Another holiday weekend and another disaster.
You might even be wondering which disaster I'm talking about. Well, if you live in Southern California, it wasn't a very pleasant 4th of July. After decades of just mild tremors, the earthquake returned to the region with a vengeance. And in the process, millions were terrified, scrambling for accurate information.
No, this isn't another post extolling the virtues of stations that actually covered the event. Nor is it a castigation of those who voicetracked their way through the weekend, with at best, a single staffer in the building.
Instead, it's a commentary on the changing times in which we live. If you watch the cable news channels, BREAKING NEWS has become a constant, seemingly starting and ending every segment. Some of this, of course, is a mechanism to get us to keep watching. But much of it is a true commentary on the amped up news cycle of our lives.
There is no such thing as a “slow news day” anymore. Every day – whether it's Wednesday afternoon or Sunday morning – is chock-full of important news stories that demand our attention. NOW.
And while I know of no tracking data that would support this, it sure seems like there are more explosive stories these days – natural disasters, political shock, social unrest – than at any time in our collective memories. We can conjure up all sorts of reasons – rational and irrational – for why this is. But it just IS.
And so as radio operators – whether you run a music station, you're in a top five market, you're all-news, or you're a public radio Classical music station – you can't just execute your format and call it a day. The times demand an immediacy, a point of reference, a sense of place.
Think back to the hurricanes in Florida and Texas, the wildfires in California, the false alarm nuclear attack on Hawaii, the rampant flooding throughout the Midwest, those deadly tornadoes throughout Oklahoma – the list just goes on and on. And that's just the weather.
But wait there's more – local shootings in schools, movie theaters, churches, mosques, and synagogues. They've become so commonplace, it's easy to just shake our heads and get on with our weekends. But when one of these tragic events occurs in your community, it becomes very real and immediate.
And then there are the socially significant moments, from the deaths of stars like Tom Petty and Prince to the U.S. Women's Soccer Team taking another championship, the need for radio – spoken word or music – to keep an audience informed and in the moment has never been higher.
We've discussed the crazy coincidence that most of the above mentioned BREAKING NEWS stories inconveniently broke during weekends, or in the case of the recent earthquakes, over a long holiday weekend.
Translation: The worst possible time for most radio stations.
While the rest of the media world has become adrenalized by the super-charged news environment, radio has moved into a hibernative state, often missing the opportunity to cover a key event and serve its communities.
Yes, even if a handful of Southern California radio stations were actually on the ball when the ground shook, many were not. And that's the case virtually every time one of these events strikes – especially during the nighttime or weekend hours. A holiday makes it especially challenging for even the biggest clusters in the largest markets.
But what price, if any, does radio pay every time some tumultuous event occurs, and radio is ensconced in voicetracking or pre-recorded programming.
None of us knows the answer. Is there collateral damage when consumers punch on a radio when something happens, only to hear a song, a business report, or “Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me!”)?
There has to be an erosive effect that worsens over time, breaking down one of radio's true “steel swords” – being live & local. Broadcast executives give lip service to that key asset, but too often, their stations no longer walk that walk, instead immersed in robotic, cost-saving auto pilot programming that assumes all is well and nothing has gone wrong.
But listeners can tell, especially when the “order” breaks down in their market due to one of the many aforementioned unexpected events or tragedies. A “DJ” who somehow doesn't know there are flash floods all over TV news or the death of an iconic core artist is blowing up on Twitter becomes about as useful in the moment as a Spotify playlist or listening to “The Bridge” on SiriusXM.
What started a few decades ago as an economy of scale technique that could be deployed in “unimportant dayparts” has become an industry-wide crutch that conspires to remove broadcast radio even further from the excitement and tension of being in “real time.”
Far from suggesting that radio companies wean themselves off the addictive voicetracking drug, perhaps a more workable idea would be for companies to implement emergency plans that virtually guarantee a “designated broadcaster” at nights and on weekends assigned to drive to the station and take it “live.” There are some programmers who just do this, but as another decade of prerecorded radio slips by, fewer and fewer have been trained to know what to do when something out of the ordinary happens.
Here's the ironic part – if you've ever been part of the news coverage of a tragic or life-changing event in your community or the world, you know just how satisfying and even exciting it can be. To deliver information, perspective, and that local context is nothing short of a rush – even if it's a horrific tragedy. For so many younger broadcasters, those electrifying moments are now just the folklore of working in radio.
It is impossible to measure just how damaging radio stations being “out of it” when these crucial moments occur truly is. But just like during 9/11 or other lighting rod moments, people vividly remember where they were and what they were doing. They recall the medium that delivered the goods, while forgetting the ones that dropped the ball or just didn't know what the hell was going on.
In much the same way habit-forming listening on the morning commute was formed over years of consistently solid personality radio in a.m. drive, those same routines can be broken or shifted to other media outlets that prove to more reliable, in the moment, and live during crunch time.
Yup. Live & local.
It's not just a slogan. It's what radio needs to rekindle…again.