When a national news story breaks in your backyard, big enough to get non-stop coverage on CNN, don't expect your local news radio station to be bothered.
The Poway synagogue shooting may have postponed commercials on national TV for “wall-to-wall” coverage. But on the hometown radio airwaves, a nationally important crisis won’t interrupt Rush Limbaugh re-runs.
“I was at Target, idly checking my phone on Saturday when I saw Twitter posts about a shooting at a synagogue in Poway,” says radio veteran Perry Michael Simon. “Details were sketchy at the time, and I wanted to find out what was going on. Once I got to my car, I went to the source I thought would be the best option: local San Diego radio. So I tuned into the news-talk stations. The first voice I heard was Rush Limbaugh [pre-recorded on KOGO] and then [financial advisor] Clark Howard [on KFMB] and ‘Freakanomics Radio’ on KPBS. Nothing about the shootings on any station.”
Simon has been a program director at radio stations on both coasts. He was the boss at KLSX-FM in Los Angeles when that station successfully went all-talk, assembling the live-and-local talk shows to complement the top-rated Howard Stern morning show when Stern was still on traditional radio. Simon is now the Vice President of News/Talk/Sports for allaccess.com0, considered to be the leading internet website covering the radio industry.
Simon says “Newsradio 600 KOGO” hosts a quality weekday morning drive news show. But as for the Saturday live coverage of the April 27 Poway shooting, “...for whatever reason, they did not drop regular programming and go with wall-to-wall coverage. I later learned that one of the stations belatedly went to updates every 15 minutes, but that wasn't enough,” says Simon. “When I wanted the information, it was not there. CNN, the audio of which is available on SiriusXM, had gone wall-to-wall with coverage [of the Poway shooting]. It was that big. Yet when local listeners tuned into local radio, they did not get what they were looking for.”
Simon points out that local station WBT-AM in Charlotte “…was all over the campus shooting,” at the University of North Carolina with immediate, non-stop live radio coverage. “And as I recall, WPTF-AM went immediately to wall-to-wall coverage when a similar situation happened in Raleigh. But not in San Diego.”
San Diego is the 16th largest radio market in the country, while Charlotte is 23rd and Raleigh is 38th.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Cliff Alpert as a newsman on the local radio airwaves, including stints as news director at the now defunct KSDO and at KFMB. He is now news director at KOGO. Longtime locals will recall that it was Alpert who would dutifully interrupt regular programming to anchor non-stop coverage of fires, earthquakes, floods, or other breaking events on live radio.
Alpert says he was aware of Simon’s nationally-distributed column but that “…I can’t really talk about it….I get calls every day from people about something we do or don’t do.”
“We were wall-to-wall coverage on TV,” says Alberto Mier y Teran, president and general manager of the KFMB stations about KFMB’s Poway coverage. KFMB stations include Channel 8 and KFMB-AM. “But on weekends there is no one in the building to do local radio on KFMB-AM.”
Simon adds that the decimation of radio newsroom staffs is part of the new reality of corporate radio cuts. “I can explain it away to someone on a business level. I hear stories all the time about radio clusters in various markets that after 5 p.m. on a Friday the place is locked up and dark for the entire weekend.”
But he suggests that abandoning news coverage is not a good strategy in the long run. “My instincts tell me big breaking news is best covered on local radio which has successfully covered it for generations. I know the industry is going through financial upheaval, with two corporations coming out of bankruptcy. But you would think they would look at covering local news as a strategic advantage since they have the infrastructure already in place and local news has been largely ignored by other local media. Local papers have withered if they haven’t actually died already.”
KPBS director of communications Heather Milne Barger did not address why KPBS-FM only provided updates instead of airing non-stop coverage but did respond with this statement: "We provided updates on radio, web and social media when we could confirm facts and have it go through the editorial review process. It is our editorial policy to focus on being right, not being first to report." Barger says that a reporter and videographer were sent to Chabad on Saturday. "Ultimately that day we provided news updates on radio, kpbs.org and on social media."
Two other San Diego radio veterans had more to say.
“Local radio has become a Monday-through-Friday, business hour proposition,” says Lee Hacksaw Hamilton. “Radio has turned weekends over to syndicated talk and bartered shows...aside from KNX in Los Angeles, local radio has no news commitment.”
But Hamilton says it wasn’t always that way. “In 2007, in the raging North County fires, KOGO turned its station into round-the-clock coverage using all its personnel to anchor and to report. It was the best radio I ever heard. I was a victim of the fires in Rancho Bernardo and was on the air with them. I was still working at Clear Channel [later to become iHeart Radio] and was so proud of what they did.”
But Hacksaw says KOGO was soon hit with staff cuts. “Less than a year later, they emptied out the news room, went to skeleton staffs, and went to rip and read. They destroyed KOGO, allowing its long-standing audience to go to KPBS…It escalated KPBS to number one in the ratings, where it still is. Here you had a tragedy with international interest playing out mere miles from these stations' studios and the stations did not break from their regular programming.”
Mike Halloran, who started in local radio in 1986, says it wouldn’t be the first time iHeart Radio (KOGO, KGB, Rock 105, Channel 9-3-3, Star 94.1, Jammin’ 95.7) missed the boat because it had no live weekend DJ’s. “Back in 2000, nine people died after being crushed at a Pearl Jam concert in Denmark. But because it happened at 3 pm our time, you didn’t hear about it all weekend on Rock 105.3 because the station was entirely voice-tracked [pre-recorded] and they couldn’t be bothered to break in with the news all weekend.”
Halloran says it’s hard to cover news without news people. “When you’re a news station and you don’t have anyone in the building to interrupt with breaking news especially when it’s originating in San Diego, you know you’re in trouble. God forbid the apocalypse starts and the four horsemen start charging down the 163 and roll through Balboa Park to Petco but none of the news stations would be able to report it because it’s on a weekend.”