Category Archives: WSB-AM

The tree and I

In our business, there are consequences for failure. This was mine: I got to do a live report on a tree.

True, the tree had dislodged from its rootwork on a hillside in DeKalb County. It had the good fortune, from the perspective of the news, of falling across a roadway during a thunderstorm.

But I was there because I’d spent the day failing.doug and a tree

That morning, I exited the morning editorial meeting assigned to a story that produced a series of unanswered phone calls and emails.  It was Friday, after all.

Midday, I was sitting at my desk, high and dry.  A home invasion robbery / person shot story called my name.

Dan Reilly and I drove to Stone Mountain in a live truck. The details emerged.  It was garden-variety mayhem, of the sort we thankfully avoid at 11 Alive News.

But I’d failed again. I couldn’t / wouldn’t try to “sell” the story. Maybe if I’d done so, I wouldn’t have ended up in front of a tree.

A couple hours passed. 5pm brought storms. Somebody in the weather department got a little excited, which had a contagious effect among certain decision makers.

The manager who caught my eye had a hint of evil in his smile.  “There’s some bad lightning in Gwinnett County. Try to get there for six.”

Traffic was a bitch. It was not only Friday rush hour, but there was bad weather. We spent thirty minutes traveling eight miles.

We exited Chamblee Tucker Rd. At 5:45 we started to look for a place to alight. There was rain, but the storms had passed.

Dan had WSB radio tuned in. “There’s a tree down on Presidential Drive near Chamblee Tucker and 285.” The voice was Doug Turnbull’s. I knew Turnbull when he was in high school.  He and my kids were pals.

The road was two blocks from us. There we went.

There I stood, talking about a tree.

“It’s an oak tree,” I began. I had a tree, but very little other material.

My live shot ended quickly, and we wrapped our “coverage.”

It gave my punishment, on a Friday evening, a measure of mercy.  Nonetheless, it was a reminder of why failure is a very poor option in my line of work.

Repeal the first amendment!

Want to restrict guns in America?  Good luck with that.  When the second amendment was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, it codified America’s gun culture.  Hundreds of millions of guns later, it’s a genie that’s so accustomed to being out of the bottle that it won’t get shoved back in without a bloodbath.

He's not even an NRA member.

He’s not even an NRA member.

Want to register those hundreds of millions of guns retroactively?  Right.  It’s not even an option, unless you’re proposing sending government jackboots into private homes to search every dwelling in America.

Want to repeal the second amendment?  Right.  Put aside the fact that three-quarters of the states would have to ratify it, it opens a door I don’t want to see opened.

Put the second amendment on the table for repeal, and the whole Constitution is up for grabs.

The first amendment is probably even less popular in America than the second amendment.  On his WSB radio show this month, Erick Erickson pitched repeal of the first amendment.  This, from a guy who makes a living on radio, blogs and by masterminding election material.

Erickson’s rant was probably mostly facetious, but was based on a legit gripe about the news media’s errors in the initial reporting of the Newtown massacre.

The errors were unfortunate.  It would be even more unfortunate to have the government restrict free expression and freedom of the press.  (I write “freedom of the press” reluctantly.  The phrase “freedom of speech, or of the press” appears in the first amendment.  In my mind, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the press.  It’s about saying whatever you want without crossing the legal lines of libel or defamation, or yelling “fire” in a movie theater.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re an individual, a blogger, a TV station or the New York Times.  But “the press” gets specific constitutional protection, and I won’t complain about it.)

Erick Erickson, WSB

Erick Erickson, WSB-AM

Everybody cherishes their own freedom of speech.  But they’re tired of “freedom of the press.”  They’re tired of the baggage attached to it — the promotion, the competition, the hype, the 24-hour news cycles, the foolishness in deciding what’s important and what isn’t (based on what decision-makers think the audience wants, of course).  And they’re annoyed by the mistakes, amplified when a story is of high interest.  I suspect Erickson’s rant reflects the sentiment of a lot of Americans.

But it beats the alternative, which would likely include government safeguards of “official secrets” and restrictions on political speech and Lord only knows what else.  I vote to keep it as it is, and to not tempt fate by tinkering with the Bill of Rights elsewhere.

Besides “freedom… of the press,” can you imagine the re-writes elsewhere?  Fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, eighth amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, even a trial by jury — all that stuff would get gutted.  And the much-despised freedom of religion / “establishment” clause would get a total re-write.  Hello, American theocracy.

And three quarters of the states would probably ratify it.  But they won’t touch the second amendment.

His political viewpoints notwithstanding, Erickson was great fun to listen to during the 2012 campaign.  What’s the over / under on how long it takes WSB radio to remove the lamentable Herman Cain from the post-Boortz morning show and replace him with Erickson?  I give Cain a year.


Aubrey Morris, WSB-AM

Aubrey Morris did a lot of good things during his thirty-plus career as news director at WSB radio.  But when a reader urged me to commemorate his passing last week at age 88, he recounted a story that any modern-day local-news broadcast type will recognize.  This passage comes from Gene Asher’s book, Legends:  Georgians who Lived Impossible Dreams.

“One morning, arising at his normal wake-up time of 5am, Aubrey looked out his bedroom window and saw blankets of snow covering his neighborhood… The snow was so thick, he could not get out of his driveway.

“In those days… the office and restaurant boom northward had not begun.  If you did anything in Atlanta, you did it downtown.  A concerned Aubrey got on the air about 6am and stayed there until 9am warning all Atlanta citizens to “stay home.  Do not attempt to go downtown.  It’s too dangerous.”

“Shortly after Aubrey went off the air, not only did it stop snowing, but sun broke through the clouds and temperatures began to rise.  Snow melted.  There was no ice on the roads, and no people downtown.  It was an event Atlantans would remember as ‘the day Aubrey Morris paralyzed the city.'”Morris gets an accolade

Asher’s book describes Morris as “Atlanta radio’s first bona bide newsman” — and therefore, Atlanta’s first local news broadcaster.

Morris is described as an energetic, gravel-voiced, old-school newshound.  He traveled to Orly airport in 1962 when a crash in France claimed a planeload of Atlanta glitterati.  He covered the civil rights movement.  He covered the Winecoff Hotel fire in December 1946.  He chased down Sweden’s King Gustav on the 18th hole of the East Lake Country Club.

I didn’t know Morris, but a lot of folks who did have commented on Rodney Ho’s blog.

WSB-TV reporter-for-life Don McClellan knew Morris.  He posts a remembrance on his blog, along with a photo showing them tag-teaming an interview with Robert Kennedy shortly before he died.

Morris started as a reporter with the Atlanta Journal, and was recruited by WSB radio legend Elmo Ellis to become the station’s first reporter in 1957.  His career in radio lasted thirty years.

Anybody working in the news biz in Atlanta walks a trail that Morris blazed.  Including over-the-top coverage of snowflakes.

Wonky WABE

I left local news in 2007 and returned in 2009.  When I began covering stories again, I noticed one eye-opening change in the news market.

Radio news is different.  WSB radio was the most relevant radio game in town in 2007.  Nowadays, that relevance seems to belong to WABE.

I used to run into WSB radio reporters at stories regularly.  Now I see WABE reporters.  They covered the Atlanta mayor race consistently.  WSB radio seemed puzzlingly absent.

I listen to both stations.  WABE produces local news pieces each weekday on a variety of stories.  WABE also regularly produces feature-length stories, like the clear-headed piece Odette Yousef delivered in November on the toothlessness of the Citizen Review Board, which reviews APD conduct.

By contrast, WSB is fixated on breaking news, plus every-six-minutes traffic and weather during drive times.    It still does enterprise reporting, but very rarely.

WSB radio lost staff over the last few years, and now runs a skeleton crew.  It leans pretty heavily on material from WSB-TV.  Richard Sankster reliably covers overnight mayhem.  Sandra Parrish covers the Capitol admirably.

As Rodney Ho notes, WSB’s ratings seem to be slipping, and WABE’s are surprisingly strong.  However, radio ratings are unpredictable; it’s unlikely WABE will ever become a ratings leader.  Audiences crave personalities, pop culture and mayhem.  WABE delivers that stuff too sparingly for most.

The churn in the radio market isn’t surprising.

Radio news mattered a lot when I first started at WAGA in 1986.  Back then, WGST was the city’s premier news station.  WGST also carried talk shows by Neal Boortz and Clark Howard (as well as Dick Williams, Tom Houck, Mike Malloy, “Ralph from Ben Hill” and Tammy Lloyd).

Ludlow Porch

WGST went on its greatest tear when it snagged Braves baseball broadcasts from WSB, at the same time that the Braves went from worst-to-first in 1991.  If you were on the radio in Atlanta, WGST was the place to be.

Meantime, WSB carried Ludlow Porch’s folksy but mostly irrelevant morning show.  Its local news operation seemed to be a shadow of WGST, which audaciously called itself “the news monster.”  Boortz lampooned WSB’s call letters, saying they stood for “we’re so boring.”

WSB fought back admirably, though.  It jettisoned Porch, and grabbed Howard, Boortz and the Braves from WGST.  For a few years, WGST tried to compete but couldn’t.  It’s now a radio signal sadly carrying mostly syndicated programming, with no local news presence whatsoever.   (See comments for a point of view disputing this observation.)

Overqualified: Odette Yousef, WABE

Enter WABE.  It has a tiny staff.  Its reporters almost never cover breaking news — apparently because WABE management knows NPR’s listeners aren’t interested in local carnage.  It covers issues.  It attends news conferences and city council meetings.  Like other news organizations, it repackages stuff from other media and has plenty of room for improvement.  But it’s smart and it’s relevant.

(Last Friday provided a great example.  WABE ignored the “omigod it’s Armageddon” aspect of the snowfall.  Its 8am local news covered gun rights, prison conditions and homeless issues.  It only mentioned the weather during forecasts and just-the-facts recitals of traffic wrecks.)

Unlike web, newspaper and other broadcast media, WABE offers something genuinely unique:  Wonky, commercial-free local radio news.

Speaking of wonky, Yousef actually plays that harp.  Maybe she learned it at Harvard, where she got a degree in economics and east Asian studies and probably never listened to Joy Division.

Unlike its larger media brethren, WABE has a business model that may actually succeed.  It’s dependent on fundraising, not commercials.    If its management (owned by the Atlanta Board of Education, a whole ‘nother issue that I’ll leave alone here) doesn’t lose its nerve, WABE may be the “mainstream media” cockroach that sticks around long after the rest of us are wiped out.

Mourning Mike Kavanagh

mike-kavanaghLongtime WSB radio reporter and “Money Matters” host Mike Kavanagh died at his suburban Atlanta home Saturday.  He was 57.  The AJC reports that Kavanagh was decorating his home for the holidays when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

WSB radio’s web site has a nice tribute to Kavanagh, a 40 year veteran of radio and TV.  He and Lisa Campbell hosted WSB’s Atlanta’s Evening News before the station shut down the newscast in favor of syndicated talk.  He remained with the station as the host of a financial planning program, and producer of financial segments for WSB’s news.  Among his awards was an Edward R. Murrow award for an investigative series called “Ripped Off in the Name of God.”

Though he’d worked in TV in the early days of CNN, Kavanagh was a devoted radio guy.  He helped create the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame.  He also created and managed a web site devoted to the history of WSB radio.

Quoted on WSB’s web site, Campbell says “Mike was an incredible talent, a good human being, my longtime co-anchor, but most of all, my dear, dear friend…. There will never be another Kavanagh.”  Our condolences to his friends, family and colleagues.

WSB radio woes

WSB radio showed the door to a couple of experienced Atlanta news guys last week.  Jeff Dantre and Kerry Browning were laid off.  Browning had been at WSB radio since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.   Cox Radio also laid off some FM DJs.

It wasn’t that long ago that Atlanta had two vigorously competitive radio news organizations.  When WGST threw in the towel and ended its local news presence, that left WSB as the only commercial radio news outfit.  (WVEE / WAOK has a fringe news presence, but it’s very spotty.)  But WSB’s product has never been particularly impressive, churning out forty-second reports from staffers who are usually a) on a breaking news story, b) covering a court hearing, meeting or news conference or c)  reading the AP wire / AJC.  It rarely generates enterprise stories.

Part of its problem is that the staff is spread absurdly thin.  WSB radio tries to convey a 24/7 presence with but a handful of people.  And those people don’t appear solely on AM 750.  They also have assignments with other Cox FM radio properties, the studios of which are neatly lined up on the ground floor of WSB’s monolith at 1601 Peachtree St.  Now the staff is spread even thinner.

Radio news continues to play second fiddle to the all-important “weather and traffic together.”  And WSB’s promotion continues to harangue the “liberal” or “mainstream” media while promoting its right-wing talk shows.  When Dantre and Browning were released, were they released from some kind of Fox News Channel-style alternative media?  Doesn’t matter now, at least not to them.

Speaking of craven radio promotion:  WSB even made meteorologist  Kirk Melhuish change the spelling of his last name so that it could create billboards that say “when the weather turns hellish, rely on Mellish.”

One question is whether WSB will now fall behind the only other radio news outfit in town, WABE.  The NPR station broadcasts a full boat of local news cut-ins during its morning and evening drive shows.  The problem is that WABE reporters never cover breaking news.  The station’s stubbornness in that regard is almost admirable.  But it also shows that motorists wanting the very latest news can’t count on WABE for anything that isn’t a news conference, a court hearing, a meeting, or a rehash of the AJC.

Another question is whether WSB radio will begin to lean even more heavily on the staff of WSB-TV.  How long will it be before TV reporters are regularly calling in voicers for radio?

It’s never been truer:  Radio is a sad salvation.   And it just got sadder.

H/T Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.