When To Think Differently
July 8, 2016
I had an entirely different column teed up and ready to go today (7/8). I was set to share my semi-regular, "Some Things I Think" meanderings, but as I woke up to the awful news of police shootings in Dallas, I instantly called an audible and changed direction, from fun and (mostly) light content, to something I hope can be useful for radio pros. And that's the dual purpose of today's 'Ville - to talk about when local radio can and should pivot quickly in the middle of a show - whatever the market when a national tragedy occurs - and how to best make that pivot. Because radio must always be - first and foremost - here to serve the public, not merely responding to unforeseen events, but doing so in a responsible manner.
The Dallas police shooting is a national news story - a national tragedy, really - and a total game-changer when it comes to show prep. As a former programmer, I asked myself as soon as I woke up to this news, "How would I coach my morning air talent to deal with this?" Since I have no airstaff anymore, I asked a few people who do, for their thoughts while it's all still fresh. This kind of situation was happening in real time, and that's when all coaches - be it for athletes or radio talent - truly earn their keep. Air check meetings and planning sessions after the show are like practice; during the show is a live, game situation.
I'll start with Steve Reynolds of The Reynolds Group, who coaches talent in all formats and market sizes. He shared with me what I'd consider a playbook for the unexpected, and I think it's most useful to you if I just share as is:
- Great shows are a reflection of the moment. We're having one of them right now (like Orlando), and we must be there. We live in a clickable world, and this is the topic of the day (we rarely have just one topic). Gotta go there.
- What tone do we want to take? How do we want people to feel after they hear a break or two? We must know the answer and then craft the breaks and show to do this. I'd opt for sadness and compassion. That sadness and compassion should be for anyone anywhere who is senselessly killed. We can also make people despondent and/or angry with how we handle ourselves - especially for a Country audience, I would not do that. If you do phones or guests, they should match this.
- Had a conversation with a Country PD this morning suggesting they have a preacher on today. Not to do religion but to understand this and where we are. I would have found the conversation very comforting had they done it.
- Nix the benchmarks on a day like today. With how people use radio (little listens, ten minutes at a time, tons of cume churn), if I don't hear you do it, I cannot give you credit.
- Re features, is there any way to intersect the two? Heard a show doing its Nashville gossip segment the Monday after the Orlando shootings talk about nothing but artists' reactions to it. It was absolutely perfect.
- I ask shows: on a day like today, if you were producing "Good Morning America" or "The Today Show," what would you suggest as possible segment angles? That works for radio on a day like today.
- You cannot play both sides (let's reflect the moment, then pivot to the wacky benchmark). That's kinda like saying, "I'm sorry you have this tragedy in your life, but let me tell you this joke to balance the moment." That won't work.
- The talent MUST know how they feel about this and use that as a jumping off point for potential breaks. I would NOT AT ALL talk gun control, race, etc. as there is no win there. People woke up shocked and sad. We must be there, too.
- Cull social media for angles and things people say, but do not use it to incite people. Making them angrier won't work long term.
- Guests are good if they can match the tone you want and help feed the feeling you want listeners leaving with when their occasion is over.
Steve's first point included "Gotta go there." What I learned when working with him years ago is the fundamental question to ask each day: "Am I talking about what everybody else is talking about?"
On the flipside, JVC Broadcasting WJVC/Nassau, NY PD/morning personality Phathead told me, "I think it really is market specific as to what you do. In Texas it should absolutely be the only thing you do in the morning today." But, to his point about thinking market-specific, Phathead added, "It's also a summer Friday out here with people hitting the Long Island beaches and city people heading to the Hamptons. As much as people want to talk about it and hear about it, they also look to their favorite music station as an escape while they are being saturated with the news on their social media." Additionally, Phathead pointed out that his sister station, WCRN (LI News Radio), is a 24 hour news outlet, which he directs listeners to when major news breaks.
CBS Radio WUSN/Chicago morning co-host Ray Stevens and I were Facebook messaging today, and the first thing he told me was, "Tough day to be on the air." He and co-host Lisa Dent decided to call local coffee shops and offer up free coffee to police officers. "We opened up to our friends in law enforcement and took the angle of: how do men and women do police jobs today. It was real. It makes the impact that 60 minutes in a row can never do."
Across the street, at iHeartMedia WEBG (Big 95.5) morning hosts Mason & Remy were also on it, fielding a call from an equally frustrated and empathetic Valory Music Co. artist, Justin Moore. They followed up afterwards by encouraging Big 95.5 listeners to wear blue in support of Dallas First Responders to Brantley Gilbert's "Take It Outside" concert with special guests Justin Moore and Colt Ford Saturday night (7/9) at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre. The station is also showing support for those who serve and protect the community on all social media using the hashtag, #WeWearBlue.
"I encourage them to address it through the show's normal filters, but don't let it overtake the show's normal listening experience too much," said Entercom WBEE/Rochester, NY OM Bob Barnett. "Texters/Social/Callers can quickly take you into a direction that feels like emotional fool's gold, and a tune-out to those looking for an escape. We offer our sincere condolences to officers everywhere; address the heavy emotion of the day; share some appropriate input. But we try and move on to other things. We have to balance the reality of the moment with listener expectations. The hardest part is determining where that is - with each tragedy."
Not only does Cumulus' "America's Morning Show" air nationally (Hosted by Blair Garner, Kelly Ford and Chuck Wicks), it has some Dallas roots, with Garner having worked in The Big D years ago, as did Nash Dir./Programming John Shomby. "We knew this was something we had to address," said Shomby. "It's what's on everyone's mind; could not ignore it. We were able to have Hawkeye from the [Cumulus] KSCS/Dallas morning show on to talk about the past 18 hours and how the city was doing, etc. Socially, we kept it to thoughts and prayers, but didn't do much more than that. We still had some entertaining stuff on and were able to weave back into the big story of the day."
KSCS Country sister, KPLX and its morning show gave listeners a forum to speak about the tragedy, says host Skip Mahaffey. "There was so much overwhelming positive support for law enforcement and the community. It breaks my heart that such a tragedy has to occur before we embrace each other." While KPLX did play music, Mahaffey says careful attention was paid to song selection. Additionally, observed Mahaffey, "It was like 9/11. I live less than a mile from where this happened, and Dallas Police Department HQ is literally across the street from me. I haven't seen this much police activity since the ACMs [in 1992], the night of the Rodney King riots."
If I were sharing one thing I think today, it would be this: we live in a crazy, volatile, ever-increasingly effed-up world. This week's collection of tragic news events make even a manly-man such as myself yearn for nothing more than a lazy afternoon in sweatpants, on the sofa, next to a fire, watching adorable dog and cat videos on social media while eating comfort food. I also think we all know that ain't happening anytime soon, so instead, I hope today's piece offered something constructive and instructive - something radio pros both on the air and behind the mic can use the next time they're faced with horrible news. And here's something else I don't just think, but I know: Sadly, there WILL be a next time.