OPINION: WSB’s unicorn in talk radio: Mark Arum, who doesn’t yell

WSB Radio morning host Mark Arum displays his old-school listing of the upcoming show. The AJC's Bill Torpy writes that Arum is unusual in talk radio as he does not hector, holler or heckle.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

WSB Radio morning host Mark Arum displays his old-school listing of the upcoming show. The AJC's Bill Torpy writes that Arum is unusual in talk radio as he does not hector, holler or heckle.

Mark Arum’s morning show is on the air and the WSB Radio host inherently knows his focus: It’s raining out there.

“It’s 9:05 and it’s absolutely miserable this morning,” he tells his audience.

Yep, it’s storming and the station that bombards listeners with slogans like “News, Traffic and Weather,” as well as the alliterative “Triple Team Traffic,” must now pepper the broadcast with updates concerning wet and clogged roads.

Information for harried motorists is part of the station’s DNA.

“This station is so woven into the community, that WSB is like a utility,” he said.

Long a voice and face of 95.5 WSB and WSB-TV/Channel 2 Action News, Arum now helms what he calls the radio station’s “legacy time slot,” the morning spot of the city’s oldest and longtime dominant station. (Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in 2019 announced the sale of television and radio properties including Arum’s radio and TV stations to Apollo Global Management, but maintains a minority stake.)

For years, starting in 1997, Arum was a radio part-timer who also worked in his uncle’s cigar store. Then he was WSB-TV’s longtime traffic guy starting at 4:30 a.m. Then he did that and a 10 p.m. to midnight talk radio show. This came after doing 18 months of unpaid night radio in Connecticut (from Atlanta) just to show his WSB bosses he had the stuff.

All that ambitious perseverance has allowed Arum, 50, to sit in the perch once occupied by talk-show host Neal Boortz, as well as the long-ago cornpone offerings of Ludlow Porch. The latter once described his style as “nothing smutty, keep it light, keep it moving, make it entertaining.”

Arum is a descendant of Ludlow’s vein, with a Gen X flavor, although his updates throughout his show about the war in Gaza somewhat darkens that airy feel.

The Connecticut native is unusual in talk radio as he does not hector, holler or heckle (alliterating is contagious) as many other talkers have done since Rush Limbaugh exploded into popularity in the 1990s.

WSB Radio host Mark Arum poses with his cardboard TV buddy Fred Blankenship.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Arum employs a different approach — conversation radio.

He tries being engaging and relatively neutral but not bland, a friendly now-middle-aged suburban guy just trying to keep hold of the now-vanishing American middle.

He toils in a medium that, like its cousins in TV and newspapers, just don’t have the pull that they once did. Increasingly, people listen to podcasts or their own music, whether it be from satellite radio or their own iPhones. (For instance, I haven’t had a working radio in my home for years and only listen when in my car — which is less than it used to be.)

The target audience is college-educated Gen Xers, younger Baby Boomers and Millennials, said Debra Green, his producer and sometime on-air partner.

“The key is to get younger people to tune in,” Arum adds.

Arum hails from a small town and says, “I’ve always wanted to have a small-town radio show on a major metro radio station” He envisions it like covering the local high school coach or pumpkin festival, but a couple notches bigger.

“First and foremost is to go deep into local stories,” he said, adding, “I like fun, interesting stories,.”

Who doesn’t?

Well apparently younger people. He’s No. 1 in listeners overall and with the 35-to-64 year-old crowd. But he comes in somewhere around fourth or fifth with the 25-54 demographic that advertisers like.

WSB Radio jockey Jim Wesley in 1955. LANE BROTHERS

Credit: LANE BROTHERS

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Credit: LANE BROTHERS

He starts out the show with a story that a high school is removing bathroom mirrors because students use them as a backdrop for TikTok posts. He says it demonstrates the dichotomy that is Gen Z (those born the late 1990s to early 2010s).

“We have Gen Zs here, they’re not as outgoing as their Gen X colleagues,” he said. “They won’t talk to you at work. They won’t look at you. Yet they’re in the bathroom and posting pictures of themselves on TikTok.”

His get-off-my lawn “rant,” delivered in his boy-next-door delivery, spurs callers.

He then switches to a short clip on the New Hampshire primary, an update on the weather and then thanks his listeners for helping raise some of the $86,000 needed pay off student lunches in the city of Decatur. A couple of days earlier, the Decaturish news site carried a story saying schools in that city were going to serve cheese sandwiches to those who had fallen behind in paying their lunches. His show picked up on that the previous day and donations rolled in.

“It’s gotta warm your heart that the community responded,” he said, before talking with the woman who organized the GoFundMe page to raise money.

(On a subsequent show, Arum would start his broadcast noting with some disappointment that the GoFundMe dollars had been declined after a large corporate donation took care of the school lunch tab).

He does live interviews with radio techie Kim Komando as well as Republican Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns. In between, he sprinkles in segments concerning a list of the “best” and “worst” airlines (he loves lists), as well as talking about the right age for retirement and PETA’s latest dustup — Punxsutawney Phil.

Then he launches into an interview with an Alabama reporter talking about that state’s efforts to execute a prisoner with the never-before-used method of nitrogen gas through a face mask. Alabama tried lethal injection in 2022 but couldn’t find a vein.

“I have issues with them free balling on this,” he said, before easing into a short segment on businesses that don’t take cash and, of course, more Triple Team Traffic.

It is raining outside, after all.

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