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Ideas and technique to help you promote and image radio

Managing on air identity during a major news event

Today is an extremely busy one for anyone involved in news but I wanted to take 10 mins out this lunchtime to share some thoughts on breaking news in radio and what it means for on-air promotions and identity management.

This stuff doesn’t generally get written-up in obit and emergency guides but comes from experience. I hope some of mine is useful to you:

Rolling – the easy bit

Cutting to continuing live coverage is a simple decision, led by events. Its success is determined solely by the quality of your planning.

Things to watch:

1. Reset everything, all the time. Your listeners are in unfamiliar territory. They will be looking for signposts. Constantly reset – namecheck everybody, welcome new listeners, explain what’s going on, who’s there, where you are, why you’re doing it. Reset, reset, reset.

2. Don’t drop the messaging when you cool the tone. You can replace jaunty promos with presenter live reads, tone-down your music or swap out the more lively IDs with more somber sub-mixes (the ones you remembered to commission as part of your jingle package) but this is no time to undermine your station identity or to drop useful promotion.

3. Create certainties. Your station will be a much more comfortable listen if you can promote ahead with confidence, tell people what you’re going to do, why, and then keep your promise by doing it. At times of shock people cling to certainty – don’t waft about from item to item without clear purpose and direction.

4. If there’s a sacred cow on your station that you’ve always wanted to lose this is your moment. Radio 4’s PM programme lost its signature tune this way. It was suspended for coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and never came back.

Pulling back – the harder bit

It’s much more difficult to know when to extract your station from shocked or mournful rolling news and shift the tone back to normal.

1. Listen to your audience. Technologies such as social media make it easier than ever to do this but remember what you see on your personal Twitter feed may not reflect society as whole or, indeed, the mood of your audience. If you leave your building and go to talk to people in their own environments you’ll learn a lot.

2. Lead when you judge it right to do so. While no impartial journalist would want to tell people what to think there is a strong human bond between station and listener and some listeners look to their radio station to validate their own mood. During the death of Princess Diana I was working in Scotland where the mood was quite different from that reflected by the London-based networks. It was appropriate for us to pull-back more quickly to a normal tone.

3. Keep the amount of navigational promotion (helping listeners find things) high throughout the pull-back phase, adding more brand positioning as feels appropriate. Things are not normal so help listeners find things and keep your station identity strong.

Commercial activity

Some of my clients in Africa have dropped all ads for the period of mourning Mandela today, while others have replaced produced ads with commercially-funded messages of condolence read by presenters. Stations in the US did the same after the September 11 attacks in North America. Clearly there revenue matters to consider here but I’d like to hear from you if you have had to deal with the judgements around this for your audience and your advertisers. Aside from the tonal considerations I discussed above what else has driven your thinking?

Your experiences

Sadly but inevitably every country observes a period of mourning or emergency at some point so I hope these rough notes, albeit top-of-mind and quickly typed, are useful to you. If you’d like to add your own experiences and tips below or by email or social media I will collate them and update this article.

For example, Tim Page notes that we shouldn’t be so quick to change in the first place. Are we tempted to over-flinch?

9/11 and Diana.. sure.. no-brainers. But they were shocking and unexpected and the risk of offence was raised. Unless your station sound is based around circus fx, most other news will sit within it.  I’d grant that some world output and your local affiliates may currently be in that place where there’s a genuine risk of offence. I’m not sure any domestic UK output needs to be.
Steve Martin specialised in radio promotion for more than twenty years. He managed promotions at Radio Scotland at the time of the Dunblane massacre and the death of Princess Diana and was the Editor responsible for station sound and promotions at the BBC World Service at the start of the 2003 war in Iraq, the death of Pope Jean Paul II and the Asian tusnami.