This week's All Access newsletter is about being prepared when a big story breaks, like... um... hmm... I can't think of any examples lately:
Where were you when you heard Elvis died? Or Princess Diana? For a lot of people of a certain age, Thursday was one of those days. But for Michael Jackson's death, radio and television weren't the primary way a lot of people got the news. In fact, TMZ.com had the story before everyone, and was out there on a limb alone for a while before other news organizations confirmed it. A few observations about that:
1. Practically everyone was careful to note that until there was confirmation from a more trusted source, like an established news organization, one shouldn't assume the news of Jackson's death to be true. That says a lot about the value of an "old media" news brand, even in the new media era. (And the trustworthiness of sites perceived as "real news" versus "gossip sites," but that's another topic)
2. Nevertheless, the first place a lot of people seemed to go this time was to the Internet. The exchanges on Facebook and Twitter were where news was being disseminated, and where conversations were being held.
That second point is something radio should be looking at. People have more choices on where to go for breaking news, and for a place to talk about and commiserate over events. And since that's the world you live in now, you have to answer this question:
When the news started breaking, and people were tuning in to your station to find out what was going on, did you have the information? Did they immediately get the latest?
If the answer was no... yeah, well, see, that's a problem.
The argument here isn't over whether the media overreacted to the news of Michael Jackson's death. It's about what your listeners want, expect, and need from you. With all the talk about wanting to reach people under the age of Medicare, this was a perfect example of a story that hit the sweet spot. People who were in high school when "Thriller" came out are in their mid- to upper-thirties today. To them, Michael Jackson was Elvis. He was iconic, whether they were big fans or just casual consumers. Add to that the controversy and just plain weirdness of his life in the intervening years, and you didn't have to be a radio genius to see that it was time to drop everything else and talk about this one for a while, whether you liked him or not.
In my informal talk radio scan of the local dial, many stations here did that. At least, by 3 pm Pacific, they did. A few stations stuck with syndicated hosts, one of whom was talking about health care proposals and the other of whom was railing about the president. But even the sports stations were on it for a little bit. It was that big.
Yet the fact that there were shows that DIDN'T go with the biggest story of the day -- a story guaranteed to make worldwide headlines -- troubled me. And the way some shows seemed a little uncertain of what to do with the story also didn't quite sit right. Everyone should have a plan for stuff like this. And here's that plan:
1. Huge news means bailing from "regular programming." If someone tunes into your station, they need to hear talk about that story immediately. Not after the next news, not in the next hour, but right away. If they don't hear that right away, they're gone. And, next time, chances are they won't turn to you.
2. Someone should be assigned to sit in front of a computer and just troll the Internet for information. They need to have Twitter Search, Facebook, Google Trends, and several browser tabs going at once. In fact, let's face it, in 2009, radio stations should have someone doing that 24/7. Even if it's an intern, there should be someone looking for news on a constant basis. You can't wait for the thing to move on the wires; your listeners hear about stuff from the Net way before that.
3. If you don't have a lot of material yet -- if, like in this case, the news is dribbling out without detail or in some cases confirmation -- go to the phones. When something like Michael Jackson's death happens, people are looking for someplace to just express themselves about it, whether it's grief or anger or indifference. They can do it on Facebook, but radio's still a contender in that category, because it's easier (not to mention safer) to call in while driving than to post a tweet behind the wheel, and the sound of people exchanging their thoughts about huge news is a strength of the radio medium. Use that.
Simple. So... is your station ready for the next huge story?
While you think about that, I'll take the opportunity to plug All Access News-Talk-Sports and the Talk Topics column, where you'll find material for any show from big stories like Michael Jackson and Iran to poop jokes. Eclectic, that's what we are. This week, the topics include the other huge celebrity death -- no, we do have Farrah, but that's not what... Ed? Got that too, but no, we... well, all right, I was talking about Sky Saxon, from The Seeds of "Pushing Too Hard" fame. Hey, you have your celebrities, I have mine. Plus, there's an apt political commentary from an incontinent monkey, some very bad mothers (shut your mouth!) (sorry, couldn't resist), Gov. Sanford's Argentinan odyssey, strip searches, pistachio recalls, North Korean threats, the landmark case of Kookaburra v. Down Under, a consideration of why Eddie Murphy keeps getting work in movies, the USA soccer upset win, the greatest toilet-related invention maybe ever, a DUI on a golf cart, a joyride on a steamroller, expensive knee surgery for a cat, a naked statue, the Naked Cowboy's controversial homecoming, cell phones for four-year-olds, and the best idea for a sports mascot yet. Wow. You'll also enjoy "10 Questions With..." Illinois-based regionally syndicated talker Michael Koolidge and the rest of All Access with the radio and music industry's best, most complete, most accurate coverage, columns, ratings, job listings, and lots more, all free.
Enjoy the weekend.