Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 16, 2009

They almost always catch you unawares, put your and your newsroom under pressure…but as James Cridland blogged recently, emergency situations are when local radio comes into its own.

In July 2007, drying myself off from the floods, I remember telling myself to put together a guide to how to cope. But I never got round to it, and the next thing the city I was working in was evacuated after a major bomb scare; then there was a plane crash…and in the last few weeks Britain has seen the harshest winter in 18 years.

So how should radio news teams respond? Here’s some tips; journos – feel free to add your own.

floods-generic

Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Have emergency numbers close at hand

Don’t waste valuable time looking up the fire services press officer’s mobile number online. Have it in a book or on a sheet – with all the other emergency numbers you’ll need – for every district of your patch.

Make sure you have numbers for other reporters, presenters etc.

Rope in office staff

During the 2007 floods I couldn’t get out of the office to do my job for hours because so many listeners were calling in with, or asking for, information. If you’re drowning in calls, ask a senior office person to direct sales, admin and programming staff to take all the calls.

It helps if at some point during the year they’re briefed on what details to get from the public.

Use the “drive line”

The other busy phone line, especially in weather emergencies, is the drive-line or traffic line. Ask the on air presenter to save any calls they record. Cut these into a montage to lead your bulletins. It sounds real, edgy and gets listeners on the air (click here for a recent example).

Be prepared for school closures

You’ll also get lots of calls from schools telling you they’re closed or closing imminently. It’s one of local radio’s big jobs to pass on this information,  so make sure you keep an accurate list and pass it on to presenters. Each school should give you a unique DFES number to avoid hoaxers and, in some counties, a password.

Get a good information system going

In large scale weather emergencies/natural disasters it’s easy to drown in the sea of information coming in. So make sure you’re prepared to have a good system to record it all. Keep school closures on a board. Use a map to plot what areas are worst affected.

Use new media

At the very least someone should be putting school and road closures on the website, and any other important info. Have you thought about using Twitter to do it too? What about Google maps?

If possible, don’t network

When the shit hits the fan, now’s not the time to switch to networked programming from another city. Keep a presenter and journalist local to regularly insert information. Your listeners will thank you for it.

Book hotel

If transport is going to be a problem – such with flooding – someone should be booking hotel rooms for key staff. That’s usually the breakfast presenters, producers and newsreaders.

Use your resources

Small news teams, and hubbed news teams, covering a big, unprecedented event, is a stretch. It’s tempting to send reporters out into the patch, but be sensible. You need more people at base, making phone calls, check information and getting interviews to air quickly. While it’s important to get quality and colour audio on air, this really only massages ego in the battle with the competition. Bring in any local work experience people-now could be their time to shine.

Remember safety

If you’re out in a difficult situation remember your safety. Apparently the BBC advises reporters to keep away from flood water. Don’t cross police lines unless you have permission.

Get names and numbers

Anyone you interview while you’re out – get their name, get their phone number. You’ll want to go back to them in a week, a month, a year to follow their story.

Think big

Although resources are stretched and you’re all under pressure, now’s the time to think big. I’m talking two-ways, extended bulletins, ambitious packages, music montages – anything to show you’re listener this is a unique event and you’re pulling out all the stops. In the 2007 floods, Touch Radio ran extended programmes at 1 and 6. With just an hours notice I was asked to record a 2-way and cut a package from the waters edge. It was a race, but it sounded great.

Work as a team

Share information with presenters and visa versa. You’re all in it together.

Give 110%

In March 2008, an unexploded WW2 bomb was found right in the centre of Coventry. It was very close to our studios, which was initially great- I was the first radio reporter on the scene. But within minutes, police had set up a corden, and when it widened, our studios were closed.

The station – 96.2 Touch Radio – was put to network and special programming came from our sister station in Stratford. However it closed the region’s newshub – and news bulletins for all 6 stations in the group had to go on hold.

It left 4 journalists with not much to do. We could have all gone home; but we stayed, conducted interviews, filed live phone reports to the network. Late in the evening it appeared the cordon would remain overnight, and could even mean we wouldn’t be allowed back into the building in time to produce breakfast news bulletins.

We crashed at the closest home to the city centre, finally getting to sleep at about 1am. At 4am we got up and checked with the police – the cordon was finally being lifted. 2 of us headed back and joined 2 breakfast readers who’d just gotten in.  And somehow, with just 90 minutes and no preparation, we produced news bulletins for 6 radio stations, including a special report for the Coventry station.

For 3 of us, it worked out as a 30 hour day. There’s no room for slackers on days like these.

Have I missed anything? Covered a story like this yourself? The comments box is right down here…

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