We Can't Afford It

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This weekend, I wasn’t one in a million. I was one in about THREE MILLION…three million Northeasterners plunged into darkness in the wake of our Snowtober storm that dumped in excess of a foot of snow in some places, and went through trees and power lines in nearly all places with the ferocity of a buzzsaw.


A perfect opportunity for radio to shine, right?

Maybe not so much.

To wit, some freeform riffing from the longtime morning man on the only English-speaking radio station licensed to our county. He was responding to an irate caller who wondered, live on the air, why – during the height of this weekend’s intense storm – there was no live news coverage on the aforementioned radio station.

The longtime morning man’s response – live on the air?

“Well, we can’t afford it.” Seriously. He told his listeners the station couldn’t afford wall-to-wall coverage of the storm on a weekend.

(He went onto say that there was a staffer at the station to take recorded — read that, unchallenged — statements from local officials about what they were doing to address storm impacts.)

Hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. To steal a phrase from one of my favorite radio pundits, Dave Ross: Let’s read that real slow.

Live news coverage during a raging pre-winter storm that has blacked out a quarter of the county and blocked hundreds of streets and roads?

We. Can’t. Afford. It?

Think about the absurdity (albeit honest absurdity) of that statement, while I give you a quick history lesson.

This radio station has a signal pattern that resembles an inkblot test. It’s a high-dial, highly directional low-power AM station that can’t even cover its entire county of license. It’s certainly fraught with challenges, technical and economic – all of which were well known when its current owner, a physician with no previous broadcast experience, bought the station some years ago to fulfill a dream of radio ownership. Bought it, mind you, for a published sum from which most seasoned operators probably would have walked away, given the station’s issues.

But I digress.

At that time, this first-time owner told a local newspaper that he’d learned all about running radio stations from numerous “conversations” with another local operator (who years earlier, owned the “other,” much more robust station licensed to the county – renowned for its live, local programming).

The doctor’s station, which bills itself as our county’s “Hometown Radio Station,” runs mostly on automation, and aside from its all-live local morning show and some specialty programs, it brokers much of its time to local businesspeople who buy a half-hour or an hour to sell their goods or services, in what amounts to extended infomercials.

Bad signal. Bad economy. Revenue-based programming decisions. We get all that. But for God’s sake, your community of license is facing what has been called one of the worst storms in its history, and you don’t break format, don’t staff up, don’t prepare in any meaningful way because “we can’t afford it?” And you say so ON THE AIR?!

Here’s the lesson you apparently missed in all your “conversations” with that other (very successful, very community-focused) owner, Doc.

You are licensed to serve your community’s public interest, convenience and necessity. Its interest and necessity this weekend – and today, and until every last home has heat and light – is to hold accountable the elected bloviators and the utility bigwigs who were also caught flat-footed, despite days of forecasts which all said this was going to be an historic pre-season winter storm.

The folks with no power – me included, who live in a hilly county where even those with a battery-powered TV don’t get digital TV without cable – relied on you to fight for them. To guide them, to help them. To calm and comfort them. To amplify their voice. To get their problems fixed. To relieve their angst.

Meaningfully, you did none of that. And you were all they had. Because what worked when nothing else did were battery-powered radios. And YOU, sir, were the only radio game in town, literally.

While I am sorry for and sympathetic to your financial and technical troubles – you knew what you were buying (or should have) before you bought it. You should have had a good-times/bad-times business plan, and the means necessary to run the business properly, if you were unable to mitigate any of your obstacles.

But whatever you did or didn’t do, you ALWAYS should have put the needs of your listeners first.

I have said in this space before – and will say again and again until the day I die – this is the only real reason why local radio need exist anymore: to provide critical and timely news and information to its listening area, especially in emergencies.
So if I might write a prescription to the good doctor who owns our local radio station, I’d tell him:

1) Read my suggestions for station emergency preparedness in Valerie Geller’s excellent new tome, “Beyond Powerful Radio,” and call me in the morning;

2) Visit my website, www.MediaDisasterPrep.com, for more good ideas (including ways of actually generating revenue from crisis programming and community service;

and

3) Spring for some OT for your newspeople – or invite some top-notch student journalists in for internship credit – stat. Cover crisis well, and sell the hell out of it later. You will make money – AND make your station, however challenged, the go-to information destination for local listeners.

“Can’t afford” crisis coverage – any day, any time? Allow me to posit the notion you can’t afford NOT to provide it.

–Howard B. Price, CBCP, MBCI
Dir., Business Continuity & Crisis Management
ABC News   Howard.B.Pri[email protected]