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WFMD GM Reacts To Life After Rush, Post-Pandemic, Change of Adminstrations

GM Banks offers perspectives on the changes of the past 18 months.

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There are a multitude of challenges when it comes to running terrestrial radio stations these days. Whether you look at the operation from the programming side or the sales side, the way stations around the country are approaching things in a post-pandemic world are much different than they were 18 months ago.

The news/talk format has faced other challenges aside from the pandemic. Earlier this year, allegations of election fraud which culminated in violence at the U.S. Capitol further divided the two parties that make up a large percentage of the voting population in this country. In February, conservative talk radio was dealt a major blow when talk icon Rush Limbaugh succumbed to lung cancer.

In Frederick, Maryland an award-winning 85-year-old heritage news/talk station in the 187th Nielsen ranked market is confronting its challenges and finding its way in an uncertain political and financial climate. Free Talk 930 WFMD is owned by Connecticut-based Connoisseur Media. The station features two local shows and a host of syndicated programming including the Rush Limbaugh Show which continues to air using guest hosts and Rush’s wisdom from past shows.

The station’s general manager, Mike Banks, a Long Island native who was recruited during the pandemic to run both the news/talk station and the company’s top-rated country station WFRE, spoke to Barrett News Media about the challenges of running a small news/talk station during a pandemic, out of the presidential election, and after the passing of Rush Limbaugh.

Banks has a unique perspective on the evolution of the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions considering he was in Long Island when the shutdowns began last March.

Ryan Hedrick: Tell us about your career path, what brought you to WFMD in Frederick?

Mike Banks: I spent many years on Long Island both as a salesperson, a manager, director of sales, and vice president of sales. Then I had an opportunity to work briefly as a general manager for a Christian contemporary station in New York and eventually I ended up with iHeartMedia in Manhattan. iHeartMedia, which formerly owned these stations, put these properties in the Aloha Station Trust during a transition period. During that time, I was asked to come out to the Frederick market, and I ended up falling in love with it. I was recruited back to New York by Connoisseur Media who then bought these radio stations from Aloha. That purchase brought me back to this market.

RH: What have the last 13-15 months been like trying to run these stations in such uncertain times?

MB: It was a crazy 2020 and a crazy start to 2021. I guess the word is fluid because you really must be able to adjust to the different challenges, both in running the stations and for your partners and advertisers. One of the things I love about commercial radio is that we are part of the local community. Especially our news/talk station where we focus on Frederick and the surrounding communities and WFRE – you cannot spell Frederick without FRE. We have really had to be flexible and nimble and focus on our employees and the health and safety of our employees. Obviously, we want to be responsible corporate management with a huge focus on the community. There are so many businesses that have been adversely affected by the economy. For the sectors that are doing well, we need to be here to support them as well.

RH: How did you construct a plan for a safe working environment given the fact that nothing like this has ever happened before in radio or in this country?

MB: I have had to become the compliance officer here and put any kind of personal thoughts or feelings I have aside. We had put health guards in the studios between the hosts and the guests. We have also had to limit the number of people in the studio at once. We look to the CDC a lot but sometimes those guidelines are not as clear cut as we would like them to be. And of course, as a news outlet, we are always getting the most current information which we utilize to our advantage in terms of staying compliant and keeping everybody safe.

RH: Media companies experienced devastating losses of income from advertisers who may have gone out of business or had to shut down. How did you approach your sponsors who may have taken a break?

MB: Everybody has their own opinion about what is safe and what is not safe and when it is OK to re-open. We were able to come back to do business gradually and as normally as possible given the restrictions. We had staff in the building, and we had to do a lot of things virtually. In building back up our operations gradually, we had to have individual conversations with advertisers and ask them what they were comfortable with. There has been a lot of customization. 

I have always loved local radio. From a local standpoint, our shop local initiative has been something that we have been passionate about. We talk to companies every day that are struggling and we invite them to come in with no quid pro quo and no pressure to advertise or spend money. We have been doing marketing grants for companies that have been struggling. If businesses need help, that is what the stations are here for. 

RH: How did WFMD cover the tumultuous 2020 election? Could you have asked for anything more from the station’s coverage of the change in administrations?

MB:  Personal feelings aside, I am responsible to run the company in a not-so-biased way even though we do have conservative talk affiliates and we take our news feeds from Fox News. And of course, we do our own local news reporting in addition to the content that we get from the Associated Press. A lot of things that came across from the AP during the election, I would sit with our program director, Frank Mitchell, and tell him that we were not running that story because it was not true. I do not want our reporting to be slanted even though we have local and national hosts who give their opinion. When we are in a newscast, we have got to try to not give our opinion. Either way, whether our content is conservative or not conservative enough for our listeners, I really try to keep WFMD News as right down the middle as possible, and that is a challenge these days. 

RH: Have you had clients leave the station or refuse to advertise because of the content you have on the air?

MB: As one of my mentors told me once, there are no coin slots in the back of the radio. The way we get paid is that advertisers and our partners help fund our operation. So, you need to be a little bit careful because you do have employees that have their own opinions. Being a conservative news outlet and having some outspoken voices, we need to make sure we are serving our partners and their needs. We have had a few advertisers that have had some financial considerations when they decide to spend money with us, but I know that there have been a few that have said you are a conservative talk radio station and I just do not want to be affiliated with you, these are contentious times.  

RH: It is now May and Premiere Networks is still running the Rush Limbaugh Show. What have the last few months been like running a station where your top host passed away, but his syndicator is still carrying a version of the show which you have opted to stay affiliated with?

MB: I think Remembering Rush is great, I think it’s nice to still have some tributes. Quite frankly, I thought Premiere would have come out with something a little more definitive for the future but what we hear from them is that the audience is not not done hearing from Rush and they still want his perspectives.

There are a lot of stations or groups of stations that have decided that they are moving on and going to other personalities. For us, we are looking to see what Premiere is going to do and make a decision in the near future.

RH: Is there life in radio after Rush?

MB: Yesabsolutely! They say there is nobody that is irreplaceable but there are some people that are harder to replace. It will be very, very difficult to replace Rush with one personality. We may never see someone as impactful in our lifetime, but then again, we could. If Donald Trump decided that he wanted to own a media company and sign a deal with the EIB Network, that would be impactful.

RH: What advice do you have for young general managers in the business?

MB: Get a lot of opinions and a lot of advice. There are a lot of positions and a lot of paths. The industry has changed, and you have to be as flexible as possible and work hard. If you are passionate about what you do, pursue your dreams, chase your goals. 

BNM Writers

Possible Reversal of The 1973 Roe vs. Wade Decision Dominates Network TV Coverage

“Surprisingly, the overall cable news landscape remained relatively steady in prime time on May 2.”

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News of Justice Samuel Alito’s initial draft majority opinion that would have the Supreme Court overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision — which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights — immediately spread like wildfire on the evening of May 2nd.

The development, first reported by the website Politico starting within the 9 p.m. ET hour, holds monumental implications for the nation if the Court officially does overturn the law.

Yet, surprisingly, the overall cable news landscape remained relatively steady in prime time on May 2. Compared to the three prior Monday nights (averaging Apr. 11, 18 & 25), MSNBC’s flagship program “Rachel Maddow Show” slipped 4 percent to 1.94 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Its lead-out “Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” (1.45 million) was down 7 percent. 826,000 then tuned in to “The 11th Hour” up 3 percent.

Over at CNN, the 9 p.m. hour of “Anderson Cooper 360” (660,000 viewers) ticked up one percent. “Don Lemon Tonight” grew ten percent in the 10 p.m. hour (689,000 viewers) but fell two percent in the 11 p.m. hour (517,000 viewers).

Fox News Channel’s coverage focused on how the leak from the Supreme Court occurred. “Hannity” (2.79 million) stayed even, while the subsequent two lead-out programs on the night jumped up the most (of all cable telecasts) in raw figures — each increased by two million viewers: “The Ingraham Angle” (2.4 million; +9 percent from the 2.2 million average of Apr. 11, 18, 25) and “Gutfeld!” (2.15 million; +10 percent from the 1.95 million average of Apr. 11, 18, 25).

Cable news averages for May 2-8, 2022:

Total Day (May 2-8 @ 6 a.m.-5:59 a.m.)

  • Fox News Channel: 1.484 million viewers; 241,000 adults 25-54
  • MSNBC: 0.631 million viewers; 69,000 adults 25-54
  • CNN: 0.478 million viewers; 102,000 adults 25-54
  • HLN: 0.183 million viewers; 52,000 adults 25-54
  • CNBC: 0.132 million viewers; 32,000 adults 25-54
  • Newsmax: 0.132 million viewers; 18,000 adults 25-54
  • Fox Business Network: 0.112 million viewers; 12,000 adults 25-54
  • The Weather Channel: 0.111 million viewers; 22,000 adults 25-54

Prime Time (May 2-7 @ 8-11 p.m.; May 8 @ 7-11 p.m.)

  • Fox News Channel: 2.286 million viewers; 352,000 adults 25-54
  • MSNBC: 0.996 million viewers; 107,000 adults 25-54
  • CNN: 0.605 million viewers; 131,000 adults 25-54
  • Newsmax: 0.223 million viewers; 26,000 adults 25-54
  • HLN: 0.206 million viewers; 57,000 adults 25-54
  • CNBC: 0.149 million viewers; 54,000 adults 25-54
  • The Weather Channel: 0.142 million viewers; 25,000 adults 25-54
  • Fox Business Network: 0.059 million viewers; 8,000 adults 25-54
  • NewsNation: 0.052 million viewers; 10,000 adults 25-54

Top 10 most-watched cable news programs (and the top MSNBC and CNN programs with their respective associated ranks) in total viewers:

1. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.449 million viewers

2. The Five (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.431 million viewers

3. The Five (FOXNC, Mon. 5/2/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.371 million viewers

4. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 5/4/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.284 million viewers

5. The Five (FOXNC, Thu. 5/5/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.220 million viewers

6. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 5/2/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.188 million viewers

7. The Five (FOXNC, Wed. 5/4/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.182 million viewers

8. The Five (FOXNC, Fri. 5/6/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.151 million viewers

9. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Thu. 5/5/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.047 million viewers

10. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 5/4/2022 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.876 million viewers

36. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 5/2/2022 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 1.941 million viewers

159. Real Time With Bill Maher “Episode 599” (HBO, Fri. 5/6/2022 10:01 PM, 55 min.) 0.870 million viewers

161. Stanley Tucci “Piedmont” (CNN, Sun. 5/8/2022 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.859 million viewers

290. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Sun. 5/8/2022 11:01 PM, 42 min.) 0.567 million viewers

356. The Daily Show (CMDY, Wed. 5/4/2022 11:00 PM, 31 min.) 0.434 million viewers

Top 10 cable news programs (and the top  CNN, MSNBC, HBO and HLN programs with their respective associated ranks) among adults 25-54

1. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.623 million adults 25-54

2. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 5/2/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.553 million adults 25-54

3. The Five (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.533 million adults 25-54

4. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Thu. 5/5/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.503 million adults 25-54

5. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 5/4/2022 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.480 million adults 25-54

6. Hannity (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.475 million adults 25-54

7. The Five (FOXNC, Wed. 5/4/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.474 million adults 25-54

8. The Five (FOXNC, Mon. 5/2/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.445 million adults 25-54

9. The Ingraham Angle (FOXNC, Tue. 5/3/2022 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.444 million adults 25-54

10. The Five (FOXNC, Thu. 5/5/2022 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.441 million adults 25-54

76. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Sun. 5/8/2022 11:01 PM, 42 min.) 0.231 million adults 25-54

81. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 5/2/2022 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.228 million adults 25-54

96. Don Lemon Tonight (CNN, Mon. 5/2/2022 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.211 million adults 25-54

129. The Daily Show (CMDY, Tue. 5/3/2022 11:00 PM, 31 min.) 0.167 million adults 25-54

152. Real Time With Bill Maher “Episode 599” (HBO, Fri. 5/6/2022 10:01 PM, 55 min.) 0.154 million adults 25-54

Source: Live+Same Day data, Nielsen Media Research

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BNM Writers

What Would a Jeff Warshaw Consortium Takeover of Cumulus Mean?

When the news of Warshaw’s consortium became public, some of us looking for a knight on a white horse wondered if this was what we had been waiting for. The announcement led to the question: would a Jeff Warshaw-led Cumulus be an improvement over the current management?

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On April 14, 2022, reports became public that a consortium led by Connoisseur Media CEO Jeff Warshaw made an unsolicited, $1.2 billion bid (including debt) to acquire Cumulus Media.

Reuters reported that Warshaw planned to take the company private with a bid of $15 to $17 per share. As a result, Cumulus shares which traded in the $10 – $11 range over the past year, jumped to $14.21, a 40% increase and a level not seen since July 2021.

Cumulus management responded to the reports by acknowledging the indication of interest and stated it was “reviewing the letter.”

During Cumulus’s Q1 22 earnings call on May 4, President/CEO Mary Berner announced a $50 million stock buyback program and rejected the Warshaw consortium acquisition bid.

Radio companies have lagged the overall financial markets for over a decade. I have participated in conversations with groups that already own radio stations and others currently outside the industry who have considered buying radio groups.

In 2013 music streaming service Pandora bought an FM station in Rapid City, South Dakota. Upon first hearing that news, some of us thought perhaps they realized how undervalued FM signals were and would invest in the medium. Alas, Pandora thought they had found a backdoor means to lower its music royalty costs but otherwise had little interest in broadcast radio.

As somebody who has been involved in every facet of the radio industry for nearly 40 years, I was interested in far more than just the investment implications of the proposed buyout.

When the news of Warshaw’s consortium became public, some of us looking for a knight on a white horse wondered if this was what we had been waiting for. The announcement led to the question: would a Jeff Warshaw-led Cumulus be an improvement over the current management?

To answer that question, I used reviews from the website Glassdoor. Reviewers can rate the company on a one to five bases, with five the best and one the worst.

These reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt as former employees may have an ax to grind, but this caveat holds equally true for all employers.

The company Jeff Warshaw currently runs, Connoisseur Media, receives an average of 2.9 stars (out of five) on Glassdoor. This rating is based on just 32 reviews, so the low sample size is a factor to consider.

Cumulus currently has an average of 3.2 stars on Glassdoor based on over 800 reviews.

These Glassdoor reviews suggest that a new Cumulus led by Warshaw wouldn’t be an improvement over the current management. If it takes a knight on a white horse to make Cumulus a better company to work for, it will have to wait for another day.

To be fair, I don’t know Jeff Warshaw. I have never spoken with him. I would appreciate the opportunity to talk to him at the appropriate time (assuming that his attempted takeover remains ongoing). I also welcome employees of Connoisseur or Cumulus who feel the average reflected on Glassdoor is unfair to contact me (andy@andybloom.com). I will accept comments and input anonymously regardless of whether it is more positive or negative than Glassdoor poses for use in a future column.

While we’re looking at the reviews for Connoisseur and Cumulus, it’s a worthwhile exercise to see how the other major radio broadcast groups fare:

iHeart also rates a 3.2 with over 2,200 reviews.

Audacy receives a 3.5, which is misleading as it’s based on 23 reviews. Entercom had 691 reviews and rates a 3.1.

The best I can find in the industry among the majors is Cox with 4.1. Again, this may be deceiving. Apollo Global Management scores a more modest 3.1.

Hubbard has no reviews. I’m not sure why.

SiriusXM appears to have the highest current score at 3.6.

You’ll find common themes, positive and the negatives are dizzyingly familiar across the companies throughout these reviews.

The main reoccurring negative themes include:

· Low pay

· Long hours

· No chance for advancement

· Doing the work of too many people

· Management pays lip service to feedback but doesn’t do anything

The main reoccurring positive themes include:

· The people

· Fun place to work

· Perks – such as free tickets

· Glad to be working in the industry

I was curious about the differences between the companies employees rated higher and lower to work for. Listening to a couple of recent earnings calls revealed some of the variations. In next week’s column, we will examine some of the differences.

Are the pros and cons listed above familiar to you? I welcome your input and anonymous comments for next week’s follow-up column. Please reach out to me at andy@andybloom.com.

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BNM Writers

Dave LaBrozzi Knew What He Wanted From Day One

LaBrozzi has nearly four decades of experience in radio, most recently as Vice President of Programming for WABC Radio in New York City.

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Dave LaBrozzi was very high on my interview ‘wish list,’ second only to the guy who does the insurance commercials with the nasty emu. There seems to be little LaBrozzi has not accomplished in his career (with the exception of doing an insurance commercial with an obnoxious emu.)

He’s got that voice that hits you like a freight train. That radio voice, even if he doesn’t sit in front of the microphone these days. One of those booming set of pipes you’re just born with.

LaBrozzi is one of those guys who knew what he wanted from day one. Or at least when he was ten years old. Truth be told, he said he was one of those kids who sat at his mother’s kitchen table talking into a wooden spoon as though it were a microphone. 

“I wanted to be the next Pirates play-by-play voice,” LaBrozzi said. “Working as a disc jockey was right up there too. The spoken word has always been a passion for me.”

Future moves in his life were made with one eye focused on a career in radio. It’s the only career he’s ever been involved with. Today he’s with KDKA Radio News, the world’s first commercial broadcasting station. “It’s an honor to be here with these legendary call letters,” LaBrozzi said. “It’s become a second home and a thrill to be sitting in this office.”

LaBrozzi has nearly four decades of experience in radio, most recently as Vice President of Programming for WABC Radio in New York City. Prior to WABC, he was Program Director of WPLJ-FM. In addition to his work in New York, Dave spent 14 years as Vice President of Programming for Audacy’s Baltimore stations and has also spent time programming in Nashville, Austin, San Antonio, and Pittsburgh.

LaBrozzi was appointed brand manager for KDKA, overseeing the content strategy, talent, operations, and branding. 

KDKA was launched in 1920. It started as an opportunity to instantaneously provide news and information about the presidential election returns in the race between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. 

LaBrozzi said he’s extremely proud of his current on-air lineup. “Larry Richert has been here for 25 years. Kevin Battle has come back. In all, we have a really solid staff that’s deeply entrenched in the community.”

When LaBrozzi drops into his chair behind his desk in the morning, he checks the stories to make sure they’re talking about what matters to people on any given day. “We’re working hard to get back with the community, checking in with people one-on-one.” 

LaBrozzi said they grade stories after they’ve aired, deciding whether they hit their mark and if they mattered. He said it’s important to talk with people and visit neighborhoods.

“I hope local papers hang on; they play such a vital role in the community.

I started in a small station in upstate Pennsylvania with 2,000 people. It was an oldie’s station. The first record I played was ‘Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again,’ by The Fortunes.” 

That song must be like a first love for LaBrozzi. If he’d played a Lawrence Welk song, he might not be where he is today.

His father was a high school administrator and was able to identify his son’s strengths and weaknesses from the get-go. 

“He knew my academic career wasn’t going to send me to Harvard,” LaBrozzi said. “He also knew I had the passion and drive to succeed.”

LaBrozzi tells his on-air folks to connect with listeners one-on-one. “It’s all about being authentic,” he said. “I want them to share their life experiences. Audiences can tell when a person is disingenuous. You can have a different sound on the air, but you have to be real.” He went on to say his staff is very passionate and believes in what they’re doing.

He was born in Emporium, Pennsylvania. Today the town boasts a population of close to 2,000 people. Compared to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, that’s a metropolis. He went to Mansfield State College, but the radio bug called, tugged, and pulled. “I tell people I got thrown out of college because of what I didn’t do,” LaBrozzi jokes. He said he’d intended to get a business degree, but the math requirements sent him running for the exit.

Why radio? “I think it’s a passion, drive, not that different from being an athlete. It’s something deeply within our souls. “My wife was in the business but gave it up to home-school the kids.”

When he’s not busy being a radio executive, LaBrozzi likes to indulge in books. “I’m reading Ernest Hemingway right now,” he said. “I’ve watched some of the Winning Time series on HBO. It’s entertaining if not factual.”

Then came the dreaded question. Where do you think radio is going?

“I think social media is doing so much to help our industry,” LaBrozzi said. “We need to embrace all it offers. There’s always a need for more information on a local level.”

With LaBrozzi ‘in the can,’ now I have to track down that Emu guy.

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