"We are considering requiring that licensees maintain a physical presence at each radio broadcasting facility during all hours of operation." So says the FCC as it considers its wide-ranging spectrum of proposals to promote broadcast localism.
It’s interesting to think about this. We were just thinking about how, back in the day here in Washington, it was great to know that WMAL’s Bill Mayhugh was out there during the wee hours of the morning. It didn’t seem to matter what your taste in music was – the odds were that whatever he played wasn’t likely to be in your wheelhouse if, like us, you were quite a bit younger than he – he still was a comforting presence as you drove through town late or pulled a graveyard shift somewhere in the market.
It is sad to say that overnighters like Mayhugh seem to be a dying breed. And maybe the FCC would be doing broadcasters in both radio and TV a favor by forcing them to revive the overnighter, the perfect time and place to allow young talent to develop their chops. Stations looking to dominate their market should consider just such a move.
But even in the heyday of such talents, most stations had long since signed off. You could watch TV at 2AM, but you were going to see a test pattern. There simply aren’t enough ears and eyes in the audience to go around for a full complement of broadcast outlets in any market.
Technology has made it possible to keep the programming coming now, so that just about the only stations shutting down are those forced to by a daytime-only license. But without the canned programming, for most stations the business model falls apart, and rather than staff up, it may well make more sense to shut down until most of the folks in the market are up and about in the morning.
Serving the public interest is one thing. Bleeding cash 24/7 when the kind of emergencies in which broadcast information is critical are rare is another, particularly since 99 times out of a hundred, there is reason to be especially on the alert for an impending weather emergency, and for which special measures can be taken.
If the government thinks there’s a need for people to be at each and every station at all times on the off chance something might happen, maybe it should put up the cash to have sentries posted at the base of every broadcast tower, just as it posts 24/7 sentries in watchtowers to spot forest fires.
The attitude seems to be that broadcasters get free use of the public airwaves, are raking it in hand over fist, and are prime targets for public interest mandates covering a wide variety of areas – beyond the emergency staffing issue, broadcasters are often called upon to provide free air time for political ads, to broadcast local government meetings whether or not anybody will tune in, and to educate the public on just about every topic under the sun. But most broadcasters do not work for a big corporation, and they prosper only by observing sound business practices and being careful with their budgets.
If you can afford overnight staffing, especially your own overnight talent, we strongly suggest you do so. But the government should not impose a big expense on any company, rich or poor, for what in fact are unusual occurrences, without helping to foot the bill.