You might say I went out in a blaze of glory... or vanished in a puff of smoke.
Either way, I ended 12 years of news directing in San Diego with a great reminder of why local radio news seriously matters. And, why social media are emerging as a critical complement to local crisis coverage.
It was a Sunday afternoon on October 21, 2007 when the wildfires swept in from the eastern foothills. Fed by furious Santa Anas, the flames advanced on Ramona, Dulzura and Jamul; Poway, Fallbrook and Rancho Santa Fe; and the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo. They forced massive evacuations, engulfed hundreds of homes, killed 10 people, caused billions in damages, and kept KPBS broadcasting non-stop for nearly 80 hours.
With my long-planned resignation date set for November 7th, I was more in the easy-going mode of packing for our move and saying long goodbyes than I was prepared for amped-up Level Five crisis coverage. But there it was: sudden disaster. Time to work like hell. Time to do what we planned.
It's amazing how much work we packed into that week and the week that followed. Practically the entire station staff (more than 100) contributed in some way -- even though the SDSU campus closed and even if the work consisted of bringing in food and drinks for the overtaxed news crews. Plus, we enjoyed the true generosity of our public radio colleagues. KQED in San Francisco, KJZZ in Phoenix, KPCC in Los Angeles and National Public Radio all lent KPBS significant support.
Left: An ad hoc control room crew led by Senior Producer Natalie Walsh and News Anchor Erik Anderson (the ones standing) funnels incoming information to the on-air team. Photo by Kim Nyhous.
That spirit of generosity included one of our commercial competitors, too, in perhaps one of the most significant acts of local media cooperation ever seen in San Diego. It came about when the fires knocked out our main transmitter. Frantic to keep the public informed, KPBS program director John Decker called the management of 94.9 FM and asked if they'd replace their music format with KPBS fire coverage. They agreed with almost no hesitation.
It sounded a little weird to hear KPBS news announcers break for 94.9's commericals, but it was a significant public service during the roughly 24 hours it took our heroic engineers to get a temporary transmitter up again on our home frequency of 89.5 FM.
One of the enduring outcomes of the disaster -- from the local station's perspective -- is the amazing break-through of our small website crew who drew a worldwide audience to our streaming audio, our news and Twitter posts and our interactive Google map. In fact, so compelling was the map's ability to convey the range and impact of the fires, that Google sent experts to help KPBS deal with the crush of on-line hits. It will always be said that KPBS's "new media" department came of age in that exhausting marathon news coverage of October 2007.
As to the lessons learned -- something fellow broadcasters are usually keen to glean -- here are a few bullet points:
- Planning Pays. We didn't just make up our coverage as we went along, much of it unfolded according to the KPBS Crisis Coverage Plan. The plan is an ever-evolving set of guidelines that initially grew out of my frustration with our slow response to the Santana High School shootings in 2001. It served the station reasonably well during the wildfires of 2003, but a station task force was in the process of expanding the plan to better combine radio, television and the web. Now the task force will update the plan again based on lessons learned in 2007. (See KPBS Crisis Coverage Plan)
- Crisis Coverage Resembles Normal Coverage. You can't suddenly invent a whole new you when disaster strikes. At KPBS, our news and talk and web departments were already used to integrating their daily news work, collaborating especially well on larger projects and high impact stories. In the crush of non-stop crisis coverage, these daily news systems are clearly taxed but at least you should have a basic infrastructure in place to start with.
- Barriers are Magnified. This is a corollary to the point above. To the extent you *don't* have good integration in your normal coverage, your snags and pitfalls and barriers all grow to confound your best efforts. In our case, the "silo effect" was somewhat apparent as the newsroom, the talk team and the web team were occasionally duplicating efforts, failing to communicate, and suffered from their physical separation within the station.
- Know Your Roles and Responsibilities. There's an entire document that goes along with the KPBS Crisis Coverage Plan that projects the roles and responsibilities necessary for a well-organized effort. This spreadsheet even attempts to name a first and second team to allow shift rotations for those non-stop coverage periods. Past planning focused on the front-line team of reporters, hosts, producers, anchors, etc. who normally filled those roles. New plans should go further and anticipate "the ideal pyramid" of roles and responsibilities -- and expand the roster with *all* available personnel organized according to their skills and attributes. That way we might find a substitute writer or a board operator or phone screener we didn't know we had, which is a good thing to know for small stations or small teams, and even for large teams during exceptionally long runs.
- Two Jobs, Too Many. Perhaps another corollary to the previous point: if you've already got staff members who are carrying out more than one job, they'll be doubly taxed during crisis coverage. For example, an announcer who also serves as a field reporter may find it difficult to perform both roles during a crisis. Likewise, a news director who is also a reporter or anchor probably shouldn't be expected to do both. (At KPBS, it was bad enough that I got pulled into anchoring newscasts, but then I also needed to help host two overnight shifts -- all of which pulled me away from the planning, coordinating and oversight role so desperately needed.)
- The Military Model Works. We might prefer the flattened organizational charts these days where more collaborative work teams enjoy a more creative environment. However, when a crisis erupts that model can shift to a more top-down style with the news director taking charge. Again, it helps if this model is spelled out clearly in the plan and practiced to some extent during normal times. The point, of course, is that during a disaster there is no time for time-consuming meetings or consensus-building process. Frankly, disasters are scary and people really look to their leaders for clear, calm direction at times like these.
- Cooperation Over Competition. It might be too much to ask of media competitors, but perhaps the public stations can use their mission-oriented sensibilities to help promote crisis-coverage cooperation agreements. For example, having mutual station agreements to provide back-up studios or back-up feeds or, as 94.9 did, a back-up air signal. Also, as mentioned above, reinforcements really help! We benefited from having visiting reporters and editors from the network and other stations. Journalists adapt quickly and can give your team time to rest and recharge. Ask for help if you need it. And conversely, if you have available bodies and can lend them to a station in need, they'll put them to good use and be most grateful.
- The Audience as Eyes and Ears. I think news organizations need to be open to user-generated-content especially during breaking news situations. This is accepted in the two-way world of the internet, but the KPBS radio coverage was primarily driven by callers who offered up-to-the-minute accounts of the fires movements.
- Think Cross Platform. It's hard enough making excellent news on radio, but we have to be available via the internet too. (Thank goodness we weren't trying to do television too!) While radio was absolutely the best service for people fleeing fires, the web is right behind radio in providing fast and significant resources. Radio and web can and should work closely together for efficiencies -- but be mindful of the different strengths of each.
- Have Back-Up Systems. It was actually quite embarrassing for KPBS to be without back-up power at its main transmitter site. In fact, KPBS also lacks back-up power at its main studios. If this event doesn't change all that, then KPBS is, well, playing with fire.
KPBS Web Editor Leng Caloh did a remarkable job juggling the new media components of the KPBS coverage. She presented her take-aways to the Public Media Conference in 2008. In her presentation, she said the "keys to our success" online were these:
- Organizational culture: supports freedom and experimentation
- Ability to adapt to technical challenges
- Smart staffers who "play" with Web 2.0 online in their free time
- "Hive" mind – collaborative culture, sharing information via wiki, meetings
- Outsourcing, and not worrying about "branding" or "owning" the content – online or on the air
Our endeavors got lots of good press -- especially due to the breakthrough usage of social networking.
In the week before I left KPBS, it was gratifying to catch up on all the correspondence that had piled up during those exhausting days -- message after message conveyed such deep appreciation for our hard work.
And unlike the old days when it was the local audience who took note, these messages poured in from around the country and around the world because of our web presence. Yet it wasn't some national or global perspective they were praising, it was the detailed level of local service they loved so much.
Right: Yours truly had to catch a few winks in the wee hours while still on the job.