By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
WASHINGTON, DC — In the era of industry-wide consolidation and moves to cut costs with syndication over local talk hosts, longtime radio and media veteran Kirby Wilbur could be the poster child for reinventing a career while helping others to start their own. Washington, DC-born and Seattle-raised, Wilbur made a name for himself in the Pacific Northwest not from his job as a real estate appraiser, but as a frequent caller to talk shows, a non-paid “hobby” that ultimately led him to his own talk show on KVI in 1993. For the next 16 years, he was a staple on Seattle airwaves, along with numerous appearances on TALKERS magazine’s “Heavy Hundred” list of the most important radio talk show hosts in America, and also as a fill-in host for the Sean Hannity Show, until he was cut loose from KVI in October, 2009.
Fortunately for Wilbur, his Republican ideology, political activism and ability to articulate points allowed him to move directly into politics, becoming the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. During his tenure, Republicans picked up majorities in the Washington State House and State Senate. However, an offer came his way that has not only changed him, but is also developing a new generation of members of the media.
About a year ago, Wilbur and his wife left the Pacific Northwest for Washington, DC, where he became executive director of the conservative-based National Journalism Center. His new career may not place him behind the microphone, but it does allow him to help groom the next generation of future radio reporters, talk show hosts, writers and members of the media.
“The Young America’s Foundation is a project of the National Journalism Center. Its job is to train and work with conservative journalism students who aspire to careers in the field and encourage them through internships and academic programs. The program’s alumni include Anne Coulter, John Fund and Greg Gutfeld,” states Wilbur, who had been on the board of the Young America’s Foundation long before he was hired.
Other alumni include Jason Mattera, known for his “ambush interviews” of DC political figures. A NJC 2003 alumnus, Mattera was called Washington’s “bad boy reporter” by Politico and also was heard on his own talk radio show on WABC in New York City.
The National Journalism Center was started in 1977, but about a decade ago it was merged into the Young America’s Foundation. While the organization may have conservative roots and lean to the political right, Wilbur says it is open to anyone regardless of political ideology.
“Just because they’re not conservative doesn’t mean we’d turn anybody down. If they fit the bill and they’re really good and we thought they’d fit the program, just because they weren’t conservative we wouldn’t turn them away. We do the whole spectrum of journalism when we train our kids. We don’t really have a litmus test. We’re looking for people who really want to be journalists and are committed to being journalists.”
One of the achievements of the National Journalism Center has been the ability to bridge the gap in the loss of what radio considered “the farm league,” small markets where reporters and radio talent could hone their craft. They have developed a yearly plan of four 12-week internship sessions that include work for various media outlets from radio stations and syndicated talk programs to newspapers and other news and information outlets.
“We encourage them to work as far as they can, conduct themselves as professionals, make themselves invaluable, and learn the business. We advise them on career opportunities, and many will call us when they are looking for work or for new opportunities,” says Wilbur, who adds that companies will also call the NJC when they are looking for students who went through the program.
Wilbur tells TALKERS, “We have been able to place a number of our students into positions where they have been able to grow from interns to valuable members of organizations. Sean Hannity’s associate producer Lauren Scirocco was a NJC intern and placed with the Hannity show. She was good enough and worked hard enough and they hired her. We recently placed an intern with Laura Ingraham’s show. We have people at Radio America, and it’s not just limited to radio.” He explains, “We have interns who are working for The Washington Times and other non-radio outlets. In fact, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) just hired a spokeswoman out of our last intern class after they contacted us looking for qualified people. For those students who want to advance in radio, we can offer internship opportunities, how to develop a career in radio, help them open doors in a way that I believe other places can’t.”
In the case of Scirocco, her education in the business interning with Hannity and through the program was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she believes she could not receive in a university setting.
“As an student at the National Journalism Center, I learned more about journalism and media than I did during my four years at college. They provide students with the hands-on experience they need to succeed in the real world. We met with legendary journalists and writers such as Stephen Hayes of National Review and Ann Coulter. We also had weekly in-depth lectures on media ethics, AP style, investigative journalism, and more,” says Scirocco, who believes her experience in the program was invaluable to her future.
“Most importantly, I received my dream job out of my internship with the NJC. I fully credit the NJC and Young America’s Foundation with obtaining my job at the Hannity Radio Show. Had I not been accepted into the journalism program, I would not have been placed as an intern with Hannity Radio, and therefore may not have been exposed to the talk radio world. Through my internship with Hannity Radio, I also interned for Mark Levin…and ultimately, once I graduated college, I was asked to interview for the position of associate producer,” Scirocco adds, “before taking the position on Sean Hannity’s staff.”
“The internship is a three-month program, and what makes the program a win-win for both the intern and the company that they are working for is the fact all of the internships are paid internships – paid for not by the radio station or media organization – but by the National Journalism Center,” says Wilbur.
One thing that Wilbur makes clear is that not everyone can get an internship into the program. Since the intern is not paying for the course, like they would pay to be in a college, they can be very selective and accept those who they believe bring to the industry something special.
“We send our staff out to job fairs at various universities, and we post on job boards at some schools. We offer our students a stipend. We pay them so the station doesn’t have to. We all know a lot of radio stations are strapped financially, and it’s really tough for them to pay, so we raise money from our donors to pay our interns. It’s a small stipend, but living in Washington, DC it’s not easy, so the stipend provides the necessary way to pay for meals, a place to live, and relieves the burden on the station or media outlet of having to pay them,” says Wilbur. “Donors to the Young America’s Foundation allow us to pay these interns which is invaluable to both our interns and the radio stations and organizations where they are placed.”
Wilbur believes that the internship program through the Young America’s Foundation gives students what he calls “an incredible media experience” for 12 weeks, along with the academics and access to speakers they might not be able to get in a university setting.
“We are a 12-week program. When it comes to a four-year university it is hard to compete. However, we have access to internships directly because of our established relationships that other schools may not. If you are a conservative student and you’re in a school or program that is usually more left-leaning, you get ‘fresh air,’ if you will, and support. If you want to work in the conservative press then this is an access point because we have relationships to those organizations. If you want to write for Forbes and The Wall Street Journal we have that access. That’s not to say we would turn anyone down who was not conservative. Companies, whether they are in print or radio want people who can do the job, and we train them for that.”
Wilbur knows firsthand, as a history major and political activist in college, he was able to transform his experiences into talk radio — a blend of politics and culture that gave him an advantage that someone who strictly came out of journalism school may not have.
“I believe our students may be better prepared for radio and the media than a journalism student who went through four years of classes going through our program the way it is constructed,” says Wilbur, who reminds his students his door is always open. “I have 16 years of talk radio experience. If you want to go into radio or talk radio you can come into my office and ask me specific questions. You can’t always get that in a journalism school where it is very structured and you have professors but they are academics. Not all journalism professors have written for a newspaper, or sat behind a microphone doing drive-time talk or actually were a reporter. Here I have that experience and we have direct access to the people who do. If you want to talk to Fred Barnes (the McLaughlin Group) about something I can get you to Fred Barnes. All of our speakers give out their business cards and tell our interns if you have any questions or problem, call me.”
For a radio station like WMAL in Washington, DC, the internship program has also been a win-win. Liberty Davidson, a young woman in her early 20s and still in college joined the Young America’s Foundation program as an intern, and was placed with the Cumulus-owned news/talk station.
“Liberty works on our morning show, and I tasked her with a number of functions, from calling up audio, putting show prep together, call screening, writing up news for the website, and handling social media,” says Heather Smith, the executive producer for WMAL’s Morning on the Mall morning show who adds she was more than just prepared for the tasks Smith assigned her.
“I have never had a better intern than Liberty. She loves to learn, very proactive, and she’s someone I don’t have to look over her shoulder. I know she can do the job, and I’m very impressed,” says Smith. “This was the first time we had an intern from the Young America’s Foundation at WMAL. It’s a joy to have her here.”
Wilbur says about 50 to 60% of the interns who get through the program do find work in journalism, but that does not include others who use their education and internship to carve a niche for themselves in other non-media opportunities, including politics. Chris Devaney, the state chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party is a former NJC intern.
The National Journalism Center will have a major presence at Talkers New York 2014 this Friday, June 20.
“One of the reasons I am coming to Talkers New York 2014 is I want to expand our reach so that more radio stations and more shows out there can understand that we have access to people who are trained, who are good journalists, who are good students and good interns who are willing to work their way up,” says Wilbur. “I hope that we can spread the word, so if there are stations who are there looking for good people with radio backgrounds – we have those names – we are a source of those people and get them through that entry way and get them into radio.”
As Wilbur says, “There’s a shortage of talent in radio and it’s much more difficult to get in than it was a generation ago because so many local stations are not using local talent. I want to change that. There’s incredible talent out there and I believe talk radio has a future.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS and RadioInfo. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com. Meet Jeff McKay at Talkers New York 2014 on Friday, June 20.