This past week, I did what many people around the country did. I watched the inaugurations of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.
Indeed, we were watching an historic moment. For the first time, America would have a woman serve as its Vice-President. She would also be the first African American and Asian-American to serve as VP.
I wanted to witness that moment. Moreover, I wanted to see how the various networks HANDLED that moment.
I wasn’t surprised at what I saw and heard.
As Harris was sworn in, anchor after anchor had to remind me that I had just “witnessed history”. Some even added jazzy commentary about the “American Experience”.
A constant problem in the news media strikes again.
Far too often, journalists want to make themselves part of the moment. They look for the catchy line or signature phrase that will forever be remembered, archived and hash-tagged to death. Journalists, anchors, and reporters need to understand that moments like this are never about them. Yet far too many act like Kanye West snatching the mic away from Taylor Swift.
Like many people in the business, I had to learn this lesson the hard way.
I harken back to one of my early jobs, working as a reporter for a small market news station. One evening, there was a major fire at a warehouse close to where I was living at the time. I had sprung into action, filled with the exhilaration of covering a breaking story.
As soon as I got to the scene, I spoke with a few witnesses and first responders, took notes, and then called into the newsroom. They immediately put me on the air with the anchor in the studio, who asked me to divulge what I had learned.
“Oh my God,” I cried. “It’s like a WAR ZONE out here!” I then went on to describe the scene of the burning building like I was reporting from Manhattan during 9-11. I wanted to make sure that I could grab and hold the attention of listeners.
The very next day, I was called into the News Director’s office. I thought I would be getting a hearty pat on the back. Instead, I got a swift kick in the ass.
“What the HELL was that last night?” he asked.
“Well, I was trying to report on….” He cut me off.
“You were trying to make yourself part of the story,” he said. “You need to learn that when it comes to reporting, less of YOU is ALWAYS more.”
He was right. It was a mistake that I never made again.
NO ONE DID IT BETTER THAN UNCLE WALTER
Walter Cronkite was the Godfather of electronic journalism. He always knew that it was the moment that would often speak for itself. He once famously said, “Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.”
When I worked in news/talk, I kept an autographed photo of Cronkite in my office, behind my desk. I wanted to make sure that he was always looking over my shoulder. I also wanted my anchors and reporters to see him glaring back at them whenever they would sit in front of me. He was a permanent reminder of what our job was: we report the news without trying to BE the news.
Here are a few famous examples of how Cronkite mastered that philosophy.
“THE FLASH APPARENTLY OFFICIAL…”
All the major networks covered that fateful day on November 22nd, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. However, it was Cronkite who is most remembered. It wasn’t because of some catchphrase or commentary he came up with to encapsulate the moment.
Cronkite delivered the facts as he knew them. The painful pauses you could see him take to contain himself made him come across as genuine. In that moment, nothing else was needed. The nation was in pain and he was there with the nation.
Can you imagine how MODERN journalists and news anchors would have handled this?
Not every moment Cronkite covered was marred with tragedy. There was that historic occassion on July 20th, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Cronkite was sitting at the CBS Anchor desk preparing to deliver the news as it happened.
“I had just as much time to prepare for that landing as the space program did,” he said. “I watched it from the beginning. And yet, when that vehicle landed on the moon, I was speechless.”
The look on Cronkite’s face when ‘the Eagle had landed’ was one of the great moments in the history of journalism. There was no need to wax poetic about the moment itself. He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning…just as the rest of the country was. Once again, he came across as genuine. There was no shame in being speechless because it was the best thing he could have done.
I cringe to think of how modern news networks would have handled that.
“AND WE’LL SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT!”
I’ll end with a brief segue into sports (as I’ve spent a few years in that format as well).
One of the greatest home run calls of all time came from Jack Buck. It was also one of the simplest home run calls of all time and epitomized the idea of “less is more”.
It was October 26th, 1991. Game 6 of the World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves. The Twins needed to win to force a tiebreaking Game 7 or else their season would be over. In the bottom of the 11th inning, star outfielder Kirby Puckett came to the plate.
Buck was the Cronkite of sports. He didn’t need to do anything but sign off with a reminder that there would be one more game to be played the following evening. The sounds and images of that scene didn’t need further explanation or commentary on his part.
Ironically enough, by not trying to become part of the moment, he becamepart of the moment.
Viewers knew they were watching history in the making. They didn’t need to be reminded of it. As Uncle Walter would say, “And that’s the way it is.”
The Power of “No”
It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space.
Whenever I speak with friends or colleagues, the topic of “what’s wrong with radio” constantly comes up. Everyone has different theories and many of them are valid. Upon further reflection, I feel that it all boils down to one word.
In nearly three decades of working in spoken word media, “no” is the one word I’ve heard more than any other. It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space.
It’s a word that has been said about every facet of the business. For those of you that have worked in radio, tell me if any of these phrases are familiar.
NO, YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS
The recent memo Cumulus reportedly sent out censoring their talk hosts from opinions on the 2020 election did not surprise me in the least.
Companies are infamous for knee-jerk reactions to quell potential controversy. Don’t get me wrong, there is ALWAYS a line and some of the mandates that companies hand out are justified.
Many are just over the top and end up doing more harm than good.
I recall one time as a young Program Director, my morning show host took a very hard stance against affirmative action policies that the local university had been adhering to. Within an hour after his show ended, the station’s General Manger stormed into my office with a sheet of paper in his hand.
“I need you to sign this,” he said.
The document was an edict that, as PD, I would have to enforce a strict policy that matters of race could never be discussed on the station again. I would be solely responsible for said policy and that any violation by any host on the station would result in my immediate termination.
“Hey, why don’t we talk about it first,” I said. “Don’t you think this is an overreaction to this morning’s show?”
The GM went on to explain, in no uncertain terms, that I could either sign this document or clear out my office. Since my rent was coming due, I signed it.
The next thing I did was start calling anyone and everyone to see if they were hiring. I wanted out. A short time later, I landed a new gig.
Radio has lost a slew of talent to different content channels because they didn’t want to be censored or overly controlled. It’s understandable why companies would want to avoid controversy. Far too often, the cost of doing so has been worse than the controversy itself.
NO, WE CAN’T SELL THAT
Yes, the pandemic has hurt many businesses, radio being no exception. The reality is ad revenues for radio have been on the decline since 2006. While digital services jumping into the competition pool has been a big reason for this, so has radio’s stubbornness.
It was shocking at times sitting in sales meetings with fellow Program Directors and hearing how often they would shoot down a revenue idea. Often the phrase that was used was “We’re not doing that; it would be a ratings killer!” Many former colleagues would try to protect ratings points like they were their own children. The irony was, they often did so at their own peril.
Radio is a revenue, not a ratings business. People lose their jobs for reasons related to the all-mighty dollar; not because their AQH shares went down because of Neilson’s nonsense.
While I was never one to roll over and rubber stamp any idea that an account exec would bring to the table, I always did my best to find a solution. I grew up in a family of salespeople. I understood what life was like cold-calling and living on a commission-only basis. You don’t sell, you don’t eat. I would never tell a DOS, GSM, or AE ‘no’ without trying to come up with an alternative that would work. There is ALWAYS a middle ground that can be found. Working on compromises with the sales staff was an opportunity for mutual education. I’d have a chance to explain to the salesperson WHY their idea wouldn’t work for the brand. The salesperson, in turn, could explain to me their client’s needs and how I should align my thinking.
NO, WE CAN’T SPEND THE MONEY
I’ve found far too many radio execs that are comfortable playing defense rather than offense. Quite honestly, I can’t blame them. Companies have made it a capital crime for GM’s who can’t properly justify an expense. In doing so, they’ve created an atmosphere that isn’t about winning, it’s about simply not failing.
I remember in one market; we had the opportunity to make a bid for the broadcast rights to a popular local sports team. Getting them would have been an absolute game changer for us. At the time, the station we were bidding against had been paying $4 million a year in rights fees. When we put our proposal together, our counter to that was to offer no rights fee at all.
When we were finishing our proposal, the GM looked at me and our sales managers and said with a laugh, “It will be a fucking miracle if this works.”
Feeling like I had to speak up, I countered, “Aren’t you afraid we’re going to get laughed out of the room when we propose this?”
“Hey,” the GM responded, “I’d rather be laughed out of the room than ask (our company) for $4 million a year!”
Our presentation was an absolute embarrassment. The Team President looked offended afterwards and insinuated that we were wasting his time. It was a bad look for us and left the impression that we were low rent in front of a multi-billion-dollar company. We didn’t get the radio rights and continued to struggle to gain traction in a competitive talk market.
But hey, we didn’t have to ask for any money.
NO, WE CAN NEVER DO THAT!
Innovation has been sorely lacking from the radio space for far too long.
I’ve written columns in the past that radio needed to embrace technology, not ratings. As streaming services continue to haul in billions of dollars, I’ve pleaded for radio to put a value on their content and to not be afraid of the paywall. These progressive, forward-thinking ideas have generally been rejected.
Much of this is because many radio fears failure.
This ultra-conservative approach has not only stymied the industry’s growth, but its ability to be creative.
While a good deal of progress has been made in the digital space, radio has embraced new ideas at a snail’s pace compared to other content providers.
Facebook built a company worth over $700 billion and did so living under the mantra to “move fast and break things.”
Amazon has a trillion-dollar empire and got there by “treating every day like day 1.”
Apple is a $2 trillion dollar company whose bedrock is coming out with the coolest new tech toys every year. Radio’s mantra? “Hey, we’re surviving!”
Stuart Varney Connects in the Morning
The qualities that set Stuart Varney apart are priceless and sometimes rare for network business anchors to possess.
Oh, the pain of selling your shares of Microsoft, only to have the stock proceed to hit record highs. Especially after years of proudly standing by the holding and proclaiming great pleasure in it’s slow, steady and safe growth. Such was the plight of the jovial, ever-informed and curious Fox Business anchor, Stuart Varney. (he has since re-purchased a chunk of Microsoft.)
On any given weekday morning, you’re likely to hear Varney mentioning his infamous sale, or discussing gas prices near his home in New Jersey and near his vacation spot in upstate New York. In Varney, viewers get exactly what so many of them are searching for as they reach for their next cup of morning coffee. Most notably, he is able to build a bond and a connection with his viewers. Yes, he knows the market. He knows trends, PE values and economic indicators. But you also feel as though you truly know him as well.
The qualities that set Stuart Varney apart are priceless and sometimes rare for network business anchors to possess. You start with knowledge. Sure, he knows his niche – the market and its impact on the everyday Americans who tune in to see him every day. He can tell you what the numbers say and what it all means. He also matches that knowledge with a real-world persona that viewers can identify and connect with.
For example, he sold that Microsoft stock too soon.
“I did that too!,” says Joe Six-Pack.
But he turned around and bought some shares of Boeing.
“Ok, we’ll see,” you think.
During the prosperity of the Trump years, Varney was downright giddy, and happy to say so, about the falling price of gas.
“Hey, I can fill MY truck up for a few bucks less too!”
He came to this country from the United Kingdom and learned the value of hard work by washing dishes in a restaurant.
“I washed dishes at my first job too!”
Through his stops at other networks, including CNN and CNBC, Varney has always been able to connect – with the market and, more importantly, with people. He asks the questions we want answers to, and follows up with a non-pretentious curiosity. If he doesn’t understand how Peloton works, he asks for clarification. If he is still confused about Bitcoin, he asks for clarification from his expert guests. As a result, his morning program, “Varney & Co.,” has the feel of a gang of buddies, rather than some stuffy money show.
In his role as the traffic cop, Varney spends his mornings discussing issues and stock trends with market analysts, network correspondents, CEO’s, political leaders, entrepreneurs and socialites. In one minute, he’ll be asking his correspondent, Susan Li, about the latest move on the big board. In the show’s next segment, he’s talking football with Joe Namath or economics with Art Laffer.
Varney’s intellect and knowledge brings us in, but it is the connection that keeps us. That, and his unbridled pride in being an American citizen, which he became in November of 2015.
“I became an American because I believe America is fundamentally good,” Varney told his audience in January of 2020. “Where else in the world can someone with a foreign accent go on national television and tell people what’s going on in their society?”
And tell us he does. Legions of Americans wouldn’t start their day any other way.
FOX News Enjoys Ratings Climb, CNN Takes a Step Back
“Fox News Channel was cable’s most-watched network during the week of February 15. CNN experienced its lowest-rated week in both total viewers and the 25-54 demographic since before the election.”
Fox News Channel was cable’s most-watched network overall for the week of Feb. 15. They continued topping prime time in total viewers; this past week, they averaged 2.486 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Feb. 17 edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” (3.69 million viewers) led all cable news telecasts for the week.
Fox News also led in total day (6 a.m. to 5:59 a.m.) and notched its best performing week with the daytime average since the week of October 26th leading up to the 2020 election. “The Faulkner Focus” at 11AM/ET anchored by Harris Faulkner posted 1.5 million viewers and 214,000 in the 25-54 demo, earning its highest-rated week in viewership since its Jan. 18 launch and surpassing the competition on CNN and MSNBC in total viewers. From 1-3PM/ET, “America Reports” with John Roberts and Sandra Smith garnered 1.5 million viewers and 213,000 in the 25-54 demo, also seeing its most-watched week since program inception.
CNN experienced its lowest-rated week in both total viewers and in the key 25-54 demographic since before the election (9/21/20) as well as its lowest-watched week of the year in primetime in the key demographic. Nonetheless, CNN still managed to best both Fox News and MSNBC in 25-54. The cable news network’s demos were most assisted by its telecast of the week’s most notable news event: President Biden’s town hall from Milwaukee, WI from Feb. 16. It was the first time in prime time Biden took centerstage since his inauguration. He answered questions from Americans about multiple aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, including vaccines, school reopenings and economic recovery.
CNN also benefited from its Sunday night programming. “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”, which was picked up for a second season by CNN on Feb. 24, was the most-watched program in cable news for the day (Feb. 21) among both total viewers and adults 25-54. In total viewers within the 9pm ET hour, CNN was top-rated with 1.635 million, Fox News’ “The Next Revolution” followed with 1.130 million and MSNBC’s “The Week with Joshua Johnson” had 613,000; in the key demo adults 25-54, CNN averaged 385,000, +192 percent advantage over Fox News’ 132,000 and +442 percentage more than MSNBC’s 71,000, outperforming both networks combined.
At 10pm ET on Feb. 21, CNN’s “Lincoln: Divided We Stand” was cable news’ top rated in the hour with 1.229 million total viewers and 257,000 adults 25-54. Fox News’ “Rush Limbaugh: In His Words” special (999,000 viewers/145,000 25-54) and MSNBC’s “Richard Engel: On Assignment” (627,000 viewers/61,000 25-54) lagged behind; CNN also beating FNC and MSNBC combined within the demo.
Here are the cable news prime time averages for Feb. 15-21, 2021:
Total Day (6 am-5:59 am)
- Fox News Channel: 1.325 million viewers; 212,000 adults 25-54
- MSNBC: 1.185 million viewers; 174,000 adults 25-54
- CNN: 1.032 million viewers; 238,000 adults 25-54
Prime Time (Feb. 15-20 @ 8-11 pm; Feb. 21 @ 7-11 pm)
- Fox News Channel: 2.486 million viewers; 366,000 adults 25-54
- MSNBC: 1.987 million viewers; 296,000 adults 25-54
- CNN: 1.634 million viewers; 395,000 adults 25-54
Top 10 most-watched cable news programs in total viewers:
1. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.690 million viewers
2. President Biden Town Hall (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 73 min.) 3.639 million viewers
3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.558 million viewers
4. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 2/16/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.502 million viewers
5. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.468 million viewers
6. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.461 million viewers
7. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.420 million viewers
8. Rachel Maddow Show “Justice After Trump” (MSNBC, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.216 million viewers
9. Hannity (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.177 million viewers
10. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 2/15/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.137 million viewers
Top 10 cable news programs among adults 25-54:
1. President Biden Town Hall (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 73 min.) 0.902 million adults 25-54
2. CNN Tonight (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 10:13 PM, 47 min.) 0.661 million adults 25-54
3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.580 million adults 25-54
4. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.569 million adults 25-54
5. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 2/16/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.549 million adults 25-54
6. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.549 million adults 25-54
7. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Thu. 2/18/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.530 million adults 25-54
8. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.522 million adults 25-54
9. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.521 million adults 25-54
10. Cuomo Prime Time (CNN, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.520 million adults 25-54
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