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Detailing The Downfall of The New York Times

The combined realities of the business model and staff that value mission over independence dictate how the Times will report news and opinion.

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Last week I wrote about my surprise and dismay when I found an Op-Ed on the front page of USA Today (“Deshaun Watson gets laughable suspension,” USA Today – August 2, 2022).

A spokesperson for Gannett (owner of USA Today) told me via email, “USA Today clearly labels opinion columns as such, and it is not uncommon to appear on the front page.”  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised in this era that a newspaper often tagged “McPaper” would commit such a journalistic faux pax.

While nobody ever accused USA Today of setting standards for journalism, The New York Times has long set the standards followed by nearly every legitimate news organization in the country, if not the world. Over the past decade, however, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between news and opinion in “The Grey Lady.”

The New York Times was founded in 1851 and bought by Adolph Ochs in 1896. It has been controlled by his family ever since. The current chairman and publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, is the fifth generation of the family to lead the paper.

After buying The Times, Ochs crafted the paper’s famous slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Ochs also published an announcement in the paper promising that The Times would “give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

The New York Times editorial pages have long leaned left. The Times hasn’t endorsed a Republican presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. However, The Times’s news section was also considered impartial for many years.

The Times published the Pentagon Papers, a set of leaked Defense Department documents detailing the United States’ political and military role in Southeast Asia that showed the government had been dishonest about expanding its role in Vietnam. Still, The Times’s news coverage was, by and large, still considered impartial.

Less than a year after the Supreme Court denied the government an injunction preventing The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, William F. Buckley, the leading conservative voice of the time, conducted an audit of the newspaper’s fairness in his magazine, National Review. In 1972, the magazine reviewed five stories with a “distinct left-right line.” National Review concluded: “The Times news administration was so evenhanded that it must have been deeply dismaying to the liberal opposition.”

The New York Times established the executive editor position in 1964. The Times perhaps reached its zenith under Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal (1977–1986). Rosenthal was committed to unbiased, impartial reporting. Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor from 1994 to 2001, said, “Abe would always say, with some justice, that you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer to the right or it’ll drift off to the left.”

Many believe The Times began to drift significantly under Howell Raines (2001–2003). My friend Dick Morris, political consultant (and one-time WPHT-AM, Philadelphia, afternoon host), stated that Raines had turned the paper into a “political consulting firm for the Democratic Party. For decades, The Times was the one newspaper so respected for its integrity and so widely read that it had influence well beyond its circulation. Now it has stooped to the role of partisan cheerleader.”

A 2002 Newsweek story reveals that there was considerable dissension under Raines. The article documents Raines’ “almost religious belief in ‘flooding the zone’—using all the paper’s formidable resources to pound away at a story,” continuing, “The Times is criticized for ginning up controversies as much as reporting them.” Newsweek quotes Slate’s (then) press critic Jack Shafer, saying, “The Times has assumed the journalistic role as the party of opposition.”

If there is a seminal moment that changed the course of The New York Times, aside from technology, it is the Jayson Blair affair. Blair came to The Times in 1999 from the University of Maryland, where he was editor of its student newspaper, The Diamondback. Initially hired as an intermediate reporter, Blair moved up rapidly to a full reporter and then editor.

In 2003, similarities between a front-page Blair story in The Times and one that had appeared two days earlier in a San Antonio, Texas, newspaper came to an editor’s attention. Further investigation revealed that Blair had plagiarized or fabricated more than half a dozen stories.

The internal investigation led to Blair’s dismissal and the resignation of Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd. The matter created strife and factions within The Times, as well as the creation of an ombudsman position called the public editor.

Over 14 years, six people held the public editor title. The first was Daniel Okrent (2003– 2005), who wrote an opinion piece titled “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” and answered the title’s question succinctly in his first sentence: “Of course, it is.”

Okrent explained the philosophy of then-publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.: It isn’t so much that The Times is liberal as that it has an “urban” viewpoint. Okrent believed that “living in New York City makes people think that way and that many people who think that way find their way to New York.”

Byron Calame held the position next (2005–2007), followed by Clark Hoyt (2007–2010).

The fourth public editor for The Times was Arthur Brisbane (2010–2012). At the end of his tenure, The New York Times was a troubled company. It was shedding its early digital assets (About.com was about to be jettisoned) and focusing on its core newspaper business. The company showed an $88M loss in the preceding quarter.

In his final column as the public editor for The Times, Brisbane wrote: “When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a political and cultural progressivism—for lack of a better term—that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.”

“As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

“. . . [A]s the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.”

From Okrent through Brisbane, the public editors’ themes are consistent. They agree that progressive values and a progressive culture run through The Times. Through 2012, the paper’s ombudsmen maintained that these beliefs primarily impacted reporting on social issues, citing gay marriage as the best example, not political coverage. Brisbane prophetically warned that an empowered staff and an audience that “self-selects” in the coming digital transformation will wreak havoc.

By the time of the final two Times public editors (Margaret Sullivan [2012–2016] and Liz Spayd [2016–2017]), much had changed at the “paper of record.” It had become increasingly common for reporters to insert their “voice” into news stories.

Reader complaints about reporters’ opinions popping up in news stories became a frequent topic for Sullivan, including in a January 2015 column that included quotes from several Times editors.

Sullivan quoted Andrew Rosenthal, The Times opinion editor, who felt there should be a “much more careful separation of news and opinion.”

“I believe that an important line is crossed when first-person, clear opinion or advocacy make their way into the news pages, whether in print or online,” he said. “That sometimes happens.”

Sullivan added, “Top editors at The Times have told me that there is indeed a place for voice, personality, and, yes, sometimes opinion within the news pages.”

Sullivan identifies the origin of inserting voice into news content: “The world of online journalism, which is how more and more readers encounter Times articles, presents new challenges, especially in the way opinion stories are labeled or presented.”

If adding a reporter’s voice wasn’t new, accepting opinion in New York Times news stories, seemingly was. (This is MY voice, not Sullivan’s or that of a New York Times editor).

In her final column as public editor, Sullivan summarized her four-year tenure: “Journalism at The Times, and everywhere, continued to change radically. The corporate way to describe it is to say the business is being ‘reinvented.’ Down in the trenches, it’s seen more plainly: as turmoil, a struggle for survival.”

Sullivan offered advice. Her recommendations included:

—“Maintain editorial control. As partnerships, especially with Facebook, the social media behemoth, become nearly impossible to resist, The Times shouldn’t let business-driven approaches determine what readers get to see.”

—“Keep clickbait at bay. In the push for digital traffic, The Times is now publishing articles it never would have touched before in order to stay a part of a conversation that’s taking place on social media and read on smartphones.”

Liz Spayd became the sixth and final public editor of The New York Times in May 2016. She often criticized The Times, holding it to non-partisan news standards. In return, she faced harsher criticism than prior public editors. Some complaints about her found their way into other liberal publications, especially The Atlantic, which took particular delight in undermining her. The magazine said she was “inclined to write what she doesn’t know” and was “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.”

Some believe that the exceptionally severe reaction to Spayd was because she had previously been an editor at The Washington Post, The Times’s competitor. Others think it reflected the evolution that The Times and other news outlets were undergoing.

Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. ended the public editor position in May 2017, one year before Spayd’s contract expired. Like public editors before her, Spayd referenced “digital disruption and collapsing business models” in her last column.

Spayd also issued warnings to The Times in that column: “Whether journalists realize it or not, with impartiality comes authority—and right now it’s in short supply. In their effort to hold Trump accountable, will they play their hands wisely and fairly? Or will they make reckless decisions and draw premature conclusions?”

Sulzberger Jr. announced the end of the public editor position in a memo to the staff. He wrote that the responsibility of the public editor as the readers’ representative had outgrown one office. Now, everybody would be a public editor via the internet and the new “Reader’s Center.”

Things were getting weird.

Like most newspaper companies, during the first dozen or more years of the 21st century, The New York Times struggled with the decline of the printed newspaper and expanding digital media options. People who grew up in the 1980s were the last generation of newspaper readers. They saw their parents reading newspapers and magazines, and they did too, for the most part.

The number of daily newspapers in the U.S. remained stable throughout the 1970s at just under 1,750. By 1990 there were just over 1,600. Ten years later, as the new millennium began, there were under 1,500. By 2012, fewer than 1,400 remained. Four years later, in 2016, another 100 were gone, and only 1,286 daily newspapers survived.

Circulation dropped more precipitously. In 1988, U.S. daily newspaper circulation peaked at 63 million. By 2000, daily circulation had declined to just over 55 million. The number continues to drop: 43 million in 2012, under 35 million in 2016, and just over 24 million in 2020.

Millennials, born with the internet, learned to consume news on screens. Smartphones and apps became common before the 2016 election got into full swing. Newsrooms adjusted to smaller screens and shorter attention spans by writing shorter copy. Consuming audio and video became practical with the arrival of 3G and 4G. Finally, social media allowed everyone to share every thought. It was survival of the fittest. The Times was looking for answers on how to compete in a post-print world.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, The Times found an answer, but it would test the foundation Adolph Ochs had promised in 1896.

Russian media futurist Andrey Mir coined the term “post-journalistic” in his book “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers.” His thesis is that news revenue switched from ads to readers (or eyeballs and clicks) because of the internet. Ad-driven media manufactured consent. And reader-driven media manufactures anger, which increases polarization. In fact, the goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to “produce angry citizens.”

In a front-page analysis, Jim Rutenberg, a writer at large and previously a White House reporter, political correspondent, and media columnist for The Times, noted the conundrum the paper faced in covering Trump.

Rutenberg asks, If you’re a journalist who believes that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue and that he would be dangerous as commander in chief, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

His answer is that your reporting will reflect your views. If your reporting reveals that you think a Trump presidency would be dangerous, it will move you “closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist. . . .” Covering Trump as a dangerous candidate, Rutenberg continues, upsets the balance that journalists are trained to always strive for.

Rutenberg acknowledges the coverage Trump receives: “But let’s face it: Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy.”

Surely, there are pre-Trump campaign examples of bias in The New York Times, but the demarcation line, the point where it’s in the open, loud, and proud, takes place during the 2016 presidential campaign.

And then it gets weirder.

When Donald J. Trump won the presidency on November 8, 2016, it didn’t merely upend the world for most Times employees. It was apocalyptic. They had believed there was a greater probability that the sun wouldn’t rise than that The New York Times headline would pronounce Donald Trump the next president of the United States.

On that morning, everything they believed had been proven wrong.

Liz Spayd, still the public editor, wrote in her November 9 column that The Times would begin “a period of self-reflection.” She hoped the editors would “think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers.”

Stupefied, The Times looked for an answer. An online-only piece titled “Why Trump Won: Working Class Whites” identified where to direct the blame.

The Times dug further. How could women have voted for Trump? A week before his inauguration, The Times ran a story in its news section asking a dozen women to explain their votes for Trump. A full-color photo of each woman was part of each profile. But Times reporters still couldn’t comprehend that Trump had won.

News coverage of Trump as president-elect remained slightly combative. For example, on January 13, 2017, a page one headline reported, “Latest to Disagree with Donald Trump: His Cabinet.” The article details disagreements between Trump and those he nominated for cabinet roles.

If that sounds like fair news coverage, consider The Times’s reporting of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate. “Joseph R. Biden Jr. selected  Senator Kamala Harris of California as his vice-presidential running mate on Tuesday, embracing a former rival who sharply criticized him in the Democratic primaries.” Most of The Times coverage focuses on her sex, race, and ethnic heritage. The Times repeatedly refers to her as a “pragmatic moderate.”

In another article about her selection, The Times reports, “She had an electric moment in the first debate last June when she forcefully challenged Mr. Biden over his record on race. The way that exchange began was also notable: The moderators had not called on Ms. Harris, but she asserted herself by saying, ‘As the only Black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.’”

But that was not the way the exchange began. It was what she said directly to Biden, and if they included it in any coverage at the time of her selection as Biden’s running mate, I didn’t find it.

Here’s what was left out: “It was personal. It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations on the segregation of race in this country. It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose bussing.”

She pushed him further. “Do you agree that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America, then? Do you agree?”

She continued when Biden tried to explain that he was not actually opposing integration. “There was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkley, California public schools almost two decades after Brown v Board of Education,” she said, hammering away like the former prosecutor she was.

While differences between Biden and Harris are gingerly touched upon, when Trump and his cabinet picks disagree, it is in The Times’s headlines.

Before Inauguration Day, The Times and The Washington Post started pushing a story that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Colluding with Russia fit perfectly with The Times’s worldview. So now it wasn’t white working-class voters who’d elected Trump. Ignorant women didn’t explain it. It had to be illegal activity between Trump and Russia. How else could he have won?

On January 12, 2017, The Times ran the front-page headline, “How a Sensational, Unverified Dossier Became a Crisis for Donald Trump.” It was pretty clear by then that this wasn’t reliable information.

Literally every day, The New York Times promised that the end of the Trump presidency was near. The Times ran over 3,000 stories on the Mueller investigation.

In a town–hall-style meeting whose transcript was leaked to Slate, executive editor Dean Baquet told the staff, “The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought Bob Mueller is not going to do it. And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically. We went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character. We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well.”

If The Times’s new “post-journalism” didn’t succeed in removing Trump from office at that moment, it did improve the company’s business outlook. Jill Abramson, New York Times executive editor (2011–2014), confirms that The Times was slanting its coverage and what the impact of that was on its business in her book “Merchants of Truth.”

“Though [Dean] Baquet [executive editor 2014–2022] said publicly he didn’t want the Times to be the opposition party, his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump. Some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.”

“Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative: they drove big traffic numbers and, despite the blip of cancellations after the election, inflated subscription orders to levels no one anticipated,” Abramson wrote.

CNBC reported that between the election on November 8 and November 26 (18 days) The Times saw an increase of about 132,000 paid subscriptions. The growth rate was ten times what it was during the same period the previous year. In the first six months after Trump took office, the paper added more than 600,000 subscribers. Trump and The Times’s new philosophy were good for business.

Then there’s the Op-Ed department. In 2016, James Bennet was hired from The Atlantic. The Sulzbergers wanted a more digital-friendly opinion section. Bennet was credited with modernizing The Atlantic.

The editorial board and columnists continued to hammer on Trump. Paul Krugman predicted “a global recession with no end in sight.” However, the people Bennet would bring on board would lead to the most upheaval and, ultimately, to his demise.

The Times editorial board changed in the two years between 2018 and 2019. Seven of the 15 members were new, and several more hadn’t been there much longer. The group was younger and more diverse. The department grew from around 70 to approximately 115 by early 2020.

There were occasional headaches when a conservative viewpoint created a brief Twitter tantrum, but nothing prepared management for Tom Cotton in June 2020.

Protests were spreading across the country over a police officer killing George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, MN. The officer planted his knee into Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes as witnesses pleaded with him to stop and recorded the life going out of the man.

The protesters’ goals were to end police brutality and racism. In many cities, however, the protests became violent. The Times and other media outlets downplayed the violence in their reporting, calling the protests “mostly peaceful,” even as pictures and videos showed burning buildings, broken glass, and looting.

Information about the destructive side of the demonstrations could be found in the opinion pages, at least for a time.

Tom Cotton, a conservative Alabama senator, wrote an opinion column for The Times, “Time to Send in the Troops.” His essay proposed using the Insurrection Act of 1807 to restore order in areas where the protests had gotten violent. Cotton probably didn’t think he was suggesting anything radical. Eight presidents (mostly Democrats) have used the Insurrection Act 11 times over the past 100 years.

John F. Kennedy used the Insurrection Act twice, sending federal troops to Mississippi and Alabama to enforce civil rights laws. In circumstances akin to the summer of 2020, Lyndon Johnson called troops into Detroit to quell riots in 1967 and 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

The Times posted Cotton’s column in its online Op-Ed section. That action practically caused an atom to split. Although a nuclear catastrophe was averted, a revolt began among Times staffers. Many of the Op-Ed staff viewed the Cotton piece as hate speech. Leading the revolution were the newer group members that Bennet had brought in.

Cotton, a lone U.S. Senator, didn’t move any troops or even order any to move. He didn’t have the authority to do either. Nonetheless, Times employees found his opinion so odious that it required immediate action.

The whole point of having opinion pages is to present a wide range of ideas. The Times is, after all, the newspaper that once printed an opinion piece from Vladimir Putin. It is the paper that published an anonymous Op-Ed titled “I Am the Resistance,” detailing what some call a “deep state” effort to derail the Trump presidency. While anonymous news sources are common, this Op-Ed had no precedent to the best of my recollection. (About a year later, the author revealed himself as Miles Taylor when he left his position as chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security—and wrote a book, naturally).

The revolutionaries mobilized. They took to Twitter, whipping up followers by condemning their own organization. Twitter and the blogosphere went crazy. The rebellion was in full swing.

Next was management’s turn. They wrote a letter expressing “deep concern” to Bennet, A.G. Sulzberger (who had taken over as publisher from his father), and several other New York Times Company executives.

For the staffers, what’s happening in cities across the nation is a struggle between good and evil. There is no room for opposing views, not even in the opinion pages. Jim Rutenberg had predicted four years earlier that this was how the news would be reported. Now it was impacting even the opinion pages.

Their letter demanded that the column never appears in the print edition—it didn’t.

It demanded that the online version receive an editor’s note—it did. It was more an apology than a note, and it challenged some of Cotton’s statements—something I’m sure the senator would like to do to their columns daily. The editor’s comment also claimed that the process was rushed, which the senator’s office disputes.

Cotton’s office maintains that there was a negotiation process to refine the nature of the article. It took a day for The Times and Cotton to agree on its scope. Afterward, Cotton submitted a draft to The Times. Then there were “at least three rounds of back and forth. The first two rounds focused on clarity and style, the last round on factual accuracy.”

The letter’s authors claim that Cotton’s opinions are dangerous and that his opinions put people, especially Times reporters, in danger. This claim is ridiculous. People who decided to break the curfews imposed by most cities and remain where violence was occurring (including reporters) weren’t in danger until a senator suggested doing what eight presidents had done 11 times before over the past 100 years. That idea endangered people? Huh?

There was another town-hall meeting, this time with Bennet, that reportedly didn’t go well. Bennet didn’t read the Cotton Op-Ed before publication. One of his deputy editors went through the piece. Two days later, Bennet resigned. The rebels had won.

Back at the very start of this long history, I said The New York Times sets the standards for every other legitimate news organization. Don’t think throwing Bennet under the bus didn’t send shock waves reverberating throughout the media. Within days, Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a 20-year veteran of the paper, resigned after his staff walked out to protest an Op-Ed on the effects of civil unrest on the city’s buildings, titled “Buildings Matter Too.”

Those working in the later stages of their careers in newsrooms know what happened to Bennet, Wischnowski, and others. The elders understand the new rules and where the power lies. They are going to keep their mouths shut and their heads down.

The evolution is complete now. Jim Rutenberg’s 2016 column and the words of past public editor warnings have come full circle. The combined realities of the business model and staff that value mission over traditional journalism dictate how The Times will report news and opinion.

Not only is a reporter’s voice permitted in a news story, but their point of view is also important.

From the business perspective, it appears that The Times is on to something. Revenues that declined through the first decade of the century have steadily grown since 2016. Trump and post-journalism have been steroids for The Times’s digital subscription growth.

For The New York Times staff, it’s about saving the world from what they view as an existential threat.

For A.G. Sulzberger, it’s about saving the family business for the sixth generation.

For the readers, it’s about time to change the box that says, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” More aptly, it should now read, “Saving the World For Like-Minded People.”

BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Move Highlights Growing Appetite for News/Talk

Kayal moving to News/Talk is a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

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AUDACY

Sports Talk to News Talk.

The trend continued this week when Nick Kayal announced would be the next morning show host at WPHT in Philadelphia. In full disclosure, I know Nick, as I was an intern as he was an employee and growing his career at 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. Nick built a very solid sports talk resume, but decided to make the move to news/politics.

As I was reading his announcement on social media this week, I felt like I was reading my own reasons for leaving sports talk for news talk on a permanent basis five years ago. Nick wrote, “Over the past 6-7 years, my apetite for political content has increased and now I finally get to voice my opinion on these subject matters.”

Expect this to be a trend that we continue to see in our business and there are several reasons why this will happen.

First off, sports talk is oversaturated. There’s just too much of it, and at some point we’ve crossed the threshold where supply has exceeded demand. There will always be room for great sports talk hosts, but jobs aren’t growing in that space, and in fact, are likely to shrink in future years.

Meantime, if we flip to the News Talk side of the business, the number of jobs expanding is admittedly also not a big part of the equation, but there is less competition in the space for those jobs when compared to Sports Talk, especially when it comes to younger hosts and employees. 

I say the following with all the love in the world for my News Talk colleagues: I was at this week’s FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) Radio Row event, and as a 34-year-old, I felt like a college kid given that I was significantly younger than most of my fellow hosts. There’s nothing wrong with that for right now, as many of them are still sharp, on their game, and delivering great ratings and revenue for their respective stations, but if we look 5-10 years down the road, they may want to find themselves on a beach or ski slope on a more regular basis. So, the next wave of News Talk hosts may not be in the News Talk space right now, and given the greater number of employees in Sports Talk, they may very well be over there. 

This is a natural migration for both sides. The News Talk bench is not deep and as the younger Sports Talk employee gets older, their interests may change. Most 25-35 year-olds care more about sports than news and politics. But as a generation that grew up during the explosion of Sports Talk approaches and enters their 40’s, their interests and desires could shift as well.

Just as important in this conversation is the fact that we all know sports, politics and culture continue to collid, for better or for worse, and those who may have more conservative-leaning beliefs and opinions are more likely to try and make that move.

As someone who spent several years in sports talk and maintain strong relationships there, I know those who don’t pray at the “Alter of Woke” feel like their opinions aren’t welcomed and will be shunned by their colleagues and bosses. They mask it, as they like to a prefer to talk about the games anyway. But when sports and culture collide, they clam up or just toe the line. 

How long will that last? How long will they want to continue to bottle it up?

I’m not here to answer it for them, but I know that for me, there was a point where I thought I’d rather spend four hours a day talking about things that impact my city, state and country than discussing whether or not a quarterback missed an open receiver on 3rd and 10 or a pitcher was left in a game too long. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love sports and love being a sports fan, but hosting a daily, local show where that is part of the job became less appealing when given alternative options. And I don’t believe I will be alone in this regard, especially as we move forward through the next several years in our business. 

Additionally, the icing on the cake is that in many towns, major sports news that a News Talk host will find interesting is, in fact, news, and will be a fit for the program. In Philadelphia, the Eagles are news on Monday after a loss to the Giants. In Kansas City, the Chiefs are news. Nothing is bigger. I do a Chiefs segment on Friday and Monday during football season. You can’t do four hours on it, but mixing it in is part of the job if you’re in a big sports town. 

Now, there is a downside. As I told Nick Kayal in a personal note after his announcement, “Be prepared to be shunned by some of your former sports colleagues”. 

A sad reality, but true, in my experience. Hey, that’s the “Tolerant Left”, right?

If you can get over that, which should be easy, then come on over. We’re having fun, making great content, and always looking for who and what is next.

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BNM Writers

Nick Kayal Transitions from Talking Sports to News/Talk

Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities, but made the switch to talking politics.

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Seasons change, minds change, and jobs certainly do.

Nick Kayal has worked almost exclusively in radio sports in Nashville, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities. He most recently left Sports Radio 92.9 The  Game to do mornings on 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia. 

This isn’t just a job change for Kayal. It’s an entirely different animal. He’s switching from sports to news and talk. 

“Kayal and Company is the perfect show for me to host,” Kayal said. “I’ve got a multi-voiced show with an outstanding supporting cast. Greg Stocker and Dawn Stensland will have open microphones. We’ll have a guest from time to time. Some calls here and there, but it won’t be caller-heavy.”

Kayal said it will be a ‘good blend of things.’

The change has been in the works since the beginning of the year but was announced just yesterday. Former morning host Rich Zeoli will be moving to afternoons. Kayal said Zeoli has been looking forward to that.

“Rich knew the change was coming,” Kayal explained. “He was involved in the discussions. I think he really wanted to change his lifestyle. He even said so on air. Afternoons are where he started and I think he wanted to get back to that family balance. Rich is going to continue to do what made him so successful in the mornings. He does a great job at building an audience.”

Kayal said they will keep a lot of the same segments on the show. Instead of talking about Jalen Hurts of the Eagles, they’ll be talking about Joe Biden. The passion for sports and politics in Philly is the same, Kayal explained. “I don’t think my prep or delivery will change much. I want to hit on big stories, but I’m not going to filibuster on a topic.”

Getting ready for the new show, Kayal has had lunch with Stocker a few times to chat. Stocker will also serve as the show’s executive producer. The two have kept in touch through the spring and summer, and Kayal has been in Philadelphia for nearly a month.

Kayal said the response to the change has been overwhelmingly positive among listeners. 

“Twitter is usually a cesspool of negativity,” he said. “But this announcement has been 95% positive. Just a couple of negative responses here and there.

Kayal served as a host at crosstown sports 97.5 The Fanatic WPEN from 2009-2015 and doesn’t think the switch of focus will cause the show to lose listeners.

“I imagine some of the people who listened to me in sports might be a little shocked to hear me dealing with news topics,” Kayal said. “Listeners hate change, by and large. After a host change some might say they’re never listening again. That station is dead to me. People have their routines and they don’t like it when somebody or something messes that up. Most usually come back. Radio is very habitual.”

He doesn’t think he’ll miss sports all that much. That isn’t to say he’ll never do sports again, or that he’s sick of sports. 

“After 15 years of talking about nothing but sports, if I spent any more four-hour cycles talking about it, I’d blow my head off.” 

The show may touch on a major sports story if it happens, especially in Philadelphia.

“We might talk for a couple minutes after a win or loss. But one of the reasons I wanted to do this was the diversity of topics. I have an interest in a lot of things, including pop culture. We’re going to be dealing with a full menu of topics.”

He said any time you’re talking conservative news and politics, it’s the best of both worlds. 

“You may not want to listen to some of the mainstream media, so you turn to conservative radio. You have liberals who will listen to call you on your mistakes, but I’m open to that. The same goes the other way.” 

Kayal said he won’t mind admitting if he’s wrong on the air, like some other hosts. 

“There’s going to be some guys that BS their way through everything, stick to script,” he explained. “There are times when conservatives or liberals are off base, say something I don’t agree with. I’ll call them out on that.”

Dawn Stensland will be the news anchor at the top of the hour and co-host. 

“Dawn is like the protective mom who will go to bat for you,” Kayal said. “Rich Zeoli told me that this morning and said she’d go to bat for me too.”

Kayal will have a prep sheet going into the show, but he’s not afraid to dump one thing if another is working.

“I’ll call an audible at the line of scrimmage, so to speak. I want things to be organic on the show. If people are reacting to a topic, you can always get to an item in your preparation the next day. No need to rush. You have to go hard all the way through the show, finish strong. Like every other show I’ve done. There are benchmarks you need to hit during your show. People will listen for a period of time. If they’re in the car on the way to work, they’ll hear something. Then I have to approach the next hour as though nobody has heard the news, reset on the topic like it’s the first time I’m doing it. More than likely it’s a new audience. You can’t afford to have a bad segment.”

Sure, that can be beyond stressful. But if you come in prepared, if you have an opinion, make somebody laugh, make somebody mad, you’re doing something right.

“I want listeners to get the sound of the show,” Kayal said. “You’ll tune in to hear us having an exchange, bouncing off each other. I like to think we all have an innate ability to know where something is going, but chemistry between the hosts is going to be a major thing.”

 If everyone on the show has the same vision and check our egos at the door, Kayal said they’ll have a good show. He explained a show will have great ratings periods, and there’s a chance they will fall off. But the show must always deliver the best it can. 

Kayal went to school for criminal justice and pre-law at Temple. He studied political science for about a year, then changed to pre-law during his sophomore year.  He thought he’d be a defense attorney or prosecutor. 

“Law school only lasted three months,” Kayal said. “I just knew it wasn’t for me.” 

Some of the things he learned during his undergraduate degree and stint at law school helped him craft his arguments on the air. 

“I use those skill sets and traits in a monologue or during an interview,” he said. “It taught me how to ask leading questions. We’ll talk about crime on the show. It’s really about putting on a performance. So many guys are infatuated with being right, getting ratings, and revenue. To me, it’s not all about being right. 

He’d been reading Barrett Sports Media for a long time and came across a job opening for his new station, WPHT. 

“I’d always had the desire to do political stuff,” Kayal said. “I was working for Audacy in Atlanta, so coming to Philadelphia was almost like going through a transfer portal. Going back home has been icing on the cake. The process started in January of this year. They flew me out in March, and we did a two-hour mock show off the air. They had me fill in for Rich a couple of times in April. After the third week, I could tell they were pleased, and they offered me the job in June. I had to sit on it until yesterday.”

We now know Kayal can be trusted with a secret. 

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BNM Writers

The Intersection of Radio and Politics

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

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Four of the most enjoyable years of my life were spent on Capitol Hill as Communications Director for Congressman Michael R. Turner (R-OH). Mr. Turner is currently the ranking Member of the influential House Armed Services Committee. Should Republicans take back the House in November, he will likely become the committee Chairperson.

When talking to old media friends during that period, I often explained that the job wasn’t that different from broadcasting. The Congressman was like the “morning guy,” and the communications position was similar to the marketing and promotions role.

When Texas and Florida Governors Abbott and DeSantis began sending illegal immigrants, or unregistered persons for the more politically correct, from their states to Democrat strongholds, critics referred to it as a stunt. Neither of the governors seems to mind the term stunt.

Anybody with a radio career longer than one rating book has witnessed a stunt or two. Stunts can be remarkably effective for calling attention to something.

I don’t know if the “Concert for Bangladesh,” the granddaddy of benefit concerts, solved the refugee problem or if “Live-Aid” ended hunger. I am sure that these events, which were stunts when you think about them, created massive attention for important causes.

When we first put Howard Stern on WYSP-Philadelphia, we had no idea what the ratings impact would be. At the time, there was no shortage of critics who said: “it will never work.”

We couldn’t know, with certainty, whether broadcasting a show from New York would work in Philly. We were sure that doing it would get WYSP, a moribund station, a great deal of attention. At worst, it would be a “stunt.” At best, well, that’s in the history books.

Speaking of Howard, I believe Donald Trump, a regular guest on The Stern Show for approximately 20 years, ripped off “The King of All Media’s” 1980s and 90s formula to win the presidency. Think about it:

  • He never apologizes – no matter what
  • The more outrageous, the better
  • He plays to a dominantly male audience who loves and defends him
  • He does what he does for his fans
  • It’s always “us” against the world
  • He picks feuds with others and then sics his fans on the attacked
  • The only thing better than the celebrity feuds is staff in-fighting
  • His live events are huge love-fests

What else do politicians have in common with broadcasters? 

Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator.” Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. Later that year, his public career began as a WOC-AM/Davenport, Iowa sports announcer. He moved to WHO-AM/Des Moines in 1933, where he famously recreated baseball games using ticker tape reports. He went to California to cover spring training for the Cubs, which launched his Hollywood career.

Radio demands storytelling skills: The best in class in politics and radio are great storytellers. What do you know about Abraham Lincoln’s personality? He loved to tell a tale. In the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) tells a couple of free Black soldiers about the travails of barbers who have cut his hair. 

In another scene at the War Department telegraph office, Lincoln offers an anecdote about Ethan Allen, prompting an incredulous Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) to proclaim: “You’re going to tell a story! I don’t believe that I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now.”

At his best, Joe Biden tells stories. He has always gotten confused about numbers and details, not unlike Reagan. But he effectively uses stories to make his point. That’s how he became “Scranton Joe” and why we know “Corn Pop was a bad dude.”

Positioning matters: In 1992, realizing that the recession was the top issue on voters’ minds, Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor, James Carville created the positioning statement, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton stayed on message, promising to “focus like a laser beam on the economy.”

In 2008, Barack Obama simplified his positioning to a single word: Hope, to which he added the slogan, “Yes we can!” It brilliantly captured the zeitgeist and catapulted the first-term Senator to the White House.

Focus on a few big ideas at a time: Over the years, radio programmers have learned to focus on a couple of essential things at a time. When Barack Obama took office, he had a lengthy list of items that needed attention. The economy, unemployment, bank bailouts, and U.S. auto manufacturers were in trouble. Fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden was still hiding, and the president wanted to use his popularity to pass healthcare legislation. It was too much for the public to follow, and it appeared nothing positive was happening.

A 55% to 43% margin agreed that “since he’s taken over in the White House, Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should,” in a March 2009 CNN/Opinion Research survey.

Reagan kept his agenda simple. He wanted to make the government smaller and less intrusive. He did that through tax cuts, known as “Reaganomics.” He wanted to win the Cold War by building up the military. Everything else was secondary.

Radio is a personal medium: Air personalities have always gotten out and pressed the flesh. Many figured out early in the game to use social media to build relationships with listeners.

Bill Clinton understood the power of building connections (no pun intended). Remember the first Presidential Town Hall Debate? A voter asked the candidates (Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot) a question about how the economy (national debt) affected them personally. Clinton walked to the edge of the stage, as close to the audience as he could. Only Clinton answered in human and non-technical language in what became known as the “I feel your pain” moment. 

During the same town hall debate, Bush checked his watch. These two moments pretty much sealed the election for Clinton.

Program to your P1s: In politics, they call it “playing to your base.” Whatever your thoughts about Trump, no president has ever focused so intently on their base.

Biden ran on a “Cume” strategy. He was going to unite everybody. During the Democrat primaries, he may not have been most voters’ first choice, but he was everybody’s second choice. During the general, Biden had broader appeal. According to a Morning Consult exit poll, 44% of Biden voters said their vote was more against Trump than for Biden, compared to 22% of Trump voters who said their ballot was primarily against Joe Biden. 

The concepts behind successful radio stations and winning political campaigns are similar. During my four years on Capitol Hill, I used countless lessons learned as a program director. When I returned to radio four years later, the skills I acquired in Washington helped make me a more effective programmer.

With continuing radio “reductions in workforce,” public service provides career options. Because there’s an intersection between radio and politics, the skills are transferable. The work is rewarding, and the experiences are fantastic. 

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