The Key to Local Radio Is News

I confess.

As a program director I did all that I could do to move my stations’ news commitments to the overnight hours so we could play more music during the day.

It was stupid then and stupid now.

As my friend Dick Carr, the legendary Metromedia executive puts it, “When radio turned its back on local news coverage the handwriting was on the wall. That's when the localism light began to fade”.

Before radio consolidation, stations programmed news out of instinct.

Today, misguided CEOs more than programmers, eliminate local news out of cheapness.

Under Carr’s watch, news was a ratings getter.

Scheduled every half hour.

I know. I know.

WIP in Philly and WNEW in New York were adult full service music stations with personalities, contests and community presence. But, you know, one of the biggest top 40 stations of all time – WABC in New York – carried news on the hour (and often the half hour) and it was youth-oriented.

Some of the elements of these news-oriented adult and youth stations included:

• A real live local news staff (not a regional headquarters where outsiders try to write local news as Clear Channel does currently). Often staffed overnights, too – not network, local.

• A newstip hotline (H-O-T-L-I-N-E) that locals could use to call in tips and win a cash prize every week. All the calls were recorded with a beeper so that there was always great audio.

• Two newscasts an hour, longer ones in morning drive.

• Sports reports with a real live local sportscaster (or two) hired to do morning and afternoon sportscasts.

• Reporters who actually left the building to cover news and send sound and reports back to the station. Today, few stations have such a luxury.

• Bulletins – not breaking news, not false alarms but bulletins that listeners ought to know about pronto. Local listeners could depend on radio to watch out for them.

• Telephone interviews and actualities integrated into live feeds dominating local news coverage.

• As the very able WIP News Director Paul Rust used to say,"Did you try to get 'sound' on that story?"

Television could not compete with radio for up-to-the-minute local news coverage (and I worked in both radio and TV).

Newspapers – forget it.

Then, came the demise.

Not just at the time of consolidation but when the first thing stations owners did as they took over a new station was cut the news. Little did they know that they were cutting a key local component – one that has gotten them into trouble today as new media exposes their flank.

As Bill McCloskey, a WIP alum and eventual news director of Metromedia’s WASH-FM, Washington (yes, a music FM station) said: “We made hourly 'rounds' calls to police and fire headquarters”.

Today, you can’t find local artists on most radio stations.

Or local personalities.

And certainly not local news.

But with iPods, iPhones, digital competition, the mobile Internet – the radio industry shot itself in the foot.

You want to make radio different from an iPod, add local news.

And you don’t have to make it all sound like stentorian news announcers reading formal documents. Let a real program director or news director (if you can find one) develop style.

Today's news doesn’t all have to be about Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus. It can be about a fire two miles from your house or a scandal at the county seat.

And, it can get even better.

If you’re with me on adding video to audio with a text option and calling it radio, then imagine the possibilities of listener photos, Skype reports by passersby, social networking built to communicate news and even talk about it. Resources available in depth.

When Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, some great news coverage took place around this country – and I’m not just talking about the network feed. Once the story was told, local broadcasters went on-the-air and engaged their audiences in the various format genres in which they operated.

I’m told there was some of this in Nashville after the flood. This is radio at its best.

I’m saying – you want to make an iPod seem like yesterday? Make a radio sound like tomorrow.


Live coverage.

Local focus.

Scheduled local news.

News personalities – local of course.

On-air and on the mobile Internet.

And don’t look to your consolidated "Wall Street 2" radio CEOs to understand its importance.

The only news they care about is extending their employment contracts and making fees.

I know this is advice that is costly to stations and therefore they will likely not take it, but it is more costly to ignore it.

Radio plus local news plus simultaneous video on the mobile Internet plus social networking and text availability for in-depth digging is just too compelling to fail.

You want a future for radio? There you have it.

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