Did Radio Miss the Boat Again?

How did you learn about the death of Whitney Houston? It was not that many years ago that the answer would have been that your local radio station told you about it and broke the news, while television scrambled to find pictures and look for a way to break into their networked programming.

Whitney Houston died sometime after 3pm on Saturday afternoon (11/2) and I first heard about it via social media. News of her passing was first tweeted by a young Hollywood resident by the name of Britany Pullard at 4:02pm to her 799 followers with the question “Is Whitney Houston really dead?” Then some 13 minutes later someone sent a message that said “omgg , my aunt tiffany who work for Whitney Houston just found her dead in the tub.” This, by the way, was 40 minutes before any of the official news agencies ran the story, and less than 7 minutes after the Beverly Hills Police department pronounced her dead. It is still unclear how this Hollywood night clubber learned about the passing of Whitney Houston, but she is credited with breaking the story. AP News was the first news organisation to tweet the official statement from Houston’s publicist at 4:57pm confirming her death but not the cause. Houston was discovered unresponsive in her hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

I first saw news of the death flashed across websites and on Facebook on Saturday evening.  So I tuned in to a few of the radio stations I can hear from my house to see if they had coverage of the passing of this talented singer. I gave up on the FM stations after an hour as they all sounded voice tracked, including most of the FM stations in Toronto, by the way, which I find most disheartening.  So I switched over to the AM dial and heard coverage on the news stations such as 680 News, but they had few details at that point. I then fired up app on my iPad and tuned in to the big AC station in Los Angeles.  KOST 103.5 sounded live, they were playing Whitney songs and I heard recorded imaging that was specifically written to honour Whitney. They got it and were still playing 4 Houston tunes per hour the next day when I tuned in.

What really disappointed me was the lack of coverage the following morning on radio stations in Canada – at least the ones that I tuned in to. Sure, the FM stations that run weekend news carried the story as you would expect. But what was missing was the jock talk about her death, the Whitney songs and the listener reaction via the phones. I can only assume that most stations’ music logs were created well in advance and the voice tracks had been recorded many hours or days before her death, so there was no live body in the studio to adjust the music log anyway.

So here are 10 thought starters to consider so your station is not caught out again the next time a major music celebrity passes on outside normal business hours:

  1. Ensure you have a system in place to monitor social networks even on the weekends.
  2. Have a plan in place so the talent goes live, or at least can record and insert tracks into your programming.
  3. Ensure that staff can mobilize quickly to change your programming. Radio stations, especially AC stations, should have abandoned their regular programming and gone wall to wall Whitney Houston on Saturday night. By Sunday morning they should have already put together a tribute special to Whitney.
  4. Have staff briefed that are able to write and put together a music tribute for the artist and get that to air as soon as possible.
  5. Allow your listeners to call in with comments and memories of the artist. Radio can do this better than any other medium, given that anyone who has a telephone has a microphone to your station, providing of course there is someone in the studio who can answer the phone!
  6. Go on the streets and capture audio from local people allowing them to talk about their memories of the artist. After all, who over 30 years of age did not see the movie The Bodyguard? Guys wished they were Kevin Kostner and girls wanted to be like Whitney. In fact Whitney was one of the most popular names for babies born in 1992 and 1993. By the way, where was Kostner when Whitney really needed him? Sadly neither Kevin nor anyone who could help Whitney was anywhere near the Beverly Hills Hotel on that Saturday afternoon.
  7. Think about who your station could call to get a sense of what was happening in Los Angeles. Often overlooked are the local radio stations, and as already stated, KOST was live, as were any number of stations in California who would have been happy to give you a sound bite.
  8. Ensure that you use social media effectively to let your listeners, and those that follow your station, know about the event. Use social media to drive tuning to your radio station
  9. Ensure you can get your website updated and use it to drive listeners to your radio station.
  10. As morbid as this sounds, you might put a list together of the artists you play that may pass on soon. I worked with a Drive jock who spent a few hours a week working on this type of thing. I remember walking into the production room one day and he was working a tribute to Mick Jagger. That was probably 15 years ago now and Mick is still going strong.

Eric Rhodes from Radio Inc wrote “Though this may not seem like a very big deal, it is in these little moments when radio stations are made, when audiences are dazzled. Though we never like to see this kind of misfortune, it makes great radio, engages listeners, and makes your station stand out over others.”

I hope this article will at least cause some discussion inside radio stations, and PD’s – oops, I mean Brand Managers – will be more pro-active the next time a huge music artist makes the news. I suspect listeners will appreciate the effort and even those who are not big Whitney Houston fans will get that radio can act quickly and pay more than just lip service to major events in the music world. Lastly how will your radio station deal with the funeral which will be broadcast live this Saturday (18/2)?