The best thing I’ve read today: The media’s fear virus

St. Louis radio personality Paul Harris regularly shares via his blog and Twitter specific items that he considers to be important or fascinating reads. He dubs them “the best thing I’ve read today.”

Today’s blog by Paul Harris will without a doubt be the best thing I’ll read today. Paul takes the news media to task for their coverage of the Ebola virus, as if it has already become a plague in the United States (it hasn’t). Harris specifically goes after “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd, in response to one of Todd’s tweets.

Yes, Chuck, that’s because you and your colleagues across the media spectrum keep playing it up like there’s an Ebola plague in the US when there isn’t! While thousands of Africans have died and will continue to die from the disease (a story that you’ve been abandoned because the victims are on another continent), Ebola has killed exactly one person here, out of a population of some 320 million. Meanwhile, thirty thousand more Americans will be killed by guns this year than by Ebola, not to mention cigarette smoking, unsafe sex, and salmonella — but where’s that wall-to-wall coverage?

Read Paul’s entire post:  “The Fear Virus Strikes Again”

Chuck Todd should be seated at the head of table: And other random “Meet the Press” musings

Meet the Press Set

New “Meet the Press Set” – Photo courtesy,

Six weeks and five episodes into Chuck Todd’s run as moderator of “Meet the Press,” now seems like a good time to dish out some pent-up thoughts pertaining to NBC’s venerable television franchise.

I’ve been watching “Meet the Press” semi-regularly since 2007. I regret that I had not begun watching it sooner, having missed out on much of Tim Russert’s run as moderator.

I’ve agreed with the general sentiment towards David Gregory and that the show had appeared to operate off a paint  by numbers formula. The public’s reaction to the news in late August that NBC’s Chuck Todd would take over as the show’s moderator was a mixed bag, and for a variety of reasons.

While it would be hard to find anyone from within the news media who doubt that Todd is as affluent in politics as it comes, some people hesitate that he just doesn’t have the demeanor or looks to hold down such a prominent television hosting role. The more general sentiment is that the Sunday morning talk show routine has run its course and that Todd represents more of the status quo.

The digital age and 24/7 news media has certainly lessened the overall impact of the Sunday morning talk shows.  While the Sunday talk shows continue to skew towards an older audience, shows like the “Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Last Week Tonight,” deliver fresh and exciting content on a subject that often leaves people angry and frustrated — and they skew younger.

Prior to the anointing of Todd as the new “Meet the Press” moderator, there were suggestions that NBC News was leaning towards, or at the very least exploring, radically different means to help differentiate the show from its Sunday morning competitors.

Here’s how Politico’s Dylan Byers narrated such possibilities in his Aug. 15 report:

In fact, even Todd’s bosses needed to be persuaded. Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, was lukewarm on him, sources at the network said. Disappointed by the program’s poor ratings under host David Gregory, she had entertained all manner of revisions: Moving the show to New York and handing it over to a more affable, nonpolitical personality like Savannah Guthrie, the co-host of the “Today” show; changing the show’s name; perhaps even canceling it and starting over. That Turness was considering such diverse and radical options right up until the end — while Gregory was left to twist in the wind, enduring an onslaught of criticism and negative press — shows just how uncertain she was about the appropriate solution.

Just last week, word came out that NBC News offered the moderator chair to the “Daily Show’s” John Stewart(!).

Also, the fact that Deborah Turness might even for a second consider cancelling the show is just batshit crazy.

I just can’t shake the feeling that giving the job to Todd was a reluctant move by NBC. I hope I’m wrong, because even though the Sunday morning talk show formula may be incapable of living up to the relevance in had prior to the digital age and 24/7 news, I still find it to be an important cog in the overall political news media. Todd alone is a vast improvement over Gregory, and I like how has so far come across on the show.

Hopefully, the recently upgraded set is a vote of confidence in Todd by the NBC News brass. However, I question the necessity of a new set. The previous “Meet the Press” set was introduced in 2010 and was yet to come across as out of date. One thing I don’t like since Todd took over is the anchor desk he shares with his roundtable. Though it’s only a small caveat, I believe being moderator of “Meet the Press” is an esteemed honor, enough so that the host should rightfully be seated at the “head” of the desk, if you will, apart from the rest. Simply sitting in the middle doesn’t separate him enough, in my opinion. Todd either feels more comfortable being seated in the middle with the roundtable guests or NBC made that cosmetic decision for him.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy “Meet the Press” for what it’s worth. A simple re-hash of the week’s most important news and political stories along with some debate that I may or may not enjoy, pending the guests. While I happen to like Todd’s attempt at a slightly more casual and viewer friendly program, I don’t know if that will be enough to lure people away from ABC’s “This Week” or CBS’s “Face the Nation.” If he can’t, I reckon his leash will be shorter than Gregory’s (six years).

Unnecessary clutter: Programming excessive news and traffic around talk radio format

News 720 WGN Logo

Concerning radio formatting, there’s supposed to be a distinct difference between all-news and talk. I wish talk radio programmers understood that.

I have no problem with how smaller market talk stations program all-news during morning and/or afternoon drive. My problem is with talk stations that attempt to program excessive news and traffic updates around their regular talk programming. While attempting to offer the best of both worlds to listeners, such efforts often become a detriment to the overall talk format, at the expense of both the listening audience and the talk show hosts.

Listeners of Chicago’s two prominent talk stations, WGN-AM 720 and WLS-AM 890, should know full well how such detriment has affected their favorite talk shows. Both stations have made repeated attempts through the years to beef up their own news and traffic coverage in hopes of luring listeners away from the ratings and revenue all-news powerhouse WBBM-AM 780 (which simulcasts on WCFS FM 105.9 — which will soon have some real relevance for seemingly the first time ever). WGN’s traffic and weather on the seven’s severely impacted the overall quality of Spike O’Dell’s morning show and Steve Cochran’s afternoon show, while WLS’s traffic and weather on the fives was enough to hinder one of Chicago’s best talk personalities, Roe Conn.

While WLS is expected to lessen the amount of afternoon traffic updates once Steve Dahl makes his debut in November, WGN is aiming to make another lunge at WBBM. According to a Chicago Tribune piece last month, WGN is in the midst of tinkering with its overall news coverage in response to losing the Chicago Cubs to WBBM.  The hiring of longtime television anchor Anna Davlantes to report on trending stories along with the addition of “Business Lunch” to the 12 p.m. hour of Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano’s afternoon show are two prime examples of how they are attempting to bolster it’s news presence. WGN is also aiming to expand their ability towards more original reporting. The ultimate end-game is to establish a more extensive news team that can potentially attract displaced news seekers once Cubs games pre-empt WBBM’s all-news format starting next spring.

At least such attempts are seemingly genuine, unlike the empty maneuver of re-branding the station as “News 720 WGN” back in 2010 under the volatile leadership of the late Kevin Metheny.

While I am not fully pleased with many of the past year’s programming changes made by WGN President and General Manager Jimmy de Castro, I have to give him credit for continuing to maintain a prominently all-live and all-local talk station. Even though I believe many of his programming choices (or choices that he ultimately approved of) have been absolutely mind-numbing, WGN is one of only a few unique talk stations in the country that have avoided much of the cutbacks, layoffs, syndication and brokered programming. The enhancing of its news department is one more example of WGN’s willingness to spend more money while every other station seemingly finds new ways to cut back.

However, I have to think that such attempts to win over WBBM’s audience may potentially turn into a wasted effort. While the Cubs will pre-empt WBBM’s all-news format on AM 780, its FM 105.9 simulcast will continue airing all-news uninterrupted. I reckon the vast majority of WBBM’s listeners in the Chicago metro area will have no trouble switching to 105.9 on the FM band — especially since the simulcast has been inexistence since August, 2011. Any regular WBBM listener should at the very least be vaguely aware that a FM simulcast exists. WBBM has gone out of its way to include 105.9 in its overall branding.

Asides from those outside the FM 105.9 listening range or those unable to or unwilling to listen via online, how many displaced AM 780 listeners can WGN realistically expect to gain?

According to the same Tribune report, WGN President and General Manager Jimmy de Castro said that they’re “going to put more emphasis and energy into news, particular while [WBBM is] doing baseball.” To me, that sure sounds like longer news updates at the top and bottom of the hour, which in all honesty, is just what the station does not need.

WGN’s top of the hour newscast, especially during morning and afternoon drive, are already long enough. Even with an older skewing audience, I think WGN in 2015 can still function healthily without trying to be the all-service station. Between the amount of time dedicated to news and commercials, it can make listening to their programming difficult, which is painfully obvious in the morning during Steve Cochran’s show (the saving grace for WGN’s overload of commercials is that WLS is seemingly far worse).

Interruptions in the talk format, regardless of their merit, are mere distractions. WGN can’t have it both ways.

As it is, WGN is barely juggling their talk programming around news and commercials. Any further tinkering, especially if that actually does mean more news in hopes of attracting displaced WBBM listeners, will potentially displace WGN’s existing listeners — an audience that wants to listen to long-form talk.

WGN’s talk format is what makes it so unique. WGN should be utilizing its greatest strength, which is their full cast of friendly, live and local personalities (whether you like or dislike their current assemble of personalities is a separate conversation). Diluting them with more news and traffic interruptions would be counterintuitive.

Email: blowtorchpress [at] | Twitter: @MartinHawr

Steve Dahl to WLS afternoons: Full analysis with added perspective on how Cumulus shafted Roe Conn

Since posting this entry earlier this morning, the WLS-AM website has removed Roe & Roeper from their program schedule. Earlier this morning, Conn appeared on ABC 7/WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live,” confirming that yesterday was their final show. It appears that Conn’s career at WLS radio has come to an end.

In response to the news that Steve Dahl is returning to terrestrial radio at WLS-AM 890, veteran Chicago radio executive Michael Damsky wrote on Facebook, “this is the radio story of the year. Only Robert Feder gets this scoop.”

The news broken last night by Feder was so big and surprising, that my mother-in-law texted and called me to discuss it.

Steve Dahl - New WLS Afternoon Host

Steve Dahl, the soon to be WLS afternoon host.

It’s been known that the contracts for Roe Conn and Richard Roeper, the current afternoon hosts at WLS, were expiring towards the end of this year. There wasn’t much optimism that either would be back.

While the station has not officially announced Dahl’s hiring or any surrounding details, Feder did not specify whether Conn or Roeper will continue hosting until the change takes place. The WLS website is still promoting their Friday, Oct. 31 Roe & Roeper’s Nightmare on Clark Street” event. [Update: All references to Conn and Roeper, including the “Nightmare on Clark Street” event, have been removed from the WLS website.]

The contracts for Bruce Wolf and Dan Proft, the current morning hosts at WLS, are also believed to be expiring near the end of this year. Does the Cumulus-owned station plan to reinvent the rest of the daypart or are they content at sticking with the status-quo? It’s not like mornings at WLS are setting the world on fire. Does a scenario exist in which Conn, with or without Roeper, moves to morning drive? At the moment, my initial guess would be no.

Roe Conn

Roe Conn, the iconic. and now seemingly former, WLS afternoon host.

Even though I don’t think it will happen, I think it’s worth mentioning when considering that WLS is still reeling from the loss of their iconic morning duo, Don Wade and Roma. While Conn’s afternoon ratings haven’t been good, he too is an iconic personality there, having just celebrated his 25th anniversary. Reasonable executives might understand that outside of the afternoon show, the station is an utter mess.

Despite Conn’s swelled ego in recent years, along with his rampant stammering and stuttering, he provides a highly intelligent and reasonable perspective that is also entertaining while discussing the news of the day. Unfortunately, the excessive commercial time and the horrendous traffic and weather on the fives format have made his show practically unlistenable.

Since we’re speaking of Cumulus, I suspect they have little care about station heritage or that their fingerprint smudges are largely responsible for Conn’s poor ratings performance. The notoriously cheap company will likely part ways with Conn, allowing him to resurface elsewhere, with WGN-AM 720 as the seemingly most obvious choice — which I would be more excited about if that were to happen without Roeper.

Putting the excessive commercial time and traffic and weather format aside, I haven’t been a huge fan of Roe Conn’s afternoon show since the arrival of Roeper as co-host. I don’t think he adds much as far as content to the overall show. Obviously, the loss of Garry Meier as co-host was significant, but I eventually became comfortable with the combination of Conn, Bill Leff, Jim Johnson, and to a lesser extent, Christina Filiaggi.

As for Steve Dahl, I’m not a fan. I don’t appreciate how unnecessarily vile he is when insulting someone — while the circumstances in which Dahl criticizes someone may be warranted, there is a fine line between constructive criticism and being excessively mean. His recent lashing at WGN and his choice words towards Leff and Wendy Snyder, the station’s afternoon hosts, are just recent examples.

I also don’t think that listening to Dalh talk to wife on the air or his personal musings to be of interest. As a previous paid subscriber of his podcast (which allowed me to better sample his product in hopes of finding an alternative to bad terrestrial radio), I was turned off at the excessive amount of such musings that dominate his show, drowning out some otherwise interesting content, such as discussion of a Blackhawks playoff game from the night before.

While I’m not a fan of Dahl, I of course will be listening to him on day one at WLS. And that is whole idea. Hiring Dahl will, at least at the beginning, re-energize the older radio audience, bringing in new listeners, whether they are a fan of his or not.

On the flip-side, such a hiring only reinforces just how damaged the radio industry is. Instead of grooming young radio personalities into superstars, radio companies every now and then resort to shelling out decent to big money towards such re-treads like Dahl.

A few added thoughts…

– For those criticizing Robert Feder for releasing this scoop on the first day that his blog is jettisoned behind a Chicago Tribune paywall, do you not have any idea how journalism works? The timing of specific news pieces happens all the time, whether you like it or not. I suspect that those criticizing Feder for releasing the WLS/Dahl news today are people who already have a beef against him.

– Feder is not perfect. I have previously criticized him for often making it too obvious who he’s friends or foe with in Chicago media — and how that has  shaped how he narrates certain stories (i.e. WGN’s mishandling of Garry Meier last spring) — also a common function in journalism. That said, such scoops such as Steve Dahl joining WLS is what makes him a must read if you have any care in the world for Chicago media. You just never know when Feder has an ace up his sleeve.