By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity
NEW YORK — At the height of Wednesday’s horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calilfornia, I went online to sample the local coverage from a couple of that city’s self-proclaimed “news/talk” radio stations.
One stayed with syndicated talk programming with a well-known national host. Sure, he was talking about what was going on in San Bernardino…but he wasn’t IN San Bernardino. Wasn’t at the scene. Wasn’t capturing all the chaos, the raw emotion, the nuance of a big story evolving by the nanosecond in a community that could’ve been Anytown, USA. He wasn’t talking to eyewitnesses, local officials – relaying minute-to-minute updates, keeping San Bernardino listeners specifically informed on local impacts of this story.
One of this station’s competitors in the news/talk space also stayed national for the most part, bringing in running accounts of the shooting and subsequent investigation from their network news service. Which would be terrific if the aforementioned station were anywhere BESIDES San Bernardino.
Now to be sure, there were grave national implications from this story and regular readers know that I urgently endorse network news affiliation to bring context and expertise to stories like this. But when that big national story is breaking on YOUR doorstep, YOU need to OWN it, using those essential network resources for comprehensive breadth, depth and texture and a sense of how the nation is responding emotionally and politically in support of the people most directly affected. That’s what they do best…and they are an invaluable resource no radio station can afford to be without in these troubled times.
Visits to the websites of the two aforementioned radio stations did not immediately reveal whether either had a local news department to back up the “news” part of their “news/talk” branding. If they did deploy local resources to cover this story, I surely didn’t hear them on the air during the time I was listening…and I listened for a fair bit.
Even if we acknowledge the cost constraints that today make it so difficult to sustain a round-the-clock news operation at most stations, in my personal view, operators do a disservice to their communities if they don’t at least have a PLAN for flushing their formats and throwing any and every live body into coverage of catastrophic local events. For as we’ve seen so often in recent months, it’s no longer a question of WHETHER a story like this breaks close to home, but rather a question of WHEN.
If you’re a music station, your air personalities have to know how to stop the music and inform their listeners. If you’re in a sports or talk format, and surely if you’re in national syndication, you need to flip your shows on a dime – toss out the “hot topics,” gossip and maybe even some of the political spin; put knowledgeable eyewitnesses, public officials and incident experts on the air and interview them thoughtfully.
You need to have a mechanism for screening calls, vetting information — calming your community by keeping it meaningfully informed. That requires cross-training staffers not normally in broadcast positions to pitch in when necessary. As I have said so many times in this space, in today’s DIY digital age, your authoritative coverage of and perspective on events like those in San Bernardino, practically speaking, is the only unique product you have left to sell. Bobby the Bedroom Blogger won’t get newsmakers to take his call. Penny Podcaster likely doesn’t have incident commanders on speed dial. But radio stations do.
As a wise observer pointed out in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, social media does its best work in the first five minutes after a story breaks, and some of its worst in the many hours that follow.
With its connections, reach and immediacy, radio – local radio – can still seize the high ground when big stories break and be a community’s go-to information source…but only if it is prepared and resourced to do so.
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.