October 21, 2014
Steve Jones is a very busy man right now. As VP/GM of ABC News Radio, he's trying to get all 1,600 affiliates to re-up by January 1st as it switches distributors from Cumulus/Westwood One to Skyview. At the same time, he's trying to get new affiliates while helping create new content in a changing radio environment that's being impacted by a digital revolution. Here's how he's managing this balancing act.
You've been at ABC News Radio since 1986. The industry certainly has changed since then. How much change has impacted your piece of the world?
Ha! How many days do I have to answer that one? The changes are incalculable in terms of how technology has disrupted our business and in the ways in which people consume content, not to mention the quantity of content. Information is everywhere, which has created tremendous opportunities for those content creators who have credibility, such as ABC News.
You and I are bombarded with information, which has to be sorted out to highlight the most accurate and relevant news. That's the most important thing a content creator can do so, in that sense, nothing has changed. Radio newscasts are much like they were 30 years ago. If you think about it, a radio newscast is the best curated content at that minute. ABC News continually surveys information breaking all over the world, vets it, prioritizes its relevance and importance and then delivers it to you in an engaging way that requires no work from you. Just listen, be informed and, often, entertained!
You started as a writer. Do you miss creating the actual news segments?
Actually, I started as an intern at an AOR radio station, WPIX/New York. It was over Christmas break, 1977; I was a high school junior and convinced News Director John Ogle to let me visit the studio. Ogle's newscasts were cleverly written with a rock sensibility. He said he was thinking of starting an intern program and since I was into both rock and news, I said "sign me up." Tom Leykis interned, too. He and I are an unusual pairing for sure; he's obviously done very well. John Ogle taught me how to write news and produce radio with Bill Vitka. Then "Joe from Chicago" and Meg Griffin took over programming PIX and created a magical rock radio experience, playing Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello.
John Ogle and Dan Neer launched a Sunday night talk show called Radio Radio, gave me a "producer" title and each week our guests included up-and-coming bands such as the Clash, Ramones, Police, Talking Heads -- I have stories about that for another day. I also learned from Mark Simone and Alan Colmes. I actually became a kid producer for Alan's late-night show. Alan's gone on to have a really great career at Fox and Mark is an iconic New York talk radio host. I was promoted to the morning news guy at PIX, then they flipped formats and I got fired with most of the staff. Welcome to radio!
You weren't even 20 years old when that happened. Did you think radio was too risky a career?
I wasn't sure so I went to college. But when WLIR/Long Island flipped to New Wave, I found a new home and spent three years both disk-jockeying and as a morning sidekick/news guy working for Denis McNamara and with Bob Waugh, Donna Donna, Ben Manilla, Larry the Duck, Jeff Beck, Willobee, Nancy Abramson and so many other talented people. From there I did morning news at WXRK with Jay Thomas and later Jimmy Fink. Then they decided to put the afternoon guy in mornings -- Howard Stern. I tried convincing them that I would be a better news sidekick than Robin (laughter). Even though I went to college with Stern producer Gary del Abate and we worked together at WLIR, they still chose Robin. I don't think they regretted that decision.
WXRK offered me a rock jock job, but I decided to pursue hard news.
Is this when you started at ABC News?
I tried to get a full-time news job, but they didn't want to hire me because I didn't have enough hard news experience. They sent me a rejection letter - which I still have - where they said my news writing was good, but I wasn't the right fit due to my experience in music radio. I sent them a response, saying I respected their decision but they were wrong - that my passion and creativity could be an asset to them. Eventually they did hire me as a producer and I went from there.
Do I miss the news writing? There was no greater satisfaction than purely writing news copy and creating something with the finality of it going on the radio. It's incredibly exciting, as it can be stressful and creative. But I haven't done it in a long time. I have a different set of challenges now, which allows me to express myself in new and creative ways. I am still in charge of the editorial for ABC News Radio and spend part of each day engaged in news coverage. But I'm very fortunate to rely on a really solid management team led by Andrew Kalb and Jeff Fitzgerald.
What's the biggest challenge you currently face at ABC News Radio?
We're currently involved in the most broad-sweeping transformation of the radio network business ever - specifically, ABC News Radio has to re-up our 1,600 radio station affiliates, because of a change in our business, by the end of the year. We're signing new contracts for 2015 with these stations -- and new affiliates. So far, we've received tremendous feedback from our radio stations who told us they want to continue to be our partners. On top of that, we have picked up new affiliates like Hearst/Baltimore stations WBAL and WIYY
Is the competition for affiliates more intense now than before?
Yes. Because of the business change we are making, we can structure the relationship with affiliates ourselves. This gives us tremendous flexibility in the type of service we can offer. Now we can approach radio groups and create some really attractive proposals using the news, entertainment and sports content we create. Plus, we're very focused on creating new programming. All of this gives radio stations more options and, based on the feedback we're getting, they like to have more choices rather than fewer.
Instead of Cumulus, in 2015 you will be distributed by Skyview. What made them the best choice to work your product?
Skyview has been in this business for about 20 years, primarily serving professional sports teams that want to create their own radio networks, such as the L.A. Dodgers Sports network, which they distribute. Ken Thiele is their president along with Diana Chamberlain and Dave Dickson -- who's an engineering wizard. We thought they could most easily and quickly provide us the technical foundation we required. Beyond that, they have a terrific sales operation led by Jeanne-Marie Condo, with whom I have been working very closely. They just increased their sales staff and we're meeting with all the agencies to make sure they understand the exciting new opportunities that ABC Radio provides their clients.
Please describe the "new opportunities."
Affiliates can associate with the ABC Radio brand, which includes ABC News Radio, ABC Sports Radio, ABC Air Power (entertainment and prep services), and ABC Digital. Plus, we can tap into all of the personalities and brands of the Walt Disney Company. Yes, news programming drives our business, and we'll stay laser-focused on ABC News Radio, but for the first time we're able to bring programs to the marketplace that can be tied to specific ABC shows and Disney brands. We already do some things with Jimmy Kimmel Live, The View -- even Marvel ... perhaps we will do more. To state it simply: Starting January 1st we'll be able to syndicate any audio content we want, from other brands or companies, so the syndication opportunities for us are limitless.
How important is the digital platform to ABC News Radio?
Very important. We're providing our audio wherever consumers are listening, but at the same time we love broadcast radio. We have the opportunity to grow and try new things with our digital radio partners such as iHeartRadio, Slacker and other services we provide content to.
We also have a business called ABC Digital, which serves about 600 radio stations. We write news and entertainment content for station websites, allowing them to capture all the traffic that comes to their sites.
I recently moderated a panel at the Radio Show on social media and the different strategies radio stations are using. It's important for us to understand how audiences engage with Facebook and Twitter, so we can meet their expectations. For example, we find emotional stories tend to do better on Facebook, harder news does better on Twitter. Creating more content for social media is one way to accelerate radio's growth.
A lot of ABC News Radio product is on highly partisan Talk stations. Is there a temptation to inject advocacy or angles that dovetail with the political stance of the stations' Talk talent?
We have no opinionated news anchors. But as you note, we operate on radio stations that do have opinionated talk hosts who illustrate the tremendous impact of spoken word radio - but that doesn't color our impartiality.
We're finding that our radio station affiliates who have opinionated talk show hosts still want to have the ABC News brand. We convey a credibility that is very appealing to local advertisers. I don't see it as an "either/or" choice. While direct-response advertisers are happy with their relationship with opinionated talk hosts, other brands are looking for a less polarizing environment. We have a specific role in the advertising ecosystem, where affiliates are comfortable using our branded product.
AM Radio's future is being questioned by some in the radio industry. Are you confident that AM will remain economically viable, or do you have a Plan B for your content if it doesn't survive?
I was talking with the programmer of a dominant major-market AM station this week and he was as interested in what we could offer him for his digital business as he was for his broadcast programming. His focus was on his station's brand and he looked at its broadcast signal as one way to reach his audience -- but not the only way. There are a lot of really smart people trying to figure out the future and we are here to support them. Part of our ABC strategy is to have as diverse a portfolio of businesses as possible. We are on a substantial number of FM stations -- and growing -- and will continue enthusiastically to serve AM stations, too.
Has ABC News Radio been impacted by the TMZ'ing of instant news and gossip?
You have to be sensitive to who your audience is. As long as you're meeting their expectations and providing content that's accurate, relatable and interesting, you're going to be fine. For us, that means on all-News stations, we're going to be selective on which types of entertainment news we report. To listeners on music stations, our story selection can be very different. We apply the same urgency and editorial rigor to entertainment news as we do to all news coverage. We're always on the lookout for entertainment news scoops. Our last big one was Freddie Prinze, Jr. criticizing Kiefer Sutherland on his behavior while shooting the show 24. Our story exploded in social media; entertainment websites such as TMZ ran the story and credited us.
How has the instant news proliferation of Twitter impacted your news reporting?
The good news is that the public's use of social media has enhanced the level of our news reporting. When the Napa earthquake occurred, we were able to find people in Napa who tweeted about the earthquake. We tracked them down and got them to call us. That's an example of social media taking our news coverage a notch even higher. At the same time, a lot of what we find being posted and circulated on Twitter or Facebook is not accurate or fully vetted. People would be very surprised if they saw the quantity of Twitter reporting that does not meet our ABC standards. Our stations count on us to be vigilant in protecting the trust their audience has in them.
Speaking of trusting sources, it still happens - every so often, one of Howard Stern's "Whackpackers" gets air time as supposedly a witnesses to breaking news events. How does ABC News Radio ensure that doesn't happen to them?
It only can be prevented if you suppress the desire to rush information on to the air without understanding how credible that source is. So, if someone contacts you representing themselves as an eyewitness to an event, you have to proceed with caution. We do our best to avoid being in that situation. We have a robust set of editorial procedures to follow in every story.
So after this huge change, going from Cumulus to Skyview at the end of the year, what are your goals for ABC Radio in 2015?
On January 1st, we will be a complete network radio syndicator with our capabilities fully realized to provide news and entertainment. We're talking with some of the major radio groups to partner on new projects, which will give us a much broader role in the radio business. We're already the largest commercial radio news provider in the U.S., with more affiliates than anyone else. We're going to leverage our platforms to provide stations with new and different types of programming. We're excited about the feedback we're getting from the radio groups we will work with in 2015. Our future is bright!