What Would Radio Do if the President Got Shot?

Early this morning here in Austin, a gunman opened fire on the UT campus, and the story is still unfolding. For those not familiar with Austin and the UT area, the campus is just north of downtown and is, unlike many college campuses, a part of the geographic makeup of the greater downtown area. As I write this the media is still scrambling and although the shooter is apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot would, there is a possibility of another shooter. But this post is not about the tragedy here on the streets of Austin, it’s about the tragedy of coverage or lack of coverage of the incident as it unfolded this morning.

I started my day as usual, with coffee and the NPR news on KUT (which, by the way is run by the University of Texas). Around 8:30 during the national coverage of the news on NPR there was a brief mention of the incident unfolding in Austin. A quick cut-in that there were reports of a gunman on the campus and that there would be more information forthcoming on KUT. The NPR news ended at 9:00am and the music kicked in with Eklektikos with John Aielli who started mumbling something about the wind blowing in his usual navel gazing diatribe. I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr Aielli sounds like the radio version of that schizophrenic guy who talks to himself (or to the voices in his head) in the corner, the difference being that Mr Aielli has a microphone and a transmitter. What’s the frequency Kenneth? However, my issue in this post is not about Mr Aielli’s lack of communication skills on the air, it’s that KUT and Aielli dropped the ball while this story was breaking. Because there was no real mention or immediacy on the story on KUT, I didn’t give it a second thought. Or so I thought as I headed down the elevator to my car.

As I started to drive down East 6th Street towards downtown, I noticed a lot of sirens in the distance and marked and unmarked police cars with lights and sirens flying north to the campus area. I immediately switched on the radio. First stop, KLBJ AM (actually, the FM simulcast of KLBJ AM). The KLBJ Morning show with Mark, Ed and Sargent Sam was all over the story. The talk show was taking calls and discussing the events of the shooting with cut-ins from the news department. Unfortunately (well in my opinion) Sgt Sam was ranting about if they allowed students to carry guns on campus, this event would have never happened. This would have been a good topic for tomorrow, I just somehow got a twinge thinking that this was a bit too soon for a hard opinion based topic. However on the whole of it, KLBJ AM was on top of the story and seemed to more or less own it. My next punch was to the other FM talk station in the market, The Big Talker. The station was running The Glenn Beck Show, as usual. Beck was doing his usual show. No mention on the show or station of the events unfolding at UT. Shame on them. This was an event they should have been ready to own on the air, they failed.

The next dial punch was to KGSR, the AAA in Austin. Music. I’m out. Next to KROX, the Alternative station here in Austin. Surely if anyone is gonna’ be on top of a shooting at the UT campus in Austin, it’s going to be the station that serves the target of the University. The Alternative station! I listened for a couple of minutes before punching out. They were talking about a beer bash promotion. Stick em’ with a fork, they’re done. Punch again, this time to Rocker KLBJ. The morning show is all over the event, taking calls and generally, handling this event even better, in many ways, than their News/Talk brethren KLBJ AM. Most of time when I punch in to KLBJ FM in the morning it’s your typical navel-gazing morning show talking about inside stuff. Your typical Rock morning show where the whole world revolves around the interior of the studio. We’ve all heard them. I believe most of them consider themselves to be “Heritage” shows. Not an excuse for lazy radio. However, this morning this show nailed it. On the ball with the news, calls, stayed away from being silly and giving too much opinion, before the facts were known. Hands down the best job I heard. Punched back to KGSR… still music. Back to KLBJ AM, Sgt Sam still bitching about students not being allowed to carry firearms, hey this is Texas. Back to Alternative nothing, back to The Big Talker, in a news break and talking about a police shooting from last night and another story about something I don’t remember right now. Man, they blew it. Punch back to the Alternative, they are just now starting to talk about the shooting… finally. Pull in to parking space, radio off, turn on streaming KLBJ AM on my computer to listen to more coverage. Done.

Let me tell you a story someone once told me. I once worked for a guy who was an intern at one of those legendary AM Top 40 radio stations in New York. One day he was asking the legendary PD of this legendary radio station why in the world he had the jocks on the air he did. This intern told the PD that surely he’d heard better jocks just across the river in Jersey, who were making a fraction of the money. Why didn’t he just fire these “legendary” jocks on the air, save a ton of dough and in the longterm have a better sounding radio station with more entertaining jocks and a slimmer budget? The legendary PD paused for a moment, and peered at the intern with a serious but sly look and said, “Because the guys I have on the air now know what to do if the President gets shot.”

I’ve feared for years that with consolidation, budget tightening, endless satellite feeds on News/Talk stations, voice tracking, etc, etc, etc… that we’d end up with many markets, if not most markets, where only a very small fraction of the air staff would have any idea what to do if “the President gets shot.” Here in Austin this morning, we had one of those moments. Pretty much everyone failed the test. The only one that somewhat passed, in my opinion, was KLBJ FM. You would expect KLBJ AM, the dominant News/Talker to be all over the situation, however the opinion based reporting on the incident took them down a couple of notches. KLBJ’s Dudley and Bob show hit the target best because the hosts, despite being a “wacky morning show,” knew how to handle one of these moments.

So now the question remains… do your hosts have what it takes to handle not only a huge national event, but a local one like happened in Austin today. Does your Program Director even understand what kind of host is required or what’s necessary to nurture that kind of level-headed, mature host? I’d bet cold, hard cash that most of the somewhat “seasoned” talent would not be level-headed enough to handle a “what if” event, forget about that liner card reader in midday’s and if you’re running a satellite feed, without someone on staff who is able to dump the bird and take over, you’re SOL.

*John Ford is a Broadcast programming professional with nearly three decades of experience in local and network major market radio Programming and Consulting. Including stints as a VP of New Media Sabo Media, Network Programming and Imaging at ABC Radio Networks, Greenstone Media. Programming, Imaging and Morning/Talk positions at WIOD/Miami, WLLZ/Detroit, KZPS/Dallas, The Edge/Dallas, Zeta 4/Miami, WSHE/Miami and others. John’s also an uber-geek who holds numerous Apple Technical Certifications and enjoys breaking and fixing code and kit. Reach him at his website.