There are a multitude of challenges when it comes to running terrestrial radio stations these days. Whether you look at the operation from the programming side or the sales side, the way stations around the country are approaching things in a post-pandemic world are much different than they were 18 months ago.
The news/talk format has faced other challenges aside from the pandemic. Earlier this year, allegations of election fraud which culminated in violence at the U.S. Capitol further divided the two parties that make up a large percentage of the voting population in this country. In February, conservative talk radio was dealt a major blow when talk icon Rush Limbaugh succumbed to lung cancer.
In Frederick, Maryland an award-winning 85-year-old heritage news/talk station in the 187th Nielsen ranked market is confronting its challenges and finding its way in an uncertain political and financial climate. Free Talk 930 WFMD is owned by Connecticut-based Connoisseur Media. The station features two local shows and a host of syndicated programming including the Rush Limbaugh Show which continues to air using guest hosts and Rush’s wisdom from past shows.
The station’s general manager, Mike Banks, a Long Island native who was recruited during the pandemic to run both the news/talk station and the company’s top-rated country station WFRE, spoke to Barrett News Media about the challenges of running a small news/talk station during a pandemic, out of the presidential election, and after the passing of Rush Limbaugh.
Banks has a unique perspective on the evolution of the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions considering he was in Long Island when the shutdowns began last March.
Ryan Hedrick: Tell us about your career path, what brought you to WFMD in Frederick?
Mike Banks: I spent many years on Long Island both as a salesperson, a manager, director of sales, and vice president of sales. Then I had an opportunity to work briefly as a general manager for a Christian contemporary station in New York and eventually I ended up with iHeartMedia in Manhattan. iHeartMedia, which formerly owned these stations, put these properties in the Aloha Station Trust during a transition period. During that time, I was asked to come out to the Frederick market, and I ended up falling in love with it. I was recruited back to New York by Connoisseur Media who then bought these radio stations from Aloha. That purchase brought me back to this market.
RH: What have the last 13-15 months been like trying to run these stations in such uncertain times?
MB: It was a crazy 2020 and a crazy start to 2021. I guess the word is fluid because you really must be able to adjust to the different challenges, both in running the stations and for your partners and advertisers. One of the things I love about commercial radio is that we are part of the local community. Especially our news/talk station where we focus on Frederick and the surrounding communities and WFRE – you cannot spell Frederick without FRE. We have really had to be flexible and nimble and focus on our employees and the health and safety of our employees. Obviously, we want to be responsible corporate management with a huge focus on the community. There are so many businesses that have been adversely affected by the economy. For the sectors that are doing well, we need to be here to support them as well.
RH: How did you construct a plan for a safe working environment given the fact that nothing like this has ever happened before in radio or in this country?
MB: I have had to become the compliance officer here and put any kind of personal thoughts or feelings I have aside. We had put health guards in the studios between the hosts and the guests. We have also had to limit the number of people in the studio at once. We look to the CDC a lot but sometimes those guidelines are not as clear cut as we would like them to be. And of course, as a news outlet, we are always getting the most current information which we utilize to our advantage in terms of staying compliant and keeping everybody safe.
RH: Media companies experienced devastating losses of income from advertisers who may have gone out of business or had to shut down. How did you approach your sponsors who may have taken a break?
MB: Everybody has their own opinion about what is safe and what is not safe and when it is OK to re-open. We were able to come back to do business gradually and as normally as possible given the restrictions. We had staff in the building, and we had to do a lot of things virtually. In building back up our operations gradually, we had to have individual conversations with advertisers and ask them what they were comfortable with. There has been a lot of customization.
I have always loved local radio. From a local standpoint, our shop local initiative has been something that we have been passionate about. We talk to companies every day that are struggling and we invite them to come in with no quid pro quo and no pressure to advertise or spend money. We have been doing marketing grants for companies that have been struggling. If businesses need help, that is what the stations are here for.
RH: How did WFMD cover the tumultuous 2020 election? Could you have asked for anything more from the station’s coverage of the change in administrations?
MB: Personal feelings aside, I am responsible to run the company in a not-so-biased way even though we do have conservative talk affiliates and we take our news feeds from Fox News. And of course, we do our own local news reporting in addition to the content that we get from the Associated Press. A lot of things that came across from the AP during the election, I would sit with our program director, Frank Mitchell, and tell him that we were not running that story because it was not true. I do not want our reporting to be slanted even though we have local and national hosts who give their opinion. When we are in a newscast, we have got to try to not give our opinion. Either way, whether our content is conservative or not conservative enough for our listeners, I really try to keep WFMD News as right down the middle as possible, and that is a challenge these days.
RH: Have you had clients leave the station or refuse to advertise because of the content you have on the air?
MB: As one of my mentors told me once, there are no coin slots in the back of the radio. The way we get paid is that advertisers and our partners help fund our operation. So, you need to be a little bit careful because you do have employees that have their own opinions. Being a conservative news outlet and having some outspoken voices, we need to make sure we are serving our partners and their needs. We have had a few advertisers that have had some financial considerations when they decide to spend money with us, but I know that there have been a few that have said you are a conservative talk radio station and I just do not want to be affiliated with you, these are contentious times.
RH: It is now May and Premiere Networks is still running the Rush Limbaugh Show. What have the last few months been like running a station where your top host passed away, but his syndicator is still carrying a version of the show which you have opted to stay affiliated with?
MB: I think Remembering Rush is great, I think it’s nice to still have some tributes. Quite frankly, I thought Premiere would have come out with something a little more definitive for the future but what we hear from them is that the audience is not not done hearing from Rush and they still want his perspectives.
There are a lot of stations or groups of stations that have decided that they are moving on and going to other personalities. For us, we are looking to see what Premiere is going to do and make a decision in the near future.
RH: Is there life in radio after Rush?
MB: Yes, absolutely! They say there is nobody that is irreplaceable but there are some people that are harder to replace. It will be very, very difficult to replace Rush with one personality. We may never see someone as impactful in our lifetime, but then again, we could. If Donald Trump decided that he wanted to own a media company and sign a deal with the EIB Network, that would be impactful.
RH: What advice do you have for young general managers in the business?
MB: Get a lot of opinions and a lot of advice. There are a lot of positions and a lot of paths. The industry has changed, and you have to be as flexible as possible and work hard. If you are passionate about what you do, pursue your dreams, chase your goals.
The Cost of “Thoughts”
Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.
The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”
Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”
Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.
The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.
Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.
I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.
On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”
Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.
The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.
Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.
Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.
Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.
Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening.
After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.
I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory.
However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza.
“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”
What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.
Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2007.
For Pags, the media dream started early on.
“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.”
Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.
Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.
“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”
Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.
He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.
No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.
As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart.
“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.”
Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.
His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.”
San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.
“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”
The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”
Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from?
“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”
Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way.
“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”
Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.
Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”
When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said.
“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”
Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”
Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.”
I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.
“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”
He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.
“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”
Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.
“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”
Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things.
“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”
Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.
“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.
“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”
Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge.
“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”
I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat.
Where Is the Good Stuff?
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies.
A couple of stories about bears actually brought me to this declamation of sorts.
What you’ll see (or read, actually) is nothing new and certainly not any type of original complaint or assessment, but as I spend my days digging, crafting, and stacking stories on double homicides, house fires, high gas prices, and low voter turnout, it’s becoming that much more difficult to balance out a newscast with the good stuff.
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies. I’m really just talking about the low end of the meter things; an innocuous bill passing, a road-widening project, or maybe even an upgrade in consumer technology somewhere.
We all realize if a show rattles off an unending laundry list of death, destruction, corruption, and high pollen counts, the only winners are therapists, pharmacies, and liquor stores. But it’s no longer as easy as it once was; I mean, I may be overstating for dramatic effect, but at the end of the day, it really does seem like not only are there fewer accounts to raise the serotonin levels, but those we do find cannot sufficiently dilute those newscasts from their continual tales of woe.
To expand my point, I return to the bears.
Over the years, I have come to count on bears, and for a good reason. Most bear content consists of the giant creatures, often with their youngsters in tow, doing things we find cute, intriguing, thought-provoking, and/or hilarious.
If you have never seen a giant black bear rumbling around inside an SUV they’ve just illegally entered or busting into someone’s kitchen and raiding the pantry or the garbage shed, can you even say you have truly lived?
Well, the short answer is you probably can, but I’m the one on the keyboard at the moment, so roll with it for now.
True, those stories often come at the expense of some weary camper, homeowner, or utility worker, but for the audience, it’s generally rejuvenating, even medicinal. A simple Google or social media search will lead you to an overflow of the best of bears in news content. Therefore, as you will see…they trend.
But here’s what has happened of late to turn those stories in a downward direction. Here, in this part of New England, our news stories about bears recently have revolved around them being killed. They destroy some crops or a garden and move on towards somebody’s house, and they get shot. They break into a shed and don’t run off; they get shot. They are euthanized; their cubs get tranquilized for relocation and then don’t wake up. It’s certainly a shift.
Suddenly, we are back to where we started with our content. What was once a sure thing is now added to the dark category of story selection. Still, it is often viable content because it’s a pro and con topic; it has angles and follow-up potential.
Now know this; I am not proposing a referendum involving bears, but rather just offering a long-winded metaphor of sorts.
We do not know when the time-tested default stories are going to turn on us. I do think it will usually happen when our backs are turned. That probably means the digging we do has gone even more profound than before. We cannot always count for all those elements in a story to be out in the open.
Like most of us, I read or at least do a hard scan of a lot of reports, releases, summaries, and everyone else’s take on what’s happening. Fortunately, I can sometimes find fundamental components dropped down further than they ought to be or not allotted enough attention due to time or space constraints.
In police work, these obscure details would often lead to another suspect, another criminal charge, or even an exoneration or a new investigation.
I find little difference in this present position:
A hi-rise building fire is brought under control when the alarm’s sprinkler system douses much of the flames just as fire crews arrive. Now, that’s great, but there’s a bit more upon looking a little deeper.
The sprinklers knocked out the elevators, and firefighters carried a disabled burn victim down 14 flights of stairs.
Part of their job?
Sure, but worth peeling the layers off that onion.
Drivers going the wrong way is another big thing around here. On the interstates, the highways, the local roadways, it’s happening a lot and often, as you might guess, with tragic results. So a driver is taken into custody after going the opposite way on not one but two different thoroughfares within like fifteen minutes.
Good story, good arrest, good write-up.
How did they catch the wrong-way driver?
The trooper turned directly into the driver’s path and took the crash impact to stop him.
Where did we that aspect of the incident?
Paragraph four or three-quarters through the stand-up.
Now, of course, all coverage and treatment of stories is subjective, and the intent here is merely for me to find a way to say I’m not seeing enough or finding enough “good stuff” to balance out my newscast, so I am going to loot and gut everything I can when necessary.
And that’s just on the local side. Do not get me started on the national beat.
I hope it’s not that people are starting to slip on their quota of good deeds, but it has forced me to think and work just a little harder.
It’s disappointing when I cannot even count on the bears anymore.