The sh***y model of news that we are fed is based on an antiquated system that is not reflective of who’s watching it.”
Jon Stewart offered the insight during last week’s opening moments of his Apple TV+ program, “The Problem.” The program offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.
Many have grown accustomed to hearing news critiques from more conservative American enclaves. But to come from the liberal side of the spectrum was both refreshing and, as Stewart himself predicted might happen, just the match to ignite a blowback from inside the industry.
“Generally, our news media has been collected into two major categories, for the most part. You got your, what they call the mainstream, liberal corporate media. And then you got your right-wing, also mainstream, corporate media,” Stewart said, “One side of this media equation believes they are purveyors of truth and justice. The guardians of our democratic republic. The other side is effective.”
Stewart did not hold back during the program, stating that television news has largely become a vessel to deliver ratings-tested material to willing and eager viewers. In his opinion, the industry focus is now on delivering what the viewer wants, rather than on what the journalist believes is worthy of time or trust. He feels a journalist’s job should be to lay out the facts and truth as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may.
The host didn’t hide the fact that his bias may lead him to see a specific tilt to a story. His main point, however, is that television news should provide what the journalist believes to be true, rather than offering up what they think will simply be popular or agreed with by their audience.
Stewart zoned in on the issue of “Critical Race Theory,” offering up a montage of conservative media opinion, referring to CRT as “poison,” “marxist,” “communist,” and “racist.” He blamed the conservative media for creating the issue and “lighting the fire” of outrage across America.
“The right-wing media, working seamlessly with their political arm, made that happen,” Stewart said. “That’s how fucking good these guys are. If you’re going to battle this coordinated effort – political and media together – we’re gonna need a hero.” Stewart feels that this narrative was born not from truth but rather from the corporate media’s effort to create the hullabaloo only to exploit it to the max.
“Unfortunately, if they are the one thing that stands between America and chaos, we are in trouble. Because rarely has there been an institution that has such a distance between its aspirations and its execution,” Steward said. “The media keeps informing us how incredibly important they are to our survival because knowing keeps us free. But when given crucial informational tasks, they instead build us prisons of what the fuck are you people talking about?”
The program then moved on, with its host saying the media was correct in its initial pursuit of the Trump “Russia conspiracy.” However, he said they quickly descended into absurdity, hurting their credibility in the process. Stewart played montage after montage, featuring mainstream media claims of “bombshells” about President Trump and featuring the qualifier, “if true.” Most of these “bombshells” turned out to be either untrue or far different than what had been portrayed. Try as they did, the media’s claims of “walls closing in” on the former president turned out to be nothing more than false promises to their eager audiences.
“The media is such an important part of a democracy’s immune system, but can the saviors of our democracy be saved themselves,” Stewart asked.
“The problem is that we’ve become moral imbeciles, as we are being spoon-fed little pieces of outrage day by day, no, stay with the story, stay with the story. You can’t lose any number. The death knell is if your numbers go down,” said Chris Stirewalt, former Politics Editor at Fox News. “That’s why we only get one story at a time. Producers know that that will work and that will rate, so we’re going to stick with the thing that people are expecting and that they know, because if you take it away from them, they may get mad, the number may go down, and they may go someplace else to get it.”
During his time at Fox, Stirewalt was known for his wit, political expertise, and, when the situation dictated, for offering a less-than-popular opinion.
“I think what people don’t realize is that it’s a ratings-driven business, but it’s also driven by meetings. People have meetings and make decisions every day that affect the tone, tenor, and direction of coverage,” Stewart said. The panel added that producers are guided by ratings showing minute-by-minute audience reactions, a trend that allows decision-makers to remain focused on the stories and angles that attract and keep the most eyeballs.
The table is set, giving the audience what the networks feel they want and will pay for, regardless of what many of the producers and journalists feel are, in actuality, the most important and relevant stories or angles of the day.
“There are meetings that set the agenda for the network, that set the agenda for the morning shows, that are gonna set the evening show agendas. You have to divvy up who’s gonna have which guests because you can’t have everybody shared on every single show,” former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien said. “And then the shows themselves have specific meetings. What are we gonna start with? What are we gonna end with? Who’s the guest? How long do they get? I think this idea of, hey, we just report the news, is ridiculous because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re covering something, then that means you’re not giving coverage to something else.”
In addition, social media is now the shiny new object attracting news producers and compelling them to chase left and right. The excitable cat is trying to land his paw on the laser pointer.
“You can see a television news story in which people are like, this idiot said this about this idiot on Twitter, and they treat it like it’s a whole new story,” Stirewalt said. “So it has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it’s made us dumber,” Stirewalt said in the ten years he was at Fox; he saw the business change from keeping away from ratings talk to relying on it before all else.
Stewart added that when he started the Daily Show at the age of 35, he led with what he believed in, hoping it would attract an audience, rather than starting with what he thought the audience would want and “backing into it.” In his words, this purity of intention led to a more honestly-rooted journalistic effort.
“I think what this is really about is a lack of courage of changing the model,” Sean McLaughlin, V.P. of News at E.W. Scripps, said. “The part about the minute-by-minutes, you’re looking at data that is already incredibly flawed from the beginning.” He explained that today’s hyper-fragmentation makes the Nielsen-collected data much less reliable than in years past. And even then, many have felt that the reliance on a relatively small set of households recording their viewing patterns was an already-skewed method, to begin with. “At some point, you just start realizing, I wonder if what we’re looking at is any degree of realism at all,” McLaughlin added.
O’Brien said most newsrooms now perform under essentially the same set of unwritten rules.
“I think for most of the journalists working there when I was there, they loved journalism, as I did, and I do. But I think the mission was to do the best job you could do and win,” O’Brien said. “Win as in the ratings. Win is making sure that you’re getting picked up by the New York Times. Win is not about educating the public. It’s not so complicated.”
The prevailing theme of this episode of “The Problem” was that television news has become an all-too-tailored production. Especially in cable news, the product has become opinion-driven entertainment.
“What differentiates news from entertainment is that sometimes we have to tell you what you don’t want to hear,” Stirewalt summed up. “We are supposed to be the vegetables. We are supposed to be the nutrient-giving portion of the plate. Not dessert. What cable news has tried to do, and what local news sometimes does, is get the green beans in the shortbread, and you’ve got now you’ve turned the news into entertainment, and you’re treating entertainment like news. Both of those are bad things. News should be news; entertainment should be entertainment.”
The episode concluded with a conversation between Stewart and former Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger. Iger felt news organizations may currently be on the defensive because they feel they’ve been under the microscope like never before.
“My advice to them was to not hear the noise as much, to continue doing the job that we’ve entrusted them to do,” Iger said about his 30-plus years overseeing ABC News. “Which is, to tell the truth, to state the facts. To present the news in an accurate and a, fair and a timely basis. But we never sought to drive ratings or even bottom-line success at the sacrifice of what we consider to be quality. It wasn’t part of our discussion.”
Content Culture – Cumulus, Connoisseur, and SiriusXM
“I’m not the only person noticing what the satellite broadcaster is up to these days.”
In last week’s column, we considered if the consortium led by Jeff Warshaw (CEO of Connoisseur Media) to acquire Cumulus Media would be an improvement over the current management. We used the single metric of employee (past and present) reviews from the website Glassdoor to arrive at this decision.
The 32 people rating Connoisseur gave it an average score of 2.9 (out of five) compared with Cumulus, which averaged a 3.2 with over 800 reviews. As I wrote last week:
“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.”
Based solely on this one admittedly narrow and unscientific measurement, I wrote:
[The] “Glassdoor reviews suggest that a new Cumulus led by Warshaw wouldn’t be an improvement over the current management. “
Glassdoor reviews aren’t necessarily a fair barometer of Connoisseur or Cumulus Media management. Therefore, I invited people who work for or have worked for either company to contact me with comments.
Several people familiar with Connoisseur did reach out. They felt the company had the best intentions, but cuts inevitably came when the station or cluster didn’t make budget. So, no different than the other major groups. These employees were less afraid of Connoisseur’s management than they were of getting sold, which did happen in a couple of instances.
Among the other major radio broadcast groups reviewed on Glassdoor:
iHeart also scores a 3.2 (over 2,200 reviews).
Audacy receives a 3.5, based on 23 reviews. Entercom had 691 reviews and rates a 3.1.
SiriusXM appears to have the highest current score at 3.6.
It begs the question: What makes SiriusXM a better experience for the people who work there? Where do we look to find an answer to that question?
If you’ve never listened to a corporate earnings call, you should. Listening can offer insight into the soul of an enterprise.
Cumulus Media’s first-quarter 2022 earnings call was on May 4th. The Liberty SiriusXM Group’s Q1-22 earnings phone conference was two days later (May 6th).
I did some analysis of the transcripts of each call. If these calls don’t demonstrate the companies’ values, they suggest what they are thinking about these days.
The transcription of the Cumulus Media earnings call clocks in at just over 4,000 words. Over about 32 minutes, President and CEO Mary Berner; and CFO Frank Lopez-Balboa mentioned “radio” three times. Talking about radio took two percent (2%) of the time.
Ms. Berner and Mr. Lopez-Balboa spoke about content four times. These exchanges occupied four percent (4%, 164 words) of the call. They referred to audience levels once, less than one percent (1%) of the total.
Since the Warshaw-led buyout offer of Cumulus started my curiosity on this topic, it’s worth noting that Berner made one reference to it. She called it an “unsolicited, nonbinding and highly conditional indication of interest…” She stated the offer “significantly undervalues the company and is not in the best interest of its shareholders.” Berner also announced a $50 million stock buyback program. She dispensed with the matter using 127 words, three percent (3%) of the call.
The Liberty SiriusXM Group earnings call was longer. At 47-plus minutes, the transcript is over 7,400 words. There were four participants from SiriusXM, including:
- Hooper Stevens – Senior Vice President, Investor Relations and Finance
- Jennifer Witz – Chief Executive Officer
- Sean Sullivan – Chief Financial Officer
- Scott Greenstein – President and Chief Content Officer
Including its “President and Chief Content Officer” forbodes what transpired next.
Leadership brings up audience levels eight times. Discussing audience size takes two percent (2%) of the total call. They discussed content 19 times throughout the call. They use over 1.100 words, 15% of the time describing content. This earnings call suggests the importance SiriusXM leadership places on content.
I’m not the only person noticing what the satellite broadcaster is up to these days. Recently, Jacobs Media presented its TechSurvey 2022. During the webcast, Fred Jacobs said:
“The more I look at the data, the more I keep coming back to SiriusXM as the bigger threat…”
–Fred Jacobs, From TechSurvey 2022 Presentation
Although he was directing that quote more specifically at music stations, in the next breath, Fred adds:
“The only formats that are well above average (to have a SiriusXM subscription – either free or paid) are Sports and News/Talk Format Fans.”
–Fred Jacobs, From TechSurvey 2022 Presentation
There is much more data in Jacobs’ TechSurvey that illustrates why the need to create compelling, entertaining, and original content is more important now than ever.
We can’t know for certain if there is a correlation between the amount of discussion about content during the Liberty SiriusXM Group earnings conference call and the higher scores it receives on Glassdoor. However, it is a good bet that content is driving the progress the satellite broadcaster receives in Jacobs’ TechSurvey and its own metrics. The people running broadcast companies should take notice and perhaps the hint.
Jesse Kelly Was at the Right Place at the Right Time
Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.
Some people are born to greatness; others have a horseshoe–you know where. He may not be the biggest name in radio yet, but he’s in the running for tallest.
“I’m 6’8”,” Jesse Kelly said. “Everybody else in this business is short.”
Kelly graduated high school in 1999. Life was fresh, possibilities abounded, and Kelly didn’t seem to give much thought to the future.
“I remember we had our senior song,” Kelly said. “It seemed to be the same song for every graduating class; Time of Your Life, by Green Day. A great song, but man, like anything else, it can get old.”
Kelly said he’s all about classic rock. Aerosmith and classical music are on his playlist as well.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to the senior prom,” Kelly confessed. “I chose not to attend some of my classes. (Most of his classes.) I had more of an interest in camping, pretty girls, and great weather.” Kelly said he actually missed two-thirds of his classes in high school, ditching, and whatnot.
What in the world was the 16-year-old- Jesse Kelly thinking about?
“I was just into Mountain Dew, basketball, and video games,” he said. “I lived in Montana. There wasn’t much else to do. We were surrounded by mountains. Every weekend we’d grab sleeping bags, shotguns because there were a lot of wild animals.”
All the above, and chasing girls, was a full-time job for Kelly. Who had time for silly old school?
“I don’t mean to sound like an old man,” Kelly began, “but that’s all we did. We’d never heard about drugs outside of pot, and kids today are into fentanyl and what have you. An amazing difference from when I was a kid.”
With his height, you would have assumed he would have been the star basketball player–and he could have been.
“I played until my sophomore year in high school,” Kelly said. “The coach had been licking his chops, anticipating my arrival on his team. I chose not to do it after sophomore year. My dad was mad; the coach was furious.”
The expectations were clear as Kelly’s father played well enough to play basketball on a scholarship.
“I guess I was a bit rebellious,” Kelly said.
If he lived in Indiana, shunning basketball would have been akin to sacrilege. In Montana, not so much of a big deal.
Moving to Montana was a bit of a culture shock for a guy whose family had deep tentacles in the rust belt in Ohio.
“My father and cousins were all into the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and mostly the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Kelly said. “I wanted to follow something different, so I picked the New York Giants. In baseball, it was the White Sox. I wanted to be like The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas.).”
Kelly doesn’t put stock in the ‘traditional trap’ set for kids in America. He doesn’t believe a kid has to go to college right away, if ever. In fact, he told his sons they’re not allowed to go to college until they ‘found themselves.’
“My 11-year-old son is my clone,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to see what dad does for a living and thinks it’s cool. He said he wants to be on the radio too. I told him I’d help him as much as I could, but first, he had to live life, gain some life experience.”
His elder son is 13 years old and has a mind Kelly said must have come from somewhere else. “He’s a different cat,” Kelly said. “His mind works differently. He can take a bucket of random Legos, dump them on the floor, and he’ll build a spaceship. I’m not talking about the kind of deal where a parent pats their son on the head for support, saying, ‘Yeah, that looks a little like a spaceship.’ My son actually spends 18 hours on the project and makes a spaceship, down to the minute details; something NASA would be proud of.”
For a guy that hated school, you would have thought books would be like Kryptonite. Surprisingly, Kelly reads a lot. “I’m an obsessive reader. I’d read Louis L’Amour, the frontier guy. I moved on to military books, loved anything to do with the Marines.” He said those books are partially why he ended up joining the Marines.
So, what was the impetus for becoming a Marine?
“I was a piece of crap,” the candid Kelly said. “I barely graduated high school. My first semester at Montana State, I ‘earned’ a 0.0-grade point average.” That might even qualify for valedictorian at Montana State. They even let him stay for a second semester before he bailed.
I asked Kelly exactly what one would have to do to earn a 0.0 GPA.
“Remarkably little,” he deadpanned. “Sleeping-in helps. Chasing women. Attending half of your finals.”
Kelly was a kid that watched John Wayne films. He was so inspired by the fictitious-Marine, that he woke up one morning, went downtown, and signed up to be a Marine.
“My parents were furious about me enlisting,” he said. “When I told them I was going into infantry, they were 10-times as mad.”
Kelly soon found himself on a bus headed to San Diego. “You know what’s coming up,” he said regarding boot camp. “You pull up. The drill instructors are lined up and jump on the bus before it comes to a stop, hollering at you.” That was just the welcoming committee.
He was later deployed to Iraq as an infantry Marine during the Second Persian Gulf War.
In possession of a natural distrust for authority when he joined, it got worse. “The most revealing moment for me in Iraq wasn’t combat. We were invading Iraq heading north. All of us are proud patriots. Word came down we had to take down our American flags, which were draped over our Amtrak train.”
Kelly said he and his comrades felt betrayed by their country. “I guess they didn’t want us to look like invaders.”
This is the part of the show where we talk about how the interview subject got into radio. This one is a doozy.
Kelly was released from the Marines with an honorable discharge after four years. He moved to Arizona, where he worked in construction.
In 2010, with no political experience but a box full of opinions, Kelly ran for Congress in a Democratic-controlled district of Arizona. Though a virtual unknown in the race, he was only narrowly defeated by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“I got mad about Obama and ran for congress,” Kelly explained.
During a campaign stop, he was waiting to go on air with news/talker Jon Justice. “I was in a separate studio, and a guy I didn’t know walked in. He asked what I was doing, and I told him. He was a radio producer and asked if I’d ever thought of a career in radio. It was kind of strange.”
The stranger’s words planted a seed in Kelly’s brain, and that seed would soon germinate. After the attempt at politics, Kelly moved to Texas with no job; I was flat broke and got a job selling RVs.”
Kelly became active on social media, and the king of talk radio, Michael Berry in Houston, took notice of a post-Kelly had made and asked if he’d like to come on his show.
“I guess I just killed on the air,” Kelly said. “He kept me on the phone for three segments. We had a blast.”
In a celebratory move, Kelly pulled out all the stops and pulled into a Taco Bell for a real treat. Then his phone rang. It was Michael Berry again, and they chatted for a half-hour, an uneaten Chilupa in Kelly’s hand. “After that, we started hangin’ out, drinking bourbon, and smoking cigars. He convinced me that I had a future in radio.”
Apparently, he did.
KPRC in Houston gave him a 7-8 p.m. slot as a trial. “I just started talking. I didn’t know a thing. Nobody had ever taught me what to do.” He must have really killed again, somehow finding an audience. KPRC gave him a second hour.
Out of the radio-blue, Key Networks came calling and told Kelly they thought his show had some chops. The Jesse Kelly Show debuted as a three-hour program in national syndication in April 2020.
It keeps getting better.
After only a year on Key Networks, Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, kept the fortunate string of success going.
Kelly joined Premiere Networks’ national lineup on June 28, 2021.
“I didn’t even know who Julie Talbott was, and she was listening to my show,” he said. “After all the fart jokes I told, she was still listening,” Kelly explained. “Premiere offered me a 6-9 slot in Houston. My wife nearly passed out in excitement.”
Kelly is certainly not a guy that sounds full of himself; that alone is refreshing. “I have no idea why people listen to me; I don’t know why affiliates are happy. I’ll take it,” Kelly said.
The man has an honest, authentic approach to radio. That should be obvious, considering he airs on 200 hundred stations nationwide.
Sometimes having a strategically placed horseshoe can take you a long way.
Covering Traumatic Events Are Part of the Job in News Media
There are countless instances, and events that create trauma and angst that can disassemble us from the inside out yet are part of our jobs.
There were different plans for this week, different ideas, and certainly an unrelated topic of discussion in mind. But of course, what happened in Buffalo last weekend cannot be ignored or pushed aside, just as similar failures of humanity could not and should not be.
We can certainly be more than a dozen people walking into a supermarket on that day with different plans and a separate map for the day. The police officers, the firefighters, and EMTs were not planning on the radical change to their shifts. Store workers certainly weren’t expecting the day to change their lives.
I’m not going to speak of the purported source of this calamity except to say he was in court this week, and the criminal justice system will progress and unfold as it does.
To keep our purposes on track for the moment, let’s look at the news, people, and no, I’m not talking about the coverage brought to us by the cable network shows. Think what you want, but I’m not very interested in what this person or that person sitting behind a desk has to say about the latest tragedy as they point fingers at what went wrong and search for the failures of this agency, that parent, or an administration past or present.
It’s not helpful, and there’s another time for all that.
I’m talking about the first responders of news people. The radio and TV are right there in Buffalo. The print and digital people work with the smallest of the weekend staff. They were planning to cover other things that day; a festival, a charity event, and maybe work on a feature report they were preparing for sweeps.
Who was thinking the nod from the assignment desk would change everything? Suddenly, the scene was going to become one of absolute frenzy and horror. The time before, the news trucks, reporters, and stringers were pushed back by police as the building was entered. Then just that quickly, the media briefing spot, if there is one established, is set further and further away.
There are countless instances, and events that create trauma and angst that can disassemble us from the inside out yet are part of our jobs. Among the most unimaginable to me is the act of pointing a camera at or holding a microphone towards those whose worlds in mere seconds were destroyed by the callous act of another.
And yet, doing so is not a reprehensible deed. It is what the position calls for, the story is to be told, and we must say to it correctly and honestly, often brutally. And believe it or not, more often than we find those most horrifically impacted by these horrible crimes that scream the loudest. Who wants their outrage known, their devastation felt.
Whether or not it becomes exploitation is up to the journalist there and then.
There’s an expectation from the viewer, the listener, and the reader that’s what the news is going to do; the reporter will get a reaction from those with the most right to react, those who lost so much.
And the reporter, the good reporter, will get just that.
It can come at a cost, though. Like many vocations, there’s a price to pay for it all, for having the ability to look into the eyes of someone crushed by tragedy and then elicit a response, to get them to open their souls when they are at their very worst. It’s difficult enough to witness such scenes, the carnage, and the aftermath and then talks with those at their most vulnerable.
However, good reporters can easily find themselves caught up in the tragedy and bewilderment that others are enduring. How can a person witness such sadness and horror and not be adversely affected? Is it even a possibility?
There are precedents too numerous to list, too obvious and familiar to need mention. Mass shootings alone fill books to make individual acts of terror, war and conflict, and natural disasters.
But what makes that journalist any less vulnerable?
With visual and audible reporting, a human response is readily apparent; with the written word, the author’s humanity comes across in how they interpret the events, but the result is the same. It is a skill and often a curse to not appear overly impacted by tragedy without appearing robotic.
But you cannot deal with people with it penetrating. Unfortunately, what has happened in Buffalo (and countless other cities) is still happening. All one needs to do is read between the lines of social media posts from news people covering these horrible stories.
I do not know how anyone could not go to such places, cover such stories and not grieve with those grieving, not be changed somehow. What is remarkable is how such people can come away from and still do their jobs.
So with that, a caution and a hope.
Trauma and the after-effects do not generally come via an instant diagnosis from a mental health professional.
Our esteemed members of the press out there owe it to themselves to stop and note what they’re putting those fine journalistic minds and hearts through when the complex stories come their way.