Does President’s Newsworthiness Trump Conventional Wisdom?

Morning shows normally steer clear of politics; should they if he is a pop culture icon?
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Politics has long been considered a “third rail” of morning radio, a topic so divisive that hosts have rarely dared to touch it in conversation. Recently, though, President Donald Trump has created quite a dilemma.

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Steve Reynolds, president of Reynolds Group Radio. “We are very tribal as a country, so the moment you reveal that you might be from a different tribe, that’s polarizing.”

Love him or hate him (and there doesn’t seem to be much in-between), there’s never been a political figure who so consistently dominates everyday conversation. Outside the news/talk format, how are music radio’s “fun” morning shows — the ones supposedly about pop culture — dealing with the era of Trump?

“We ignore, ignore, ignore,” says Woody Fife, namesake host of “The Woody Show” on Alt 98-7 KYSR(FM) in Los Angeles, syndicated by Premiere Networks. “It’s not about avoiding Trump specifically as much as it is about politics in general. I’m over it, burned out.”

Woody thinks he’s not alone in that sentiment. “I don’t waste any time with things like ‘Look how small his hands are’” or ‘He drinks water funny, with two hands.’ Yawn.”

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Picture courtesy of Woody Fife, host of Premiere Networks’ “The Woody Show.”

Personality coach Steve Reynolds has a similar philosophy. “We have to keep in mind why listeners use us: To have fun and take them away from the stress of the world. For many, Trump = Stress.”

Furthermore, Reynolds warns morning shows that taking sides is dangerous.

“I do not want to hear what [morning hosts] think of Trump or his tweets. No opinions. If they think he’s a moron, an idiot, adore him, think he’s a breath of fresh air, whatever… no opinions on him or what he’s doing. We are very tribal as a country, so the moment you reveal that you might be from a different tribe, that’s polarizing. The part of the audience that disagrees with you will run.”

As any program director who answers her telephone can tell you, the president’s fans can be vocal. “There’s no way to comment on the president without alienating the extreme elements,” says Dave Rickards of “Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw” on KFMB(FM) in San Diego, Calif.

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Dave Rickards of KFMB(FM)’s “Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw.”

Asked if he cares about alienating some listeners, Rickards says, “I absolutely care, but I believe the majority of people are more tolerant and open-minded. They fall somewhere in the middle, between the extremes.”

At Emmis Communications’ stations, President of Programming Rick Cummings hasn’t asked talent to avoid discussing Trump completely, but how much they do so depends on the audience and the talent.

“The ratings and feedback seem to indicate that when Trump says something outrageous and Ebro comes on Hot 97”[WQHT(FM) in New York] and suggests he should ‘Shut your bitch ass up,’ most of his listeners are good with that. On the other hand, we don’t touch it much if at all on our mainstream AC station [B105.7 WXYB in Indianapolis] or on a station like KSHE [classic rock] in St. Louis.”

Cummings says those stations are primarily used for “at work” listening and are “more of a refuge from that kind of noise.”

If morning shows do talk about President Trump, Reynolds recommends finding a unique approach.

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Celebrity impersonator Eric Harthen.

For example, at Power 106 in Los Angeles, “We made a Trump piñata and invited listeners to come take a whack at it.”

The morning team on KLBJ(AM) Austin has come up with one of Cummings’ favorite bits, dubbed “Trump Tweets.” Hosts Todd and Don read three outrageous Trump tweets. “The caller guesses which one of the three is made up,” said Cummings, “but all three usually sound like they could be [genuine].”

Back in 2016, during the presidential primaries, Woody sent his producer “Sea Bass” to fit in with Trump fans outside a Republican debate at the Reagan Library. To this day, local TV reporters may not have realized his true identity. They included him in their coverage, dressed in a suit and tie, saying things like, “I don’t mean to be disparaging, but Donald Trump’s supporters look like me, and everyone else [pointing at anti-Trump demonstrators] looks like that.”

For morning shows that believe Trump is more topical than toxic, impressionist Eric Harthen has been, as he puts it, “bigly, yuuugely busy.” Unless directed to, Harthen doesn’t dwell on divisive policy issues. Instead, he derives laughs from Trump’s “boastfulness, obsessiveness, narcissism, dismissiveness and ‘over-exaggeration’ of facts.”

Harthen says almost everyone can laugh at that, even someone who voted for Trump and would again. “I think my conservative show hosts have just as good a time with it. In some cases, they laugh harder than the liberal hosts.”

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Emmis President of Programming Rick Cummings.

Harthen’s take on Trump could be compared to insult comic acts like that of the late Don Rickles. “I think Trump is funniest when he’s making up those nicknames for people, so some of my call-in bits sound like a roast of other people in the news or of the morning show cast.”

Political jokes don’t appear to have hurt late-night TV talk show ratings. In fact, some analysts credit Stephen Colbert’s satirical criticism of Trump as having helped him surge past Jimmy Fallon.

Of course, the network TV guys have expensive comedy writers, but who needs them? Trump’s original quotes are usually enough, says Rickards.

“We play lots of [Trump’s] sound bites during the news. More often than not, I find myself laughing. For me, that’s entertainment.”

After 91/2 years programming L.A.’s “100.3 The Sound” and 12 years consulting Jacobs Media client stations, Dave Beasing is about to break ground on studios for his on-demand audio startup. Follow @DaveBeasing on Twitter.

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