Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

People with so-called “smart phones” were probably the first to know about Michael Jackson’s death late Thursday afternoon. TMZ was first to have the story, and Facebookers and Twitterers sent out the first blast of information about the shocking death of the King of Pop. Later, the “traditional media” got on the story. Hours later.

Even then, the national TV networks were “cautious” about the story, first reporting only that Jackson had been taken to the hospital with an apparent heart attack. TMZ had reported his death and had video up of EMT’s taking Jackson from his home, but the “traditional media” waited for more “confirmation” on the story.

Local TV and radio stations were typically cautious about reporting that Jackson had actually passed away. One local TV news anchor posted on his Facebook page that TMZ was reporting that Jackson had died. When other posters asked why the station wasn’t “going with the story”, he replied that TMZ didn’t have a strong enough track record for the networks to rely on it.

It was sort of like the beginning of the first gulf war in 1990, when Ted Turner’s upstart CNN consistently beat ABC, CBS, and NBC on war stories. The times were changin’ then…and they’re changin’ again.

If you’re old enough to remember John Lennon’s death on December 8th, 1980, you probably heard about it first on the radio. Same with Elvis’ death, on August 16th of 1977. Back then, radio broke the news, and TV did the follow-up stories. Now, we find out about such things almost instantly through social media, text messages, and cell calls from friends.

On the day Elvis died, I was in my office at a music-based FM station. The news director came busting in with a scrap of paper torn from the Associated Press news wire, saying Elvis was dead. As he put the story on the air, I went to the station’s music library and started pulling Elvis records for the DJ’s to play.

It was pretty much the same thing when John Lennon was shot. I was called at home the evening it happened by the Program Director of our FM station, saying he’d already swung into action on the story and was playing Lennon records and taking calls from listeners about the tragedy.

Now, with so many radio stations running satellite-delivered programming 24/7, or being “voice-tracked” by some guy in a studio hundreds or thousands of miles away, reporting breaking news is just a thing of the past. Madison radio still has plenty of “live and local” stations, so reaction was quick.

The next morning, local radio was abuzz with talk of the pop star’s death, and smart programmers like Pat O’Neill at Magic 98 were ready with the “second-day lead” on the story. Pat had local radio legend Jonathon Little on, giving perspective to the event.

But as for “breaking the story” of a huge event like the death of a person known ‘round the world, radio and TV now take a back seat to the internet, and wireless communications devices which weren’t even around a decade ago.


  1. Tim,

    >> On the day Elvis died, I was in my office at a music-based FM station. <<

    "More of the Great Ones!"

    >> As he put the story on the air, I went to the station’s music library and started pulling Elvis records for the DJ’s to play. <<

    Records? I don't remember that there were any turntables in the studio! Like, it was all on tape, eh? I scrambled on Saturday the 17th (my first shift ever on-the-air in commercial radio) to find Elvis songs on the Great Ones tapes...but records? I'll have to examine my memory engrams more carefully...

    Steve Erbach
    Neenah, WI

  2. Two Gates turntables, Steve. Four Ampex tape decks for The Great Ones. Mike channel and utility bus. Record library next to the noozroom full of Nightwatch records and the old WNAM-AM library.


  3. Tim,

    Boy! I really don't remember those turntables being in the on-air studio. Production, sure. I really don't think I ever used them in the two years or so that I was there at NKD.

    Steve Erbach
    Neenah, WI