TALKERS Spotlight: THE WATCHDOGS
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Contrasted to national talk radio hosts who can sometimes get deeply mired in a monotonous right against left (or vice versa) onslaught, many of their local counterparts emerge as bona fide folk heroes for standing up against a coterie of injustices inflicted on their fellow residents.
Actions taken by this band of “watchdogs,” in the overwhelming number of instances, have nothing to do with political leanings or a partisan playbook.
Legendary for rooting out the “bad guys,” afternoon talk hosts “John & Ken” (John Kobylt & Ken Champiou) expose what they consider dirty dealings to their very large audience on Los Angeles’ KFI. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, WRKO, Boston’s Howie Carr is a thorn in the side of the “powers that be” in New England. Everywhere in between, intense professional satisfaction comes when they go toe-to-toe with pit bull-like tenacity against the establishment. In that same sort of imagery, “hold their feet to the fire” has actually become a talk radio slogan as on-air talents attempt to expose and defeat “the bad guys.”
Inspired roots for their laudable watchdog mentality and conduct can be found in what is both the motto that became synonymous with one of America’s most polarizing broadcasters, and the title of a mid-1960s’ pop song.
After the release of “Tell It Like It Is,” the career of Aaron Neville skyrocketed; numerous covers followed including one from Heart approximately 15 years later. Boasting he simply was “telling it like it is,” Howard Cohen became wildly famous in the sports/entertainment world, although it was by his on-air name – Howard Cosell.
Regardless of ramification, it is the charge of a radio watchdog to be true to that “tell it like it is” mantra.
In the early days of the modern talk radio era, most markets could lay claim to at least one local watchdog feared by city hall power brokers; they had the backs of the regular folks. Although not as prevalent in the format as they once were, they are still out there. Does the industry still value this breed of talk host and does the public still want to listen to them? Here’s what some of today’s “watchdogs” have to say about their craft.
Sights set on fairness
Perhaps the most logical launching point in detailing today’s radio watchdog is to query those who pride themselves in being dubbed such to elaborate more thoroughly in defining that term.
As far as one specific conscientious broadcaster is concerned, it refers to someone who, when others are not, is intrepid enough to pose the tough questions. “In some cases, we are asking the same things because they seem obvious,” declares Lars Larson, whose 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm PT program originates from KXL-FM, Portland and is carried by 16 Radio Northwest Network affiliates in Oregon/southwest Washington State. “Other times, the questions that seem obvious to some are not at all obvious to others. I love doing it – and not just to say, ‘gotcha.'”
When Portland’s mayor recently held a news conference to announce he was going to get on-board with some other colleagues on gun issues, it sparked an interest to Larson, who usually does not attend many press conferences, but made an exception in this case. “It was at City Hall, which is right across the street from us,” he points out. “I asked the mayor how he was going to get the guns off the streets because a ban on manufacturing new ones won’t do that. He was unaware that a person does not need a license to own a gun, or that a person does not have to register a gun, pistol, or rifle in Oregon. It became very clear that he did not understand the basic laws he was talking about. None of the other reporters in the room asked that question because most of them shared the mayor’s ignorance on guns. When people make public policy but do not know the subject they are talking about, it is a problem.”
There have been occasions when people have contacted Larson from inside private organizations to say that their company is about to fire people for a certain reason. “We bring that to public light and, in many cases, the company decides not to do so, or it changes the way it is going to do it,” he explains. “We also have that happen within public agencies.”
Early this past summer, a transportation worker from a state agency tipped Larson that three workers would be sent on overtime once a week on Sunday mornings to water a tree that had seen better days. It was in a dry part of the state and Larson inquired why that was being done. “They said that the tree wasn’t dead and that the arborist indicated it was simply short of water,” he recounts. “We wondered why they wouldn’t cut the tree down and plant another one, rather than dumping water on what appears to be a dead tree. In October, they admitted it was dead and they cut it down. At least we let people know what was happening.”
Other examples of his watchdog efforts are more consequential, such as the one involving a young, stay-at-home mother and her deputy sheriff husband. According to Larson, Oregon was trying to send a three-year-old boy (Gabriel) – who the couple was attempting to adopt – to Mexico. “The child did not know anyone in Mexico,” Larson explains. “His mother is dead and his father is in prison. It was decided that the child had to be sent to his grandmother, who never showed any interest in him whatsoever. The baby was born to an American mother in this country, which means he is an American. Our argument was that an American citizen who has rights in Oregon was being sent to a foreign country where he is not a citizen and does not know the language. We didn’t think that was right. If he survives the experience, he could walk right back into the United States when he is 18. In the meantime, he is being forced to live in a third-world country.”
Always looking for flaws in a story, Larson came to find out that, in the previous five years, Oregon had dispatched 17 children to foreign countries. At least three of them had been murdered; the state did not know the whereabouts of the other 14. “They were all American kids who had some connection with overseas families,” he reports. “We stopped that – ‘Baby Gabriel’ is still living in the United States and that couple adopted him.
No one else reported on that story for two full weeks and Larson declares, “I honestly do not know why. We were pushing it hard and we served that watchdog purpose.”
It got Larson’s attention when he heard that a veteran was waiting six months to get his eyeglasses from the Veterans Administration. “The VA manufactures eyeglasses but told him that they were backed up into the tens of thousands,” a perplexed Larson notes.
That prompted Larson to reach out to Oregon congressional representative – and former radio station owner – Greg Walden, whose staffers met with the congressional oversight committee that deals with veterans’ affairs. But through Larson’s perseverance the problem was alleviated. He says, “This is part of the absurdity of government, but this member of congress fixed it immediately – within 24 hours of our show date. They got vouchers so the prescriptions could get filled.”
Larson, who – in addition to spearheading his local/regional show – does double-duty by headlining a daily 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm PT program syndicated by Compass Media Networks. He emphasizes that management at Alpha Broadcasting-owned KXL-FM is “100% supportive and appreciates” that he is acting as a watchdog, Larson states, “They have never asked why I am making a big deal out of something. The more topics I can put into the show from the ‘That Ain’t Right’ category the better. I invite the audience to offer their solutions and ask if mine will work. We get into great conversations because they will sometimes say my fix is no good. If their solution is better, I will go with that.”
Every reasonable attempt is made for Larson’s show to be about the practical – rather than the political. “I would prefer to talk about things that affect someone’s life,” he maintains. “If I had a choice of following the machinations of congress or where the rubber meets the road, I would pick the practical. We serve a watchdog function and tell people we are all about liberty. Often times it is government, but whenever someone stomps on liberties, we raise a ruckus about it. Many times, we get it fixed.”
For 18 years (1994-2012), Mark Davis was a wakeup fixture on Dallas’ WBAP, but as of June of last year, the San Antonio native is heard in morning drive (7:00 am to 10:00 am) on Salem-owned KSKY, Dallas “The Answer.”
Numerous talk hosts such as Davis perceive the watchdog role as a way to monitor practices of a private sector company, or government in the public sector. “If I am doing a full day of discussions about accountability in government, taxes, or spending – that is a watchdog function in its broadest sense,” he maintains. “In a specific sense, when we do shows on local issues, which I am always glad to do, those are very often focused on decisions made by school boards and city councils. I do not view myself as the lone watchdog operative, but as engaging a call-to-action so that callers and listeners can fulfill the watchdog function. I may not live in the town where something is happening. If I can alert someone to be active on their own accord, that spreads the watchdog function to everyone willing to engage in it.”
Some specific journalistic ethics generally define and guide investigative reporting. “A balance must be struck when a radio, television, or print reporter says that he or she is investigating something,” opines Davis who possesses a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism. “Opportunities should be given for dissenting views and evidence to the contrary to what your inquiry may be.”
There is much broader latitude, he believes, for the watchdog. “It is not that watchdogs shouldn’t be careful – they absolutely should be,” Davis advises. “No watchdog should go in search of something with a pre-formed agenda. Watchdogs have their eyes open and they are vigilant to wrongs that may need to be righted. The investigative reporter starts from a basis of the supposition that something is probably wrong and seeks to lay it open for the education and enlightenment of the public. I know that plenty of people have done this and it is a style of radio I respect enormously.”
Seemingly everyone who has an iPhone has suddenly become a reporter, prompting University of Maryland graduate Davis to comment, “Like almost everything else, a function once relegated to a select few is now atomized across the landscape of every citizen. In order to have an investigation of something, you had to be a reporter. These are not people with journalism degrees or operating in the mainstream media. In fact, that is the point: The mainstream media is often letting us down, in terms of being a proper watchdog to honest, strong, limited government. An entire army of citizen journalists is racing into that vacuum. They are coming from their outposts as bloggers and activists to shed light on all kinds of things that the mainstream media never will. It enriches the watchdog function enormously. It is wonderful that radio stations and television stations will still do investigative reporting. Someone who has the technology and passion can do it part time.”
Afforded enormous creative independence, Davis points out that he is “trusted” by station management to be “responsible” in anything he discusses on air.
Within that structure, he declares, “I am given complete freedom to examine what I want to examine; go after whom I wish to go after; criticize whom I wish to criticize; and praise whom I wish to praise. That is something that is extremely important. It means the world to me that they trust me that much and I do not ever want to betray that trust. It is very much of a ‘consumer-beware’ environment, as there are people out there who tilt at their favorite windmills. One of the great gifts of the new media and the online world is that anyone can be purveying information and can often do so with the outward authority of a college professor. Just because you heard it on the radio or found it on the web however does not mean it is true.”
Consumers of all media should be particularly attentive about corroborating things. “About 75% of what is in a person’s ‘in box’ is crap,” Davis contends. “Your job is to figure out which 75% that is, and then to hold very dear the 25% that is good, authoritative, well-sourced, and reliable.”
On any given day, Davis might have a bullhorn in his hand about federal spending but he stresses, “Listeners do not want me to do ‘this’ rather than ‘that.’ If I hit the topic well and the calls are good, that is what I need to be doing. If a state agency is doing something the following day that screws taxpayers out of something they are entitled to, or if they have a law that tramples the rights of some people, that is what I need to be doing. There is no such thing as a good topic or a bad topic. The best shows are those that examine what needs to be done that specific moment.”
Not everything that watchdogs find is evidence of an evil person in action, so they need to be especially observant about ostensibly good people who, Davis suggests, think they are operating in the listeners’ best interests – but are not. “Watchdog functions are not always a search for criminality, skullduggery, or bad intent,” he maintains. “We sometimes have to look out for the people who think they are the good guys.”
Merely invoking the term “advertiser boycotts” infuriates Davis, who flatly states, “I despise them. It was cowardice and gutlessness to go after Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers [after last year’s Sandra Fluke controversy]. Not every advertiser is as conservative as he is – they just want the Limbaugh audience.”
On the other side, Davis was “horribly repelled” when advertisers bailed on former ABC-TV “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher, whose weekly “Real Time” is on advertiser-free HBO. “He said some wildly provocative things that I found were totally offensive, but the name of the show was ‘Politically Incorrect,'” reasons Davis. “If you don’t want to advertise on a program that says provocative things, go find a cooking show. I will always stand up for advertisers and their freedom to support – without harassment – those shows that offer up an audience that they want to have. It is a person’s right to complain loudly about a show; however, it is nothing short of bullying to go after advertisers and make their lives a nightmare. It is an awful thing to harm those shows economically because you don’t like what is being said.”
Most broadcasters can do themselves an enormous favor by showing an accommodating willingness to hear an opinion that is in conflict with their own. “Sometimes, all a person wants is to have their view validated,” comments Davis, who has been a Limbaugh fill-in and hosts the syndicated “Morning in America” each Friday. “If I am the one guy on the radio who can help to bring about reform or relief for people in one community – that makes this job very special.”
Right or wrong versus right or left
Watchdogs tend to take advocacy positions as they attempt to encourage and alter public policy. That differs from investigative reporters who, according to WTMJ, Milwaukee 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm Jeff Wagner, illuminate and bring things to one’s attention. “When I get leads, I pass them off to our big news component,” he explains. “They are the ones who do the real investigating reporting. They develop the story, and then that is where we kick in on talk radio.”
Major market U.S. cities routinely had two – and in some cases three – daily newspapers. Everyone was trying to get the next big story but the reality in today’s printed world is that, most metropolitan areas are fortunate to have one daily that publishes seven days a week. “My guess is that the number of reporters on staff on those papers has dropped dramatically,” Wagner theorizes. “The print medium that traditionally has done watchdog stuff [is not as viable so] it is now even more relevant for those of us in the electronic media to do what we do. Our listeners are attending school board meetings and they send me emails about what I need to know. That lets me run things down. The electronic media is filling in for where newspapers used to be.”
Among local talk radio’s copious strengths is that its personalities are able to look at nonpartisan issues, although, there can be expectations that they will tow certain party lines. “I don’t describe what I do as a political show – I say that it is a current events show,” remarks Wagner, a 1994 Republican candidate for Wisconsin State Attorney General. “Many current events do not necessarily break down along party lines. Instead of talking about right or left, you are talking about right or wrong. That helps you relate to the audience in that way.”
When preparing for his daily two-hour program, Wagner starts with local/regional issues. That is one thing that distinguishes what he can do on a heritage station such as WTMJ from what a person can hear on national programming. “Some very good syndicated talk show hosts are out there who do an absolutely great job,” he acknowledges. “Our audience though comes to us first for local stuff. We certainly do talk about national issues, but my priority is always to try to find things that are important to the audience on that local level. They are not going to get that anywhere else.”
In the early-2000s, Milwaukee County was involved with a pension scandal. The county executive and the county board at the time created new legislation that essentially allowed county employees to retire with full pensions and payouts. In some instances, that meant hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Some print reporters found out about it, as did Charlie Sykes [WTMJ 8:30am to 12:00 noon] and I,” Wagner recounts. “We just jumped on that and it led to a recall of the county executive. The person who took over in that capacity was current Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. That was something that potentially could have bankrupted the county by making people rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was not a liberal-conservative issue.”
A self-described “recovering attorney,” Wagner previously spent 13 years as a federal prosecutor and was in private practice for several years before joining Journal Broadcast-owned WTMJ fulltime 15 years ago. “One of the great things about this medium is that each person brings their experience to it,” the Marquette University Law School graduate tells TALKERS.
Especially when dealing with criminal justice issues, Wagner can discuss it from the point-of-view of having tried over 100 federal cases. “We dwelled on that more when I first started, but I think the audience knows who I am,” the onetime grand jury coordinator states. “It isn’t necessary that I begin every segment by saying, ‘As a former federal prosecutor …’ It is the ability to give the audience a perspective that they would not necessarily get somewhere else. Having a person read about how a process works is great, but if you have someone who has been in the process and knows how things actually work, you can bring an added level of insight to listeners by being able to communicate that.”
Management has been “incredibly supportive” of Wagner throughout his WTMJ tenure and he emphasizes that “no one” has ever told him not to do a story, or to hold off because an advertiser might be upset. “I could not imagine working in a more supportive environment and it has been that way since day one,” he emphasizes. “We pretty much have the green light to do what we think is correct.”
Bread & butter intimacy
Over the course of a radio career that included more than a dozen years in Western Massachusetts and the past 13 years in Providence, WPRO-AM 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm host Dan Yorke acknowledges that on many occasions, listeners have cited him as being a watchdog. “I am known as a person who can detect ‘b.s.’ in a nanosecond and hold leaders accountable for it,” he proudly declares.
With an observation that the industry is in a “very strange place” right now Yorke remarks, “Syndicated radio has become very partisan. There is frustration within the industry that it is becoming routine, mundane, and problematic.”
Although unsure if that is in fact the case, he maintains, if enough people constantly repeat it, it becomes reality. “A group of consultants nauseate me with the idea that we should not be talking about anything substantial,” Yorke seethes. “They think we should be driving phone calls with the most inane subject matter just for the sake of it. As long as the phones are busy with drivel, they say that is great talk radio.”
Somewhere in the middle are on-air talents such as Yorke, who recounts that one of his recent shows was complete nonsense. “All we did was laugh the entire time,” he notes with delight. “It was about an economic summit the state legislature was having where a community leader asked the legislature to stand up and shout, ‘Rhode Island number one.’ We played the audio and had a ball with it. You can laugh about the local stuff, as well as pound your fist and jump on the bully pulpit. On a nonpartisan basis, I have done fact-finding and then comment about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. When you get into that kind of mindset with the work that you do, you will certainly be considered a watchdog.”
Some stories that Yorke has broken have led to investigations and he remarks that being a watchdog is a very valuable asset to have in a talk show host’s “toolbox” although he cautions, “It seems it is a lesser-valued skill set in our business today. I don’t know if that is because of the consultant chatter, but I do hope that the pendulum is going to swing back. My guess is that it is more substantial on a local level.”
A thorough understanding of the community, including its weaknesses as well as its strengths, is fundamental for talk radio personalities. “In essence, that is kind of a ‘watch-doggy’ thing,” Yorke reasons. “A local talk show host’s passive, detached, relationships with a market are a formula for disaster.”
Especially on the local level, talk radio hosts expecting to survive/thrive should be completely accountable to their audience to the point where Yorke insists they must be able to look someone in the eye and proclaim, “‘You are a bad guy and here’s why … ‘”
A sense of duty is required to get the best effort at the truth. “Listeners are very smart and they get that,” Yorke maintains. “They will know when you have an agenda. If you want to be a watchdog, you must do so with journalistic integrity and rely on journalistic skills. If you do it well, you get to research, investigate, and get to be in the mix. It is a valuable product.”
Even though Yorke frequently chronicles such activity on his daily program, he stresses that he isn’t someone who gets up in the morning to go looking for the bad guys. “They are all around us,” he states. “You need to ask yourself if you have the time and energy to explain to people what is going on. The audience will have to determine who the good guys and bad guys are. My disposition is not [that of A&E reality show character] ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ [Duane Chapman]. You must have your eyes and ears open in terms of who is influencing the community. Being a watchdog does not mean you are out there looking for people to hurt. You are identifying people who are doing well. It is an equal opportunity function.
Not once has Yorke been told by his bosses to avoid rocking the boat. “Local management has a very good understanding for what works for our radio station and what our marketplace demands from us,” he points out. “[WPRO-AM parent] Cumulus has been very supportive of that concept. Hopefully, what works well here might become a formula or a template, versus the direction the industry seems to be so conflicted over, which is a little bit more of a pureed platform environment. In Providence, Cumulus recognizes this is where our bread is buttered and they let us butter our bread.”
At the core, being a watchdog matters, it works, and Yorke contends that profitability accompanies it. “To its credit, Cumulus understands its importance,” he comments. “I give them credit in recognizing the value in that and I hope it ends up being the trend forward. It is meaningful to the community to have relationship equity-based programming. Advertisers recognize that and they support it. It isn’t rocket science and we are usually sold-out. The Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke incident was supposed to be the beginning-of-the-end and blacklisting for talk radio. We do not see that on the local level. People see the value of having this sort of intimacy with the community. That kind of intimacy sometimes involves watchdog behavior on our part and they appreciate that. It is part of the whole package.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be given to Dan Yorke illustrating the influence he has on the markets in which he broadcasts comes from TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison – a longtime resident of Springfield, Massachusetts – where Yorke did a daily show for a number of years. Harrison states, “In terms of the media protecting the interests of the average people, life in this region was measurably better and safer when Dan Yorke was here than it has become after he left. His vigilance made an absolutely tangible difference that can be attributed to him and his work as a watchdog. He has never been replaced and neither has the function he served.”
Paging Robert Stack
Corruption is practically a spectator sport in Rhode Island and Ocean State citizens speak of it with a curious degree of pride. It’s no wonder WPRO-AM has a history of loading its program schedule with local hosts who like to get their hands dirty. At a time when it can be argued that the concept of the talk radio “watchdog” is a dying breed – WPRO has not just one (Yorke) but several high-profile watchdog-types. John DePetro certainly fills that bill. Over the course of the six years he has been with WPRO-AM, John DePetro has amassed professional triumphs, as well as having been in the eye of some highly-publicized controversies.
Now heard daily 9:00 am to 12:00 noon where he precedes Dan Yorke – DePetro had been doing morning drive for a while, but maintains he is “a better fit” when he can “speak from the heart” and then take action. “Morning drive at our station is basically a news wheel,” he explains. “We have developed a system where I am selective on different issues and battles that I will pick up. You don’t chase everything, and you are not going to win every time. When I think something is worth ‘investing’ in – and it does become an ‘investment’ – I weigh it carefully.”
Relying on a common sense approach, DePetro searches for easily understood, non-convoluted causes that will produce tangible results. “I don’t do stunts like sleeping out on someone’s lawn or leading boycotts,” he remarks.
Throwing out a football analogy, DePetro likens himself to New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. “We have a news director [Bill Haberman], who is like a receiver, and we have Patrick Austin in digital, who is like the offensive line. [Program Director] Craig [Schwalb] and [Cumulus senior vice president/programming] Mike McVay are [similar to Patriots’ head coach] Bill Belichick on the sideline. I can even hear them discussing me as if they are taking my temperature. I am the one out in front, but have that kind of support behind me. If I feel very strongly about something, I am willing to go all-out. If you are going to ‘talk the talk,’ you have to ‘walk the walk.’ When you come across a story, you cannot just be the guy behind the microphone. I try to be very visible and when I say I will follow up, that is what I do. People from all walks of life start to approach you.”
Several local atheists felt a cross on a World War I monument in Woonsocket was offensive and they wanted it removed. On short notice, DePetro was able to mobilize 2,000 people on a Wednesday afternoon to that “remote part” of Rhode Island to show their support to keep the crucifix intact. “It is not easy to get that many people there so quickly, but it shows that you are willing to take a stand,” he maintains. “People came from different backgrounds, so it was not about Democrats or Republicans. It made sense to people and was worth the effort. Political leaders can’t get 100 people at a rally. Woonsocket is not exactly downtown Providence – it’s an old, mill city that is far out of the way. We caught a lot of attention when we drew so many people there. When you get a couple of things like that under your belt, you don’t even have to do a lot of heavy lifting. They will back down before you get into gear. You become like a public official and it does empower you.”
A group of seniors gathering in the community room of a nursing home to recite the Rosary sounds like a fairly harmless scenario, but when someone in the facility took exception to it, the nursing home put an end to the activity. “I didn’t have to invest a lot of time on that one,” DePetro proudly states. “When I got there, they totally backed down. They knew who I was and what was going to happen. Within a day, they reversed the policy. The reaction I got everywhere I went was, ‘Good for you for doing that.’ That was a very important thing for the seniors and they sent me Christmas cards as their way of thanking me. In today’s atmosphere, there are many knee-jerk reactions but it often does not shake out with the general public.”
These two cases did not involve the preaching of political talking points. “I have a pretty good read of the public and know what will – and will not – ‘play,'” DePetro contends. “Public officials know I am not chasing every whimsical fight. I pick things where I have strong community support. I have actually gained advertisers because people are hungry for people who will take a stand. Some of my biggest supporters are the advertisers; they play off many of my causes. I am very comfortable with that and I love doing that form of radio.”
Active on Facebook and Twitter, DePetro utilizes those social media platforms to let people know when he will be at places such as the State House. “Not everyone can call the station and not many will email, but you can pile up many comments on a Facebook page,” he remarks. “That shows our team and me that we are on the correct path. I like rallies, crowds, and interacting. People can see that I am the ‘real deal.’ It makes them realize that they are standing with you and that you can fight city hall. You don’t have to just stand back and take it. When I go to the State House, it’s like Eliot Ness and the Untouchables making a raid.”
Bauerle’s Buffalo bond
Buffalo-born Tom Bauerle has spent all but three years of his radio career in his hometown, and the 9:00 am to 12:00 noon host on Entercom’s WBEN-AM has found that when a trust is established, “Things come to you from others.”
While he has broken “so many stories” over the years that he has “lost track,” Bauerle does not necessarily consider himself to be a local watchdog. “I don’t spend my off-air time actively seeking salacious stories of corruption and malfeasance,” he comments. “There is rapport with people who listen to me. I have never burned a source. If I give my word, it is my bond.”
One story, however, that will forever stay with Bauerle does fall under the watchdog umbrella. It involves a teenager named Alix who called his show several times. “She always dazzled us with her bubbly charm and intelligence,” he remarks. “One day I received an email from her mom, telling me that Alix had been killed hours before by an alleged drunk driver. The man arrested was a prominent local physician who managed to escape conviction on the most serious charges because of a jury decision that made no sense to me then, and no sense to me now. We covered the trial and the emotional aftermath. When the disappointing verdict came in, her heartbroken mom and dad talked to me on air as a friend. People told me it was some of the most touching and genuine radio they had ever heard.”
Subsequently, a number of family members of those lost to other tragedies have felt comfortable talking with Bauerle and he comments that, “Most of my listeners know I am very conscious of the difference between exploiting someone’s grief and allowing family members to tell us about loved ones they have just lost. It is particularly gratifying to me that my listeners often donate their loved ones’ organs so that others may live better lives.”
A massive 2010 snowstorm-related traffic tie-up on the New York State Thruway reportedly left motorists trapped in their vehicles for as long as 12 hours. When a similar situation occurred the following year, Bauerle colorfully comments, “I ripped the Thruway Authority a new one. Within six months or so, road barriers were set up at major thruway on-ramps to reduce the risk of snowstorm gridlock happening again. Local talk show hosts need to remember, to the person stuck in a traffic jam, that delay is the most important story in their lives at that moment.”
Another vehicle-related circumstance several months ago was much more dramatic and it underscores the sometimes-amazing power of local personalities. “A listener reported that a car was driving the wrong way on the Thruway,” Bauerle notes. “Knowing the area as I do, I was able to pinpoint exactly where the vehicle was and I warned people in its path. State troopers listening to me raced to the scene before their own dispatchers knew what was happening – potential tragedies were averted.”
Included among the three phone calls Bauerle took afterward from drivers thanking him for saving their lives was one from a tearful woman who had her baby daughter with her. “Call-screener Logan Howard gave me ‘the vital look’ when the call came in,” Bauerle recollects. “My producer Chris Johnson made sure to track the vehicle during the dangerous moments – that’s what you call teamwork.”
One of Bauerle’s listeners discovered a major problem with a rural animal shelter, which was hoarding animals in unsanitary conditions. “There were literally hundreds of cats in a small building – it was vile,” he states. “With the support of the management of WBEN-AM, I organized a weekend drive to find homes for these cats. Within hours, every single adoptable animal found a new home. I knew nothing could change what had happened, but our listeners gave the story a happy ending.”
Being an area native and possessing great expertise with Buffalo-Niagara Falls is imperative to Bauerle who fumes that one of his “biggest gripes” about talk show hosts is “the surfeit” of Rush Limbaugh (heard 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm on WBEN-AM) and Sean Hannity (7:00 pm to 10:00 pm ) aspirants. “They seem more interested in advancing their own careers than in focusing on where they actually live and work,” Bauerle asserts. “I love Rush unabashedly, and stay in touch with Sean from time to time. There is no nicer person in this business than Sean, but I have my own style. If I were forced to talk national partisan politics every day, I’d just as soon live in a box.”
Politicians and bigwigs are capable of acting shoddily in any size market, with the end result generally making excellent fodder for local talk radio.
That was precisely Brian Wilson’s focal point when he was program director/afternoon drive talent on Toledo’s WSPD. “As it turns out, I guess I could be wearing that ‘watchdog’ label but it was not my intent,” he readily admits. “It grew to that when I got to Toledo. The situation there was so putrid. For all the natural and geographical resources it has, that city should rightfully be bigger than Chicago, Detroit, or Cleveland. In conjuncture with organized labor, however, the politicians worked it so only a very select few managed to get the usufruct of all of the benefits and opportunities that came through there. Those smart enough to see what was going on packed up and left, as evidenced by Toledo’s decline in population over the past 20 years.”
In assessing Arbitron’s 96th-rated market – it was #72 20 years ago (1993) – Wilson states, “Toledo has no topography problems, every railroad track in the world passes through there, and it has three airports. From a commercial or industrial perspective, it is all right there, but lying fallow. Toledo is a joke – not an attraction.”
It is Wilson’s contention that Toledo was in a pickle when he arrived in the Ohio market roughly eight years ago. Part of the city’s difficulties, he claims, rest with its history and ethnicity of the population. “Most of the people came there from eastern European countries,” the former morning talent at New York CHR WHTZ (“Z100”) points out. “The area was overwhelmingly Catholic and the mayor was a man named Carleton S. Finkbeiner.”
One plan that Libertarian Wilson put forth was to recall Democrat Finkbeiner. Along with that, he had to get an outside legal establishment to go over the city charter. “The newspaper was very pro-city hall and pro-big labor,” contends Wilson, who departed Clear Channel talk facility WSPD last November (2012). “Other than several Detroit and Cleveland radio signals, Toledo is a pretty isolated market. These guys had a great game going there for them – but not for the general public. Local politicians and big labor dealt the business community out of the game, so we started a ‘Take Back Toledo’ movement.”
By the time the mayoral recall got to the state supreme court, politicians were within weeks of stating their intention to seek office. “Finkbeiner either had to declare he was not going to run, or he would run – facing the possibility that the Ohio Supreme Court was going to validate our signatures and he would be up for a recall,” states Virginia-based Wilson, also known for his “Vacation Relief” business. “At the last possible minute, he announced he would not run – so we got him. That was a very big deal – it was the leading topic of conversation for six months. We had ‘Take Back Toledo’ hats and t-shirts. The whole town was talking about it yet I don’t know if the four active local television stations ever ran a story about it. In retrospect, I would like to think that the consciousness of the area was raised because of the watchdog effort that we did at the station. Certainly none of the other media was barking – so we barked.”
The movement however was not without at least one temporary bit of monetary fallout, as a large bank did not want to be associated with the station that was trying to recall the mayor. “It is safe to say that no general manager likes to see money like that walk out the door,” Wilson concedes. “I was doing a segment called ‘After the Bell,’ a review of the stock market and other things, with the head of the investment department for the local Fifth Third Bank.”
Within three weeks of that institution yanking its advertising from WSPD, the station got another money expert, so Wilson maintains, “It didn’t have a monumental loss of income. In fact, I developed a 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm ‘Eye on Your Money’ program, which not only replaced the loss of revenue from the Fifth Third account, it actually grew another revenue stream.”
An advertiser’s power has limits
Rather than consciously adopting the “watchdog” moniker, WDEL, Wilmington 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm host Rick Jensen’s primary attention is to engage in what is transpiring in Delaware and to be a sounding board. “My show reflects that I am a very conservative individual, especially when it comes to government and spending,” he explains. “I am sure I don’t get involved with some things because of my political leaning, but some things do not involve politics at all.”
Several veterans who felt the local newspaper was ignoring them got in touch with Jensen to voice their concern for establishing a home for vets. Delaware is one of only two states in the country, Jensen notes, that does not have such a facility. “This is something that we, as a society, should provide those men and women who serve their country,” he stresses. “They need our help and I said they could use my show as a platform.
Then he took things a sizeable step further though by putting together a marketing plan to try to compel the-then Governor, Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, to endorse a plan to the state legislature for such a residence. “That involved many emails to veterans in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania,” Jensen recounts.
It also included sending press releases to television stations in nearby Philadelphia, as Delaware does not have its own TV outlet. “I had veterans on with me two or three times a week and asked how many listeners would protest outside of Legislative Hall on a particular day,” Jensen notes. “We had 4,000 people who said they would demonstrate to support our veterans.”
One day prior to Jensen’s live broadcast, Governor Minner announced she was sending a request to the state legislature to authorize a home for the state’s veterans. “I kept my promise to show up, but in instead of 4,000 angry people, we had 200 happy ones,” Jensen reports. “A burning fire brings out the press and onlookers but realtors are hard-pressed to find people to come to an open house. Keep in mind that it was an election year and that is why it worked.”
Listeners have utilized Jensen’s daily program to complain about state lawmakers and he maintains the key is that he is very involved. “I go to many civic meetings, and I will lend my advice to organizations planning events,” he states. “You certainly have to have a handle on the national issues, as well as the local ones.”
Over and above incorporating parody songs on his daily programs, Jensen discusses such things as consumerism and bad roads, so he emphasizes it is not just politics. “The activism is a part of who I am and what I do,” he comments. “I have been involved in non-profits and charities since I was in high school. When WDEL does a fundraiser, people come out of the woodwork and we set records every year. The reason that this stuff can work is that – more than anything – we are well-informed, entertaining broadcasters who do our homework. We know how to present the material.
Quite succinctly, he proclaims, “WDEL is Delaware. Something like 10% of the state listens to our radio station.”
Several years ago, a WDEL news reporter put together a not-so-flattering piece regarding the actions of one of the station’s largest clients. “She reached out to that advertiser, said she was doing the story, and basically told the advertiser what she had,” Jensen points out. “They told her they wouldn’t react to the story.”
Furthermore, they were adamant in not wanting her report on the air at all but Jensen mentions, “It was a story that affected many people in the state. The advertiser called our general manager and said if the story ran, they would cancel their advertising. The station’s position was that advertising on WDEL grants access to our disposable income audience but it does not guarantee favorable press. They cancelled the advertising and the president of our company [Delmarva Broadcasting] went to the reporter and said, ‘Good job on that story.’ Six months to a year later, that advertiser returned.”
With an estimated 12+ population of 93,700 – Decatur, Illinois is #273 of Arbitron’s 284 surveyed markets.
On-air watchdogs in a community that size face their own set of incredibly tough challenges
As is the case with their larger market counterparts, they have to be thick-skinned, but as WSOY, Decatur vice president of development/6:00 am to 9:00 am “Byers & Company” host Brian Byers explains, “We are involved in everything that happens here. We raise a ton of money; fill food banks; and do whatever we feel is our responsibility.”
In a town such as Decatur, that sometimes means a radio watchdog will make things uncomfortable for someone he or she could know quite well, but Byers insists, “We do it because we feel what they are doing is bad for the community. It can make things awkward but we want voters to know, so we have to do it. Good leaders understand that and understand people will not agree with them 100% of the time. You build relationships and they know there are times when we have to be critical. Those who just want to get their face out there to be known as celebrities are sensitive to criticism. Having done this the last 17 years, I know that the responsible people running the community understand that constructive criticism goes with the job. It does not have to be an adversarial relationship.”
Several connotations – both positive and negative – can go along with the watchdog moniker, but Byers envisions his capacity as a filter to the community. “Our listeners don’t have endless time to learn about where each candidate stands on all the issues in this April’s municipal election,” he comments. “There are 11 people running for school board and the city council has six candidates. We are more of a conduit to a person’s agenda, and we ask candidates why they want to serve. Once a person is elected, it is up to us to keep them accountable for the promises they made to the community.”
Broadcast watchdogs such as Byers have access to these officials, whereas the average listener does not and he emphasizes, “We take that responsibility seriously. When someone running for state rep says they will take a two-term limit, but then conveniently forgets that promise, we are there to remind them.”
If required to discuss nothing but partisan politics for the duration of his daily on-air shift, Byers jokes that he might need to look for another job. “We have a standard talk lineup and love the guys on the station, but people get their fill of that,” he remarks. “Decisions made by the city council, school board, and the county board impact peoples’ lives so much more than what happens in Washington, but it isn’t as sexy. Things such as public schools, water rates, and parking tickets are much more germane to the average citizen than anything being debated in Washington.”
Many people in the country have become quite cynical of politics, Byers contends, yet he believes that “90%” of those who seek local office or serve the community do so for the correct intentions. “They are not looking for the next step up in the political world – they do it because they care about the community,” he opines. “The ugliness of politics though has kept many good people from running, so we are getting some watered-down candidates.”
Great broadcasters tend to be the ones who have convinced their listeners that they are talking directly to them, rather than to a large audience. “As hosts, we sometimes forget about that,” Byers concedes. “We think of the number of listeners we have and the ratings, but the key is to talk to each person as an individual. It is not ‘us’ and ‘them’ – it is ‘me’ and ‘you.’ I grew up as a fan listening to Jim Bohannon [whose program airs 9:00 pm to 12:00 midnight on WSOY] and Larry King; both of them were very good at it and that is about as local as you can get. Even with the advancement of MP3 players and satellite radio, we have had the #1 morning show in this market for 17 years. Those other sources cannot tell you what is going on in your backyard, but we do that every weekday morning.”
On the record as being opposed to the March 2012 description (“a slut”) Rush Limbaugh made regarding Sandra Fluke, Byers nonetheless contends, “Whether you agree or disagree with Limbaugh [11:00 am to 2:00 pm on WSOY], anyone who has been behind a microphone understands that when you do 15 hours of unscripted radio every week, sometimes you will say some stupid things. I am sure some national advertisers were skittish about what Limbaugh said, but I did not get that drumbeat at the ground level here that people were ready to be done with him. Most people probably thought it was a stupid thing to say but let’s move on. When you turned on the national media though, it was as if people were at town halls with torches. That was certainly not the case in our community. I trust our listeners. I talk with them on the phone and read their emails.”
With broadcast facilities in Decatur, Springfield, and Danville (all Illinois), as well as in the Idaho market of Twin Falls – Jupiter, Florida-based WSOY parent Neuhoff Media is “the greatest company” for which Byers has ever worked. “It is small, family-owned, and does not live and die on the whims of Wall Street,” he points out. “They believe in integrity, community, and quality. We are given everything we need to cover the community. They are true broadcasters – that is a rarity these days. Sometimes, we have to cover some tough stuff and ruffle some feathers. GM Mark Hanson has been great and we have other good people here who understand our role in the community.”
Reach TALKERS managing editor/West Coast bureau chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@Talkers.com or (818) 985-0244.