Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, has long had a vision of digital’s place in the realm of broadcasting. Back when then-company CEO Mel Karmazin was forbidding CBS Radio stations from diluting their signals with an online presence, Shelley was already attempting to find the right balance between the two.
Then working as a news and programming executive at Journal Communications’ news/talk WTMJ Milwaukee (620), Shelley recognized that digital could be valuable for radio, and he next worked as director of digital media for WCBS-TV in New York.
In 2009 he became GM of Digital at Radio One, overseeing content and sales for 50-plus radio stations and syndicated show websites, as well as mobile apps and other digital platforms. During a fruitful stay at the company, he worked up to senior VP for Interactive One Local & Interactive One Studios, the company’s digital arm. Next came a post as senior VP of Digital Content Strategy for iHeartMedia, where Shelley was responsible for developing national content strategy for 850-plus station sites in 150 markets.
Shelley—an Edward R. Murrow Award winner—was named executive director of the RTDNA in September 2017, and now combines his far-reaching knowledge of traditional radio/TV and all things digital to help support, provide resources for and coach the media. He talks with Inside Radio about this essential role, how radio stations might best deal with a tsunami of daily news and about covering a president who calls the news media “the enemy of the people.” An edited transcript follows.
Before joining RTDNA full time, you spent decades as an innovator in radio and TV. Why was this the right role at the right time for you?
I started my career as a small-market radio street reporter and news director. I was then privileged to work as news director at one of the nation’s biggest and best news/talk stations, WTMJ in Milwaukee.
When digital appeared on the landscape, I immediately saw its potential to extend the brand and the reach of what we now call legacy media. After the advent of broadband—which obviously made digital even more prolific—I pivoted my career toward helping legacy media companies transition to a digital mindset, at WTMJ, then full-time at CBS, at Radio One—now Urban One—and at iHeart.
But I have always considered myself a journalist at heart, so when the outstanding executive director of RTDNA Mike Cavender decided to retire, this seemed like a dream job for me. I’ve been an RTDNA member for more than 30 years, had been on the board for about 20 years, had served as chairman and treasurer of our foundation. This was an exciting opportunity to serve an association I’ve always loved.
In a time of media turmoil with a U.S. President that appears to selectively loathe the media, what are your goals?
First, I want to lead RTDNA on a renaissance. After the Great Recession hit, a lot of broadcast companies contracted their support for us out of economic necessity. I won’t mince words: That had a not-so-good impact on us. But Mike did a great job of putting our association back on solid financial footing, and that’s given me and the RTDNA board the opportunity to reassert ourselves as the preeminent organization to serve those in the broadcast and digital journalism profession.
RTDNA’s existence has never been more important. In the face of unprecedented attacks on journalism, this year we made defending the First Amendment and news media freedom our top priority. Through our new Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, we have become an even fiercer advocate for what I call broadcast and digital journalists’ constitutionally guaranteed duty to seek and report the facts to the public in a responsible way.
No doubt that’s a great service, but in the trenches, how can and how should news professionals best do their jobs given the unpredictability and bombardment of this President?
As I, and others, have said many times during the past several months, the only answer to attacks on journalism is more journalism. Journalists can’t whine and tuck their tails between their legs every time there’s a ‘fake news’ tweet. Neither can they be intimidated by the growing number of cases of harassment, threats, arrests and assaults that we’ve seen happen to reporters around the country since some of our top elected and other public officials whipped into a frenzy people across the country who don’t like, or really don’t understand, the news media.
Second, we as broadcast and digital journalists have to do a better job of helping the public understand why what we do is essential to their daily lives. There are countless examples of what I call flagrant acts of responsible journalism that occur in communities throughout our land each and every day. They expose corruption and other irregularities, and often serve as catalysts for positive change and tangible improvements in peoples’ lives. We have to highlight those examples more, and we have to be more transparent about how we cover the news and why we cover it the way we do, so we can, as an institution, regain the trust of that segment of the population that doesn’t like us.
Given the whirlwind of information out there, how should radio deal with what seems to be the big gulf between what is news and what is talk?
In my 11 years at WTMJ, I saw first hand how much influence and power to affect positive change news/talk could have. But stations must to do a better job making a distinction between the ‘news’ part—the real journalism—and the ‘talk’ part. Too many people conflate opinion media—the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys and others who use radio in a powerful way to further their viewpoints—and journalism. The longer that confusion continues, the harder it will be for the media to regain the public’s trust.
Is there a role for music radio stations, or should they serve as a place of escape?
The best role for music stations is to be inextricably intertwined with their local communities. Make a difference in improving their communities, through helping charities and the less fortunate. Diligently and consistently broadcast local severe weather warnings and other emergency information. People who want music just for escapism have dozens of other places they can, and do, get it. They turn to their favorite local radio station for something deeper and more meaningful.
You oversaw the growth of digital and mobile for both iHeart and Radio One starting in 2009, while helping Journal step forward. In tech time, that’s a lifetime ago. What is your perspective on what digital meant then vs. how it applies today?
I remember the day when I advocated that we stream our on-air signal and my boss replied, “What? And dilute our core product?” That was the time when [then-president/CEO of CBS] Mel Karmazin wouldn’t let the CBS stations stream their programming, out of the same concern. When I heard that WTOP had started a digital-only station for federal government news—a very wise move in Washington, DC—I put a plan together for us to do something similar. The sales department said they wouldn’t be able to sell it, so it died.
Now, some radio stations and radio companies truly ‘get it.’ They see digital as a way to extend their brands and their reach and…their revenue streams. Clever companies offer advertisers innovative ways, through a variety of digital platforms, to reach more potential customers. My favorite was geo-fencing. At one of the companies where I worked, we made a lot of money from a chain of car dealers by geo-fencing their competitors and sending push notifications to those competitors’ customers when they were inside the ‘fence.’ That let us successfully drag people off of those competitors’ showroom floors and onto our client’s, where they often bought cars, making our client a very happy man.
So much of what you imagined and worked for long before it was acceptable came to be. What’s on your bucket list?
During my lifetime I’ve seen so many people who hate their jobs and dread going to work. I promised myself early in my career that I would never be one of those people. And while I have had a few bosses—just a few—who I didn’t particularly care for, I can truly say I have always loved doing what I do. And that has never been truer than it is now, at RTDNA.
What’s on my bucket list career-wise? To make broadcast and digital journalism great again. No, no, no, just kidding! Seriously, I want to work with our officers and board of directors to make sure RTDNA’s renaissance is successful. I want our Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to make a real difference in defending the First Amendment and news media access. And I want RTDNA to play an integral role in correcting the disconnect between responsible journalism and some people’s view of journalists as the ‘enemy of the American people.’
On a personal level, I’m at an age now when I’m starting to think about my legacy… certainly not in a way that a U.S. president or a Fortune 100 CEO might worry about their legacies. But I became a journalist all those years ago because I really thought I could make a difference. And whenever I do retire, many years from now, God willing, I hope that’s how people will remember me: ‘That Dan Shelley; he was a good leader. He helped me grow my career. He always treated me fairly. He never created an environment in which our team succeeded together but failed individually. He was a good journalist. He made a difference.’