You Got That Right

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(Pictured: Ronnie Van Zant on stage, 1975.)

The other morning I was reminiscing with somebody about how radio newsrooms used to be staffed. When I was at KDTH years ago, there were at least two and sometimes three reporters on duty in morning drive-time, plus a farm guy and a sports guy. They called various local law enforcement agencies to see what the cops had dealt with overnight, wrote stories about meetings held the night before, updated stories from the previous afternoon, worked ahead on stories for later in the day or later in the week, and covered spot news as needed. If the local paper or a local TV station had a big story first, it was rarely lifted verbatim—more often, one of the reporters would make his or her own calls so that the station’s coverage had its own unique quotes or angle. The news department generated everything that didn’t come off the Associated Press or United Press International wire—and even that stuff would occasionally be fleshed out by local reporting. And KDTH wasn’t alone in this. Nearly every radio station had one or more people whose job this was.

Today, of course, lots of radio stations don’t have their own news departments. If they do any news at all, it’s likely delivered by a news reader, whose job it is to gather stories from the Internet, the wire, or whoever’s writing them, and to deliver them once or twice an hour. Their job isn’t to call up the mayor’s office for a comment on the city budget, or the county sheriff for details on a traffic fatality. If big news breaks during the day, they don’t report it. The jock on the air keeps an eye on CNN’s website, or one of the local TV station websites, and passes along their reports second-hand.

I am not criticizing this. It’s the way radio and technology have evolved. But such evolution makes a plausible argument that the vast run of radio stations needn’t bother with reading news at all anymore (or reporting sports or weather or traffic). When everyone has an Internet device in their pocket or purse, listeners have access to more comprehensive sources of information than an intern reading a 90-second newscast on the morning show, and they can get it on demand instead of waiting for the top of the hour.

But I’m an old radio guy, and I remain fervently nostalgic for the way it used to be.

Forty years ago tonight, a plane carrying the members of Lynryd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi, killing three members of the band plus three members of the plane’s crew. A friend of mine was a freshman at our small college in Wisconsin then, an eager young radio geek working a late-night news shift at the college station. When news of the plane crash first came in, he and a fellow student decided not to wait for the Associated Press—they got on the phone and started reporting the story themselves. The first wire reports quoted a radio station in McComb, Mississippi, so “We got hold of a newscaster from that station and he gave us a few reports,” my friend said. “I’ll never forget his Southern drawl and his words, ‘I know for sure that the pilot is dead and there are several others who are dead.'”

I don’t remember October 20, 1977, which was a Thursday. I was a senior in high school. I probably had the radio on at some point, and if I did, I’d probably have heard about the crash, although it may not have registered with me if I did. I knew “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” by then, but I wasn’t a Southern rock fan generally; I didn’t hear anything beyond those two songs until I got to college a year later.

But memorializing Skynyrd 40 years later is not the point of this post. Others will do that better than I can. Instead, I’m memorializing good old fashioned news-gathering, and the initiative of a couple of young radio guys from the middle of nowhere who decided that if they wanted a major national story done properly, they’d have to do it themselves.

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4 responses

  1. Great story. Good on your friend — and good on the guy from Mississippi who was kind enough to talk to these kids from some station in Wisconsin.

  2. Great perspective on how radio used to be. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I wonder how long it was before someone called in and requested “Free Bird.”

  4. And that’s the way it is…..

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