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On-air disruption: Pete Kaliner returns to broadcasting

Pete Kaliner. Pete Kaliner.

It’s been a long, strange trip for radio host Pete Kaliner, who came into the industry just as it was beginning an era of dramatic change. In many ways, his 20-something year career in Western North Carolina broadcast journalism mirrors the ebbs and flows of the modern media waterline.

“I’ve always loved radio. I love the spoken word. I love the way it connects with people and that’s where I want to be. That’s what I want to do, even though it’s a turbulent time in the industry, although I will say the opportunities right now that radio hosts have I think are far superior than they had a long time ago,” he said. “Back then you had to rely on their platform in order to broadcast. Nowadays that whole model is being disrupted.”

“I think it was fourth grade, we used to have to cut current events articles out of the newspaper and write a little synopsis. After you did the assignment, you could keep doing them for little bits of extra credit,” Kaliner said. “The teacher I had, she was a big news junkie and so she wanted to inspire that in us and I guess it worked.”

His dad was also an avid public radio listener, so while he was growing up he consumed a steady diet of “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” 

“I’ve just always been in it, you know,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Kaliner started his career in journalism the way most do — at the bottom. 

“I actually worked for an NPR station a long, long time ago. It was an internship. I mailed people coffee mugs, but I couldn’t get out of the membership department because I had no experience but I couldn’t get experience because I was in the membership department,” he laughed. 

That was 1997, and once Kaliner graduated from Winthrop University, he took a job as a board operator for a tiny AM news talk station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, WRHI. 

“Over the course of a couple of years, I worked my way into a full-time position and became a reporter,” he said. “Then, my meteoric rise to news director was propelled by the fact that everybody else got other jobs.”

After moving to a larger station, WBT in Charlotte, in 2000, Kaliner began covering more of the nuts-and-bolts local government stuff he admits he still loves — city council, county commission, school board, state politics, state government, breaking news, general assignment, cops and courts. 

He did that for eight years and then transitioned into hosting, landing in the 9 p.m. to midnight slot. 

“I think I was probably one of the last actual live local on-air hosts left in America at that hour,” Kaliner said. “It’s just all syndicated in that time slot.”

Part of the reason for that is when Kaliner was still shipping coffee mugs to NPR donors, a revolution in the communications industry was just getting underway — a revolution that would soon come to define the new media landscape and lead him to where he is today. 

“If you go back to the legislation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a lot of people in radio would tell you that the industry was completely changed after that passed,” he said. 

The Federal Communications Commission describes the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years. 

Those 62 years saw not only rapid advances in the telephone and television industries, but also the birth of the internet. The Act’s major impact was in reducing and then dropping altogether restrictions on media companies owning multiple outlets in the same market. 

“It then propelled this sort of buying frenzy, which was great for a lot of small regular station owners, mom-and-pop owners that sold their operations to larger companies,” said Kaliner. “The idea was, you buy up all of these stations, you buy the best properties in each city, and then you can replicate to scale by doing essentially syndicated programming. One guy in New York is spinning records and providing content to a 100-200 stations. You save the employee costs and you can sell advertising at a huge scale.” 

There were a number of downsides, however, for these larger companies; they took on a lot of debt right as the downturn following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks began to impact the U.S. economy, and just as that began to turn around, the Great Recession hit. Meanwhile, digital production and distribution — through services like YouTube and iTunes — was becoming easier and cheaper. 

“So I got laid off in 2011,” he said. 

While bouncing around doing fill-in work in 2012, Kaliner got a call from the programming director at one of those gigs — WWNC-AM, an Asheville station that began broadcasting in 1927 but had since become one of hundreds purchased by one of those large media companies, called Clear Channel.

“I left the job in Charlotte on I think a Friday and I showed up here on Monday morning,” he said. “I got a hotel room and was on the air the day after the South Carolina primary with The Pete Kaliner Show.” 

Kaliner’s afternoon show caught on quick, and he became known as a trusted source of local, regional, state and national news with a focus on politics and government. 

“I’ve always understood that you’ve got to be entertaining and informative. I mean, you can be one or the other, but I don’t think you’re as successful if you can’t be both,” he said. “I always want to be a little bit of both because if stuff’s important, like how do you talk about redistricting? People’s eyes glaze over, but it’s important stuff. So you’ve got to figure out ways to make it fun and understandable.”

Kaliner’s show also filled a critical role in Western North Carolina, where there are plenty of local media outlets but due to logistics, resources and even mission, those outlets operate at a city or county level and can’t often delve into state or national affairs.

“We’re all under the same pressures,” he said. “You’re being told to do more with less and you have all of these streams of information coming in and as a reporter you’re trying to find different stories to cover. There’s so much out there and you’ve got fewer people covering it.”

The role of “The Pete Kaliner Show” became even more important with the departure of reporter Mark Barrett from the Asheville Citizen-Times in January 2019, after 33 years of reporting on local and state politics. 

“The longer you’re a journalist, the more valuable you become, because you were there for all of the precursor stories. You remember why these things happened 15 years ago,” said Kaliner. “When people get laid off, a lot of times it’s the people who’ve been there the longest because they’re more expensive. And then what? You’ve lost 20, 25 years of institutional knowledge, and now you’ve got to rebuild all of that, and the people that benefit the most from that are the Wanda Greens.”

Another critical role filled by the show was that of the rare right-of-center local news host in an industry mostly staffed by left-leaning people. 

“It’s true, I mean, every poll I’ve ever seen and all the surveys from Pew say the same thing — the vast majority of people that work in newsrooms, they are left of center,” he said. “I can understand at certain levels why that occurs. Generally speaking, there’s a certain type of personality that gets drawn to telling stories, you know, writers, creative types and people like that.”

Kaliner considers himself a “lowercase-L libertarian,” or what’s called a “conservatarian.” 

“I’m for limited government. The government that is more limited provides more freedom. My default position is less government,” he said. “Now, that’s not to say that I cannot be persuaded on some items, but that’s my default and I try to let people know that this is where I’m coming from. If you’re upfront with people and you tell them that, then they can judge your work accordingly.”

Healthy dialogues aren’t dominated by one voice, or one ideology; they require a spectrum of viewpoints that ultimately contribute to a larger truth that can be revealed by no one person, only by a community. 

And if you’ve ever caught Kaliner on-air, well, he built quite a community of longtime listeners and tweeters and callers.

“I think the numbers are like 90-plus percent of people who listen would never think to call into a radio show so you’re dealing with a very small group of people, but the thing is that those folks represent others,” he said. “They are ambassadors for a particular position. And once articulated, then I would get emails and tweets and Facebook comments from people who would agree with them. They didn’t want to go on air, but they would agree. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a host and get out of being a reporter, was that I got to talk with the audience.”

After more than 2,000 shows, Kaliner said he has many memorable regular callers like “Tinfoil Tom,” who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, and Dan from Horseshoe.

“Dan would call in a couple of times a week. He had goats on his farm and so you could hear them in the background. One of them he named ‘Little Rush’ after Rush Limbaugh. At one point, I apparently endeared myself to Dan and eventually he named another goat after me, ‘Little Pete,’” said Kaliner. “I took that as one of the highest honors I’ve ever gotten in radio.”

He’d also interact with his audience in real time, reading emails he’d gotten during the broadcast, or responding to posts on social media, both of which Kaliner equated to working without a net. 

“I always looked at the host position as sort of the owner of the general store back in the Norman Rockwell idea of it,” he said. “Like, you’re there and there’s some guys sitting on the front porch in the rocking chairs with the spittoons and they’re just talking about all these different things going on in the town and the state and the world,” he said. “I’m just kinda there to move people through, guide the conversation and make sure it doesn’t get completely out of control.”

Despite the popularity of the show, on Monday, Jan. 13, after seven years of tinfoil and tweets and soliloquys and spittoons, Kaliner learned though a series of texts and emails that the brass at Clear Channel — which had since rebranded itself with the softer, fuzzier moniker iHeartMedia — wanted to speak to him in person at the office. 

And just like that, the institutional knowledge, the conservative perspective, the goats — they all were gone. 

Corporate restructuring by iHeartMedia — currently emerging from a 2018 bankruptcy — was to blame for the end of Kaliner’s show, but he’s not bitter about it. 

“I want people to know that there’s never any way that I’m going to be able to repay them for what they’ve given me to be able to do that job,” he said. “The job was never mine. The job was iHeart’s. They created it. It’s their job and every job has a shelf life. I feel like I still am amazed that people let me do this job because it doesn’t ever feel like a job for me.”

The job wasn’t his, but the experience and the audience he earned along the way can’t exactly be turned in like a key fob or a parking pass on one’s way out the door. 

“Never mistake the brand for the platform,” he said. “You can be the brand, but the platform is how your brand gets distributed. Never mistake the two.”

In a strange plot twist perhaps worthy of a call from Tinfoil Tom, Kaliner saw the light in the strangest of places — he now buys studio time from iHeart each week and uses it to record “The Pete Kaliner Show,” one hour each weekday. 

“Here’s the best part for me — I own the content. It’s mine, and I can distribute it however I want to. And how I want to distribute it is on a podcast platform. I’m working with a company called Podcave,” he said. “It’s a bunch of old radio guys that set up this platform, so they understand what it takes to do something like this on the back-of-house services that a radio show requires.”

Kaliner also incorporates Patreon and advertisers as revenue streams, but seems to focus more on the scalability of the podcast version of the show, which debuted March 2. 

“Down the road, the idea is that you syndicate the show. You go to these other radio stations around the state and you say, ‘Do you want it? If you want to take it, it’s free,’” he said. “I want the reach. If radio stations need local content that looks at state stuff, there you go.”

There’s potential, Kaliner said, for the show to expand into an hour exclusively devoted to Asheville and Western North Carolina, and then another hour devoted to the statewide issues. 

“It’s just gonna depend on how much support we can get,” he said. 

Initial response, according to Kaliner, has been encouraging. As of press time, there were nine episodes of “The Pete Kaliner Show” available on iTunes.

“You know, you sit in a room, you talk to a wall for three hours and you don’t really ever know if you’re making an impact,” he said. “You’ll read your emails and people will let you know that you stink, but it’s really been overwhelming and humbling and there’s just no way to say thank you enough to everybody who’s done it for me.”

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