LA Wildfires vs. Radio

By Jerry Del Colliano

I was in Los Angeles for a few days and everyone was talking about the wildfire disaster that has been threatening Mt. Wilson -- home of the famous observatory and, oh yes -- the broadcast towers for just about every radio and television station.

With all that public interest, you'd think the media would jump to attention.

"Jump" may not be an accurate word to describe it.

The television stations in LA are being blasted for their insufficient coverage of a natural news story. Some in the local press accusing TV stations of devoting more time and attention to the burial of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy than the encroaching threat of devastation by fire.

To be sure the fire has killed and has ravaged the landscape. Angelinos are used to natural disasters almost as a trade-off for all the good weather of living in Southern California.

Nonetheless, what has happened during this crisis begs the question -- does the media matter in natural disasters?

While the broadcast towers were in harm's way, it appears the populace could live without TV as a news source.

Yes, the pictures are dramatic but it almost seems that the deadly fires are being covered the way LA TV stations cover a high-speed chase on one of their freeways.

Radio stations are doing better.

CBS' all-news KNX-AM and news/talk KFWB have rallied their troops -- albeit it a reduced number of troops due to layoffs. One can only wonder what a full staff, say, the size of ten years ago could do. All-news radio stations tend to service older -- over 60 -- audiences so that leaves the younger demographic stations to try and reach them with critical news and public service information.

To the credit of some of these younger skewing stations, they've stepped it up even in light of the fact that most music stations don't adequately cover routine news let alone emergencies.

But the mindset of radio broadcasters today in People Meter markets is -- play the music, gag the dj and win larger cumes. It apparently works in terms of metrics but it's debatable as to whether the approach feeds rabid radio listeners.

Not even a wildfire is going to get in the way of this misguided PPM strategy. These LA stations -- like their counterparts in other big PPM cities -- are facing a natural disaster of their own -- not making their numbers for the quarter. To them -- playing lots of music puts out that fire.

I don't agree, of course.

One of my mentors, Paul Drew -- a Drake program director in the "more music" genre always used to tell me, "you play a big news story like a hit record".

I never forgot that advice although the PPM gurus in radio today would probably argue with his enduring wisdom.

Even more interesting to me was the real prospect that most or at least some radio stations could be knocked off the air if the fires advanced to Mt. Wilson crippling the antenna farms.

And what exactly would that mean?

What kind of a public service disaster could that have been?

One thing is for sure -- whatever the impact -- it would not be half as bad as if these fires encroached on Los Angeles even ten years ago.

Ten years ago -- before widespread cell phone use, social networking, Twitter, Facebook, Internet and email on the go.

I stayed informed via my iPhone. I saw a lot of others do the same. And we got stories on the NPR News app as well as pictures on our smart phones to see, hear and read about the disaster.

Without radio, would LA be in jeopardy?

It sure as hell wouldn't be a good thing as many people still turn to their old friend radio in a disaster. But you get the sense that this city -- like other major metropolitan areas -- have already done their workaround for such emergencies.

People -- especially younger people -- seem to get all they need on their phones and online. That's how they live in these crowded and challenging markets day in and day out and that's where their first instincts are.

In an earthquake, you pull out your smart phone and go get the news. See what the USGS is reporting on the Richter scale. See the chart. Search for news.

The news center on the dial for most people today is no longer a radio station, it's a smart phone or online source.

Radio can't let listeners get out of the habit of relying on it 365 days a year then expect them to come back in droves -- as they used to -- for emergency coverage.

Understand, I am not being critical of the fine coverage I heard on the LA radio dial. I'm just saying it is coverage done on a flimsy budget (can anyone argue that?). Some stations avoided the fire and some ramped it up. This is not a discussion taking anything away from the fine radio talent that knows how to kick into action when times get tough. It's about the changing way different generations get news in a disaster.

The message coming out of all of this is not what havoc would be wrought on LA had radio stations been silenced, but how much less impact that would have had today now that most citizens have turned to their cell phones and the Internet as their lifeline.

If cell phone towers all burned down, you've really got a disaster today.

If the Internet goes out, it's a major crisis. Hell, it's a crisis when your email is knocked out by a Comcast or Cox outage.

There are other lessons.

The news providers -- radio stations that make a brand covering breaking news and being a lifeline in emergencies -- must move their resources to the Internet and mobile space. They are late as it is.

Not a 24/7 stream.

But a list of stories (or aspects of each story) that one can click on and get an up-to-date narrative.

One that provides pictures and sounds and gives the consumer control.

One that covers every -- and I mean every -- locale within a metro area with customized news for that place.

Taking radio to the Internet as it is -- a 24/7 aural medium -- is like herding horses to a car dealership and saying, "your transportation has arrived". I can only imagine the horse dealers standing in the showroom and saying: "hey, where do you think the term horsepower came from to measure the power of your car -- the good old reliable dependable horse".

Just as I can imagine radio broadcasters saying here is good old reliable radio -- just as good as a smart phone and just as immediate as the Internet.

There is a favorite saying I always liked to share with my students when I was teaching at USC.

There is nothing worse than doing something well that doesn't need to be done at all.

That may happen to radio in the next ten years unless wholesale changes are made.

LA radio will endure the next few weeks. Then station people should come together and discuss the after effects of tragedies such as the LA wildfires and brainstorm for ways to take proud radio news brands to the digital beyond.

That's where the people have moved.

Now it's up to radio to decide whether to create totally new concepts to service them where they now live.

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