her team to follow through on the things that make good and fair reporting.  I think the problem is that there are a lot of people doing it today with very little training, very little mentoring.  They don’t really focus on the things that make good, solid reporting.”

The role of news in talk radio will be a topic addressed at the 2012 TALKERS New Media Seminar in New York City on Thursday, June 7.  Broadcasters including CBS News Radio’s Harvey Nagler; WTOP, Washington VP of news and programming Jim Farley; and WTOP program director Laurie Cantillo are among those with deep news resumes who will be speaking at the seminar.  The New York edition of the New Media Seminar is close to a sellout.  Make your reservations today by calling 413-565-5413.

Kevin Casey is vice president and managing editor of TALKERS.  He can be e-mailed at kevin@talkers.com.

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Category: Features