Back when I was a little baby DJ working Sunday mornings, the newsroom was staffed by a guy named Dan. We’ll call him that because that is not his name. Dan had a great, ballsy news voice. He lived and breathed the news, and most of the time, he did a good job. He had, as nearly as I could tell, only two faults: He had no sense of proportion, and he was a little bit dim.
Our station excelled at spot news—covering breaking stories in the field. A couple of times a week, you’d see one of the guys (there were four full-time reporters on staff in those days) grab a remote transmitter, known as a Marti unit, and head out the door to a traffic accident, a fire, or some politician’s press conference to cover it live on the air. One Sunday, Dan ran breathlessly into my studio. “Fire on the west side,” he said. “I’m taking the Marti.” Twenty minutes or so later, Dan reported live on the conflagration. It took me a while to figure it out, but as I listened, I realized that the burning building he was describing was in fact a doghouse in someone’s back yard.
Very early on another Sunday morning, we had a fire in my apartment. There was serious smoke damage throughout the place, and my roommate suffered a second-degree burn. Once the fire department had left, I took off for work as usual. When I got there, I went to Dan and said, “Did you get the fire story this morning? That was my apartment. Now listen—my roommate’s parents listen to the station, and my own mother tunes in now and then. I do not want them to find out about the fire before we can tell them about it personally. So please, don’t do the story.” Dan said he understood. Before the first newscast, I reminded him again, and he didn’t read it. After the second newscast, however, he wrapped up by saying, “Well, Jim, I understand you had a warm awakening this morning.” “That’s right, Dan, I did,” said I, and went immediately into a commercial without another word, wondering what part of “don’t do the story” he didn’t understand.
The decline of local radio news reporting starting in the 1990s has been well documented around the country. Staffs are smaller, and many stations run news only in morning drive. Often, it’s just “rip and read”—pull some headlines off the AP wire and/or the front page of the newspaper and you’re good to go. Putting live bodies in meetings or on the streets to actually see what’s happening is expensive and time consuming. And with stations no longer required to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, why spend that time and money at all?
The next turn of the wheel may be here already. An online news site in Pasadena, California, has hired two journalists in India to cover local news in Pasadena. The owner of the site says that reporters in Mumbai and Bangalore can watch city meetings online and research local websites just as well as they could if they were sitting in Pasadena, and he can save thousands of dollars a month in salary and benefits. Never mind that all they’ll know about local issues is whatever he tells them. “Local” in a completely wired world means something different than it used to, and such a system will be good enough.
The owner says, “I’m hearing a lot from other journalists. They seem to be less than enthusiastic.” Gee, ya think? I don’t know whether the system will catch on elsewhere, or make the jump to radio. I do know, however, that corporate radio’s thirst for cost-cutting shows no signs of being satisfied. And how big a leap is it, really, for stations that already get their programming from out of the market to start taking news from there, too?