By Mike Kinosian
CHICAGO — It is a completely reasonable leap for the average non-broadcaster to assume the June 30th debut of iHeartMedia’s Black Information Network (BIN) was an instantaneous response to George Floyd’s one-month earlier murder (5/25), and/or the rapid rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Clearly though, those deeply rooted in the industry are acutely aware that a full 24/7 all-news entity is a highly thorough, meticulous proposition that hardly springs up overnight.
Pursuing an unserved audience
Wheels for this project were – in point of fact – set in motion last year. “At budget time, companies look at what is and isn’t working,” remarks highly esteemed broadcaster Tony Coles, cogently entrusted by iHM as BIN president. “We had a conversation about the lack of women and minorities who listen to traditional [news and news/talk] stations. The fact is they haven’t really been served.”
Heretofore, content has not appealed – or been explicitly targeted – to them.
From that discussion emerged the notion of formulating a news network that was written and produced specifically for the black community by the black community.
Months of back-and-forth ensued; research projects were conducted to ascertain the viability of such a weighty endeavor. “The more we investigated, the more potential we saw and we began moving wholeheartedly toward this,” Coles discloses.
Became real in “plane” sight
Several defining moments have stood out in Coles’ mind, particularly one in New York City on March 9 when he was initiating the hiring process. “I remember sitting at LaGuardia and seeing [only] about 15 people at the gate,” he recounts. “I thought to myself this COVID-19 thing seems more serious than I could have imagined. Literally a week later, the world began grinding to a halt. Internally, we were saying we didn’t know how bad it was going to get.”
Given that it was increasingly likely that imminently on the horizon were only the darkest clouds of what eventually would become the present pandemic, everything regarding additional network staffing was paused. “We were going to wait it out and not hire anyone,” Coles details. “Instead, we decided to work on things that weren’t going to cost any money so that when we picked back up, we would be able to do it.”
Over the course of the next six weeks, the disproportional impact the coronavirus was having on the black community genuinely struck Coles.
Calls and notes were traded within the company and as he emphasizes, “We thought there was a need for the network before, but this would be the headline every single day. It’s not just the virus, but the high number of deaths in the black community and the economical toll it was having. There were numerous angles with that story. We thought everything we were working on was being validated,” and by way of perspective, this was the perception back in March/April.
Tragedy accelerates sign-on
Neither Coles nor the rest of the country though had any idea what was to come in a tremendously tragic May irony. “We were supposed to be on the air Memorial Day weekend and, of course, that was when George Floyd was murdered [in Minneapolis],” Coles points out. “The following weekend, when the protests were really sweeping the nation, [iHeartMedia chair/chief executive officer] Bob Pittman called me and asked, ‘Hey, are you watching all of this?’ It was [agonizing to both of us] that the network wasn’t on the air. Launching a network during a pandemic though is probably not the best business move. [Even so], he simply said, ‘We have to do this – and we have to do it now.’”
If Coles and his team hadn’t spent months interviewing people and originating research, it would have been impossible to debut BIN as quickly as it did. “Blowing up [stations in] 15 markets all at once is probably the most grueling and insane thing I’ve ever done in my career,” he acknowledges.
Not as a radio person, but someone in the black community, Coles wanted to know what was happening in the wake of Floyd’s murder, prompting the BIN president to monitor a considerable amount of Minneapolis radio. “The best coverage was actually on [iHeartMedia sports talk KFXN ‘100.3 K-Fan’],” he opines. “They completely stopped everything and were dedicated to this, [while] actual news/talk stations weren’t doing anything with it. From a consumer’s standpoint, that was very frustrating. To some degree, it was probably uncomfortable territory for those stations because they know that – for better or worse – at their core, they serve a conservative, older, white audience. They probably didn’t know how to cover it without [offending] a portion of their core.”
Typical news station sound
Two components comprise iHM’s Black Information Network venture: The turnkey 24/7 net itself and national newscasts that push out at the top-of-the hour. “A station could tell us they want to take the product and we could make it happen for them very easily the next day,” Coles states.
Distributed on iHeartRadio’s streaming platform, Black Information Network has PPM-market affiliates in: Los Angeles; Chicago; San Francisco/San Jose; Washington, DC; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Boston; Seattle; Detroit; Minneapolis; San Diego; Tampa; Baltimore; St. Louis; Charlotte; Riverside; Cleveland; Nashville; and Norfolk.
Notwithstanding the broad generalization of a 25 – 54 target, Coles elaborates that the network leans slightly younger than conventional all-news operations. “Especially on the young end, iHeartRadio listening will ultimately be our biggest driver. Surprisingly, we have a much bigger female appeal than traditional news stations – it’s probably a 60/40 split, male to female.”
Content-wise, everything is designed for a black listener, although Coles stresses, BIN is a news- and reporting-geared format that is “approachable” to a person of any ethnicity.
Non-blacks he talks with tell him, “It sounds like a news station, and I say that’s exactly the point.”
Build it and they will come
Via an LMA that takes effect in approximately six weeks (11/2), iHeartMedia will begin operating New York City’s WWRL, thus picking up a BIN affiliate in the country’s largest market. Furthermore, iHM has entered into an Asset Purchase Agreement for the NJ Broadcasting LLC-owned/Hindi-formatted facility. “We are very excited about that,” beams Coles, whose first priority in isolating affiliates was finding markets that were at least 20% African-American – or – had a black population 100,000+. “At the end of the day, we have to be a smart business. In markets where we can’t flip an [underperformer], we look at doing LMAs or purchasing stations. I want to make sure we have a footprint in the country’s top 20 black markets.”
Having spent the majority of his career on the programming side, Coles finds it “unique” that BIN is not a ratings-centric project. “Our first/biggest priority is to build a trusted news source for the black community. We wanted to build a network on a foundation of great journalism, great reporting, and accurate information. To get an initial ratings spike would require us to sensationalize; incite; and inflame. It would help [increase] revenue, but we intentionally said ‘no’ because we are doing something to serve the black community.”
Signed to long-term commitments, national partners Bank of America; CVS Health; GEICO; Lowe’s; McDonald’s USA; Sony; 23andMe; and Verizon stand united behind the network’s mission. “We absolutely want to build the size of the audience and we are very focused on that,” asserts Coles. “It’s exciting to be in a position where we are taking the ‘in it for the long haul’ [approach]. If we do it well, that audience will be here.”
Orchestrating the arduous, time-consuming process of assembling and formatting a 24-hour all-news network is being done in stages, with phase one accomplished as BIN’s actual sign-on. Providing every market affiliate with local traffic and weather, and adding market-by-market local newscasts constitute the second and third segments. “[Hurricane Sally] was headed toward New Orleans, so we moved them up in the priority list,” Coles explains. “New Orleans went live with local news, local traffic, and weather inserts [on BIN affiliate/iHeartMedia-owned WODT]. We are in the mode of providing local news for the affiliate markets, and adding markets as we get people to cover those responsibilities.”
Specificity of market is dictating model structure and in the case of New Orleans, “We are actually anchoring from there,” notes Coles, who reveals BIN was originally slated to be headquartered in Atlanta; however, once COVID-19 hit, everyone began working remotely. “We intended to relocate one of the guys from San Diego, but moving wasn’t an option. We sent equipment to his house, which is where he is doing newscasts. After everything was up-and-running, we all looked at each other and wondered why we would want to relocate everyone to Atlanta. That would be disrupting their lives – they like [staying where they are]. We never planned on having a local newsperson in San Diego. If we were to put the network on there, he’d become the local news anchor for that market. I can’t say what this will look like moving forward, but because of the new model we have been ‘forced’ into, we will probably have more local anchors in local markets than we originally planned.”
Untold stories/unshared perspective
As it would be on any other news network, COVID-19 consistently dominated as the network’s lead story. “The difference is that, for a period of time in Georgia, 70% of the people who died there were black,” cites Coles. “Black people hearing that story completely relate to, understand, and feel the pain of it. If you are white and hear that reference, it stands out to you. There is nothing about hearing that fact included in a news story that should cause a white person to say [BIN] isn’t designed [for them]. We are covering the day’s biggest news stories – we just want to make sure we are consistent in reflecting the audience. We tell stories that don’t often get told, from a perspective that doesn’t always get shared.”
Earlier this month, for example, a week-long series aired on the impact August 2005’s Hurricane Katrina had on black businesses in New Orleans. “It essentially destroyed the black middle class there for over 10 years,” Coles laments. “Someone could have heard that story on NPR, but we are making sure that in between all the news of the day, we are sharing interesting stories that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.”
Too soon to know for sure, but Coles fully anticipates that BIN will share audience with public radio outlets. “We are really taking time to dig into stories and I’ve already had listeners make references to that,” he proclaims. “We are working with the National Association of Black Journalists [NABJ] and have had some early conversations with many HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges & Universities]. We want to balance experienced broadcasters [such as former CNN contributor/current BIN staffer Roland Martin] with what we are hoping to be the next generation of radio journalists. That pool is too small and, quite often, there isn’t an opportunity for minority broadcasters, so we are trying to have a combination of both.”
Branding on the network is underscored through several different rotating taglines. “News From A Different Perspective” is perhaps the most notable, with Coles confirming, “It is the one that has really resonated. I was planning to shorten ‘Black Information Network’ to just ‘BIN,’ but master marketer Bob Pittman said when CNN started, it was the ‘Cable News Network’ [because] ‘CNN’ wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone. That was one of his greatest pieces of advice. Our logo says ‘BIN,’ but listeners hear ‘Black Information Network.’”
When aggregating all the feedback that surfaced on social media during BIN’s launch, Coles was perhaps most excited seeing that “proud” was frequently listed. “It is usually in the context of how ‘proud’ people are that something like this is finally in existence and what it means to the community.”
Laser-focused on both the story of 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor – fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers (3/13) – and the $12 million settlement arrived at last week (9/15), Coles maintains, “Being early with that information will help us. Her story didn’t get the kind of attention it deserves, but we made it a mission that some presence of her name is on our network every day. We believe people need to know about Breonna Taylor. One cool thing about BIN being part of the iHeartMedia family is that, even though we don’t have a Louisville affiliate or reporter, [iHeartMedia owns Louisville news/talk WHAS] and we are able to tap into their sources and their people. It is an extended newsroom and network of people.”
Enlightening experience worth a fortune
Albeit rare, news stations have been flagships of professional sports teams. Current examples include Entercom siblings WCBS-AM (New York Mets); WBBM-AM & WCFS (Chicago Bears); and WWJ (Detroit Pistons); however Coles foresees BIN affiliates refraining from adding other elements. “We have to treat this like any other format launch. If we were putting on a country music station, but [immediately] began doing play-by-play on weekends, it would dilute the brand we were trying to build. Our commitment to our founding partners is that they will be the only national brands heard on our stations. That is a tough pill [to swallow] for any professional sports team and isn’t a model that works for a lot of what they do.”
Simultaneous with his role as Black Information Network president, Coles is one of the company’s division presidents, overseeing iHeartMedia stations in 21 markets on a day-to-day basis. “It [requires] time management; many good people around me; and a lot of coffee,” he jests. The Chicago-based former assistant program director of New York City adult contemporary WLTW and Los Angeles hot AC KBIG has held a variety of positions with iHM the past 17 years including hot AC brand manager; executive vice president of programming; senior vice president of programming; and regional vice president of programming.
Concentration in spoken-word’s news genre has “definitely been enlightening and eye-opening” for him. “Building teams, leaders, products, and brands is at the core of what I love to do. This could have just as easily been a new music format. I’d be equally as excited and passionate about it. What makes this one different is that it’s one of the few times I’ve been involved with something that has the ability to make such a significant difference on the community. [For that reason], this is exceptionally exciting and rewarding.”
A recent conference call in which he conversed with one of the most successful black people in America leads Coles to ruminate that, “There aren’t many black CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. This opportunity is enabling me to have an interaction like that. I told one of our team members how much that call meant to me personally. We are doing something that has never been done before: No one has ever been able to turn on a radio station any time of the day or night and hear some of the best black reporters in America.”
Steadfast in his belief that BIN listeners are “proud” hearing about average black people who have overcome numerous obstacles to achieve success, Coles contends, “It gives them ‘hope,’ which is another word that pops up many times in [social media] ‘word clouds.’ It is proof that not everything that is happening in the black community involves violence. There are so many great stories and that’s why I am ‘proud’ to be part of this. Hopefully, what we are doing will have sustainable impact for so many people – a really good buzz is building.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.