Balloon Boy, Baby Jessica and Newsertainment

Raise your hand if you remember Balloon Boy.

I lost what little respect I had left for my News Director that day, when he ordered us to take over regular programming and do a play-by-play of what was assumed to be an out-of-control weather balloon carrying a small child.

We didn’t know at the time that it was a hoax, but the ND jumped on the ‘Can’t miss a breaking story, even it’s not really news or verified’ bandwagon that was a creeping cancer in News Rooms across the country.

What we *did* know was the balloon was coming down from somewhere above 13,000 feet on a cold Colorado morning: It meant the 5-year-old child purported to be inside might have died of hypothermia, or might die on impact falling from such a height.

The News Director – KNOWING it could be coverage of a snuff shot – ordered the anchor on duty to describe a silver Mylar balloon being blown above barren fields as National Guard helicopters followed it, and Sheriff’s SUV’s chased it on the ground.

For 20 agonizing minutes this went on. I vaguely recall trying to get a physics professor on the line to fill time. I probably ended up calling Dr. Bill Wattenburg. It was agonizingly bad radio, I was embarrassed at the content and queasy about being part of a possible snuff shot play-by-play.

I remember CNN was covering it wall-to-wall, and several televisions in the News Room were on the live helicopter feed we were getting from TV downstairs, who was getting it from the ABC affiliate in Denver.

My ND stood with his hands on his head as the balloon crashed into the dirt and hooted out, “Oh! Oh-ho!! Look at that!!” It was so ugly when you realize he thought there was a little boy – the same age as his son – inside the basket of the balloon. Let’s not even talk about how unprofessional or undignified his reaction was.

His ‘spectating the train wreck’ approach to news was giving people a pass for death-voyeurism. He was treating presumed personal tragedy as entertainment.

That was the book (ratings period) we fell from 1st place in the Bay Area for the first time in 30 years, and stopped being the #1 station in the country. It was part of an inexorable downward spiral, as Cumulus picked the bones clean on a great station. First they cleaned the News Room out of the professionals who brought depth to their coverage and who might fight back against such lurid programming. Next they gave their listeners Balloon Boys and Singing Dogs. Finally they wondered why revenue was falling as listeners abandoned the station in droves.

My point is this: Fake News and Bullshit Stories have been around for a while. Balloon Boy himself is rooted in the Baby Jessica story from 1987, which was the start of 24 Hour Coverage of ‘Important Stories’ rather than actual News. It was the unleashing of Voyeurism-is-News school of programming.

CNN (gosh – those call letters again) covered Baby Jessica breathlessly for 2 1/2 days, as the country watched crews digging around the clock. But, what if rescuers had not been in time? What if the well had collapsed around Jessica and she was smothered on live TV singing nursery rhymes? CNN was A-Okay with broadcasting a tragedy or a happy ending – as long as they had eyeballs. Those eyeballs – a big slice of America – lapped up this personal disaster as amusement, and thus Newsertainment was born.

In the 30 years since Baby Jessica brought great ratings, News Directors push every story as if its lightening in a bottle, hoping to convince viewers to watch longer. Fox is an egregious abuser of this programming crutch, and their elderly viewers must be marinaded in cortisol from the daily stress response of being bludgeoned with cyrons screaming BREAKING NEWS!! at the bottom of their cathode ray screens.

In those 3 decades Newsertainment infiltrated every level of programming, giving birth to Reality TV: a format inexpensive to produce that the public confused with Actual Reality.

Reality TV took over television and bestowed upon the American public ‘Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire’ and such cultural icons as Mama June, Snookie and the entire Kardashian clan. The public loved to snicker about Ozzy Osbourne’s substance abuse, and D List stars talking about their addictions was a fine good time. Singing contests were better with someone like William Hung to humiliate. Nothing was too trivial or serious to make into Reality TV. You could watch a show about everything from a pre-pubescent beauty pageant contestant getting exploited by her mother (and the production company), to a vicious bully firing people arbitrarily.

People began to confuse the characters edited for broadcast with being real people. The lines between Actual Reality and Reality TV blurred.

‘The Media’ (not journalists) began to insert themselves into the story, hoping for ever more eyeballs. Expert panels turned into people shouting over one another – because who doesn’t like a good, mean fight? News became factoids and infotainment while Reality TV is nothing like Actual Reality.

In the end viewers tuned out of the experiment of Newsertainment. It’s as simple as that. The product became unwatchable and people stopped trusting news they get from The Media. And why should they? What little bit that isn’t fluff and glurge isn’t well researched or edited for want of researchers and editors in most news rooms.

The Media’s treatment of News as entertainment and Entertainment as reality blurred the lines to the point that it was inevitable America would end up with a POTUS #45.

Balloon Boy was just one brick on a path paved with bad decisions that brings us to the open grave of my beloved industry. It’s heartbreaking watching the few reporters left in the industry (there are 60% fewer reporters now than at the peak in the 1990s) trying to fill hundreds of hours of programming, or try to feed the continual beast of web site content. That content gets more and more diluted so gets fewer and fewer eyeballs, and the viscous circle continues.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see News recover. I do know that people like my News Director bashed News over the head with a shovel, and I’ll never forgive him for that.

I’d like to ask a favor: The next time you see a breaking story that’s not really a breaking story – don’t watch it. Perhaps you come across a grisly story of a tortured toddler – please don’t click. Trust me – you’ll live not knowing the gory details of how a dog mauled a baby, or exactly *how much* filth is caused by hoarding 50 dogs, or how terribly that toddler was tortured.

When a piece from a once-respectable publication (I’m looking at you Time) is ‘How To Find And Keep Love’ or ‘POTUS’ Top 10 Tweets Of All Time!’ could you just scroll past?

You don’t need to watch or encourage pregnant teens being exploited for their mistakes or their counterparts who wail and gnash their teeth because daddy bought the wrong color Mercedes.

Clicks and eyeballs will ultimately drive programming back to News. The only way we stop getting glurge, fluff and bullshit is if we stop consuming it. It’s that simple.

Keep clicking on crap and all we’ll get is crap. Idiocracy will look like a documentary and stories like Balloon Boy will win the Pulitzer. For the love of information – STOP CLICKING!

KGO and the Death of Radio

 

 

Radio died for me today.

The Great Lady – KGO Radio in San Francisco – was killed off this morning, ending a long downward spiral for a once-great station. Many good people I had the honor of working with were laid off today.

KGO was the #1 radio station in San Francisco for 3 decades; it was a 50,000 watt powerhouse whose signal went from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains – from Mexico to Canada and on up to Alaska. It was the West Coast Flagship station for ABC News. It was where you went to stay informed, and on any given afternoon at least half-a-million people were listening.

KGO was responsible for the News Talk format, and it employed the absolute greats in the field. I could not even begin to estimate how many journalism awards KGO Radio won – it would be in the hundreds. The News won those awards – but, Bret Burkhart was a force unto himself and won more awards than I know. And Ravi Peruman won awards for his work, especially the piece he did on the Harvey Milk assassination.

Over the decades it raised $20+ million for Leukemia research during its annual Cure-A-Thon. It was the voice of information during a night of chaos after the Loma Prieta quake. For nearly 20 years it was the home of 49ers Football. It was the voice of San Francisco.

We were based in the ABC broadcast center along the Embarcadero, the newsroom looked out on the Ferry Building, and I watched many sunrises over the Bay Bridge from my desk. There was a deck that ran the length of the building, it had a barbeque and patio furniture so you could sit out and enjoy the sun before the fog rolled in.

Our GM installed a fancy machine that made honest-to-gosh fresh ground espresso and lattes – there were employee appreciation luncheons, and bottles of good champagne for the milestones. There were beers at Gumpy’s (the Cheers-type bar across the street), and wild celebrations after awards ceremonies. There was a camaraderie, a shared goal of excellence and we were all proud to work at what the business itself had dubbed ‘the best News Talk station in the country’.

That all changed when Citadel bought the ABC-owned radio stations for an obscenely high price in 2007. That’s when everything changed. The Vulture Capitalists that bought KGO weren’t interested in radio – they were interested in nothing but money. They weren’t interested in making money off of radio – they were simply interested in what the next quarter would mean for their profit statement.

Citadel, along with Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeart Radio) destroyed radio as we knew it. If you can’t stand to listen to radio anymore you can thank these companies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed them to consolidate thousands of Mom-and-Pop radio stations into just a handful of owners. What was once a thriving marketplace of ideas and new music became a moribund feedback loop of homogeneity and satellite programs.

In a feeding frenzy of buying these few companies overpaid for stations, borrowing 4 and 5 times more than what they were worth – starting out hopelessly in debt. They would buy 10 stations in a market, shove them all into one building that was owned by a subsidy, to whom they would pay rent, and then sell all of the physical assets of those stations (buildings, radio equipment and everything inside down to the last paperclip). The Grinch left more at Cindy Lou Who’s house than these vultures did. Next, they cleared out 80% of the staff – such a savings on labor! – and forced the remaining 20% to pick up the slack.

They took all that gooey, gooey money they got from the sale of EVERYTHING and instead of paying off their obscene loans, the Vultures gave themselves 8 figure bonuses annually on top of their obscene pay. My favorite was the $27 million bonus (on top of $3 million annual pay) Farid Suliman, the CEO at Citadel, took the week the company declared bankruptcy, which was the year they cleared out half the newsroom, which had been cut in half the year before.

The Vultures relied more and more on satellite programming, and laid off scores of professionals. This drained the product of any local flavor – and had real consequences in many marketplaces when a local emergency happened and there were no live people to cover it and tell people to evacuate or shelter-in-place.

Sure the product SUCKED and ratings dropped but, hey – the Vultures were making bank.

KGO – like Wile E. Coyote – continued to run on air for nearly three years after Citadel bought us. We finally looked down after they cut three-fourths of the news room, the helicopter, airplane, most traffic reporters, and virtually all admins. Then we fell to the bottom of that long canyon. Poof.

The Crash of 2008 accelerated the demise of radio, but it was on a path to destruction no matter what. The Vultures had created a cycle of cutting people and services to keep their bonuses intact. The cuts meant a shabbier and more worthless product, which drove down listenership, and thus ad revenue. I likened their cuts to a Doctor telling her patient, “Look, your toe is bleeding – we need to take off the foot to stop it. Oh. Now your foot is bleeding – let’s take off the leg to stop it.”

Every one of these Radio behemoths is teetering on the edge of complete disintegration. iHeart Radio, formerly known as Clear Channel (the name of the beast that started this whole buggery), has a few weeks to come up with $6 billion of the $21 billion they owe creditors. Cumulus – the company that bought Citadel a few years ago and finished off KGO today – owes nearly $3 billion and their stock has gone from $4 to 46 cents in the last year. Entercom seems healthy with only $500 million in debt, and $9 million in cash on hand. They are all out of assets to sell, and they owe billions more than their stations are worth. They are not underwater on their loans – they are drowning in debt they have no way to pay.

I will never forgive the Dickey brothers, the Mays brothers, Farid Suliman, and David Field for what they did to Radio. Like vampires they sucked the life force out of radio, and killed it. What they did should have been illegal. But, there were no regulations to stop it, and there still aren’t.

KGO was making a $5 million a year profit on top of paying its full staff *very well* (and that was in the Bay Area) when Citadel bought it and killed it in 10 quarters. When I left the station at the end of 2011 I was doing 4 jobs – our newsroom having been cut from 32 top-notch professionals to 13 overworked souls. The rest of the station had it just as bad – the cuts were capricious and in one afternoon I watched 412 years of corporate memory walk out the door. It was the first of many cullings.

When I gave my notice I didn’t have anything left to give to the station. I simply couldn’t continue to do 4 people’s jobs, and I knew that what I was putting out was 60% garbage and 40% news. I fought the good fight to try to keep information on the air. But, the lack of personnel, and the *terrible* management were demoralizing.

The day I had a knock down drag ‘em out fight over whether we should run the story on the ‘Singing Dog’ in New York City or go with the rapidly unfolding events of the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring, I knew I had lost. There was no point in trying to push that rock up the hill anymore.

Leaving KGO was the toughest professional decision I have ever made. Radio had been my life for 25 years – and I grieved. We radio people are an odd lot – but we’re indulgent with each other’s idiosyncrasies, have each other’s backs, and we play fantastic practical jokes. I never felt more at home in a job than when we were all working on breaking news. We worked as a team – a well-tuned machine that came together to relentlessly find the facts our listeners counted on.

We weren’t producers and reporters and anchors and engineers – we were a unit that leaned in and skipped dinner or going home and worked hour after hour because our job was News. We were dedicated professionals who all had go-bags in our car just in case, and followed the story where it took us. We were the most dedicated people you will ever find in a news room anywhere, and it reflected in the superior news we produced for decades.

To all my friends who were laid off today: I am so sorry for your loss. I wish you the best of luck in finding a place to use your talents. Never forget that News is a noble profession and can make a difference in the world, and you worked in a place that set the standard for it in Radio. It was an honor to have worked with you, and to have called KGO my home.

 

This was originally a Facebook post I wrote on March 31, 2016, after mass layoffs at KGO and KFO , and posted for my friends to see. One of them, Dennis Willis, posted it to his website Soundwavestv.com later that night, and it went viral, getting more than 100,000 views and 20,000 shares in under 4 days.