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Now What? Alternative Programmers Face A World at War – Feature

“This tragic event has awakened a new interest in news and information for 12-25 year olds that had never existed before,” says Cromwell Broadcasting’s “Czar of Programming” Brian Krysz, referring to the terrorist acts of nearly a month ago. And would anyone argue with his statement?

This generation has had its defining moment, just as the Great Depression and World War II were for our parents or grandparents, or the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War so clearly defined the next generation. After the events of September 11th, 2001, everything in our world, including radio programming, has entered a new era.

“The events we witnessed last month are unlike anything our generation-and most of our parents-have ever seen,” says WOCL-Orlando MD Bobby Smith.

“I don’t know of another event-and God I hope we never will-that can be so devastating to not only our daily lives, but our daily thought processes-‘should I get on that plane, or that bus, or in that building, or go to that football game?'”

In San Francisco, LIVE 105 PD Jay Taylor says, “I don’t think anyone has ever seen such an event as what’s happening now and what will be happening in the near future for everyone-I believe this has been a wake-up call. The good news is that it’s brought every corner of the country together as one.”

Alternative radio, forever filled with attitude and sarcasm, is facing a new, undefined future. And like individuals everywhere, it’s feeling its way, step-by-step. “We may never be back to ‘normal,'” states KNDD-Seattle Station Manager/Program Director Phil Manning. Across the continent near the site of one of the attacks, WHFS-Washington APD Bob Waugh concurs: “There really is not a model to follow when a situation like this develops, and I can’t tell you when we’ll be back to ‘normal’ programming. We’ve been slowly ‘ramping up’ to some semblance of our usual identity, but I’m not sure when things will return to normal. I’m not convinced they ever will. I think our country is still processing all of this; we’re just trying to do our part for Washington and Baltimore.”

With this ongoing long-range “war on terrorism,” the odds are that listeners, even younger ones, are going to want to know what’s going on constantly. Rather than have them seeking out updates on News/Talk stations or at NPR, shouldn’t Alternative provide them this service? “The audience wants and needs information,” says KDGE-Dallas PD Duane Doherty. “When something like what happened on September 11th occurs, we scramble for every bit of information that we can gather and get it on the air.”

“If we’re smart we’ll become more aware of news and information around us,” urges Cromwell’s Krysz, PD at WZPC-Nashville. “Not only will news and information become more important than ever before, but announcers having an intelligent opinion and take on world events must be encouraged. They’ll have to know and be able to talk about more than just how great the new Tool song is or that Buckcherry is breaking up. This is an opportunity to develop talent and morning shows that make a difference in the format.”

Susquehanna VP of Programming/Atlanta Leslie Fram picks up on that theme: “We’re one of the only formats outside of News/Talk that has air personalities that can intelligently speak about what is going on and can be a familiar voice for listeners to talk with. One of the amazing things about our format is the ability to be flexible and react, just as we do to cyclical music changes and trends.” Still, Fram has this caveat for Alternative stations: “Have an agreement with a local news affiliate or CNN so you can immediately go to a news source in the event of another breaking emergency. Many listeners who didn’t have access to a television stayed with 99X last month. If you can’t be their first choice, at least be an Alternative.”

Not everyone is so sure things must change as this “war” continues to unfold. “Obviously we’re going to lose listeners to News/Talk-the election last November is the most recent example of a major prolonged story distracting listeners from music-based formats in favor of a news outlet,” says Chris Williams, Fram’s PD at 99X. “But does that mean we change what we do?” he continues. “My initial response is ‘no.’ If a listener is compelled to find the news, an abbreviated attempt at news isn’t going to satisfy their curiosity. I think our best plan of attack is to remain the entertainment outlet. At some point people need to be entertained when they do venture back down the dial. Music/entertainment radio could quickly become an oasis in a desert of droning disaster coverage. Smart morning shows will discuss the current events, read the room, and keep people connected with the world. After mornings, I plan “original recipe 99X.'”

In Chicago, Bill Gamble, PD at the Zone, which recently switched to Alternative programming agrees: “People are looking for an escape from the ’round the clock coverage elsewhere-I want our station to be a place for some relief.”

“I don’t think that our format will break into news every time a major news event happens; although if it is as large what happened on September 11th, of course we will,” adds Smith, of Orlando’s O-Rock. “But as things are right now, people want to escape the chaos of the news and hear what they’re comfortable with, and that’s good music.”

A contingent of military personnel is based in San Diego, and XTRA-FM PD Bryan Schock wants to make sure that they, and the entire 91X audience doesn’t have to stray too far to keep abreast of ongoing developments. “We’ve been running news updates when we wouldn’t have before. People will watch more TV and listen to News/Talk during the more intense moments,” he says. But then he comes to the same conclusion as 99X’s Williams: “Other than those moments, I don’t think there’ll be a change, other than the natural change that always happens.”

For a final thought, here’s CIMX-Detroit PD Murray Brookshaw: “At a time like this, it’s important for 89X to provide relief from the extreme sadness and anxiety of the tragedy. We can be an ‘escape’ for a moment, minute, or a half hour-it’s our job now to help provide an environment for recovery.”  

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