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How To Handle Breaking News

On Memorial Day 2011, I learned a radio management lesson the hard way. I was running SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation Channel and enjoying the holiday weekend with my kids, and when I woke up that morning everything changed.

Reports were rampant that Ohio State Football Coach Jim Tressel was resigning. Holy Crap! Our regular morning show at the time was “247Sports On Campus with Bill King”. Sounds like the perfect show for the news. There was one catch—this was a third party show provided to us by 247Sports and they ran “Best of” shows on holidays outside of football season. Holy Crap, again! One of the biggest stories in College Football was breaking and our National College Sports Channel was running outdated programming.

I’ll spare you the expletives I used when I couldn’t get my executive producer on the phone and while driving the 45 minutes into the SiriusXM studios in downtown DC. It’s the worst feeling not being prepared to cover a big story. Needless to say I learned a valuable lesson. We quickly recovered and were live on the air the rest of the day and carried the press conference live, but I felt that I failed because of a lack of planning and preparation.

Recently, ESPN did a remarkable job covering the death of legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson. They were in the middle of their Playoff NFL Countdown show and pivoted right to the story. Samantha Ponder read the news and led into an excellent produced piece voiced by Rece Davis with incredible video and people talking about Keith Jackson’s career. Then Samantha talked live on the phone to college football expert Kirk Herbstreit who talked about Keith Jackson and what he meant to college football. While I was certainly impressed with the job ESPN did on this breaking news, the real key in this case was the decision to make the pivot during one of their key shows to cover the story. Their coverage succeeded because of planning, preparation, and flexibility. Flipping around the radio that morning, I found many outlets that were not as flexible as ESPN and stayed with their NFL or College Basketball talk.

What about breaking news that is not sports-related? This is an incredible test of a sports station’s ability. Anyone who has worked at a sports radio station during the  9/11 attacks, Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, the Virginia Tech shooting, or as recently as last week’s Parkland High School shooting knows what a challenge these serious news stories are to cover. Here are the keys to being prepared for breaking news of a non-sports variety:

  • Talent-Most sports hosts are not experts in areas outside of sports. It’s important to make sure they don’t speculate in a breaking news situation. Additionally, it is imperative that whatever is happening doesn’t become a political debate of any kind. That’s not what sports talk listeners want to hear. If your talent does have special experience—The Fan in Baltimore has two hosts with police experience—Ed Norris and Rob Long. Certainly they can talk about what an investigation of a criminal event looks like and provide their insight.
  • News Support-Have a news partner. If you don’t have an all-news station in your cluster, find a local radio or TV station to partner with during breaking news situations. Be able to pull news TV and satellite feeds in and put them on the air. This partner can also provide live guests to your station to give updates and provide context of this non-sports story.
  • StaffingWho on your staff is available to be “on call” for breaking news that happens overnight and on weekends or any other time you may be in syndicated programming or replays. This is for talent, producers, anchors, board ops, reporters, etc. Anyone who could come into work at a moment’s notice. What experts do you have on staff?
  • AudioWhere can you get audio from and turn it around quickly to help improve your coverage of this breaking news story? It can be from your news partner noted above or some other reliable source. Adding actualities to the conversation helps give the audience a better understanding of what’s happening.
  • Balance/Decision-makingThis is where a strong and experienced Program Director is essential. There are a lot of quick decisions that need to be made during a breaking news situation. When to go to live press conferences, live feeds of news stations, what to do with your scheduled commercials and how long the coverage should go. There is no template for it. It really comes down to the particular breaking news story and the gut feel that the PD has for the story and the audience.

Being live on a sports radio station when a big non-sports story breaks can be a huge challenge, but with the right preparation, leadership, flexibility and execution your station can excel while covering important and sometimes difficult events.

Matt Fishman :Matt Fishman is a sports radio programming executive with over 20 years of experience. He has worked for SiriusXM Sports, 670 The Score in Chicago and 610 Sports in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter @FatMishman20

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