WCBS NewsRadio88, a pioneer of all-news broadcasting in New York City and a station that is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is a shell of what it once was.
Actually, in some ways, NewsRadio88 is a cruel joke on the journalists and listeners who once venerated it as a superb source of news, opinion, intelligent features and vital information. Today, with far fewer reporters and a much smaller commitment to serious news than a quarter century ago, it must pinch more and more news from outside sources. The latter are mainly newspapers and wire services.
NewsRadio88 must increasingly crib from others to fill the hours it previously jammed with copy from its once considerable staff of talented reporters and editors who often broke news. Print and broadcast competitors once had to keep close tabs on NewsRadio88. Now it is the reverse.
That’s because the time when NewsRadio88 had lots of reporters, with lots of good stories ready to go every hour, is gone. For example, NewsRadio88 once advertised itself as having “the largest radio news team in the tri-state area.” (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut).
No longer does it make that claim for obvious reasons.
The Decline of the American News Media
Unfortunately, NewsRadio88 is a symbol of how most news media has deteriorated in the United States. It is losing the trust of tens of millions of people. They once admired it as a source of generally unbiased and serious reporting. NewsRadio88 covered breaking local news; national and international news from the CBS network. It also had some wonderful local features. The leaders of the well-executed all-news format used to presume that listeners were smart; that they were interested in many things in their backyard as well as on the other side of the world; that they were a highly educated listenership. The NewsRadio88 management now thinks very differently about listeners.
For instance, at one time NewsRadio88 had a regular feature called “Book Beat.” It operated on the assumption that listeners didn’t watch the idiot box all the time; that some of them actually read.
Now NewRadio88’s jefes seem to think listeners are Bunkerland Babbitts; people with low IQs and very short attention spans. The admirable NewsRadio88 journalistic standards of yesteryear are gone. They are replaced by a watered-down product that assumes that listeners want junk news—especially lots of entertainment news—and endless traffic and weather. Yes, listeners always wanted a certain amount of soft news, but they also wanted the comprehensive local news coverage and substantive features that became less and less a part of NewsRadio88.
A Now Poor Product Once Very Good
The decline of NewsRadio88 reminds me in some ways of an over-the-hill sports star who should have retired years before but won’t. The one-time star is now a very overpaid player who won’t accept that his or her day has passed. (By the way, this is one reason why many of our parents admired Yankee star outfielder Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper retired as his play was starting to go down in 1951 after he had led the Yanks to a third consecutive championship. He went out on top because he refused to hang on for years and years when he was no longer a great player. That’s something that didn’t happen to his successor, the great Yankee Mickey Mantle, when he started to decline. Mantle’s career should have ended five or six years before it did in 1968. He finally retired when the Yankees were close to the worst team in baseball. Mantle’s last years reminds one of what French leader Charles De Gaulle once said of the so-called golden years: “Old age is a shipwreck,” he said).
However, some would say don’t blame the news media or the NewsRadio88s for the often-poor product now put out over the airwaves. Blame the consumers of news. That’s because as the marginal utility Austrian School of Economics reminds us: Buyers, not sellers make the market. Buyers, not sellers, establish what has and has not value.
This counter argument, the defense of the deterioration of standards at NewsRadio88, goes thus: Today’s potential news consumer in America—I say potential because millions of Americans have stopped listening to or watching news—has neither the attention span nor the general interest in their region, country and world that his or her parents and grandparents did. The latter were people who often read serious books. They read multiple newspapers each day. This “who cares about the world” outlook is powerful. It forces changes in how the news media puts its product together.
“Water It Down”
The brutal truth is for many news outlets to survive the product must be dumbed down. It is the same problem for many other institutions in a democratic society.
It is a problem considered by the great French thinker and friend of liberty Tocqueville almost two centuries ago in his book “Democracy in America.”
The Bresiger Bias
But before I go further it is important that I give a little of my background. I want you, my loyal readers, to see my biases. I have worked as a reporter or an editor or both through most of my adult life.
It is difficult to remember a time when I wasn’t working for some station, newspaper or magazine. Even now, as an old man in semi-retirement, I continue to work (Those in need of writing or editing help please contact GregoryBresiger.com. I have helped people write books and can provide references). Work is something I can’t remember being without in some form going back to high school in the late 1960s. I started working as a messenger after school.
Yet in my journalistic career I never worked for big stations or publications—about the best I have done is writing some business stories for the New York Post—and have never been a celebrated journalist. Still, I regret very little. I have had a very nice, at times, exciting professional life and it isn’t over. I count myself lucky as always having been able to stay in journalism. Many of my friends and acquaintances in small market radio or newspapers had to leave the business. Many went into public relations or, God help us, government work to earn a living. (I can’t imagine writing press releases to soft soap the various and sundry screwups of government or trying to clean up after some big corporation’s disasters, no matter what the pay package).
As a young man I went into small market radio as a reporter and later as a news director. I never made it near the bigtime, but was and am happy to a have an independent existence. However, onetime I did have a cup of coffee in the big leagues. Once, when I covered the story of a man trapped in a cave in Lafayette, New Jersey about 35 years ago, a few of my stories were picked by AP News Radio and were run on NewsRadio88. But I never had a permanent taste of the big leagues of radio, although a very few of the people I worked with in small market radio did make it to the big time.
So professional jealousy may color my analysis of NewsRadio88. Personally, I am sorry I never worked for NewsRadio88 but I have mixed feelings. I believe that I would have inevitably have been fired because I would have become frustrated over some of NewsRadio88’s deficiencies that I am detailing here.
The Fall of a Once Great Source of News
I think I am fair in saying it is important to review the deterioration of NewsRadio88, to provide a dissenting view even as others celebrate its 50th anniversary. Remember J.S. Mill in “On Liberty” says the dissenter or the maverick performs a public service, even if he is wrong (And sometimes he is right and the majority is wrong because truth is not based on a majority vote). The maverick performs a public service because he or she makes us think about certain beliefs and re-examine them, even if we don’t change our beliefs.
The belief that NewsRadio88 is still great is wrong.
And its decline has been going on for some time.
I would speculate the decline started in the early 1990s. That’s when a popular longtime, highly paid, morning anchor from the glory days, Jim Donnelly, retired or was shown the door. I don’t know which. He was replaced by a younger man who lacked his journalistic experience and knowledge of the New York region but had a great voice and likely worked a lot cheaper.
Here, I think, was the beginning of the rot setting in and pulling down the standards of NewsRadio88 along with much of American broadcast journalism. Veneer started to triumph over substance. How a journalist “sounded” or “looked” became far more important than if he or she had gravitas: The background of knowing a beat; the ability to know how to cover an institution and write clearly about it started to lose importance.
For instance, NewsRadio88 has done a terrible job in covering the MTA, the government “enterprise” agency that has run the subways into the ground. It rarely even sends reporters to its meetings, yet this little-understood state government agency spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and hurts the region’s economy as train and bus service worsens. (For those who want more, please see our series on the history of the New York City subways).
NewsRadio88—Capable People Not Wanted
Models and broadcasting school graduates started to come to the fore in American broadcast journalism over the last 30 or 40 years or so. It was beginning at NewsRadio88.
In retrospect, Donnelly’s departure was one of the turning points. I believe the decline of this once great institution is an example of why broadcast journalism—along with the rest of American journalism—consistently scores low in approval ratings and why millions of young Americans are ignoring it.
The Traditions of NewsRadio88 and the CBS Net
I have been listening to NewsRadio88 since the late 1960s. This was a few years after the station had gone to the all-news format. As the flagship station for the historic CBS radio network—the network of Edward R. Murrow and his “boys.” This was a group of first rate reporters who covered the nation and the world. They generally started working for wire services or newspapers. They were highly educated people with substance. They weren’t broadcasting school graduates or former models. They often spoke foreign languages.
I depended on the station and its parent network for the top of the hour network newscasts. I also turned to it for the much applauded “World News Roundup,” which was run in the morning at eight in the Eastern time zone.
I still listen to the World News Roundup, and used to listen to its sister newscast, “The World Tonight,” which stopped years ago. By the way, this was how much CBS News was once respected. David Halberstam, in his book on some of the most important American journalistic institutions, “The Powers That Be,” said that it was a point of pride at CBS that CIA analysts in the 1940s and 50s would report to work and be given a copy of the New York Times and a transcript of the “World News Roundup.”
Besides the CBS Network for national and world news, I also depended on NewsRadio88 for lots of local news. From six minutes past the hour, when the network newscast cut out (Now it cuts out at about three minutes past the hour), to about 15 minutes past the hour, there was a plethora of local news. That’s because NewsRadio88 could do it effectively with a minimum of cribbing. It had plenty of reporters in the city and around the region. NewsRadio88 could, and usually did, get its own news and it usually had lots of it.
Some 20 or 30 years ago, NewsRadio88 had bureaus in Hartford, Connecticut, Trenton or Newark, New Jersey and a reporter in Albany, New York. The last, I believe, worked on a free lance basis although there was no physical bureau.
They had people on Long Island and several reporters at New York City Hall. They seemed to be everywhere and there always seemed to be a good reason to listen to NewsRadio88 at least for a few minutes in the morning and in the evening or whenever there was a big local, state or national story cooking. Sometimes NewsRadio88 did its own cooking and came up with its own enterprise stories.
This was a glorious time for one of the heavyweights of news radio in America and I believed it inspired a lot of young people to go into journalism. NewsRadio88 always seemed to have some stories that they were breaking, including when things were going on in the courts.
NewsRadio88 Covers the Judicary
They had a superb journalist who covered the courts, Irene Cornell. She filed excellent reports. Her writing made trials come alive. That’s even though generally she could get no cuts—audio/recorded comments—to go with her stories. (Cuts were always something radio reporters tried to get. That’s because although their stories are almost always shorter than newspaper stories, they could use audio to make stories interesting and sometimes dramatic. The effective use of cuts could make the listener feel as though he or she was experiencing the news. Once I remember a town supervisor in upstate New York, at an open public meeting with everyone listening, railed against her fellow supervisors for not working hard enough. Her comments were taken down by a newspaper reporter and I also took them down for the station I was working for, WDLC in Port Jervis, New York. However, I also taped them. The effect of my report, which incorporated some of her most scolding comments on tape, was dramatic. She was angry with me, although I told her I had the right to record her comments on both my recorder and my notebook at a public meeting. She never thought they would go on the radio).
I don’t think NewsRadio88 has a reporter today who covers the courts on a regular basis the way the superb Irene Cornell did. Although the rot was reaching serious proportions after the 9/11 bombing. NewsRadio88, for a short period, suddenly labelled Cornell its “national security affairs reporter”. This was ridiculous since the accomplished Cornell had never covered national security issues and now, for a short period and without moving to Washington, D.C., NewsRadio88 was telling us she was a national security affairs specialist. That seemed and was ridiculous; it was an indication to me that NewsRadio88 was throwing away substance and going with gimmicks.
Just about all of the NewsRadio88 bureaus are gone. Over the last 20 years I noticed that almost all of their comprehensive local reporting ended. Now, after the network news ends, one gets about three or four local news stories and some are taken right off the wire.
No, comprehensive local reporting may be the wrong words. Even in the glory days, the stories were usually only 60 to 70 seconds. What we called in radio wraparounds, which was an audio cut wrapped around copy read by the reporter. But today wraparounds are often as little as 20 or 30 seconds. I know from experience that brevity is the essence of journalism, but there are many things that just can’t be explained in 30 seconds. More alarming to me has been the greater and greater reliance on outside material over the past decades.
NewsRadio88 started taking more and more material straight out of newspapers, especially in the mornings because they didn’t seem to have reporters on the streets or in the suburbs at night before gathering fresh, exclusive, material. Suburban governments tend to be part-time governments so meetings are often at night.
NewsRadio88 reporters don’t seem to attend these meetings. However, I can remember a Long Island bureau chief of some 20 or 30 years ago, Ellen Mitchell, who did attend Nassau and Suffolk county meetings. Yes, she often had to clean up after newspapers had broken stories. But she could also break a fair number of her own stories.
And, by the way, everyone in news media steals from each other to some extent. It is ridiculous to think otherwise. However, the degree to which it happens is key. Without newspapers and newswires, I wonder if NewsRadio88 could fill its hours today.
What has been happening to NewsRadio88 has been disturbing—so many stories are originating from someone else’s efforts. One example: About 20 years ago NewsRadio88 would often get to a story first and the local CBS television outlet might follow up on the story; get film and a few more details. The order has changed over the years.
Today, NewsRadio88, desperate for stories in drive time periods, will take the soundtracks from television news reports from the local CBS television news affiliate and use part of them on the radio. This can at times be embarrassing. Sometimes on the TV news report, a reporter will say “look over here and you can see…”
But on the radio the listener can’t “see it;” not when the sound track from television has been transferred to radio. Another problem is the lack of local expertise. I question if NewsRadio88 knows the neighborhoods of New York, especially those in the outer boroughs.
For instance, a NewsRadio88 reporter recently came out to cover a story in Forest Hills, Queens, a neighborhood next to mine. She didn’t seem to understand the difference between 71st and 71th Avenue in Queens. They are two places far apart in our county. But there are problems with more than just news.
Besides lots of local news, NewsRadio88 used to have some wonderful features. These features presumed that the listener was interested in all sorts of things. For example, there was “Report on Medicine.” There was a journalism review feature that was run by a Columbia University professor, William Wood. There was a regular legal report analyzing important cases, among other features that included count and counterpoint political commentary. These are, unfortunately, all gone.
And there was even a NewsRadio88 news director who read books and did the Book Beat feature. Fancy that, Hedda!
The Charles Osgood daily commentary feature from CBS was once great and widely admired. However, this was before the program was overloaded with commercials, much of which Osgood now delivers himself.
Yet Osgood, in the glory days of NewsRadio88, was once a blend of unique, off-beat commentary combined with news analysis.
Now Mr. Osgood, who was actually working at NewsRadio88 when it began in 1967, merely takes some feature off the CBS network and introduces it and closes it out. He does little or nothing in the way of editorial content. However, within the report, he does endless commercials that irritate to no end. “This is Charles Osgood. And I think this grape juice is…”)
Another downsizing took place in sports. Under a previous longtime sports director, Ed Ingles, sports in the morning would get three to four minutes twice an hour. You had time to get all the scores and some audio cuts from various events the night before.
Now you’re lucky to get a minute of sports. And the sports report today always has a billboard and the sports anchor often does live commercials at the end of the report. The anchor often spends more time on the commercials than on the sports. It is a disgrace.
By the way, the whole mass transit report, when NewsRadio88 had it, often was one or two lines such as “all trains on or near schedule.” This was a pathetic joke for people who actually ride the wretched state run New York City subways. The almost nothing mass transit report was quickly followed by a commercial that was considerably longer than the report. It is a useless report. On the other hand, the traffic report, with a reporter sometimes in the sky in a helicopter, is one of the few useful things that remain. It is an excellent report. The traffic reporter often turns more real news that the whole NewsRadio88 staff on the ground.
However, what NewsRadio88 and much of American news media have become is often egregious. It is difficult to know who to blame for this.
Is it the listener’s fault for accepting such drivel? Or is it the fault of the leaders of the NewsRadio88s, who presume that most news consumers are child like and need a dumbed down product? I don’t know.
However, as an old man I guard against the automatic assumptions of many of my age group: Some of my peers often say that, “Everything in the past was wonderful” (Of course it is. It is in the past and can’t threaten us anymore). “And everything in the present is inferior.”
I don’t believe that because there are many wonderful things today that were never available or even dreamed of by our parents.
Still, as NewsRadio88 celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is little or nothing that is wonderful. That is except the memory of what it once was.
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