I'll admit it. I was goaded into writing today's post.
The other night, Tom Leykis reached out on Twitter, asking me my reaction to radio's coverage of the San Diego area synagogue shooting. He sent me a story by Ken Lieghton in the San Diego Reader, actually based on a commentary by AllAccess writer Perry Michael Simon.
Leykis is sometimes pigeon-holed as a “shock jock,” but that's a gross misnomer. Once a superstar of the airwaves, Tom has carved out an amazing career wrapped around subscription streaming, podcasts, merch, and event and wine sales. Yes, you read that right.
Tom has participated in our “Podcast Makeover” session at the Podcast Movement (he's already agreed to join us again at PM19 in Orlando), and I can tell you that he's a caring, smart, and insightful person. While he's been joined onstage by some formidable panelists, I find myself gravitating to what Leykis is talking about. He's frequently spot-on.
So, I paid attention to this tweet, directed right at me:
— Tom Leykis (@tomleykis) May 14, 2019
As you may recall, yet another fatal shooting took place in Poway, adjacent to nearby San Diego. When Perry got the alert, he started tuning around to San Diego news/talk stations – commercial and public – and ended up hearing recorded programs. After all, this vicious incident occurred on a Saturday when most radio station buildings are vacant or occupied by a single person (or babysitter).
I read Leighton's story, reviewed Perry's OpEd, and thought about how to respond to Leykis' tweet.
It didn't take long for one word to come to mind:
That's not a statement about San Diego radio. Or about News/Talk stations, a format I know precious little about. Increasingly, “Where's radio?” is a fair question to ask when breaking news events occur after hours.
The fact is, this could have happened anywhere. And with the exception of perhaps the largest markets in America, probably would happen everywhere. After all, staffing is tight, weekends are less critical to ratings, and the custom has been set over the last decade or more. On nights, overnights, and weekends, radio broadcasters try to get away with minimum staffing during these non-critical hours.
I've railed against rock stations that fail to “go live” when a beloved rock star passes away. And while those are major cultural milestones for many people, they pale in comparison to what happened in San Diego…or Charlotte, Denver, Parkland, Charlottesville, or Aurora. The list is endless. If it hasn't happened in your market, chances are that sooner or later, it will.
Problem is, when a tragedy of this nature shakes a community, people are trained to turn on the radio to find out what's going on. Most have probably come to expect that radio will be there, providing on the scene coverage. On weekends and evenings, probably not.
Leykis is right. I am a fan of broadcast radio (something he takes me to task for now and again). And don't interpret this post as piling on the conversation started by Perry and Leighton. While I strongly believe in the efficacy and value of radio – commercial and public – I also feel that oftentimes, we can do better.
And we must do better. In an increasingly crowded media environment, radio broadcasters must step it up in order to be viable and relevant. Listeners have a right to expect local radio coverage when a tragedy occurs in their hometown. Instead, many San Diegans flipped on the TV, or as Simon points out, tuned to CNN, Fox, or MSNBC audio on SiriusXM.
So, what's the takeaway here?
Broadcast radio doesn't need to do a better job telling its story. It needs to get its story straight.
If it's going to live up to its heritage, and continue to herald being “live and local,” stations will need to devise emergency plans when these unforeseen events happen at inconvenient times. Oddly enough, many went into place in the days and weeks after 9/11. Sadly, many have been forgotten or simply ignored.
On news stations, a reporter or anchor should be on call every weekend – just in case – ready to drop personal plans, drive to the station, and get behind the mic to inform her community in the event of a major breaking news event.
Or local radio clusters need to forge deals with nearby TV stations to at least simulcast their audio when something tragic happens. That's not a great solution, but it at least ensures that when listeners turn on a news station, they'll actually hear what's happening in real time.
I am a frequent presenter at state broadcaster associations around the country. Last year, I spoke at their great conferences in Texas, Alaska, Oklahoma, and others. This would make a great topic for your 2019 conventions – how radio stations across the state – commercial and public – might work together to provide pool coverage when a horrifying local event makes a surprise visit to your community.
More and more companies are bringing their programmers and managers together for meetings and gatherings every year. This would be a great agenda item for those groups as well.
I am convinced this “radio silence” two Saturdays ago could have happened anywhere. It just happened to be San Diego – this time.
And oh, the irony. As I was putting this post “to bed,” I got an email from another California broadcaster, Vicky Watts. She's the co-owner of KOZT, in Mendocino – the Coast – with Tom Yates. Vicky and Tom left L.A. in 1990 to enter the world of station ownership. They are the quintessential “mom & pop” owners, dedicated to creating radio that's “locally owned, locally programmed, local personalities, local news.”
Vicky wrote me to tell me their News Director, Joe Regelski, celebrates his 25th anniversary at KOZT next month. Joe's made a multi-generational name for himself because he's the guy who's on the air, giving out information during the power outages and wildfires they've experienced in Northern California the past couple years. He's your quintessential news hound – a guy who takes his job title seriously. If something happens in the region, it's not a matter of whether he's on duty – he's on duty.
Joe recently spoke to a class of young students about his job, what it entails, and what it requires. And after his talk, he received a number of thank-you notes from these kids. Here's one from young Ella Sweigart that tells the story better than any promo could:
By the way, there's a radio hidden in plain sight in the “Where's Radio?” scene at the top of this post. It's not easy to spot. But that's the point.