NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards Spotlight Interview: Michael Freedman, Executive Producer of The Kalb Report/Professor of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University

The New York Festivals® International Radio Programs & Promotions Awards Spotlight Interview showcases successful game-changers from the radio community, exploring their individual formulas for success and their thoughts on the radio industry at large. This week, NYF shines the spotlight on Michael Freedman, award-winning executive producer of The Kalb Report and Professor of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University.

Michael Freedman

Michael Freedman’s distinguished career has spanned more than 30 years. He has served as general manager of CBS Radio Network News, managing editor for the Broadcast Division of United Press International, leadership press secretary to the Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, vice president of Communications for The George Washington University, GW professor of Media and Public Affairs and executive director of the university’s Global Media Institute. He is the recipient of more than 85 honors, including 14 Edward R. Murrow awards for excellence in broadcast journalism. And, The Kalb Report was honored in 2012 with NYF’s Grand Trophy for “The Kalb Report – Anchoring 9/11: The Day and The Decade.”

NYF:  During your years as an executive producer you have collaborated on programming with Walter Cronkite, Tony Bennett, Ernie Harwell, Robert Trout, Richard C. Hottelet, Dan Rather, Charles Osgood and Abba Eban, how did the collaboration with Marvin Kalb begin?

MF:  George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg brought Marvin to GW for a one year sabbatical from Harvard in 1994. He asked a group of us to work with Marvin to create a series of forums on journalism for students that could also be broadcast. The others in the group said it couldn’t be done and dropped out. I met with Marvin and my first words to him were, “It’s just you and me and we can make this happen.” Marvin was game and we proceeded to bring together the partnership organizations and we produced nine programs in nine months that first year, all of which aired on NPR! C-SPAN covered most of them, as well. Over the years we’ve refined the format and we settled on four special forums per year, two in the fall and two in the spring. GW covered costs for the series for several years and then The Knight Foundation graciously agreed to fund two seasons. Ten years ago, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation agreed to underwrite the series and this wonderful group has been with us ever since. We now have an absolutely brilliant small production and research team which includes students and former students, as well as the best professionals anyone could hope for including Senior Producer Heather Date, Associate Producer Lindsay Underwood, Director Bob Vitarelli, student web editor Bryan Kane, and announcer Dick Golden. Our partnership has expanded over the years to include The National Press Club Journalism Institute, Harvard, GW and the University System of Maryland. We routinely draw 500-plus students and professionals to the National Press Club for the forums and we air on the public radio channels of Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, Federal News Radio in Washington and have been offered through PRX to public radio stations across the country. The series also lives online at kalb.gwu.edu

Christiane Amanpour and Marvin Kalb.

NYF:  Guests on The Kalb Report have included Rupert Murdoch, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, Walter Cronkite, Jim Lehrer, Hillary Clinton, Roger Ailes, Bob Costas, Ken Burns, Walter Isaacson, and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.  What were the steps involved to “get” these esteemed guests?

MF:  I can whittle the reason we have attracted these incredible guests to two words: Marvin Kalb. In Marvin, we have the last correspondent personally hired at CBS News by the patron saint of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow and the man, who today, is considered both the gold standard and the conscience of journalism in America. Marvin Kalb is a treasure and everyone knows it. So they all say “yes!”

NYF: What is the inspiration for the topics on the Kalb Report and what can audiences look forward to in 2013?

MF:  We focus on craft and impact, ethics and excellence, and the vital role of the press in a democracy — themes that sometimes get muddied in the dazzling digital world. We love the idea that we have more information at our fingertips today than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. The question we pose is whether we are getting better, more useful, insightful information — information we can trust. That’s the role of news organizations going forward – to carry the torch in our digital democracy for accuracy, depth, substance, and fairness. We aim for all of this with each program with our targets being students, professionals and a national audience that we hope to instill with a sense of news literacy.

This particular season has been among our most meaningful and successful. Speaking of Murrow, we opened last September as the keynote of the RTDNA/SPJ Excellence in Journalism conference in Florida with a program entitled “Why Murrow Matters in the Digital Age.” Our guests included Ed Murrow’s son, Casey Murrow, radio legend Bob Edwards, New York Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet and CBS News Correspondent Erin Moriarty. My favorite moment occurred after the program when a young man approached Marvin and identified himself as a student at the University of Missouri. He said, “I came into the forum thinking I wanted to go into journalism. I came out knowingmust go into journalism.”

We followed that with Ted Koppel and a deep, substantive discussion about “The Twilight of Network News.” Then, we were honored to host the review of the 2012 presidential debates with moderators Martha Raddatz, Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer (a program we called “Democracy in Action”). We will close the season April 1 with a program entitled “On Deadline: American Newspapers in the Digital Age.” We will focus on The Washington Post with its new top editorial team and explore how newspapers are going to survive the digital onslaught and hopefully thrive going forward.

Michael Freedmand accepting the 2012 NYF Radio Awards Grand Trophy.

NYF: “The Kalb Report – Anchoring 9/11: The Day and The Decade,” was honored with a Grand Trophy in Best Talk /Interview Special category.  What did achieving this honor mean to the entire Kalb Report team and the George Washington Global Media Institute?

MF:  First and foremost, anytime you are judged by a jury of your peers to be among the best in a category, it is an enormous honor. As a judge myself, I know the quality of the competition and the bar is set very high. When we learned last year that both “The Kalb Report” and our weekly program “This Just In!” won Gold honors, I was speechless. When I then saw that “The Kalb Report” was selected as the Grand Award recipient, I literally cried. When I picked up the phone and called Marvin, I cried again. And when I went down the hall to tell Senior Producer Heather Date, the tears came yet a third time. I called my wife and cried again. Then I wrote a note to the students and professionals on our production and research teams and our partners, and there came the tears again. It was a very special, meaningful moment for all of us and it invigorated us to do even better going forward. When you’re accomplishing good work, you know it. When a series like “The Kalb Report” which has virtually no bells and whistles, and which relies on the quality of the content to keep people listening and interested is selected for an honor such as this, it is a little overwhelming, incredibly gratifying and also humbling. It served to inspire the students to set a high bar and stay with it and it inspired all of us to try and reach even higher in the content and quality of our programs.

NYF:  In the special edition of “The Kalb Report – Anchoring 9/11: The Day and The Decade” moderator Marvin Kalb delved into the decade following the tragic 9/11 event , with a panel of network anchors who covered the chaos, including Charles Gibson (ABC), Dan Rather (CBS), Brit Hume (FOX), and Frank Sesno (CNN). What were the challenges in telling the story of the 9/11 tragedy?

What is the distance – in time and emotion – before news becomes history? In the case of the September 11 terrorist attacks, what we found is that even after ten years, emotions run sky high, and while we can begin to place some historical perspective on its impact, the pain, the fear, and the reality of it are still fresh in our minds. We treat the War in Afghanistan and virtually all terrorist acts as extensions of what happened on September 11, 2001. So, perhaps the biggest challenge for this program was how to break new ground ten years later when everyone on stage and everyone in the audience is still affected by it. Journalistically, the world has changed dramatically. How would this story have been covered if Twitter existed ten years ago? And what role would social media have played in the evacuations of the buildings, the search for survivors and the reporting of the story? What became clear over the course of the evening was that the guests lived in a different media world – one in which everyone still relied on television and radio reporters as their ‘first responders’ for information. Not one of them expressed regret that they are no longer in their positions because the reality is, they said, they would have had great difficulty using new technology properly. And that, of course, is the great challenge for everyone today.

NYF:  What is the importance of news literacy in the 24/7 news cycle? And how has new technology changed your role and the industry in general?

MF:  News literacy is among the most important challenges for coming generations. We are at a point in history where anyone and everyone can reach a global audience from their basement or the corner coffee shop. News organizations no longer compete with each other, they compete with everyone. As a result, we are losing a basic understanding of the difference between journalism and drivel. The best news organizations “gather, sort and then report.” They are often overwhelmed today by people who gather, REPORT and then let others determine what’s true and what isn’t. To be a smart consumer of information, one needs to be able to differentiate between reporting and speculating, and between news and entertainment. People also need to understand that a daily dose of information should include what you want tot know and what you NEED to know. One of the things people need to know today is that there are people out there — even countries out there — banking on Americans spending too much time watching “Charlie bit my finger” and not enough time learning what makes the world tick. As a result, we have injected more news literacy components in recent years on The Kalb Report. And we certainly consider it a big part of our mission today.

NYF:  This is the 19th season for The Kalb Report. To what do you attribute the longevity of the series? And any advice for young producers hoping to emulate your success?

MF: I attribute our longevity, first and foremost, to Marvin Kalb. All of us who have been touched by him have been touched by greatness in journalism. He is a joy to work with and a wonderful mentor to everyone on the team. Second, The Kalb Report has always been a learning laboratory for everyone involved. Some of our best ideas have come from our students and we all learn from each other. And we have watched people grow. Senior Producer Heather Date was a student volunteer 18 years ago! After becoming a successful producer at CNN, getting married and becoming a Mom, here she is now a senior member of our team and a full partner with Marvin and me. Lindsay Underwood was a student of mine who interned in the Global Media Institute. Today, she is associate producer and an incredibly gifted writer. Our Web Editor, Bryan Kane, is a GW Junior now studying in Spain. But that hasn’t kept him away from us. He simply is performing his duties from Barcelona this semester! Finally, we maintain an attitude that we work WITH each other, not FOR anyone. And we continually try to refresh ourselves in terms of what we can provide our for audiences that it can’t get anywhere else. And we have found that, as the digital revolution progresses, our role as the place where people come to get a dose of ethics and a shot of inspiration, has grown.

NYF:   Is there a particular program that you produced that was a defining moment for you?

MF:  Our keynote program at the SPJ/RTDNA conference in Florida this past September was very meaningful to me. Anytime we can discuss Murrow and apply his standards to today’s world is special. Lara Logan of CBS News blew the lid off the Press Club two years ago with her dramatic views on the war in Afghanistan, each backed up by facts, and her willingness to talk openly about being the victim of a gang assault in Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising. Her candor, good humor, extraordinary intelligence and sheer determination made her our most dynamic guest in the history of the series. Hosting the review of the 2012 presidential debates in January was an incredible honor and one of our highest moments. And our September 11 programs on the first, fifth and tenth anniversaries left indelible imprints on all of us.

NYF:  Has social media changed the radio industry as it relates to your work?

MF:  Radio is our most romantic medium. There is an intimacy about it that cannot be matched by other traditional or digital media. At it’s best, it is art, painting pictures for the mind’s eye. And whether you are listening in your car, on a mobile device, on a computer, on a stereo in your home, or on an actual portable radio, the experience has the same potential. Radio has always been as good as the people presenting the programming. That hasn’t changed. From Murrow to Marvin Kalb, from Jack Benny to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and from The CBS World News Roundup to a talk show that brings truth to citizens of a repressed nation, the sky is the limit when radio is done well. It is the ultimate aural medium, one that reaches out to touch our minds and our hearts. There is still magic in the air when radio is done well.

NYF:   What are the qualities or characteristics that one needs to have to do well as an executive producer in the radio industry?

MF:  A good executive producer leads but is not afraid to embrace the ideas of others. A good executive producer is never afraid to praise the efforts of both individuals and the team. A good executive producer motivates, inspires and raises morale even when the chips are down. A good executive producer both respects and likes his/her colleagues and treats them as he/she would want to be treated. A good executive producer helps everyone perform at their highest levels. A good executive producer is a teacher to those who are learning and a student of everything. A good executive producer protects everyone on the team. At the end of the day, a good executive producer says “thank you” and means it!

 

 

There is still time to enter your best work. The 2013 NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards, Honoring the World’s Best Radio Programs™, final deadline is April 2nd. For more information visit:http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/main.php?p=2,7

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