How news/talk radio stations can take ownership of breaking news events
By Kevin Casey
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — News/talk stations covering breaking news have a challenge in this era of shrinking news departments and pared-back staffs. In order to be the place to which people turn for coverage of breaking news and then the talk about the news, stations must have a pre-planned approach and use their people creatively in order to compete for the consumer’s attention. With the recent case of the Aurora shootings last month, stations beyond Denver woke up to a major breaking story from out of market that was the only thing people were talking about that morning.
The Rolodex of the well-run news room can help the station respond to such complex cases where gun law experts, psychology practitioners, crime experts and others are used by stations to bring local analysis to the story. How stations prepare for and execute coverage of breaking news and the talk about that news determines how “on top of the story” a station and its talk hosts sound.
Gregg Henson programs Federated Media’s WOWO-AM/FM in Fort Wayne and he tells TALKERS the news is very important to his station’s listeners. “That’s the expectation of this brand in Fort Wayne. WOWO has a really interesting bond with this market and they expect a certain amount of quality of coverage when it comes to breaking news. We have a 16-share because we have a captive audience when it comes to the news coverage, so we want to deliver on it.”
When a story like the Aurora shooting breaks, having a news pro on board makes life a lot easier, according to Henson. “I have Dave Wheaton in the newsroom and he’s been through the wars. He worked at WOOD in Grand Rapids and WJR in Detroit and he knows what he’s doing. When news like this breaks, his main goal is to get us all in and on board.”
KIDO, Boise morning drive host Kevin Miller has also worked as a program director during his career. He says that in a market the size of Boise and with the resources many stations KIDO’s size typically have these days, you’re limited to a degree but can still deliver the vital news and analysis. “When you’ve been doing this a long time you remember what happened September 11th and how you dealt with that and how it impacts the local community. I think one of the mistakes people make is to forget about the idea that it is information and if you can go to a network like we did with Fox News Radio and allow them to set the table, then you can use your hosts to allow callers to react. You can also have your local officials on and present a holistic approach.”
At Clear Channel’s KOGO, San Diego, veteran program director Cliff Albert has been through the breaking news process countless times and his station regards itself as the place to turn. “That is our brand. We call ourselves ‘newsradio.’ We promote heavily the breaking news aspect of what we do to bring people to us and let them know that when the big news breaks, we want to be who they turn to. We don’t have an all-news station in our market so we are that entity.”
It’s one thing to call yourself “newsradio,” but you have to follow through or the market will not respond if you fail to perform. Albert says they practice what they preach. “We have people here, fortunately, who’ve been here awhile who know how to do this. Over the last 10 years we’ve had three wildfire incidents where there were hundreds of thousands of people evacuated and we were on the air for literally multiple days non-stop with coverage and that includes all of the people we have; that includes news anchors, talk hosts, producers, promotions people who’ve been assigned to assist in coverage when big breaking news happens here and we think we do it pretty well when that sort of thing happens. I jump into the anchor chair when this happens. That’s why I’ve got an ISDN broadcast line in the house so that when earthquakes happen or fires happen I can immediately go on the air.”
Dave Elswick says they have a protocol for dealing with breaking news where he serves as program director and PM drive host at KARN-FM, Little Rock. “The standing rule is that if something happens, the first person who is called is me. The second person called is the news director. After that happens, I’ll talk with the news director and we’ll determine how big the story is and how we’re going to approach it. If it’s severe weather, for example, I might call in the morning hosts, the news staff and we all go directly to the station to cover that.”
Not all news/talk stations have a programmer dedicated solely to it and talk host Jack Riccardi at KTSA, San Antonio tells TALKERS it’s experience that helps guide a host in that case. “When I got into talk radio 20 years ago there would have been that program director-led approach where you’d have somebody coordinating it. But nowadays there’s nobody really available to do that. Our operations manager is managing a cluster so for us we’re fortunate that all of our hosts are very experienced and it’s very self-directed coverage in cases like Aurora.”
Since the Aurora story broke and was covered intensely during morning drive and Riccardi goes on the air at 9:00 am, he says his gut told him that the thing to do for a talk host in that case was to go to the phones. “It’s really tempting – in a situation like Aurora – to become an all-news format; you’ve got the means to do it, but that’s not what people come to you for. And unless the story is still unfolding I think it’s best to maintain that identity as a place where people can call in and it’s a two-way medium. Obviously when things change, the story can be updated and you do that, but I try to resist the temptation to go all-news unless the news is still happening.”
As morning talk host, Kevin Miller agrees with Riccardi. “Our goal is to be the barometer of the community – to inform and then let the listeners react. It’s easy to say, ‘Log on to Twitter, log on to Facebook,’ but if you’re in your car as many people were this time, you want to be able to talk with them about it. Your job is to let people talk.”
A radio talk show is a unique product and Riccardi says that’s the crux of his reason for approaching the story the way he did. “I think because, even though something very traumatic had happened – and I don’t mean this to sound insensitive – but I believe most listeners turned on the radio for the same reason they turn it on every other day. It’s important for the product to bear some resemblance to what it always is. So, even though we were only talking about one story, people expected to be able to call in and talk about it. If I yield that ground, I’m surrendering my biggest advantage over syndication which can’t take these calls from San Antonio and put these local peoples’ perspectives on the air. It’s the only local talk show on the air during those hours so it’s important not to ignore the phones.
“This was just the kind of story that people want to talk about because it immediately opens up the issue of the Second Amendment; it opens up the issue of criminal justice – what do we do with people like this?; and psychiatry…within hours I had people calling me saying they have a member of their family that they’re worried about, that they don’t know how to get help and they live in fear of the day they are that family in the news trying to explain why their family member did something – it touched people in a lot of ways that they wanted to talk about.”
KOGO approached the breaking news aspect of the Aurora story early in the morning using audio from Clear Channel’s KOA, Denver. Cliff Albert says, “When we realized the magnitude of what had happened there we switched to carry the programming of Denver station KOA at 4:00 am our time and carried their programming until 6:00 am. During the 5:00 am hour we would break in and tell the listener what they were listening to and a quick mention of what was coming at 6:00 am – that we’d be taking their calls, we’ll be talking to a San Diego psychiatrist who’s in our stable of experts, a police official we talk to all the time. Throughout the morning drive period we would check back and talk with KOA and do Q&As with their people.” But even though KOGO calls itself “newsradio,” Albert says morning host Chip Franklin went to phones very early on. “We opened the phones right away for this particular story because the unusual nature of it for San Diego is that the suspect, James Holmes, is from San Diego. Pretty early on it became apparent that this guy grew up and went to high school here and so all of a sudden, it became a local story. So we sent somebody out to the home and everybody else sent somebody out to the home and there were all kinds of angles there. I thought KOA did a great job covering all of the angles there and we even joined an 8:00 am press conference on KOA that morning. But I thought that this particular story, that is a powerful, gut-wrenching story – and the fact that it had such a strong local angle – I thought we had to open up the phone lines right away and not only let people share their feelings and anger but we also had people calling and telling Chip Franklin that they knew this kid, went to school with him and knew the family.”
By afternoon drive time at KARN-FM, Dave Elswick says he went straight to the phones. “I opened up the phones to get peoples’ gut reactions to what they knew at the time. Obviously, there was more information to come out but we let people talk about how they were feeling about the story for all four hours.”
Elswick says he doesn’t bring expert guests on his show in this situation. “I do the interacting with the listeners and let the conversations with experts come within the news and the top and bottom of the hour. My goal is to get the pulse and feel of what the market is at that point.”
Gregg Henson tells TALKERS he regularly uses social media to drive people to WOWO and did so in this case as well. “We treat Facebook and Twitter differently. Twitter is more of a conversation. We try to respond to anyone who mentions our brand. In the case of news, we’re pushing news – ‘WOWO.com for news’ or ‘WOWO at 1180 AM or 92.3 FM or WOWO.com for further details.’ Leading up to President Obama’s speech that morning, we Tweeted ‘President’s speech in 30 minutes live on WOWO,’ ‘President’s Speech in 15 minutes live on WOWO.’ It’s always pushing them to one of our platforms. As far as Facebook in concerned, we use that mostly to push them to our website. Because of the Facebook timeline, people can scroll through that and see the stories. It’s just a brand extension.”
KOGO also had someone working the social media, according to Cliff Albert. “Actually, we had one person assigned to handle all the Facebook and Twitter activity that was going on that morning – not only to send updates but to scan the Twitter and Facebook followers to see whether they were contributing because of the local nature of the story.”
Breaking news events like the Aurora tragedy are huge for the cable news channels but most radio programmers tell TALKERS this kind of event should also be the bread and butter of news/talk radio.
Kevin Miller says there were stations in his market that gave it up to TV or the internet and he believes that’s a huge mistake. “You have to start with the competition for ears in your market. Sometimes we forget that when people are driving in to work they can’t legally watch their smartphones. There’s nothing more powerful than the spoken word in situations like these. We remember Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and now Aurora. I think unfortunately, sometimes we devalue the power that we truly have. People can go to cable TV but when it comes to how it impacts their lives, as long as there is local radio that does it right, they’ll go to it.”
It might be easy to bemoan the lack of staff many stations are dealing with these days but Cliff Albert says it’s imperative to find solutions to those problems. “We’ve all had to deal with cutbacks and no matter if you’ve had a 20-person news and talk staff and you now have a 10-person staff or you have a two-person staff or whatever you have, you begin developing partnerships. We have a strong partnership with the ABC TV affiliate here – KGTV 10 News – and they are terrific partners. We use each other’s reporters, we use their content, we will join their audio live if they’re at the scene of something…and we also have, as any station that does this should, a stable of news stringers. You know them, you’ve explained what you want out of them and you have the contact information and how to reach them to prepare them to go out and do what you need them to do. The other part of this is using everybody on your staff – the promotions people and the sales people for that matter – and getting them involved in assisting in the coverage.”
Kevin Casey is vice president and managing editor of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.