Radio Unprepared for Another 9/11

Radio is unprepared for a news story of the magnitude of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The increasingly non-local industry could barely report the death of pop icon Michael Jackson two weeks ago almost as if it was caught off guard and buried in automated programming.

Frustrated program directors were stuck in voice tracking or syndication hell – unable to grab the controls and get their local stations back on track.

Look what happened.

After the first few hours of paralysis, some stations – I emphasize some – tried to do some Michael Jackson special programming. Later in the day of Jackson’s death, other stations reacted – much to their credit.

Many, however, from the accounts I got from readers, did little. Some did nothing. That might be understandable for a format that doesn't feature Michael Jackson's music, but not for stations that do.

Radio couldn't wait to get back to voice tracking in its own little world where bad news is good news and local news doesn’t get covered.

I say bad news is good news because only radio could take a research report that shows fewer than 20% of teens listening to radio for music discovery and turn it around to mean “teens still listen to radio”.

I say local news doesn’t get covered because hardly a week goes by that some locality in the U.S. gets a tornado warning while a voice tracked radio station airs fair weather forecasts.

How is an industry that can’t stop the voice tracking and can’t even do the weather going to cover another emergency the level of 9/11 or worse?

The short answer is – it can’t.

In our world of Blackberries, iPhones, social networking and the Internet, the all-news slogan "You Give Us 22 Minutes and We'll Give You The World" is so outdated.

You give the next generation 22 seconds and they'll give you the world. In 22 minutes they'll see or hear or read more takes on the news than traditional sources can deliver.

Yet, radio chooses to deliver -- nothing in most cases.

Consolidation’s version of their very own Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown is happening at Cumulus, Clear Chanel and Citadel – among others – right now.

Let’s just say if an emergency happens in a city that has a CBS all-news station, those citizens will be lucky, indeed. Unfortunately, most cities don’t have “all news all the time” and few even have radio stations with a serious news commitment (translation: news reporters).

While they – and your elected officials – may be content to not worry about a potential national tragedy, I am worried. Perhaps you are as well. I know a lot of program directors – good ones – who wish they could regain control of their budgets and their stations to get ready to serve their communities in an emergency.

Think about this.

Al Qaeda has been identified as trying to work on terrorist attacks that could go beyond crashing airliners into tall buildings.

For example, detonating dirty bombs with nuclear fallout in major population centers or poisoning a city’s water supply.

God, I hope this never happens for oh so many reasons including the fact that local radio stations under the control of Wall Street dummies is not prepared.

No news departments.

Tethered to Repeater Radio.

Clear Channel has a few regional news centers – the brainstorm of their boss John Slogan Hogan – which will do them no good if they need to be on the ground where the news is happening.

Smaller markets are more vulnerable to radio’s negligence.

If a consolidator monopolizes a city like Minot, ND during the infamous toxic tank car spill, then what chance do listeners have of getting their news and vital information from a radio?

Today’s radio is built to repeat national programming so failed consolidators can save money and try to avoid bankruptcy.

They are not committed to serving the public interest, convenience and necessity. They are committed to saving their asses from fiscal irresponsibility.

And no one in power – either in Washington or on Wall Street – seems to think anything is wrong other than an economic downturn that they insist will get better.

You might argue that at least listeners still have NPR.

That may be true but NPR is “National” Public Radio – many affiliates are ill-equipped to handle a major local emergency.

Citadel owns ABC Radio Networks – or whatever Fagreed Suleman has renamed them. But that’s a national news platform. Local newsrooms are harder to find than competent radio CEOs.

If we learned anything from the Michael Jackson death, it’s this:

1. Voice tracking needs to be stopped and local programming inserted when local or national stories break. Of course, most consolidators just kept the hits coming and some hit music stations were slow to even add Michael Jackson music.

2. Program directors and talent are the best line of defense when live and local is needed. PDs and personalities saved consolidators the past few days when they returned to stations, put in overtime for which most were not compensated and did the right thing for their audience. Thank yous were not expected.

3. Syndication and voice tracking is hard to interrupt during a local news crisis when you have no local people in the building to -- well, interrupt. Duh!

4. Switching to national coverage – the plan most likely in a future national emergency – is not acceptable especially when local people are needed on the ground to be the eyes and ears of listeners.

5. Bill Drake is turning over in his grave that the hits just kept on coming. In reality Drake stations played the hits and when local stories became a hit, they put them into "A" rotation.

So the radio industry plods along living in its own world.

Everything is beautiful in its own way.

Until the day comes that local cities need their radio.

That’s when only the lucky cities where smaller, local companies still run live radio stations with news people will be able to rely on their old friend.

There is no defense for what consolidators are doing to radio.

We got a glimpse of it during the Michael Jackson death -- hardly a 9/11 type event, but nonetheless a major news story.

Voice tracking and syndication is out of control or as owners might put it – in control of the tripe that is being passed off for radio these days.

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where people were nice to each other.

Where there are no wars, no crime, no death.

Where weather was always sunny and mild.

But that is not the real world.

Unless, of course, you are a radio CEO living the fantasy of your mind where national programming and few local employees is called local radio.

There’s trouble ahead.

And today’s radio is terribly behind.

Marty Greenberg, the former ABC Radio executive, sat on the board of North Texas Public Broadcasting when the president of NPR spoke regarding the “perfect storm” for NPR in 9/11 – that commercial radio had given up on news because of consolidation and public radio was increasing its news presence.

Marty and his wife, Elin, were visiting their grandchildren on 9/11 and they had to be back in Dallas so they drove home – listening to public radio all the way. Even though some of the stations went to the major networks, according to Greenberg, there was no comparison.

“To this day, I am amazed at how poorly the commercial radio industry served America that day, and it has gotten worse (less) every day since”, adds Greenberg.

If radio can’t cover Michael Jackson’s death, can you image what is ahead when the next national disaster strikes?

You can’t all of a sudden become a “news” station when you have no local people, no resources, no training, no nose for news.

Therefore, radio’s disaster has already occurred.

For those of you who would prefer to get Jerry's daily posts by email for free, please click here. IMPORTANT: Service cannot start until you verify an email from "Feedburner" immediately after you sign up (may have to check your filtered mail).

Thanks for forwarding my pieces to your friends and linking to your websites and boards.