Thursday, May 03, 2007

Michael Berry talks to Mike McGuff about his new radio role, leaving politics

Michael Berry of KPRCHouston city councilman and KPRC talk show host, Michael Berry, has been the talk of the blogosphere and message boards lately. He was nice enough to sit down with me Tuesday afternoon at City Hall to discuss his political career and new role as Operations Manager at Clear Channel Houston. Plus, Berry reveals the blogs he reads.

Mike McGuff: All right, first of all how do you feel right now? Obviously, one chapter is kind of coming to a close and a whole new one is opening up for you.

Michael Berry: Well, change is exciting. It's a new opportunity. The AM stations for Clear Channel in Houston have a brand that's pretty strong - KPRC is over 80 years old and KTRH, the premier news station in the state will be turning 78. This morning we were just planning a party in the fall for the 78th birthday. KBME is a historical signal that was flipped over to sports a few years ago and there is the fun and excitement of building that into hopefully the premier sports station.

I feel like I am getting paid to play baseball. It's fun.

McGuff: I'm sure a lot of people wonder, "Why leave politics?" I think a lot of people figured maybe that one day you would run for mayor.

Berry: Mayor of the city of Houston is a dream job. But we have a good mayor now, and he is doing a good job. This was an opportunity that presented itself. I get to use my skill set, and I get to work with a company that is looking for a lot of change. That's very exciting. I see myself as a reformer, changer type.

I still think there is a huge upside to radio as you get more into the web-based programming and as you get into some of the different media. So for me it is a great opportunity. It's an opportunity to reach out and develop media partnerships that have never existed. That's one of my primary missions, because I think some of the best talent in the city of Houston is in print and television as well. For too long we have ignored that.

McGuff: Are you going to miss politics, though? It's a big part of your life, obviously.

Berry: It will have been six years coming up soon, and then I spent two years running, so that's eight years. I will miss the public policy. I won't miss the politics. The politics is a brutal contact sport, and it takes a toll on you. I am fortunate to have a supportive wife. I was fortunate to have friends. But you take some knocks. Everybody should pay their dues, and then move on.

McGuff: What do you think your biggest achievements were in the political realm?

Berry: I am very proud of the Safe Clear Program, not only because as a policy issue it is something I got out ahead of and worked to get accomplished. It passed and it was implemented. And it has been successful, statistically. But because the public did not originally embrace it, and the easy thing to do would have been to abandon it, we stuck in there because we knew that what we were doing was the right thing. We worked through our problems, and we solved some problems.

I'm very proud of a number of little things from improving city employee morale. Those are little things that you don't see but here are a lot of initiatives that we have undertaken. I can't tell you how many potholes we have gotten filled or street humps installed or stop signs installed or lights that were not functioning to function, those sorts of things. Those are lot of fun.

By way of major initiatives, those generally emanate from the Mayor's office. As a Councilman, your bread and butter is little issues and how well you do them. The lucky thing for me is that I have had a team of dedicated people who show up early and stay late and work weekends and they deserve all the glory. I get all the glory. They deserve it.

McGuff: What about radio? I think it surprised a lot of people when you first started showing up and guesting on the Clear Channel stations. How did that start? Has radio been something you’ve always been interested in?

Berry: As a kid we had a little station in Orange called KOGT. I would stay with my grandmother, sometimes on weekends or different occasions during the summer. We sat around the radio. There was a real connection to the local radio station. A friend of mine from high school, when he graduated his father died and there was a settlement. He bought the local radio station.

I always thought, "Wow, what a dream thing to do." People have such a connection with local radio. I was a nut for "WKRP in Cincinnati." That was my favorite show on television. I have always just had this connection with radio.

I came to Houston in '89. Lana and JP and some of these institutions that have been here, I can remember when Charlie Pallilo first went on the air in sports. I had lunch with Charlie Pallilo today. So those are the sorts of things. My friends say, "You're getting to hang out with Charlie Pallilo!" Maybe for everybody that's not a thing. I've met a few kings and the Chinese Premier, but Charlie Pallilo is a pretty neat guy to me. So those sorts of things are lot of fun.

McGuff: How did it come up that you could be eligible to get this Clear Channel operations job?

Berry: Well, I really wanted to be in radio. I wanted that opportunity. For me it is the ideal medium. Not that it is better than any other but it is more suited to my personality. Print tends to be very slow, very methodical and very deliberate. It's a very esteemed medium, but it's different. It's not me. It's also a little bit impersonal. You don't get to touch and feel your print people.

Television is the most graphically appealing and tends to be the ideal medium to convey news for the longest period of time. And of course you get all the elements at all the dimensions. But with television, you tend to package segments.

For me, radio is more free flowing and interactive and up to the moment. I like this concept that you have a conversation, and it is in real time. So that's what makes it so exciting. I view it as the Web with some skin and blood. It's real in that way. The Web is very interactive and up to the moment, but you can't look at somebody, you can't hear them and you can't feel the emotion the same way.

I pushed to get a Sunday show just to get my foot in the door. I did a one-hour Sunday morning show. It was nothing glamorous. I did a little real estate show on Sunday mornings for a whole year.

Through that I was studying radio. I would sit in on shows. I learned the production, and I learned board opping and I learned how the phones worked and I learned when to push the dump button and when to push the cough button and when you go to breaks and how the clock works and the business aspect of it, the programming aspects and how you read Arbitron ratings. I basically used that as a study course, as a hobby, while I was doing everything else full time.

And then an opportunity came up for a 9-11 program, and the unfortunate thing is I had to replace Glenn Beck. Who, while he's a great host with a national following, wasn't performing well in Houston. So, you know that was a bit of a downer, because you know people were angry that Beck was off. But, you slowly win people back, and we built an audience there.

And then when Pat Gray was let go, then there was an opportunity for a morning host, and my show had done well 9-11, so they slipped me into there. And then when Ken Charles moved, then they were looking for someone to lead it, and they kind of wanted someone with a different vision. You know they asked a lot of people to share that vision, and I guess they liked what they heard.

McGuff: What do you say to the critics who say that you're not ready for this type of position?

Berry: Well, I mean any critic that says I'm not ready for the position is not running Clear Channel, and probably not even in the radio business. You know I wouldn't - I didn't hire myself, and I'm not an expert in who should have been hired. But, this decision went all the way up to the CEO John Hogan, and a number of vice-presidents, and regional managers, and division managers all the way up and down - and I'm told the decision was unanimous.

So, I figure John Hogan knows at least as much about radio as anybody in America. If he trusted this decision - and I'm told he's quite enthused about it -- so, I figure I'll trust his judgment.

McGuff: What about the conflict though, with the city job. How are you going to do both?

Berry: I just have a few months here. You look at Fred Thompson, or a number of other people - there have been outlets for political figures to espouse their views, and interact with the public. And the reality is a number of people in public life tell me they listen to my show. From state officials, local officials, and they'll - when I say state officials, senators and state representatives, say they listen to my show to get a sense of what people are talking about.

So, it gives me an opportunity to bring city issues out there. I don't like the teen curfew, it gives me a chance to talk about it. Some people call up and tell me I'm an idiot, and some people call up and tell me they like it. But, it gives a lot of people an opportunity to have a very public discussion for people who can't come down on Tuesday afternoons and be a part of public session. And so, I view it as no different than going out and speaking before a civic club meeting every night.

As regard to being a subject of the news, KTRH has the golden image with regard to news standards. So, you know it will be very clear. I won't be a subject - I won't be city hall news subject for them any longer.

And you know my job is not to meddle in the day to day operations of KTRH's newsroom. That's a heritage station with a great legacy, and they got a first rate news director named, Brian Erickson. The very first thing I did upon being hired was to promote Brian to the Program Director for KTRH, which it had not had for several years. So to be very clear, that fiefdom is Brian Erickson's, and you know he runs it.

McGuff: What changes do you foresee coming to the AM stations? Clear Channel announced that KTRH will have that new kind of MySpace features. Obviously, a little more Internet focused than probably before, but what else do you see?

Berry: Right. Well, that's one of my big initiatives, and this is a company wide initiative - is to use the web as a way to expound upon stories. In today's world we're FDR to say, "This day will live in infamy." You wouldn't get the whole history of the attack, why the attack, what he was specifically asking of Congress, the history of Japanese relations, and eight other comments by world leaders and Congressmen on that subject.

The web gives us an opportunity. I'll give you a good example - Scott Braddock, who's one of our star reporters, he'll do an interview with someone. And it might make 30 seconds of audio on the air as part of his two minute package. But, he may have eight minutes of audio, so we go to - we have a streaming KTRH 2, 740-2, which is our secondary station, which streams that - sort of a C-Span style. Doesn't compete obviously, with our radio.

And secondly, it allows him to share his sources. It allows him to blog on things, and offer the story behind the story, the perspective behind the story. And I think that for a true news junkie - it's not for everybody. The average news consumer wants the quick story - in and out, move on. But for a true news junkie, which you obviously are, and a lot of people are, or for someone who's interested in connecting with that story, it gives you a depth in the story that you typically wouldn't be able to achieve in a packaged radio piece.

In terms of other changes, I think you're going to see our content going out into the community more. You know, KTRH has historically been a very traditional news station with very high brow news of a certain level. We're going to go out in the communities more. And I think that you're seeing that, whether it's CNN, or FOX News, is that people want the news to come into their home, into their car, into their school, and they want a greater connection with it then ever before - they want it to be more relevant.

You're going to see more proscriptive news, more how-tos, more health tips, more consumer news. Our reporters are going to develop areas of expertise in some cases. Where before everyone was general assignments, you're going to see more specialization in addition to that general assignment, according to what they already wanted to do.

Scott Braddock is developing an immigration expertise. It's a natural fit for him to take that to the next level, and start covering more and more by way of immigration. It's a developing story, and will be for years to come.

J.P. Pritchard, when he gets off the air likes to look at what's going on at the festival in Fredericksburg this weekend. So, there are opportunities with the website for him to blog about that as a sort of Texas country reporter type thing.

We're starting a blog - Julie McParland, who's one of our morning producers, is starting a blog called, "RX in the City," sort of a play on "Sex in the City." And there's a lot of medical news that I don't think gets covered well.

Christi Myers is really the only person in town doing that, and ABC's evening news is not enough. We need to be talking about what's going on in the medical industry - what are the trends? What are the changes? What are the new treatments? Where are doctors moving from, and where are they moving to? St. Luke's, Memorial, Baylor, Ben Taub. Level-two trauma centers, do we need another one? Ben Taub says we don't. Treatment options.

All those sorts of things I think are exciting new opportunities that are under-covered at present. It has traditionally been you want the murder report and the fire report and the City Hall report and maybe a little traffic. And by the time you finish all that, whether it is print, electronic or radio, you are through. I think there are so many opportunities to cover those things in a greater breadth but also a greater depth in most news stories.

There are so many things that are going on in Houston that don't get covered--community events. And you know, you want to say what a critic would say, a traditional news hound would say, "I don't really care that Clute is doing the Mosquito Festival, or what is going on with Katy football, or what is going on in Sugar Land with their new town center," but the fact is that's where our communities are going. And to be relevant to their lives we need to be discussing the trends--housing trends, those sorts of things.

McGuff: I was just wondering, with all this expanded news, do you think you will have expanded news blocks, kind of like there used to be? I know they have cut back a little bit and put more shows in.

Berry: Well first of all you will see more news as part of the show. So, you know, I read the bulletin boards like everyone else, mostly because, well, I read the bulletin boards like everyone else. The concern that our traditional news is going away couldn't be further from the truth.

You are going to hear promos slashed back to the bone. We are no longer going to need to tell you that we are News Radio 740 KTRH; you know that. We are going to cut all that out and give you more content, give you more segments, bring in a medical expert -- Dr. Joe Galati -- bring in a consumer expert, bring in business trend experts. And I would say going more the way of CNN and Fox News where the news is very relevant to your life and much more analytical than sort of reporting.

Because anybody can read you the headline of what has happened in town. What we intend to do more of is allowing our reporters to flourish by way of expertise. Give me the story behind the story; give me the analysis behind that. So I think you will see the news stories lengthened and greater amount of news, a minute-and-a-half to two minutes per hour more news. Which adds up, it does add up.

McGuff: Sure. Some of your favorite blogs? I'm sure that will excite the blogosphere.

Michael BerryBerry: No, I like yours a lot; I read yours for inside media. You broke the Ed Brandon deal, and I dropped him a call five minutes probably after your thing hit, because I have a number of friends who read your blog and send it to me. It's sort of like, blogs for me are like the TV scanners, I don't listen to the TV scanners--I mean the police scanners--around the clock but I have friends who do, and so they pick up the phone and say, "Four-alarm fire at this place," and I'll then respond. So what I do is, there are people out there that sort of spot for me, and they will tell me.

So, I read your blog, I read blogHouston. I particularly appreciate blogs that don't try to break news but comment on the news. Because I can get the headlines, you know, there is enough Matt Drudge reporting out there to show me the headlines. I look more for people who offer insightful analysis as to the headline, and particularly people who can give you a link-back…where you pop back to an original story and I've got a hyperlink in there. So that if there is a story on Chief Hurtt and they say, "Well, this is quite different than what Bradford did and what Nuchia did and what Elizabeth Watson did and what Lee Brown did," and there are links to those stories, it makes my research a lot easier. And the web allows you to do that, but you have to have somebody do that.

I like blogs that are aggregators, you know, that take various news sources and put it into one so that I don't have to read all those. I can read this blog and get a sense of what was the most important. I go to Drudge 25 times a day; that is my number one hit on the web in terms of a site.

Locally-- Blog Houston, yours. Occasionally I read Kuffner's; he tends to have interesting insight into Democratic politics and a lot more liberal causes, and so I'll read his; and he will do some good coverage. There is a guy out of Sugar Land that writes some good stuff on Republican issues, and he was particularly good in 22, I don't remember his name; he and his father have a political consulting group and they do a real good blog.

I like Slampo's Place a lot; by way of pure writing I think he has the best writing style I've read of any of the blogs. I like This Blog is Full of Crap, I like that one a lot. Ubu Roi -- I think is just incredibly insightful on city politics. Like any blogger he is wrong as often as he is right, but you know, you have got to read to figure out, otherwise you don't, you'll miss something; I think he is really good. Those are the ones...

And The Insite, obviously, The Insite I read. What I like about his is he doesn't take himself too seriously. You know, I tell him often there are just too many exclamation marks at the end of everyone of his stories, and he says, "That's the joke." You know, sometimes when you are too smart for the room and you are laughing at yourself, you are like Dennis Miller; you don't realize that that was a pun on himself or that was a criticism of himself. I like the fact that he throws everything up there. He obviously has a lot of fun with it.

So many bloggers, you know, the "New York Times" came out with a new urban dictionary of terms, and one of the terms was "The Pajama Dean." It's these angry people sitting in their bedroom in their pajamas angrily blogging about all the people in the media they have to look at on TV and they hate. And you get the sense that he is having a lot of fun with it. And I think there is a place for that.

There is also one I get by way of email but it's posted in a blog format, and it's called "Our Daily Blast." And it's a woman, she's English and he's a New Yorker, and it's sort of urban commentary, and it's very, it's put together very slick, very smooth. And it will be a commentary on sort of black fraternities, black sororities, black actors and actresses that have been caught doing something wrong or they have just won some big award. That one is a lot of fun. If you have never found that one, it's a good one. It's called "Our Daily Blast."

Interview end

Berry did tell me as the interview was winding down that my blog has "jarring graphics." Maybe he is right. Others have told me my color scheme can be hard to read. Maybe I will do something about that. COMMENT: Click to leave your thoughts on this post here