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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.

Ryan Hedrick

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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

Conservatives Latch Way Too Often Onto Cultural Figures

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.”

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We’ve been watching in real time the fall of one of the most creative Americans of this generation: Ye West. A.K.A. Kanye West. 

It’s been clear for weeks that Ye has been in a weird place and has been spiraling emotionally and mentally. Things came to a head on Thursday, when in an interview with Info Wars’ Alex Jones, Ye went off on several antisemitic tangents, including this line: “Well, I see good things about Hitler, also. Every human being has value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler.”

The actions are strange (covered in a black mask during the interview). The words are gross (stark antisemitism).

The point of this column is not to try and dissect the mental state of Ye West. That’s a fool’s errand.

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.” Conservatives know Hollywood, Corporate America and Media are mostly stacked against them and their values, so when someone appears to step into their corner of the ring, we fall for them head over heels. We end up like the “soft six” who just scored a date with a “ten.”

It’s pathetic. And Ye West is our latest example of that. 

Whether it’s Ye, Elon Musk or even Donald Trump. No, I’m not putting them all into the same boat by any stretch, but there has been a similarity to each of their purposes to conservatives. Kanye would push MAGA and conservatism in Hollywood and Black culture. Elon would save us from the Big Tech war against free speech. And Trump would just, well, save us in general. Or something. 

We’ve put far too much stock into all of these individuals, at different levels and for different reasons. But we’ve done it. And admitting we were wrong about it in many respects is a good place to start. 

Looking up to individuals to singularly win cultural wars is a losing proposition. It’s all of us. It’s you. It’s me. Donald Trump certainly can play an outsized role. Elon Musk can help the cause. Ye West, nah. But you get the point. 

The reality is that we can’t search and hope for that God-like figure to solve the problem. Swinging the cultural pendulum from the left back to the middle won’t be fixed in one day, or one year, and it certainly won’t be swung back by one person.

In recent weeks and months, there have been cult-like beliefs from many in conservative media that any of the aforementioned individuals would solve our problems.

They won’t. They can’t. And we’re doing a disservice to our listeners to lead them in that direction. First off, worshiping individuals it’s everything conservatism is against. Our ideas are bigger than a singular individual and it sells ourselves and our listeners short to stray from that thought.

While the Ye West debacle in recent weeks has been a glaring example of that kind of mistake, there are certain to be others on the horizon. Let’s not make that mistake again. 

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BNM Writers

Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Jim Cryns

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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BNM Writers

Are Fast Food Sandwich Stories News or Free Advertising?

The majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

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Scarcely a week goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to watch, read, or listen to a “news” story concerning the latest menu item introduced or returned by a chain restaurant or fast food outlet. Yes, “news” is in quotations because I question just how this type of information finds its way into a legitimate rundown.

I’ve always wondered about this and nobody has ever successfully explained, argued, or come close to justifying this practice is legitimate. It’s advertising without the commercial spot break and I don’t know why we continue to do it.

First, let’s lay down the disclaimer that this is no criticism or finger pointing against any particular food, franchise, corporation, or drive-thru operation or employee. Additionally, no blame or negative evaluation is to be inferred against any news station, outlet, publication or staff member.

Frankly, you’re (we’re) all culpable and equally to blame.

I have sat in the control room and watched as a fast-food restaurant graphic popped up in between the anchor team or over the solo anchor’s shoulder as the prompter rolled out copy I myself would fight not to write.

And yet there it is, Murrow and other award-winning journalists enthusiastically telling us about the new chicken sandwich this place is rolling out next month or the latest two-for-one offer at that place if you go and eat there on a Tuesday.

“It’s their new olive burger…now with more olives!”

Actually, the majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

So, again I ask why?

What makes this information suddenly become part of an article or news copy that costs a business nothing and not an ad campaign they should be paying for?

Seriously, we’re at the point where the lines have been blurred by mayonnaise or special sauce or two kinds of lettuce or several kinds of cheese if we’re really lucky.

I am on a soapbox here but not on either a pedestal nor an altitudinous mare. In other words, I myself have tasted the forbidden fruit. Often that fruit has come in the form of a free breakfast sandwich, flavored coffee, pizza or bacon double cheeseburger that found its way to the newsroom before suddenly becoming a topic discussed on the air.

Hey, I can’t review it if I don’t try it, right?

Well, yes and mostly no. I’m not advocating for it and unless I’m being compensated to extoll the wonder that is the addition of guacamole or coleslaw it’s not getting into my headline set.

On radio, the talkers can do it all they want. They’re about other stuff like fun and music and nobody is calling them out on credibility.

The newsroom is different.

When an individual does something good we go to cover it and a business, large or small should be afforded the same courtesy. So many fast-food chains and restaurant franchises do great things for charities and local people in-need and that is part of what we regularly like to showcase.

We get press releases, sometimes distributed as “news releases” from the food chains letting us know about the new offerings. “We’ve Added Wings!” This is not an ad copy, it’s meant to get in our shows and someone, somewhere decided this is okay and not to be questioned.

I tend not to read those memos that say, “don’t ask”.

In a different direction, there are legitimate incidents, developments and news stories that often must go through a screening process because the business involved is a paying sponsor or advertiser for news programming.

I’ve had and seen accurate and justifiable copy stricken, “massaged” until unidentifiable or outright killed because somebody’s commercial ran during the show or one of the dayparts.

No naiveté here, one understands the concern. However, if a pizza joint is facing a class action sexual harassment suit and good journalism has been practiced do we run from it because they’ve bought air time or worse yet have now added cilantro to the cheesy-bites?

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