By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity
Weekend before last, it was the unexpected passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Network radio and TV were all over it – smart local stations used those resources, and were all over it, too.
But local radio stations WITHOUT a network news affiliation likely found themselves behind the eight ball – unable to meaningfully respond beyond whatever they were able to pass along from social media and news websites. Better than nothing, but not good enough.
But in a lot of places – too many, in my view – local radio was just MIA, leaving it to the web, to social media and to TV to report and advance the story. Because it was a weekend. And at stations without news departments, there likely was no one home and no one alerted to work the story.
This past weekend, it happened again, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where for the most part, radio was on the sidelines for an enormously tragic local story that broke on a Saturday night: The random shootings of eight people by a deranged gunman, who traversed the metro for hours – killing six and wounding two. The gunman was targeting people in or near their cars – the place where radio reaches more people than perhaps any other medium. Yet radio was silent for the most part. Local webstreams I was monitoring were carrying music or syndicated talk programming. Most appeared to be on automation. In the half-hour or so that I was dipping in and out of the streams, there were no news updates on this developing story, where for hours people in greater Kalamazoo were at risk of becoming the gunman’s next target.
In many cases, radio station websites, too, bore little or no mention of the emerging story.
Local TV? For the most part, it was on the air with continuing coverage live from the scenes of the shootings.
If there were ever a reason to get someone in, break format and go live on a developing story, this was it. Lives were at risk, and the circumstances were such that radio, in particular, could have played a big role in keeping people who were most at risk, safe.
Does your station have a plan for instituting breaking news coverage after hours, on weekends and holidays? Do you have protocols in place to at least get your air personalities up to speed and on the air with meaningful, vetted information while newsgathering resources are assembled? Is there a list of emergency contacts and authoritative government sources in your air studios – with after-hours contact information for each one? Are there TVs in your air studios so your talent can monitor local and network television for breaking news?
Really, that’s all it takes to start mounting a credible breaking news effort whenever an emergent event takes place in your market.
Need more help? I urge you again as I have done so often in this space to affiliate with a network news service. ABC Radio News (my favorite, of course) will actually alert your station’s designated personnel if news is breaking in your market, to help you ramp up local coverage. And while you’re ramping up, your network news service will keep the information flowing to your listeners. All your air talent needs to do is hit the breaking news sounder and put it on the air.
At stake here is the continuing relevance of radio as a consistently reliable source of information, when listeners most need it. Can’t afford it, you say? You can’t afford NOT to provide this service. And here’s one way to do it – make breaking news sponsorships a contingency sell, just as most stations do with weather related cancellations. In this case, you sell the packages year round…with sponsors getting billboards teasing your coverage, and getting full commercial adjacencies when breaking news coverage actually airs.
These contingency packages can be attractively priced, since there is no guarantee that anything other than the “brought to you by” billboards will ever air. They are a great deal economically, a cost-conservative way especially for new sponsors to “buy into radio,” and to marry themselves to your public service image.
The result is brand new revenue that can pay for that breaking news OT and the technology you need to respond effectively. In quiet times, hearing those billboards may even be enough to convert a new, limited advertiser into buying a more traditional – and more lucrative — ad flight.
Don’t want to go the do-it-yourself route? Partner with a TV station in your market and strike a standing agreement to put their breaking news coverage on the radio – they’ll appreciate the extra market reach and promotion, and you’ll reap the benefits of their more extensive resources. The public wins all around.
Friends and colleagues in radio…it’s time to stop the hand-wringing. Seriously. Time to stop complaining there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to generating the revenues you need to better serve your audience in times of emergency. Time for some of that “out of the box” thinking we talk so much about, but rarely seem to implement.
ANY station in ANY format and in ANY market can – and must – do this: Be the reliable source/authority for its community when news breaks. It’s why we hold a license. And it’s how we can not only survive – but prosper.
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for the ABC Television Network. The opinions expressed in his articles are his alone, and are not necessarily those of his employer. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.